Sermon, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Feeling Pain," 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, Luke 6:27-31
2 Corinthians 4:7-12, Luke 6:27-31
Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Feeling Pain
Back when I had my surgery in November, I was given one of those pain pumps - I think mine had morphine in it - that I could press every so often - within a set limit - after my surgery. I never pressed it, not once. They kept asking me about it, reminding me it was available, but I didn’t use it. This isn’t because I’m so tough. Thankfully, I truly wasn’t experiencing a lot of pain post-surgery. More discomfort than pain. But I also hate the way narcotics make me feel. I either feel very nauseous, or I start to feel a weird sense of anxiety. And usually, I would rather tough through pain, unless it’s extreme, than feel nauseous and anxious!
Still, I do remember one of the first times I had serious pain medication. I was a junior in high school. I’d had kidney stones, and some surgery to get rid of said kidney stones, and after the surgery I got a pretty heavy dose of pain medication to go home with. I can say that having kidney stones is, to date, by far the worst pain I’ve ever been in, and I was quite thankful for all the pain medication I had. Just after my surgery, I was scheduled to attend an event in Texas for young people who were considering entering the ordained ministry. My church had paid for my registration and flight, and although I wasn’t really feeling up to going, I felt like I didn’t want to waste all their nonrefundable money. So, heavily medicated, I went. And I spent almost the entire event trying - and failing - not to fall asleep during the sermons of some truly excellent preachers. It was pretty ridiculous. I can tell you that it was of my most relaxing experiences flying I’ve ever had! And it was the first time I actually understood why and how people ended up dependent on drugs and alcohol. I was always a pretty well-behaved student. I didn’t drink, or smoke, or experiment with drugs of any kind, ever. And I had a hard time relating to why people did. Had they not sat through the same lectures in health class about the dangers of these things I had? But after being so heavily medicated for my trip, I understood, if just a very little, how the numbing effect of drugs could be appealing for people in pain of many kinds.
There’s a time and place, a great need sometimes, to be able to become numb to the pain we’d otherwise experience. I’m thankful, for example, for Novacaine when I’ve had to have dental work. Last year, though, when I had to have a cavity filled, my dentist seemed to overdo it a bit with the Novacaine. For hours after my appointment, I couldn’t move the whole side of my mouth. I couldn’t really eat or drink, because trying to do so just resulted in me dribbling my food all over the place! Actually being numb, unable to feel anything, outside of very limited situations, is really not as desirable as it might sound.
This week, as we continue to look at Everyday Jesus Spirituality, and disciplines we can practice to draw close to God, we’re looking at the discipline of feeling pain. It sounds weird, doesn’t it? Why on earth would we want to make a habit, a practice of feeling pain? Sure, we know it will happen to us. Pain, no matter what ways we might try to numb it, avoid it, lessen it, postpone it - we’ve all been in pain. But a discipline of feeling pain? That sounds like feeling pain on purpose, and that seems a little nonsensical, doesn’t it? Why would we want or choose to experience pain?
Our two scripture readings today give us some insight. First, we hear from Jesus in the gospel of Luke. This is part of a long section of teaching that appears in a similar way in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus has just finished giving a series of “blessings” - what we call the beatitudes - and a series of “woes” - words of warning to the rich and powerful. But then Jesus offers these words that challenge all of us: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those threaten you. Wow - not just “be nice” to your enemies. Not just “avoid fighting” with those who hate you. Not just “ignore” those who curse you. No, Jesus asks us - tells us - to love our enemies. Do good things for those who hate us. Bless and pray for people who curse us. I’m pretty good at tolerating enemies. Being polite. But love? I love friends and family. I try hard to love strangers. Enemies, though? People who seek to or who have hurt me and my loved ones? Jesus continues: If someone strikes us, we should offer them our other cheek. If someone takes our coat, we should give our shirt as well. If they ask us for something, we should give it. If they take something from us, we shouldn’t ask for it back. In sum, Jesus says, do to others as you wish they’d to to you, not as they do to you. For, Jesus says just after today’s text: If you love people who love you, that’s not exactly impressive. Everyone does that. If we say we’re Jesus followers though, we’re called to a different way, a way that puts others first.
Why though? Why does Jesus want us to treat our enemies with love? Why should we open ourselves to more pain and scorn from those who hate us? Isn’t it just smarter to avoid them, work around them, ignore them, work to bring them to justice somehow? Does it just feed some kind of martyr-complex for us? You know, where it makes us feel good somehow, where it feeds our self-esteem to let ourselves be the target of the hatred and mistreatment from enemies? Why does Jesus want us to love our enemies? Why does he love them?
