A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 9, 2017
Matthew 26:47-50, 55-56; 27:45-50, 55 GNT
In writing about caregivers and human responses to suffering, and how we relate to those loved ones who suffer and for whom we may feel a responsibility, the authors of the Caregivers Bible note that “It is hard to be a caregiver.” It is a real challenge to stand by one who is suffering.
And the experience of Jesus and those close to him provide a good framework for considering the challenge of standing close to those in our own lives who suffer. In the Passion Week narratives, different responses to suffering are illustrated.
One human response to the suffering of those we know is to flee. It is said that when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, “all the disciples left him and [fled] ran away” (Matthew 26:56). Indeed, one of the key themes of Holy Week and the passion of Jesus is the sense of abandonment that he experienced during his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. During his so-called trial, Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And when someone stated that he had been with this Jesus of Nazareth, Peter denied it and answered, “I swear that I don’t know this man!” (26:72). And as Jesus was hanging on the cross, his male disciples for the most part were nowhere to be found.
One reason that Jesus was left to stand alone, no doubt, was all those who followed him were afraid. They feared for their own lives, if it was determined that they were associated with this “Messiah figure,” this trouble maker, this possible insurrectionist who might attempt to gather forces to rise up against the powers that be. They feared for their lives.
But another reason that Jesus may have stood alone during his sufferings is the fact that standing close to someone in the midst of extreme suffering is not easy. It is difficult to stand by and watch someone suffer and feel helpless.
But there is also the feeling of inadequacy – of not knowing what to do or what to say; of not being able to fix things. God forbid that we should be asked hard questions of the one suffering about why this suffering come, or what is the meaning of it all, or why doesn’t God hear their prayers and heal them, and so on.
So when someone we know is in the midst of deep suffering, the easiest thing to do is to flee. “Out of sight, out of mind,” as the old saying goes.
A second response to suffering, as depicted in the passion story of Jesus, is to maintain a safe distance. Such is illustrated by the women who were “looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee and helped him (27:55). Such is the way that Matthew, Mark and Luke tell it, anyway. Some women were there, but not too close.
We, like the women, may be most comfortable keeping our distance as well from the suffering of those we know. We don’t flee completely, but we keep a safe distance physically and emotionally. It is much easier that way.
Now, in discussing this topic, I am in no way being judgmental, because the temptation to flee or maintain a safe distance from the suffering of others is common to all of us – yours truly included. It is human nature to shy away from suffering, or even the appearance of suffering. Over my 40 years of ministry, I have gone to stand beside numerous hospital beds of those who were suffering and near dying. It is never easy, and it certainly is not something any of us look forward to. I will come back to that thought in a moment.
But a third response to suffering that is depicted in the passion story of Jesus, at least as the gospel of John relates it, is the courage and willingness to stand close to those who suffer. John departs from the three synoptic gospels in reporting that “Standing close to Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister . . . and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25). As John tells it, these three women didn’t flee, they didn’t keep a safe distance, but they stood close by throughout Jesus’ ordeal of suffering and death.
That, according to the Caregiver’s Bible, is the response of the caregiver as well: to “be fully present and vested,” to “remain fully present, fully involved,” to “stand by the cross of suffering” as it were. Regarding the role of caregivers in standing close during suffering it is said, “When we stand this close to those who suffer we feel their pain and suffer as well. . . We cannot fix. Instead, we stand in the presence of suffering – in all our strength and in all our brokenness – and thereby transform suffering and make it holy. When we do this, we find ourselves, like Mary . . . standing on holy ground – watching, waiting, caring.”1
In this same vein of thought, one of our members passed on to me a copy of the book that the New Horizons Book Club had been reading titled on living, written by hospice chaplain Kerry Egan.2 Egan notes that the most powerful thing that she as a chaplain, as well as the most powerful thing that any of us can offer in the midst of someone’s suffering, is our presence. “The best thing to alleviate the suffering of the soul is the kindness of another human being,” Egan contends. And then one of the most poignant statements Egan has to offer: “There is power in being present with people who are dying.”
And “power in being present” brings me back to what I alluded to and promised to return to earlier. A call to rush to the hospital Emergency Room or ICU or Hospice bedside is never a call we want to receive. However, I am quick to admit that those times when I have had the occasion to offer an end-of-life prayer for or to be present with the terminally ill or dying, I have found those times to be of the most significant experiences I have had as a minister and/or friend. As the Caregiver’s Bible points out, in such times when I have been present with a family when a loved one passed away, I felt like I was standing with them on holy ground.
A few years ago, I ran into Bob Benning, who for a long time was CEO of Ridgeview Mental Health Center. Bob and George Mathews, who was the Chairman of our Church Board when I came to the United Church, were very close friends. George was the CEO at Methodist Medical Center while Bob was at Ridgeview. On the day in question that I ran into Bob, George had just learned that his lung cancer was terminal. And Bob shared with me that he had read and recommended to George a book titled Being Mortal, written by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School. Bob also suggested that it is a book I ought to read as well. The book is not an easy read, as it devotes a lot of time to case studies of those who were seriously ill or dying, as well as a lot of history on the development of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospice care, and so on. But in the book Gawande points out that in relating to those who have a terminal illness, the important thing is “You sit down. You make time.”3 And you listen. In other words, you stand close and are present.
As we commence this Holy Week, one of the things we remember is that Jesus for the most part bore his suffering alone. For whatever reasons, most of those who had been close to him fled or kept themselves at a safe distance. Most of his followers didn’t have the courage to stand close in his greatest hour of need.
But the truth is, at some point each of us will be faced with the challenge of standing close to a friend or loved one in their hour of suffering. It is not easy. It is not something that any of us want to consider. And to do so takes great courage. But standing close with one who is suffering is also one of the greatest gifts that we can offer. We can’t fix things. We can’t make them well. We can’t make everything all right. But what we can do is be present with them. And when we have the courage to stand close and be present with one who suffers, we find ourselves standing on holy ground. Amen.
1Caregiver’s Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008.
2Kerry Egan, On Living. New York: Riverhead Books, 2016. Pp. 68, 205, 23.
3Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014. P. 182.