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On Suffering

with Rev. Alex Lang

July 18, 2021

Does God want you to suffer? Does God orchestrate difficulties in your life to teach you lessons? This Sunday, we discuss one of life’s most challenging questions: Why do some suffer more than others?

The Scripture

Luke 9:21-27

21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? 26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

27 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

Genesis 50:15-21

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

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Over the spring and summer we are doing a sermon series called Philosopher Kings. The term Philosopher Kings comes from the famous philosopher Plato who believed that those who have spent the time reflecting on how they navigate life are those worth following. This is not just true of trained philosophers, but of average ordinary people.

This sermon series examines the life philosophy of members of our congregation. Every sermon will begin with a life philosophy from one or more members of our congregation who submitted them to me back in January of this year. Then we will take these ideas and talk about the biblical scriptures that reflect on that philosophy. The goal of this series is to demonstrate that everyone has something to teach us about life, faith, love and our relationship with God.

Finish reading

Today, our life philosophy comes from Mario Alberico and I want to begin by telling you a little bit about Mario’s life and how he grew up. Mario was born into a family of first generation Italian immigrants and was the 7th of 9 children. Every day when Mario would get out of bed, he would stare at a still life painting that his mother had created of a vase and flowers. His mother was not an artist, but it was due to this painting that art began to intrigue him and call out to him from a young age. This fact becomes important later because Mario’s talent as an artist would become an emotional outlet for the tragedy that would come to define much of his early life.

The day before Mario turned seven, he watched his father die of a heart attack right before his eyes. It was the 4th of July and his father was playing in a softball game. He was only 42 years old at the time of his death. Mario’s mother, who now had to raise her children by herself, took over her husband’s insurance business (a business, by the way, she knew nothing about) so that the family could survive. And survive they did. Mario grew up, nurturing his talent as an artist, developing his skills under the tutelage of many inspirational high school art teachers who proved instrumental to his growth.

But what changed the trajectory of Mario’s art was when he developed an intense pain in his lower back at the age of 17. Tests revealed that Mario had developed a very rare form of bone cancer in his hip called Ewing’s Sarcoma. The survival rate for someone with this type of cancer is statistically very low and, if it spreads, there is no chance of survival. In the 1970s, Ewing’s Sarcoma was essentially a death sentence. Usually from the time of diagnosis, you have approximately two years until it takes you.

For the next two years, Mario would undergo dozens of chemo and radiation treatments. Mario entered a clinical trial for a new drug that was designed to specifically target Ewing’s Sarcoma. In the midst of all of this, Mario did a series of self-portraits, the first of which is on the screen. This self-portrait captured Mario’s pain and suffering in such a dramatic way that his art teacher felt it needed to be seen.

She sent it into several art competitions and eventually it won so many prizes that it ended up at the National High School Scholastic Competition in New York. It won first prize. At the same time that his art was being recognized by a larger audience, Mario’s health began to rebound and he came out of the treatments not simply in remission, but in his own words, “cured”. The final tests showed no sign of the cancer whatsoever, an extremely rare milestone for someone with Ewing’s Sarcoma.

Mario would go on to marry his wife, Claudia, and have 3 children. Though he didn’t pursue his art full time, Mario continued to do art on the side and has done art installations all around the country. But his art would take another turn when Mario’s younger brother, Martin, died of suicide at the age of 40. Mario told me that he was so mad at God after he found out about his brother’s death that he went out in his backyard and started yelling at God saying, “You could have prevented this! You could have done something and you chose not to.”

It is from this dialogue with God that Mario produced this cross that you see here. The cross is composed of pictures of Mario’s face that represent his feelings during this time period in his life. The emptiness, the anger, the rage, the frustration, the sadness – all of those emotions are represented in that cross.

As Mario has grown older, the effects of the chemo and radiation from his teenage years have taken a toll on his body. The last 10 years in particular have been very, very difficult, filled with immense pain and suffering—countless visits to the doctors, emergency room and surgeries. But if you’ve ever met Mario, if you’ve ever spent time with him, you wouldn’t necessarily know how much pain he is in because he’s really full of life. In spite of what he’s been through, he has this vitality to him that really grabs you.

Mario has this saying that I really like and it summarizes his life philosophy: He says, “Suffering transforms.” I love that because it captures so succinctly the beauty and the devastation of how suffering affects us all. When I look at Mario, there’s a part of me that feels so upset on his behalf at how disproportionately some people in this world are afflicted by death and suffering. Some must deal with so much more suffering than others. And yet, as much as Mario has suffered, this suffering is at the core of his life philosophy and, interestingly, is at the core of the Bible.

In order to explore this, I want to turn to our scripture reading this morning from the gospel of Luke where Jesus explains to his disciples that he must undergo great suffering. But Jesus is very specific that this suffering is not just reserved for him. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Jesus is essentially saying that if you’re going to be part of his movement, you need to be okay with the fact that self-preservation is not an option. If you sign up with Jesus, you need to be willing to lay everything on the line. You need to know that your life will be harder as a result of following Jesus, not easier. You need to know that the path you are walking is going to lead to sacrifice, suffering and possibly even death.

As you might imagine, this is not exactly the best advertisement for Jesus’ movement. If you were to go around and ask a random sample of people, “Would you intentionally choose a life where you had to sacrifice and suffer on continual basis?” I would be willing to bet 99 out of 100 of those people are going to say, “Uh, no thanks. I’ll pass.”

This is why most preachers either glaze over this scripture or they ignore it completely. They know that Jesus’ real message, his actual gospel, is something that most people don’t want to hear. So they water it down or dilute it completely to make it more palatable to the masses. It’s much easier to say, “Just believe in Jesus and you’ll go to heaven,” or even better, “Believe in Jesus and God will reward you with wealth and success.”

