Sunday, February 4, 2018

Tell Me Why

   Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I’ll have to ask my mother to check my memory, but I seem to recall her telling me that one of my first and favorite words as a young child was, “Why?”  I’d ask that question about everything, and as a follow up to each answer: “Why? Why? Why?”  Of course, the eventual response was, “Because I said so, that’s why!”

Our first reading this Sunday is taken from the Book of Job.  It’s not exactly the most uplifting story in the Bible.  You’ve got to love how it wraps up:
            …I shall not see happiness again.
            The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.
Thanks be to God?  We’re supposed to be grateful for that unhappy ending?

The Book of Job is more than 40 chapters of “ugh.”  The poor guy can’t catch a break.  First, all his sheep are struck by lightening.  Then thieves steal all his camels.  Then all his children a killed during dinner when the house blows down in a windstorm.  And then Job’s covered with boils from head to toe.

This tale of woe is quite a downer, to say the least.  It can leave us asking, “Why?”  Why is this book even in the Bible?  It’s certainly not a feel-good story.

The Book of Job wrestles with a couple of perennial questions.  (1) Can human beings love God for his own sake (and not just to get something out of the relationship)? That’s certainly an idea worth exploring, but we’ll leave that one aside for another time.  (2) Why?  Why is there suffering in the world?  Why do bad things happen to good people?

Several “friends” (we’ll use the term loosely) come (so they say) to “comfort” Job in his anguish.  But their message is far from consoling: “Surely you must have done something to deserve this!  Why don’t you man up and accept responsibility?”  They believe that suffering is a matter of divine punishment.  Our reading today is part of Job’s response to one of these so-called friends.

Job himself wonders why all this has happened: “Maybe God is upset with me for some unknown reason.  Maybe the Lord’s fickle, or unreliable.”

In the end, God himself speaks up.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  In typical Jewish fashion, God answers a question with a question:  “Who are you to ask?  Who are you to question me?  My ways are not your ways.”

The mystery of suffering forces us to reckon with the fact that God’s will doesn’t bend to mine; I, rather, must bend to the will of God.

Why?  Why is there suffering in the world?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  We don’t know!  The Lord’s message to Job and to us is essentially:  “You’re just going to have to trust me.”

That’s where the Old Testament leaves us.  But things are rather different after Jesus.  That’s because, in Jesus, God himself comes to suffer.  In effect, he’s saying, “Let me show you, once and for all, that suffering will not defeat me.”  The New Testament may not answer our repeated question, “Why?” but when it comes to suffering, Jesus does show us how.

In the gospel last Sunday, we found Jesus driving out an evil spirit.  Today, he’s curing the sick.  In a few short chapters, he’ll calm a calm storm at sea.  Since the original sin of Adam and Eve, our world’s been a mess.  This is no longer paradise!  But how does Jesus respond to this mess—to the demons, the disease, the disasters he encounters?  He rebukes them all, and they obey.  Christ has come to heal this broken world.  Even now, at the very start of his ministry, we see that for sickness and sorrow, for the devil and death, it’s the beginning of the end.

Two Sundays back, we heard how Jesus called four fishermen—Simon and Andrew, James and John—to be his first disciples.  This Sunday’s passage comes just a few verses later.  And where do we already find Jesus?  Already at the bedside of Simon’s mother-in-law!  Jesus clearly takes a keen and immediate interest in the personal lives of those who follow him.  “So tell me about your family.  Would you mind if I came over to the house?  What’s that about your wife’s mother?”  Jesus gets right into the nitty-gritty of their lives.

Does Jesus cure everyone who is sick?  No.  There were still sick people in Galilee.  There are still sick people today.  His mission wasn’t one of medical miracles.  Physical healing wasn’t the reason he came.  But when he does cure the sick, and the manner in which he does it, makes something crucial very clear.  As the French writer and thinker Paul Claudel put it about one hundred years ago, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it.  He came to fill it with his presence.”  God is right there with us when we’re hurting.  We do not face any of our trials alone.

Jesus has had a particularly busy day.  He begins by preaching in the synagogue.  Then he drives out the unclean spirit.  Next he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.  After she prepares a quick bite for him, it’s back to work: more sick people, more possessed people, until after the sun goes down.  And this was all on the Sabbath—supposedly a day of rest!

What does Jesus do early on Sunday morning?  He goes off to a deserted place.  It’s not hard to imagine why: he’s got to be tired.  It’s hardly a stretch to think he needed a little time and space for himself.  But his disciples find him, and what do they say?  “Everybody’s looking for you.  The people—they need you!”

Isn’t that always the way?  You’ve had a tough day, or maybe a tough week, and all you want is a few minutes to yourself, to sit down in your comfy chair, to put your feet up…and the phone rings.  Or there’s a knock at the door.  Or someone’s calling for you from upstairs.  Someone needs our help.

How do we respond?

(Sigh!)  Sadly, all too often, we moan and groan, don’t we?  We drag our feet, as if something’s being taken away form us.  Our response is an unwilling one.   Whether we’re dealing with a minor inconvenience or a major crisis, we view it as one more thing to be endured; like Job’s sleepless night, we’re just waiting restlessly for it to be over.

Or, we can do like Jesus did.  We can get up and go.  We can say, “Yes,” to those who need us.  We can willingly submit to our troubles.  We can give of ourselves.

St. Paul gives us an example of this.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, just before the section we hear this Sunday, he tells us about what he’s freely given up for the sake of gospel.  For one, he’s given up a salary.  He has every right to financial support as a preacher and teacher, but he has decided to forgo it, so as not to be a burden on anyone.  He’s also given up having a wife and family.  “The other apostles might have ’em,” Paul says, “but not me!” 

Now, he doesn’t write this to be all proud and macho.  (“See how tough I am?  See how holy I am?”)  Paul shares this because this is the way of Jesus: this is how Jesus lived; this is how Jesus died.  It’s the way of self-sacrifice: to willingly lay down my life and join my sufferings to those of Christ.  Sure, life is hard—sometimes really hard—no question about it.  But as God proved beyond all shadow of doubt on that first Easter morning: suffering does not have the final say.  That’s the very heart of the gospel! 

And so, no matter what may come, I can put all my trust, all my hope, in the Lord.  God’s got a plan, even if I can understand very little or nothing of it.

St. Bernadette was the young French girl who saw the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in February of 1858.  She was no stranger to suffering.  She grew up poor and sickly.  When she first spoke of the apparitions, she was harassed and ridiculed.  Later fleeing the curious crowds who wished to see and touch her, she became a cloistered nun and died in the convent after a long illness at the young age of 35.  But Bernadette didn’t waste her time asking, “Why?  Why?  Why?”  Instead, she turned to Jesus to better learn how.

In one of her notebooks, Bernadette wrote this heartfelt prayer:
            I beg you, O my God…
            not that you spare me from suffering,
            but that you do not abandon me in the midst of it;
            that you teach me to search for you in suffering
            as my only comforter;
            that you sustain my faith, strengthen my hope,
            and purify my love in suffering;
            that you give me the grace to recognize your hand in suffering
            and to desire no other comforter but you.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
On that Sabbath in Capernaum, Jesus came to Simon’s mother-in-law on her sickbed.  Today, in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus comes to us here.  He is present now, with all the same power and love as then.  Let us open our hearts to him.  Let us expose to him our wounds.  Let us give him our suffering and sorrows, our weakness and brokenness.  Jesus wants to heal us.

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