Responses to Suffering

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 1, 2012 (Palm-Passion Sunday)Mark 15:16-20, 29-32, 40; John 19:25-26

 I have been to and officiated at a lot of funerals over the years.  And there is something I have observed time and again at the cemetery when it comes time for the committal and burial.  And that is the reluctance on the part of many who attend burials to get close to the casket and the grave that it is about to be lowered into.  I have noticed how many people will stand back from the tent—at a distance—and often the funeral director needs to encourage people to come in closer. 

Some years ago, I was attending the burial of the mother of one of my church members.  The mother who had passed happened to be Jewish.  So the service was in a Jewish cemetery and was being officiated over by a Jewish Rabbi.  So at this particular burial, I was just an observer.  And as I stood there and observed, I noticed how the friends who had gathered to support the family stood back from the tent.  And the funeral director and Rabbi had to encourage everyone to come in closer.  In fact, in his remarks, the Rabbi even made mention of the human tendency to keep our distance.  Now, in Jewish burials, family members and close friends are invited at the end of the service to take a shovel and pour a little bit of dirt onto the coffin.  But the custom is to use the back of the shovel instead of the front, concave side of the shovel, which, the Rabbi explained, is a symbol of our reluctance to shovel dirt on the grave of a loved one.  But at the same time, it is also symbolic of our doing for a loved one that last thing that is needed that she cannot do for herself. 

Well, that experience moved me to write a poem, which I’d like to share with you.  I titled the poem “Graveside Reluctance”:

At graveside services where I have been

I have noticed how folk are hesitant

To walk up close to the coffin and tent.

I have decided this is an attempt

Unconsciously to keep death in its place

As if by some imaginary fence.

Only when coaxed by the officiant

To move in closer, surrounding the tent,

Do the mourners slowly shuffle their feet,

Quite reluctantly, but out of respect

For loved ones left behind and the deceased.

It is appointed to us once to die,

And be there for those who must journey before.

We feel we must, yet we would rather not.

Thus, the space we seek to keep between us.

At a service recently, near the end,

The sacred ritual the rabbi explained

Of tossing dirt from the shovel’s back

Upon the coffin is a final act

Of kindness to one who can do no more.

The back as a sign of our reluctance

To perform this deed that we so protest

That reminds us to dirt we shall return

And that someday dirt will be tossed on us.

“Graveside Reluctance” Copyright © by Randy Hammer

And so, here is the point: a common response to suffering and death is to keep our distance.  To stand back.  To stay away.  To not get any nearer than we have to.

As we read the different accounts of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, we see three different responses to suffering.  The synoptic gospels tell how when the arrest and passion of Jesus began, his disciples “forsook him and fled,” getting as far away as they could.  Such is one common response to the suffering of people we know: to flee, to avoid the situation altogether, either because we feel inadequate or afraid.  Or perhaps we avoid someone who is suffering or dying because we see them as having become something different.  We need them to be something that they cannot be anymore.  It is hard to let go of the person we once knew who cannot be what we need them to be, and so we may tend to avoid them altogether. 

The second response we see in the passion narratives to suffering is to maintain a safe distance.  I find it interesting that in the scripture I read, it is said that some women were there at the cross of Jesus, “looking on from a distance.”  Now, there could be any number of reasons why those women might have been looking on at that horrible scene of suffering “from a distance.”  Maybe they were not allowed to go any closer by the Roman guards.  Maybe they feared for their lives lest they be identified with Jesus and suffer a similar fate.  But I have a gut feeling that many who gathered on that hillside that day looked on from a distance simply because they did not want to get close to the horrific human suffering that was taking place and the certain death that was soon to follow.  That’s just the way that most of us are—we want, as much as possible, to distance ourselves from human suffering and death.  It’s not a comfortable place to be.  It is not easy to watch another endure extreme suffering, especially undeserved suffering.  And especially someone who is close to us. 

Another reason that we may try to distance ourselves from human suffering and death is because it forces us to face the possibility of our own suffering and eventual certain death.  And many of us are just not ready to get that close and have to consider the fact that we could suffer a similar fate and much sooner than we might hope.  But human suffering and a certain death is something that all of us can expect.  As someone has quipped, “None of us can hope to get out of this world alive.”  Human suffering and certain death are the lot of all humanity. 

Then there is a third response to suffering that we see in Jesus’ passion narrative, and that is to be fully present and to stand with the one who is suffering.  It is shown in John’s gospel where he states that a few women (including his mother and Mary Magdalene) and the disciple whom Jesus was closest too were “standing close to Jesus’ cross.”  Since human suffering is the lot of every one of us, it falls to us to stand together and support one another during such times.  Standing by the cross, so to speak, is our role as caregivers.  Not to run away or hide. Not to stand at a distance.  But to stand close.  When we stand by someone who is suffering, and possibly near dying, we are saying to them, “I’m here with you.  You are not alone.  We still belong together.” 

I have had people say to me on occasion, “Well, I haven’t gone to the hospital or nursing home to see so and so, because I wouldn’t know what to say.”  The important thing about being present with someone who is suffering is “being present.”  It is not so much what we say as just being there.  Often it is best if we don’t say anything.  We don’t have to have the answers as to why innocent people suffer.  And we are not expected to be fixers of the problem.  What’s needed most is someone to just stand with the one who is suffering.  By standing in the presence of suffering—in all our strength and in all our brokenness—we thereby transform suffering and make it holy.  When we do this, we find ourselves, like the women close to Jesus and Jesus’ beloved disciple, “standing on holy ground watching, waiting, and caring.”1    As Charles Schlauch put it, “Suffering may be sustained in a different way when one is accompanied.”2   One of the most terrible agonies in life, I am inclined to think, is the prospect of having to face suffering alone.  But having someone to stand with us in our suffering can make it so much more bearable. 

This is what is needed from us as members of a faith community and the human community—the willingness to stand with each other when suffering comes, realizing that someday we will long for someone to stand with us.  If everyone could have the openness, compassion, and willingness to stand with the suffering of the world, we would have a much better world. Indeed, as Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, “Perhaps the healing of the world rests on just this sort of shift in our way of seeing, a coming to know that in our suffering and our joy, we are connected to one another with unbreakable and compelling human bonds.”3 

The passion of Jesus and the responses of those who were close to him speak to us during this Holy Week about our own response to the suffering around us.  May we have the grace, and courage, and strength to stand by those who are enduring a cross of suffering (whatever that cross of suffering might be), even as we long for someone to stand by us when suffering falls to us.  Amen.

 1Caregiver’s Bible.

2Charles Schlauch, Faithful Companioning.

3Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, 140.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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