Ever since my niece became a religion reporter for The Washington Post, I’ve gotten a daily news summary in my mailbox called The Post Most. It’s a collection of headlines about what is going on in the nation and the world. Included with the subscription is a weekly email called The Optimist. It’s a collection of good news – stories about acts of kindness and generosity, stories of people working together for the common good. It’s sent out as kind of an antidote to the daily news briefing. And it’s a lot shorter.
When you compare all the bad news with the good news, it’s easy to give in to pessimism and cynicism, to the view that it’s a dog eat dog world where no good deed goes unpunished. You can see that around the globe with the rise of authoritarian leaders who espouse nationalism, often grounded in ethnic or economic resentment. People are giving up on the norms and assumptions that shaped the post-World War II world, the institutions that were put in place to ensure that people worked together rather than take up arms to resolve their differences. In Hungary and Turkey, in the United Kingdom and in the US, people question what they’ve gotten from cooperation and working together, drawing inward because they feel like the world is a bad place that gives raw deals, and if you don’t look out for Number One, then you’re screwed.
That’s the dilemma the writer of Hebrews addresses. Why can’t we work together? Why do our dreams fall apart? Psalm 8, which he quotes, states how God made human beings a little lower than angels, crowned them with glory and honor, and subjected all things under their feet. The people in his church read that and said, Yeah, right. Then why is our church struggling? Why are the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? Why are we so polarized? And on a more personal level, if God thinks so much of us, then why did my beloved get cancer?
To answer those questions, the author of Hebrews steps back and takes a long view. Sometimes you have to do that to understand what’s going on, to see things as they really are.
One day last summer my cousin Janet posted on Facebook that when she got up that morning it was the first time in 35 years that she was not on her way to work on the first day of school. She had just retired after 35 years of teaching second grade in the same elementary school in Marlboro County, South Carolina, one of the poorest rural counties in America. Janet loved her job, and her students. Every time I saw her at family gatherings, she’s talked about her students. She’s told about some wise insight from a seven-year-old girl or how proud she was of a little boy had overcome some challenge and learned to read. She also had stories about children who tried her patience and about parents who seemed to make it their goal to make her job harder. Many of her students came from homes that didn’t value learning. Some had parents who were incarcerated. In recent years, she’s had more and more who came from homes that were ripped apart by opioid addiction. Janet always held her students accountable for their behavior and their academic performance. But she always saw the broader context of their lives. She knew they were subject to forces they couldn’t control, forces that affected their behavior and kept them from being their best. She had to step back and take the long view to understand what was going on when her classroom got chaotic.
According to the book of Genesis, God created the world out of chaos. When everything was without form and void, God brought order. Scientists have described how over the course of billions of years the galaxies were formed from the chaotic explosion of the Big Bang. But there’s another force that works to return what is ordered and functional back to chaos and disorder. We see that in our own bodies. From birth we grow, we get stronger, our bodies develop and we can do marvelous things with our legs and our hands and our brains. But then, at some point, we realize that things don’t work the way they once did. We move more slowly; our recall is not so quick. It’s like they’re regressing back to dust.
The Bible sees that decline and weakening as part of a larger force at work which it describes as the power of death. In some places it’s depicted in personal terms like Satan or the devil. The Apostle Paul calls them powers and principalities. It is everything that works to undo what God fashioned at creation, including human beings whom God made in God’s own image. It’s not only the weakening we feel in our own bodies, not only the darkness that takes away our loved ones by heart attack or stroke or cancer. It’s also the power that is at work to cause pain and suffering and injustice in the world. It’s the poverty and the heritage of racism that holds back cousin Janet’s students. It’s the greed and violence and dishonesty that breeds hatred and suspicion and keeps us from being the marvelous creatures that Psalm 8 describes.
That gap between what God made us to be and what we are is not hard to see. Like the psalmist, we can look up into a star filled sky to see God’s majesty. We can look at the intricate beauty of a flower or the splendor of a sunset and be filled with wonder at what an awesome God made us. We can see what human beings have accomplished and be amazed at our potential. But just seeing how great God is doesn’t do us much good when confronted by the powers of death and chaos. So, God confronted head on those powers that work to do us harm. God came to us in Jesus to show us what it looks like to live fully as God has made us, and not only that, he subjected himself to the power of suffering and death.
On the cross Jesus took on himself all our human failures and disappointments, all our suffering, even our death. When we say that Jesus died for us, we mean that in his death we are free to be the human beings God made us to be, a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor. So, instead of getting dragged down by all the bad things that are going on around us, we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He is the one who is the example of what it means to be human, and we know him because he shares our suffering.
And isn’t it in suffering that people so often meet Jesus? That’s why you so often find the church in places of suffering. Throughout history, churches have built hospitals and sent medical missionaries to places of suffering. One of the biggest ministries of the Presbyterian Church is Presbyterian Disaster Assistance that is working to bring relief to families in the Carolinas who have suffered from Hurricane Florence and working with global partners to bring relief to victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia. Right here at Eastminster, the deacons make sure that we care for those who are suffering from illness and those who are not able to get around, and Stephen Ministers provide care and support to those whose lives have been upended by grief of pain.
A number of years ago I represented the PCUSA at a meeting of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan in South Sudan, a country that even then was torn apart by war. One pastor at the meeting, a man in his thirties, had baptized 3000 people in the previous year. I asked him how he explained such a large number of people giving their lives to Christ. He said, “You in the West have your TVs and your computers and all your luxuries to protect you from the Holy Spirit. Here in Sudan, we have none of those things. All we have is Jesus.” Sometimes it’s only when everything else is stripped away that we can see the real source of our strength and our life.
We can confront death and suffering because we know that Jesus has overcome them. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow. We don’t have to give in to cynicism of anger or hatred because we know him. He is our model for the people God made us to be.
At this table we see how Jesus’ body was broken for us and his blood shed for us. We eat this bread and drink this cup, and his suffering becomes one with our own. We bring to this table all those things that keep us from being the person God has made us to be. We die with Christ and he raises us to be with him as new people. Here we don’t see the world through cynicism or hatred. Here we see each other as Jesus sees us, brothers and sisters whom he loves. He breaks down every wall that divides us one from another and joins us with people of every nation and every age at this his table. We define ourselves by the One who unites us, not those things that divide us. We take the long view, the view of Jesus.