Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time- Sept. 6, 2020
My friends in Christ, one of my very favorite places on Earth…is Priest Lake. And when I was a kid, one of my very favorite places on Priest Lake…was Reeder Bay. Reeder Bay, for a child, basically is Heaven on Earth. There are all kinds of trails and wilderness to explore – entire swaths of forest and underbrush in which to run and hide from your parents, ha! And of course…there is the beach.
Now, for someone like myself, who learned how to swim practically before learning how to walk, the beach…is Paradise. The water is glorious. So many other kids there with whom to make friends and play. And all of the soda and junk food that mom and dad could pack into a couple of coolers and haul down to the shore – because it was summer, after all, and the normal dietary rules of the house of token broccoli, mushy peas, and “clean your plate, or else you get no dessert” were completely abandoned!
But for me, the best part of all was, as I say, the lake itself. The water is glorious! But there was just one problem: the sand! The sand of that south-facing shore! The sand that sits in the hot, unrelenting sun all day, every day – all summer, every summer! The sand that clearly was delivered straight to Earth from the surface of the sun! And for a kid who is so desperately excited to get in the water…the sand…is torture!
The sand was hot – blisteringly, skin-charring hot! – and there were miles of it to cross if you wanted to get to the water. How hot the sand…but oh so worth it when finally you get in the lake!
The lake was pure bliss, utter joy, Paradise on Earth…but the sand was sheer agony – total suffering! And my friends in Christ, there is just nothing else for it: we simply have got to consider suffering. Suffering in and of itself…and that which awaits us on the far side of suffering.
Because just as a child has to get through the sand to the water…so it is with each of us as we muddle along this mortal coil, struggling to negotiate our pilgrim’s way across this horrifying terrain of a fallen, broken world…. We simply have got to get through the sand to the water…through the pain to the joy…through suffering to salvation…through the Cross to the Kingdom.
Now, certainly we can know full well that which awaits us on the far side of suffering; as far as our head know-how is concerned, we get it. Our head know-how understands it, and all of us, we are all like “yeah yeah, we get it,” that our suffering is like spiritual gold bullion with which to make great capital whenever we “offer it up” for the glorious majesty of God and the salvation of souls.
Yes. True. That is all well and good…. But even so, suffering is just…so…terrible! And why does it have to hurt so much? And why would God even allow it? How could God do such a thing?
Well, God might allow it, I suppose, that is true…but in the beginning, God did not want it, nor did God will it to be. It was us, humanity – our first parents, Adam and Eve – who apparently willed it to be in having chosen to reject God’s love and so chose to sin; thus, sin entered the world, and so the world is broken…. And we and the world entire have been suffering ever since.
Now, because of sin…because of our concupiscence – that is, our fallen, broken human nature that, now and until the end of days, has a warped tendency toward sin…because of all of that, it is a broken world out there…and we are going to get hurt. Suffering, sadly, is inevitable, unavoidable.
And because we cannot avoid it, we really have only two options before us: either we accept it, make the best of it, turn to the Lord and let the Lord enter it, so as to redeem it (and in so doing redeem us as well)…or we can reject it and thus keep trying new and stupid ways to avoid it, ignore it, numb it, or distract ourselves away from it.
I have been hearing a lot about suffering of late, and from a number of different people. So many folks suffering the physical pain of some malady, some infirmity, some sort of sickness or else some injury. Cancer is a usual suspect. Arthritis. Chronic pains due to all sorts of causes…. And a lot of folks suffering from mental suffering, either themselves slipping away in their minds because of Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, or else a loved one fading away, and they themselves being made to watch and wait for the inevitable vanishing of the person whom they once knew.
I suspect that most of us (maybe even all of us) would agree that in this time of pandemic, a truly horrifying form of suffering that lots of us are being made to endure is the emotional suffering
of isolation…of loneliness…of being utterly, totally, helplessly alone. Stephen King – who knows a bit about horror, obviously – has this to say about isolation and being alone as an especially barbaric form of suffering: “Alone: the most awful word in the English tongue. ‘Murder’ [does not] hold a candle to it and ‘hell’ is only a poor synonym.”
There is a great deal of talk going on these days about how fatal COVID is if you happen to get infected with it…but not nearly enough talk going on about “deaths of despair.” Taking drugs in some desperately stupid attempt to cope with isolation and anxiety…drinking way too much for the same reason…falling deeper and deeper into the darkness of despair…and therefore overdosing on drugs, liver disease, and suicide…. Deaths of despair…. And all of that…because so many folks are lonely – being made to suffer having to be alone.