For us, when in doubt a good model for living is always to be as like to Jesus as possible. And for Jesus? Why does he love his enemies? Bless those who curse him, even when they are crucifying him? It is because Jesus knows this: The most powerful party - person - nation - force - is never the one who has the most might and absolute dominance. A dictator can subdue people with fear and aggression, with war and threats and destruction, sure. But the power they show isn’t actually very deep, and it isn’t lasting. Power that is selfish and self-serving like that - someone else always comes along who is a bit stronger, or a bit more ruthless, or has more money, or a bigger army, or bigger weapons. But for a person or group or people - or a Messiah - to choose to make themselves weak? To choose vulnerability? To choose humility instead of exultation? To choose to be last instead of first? To choose to serve all instead of being served? An enemy can’t take away power that I have already offered of my own free will. An enemy can’t stop us from loving. An enemy can’t take everything from us if we’ve already chosen to give it. We can’t be shoved into last place if we already took that spot on our own.
This is the way of Jesus, and it disarms those who look to rule over. This is the way of Jesus, and it turns the world upside down. This is the way of Jesus, and it will change hearts, open hearts to God, bring healing and reconciliation in a way that cajoling and manipulating and punishing never can. The way of Jesus is love, compassion, a deep vulnerability, opening ourselves to hurt, yes, but also opening ourselves to being agents of God’s amazing, transformative, life-changing, world-changing grace.
I think that’s what Paul is trying to get at in our passage from 2 Corinthians. Paul says that we carry in our ordinary selves - regular old clay jars, something found every day in Paul’s world - the very light of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we carry in us the extraordinary power of God. That power isn’t power over. It doesn’t protect us from harm, as Paul knows firsthand. He’s been through a lot - beaten and imprisoned and mocked and run out of town because of his commitment to preaching about Jesus. He’s not defeated though, because he knows he is doing exactly what he’s meant to be doing. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” I always come back to that phrase: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
We can’t be complete, all-in followers of Jesus unless we carry his death with us, because only when we carry his death with us can we truly reveal his life as well. And why is that? I think it’s this: Jesus is the Christ, both fully divine and fully human. And as the Christ, he takes on all that humanity experiences. He even takes on pain, suffering, and death, absorbing into himself the weight, the despair of human brokenness. Jesus’s power shines through in what some would see as weakness, his humbling himself even to death on a cross. If we want to participate in the work of Christ, we follow in his footsteps. Not death on a cross - I don’t think God leads many of us to that path. But like Christ, we don’t live for ourselves. We live for God. And so, writes scholar Lois Malcolm, “As all that distorts and spoils our created goodness dies in Jesus -- whether we have created that dysfunction or others have imposed it on us -- Jesus’ life is manifest as the flourishing of new creation in our lives. But that flourishing and renewal also entails sharing in the sufferings of Jesus -- continually being put to death by all that goes against what this crucified Messiah, the Wisdom of God, embodied. In fact, it is precisely as we share in Jesus’ life and sufferings that the light of God’s glory shines -- amid our fragile human existence -- in the “face” of this crucified Messiah. This is how death in us becomes life-giving for others.” (Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3669#post_comments)
One of the most rewarding, most responsibility-laden, most sacred parts of being a pastor is that folks invite me in to the most difficult times in their lives. People, sometimes even people who don’t know me well, but just know that I am a pastor, trust that they can open up to me about the deepest pain and hurt they’re experiencing. If their professional life has just come to a crashing halt, they can tell me. If their personal relationships are breaking into pieces, they can tell me. If their hope for the future has been completely dashed, they can tell me. If they or a loved one is sick or dying, they can tell me, and even let me show up to witness, to stand by, to pray, to watch with them, to see. In a world where we very much like to pretend we’re invincible and able to do it all on our own, because we’ve been told that’s how we should be, that people will show me their broken hearts is a gift that I do not take for granted.
People do it, I think, share so much, because pastors are meant to be representatives of Jesus in the world. I don’t mean that to sound presumptuous or grandiose. I mean that at the core, that’s what pastors are supposed to do. We’re supposed to help people draw close to God, to form a relationship with Jesus, in part by trying to embody Jesus in the world. And Jesus - as I said, one of the things that Jesus does is take on our pain and suffering. This task, though - representing Christ - even though pastors might do it in a particular way, in the context of our life together at church, I think all of us who are Christians are called to this task. I think that’s what Paul is getting at. I think that’s what’s behind Jesus’ hard teachings. We’re meant to live in such a way that we can invite others - broken people, hurting people, angry people, scared people - we can invite them to see Christ in us, and in seeing Christ in us, so that they know in us, through Christ in us, they can find a way to lay down their burdens, and find peace in God. Please hear me: I don’t mean we should stay in relationships or situations where we’re being abused. And I don’t think it means we shouldn’t set any boundaries around the way we invite others to be vulnerable with us. But what Jesus calls us to is a way of opening ourselves to others that can sometimes be marked by pain - ours and theirs. It’s easier, so much easier, to be numb to the world. To build walls. To put up shields. To guard ourselves against any pain. But unless we carry the death of Jesus with us - unless we remember that true power is in weakness, serving rather than being served - unless we do the hard work of really loving our enemies - we’ll never reflect the light of Christ as brightly as we’d like to. And what a shame that would be! To miss out on Paul’s vision - grace, extending to more and more people, thanksgiving increasing, and glory to God. Through hope and joy, and even through pain and struggle, may it be so. Amen.