St. Philips Episcopal Church, Marysville, WA
Twenty Third Sunday After Pentecost
Readings - Episcopal Church
First reading Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Second reading Jeremiah 31:7-9
Gospel Mark 10:46-52
Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Sermon - Fr. Dan Duval
It seems that we have been hearing quite a bit about suffering these days. Over the last few weeks we have been hearing about suffering here at church. We hear about it daily if we are watching the news and if we are paying attention when we go out, we see it with or own eyes.
Suffering obviously is nothing new. It was happening in the days of the old testament thousands of year ago. It was happening in the time of Jesus two thousand years ago, and it is still happening today. No one can live a life untouched by suffering, either personal, familial, community or global. It is all around us.
Todays readings seem to be asking "how do I respond to suffering?" How do I respond to my own suffering and how do I respond to the suffering of another? Job and those around him seem to respond in fairly typical ways. He shares his suffering with friends and they are supportive for a bit, then they start asking what Job has done to deserve such fate. They don’t seem to be in it for the long haul. Maybe they don’t know how to be in the midst of such suffering that goes on and on.
It seems to be a fairly human response to another’s suffering, to want it to go away. We are a compassionate species that way. However, we seem to want it to go away fast. Our tolerance for suffering seems to be time or intensity limited. When suffering becomes too great or too long and we are unable to find a way to fix it, we resort to other ways of being in its midst without having to feel the full impact. Prolonged suffering is difficult. When we suffer ourselves or are exposed to long term suffering of others we tend to become calloused. I can’t do anything about it so I learn to live with it and distance it or make excuses for it. I begin to look the other way, or as the friends of Job, we begin to blame those suffering for their fate.
The term compassion fatigue is a real phenomena. It is defined by the web site compassionfatigue.org as “… a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” By this definition, when we come in close contact with another’s suffering, we too, seem to develop signs of suffering. In order to protect ourselves, we fall back on rules or beliefs that help us explain why the suffering happens that keeps us at a distance. The homeless should just get a job. That person should just stop drinking. Their sexuality or gender presentation is a choice. They could stop it if they wanted to. The further we can push the suffering person from us the better we feel. When the suffering person is someone we love, we tend to hang in there longer. We tend to push ourselves to that point of feeling their pain and either ignore the effects it has on us or we begin to not be so compassionate in our caregiving. We then can feel guilty and enter into a cycle of love, guilt and self recrimination. None of which is about the suffering person but about our own capacity to be in and around pain.
This seems to be a natural response that we see in Job’s friends and in the disciples of Jesus as they attempted to silence the blind man’s cries for Jesus. Jesus had better things to do than to care for one blind person by the side of the road, who according to the belief’s of the time warranted suffering for some reason or other and deserved his fate. Jesus, after all, had an insurrection to plan. Or so his followers thought. Jesus then heard the blind man and said, “bring him to me.” Jesus chose to see the man’s suffering. Jesus chose to be in the presence of suffering. As Jesus was human it makes sense that he would have the same tendencies to become uncomfortable with suffering. He saw so much of it in his lifetime. He lived in an occupied land that was ruled by force and threats. He lived among the poor and challenged the rich who lived in their palaces distanced from the realities of how people suffered. Jesus knew the tendency to turn from suffering. He chose to turn toward suffering and to alleviate it where he could. He actually called this supposedly tainted man to him and asked what he wanted. What humbleness this interaction must have taken for both men. The blind man reduced to begging for help when none wanted to or could help him. And a man of rising power being willing to stop and give his attention and compassion to an untouchable.
Stories of St Francis of Assisi’s conversion from rich playboy to the life of a saint, came about during similar circumstances. Francis, as most people of his time, was appalled and terrified of lepers. Lepers were contagious and were relegated to a life outside the community where they could not infect anyone. They were the lowest of the low, through no fault of their own. These were people outcast because they were sick. It reminds me of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Francis learned to embrace the lepers and to allow himself to turn toward their suffering. He did not turn away as was socially acceptable at the time. Rather he turned toward them. Did he suffer from compassion fatigue? Most likely. Did he find a way to continue trying to sooth the suffering of others? Most definitely.
So, how do we continue to see as Jesus and Francis? How do we continue to turn towards suffering and not protect ourselves from it. How do we watch the news and hear of a synagogue shooting where 11 people died and not only feel bad in the moment, but continue to turn toward those who we might otherwise forget about shortly after watching the news and going back to our daily lives? Facing suffering in the case of Job, Jesus, the blind man, St Francis and numerous others led them all to a deeper conviction and knowing of God. The ability to love that deeply and to get through the discomfort is not an easy task and it takes suffering on our part.
How willing are we to sit with someone who is suffering day after day even if there is nothing that can stop the pain? How do we allow the suffering of another to transform us as it did for Job, Jesus, the blind man and numerous saints?
One thing we know, that this is harder to do alone as the task is great. We know that the continued support of our friends and community is important to our ability to hang in there with suffering. To make our task easier, it helps to seek out others as foolish and brave, so together we can turn toward suffering and hold each other in compassion so we might continue this way of life and commitment.
Let us in all of our own brokenness, fear and compassion fatigue lean on each other to strengthen ourselves so we can look suffering in the eye and embrace it for the good of us all and may God, Jesus and the saints that have gone before us watch over us as we endeavor to follow them in this great undertaking.