Staying with Suffering

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter

Readings for this Service: Luke 8.26-39

One thing that Jesus does not shy away from is the fact that in the world there is suffering. Real suffering. In fact he tells his disciples that he himself will suffer and if they want to follow him they will have to take up the cross and suffer too.

The disciples are understandably confused. None of them want to suffer.  Its not why they followed Jesus in the first place. Most of us would agree with them. There is a sense in the western world that suffering is something that happens out there to someone else but should not happen to me. The suffering and loneliness of old age is often hidden away in care homes where relatives may seldom visit. With an illness  the focus is usually on the treatment plan rather than the reality of the life of the person themselves. The suffering of mental illness has been for so long hidden away and is only now beginning to be talked about.  When someone dies –we employ strangers to take the body away, clean it, dress it, embalm it, and apply makeup so that when the relatives come they will not be shocked to see mortality. How different from other cultures. And look at the addictions of the modern world-  be it drugs, or alcohol, or gambling or sexual addictions, shopping addictions, cosmetic surgery, health products on the market, or the insatiable busyness of our life styles and the endless messaging and selfies on social media- is it not in some ways a bid to escape  suffering- look at me I’m doing well! I’m having a good time!  In fact there is so much aversion to suffering that when we do suffer we feel that something must have gone seriously wrong. There must be some way of eliminating this- a drug to take, a person to blame, a court case to win, a perpetrator to punish.

I have a very powerful memory of my Great Aunt shortly before she died. She was lying in hospital looking lost, vulnerable and frightened and so alarmingly thin. I knew she was dying. All my life she’d had people running around after her. She’d had money and a home both in Canada and London- she had taken me out to restaurants and theatres and cinemas and for me when I was young being with her had felt exciting and luxurious and wonderful but now, here she was in hospital, crying out- “Tell the doctors to do something. I can’t stay here,” she was saying. “Tell them to do something.” And I was acutely aware that there was nothing more they could do. My beloved aunt was dying and there was no way of escaping that suffering. I could only be with her as things were. And I recognised that in so many ways she seemed so unprepared for death. The problem is that we think we have time. We have only now.

A couple of days ago a dear friend phoned me and told me that she had been diagnosed with cancer of the bowl. A few weeks previously I had been trying to reassure her that the pains she was feeling in her stomach was probably not something serious. I had tried to tell her not to worry about the biopsy that she was having and that I would pray for her. She told me about the diagnosis so matter of fact, as though she didn’t want to worry me and went on to ask in her usual compassionate and caring way about how I was and about what I’d been doing and the projects we were organising to help refugees. When I came off the phone I was shaken- shaken most of all by her goodness in the full face of her own suffering. We both knew those signs were not good. But neither did that suffering define her, she was the friend I loved, the wonderful human being I know her to be not the diagnosis. I saw her kindness, her courage, her humanity- her soul force- I saw her immortality. Suffering can be about running away from the reality of life but suffering is also when you stop running and face the truth of life -this is where I stand, how then shall I live?

When Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was dying of cancer he told his students: “If when I die, if I suffer, that is all right you know, no confusion it it… this is just suffering Buddha” Just suffering, hard to accept of course in the midst of suffering but it’s not your soul, it is not you. Oscar Wilde wrote when he was in prison that the problem of prison is not the broken heart, “for hearts were meant to be broken,” no the problem of prison was that it “turned hearts to stone.” “Hearts were meant to be broken.” I remember Fr Bernard Lynch speaking about his 40 years of ministry with those with HIV and AIDS during the time when everyone including the church excluded gay people and turned away- he said: God’s love breaks our hearts as it were to make them bigger . . . Broken heartedness is part of all love . . . In the army of Lovers only the wounded may serve.” Somehow in the struggles and suffering of our lives we have to rediscover the heart of flesh. Not the victim heart. Not did I get what I wanted, or did I win or take for me- but did I love well, did I live fully, was I fully alive to others, did I live with integrity and truth, did I see, hear, care? How then shall I live today? Mother Teresa wrote “we can’t always do great things in life but we can do small things with great love.”

Abraham came to the Nazareth Community yesterday. Until a few weeks ago he was blind. Several weeks ago he had the cataracts removed from his eyes first one eye and then the other and now his whole being seems filled with light. “Now I can see you with my eyes” he told me. “But what about before when you were still blind?” I asked him. “O then,” he said “I could see with my heart.” “What could you see with your heart?” I asked. “Kindness.” he said,

In our Gospels Jesus meets suffering face to face- those with leprosy, the woman haemorrhaging blood, the woman taken in adultery, and the man possessed by demons in the country of the Gerasenes.  Luke’s Gospel in a few words captures this man’s suffering- he has no clothes, he has no home, he is walking among the tombs, the unclean spirit within him would seize him. People had tried to imprison him, and bind him with chains and shackles but he would break free and be driven by the demons into the wilds. It’s a terrifying description of a broken tormented life. It’s the life I fear when I hear the woman shouting in the street, while everyone walks passed  or when I avert my eyes from the man lying down on the pavement, raw flesh against concrete in the rain. It’s the chaos of paranoia, it’s the poverty of neglect, its suffering that we can’t handle because we can’t instantly solve it or answer it with a donation, it’s the haunted face of the man trying to raise money for his next fix It’s the pile of supermarket flowers in plastic on a street marking another tragic waste of young life and a weeping mother or sister. It’s the poverty of the outcast but it’s also my own mother with dementia who I love now with the dementia not just as she was, it’s your own family breaking down, it’s the friend who tells you they’ve done something terribly wrong. It’s the ghost of a family suicide. Its suffering that says I am your brother or sister or friend or neighbour, I could be you. Or perhaps I am you beneath your façade and what are you going to do about me? Nothing? Call yourself a Christian.  “What are you going to do Jesus Son of the Most High God? Are you going to torment me in my chaos with your righteousness?” And what does Jesus do? He asks the man his name.  He sees the man beneath, separates the human being from the legions of demons that possess him. He names the demons drives them out- the demons that are so destructive. He sets him free in the way that only God can.   Freed from all that has tormented him he has found a stillness and a peace. He is clothed and sitting in the same way we will also later see Mary Magdalene- sitting at the feet of Christ and in his right mind. “Peace be still.” We are not the sin, or the demons that possess us, we are not the sickness or the fear, or the violence that cannot be contained, or the evil that binds us in its chains.  We are human beings made in God’s image and when we too are broken open we rediscover the broken heart of God.

At the very centre of the storm the realisation of a truth, Christ setting  free, a greater reality, a deeper forgiveness, an eternal hope- Above us, beyond, us beneath us- As Julian of Norwich wrote during a time of plague and suffering in her revelations of divine love:

These words, ‘You shall not be overcome’, were said very loudly and clearly. … God did not say, ‘You shall not be tormented, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be grieved’, but God said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’” How then shall you live?