Philippians 3:8-11

More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

The Presence In Pain  (World Communion Sunday)

So, how would you end this sentence? Life is _____________

I posted that question on FB on Friday and close to 100 people responded. Answers were, of course, all over the place, though most people had a favorable opinion about life. They said things like: a gift, beautiful, wonderful,  to be enjoyed and a miracle. Others seemed to experience it as a mixed bag: a bed of roses but with thorns, a roller coaster, messy, a series of peaks and valleys.  Many emphasized our power to shape it saying, life is what you make of it. And for some life is tough. Most of those responses included expletives I can’t use here and a lot of them chose to respond to me privately.

It’s that last group of folk that comes closest to saying what is called the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism say that “Life is suffering.” I think we need to begin by acknowledging that for some folk it really is….and you can include among them the apostle Paul who seemed to get to a place where he even kind of relished his suffering. In this morning’s scripture he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.”

How many of us would ever say we want to share in the sufferings of Christ?! While most of us would say that suffering is a part of life, I bet none of us would ever say we want any part of it. For most of us the avoidance of suffering and pain is a pretty central commitment and strategy in life.

Some years ago there was a rash of incidents in Houston, Texas in which dogs were attacking small children. The newspapers ran several stories about the attacks. There was one story involving a little boy called DJ that turned out all right though. A reporter asked DJ how he managed to come away from a recent dog attack unscathed. With a serious look on his face, the little boy said, “Right when the dog came toward me, God spoke to me.” “Oh really,” asked the reporter. “And what did God say?” “God said, ‘Run, DJ, run!’” I’m with DJ!

There are times to run away from pain and suffering in life. And there’s no sense suffering if it can be relieved with a couple of Tylenol, or a new mattress, or a good long talk with you’re life’s partner. But surely we, as a culture, have gone much too far in our desire to avoid discomfort. There is a whole world out there ready to reinforce our prejudice against discomfort of any sort – urging us to avoid what is disagreeable and to flee from what is hard or hurtful.

In such a culture I wonder how we can possibly come to understand that acceptance of suffering is actually central to any life that is worth living. How ready are we to see in the suffering of a man who lived 2000 years ago, the God-given clue as to how to face and deal with all the troubles which our bodies and spirits must face? How can we possibly understand or relate to a man like Paul who says that he longs to share the sufferings of Jesus?

But what if in some way suffering is central to a good life. What if there is pain at the very heart of existence that must be faced and dealt with, not run from, if we are to embrace and enjoy our days here. But hear me now.I’m not suggesting that suffering and pain, in and of themselves are in any sense good. It’s about how we bear them and that depends very much on the attitude we bring to them. I’m also not suggesting that suffering is in any way inflicted upon us by God. Clearly God, for reasons not entirely clear to us, has left us with an unfinished world where accidents, tragedies and human evil are inevitable. God didn’t kill Jesus – Frightened people did.

What I am suggesting is that if we are prepared to embrace and use our troubles even in some small way as Jesus did, with his spirit and attitude, they can be the making of us, the way to a life that is rich and rewarding.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but the answer I loved the most to my fill-in-the-blank question came from my son. He said “Life is a neverending chain of circumstances that provides us with the opportunity to experience the different aspect of the world.”

OK…so it turns out that my son is an existentialist! But what I love is his use of the words “opportunity to experience.” Amen Matthew. And those experiences are the doorways to empathy. It is through our own suffering that we can connect with the suffering of others. And there really is a sense in which faith and character and sensitivity and compassion are born out of the experience of suffering.

Suffering is a part of loving in life. When we love as Christ loved we share in his suffering. WE experience not only our own hurts and trials but those of others as well. And it is so often in moments of shared suffering that the bonds of feeling for one another deepen. How often do we see this in families….that they come together in times of trouble as never before. Of course there’s no guarantee that will happen, but it can. It can.

This week I was thinking about our country. Right now we really are going through some truly terrible stuff….and all of it happening in the context of a pandemic. . . the division, the hatred, the violence, the cruelty, the over expressions of racism, and whole bunch of other isms. I am pretty sure I’m not the only one who is feeling like our nation is in real trouble these days.

In light of that I felt so foolish when I was very moved by a friend’s FB post this week. She quoted Alasdair Gray, a 20th C Scottish author I’ve never heard of. He said, “Work as if you are living in the early days of a better nation.”It brought tears to my eyes because I love my country and really am concerned. BUT could it be so? Might it be true that all we are going through right now as a nation….all the turmoil and violence and hatred and division, all our national suffering, is a sign that we are birthing something new….maybe even something better. Might we look back on these days some day and see that this is what was happening.

And if it is so, if we decide to believe that there is meaning in this suffering, purpose in this suffering, how does that impact the work I am called to do today? Am I willing to not flee from, but engage with the pain of it all? Is it possible? Dare I believe that at the heart of it is the hope…the promise…of resurrection…of new life? Is it reasonable to see it that way. It was Blaise Pascal who once said, “The heart has reasons that reason yes.”

Friends, one thing that’s pretty clear is that God is not present in our world in order to save us from life’s crosses. He didn’t do that for Jesus and he doesn’t do it for us either. God is present in our world to give us the courage and faith, the hope and love, to see through the pain so that something new…something miraculous…something wonderful…something better….might be born.

And then let me take it one step farther because this is world Communion Sunday when our eyes are drawn beyond the boundaries of our nation. Allow me to lift up the hope that our own struggles…our own suffering as a nation might open our eyes to the reality that there are people all over the world living in places torn apart by conflict and war…where ancient hatreds have never been resolved and where tyrants are ruling with an iron fist.

Is it possible that our struggles might draw us all together and humanity…yes, all of humanity….might miraculously birth something new….something wonderful….something better….something that transcends all national boundaries. Dare we hope? Dare we believe in the possibility? Dare we trust the heart’s hope of human resurrection?

Dear God may it be so…and may we be a part of making it so. Amen.