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Reclaiming Our Suffering

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-5

The thing I struggle with most in my faith, in my theology, is this: I don’t believe God sends suffering upon us. Not as punishment. Not to test our faith. Not so that we’ll learn a lesson. BUT I know that so many great breakthroughs in human history have been borne out of suffering. Medicines created to alleviate suffering. Beautiful poetry and art and songs created to cope with intense suffering.

So many exceptional people in our lives and throughout history were shaped in response to deep suffering. People who have gone through terrible addiction, often coming to the brink of death only to work their program and become deeply wise and compassionate, so that they’re able to mentor others.

People like Elie Weisel and Viktor Frankl who endured the Holocaust and then wrote the most profound things about their experience of suffering.

Of course, there are also other responses to suffering. Some people lash out, projecting their pain onto others. Some people go numb and for all intents and purposes drop out of their own life, numbing out in front of a tv or phone or with whiskey or painkillers. Some people respond to their own suffering by seeking power in order to control or hurt others.

I don’t think a God who is love, who calls us to love above all else, sends suffering upon us. I do think the world sends suffering upon us. I think we send suffering upon each other. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

God doesn’t cause our suffering, but I do think that how we respond to suffering is central to our faith. And our verses from Isaiah today give us the clearest instruction in how we can respond. In fact, Isaiah lifts it up as the ideal response, what will happen when God is most clearly manifested in this world:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,

and their spears into pruning-hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

The prophet Isaiah is talking to the king of a nation under siege by its more powerful neighbors. Babylon is threatening to wipe them out. It’s a scary time. But what kind of world does Isaiah ultimately point to in the midst of this fear and suffering?

Reclaiming the metal, the material of our response, not for swords and spears but for ploughshares and pruning hooks. Turning instruments of violence into instruments of planting seeds. Turning our response to suffering from fearful lashing out into growing hope, opening the ground to sow possibilities.

When I started telling people that we would be using Rite 1 for our Advent worship, some of you were excited about it. Some of you told me how the language brought you back to your childhood, dressing up in your nicest clothes, singing old hymns, getting confirmed and taking communion for the first time. Some of you were less nostalgic and more like, “well, of course—that’s the right way to worship.” And while I don’t necessarily agree with that, I do understand the comfort and peace that can come with language that feels both lofty and distant—how it feels special somehow.

But some of you had a different response. People raised in the Roman Catholic Church told me that just holding the prayer book and trying to find the right pages reminded them of how lost and out of place they felt in their worship experience.

People raised in Evangelical churches told me that the King James language in worship—the thees and thous and shalts and ye's—triggered things they learned in their churches that were confusing, like a God who was supposedly loving but who wielded judgment and punishment to show that love.

I completely understand both of these reactions. I, too, am an Evangelical refugee who grew up with old King James and the Bible as a strict rulebook. AND I remember my first experience in an Episcopal church when I had three different books open on the pew around me—the Book of Common Prayer and two different hymnals—and I felt so lost and out of place because I didn’t know what I was doing while everyone else seemed to just know.

Every now and then when the musicians are rehearsing before our service, Kathy plays a song from my childhood church. I’ll be wandering around this nave making sure everything is ready for worship, but then I freeze as I hear her sing, “As the deer panteth for the water…” I’m brought back to that old grocery store converted into a Pentecostal church, my dad up on stage playing bass in the worship band, arms waving slowly in the air around me as people sing together.

I can hear my pastor talking about praying for the souls of people with AIDS, that they repent so that they don’t go to hell. Or that if I just believed hard enough, my asthma, which was terrible when I was a kid, would be healed. But it never went away, so I always believed that something was wrong with my faith. That I didn’t love God enough to be cured.

“As the deer panteth for the water…” It’s just Psalm 42, a lovely psalm. A comforting psalm. The way it’s put to music is actually beautiful. But when I hear that psalm sung in that particular way, my blood goes cold and I want to run.

Until I give it the swords into ploughshares treatment. When I feel that flight response in my muscles, I slow myself down. I close my eyes. I take a few deep breaths. And when I open my eyes again, I remember that this place called me, a queer, asthmatic, flawed woman, to be your rector.

I look over and see that it’s a fellow queer woman behind the piano singing those words. I see each of you coming through those doors with all your brokenness and joy and trust. I see how you greet each other, care for each other, love each other. And all of that put together reminds me that God is love.

Now when I hear Kathy sing Psalm 42, I think of my community, this Body of Christ, this community where I experience the depth of God’s love. It’s not always easy. In fact, it often isn’t. I get triggered. Or I disagree with someone and we find ourselves in conflict. A sword to turn into a ploughshare. But I know that we all trust God’s love enough to trust each other, to not avoid challenge and discomfort but to move through it together, which helps us to love one another even more deeply, even more authentically.

God can take our suffering and transform it into something new, if we open ourselves to God. If we open ourselves to God’s love. If we open ourselves to new possibilities, to planting hard old seeds and letting them rest in the soil for a while. Until they soften. And then burst open and grow into what they were meant to be.

Isn’t that what this Advent season is about? When God saw a world filled with sin and suffering, God didn’t throw it all out and start again, thank goodness for us. No, God took our sin and suffering and planted it in the ground, planted it in a womb. Gave it the quiet and darkness it needed to transform, until a new hope was born.

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