Matthew 16: 21-28.
I have been more aware of a terrible inconsistency recently.
I think I was most recently made aware of it with the Grenfield Tower tragedy and in particular one of the grievances that seemed to be being said a lot there. About how poor people were ignored for so long. Corners were cut because the poor people just weren’t important. The council seemed to be happy to cut the rates so that their very wealthy residents felt better about themselves, and this was paid for through cheaper work done to the council houses. Including cheaper safety measures for the flat renovations. And 79 people died. There is the feeling that poor people’s lives are less important than rich people’s lives.
For instance how many here could name five people that died at Gernfield? Yet over the last two weeks we have had millions of pounds in TV production costs reminding us of how much we lost when Diana died 20 years ago.
Not only do rich people’s live mean more than poor people’s lives. There is the feeling that the lives of Westerners are just more important than the lives of those that don’t live in the west.
And this is reflected in the news and how much coverage we give to things.
Spain. Couple of weeks ago there is a terrorist incident and 14 were killed. It was in the news for days on end. A similar incident happened in Afghanistan where 32 people were killed and it didn’t even get on the news. In fact in August alone over 100 people have died in Afghanistan in terrorist attacks and we don't even bother with it. Never gets on the news. Because we are more interested in what happened in Spain than what happened in Afghanistan.
If 14 deaths in a terrorist attack are really important, and I don’t deny that they are, each life was a tragedy, then why is 32 deaths in another terrorist attack not more important?
Hurricane Harvey hitting Houston. Huge on the news at the start of the week. Everyone worried about how they will cope. And it is right that we are concerned for them. When writing this sermon there had been two deaths but there had been substantial damage done to homes and property. Many, many, people will have their lives turned upside down and it will take years for the economy and the individuals to recover. And it is right that we worry for them and pray for them and that they take up so much time in the news.
But if that is important, then why are the Bangladesh floods not more important. Half the country was flooded, 1,200 people died. 8 million people affected.
I think there is a reason for this.
I think we spend our time avoiding suffering.
I think that we design our life to avoid any personal suffering that we can. So we avoid listening to how bad others have it, we avoid the struggles that other parts of the world face. Because we can pretend that we don't need to face it.
But when something is closer to hand, something hits someone who we think is like us, then that is dangerous, that catches our attention. Because if it can happen to them, then it could happen to us.
We are very fortunate.
Due to a fluke of being born at the right time and in the right place we have it pretty easy.
My granddaughter got her 10 spot test last week. This is when the nurse comes in and takes some blood and puts it into ten spots and they then go away to be tested for 10 metabolic disorders. It won’t be too long before she gets inoculations to protect her from various illnesses.
If she happened to be born in another part of the world she may well have just been left at the side of the road to die because she was a girl and not a boy.
A minister in a neighbouring church hasn't been too well and has to wait a three to four weeks for an angiogram to see if there are problems with the way her heart is functioning. If she was born in another part of the world her ability to have any diagnosis, let alone treatment, could be dependant solely on how much money she had.
We came along to worship this morning and we might have been inconvenienced if we couldn't get a decent car park space. In another part of the world admitting to being a Christian, trying to get to worship, meeting with other Christians could be an offence that would end up in prison without a trial. In some countries just being a Christian are grounds for receiving the death penalty.
We have it easy.
And because we have it easy we try to protect what we have.
Instead of realising how much we have been given and being phenomenally generous, we tend to horde what we have to make sure that the life we have is the life we continue to have.
We compare our lives with the extreme 1% and say that they are mega rich and we are poor, rather than compare ourselves with the rest of the 95% of the world’s population and realise that we are rich beyond their dreams and we have so much to be thankful for.
But a side effect of that is how we deal with suffering.
We avoid it.
We fear it.
We run away from facing it.
We do anything we can to get rid of it so that our protected lifestyle can get back to what it was.
We regard suffering as something that is an inconvenience to our life that should have nothing to do with our life.
Look at something as simple as a headache.
What do we do when we have a headache?
We take tablets to get rid of the headache.
That way we can get back to doing the really important stuff we were doing, like watching soaps on TV.
Now I'm not saying that is wrong.
Actually I probably am saying that that is wrong.
Maybe we are asking the wrong question when we suffer.
The question we ask is, ‘What is happening to me?’ and ‘How can I stop this?’
And the answers are, ‘I’m having a headache, and I need to take a tablet.’
Maybe the question that we should be asking is, ‘Why is this happening to me?’
