Of course that includes the happy events, things like baptisms and weddings. But, to my own surprise, the most rewarding thing about being a priest turns out to be being with people as they face the hard times.
Apparently Jesus felt the same way. Certainly Jesus spends a lot of time with people in distress. And, if Jesus often is responding to people who come to him, at least some of the time, he initiates contact. In our reading for this morning, Jesus called over a woman hunched from some crippling disease, and he healed her without waiting to be asked. Would that I could do the same!
In our gospel reading, the healed woman is obviously grateful. “Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” for what Jesus had done.
But by that time, she had been suffering for eighteen years. For eighteen years, she had lived with pain and, I suspect, with shame. And during those eighteen years, she must have asked the question that every suffering person asks, and that everyone who has to watch others suffer asks. Why? Why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to a person I love?
The Bible answers that question in a lot of different ways. The one that speaks to me the most comes from the book of Job.
Job was a blameless man who suffered terribly. Job’s friends press him, asking him what he had done wrong to deserve his suffering. Job keeps insisting that he had not done anything to deserve it, that his suffering is not fair. At the end of the book, God says that Job was right and his friends were wrong.
The lesson of Job is, sometimes our suffering does not have a good explanation. Sometimes there is no answer to the question, why? That is not very satisfying. We want everything to make sense. But we know that the lesson of Job is true. We all know people whose suffering seems unfair.
Probably that was true of the woman in our gospel reading. We do not know why she suffered because there was no good reason that made sense of it all. It just was what it was.
In the final analysis, Christianity does not try to make sense of human suffering. Suffering remains a mystery. Perhaps there is an answer, and God will reveal it to us someday. But in the meantime, we just do not know.
But even if Christianity does not explain why we suffer, Christianity has a great deal to say about our suffering. More than any other religious tradition, with the partial exception of Buddhism, Christianity puts suffering at the center of our story.
After all, we worship a crucified God. We worship a God who willingly embraced human suffering in a particularly extreme form. We worship a God who knows what it is like to be bent over in pain. We worship a God who knows what it is like to feel abandoned. As we heard last week, we worship a God who knows what it is to feel stress (Luke 12:49). As we know from Jesus’ cry on the cross, we worship a Lord who knows what it is to feel forsaken even by his heavenly Father.
God has not explained to us why we suffer. But God has himself suffered. And that is an amazing piece of good news.
Last week I saw a movie that, perhaps unintentionally, communicates the good news of a God who suffers with us. The movie is called “What Dreams May Come.” Virtually the entire movie takes place in the afterlife.
Before she died, the female lead was sunk in depression. Her depression carried over into the afterlife. It was like she was stuck at the bottom of a pit and could not see even the possibility of escape. So she just sat there.
Her husband, played by Robin Williams, loved her enough that he was willing to risk everything to save her. Williams goes down into her pit in an effort to persuade her to come with him into the realm of light. He cannot persuade her. And so he takes his place alongside her. He chooses to remain with her in her pit of despair rather than leave her there alone.
That is a beautiful statement about the incarnation. We are stuck in a world perverted by sin and evil and suffering and death. And rather than leave us here, all alone, without hope, Christ enters into the world with us and takes his place beside us, suffering with us rather than dwelling in light inaccessible without us.
Back to the movie. Robin Williams sits down and his eyes glaze over with the depression he has accepted out of love for his wife. Suddenly there is an explosion of light, and husband and wife are together in the realm of light. The wife explains that what she had needed, the only thing that could liberate her from her bondage, was that kind of self-sacrificial love, the kind of love that gives all, even life itself, for the beloved.
That is the good news of Christ’s crucifixion. Christ loves us that same way. Christ loves us, even to the point of death. And Christ’s love is like an explosion of light that liberates us.
Unfortunately, it is not quite as simple and dramatic in real life as it is in the movie. For now, we only get a foretaste of true liberation. We experience liberating moments. Our gospel story is one of those, when the woman knows health and life through the grace and power of Jesus Christ.
But liberating moments do not take away all our pain and suffering. My guess is, the same was true for the woman Jesus healed. She could stand up straight once again. But her life surely continued to have its challenges. She was probably poor and hungry. She certainly aged. Eventually she died.
But what stories like our gospel reading remind us is that Christ loves us enough to enter our world, to share our suffering, every bit of it. The good news is that Christ is with us, calling us to him, offering us healing. Christ is with us even when we cannot see him, maybe especially when we cannot see him. And Christ’s presence may not make our suffering disappear. But it makes our suffering bearable, and it points toward a promise of ultimate liberation.
We will still ask why bad things happen. But the more helpful question, the answerable question, is, where is Christ in what I am experiencing? Because Christ is with us. Christ is helping us. And if we can open our eyes to the work of Christ in our lives, the hard times will be a bit easier to take.
And so on this day I give thanks to God for the healing help that Christ brings. And I ask God to open our eyes to see Christ at work in our lives, bringing health out of sickness, good out of evil, joy out of suffering, and life out of death.
In the name of our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.