[All public liturgies in the State of Ohio are currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. This will be one part homily and one part pastoral message to my parishioners.]
For completely disconnected reasons this week I had several encounters with people wondering the same question. Sometimes the question was explicitly asked and put in words, not to seek an answer but just to express emotions. Sometimes the question wasn’t on their lips but from everything else they said and did I knew it was in their mind. Someone’s loved one was put on a ventilator, some people are finding depression and anxiety creeping in during this pandemic, a family had to accept that a young mother with cancer was coming home on hospice. It is a question that comes from the experience of suffering and loss and it is a question that is older than Christianity itself and written about in the Old Testament. Where is God? In times of suffering and pain, where is God?
There are theologians and philosophers throughout the centuries that can answer this question more eloquently than I can and far more thoroughly than a homily has time for. Today I only hope to give you some thoughts to ground you in faith and I pray that this is not and will not be a question you face anytime soon.
In this Gospel as the two disciples walk the road to Emmaus they are suffering. The Gospel doesn’t give too much detail to it but they are suffering, they are sad. Jesus, still hidden from their eyes, asks what they are talking about and they stop and look downcast. They briefly speak of their hope that Jesus would redeem Israel, their disappointment that their leaders killed him, and their confusion that his grave is now empty. In this midst of this sadness where is God? Unknown to them Jesus has drawn near and walks with them. He talks with them, asks to know what their sorrows are. And then instead of snapping his fingers to reveal the glory of his resurrection he starts to teach them, he explains step by step what took place from the beginning so that their hearts could grow and understand. He does not force himself into their lives but lets them respond, let’s them experience a desire to have him remain with them.
So where is God in the midst of suffering? The mistake is to frame this question from the primary lens of control. Our human nature broken by sin often follows the temptation to control. We want to know everything and have the power to make everything the way we want, and we project that on to God. God has knowledge and power so He must control. It makes us think that when we are suffering He is not there because He is not in control. This also leads to pious and innocent responses that we should just “trust in God’s plan”, suggesting the answer is that He really is there and really is in control, so therefore He must be permitting what is taking place for some reason we don’t know.
In many ways trusting in God’s plan is not wrong… but I would say that idea is lacking as a response to suffering. God’s power and majesty is absolute, but the primary lens He has revealed Himself to us is not control, it is relationship. The first blessing He gave us was free will; He gave up his control over us not so that we could then control things but so that we could choose freely to love. Salvation history and the story of the patriarchs and prophets leading to Jesus Christ and the Cross and Resurrection was certainly His plan that He controlled, but it unfolds as relationship… as covenants, promises, forgiveness, love, and presence. And this is what Jesus does in the Gospel. He acts not from the lens of control but from the lens of relationship. He draws near, he listens, he comforts, and he remains.
So where is God in the midst of suffering? He is there with us even though sometimes hidden from our eyes. He knows our suffering, and even more than ourselves He understands the depths of our suffering. We are his children. He longs for the fulfillment of His kingdom, where there will be no more suffering and death, no more pain and sorrow. In the beginning he did not create us to experience those things, and now in His Son those things have lost their power over us and we await in this final age for the day when they will simply be no more.
In the good times of your life tell Christ that you want him to remain with you. In the hard times try your best to remember that what your heart cannot see is still true and you are not forgotten by God. And most of all, when your friends and loved ones have their own time of suffering do what Christ did in this Gospel. Draw near to them, listen to them, and walk with them.
And now some parish business…
We hope to have some guidelines early this week on what to expect for the next month or so. Every indication is that the State of Ohio will be announcing their detailed guidelines for a staged lifting of the stay-at-home order, and so far the Diocese of Cleveland has been quick to follow such announcements with memos to the parishes on what we should do. I’ll get an email out to the parish as soon as I can.
On Monday around 1:15pm the school and parish staff are going to drive around the neighborhood in a little parade, weather permitting. It’s been a trendy thing around the country for school kids to see their teachers and have something to look forward to, so why not?
Recycling dumpsters will return eventually. We always had the two dumpsters for paper recycling in the parking lot free for anyone to use (and the two trash dumpsters that are *not* free for anyone to use). The recycling company straight up ignored our calls to empty the dumpsters for several months, and then we looked at the records and they haven’t paid us for a few years. So we kicked them to the curb! We plan to go with another recycling company but it might take a little bit to get that setup.
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Homilies are meant to be heard, not read… and part of the Eucharistic liturgy, not words that stand alone. Please remember that no homily is written with this blog in mind.