And that means reflection.
We don’t reflect on our lives. Suffering allows us, forces us, to stop and reflect.
Maybe the reason we are having a headache is because the pace of our life is far too fast, that we are working hours that are detrimental to our health, that we are stressed because we are avoiding emotional problems in our life, that we have a conflict going on that needs to be dealt with, maybe the headache is a sign that there is something more serious going on within our body that needs to dealt with.
Look at our passage today.
Jesus is talking to the disciples about their last journey to Jerusalem. He is telling them what is going to happen.
And it doesn't sound good.
Jesus is talking about being arrested, tortured, crucified.
And Peter, head disciple, takes Jesus aside and tells him that it should be avoided.
And we would fully understand that principle.
Why would Jesus need to go through that suffering?
Why should Jesus go through that suffering?
Isn’t God meant to protect Jesus?
Doesn’t God love Jesus?
If that’s the case then why does Jesus need to go through all this stuff?
I think, and it is only a thought, that secretly we would hope that Jesus didn’t need to go through suffering, because if Jesus didn't need to go through suffering then neither would we. We could get away with a pain free, prefect life.
But Jesus does go through suffering.
And no matter how hard we try, we can’t avoid it.
So how do we deal with it?
How do we deal with suffering?
I think Jesus felt that suffering was a place where God could be felt.
Suffering was a part of being in an imperfect world, suffering is part of living in this imperfect world where things don’t always go the way they should.
I think Jesus believed that suffering wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because through suffering we could grow closer to God.
Suffering wasn’t the thing we should focus on, it was how we deal with suffering that should be our focus.
For instance, I know that sometimes the reason I am suffering is because of something I have done. My suffering is my own fault. I have done something to annoy one of the family and I am too stubborn to admit I have done wrong, so they take the huff, and people take sides and everyone is in a mood.
And when that is the case the suffering is part of my own imperfection.
And it is like a warning sign from God that I am wandering off the path that he has set for me. And that I need to do stuff to get back on that path.
It’s a bit like holding your hands over a fire. The pain is warning your body to get the hand away from the fire. The pain isn't a bad thing; it is a god thing because it tells your body what to do to stay healthy.
But what of other suffering when it isn't our fault?
Sometimes suffering can remind ourselves of what we have lost, but also what we have had and what we have. I was visiting a woman who suddenly lost her daughter who was only 41, and she was understandably stuck in the grief. But we talked about her daughter, shared memories, and reminded ourselves that the suffering was a sign of love, of meaning. Because if her daughter had meant nothing to her then she wouldn't feel the loss. But that then made us think of the other children and grandchildren that she had, of how she needed to treat them, honour them as they lived, appreciate what they gave to her life, what she could give to their life.
Sometimes suffering can make us change our life, it forces us to reconsidered our priorities..
My dad was a work-aholic, and we as his children didn't really see all that much of him. It wasn't that he was a bad father, in many ways he was really good. But his focus was getting in the wages so that we could have the life he felt that we should have. That we could have holidays, even if it was just caravan holidays. That we could have the correct school uniform, decent food to eat. But that meant working all the hours he could.
And to be honest I don't think that dad would have changed his ways ever, he had a pattern of life and that was that.
Until he was diagnosed with cancer.
Then he realised that his grandchildren were growing up and he hardly saw them. He didn't want to be rushed in his relationships any more. His priorities changed, because if time was limited, then time with the family was more important than time at his work.
For others suffering makes them more compassionate. There was a family in my probation year whose son fell off a wall in Spain and had severe head injuries from which he never really recovered. And one of the reasons he never recovered was that, at that time, were no head injuries unit in Scotland. Through their endeavours a head injuries unit was created in Glasgow. And they would admit that they would never have bothered working so hard for something like that if it wasn't for what their son went through. Suffering didn’t destroy their heart; suffering gave their hearts a opportunity to grow.
For Christ, he realised that for many in the world, the cross of suffering would be the way that people would see the love of God. That if God was willing to go through that for our sake, and that there would be nothing that God wouldn't do to help us. And that level of love would inspire them to follow such a loving God.
So suffering wasn’t to be feared, it could be used for good.
And that’s the journey I think Jesus asks us to walk.
Not a life where we avoid suffering and numb ourselves to the plight of the world. But a life that feels, and in feeling sees the good in the world that can be done, sees the good that is being done.
A life that sees meaning and purpose in what we do.
A life that can reflect and grow closer to God, and to others.