Monday Matters (April 3, 2023)


The Collect for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

These days, Monday Matters offers reflections on the prayers we say in church on Sunday, the collect of the day. We do this based on the conviction that praying shapes our believing, that what we pray forms us. We do this hoping that the prayers we say on Sunday will carry us through the week.

Walk, don’t run through Holy Week

A friend who leads a congregation doesn’t sugarcoat it. He reminds folks from time to time that suffering is the promise life always keeps. And while that may not reflect the sunny optimism of Norman Vincent Peale or Joel Osteen, I think my friend is on to something fundamentally true about our lives. For all kinds of reasons, part of what it means to be human is to know brokenness of body, mind, spirit, memory, relationship, not to mention the brokenness of our culture, our political and economic systems.

Yesterday, on Palm Sunday, we heard the collect included above. The day is also known as the Sunday of the Passion, passion being one way of referring to suffering. As a prayer, this collect launches us on the annual journey of Holy Week, ultimately leading to Easter morning.

But we can’t get there too quickly. Walk, don’t run, through Holy Week. We spend this week with a focus on the various ways that Jesus faced suffering: betrayal, denial, isolation, misunderstanding of his closest companions, opposition from religious and political authorities, false accusation, ridicule, pain, torture, death, a sense that God had forsaken him.

All of it causes us to consider the mystery of suffering. Over the years, I’ve often returned to a short book by J. Christiaan Beker, who taught at Princeton Seminary. The book is entitled “Hope and Suffering: The Biblical Vision and the Human Predicament,” written with a biblical perspective on suffering, informed by Beker’s experience as a slave laborer during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. It’s a short book but has been helpful in noting that there is not just one way to understand why we suffer.

He notes that sometimes we suffer because of things we have done, because of dumb or destructive choices we make. A hospital administrator once told me that many patients in his hospital were there because of some sort of abusive behavior they had inflicted on themselves. This man was not blaming the victim. Just stating what he had observed.

Beker notes that sometimes we suffer because of things other people do to us, either individually or in some societal, systemic way. The history of racism in our nation is an example. Political leaders who protect their guns rather than our kids offer another example. The horrors unfolding in Ukraine make that point.

Suffering can come through the natural order, as we pause and pray this morning for those harmed by recent tornadoes in the south and midwest.

We can also note that sometimes we suffer for righteousness’ sake. I love the quote (author unknown) that says Jesus promised his disciples three things. They would be absurdly happy, absolutely fearless, and always in trouble.

Beker adds that sometimes suffering simply defies explanation, a mystery of why bad things happen to good people that we can never explain. Maybe we shouldn’t even try. That’s sort of where the book of Job leaves us. Our response can only be silent presence. A friend who is a composer (and good human being) wrote a piece of music after the shootings at the church in Charleston. The piece was entitled: There are no words.

There are some circumstances in which suffering can have a redemptive quality. Which brings us to Jesus. We walk with him this week through the suffering he experienced. Our focus is first and foremost on him, as he stretches out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into his saving embrace. We recognize our complicity in his suffering. And we honor him, thank him, revere him, worship him as God amongst us, God with flesh on.

And as we recall his suffering, walking the way of the cross, we sense his presence with us in whatever suffering we face. Beyond that, as we realize that presence, we are called to be mindful (dare I say woke) to the suffering around us, and to find ways to be a healing presence, to practice compassion, which literally means suffering with.

All with a recognition that suffering is not the last word, that Easter is coming. But we can’t get there too soon. The experience of Easter will be richer for our walk through Holy Week. No sprinting. As this week we tell the story of Jesus’ passion, his suffering, may we commit to a pilgrimage that leads to resurrection, his resurrection and our own.

More about that next week, thanks be to God.

-Jay Sidebotham

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