The Apostle's Tale: GROANING
As we come into the second week of our series, we move from the freedom we have found in Christ to confront our differences head-on, and God’s call to welcome all of God’s children, to dealing with the way things are: the sufferings of the present time.
Paul says that as we do the hard work of living as disciples of Jesus Christ, we must not look away from our differences or allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by our despair over current decisions. Rather, we must steel ourselves to face our problems directly. How? Well, first, by joining in God’s sorrow over the state of our world: joining in the chorus of all creation as it groans from the labor pains of giving birth to the hope that is promised in God’s kingdom.
I wrote last week that one of the most difficult things about The Handmaid’s Tale is bringing myself to watch it. I made the mistake of watching the first three episodes alone in a hotel room, late at night, while I was traveling for work. Needless to say, I was so disturbed that I had difficulty sleeping. Our assistant, Amy, refuses to watch the show on the basis that there is more than enough suffering in the world and keeping up with NPR provides a continuous update on the horrors of the world. She does not wish to invite extraneous fear into her life through a fictional show.
I remember when 9/11 happened, one of the young men in my congregation was going through a terrible time. His fiancé was in the final stages of a terrible battle with cancer. He was consumed by her situation and so overwhelmed that he literally had nothing left to give to the collective crisis of our nation. I recall many months after the attack, we had a conversation in which he said he had not been able to watch the news, or deal with the call for war, or respond in any significant way to the situation.
Sometimes in life that happens. Sometimes our personal reality is so overwhelming that it takes all our energy to get through the present moment. It happens to all of us.
However, as disciples of Jesus Christ we are called to pay attention, when we are able, especially to the sufferings of the world. We can’t permanently disengage with the world around us. We can’t turn our backs on the painful situations we see. We can’t turn our eyes away when refugees from war-torn countries have no place to go. We can’t ignore the increasing numbers of people who engage in public acts of hatred towards people from other religious traditions or toward people of another gender, race, nationality, or sexual orientation. We can’t avert our eyes when North Korea, the government in Sudan or South Sudan, or any other nation blatantly disregards basic human rights, just as we can’t sit in silence when our own nation decides it might no longer abide by international agreements on peace and the support of basic rights for all the people of the world.
Paul says we must do more than refuse to watch. We must look at these situations straight on. We must train our collective eyes directly on the point of the most pain—the places where all creation is groaning—and join in the suffering, take on the pain of others, as our own to bear. Even when we can’t see any hope that the suffering will end, we can’t give up. We must dig in deeper and wait with patience, knowing that our God is good and is working actively and behind the scenes to bring all creation into the full glory of God’s kingdom.
And so I watched The Handmaid’s Tale. I watched the whole season, even as painful as it was at times. And I am trying to stay aware. I am trying to groan with all those who are groaning in our world today. I am praying for the world and trying to enter into its suffering and working beside my brothers and sisters to alleviate that suffering.
As I write these words, there are a number of things going on in the world that call us to groan together.
- Even as the number of dead from the fire that ravaged Grenfell Tower, a massive public housing facility in London, has climbed to 79, the city itself has suffered another vehicular attack, this time on people who were exiting Ramadan prayers at a London mosque.
- A Minnesota police officer was acquitted by a jury of all charges in the shooting death of Philando Castile, leading to a renewed public outcry for people to recommit themselves to our collective groan that “Black Lives Matter.”
- Russia is threatening to target U.S.-led coalition planes after a Syrian jet was shot down by the American military.
(Note: I give these as examples of what is in the news on the day I am writing. As you prepare your sermon, I invite you to look to the headlines and to the needs and issues of your own community and context to name the concerns for which you and your congregation are called to join in the chorus of groaning.)
The good news is that even though we have all sinned and fallen from God’s grace, we know that our salvation is in Christ. As we say after the Prayer of Confession in The Great Thanksgiving: “Hear the Good News! Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. This proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” And we celebrate that because of Christ, we have been set free from the law of sin and death.
This IS the good news of Jesus Christ! As the women would say in The Handmaid’s Tale, “Praise Be!”
But being saved from eternal suffering does not give us a pass to avoid the suffering of God’s creation. Rather, we are called to join with Christ in his suffering, just as we will also join in Christ’s glory.
What is a disciple of Jesus Christ, be it in Rome, in Plymouth, in Gilead, or in the United States today? What does she look like? What does he do?
He is the one who does not look away from the suffering of the world. She is the one who not only does not look away, but who takes responsibility for her contribution to the state we are all in and joins in the struggle to expose, confront, and break the power of sin over all of creation.
John Wesley on The General Deliverance
by Dawn Chesser
In Sermon 60, John Wesley deals with a portion of this passage. He wrestles with the question of how it can be that Scripture says God provides for all creation and cares for all people, yet many in God’s world – human and animal–suffer.
It is a difficult dilemma posed by our founder. How does Wesley confront this problem?
Ultimately, he chalks it up to original sin. He begins by noting that God created human beings in God’s own image of perfect righteousness and love and gave humans dominion over all of creation, especially those lesser animals, or “brutes” as Wesley names the non-human animal kingdom. The difference between humans and brutes, for Wesley, is that humans alone were endowed with the capacity to obey their creator. Thus endowed, God’s original intent was that humans would ensure that no beasts under their care suffered: “All the blessings of God in paradise flowed through man to the inferior creatures, as man was the great channel of communication between the Creator and the whole brute creation,’ Wesley writes.
Unfortunately, as we all know, human beings messed up the transmission of those blessings in an irreversible way. This has affected not only all humans, but all the creatures under humanity’s care. Wesley laments that there is no way to know what suffering creation has endured because of original sin. All we know is that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; not only creation but we ourselves” (verses 22-23).