Where is God in all of this? Why, that is the worst loneliness of all! Being isolated from loved ones, from family and friends – that is cruel! But being isolated from God…that is too much. And it is bad enough that way too many of us – and, indeed, our entire culture – has already jettisoned Jesus from our lives! Now this is going on, and we need Him now more than ever – but where is He?
Jesus tells us today that “where two or three are gathered together in [His] Name, there [He is] in the midst of them.” Fine. But we are in total isolation, Jesus! Many folks have not even seen another blessed soul for months – they are totally alone! And how can there be “two or three” when I am totally alone, Jesus? How can there be “two or three” when there is only one?
All the more reason that for those of us who can do this should do this…and we need to do this immediately: call someone whom you know who is totally isolated and call that person today; or write a letter to someone whom you know who is totally isolated and write that letter today. Reach out to your fellow parishioners; reach out to parishioners of parishes elsewhere where other family and friends of yours go to church; reach out to the parish office this week and ask us if this parish has any homebound parishioners who have nobody – and then be somebody for those folks so that
they no longer have nobody but truly do have somebody because that somebody is you! And then we will find truly that “where two or three are gathered in [His] Name, there [He is] in the midst of them.”
Now…we are talking about suffering. And we cannot forget about the very worst suffering of all: the suffering…of sin. Our every Scripture text given to us today speaks a great deal to us of sin and how awful it is, our responsibility with regard to it, and overall what we need to do about it.
And sin is suffering. The worst part about sin sometimes is that we do not even realize that it even is a suffering because it can be just so darn pleasurable. After all, how can lust be a suffering when it just feels so darn good? And how can gluttony be a suffering when all of that food and drink just tastes so darn good? How can drugs be a suffering when I just need to chill out, man. But hey, just because it feels good does not necessarily mean that it is good. Because it sure does feel good to scratch the ever-living mamba-jamba out of that itching mosquito bite…that is, until you scratch it so much that it bleeds every time you even touch it, and it gets infected – and now you have to go to the doctor because it just felt so darn good.
Why is sin the worst suffering of all? Because of what we already said about how awful being alone is as a form of suffering, and because of what we already said about how being alone from all of my loved ones is bad enough but being alone from God is just way worse; sin is a suffering insofar as it is a separation; and even just one instance of sin results in four instances of separation: from God, from others, from the world, and from ourselves.
Consider gossip. If I gossip, I sin, and sin by the very fact separates me from God because it severs my lifeline, as it were, to a life of grace; hence, we speak of being in a state of grace whenever we recognize that we are no longer in a state of sin because we just went to confession…. And also, if I gossip, I separate myself from others; at the very least, I am separated from that person of whom I gossiped, and I am probably also separated from other people besides – because after all, why in the world would they want to hang out with me if I might just go and gossip about them with others?
When I gossip, I am separated from the world, insofar as I have contributed to the savagery of the rumor mill and therefore to the ever-increasingly “darkening” of the world, thus making our world just a little bit worse because I chose to add to its moral pollution.
And when I gossip, I am separated from myself insofar as I become less and less the person whom God wants me to be, whom God created me to be…. And so it goes with every sin, no matter how “small” we might think it is…no matter how “private” we might think it is.
And this four-fold separation caused by each instance of sin makes us alone; and if Stephen King is right, then to be alone is basically to be in hell.
But remember that which awaits us on the far side of suffering – sin included! Never forget that it is through suffering to salvation…through the Cross to the Kingdom…through that hot, blistering sand to the joy and bliss of the lake…. And Jesus never promised us that it would be easy; Jesus only promised us that it would be worth it. And with the power of His love and grace, we can and we will offer up our physical sufferings for the glorious majesty of God and the salvation of souls; and we console the mental and emotional sufferings of ourselves and others whenever we can find or can make community with each other so that where two or three of us are gathered together, Christ is there in our midst; and we ease our sufferings due to sin when the wounds of sin are healed again, and we are absolved from our every sin in sacramental confession.
And then we will find that though it is a broken world out there and though we are going to get hurt…we know that Jesus is with us…. And so it will be that, in the end, we will make it through suffering to salvation…through the pain to the joy…through the Cross…to the Kingdom.
on Tuesday, September 8 at 4:10PM