But this is not what Jesus says. Jesus says those who are willing to embrace suffering and hardship are his disciples. The question is why? Well, on the one hand, usually the best things in life come about as a result of taking the difficult path as opposed to the easy path. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Take healthy living through exercise. The easy path that many people take is to not exercise at all. Most people wake up in the morning, go to work and are so tired by the end of the day that all they want to do when they get home is eat a meal, relax and go to bed.

Unless you work at a job where you burn calories through physical labor, this type of lifestyle is very sedentary and could eventually result in health problems. The reason so many people have trouble breaking out of these sedentary patterns is because exercise is difficult. When you work hard at the gym, through doing cardio or lifting weights, it hurts. You will suffer. So if you don’t go to the gym with the mentality that physical discomfort is a good thing that will benefit you in the long run, then you’re not going to see any results.

This is true of so many aspects of life. The things that will benefit you the most are often the most difficult and require sacrifice. If you want to succeed in school, then you’re going to have to work hard to learn the information required to pass your classes. This means setting aside other activities you might want to do now so that you can study and learn the information. Sometimes this can result in mental suffering as you attempt to learn difficult ideas and concepts.

If you want to succeed in your relationships, then you have to work through the conflicts that will inevitably arise. Good relationships require work, effort and compromise. You have to be willing to discuss hard things and sacrifice some of your needs, wants and desires, for the benefit of your relationship. If you want to be respected in your profession, then you need to make moral and ethical decisions, even when those choices are not popular or in the best interest of your company. The best kind of life always comes as a result of taking the difficult path and being willing to sacrifice.

However, the other side of suffering is that through suffering that we gain important perspective on what matters most in life. Suffering tends to collapse the minor grievances that often occupy our thoughts. When life is going well, it’s very easy for us to become fixated on minor issues that are truly meaningless. However, when we suffer, we quickly come to understand the inconsequential nature of those problems compared with the very consequential nature of many of the issues that plague humanity.

This perspective is incredibly important because it is out of suffering that we find incredible meaning and purpose. This is the idea being promoted in Genesis when Joseph speaks to his brothers. If you remember, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. After many years, Joseph rises from a slave to become second most powerful man in Egypt. After being reunited with his brothers, Joseph says to them: “You intended it for evil, but God used it for good.”

The idea is that God does not want us to suffer, but suffering is an aspect of the world in which live. Suffering is inherent to the human condition. Therefore, when we do suffer, God wants to use that suffering for good. This is perhaps the most important aspect of the philosophy of suffering from the Bible. But to appreciate how God uses our suffering for good, you also have to understand that there are two different types of suffering in the world.

One type of suffering is the kind that the world imposes on us. Sometimes it happens through natural disasters; sometimes through diseases or cancer like what happened with Mario; and sometimes when another person intentionally tries to hurt us or when we intentionally engage in behaviors that hurt ourselves (like Mario’s brother’s suicide). In my opinion, all of these represent suffering that God does not want us to endure because it hurts God’s spirit to see us suffer in that way.

The other kind of suffering comes as a result of us choosing to sacrifice for the benefit of others. These are the situations in which we are willing to suffer because we believe that suffering will benefit others in the long run. A good example of this is with our PADS program for the homeless in our area. When PADS is running, we provide them with food and shelter at our church once a week. This requires people who are willing to stay up late, give up their normal routines and forego their creature comforts to care for the homeless staying the night.

This type of sacrifice represents the kind of suffering that God does want us to endure because it furthers God’s love in the world. When you are willing to sacrifice and suffer to benefit those who are struggling and in need, then you help to create God’s kingdom on earth.

Now both types of suffering have the potential for God to use them for good. When we’re talking about the suffering we choose to engage in for the benefit of others, that suffering transforms us by molding us further into the image of Jesus. When you carry your cross by sacrificing your resources (time, talent and treasure) to help those less fortunate, you find deep beauty in connecting deeply with your fellow human beings.

When we’re talking about the suffering that the world imposes on us, this type of suffering has the potential to allow us to find deep beauty within ourselves. This is exactly what happened with Mario. God took his suffering and used it for good by giving Mario profound insight into the purpose and meaning of life, which then was expressed through his art. This brings me back to Mario’s life philosophy: “Suffering transforms.”

It is an odd paradox of human life that out of terrible suffering comes amazing beauty. One would think that the opposite would be true; that if you lived a good life, where you are loved and nurtured and never experienced anything difficult or challenging, that you would have a deep appreciation for the world. But that’s not what happens because you don’t know what you don’t know. Life is a matter of contrast. You can’t truly appreciate the goodness in the world unless you’ve experienced hardship. The greater one’s hardship, the greater your appreciation for the beauty life has to offer.

Indeed, I have come to believe that one of the reasons why Jesus teaches us that we must embrace sacrifice is because it is through suffering that we become more attuned to God’s presence in the world. Therefore, even though no one wants to suffer, the truth is that our suffering opens our eyes to seeing God in the world around us. And this is what I want to leave you with this morning. We, as Christians, must change our attitude towards sacrifice and suffering.

If we are going to meet Jesus’ expectations, it’s important for us to allow our suffering to transform us into the people who God intended for us to be. If we resist that transformation, if we run from suffering or refuse to learn from it, then we can never fully live out the gospel and create God’s kingdom on earth. This is a hard message, but frankly it’s an important one that allows us to bring to fruition the words spoken in the last chapter of Genesis: You intended it for evil, but God used it for good. Amen.