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October 21, 2018
[Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam]
If someone applied to serve in the military and told the recruiter, “I don’t do grunt work. I want to be an officer as soon as possible, and I really don’t like taking orders from anyone,” my suspicion is that the recruiter would send this person out the door and urge him or her to try something else. Anyone who joins the military knows that there is going to be some suffering involved, that one’s own will and desire will have to be submitted to the orders of one’s superiors, and that the glory of rank only comes after long and dedicated years of service.
While the “no pain, no gain” concept is very familiar in military life, I wonder if in our culture in general it is seen as simply foolish. We seem to search for ways to make our lives easier and easier, yet somehow this leaves us empty. Is the fact that there are so many suicides among young people related to the tendency to think that one simply cannot bear the sufferings that come with life? Is the opioid epidemic and the move to legalize recreational marijuana an indication that we simply need to anesthetize ourselves rather than deal with the difficulties of life? Is the high divorce rate in our country at least partly due to an over-romanticizing of marriage and relationships, such that if things go wrong the tendency is simply to walk away and not deal with the hard issues of our own or the other person’s inadequacies?
While this seeking to avoid pain at all costs may seem to be a hallmark of our own age and culture, it is really nothing new. In our gospel reading today we see James and John asking Jesus to promise them a special place in his kingdom. His response is to ask if they are able to drink the cup that he must drink, and here, of course, he is referring to suffering. They say they can, but they do so naively, not realizing the tremendous suffering they would have to endure for the sake of entering the eternal kingdom of God. In the end, of course, they both suffered a great deal; James with martyrdom and John with exile. But it was accepting this suffering, consenting to be crushed for Jesus’ sake, that they were both ultimately given a place in heaven.
But just as the other ten apostles banded together in complaining about James and John, we know that banding together for support can be just what helps people through times of suffering. When a spouse is left alone while the other spouse is deployed, it is very difficult. The suffering can be intense, and can often lead to infidelities and divorce. Yet if that spouse is supported by a loving community that knows the struggles and supports the person left behind, it can be a time of deepening the love for the deployed spouse. If a teen is struggling in school, is being bullied, or is feeling used in a relationship, there can be intense suffering and perhaps even the thought to end it all. But if parents, older friends and peers are attentive to the teen, they can reach out and offer support and encouragement, so that what seems a time of unbelievable suffering can be transformed into a time of great growth. If a woman is unexpectedly pregnant and feels overwhelmed by the possibility of raising this child for whatever reason, her family and friends can offer support so that she will choose life and know that the trials of raising a child are far surpassed by the love she and the child will experience. If a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness and feels he or she would be a burden to others, or simply fears the intensity of pain, family and friends can surround that person and give the person hope and reassurance that they will be there to the end, even if it causes great sacrifice on their part. These are the ways we can help each other bear the burdens of life, so that they do not crush us but transform us.
It may seem odd to hear that God was “please to crush him in infirmity” when referring to the servant of God, which we know to be Jesus. It is not to indicate that God is some kind of masochist, enjoying the suffering of another. It indicates that God knows very well that sometimes the only thing that can change our stubborn and self-centered hearts is to see how much someone is willing to suffer for us, so that we can be freed of our selfishness, pride, and sin. We do indeed have such a person in Jesus, who spared no suffering so that he could give us courage in our sufferings and trials. We come together to celebrate this sacrifice of praise to remember the death of Jesus, because it was in such self-abnegation, in such self-sacrifice, that he was able to overcome sin and death itself. And so he offers us intimate communion with him so that we may not run away from the sufferings of life but embrace them so that all may be filled with greater life – life eternal!