You know how it is, you’re brushing your teeth, or looking out the window, or driving along absent mindedly, when all of a sudden you think of someone you haven’t thought of in years.
That happened to me just the other day. I thought of this man I used to know, a friend of my sister in law, named John. John was a quadriplegic, a spinal cord injury as the result of a dive into a lake, hitting rock bottom. He was married at the time of his accident and had a young son. After the accident he insisted on divorcing his wife so she could lead a life without having to take care of him. He retained joint custody of his son, who used to visit him regularly.
I met John while I was still in massage therapy school and needed to find a way to accumulate hours working with a marginalized population – people who would otherwise never receive the benefits of a therapeutic massage. I was fairly certain that the massage would be beneficial – increasing circulation to muscles that were atrophying from lack of use.
Anyway, for an entire quarter of school I went to John’s house once a week and gave him a massage. He sat in his wheelchair while I treated his head, neck, shoulders, arms, and feet –a seated treatment. I don’t remember much from those sessions. I remember his son being around, playing and asking questions. I remember a caretaker who was present, cooking, cleaning, helping. But mostly I remember John’s incredible attitude – he was always easy going, pleasant, cheerful. In spite of this incredible tragedy that had robbed him of the life he thought he was going to lead, he was loving, grateful and generous.
Our first Gospel reading this morning, the one proclaimed over the palm fronds as we prepared to bless them, ends with Jesus entering the temple in Jerusalem. And in that temple he stops and looks around. I wonder what memories were suddenly coming to him in that moment? Did he remember being a little boy who stayed behind in the temple when his family left to return home? Did he recall an even earlier memory, of being a baby blessed by Simeon and Anna in the walls of this temple? Did he think about the history of that temple and the memories it held – memories of a suffering people in search of God? Did he have an inkling of the suffering he would soon face? Or would that suffering hit him like a rock out of nowhere, as suffering usually does? Jesus stands in the sacred darkness of the temple and looks at everything.
Perhaps in that darkness, the everything that Jesus sees is more than the suffering he is about to face. And more than the suffering his people have faced, and will face when this very temple is destroyed a generation later. Perhaps, what Jesus sees is everything. The suffering of all. Everything, every ounce of suffering that was, and is, and will be. And he takes it all into himself before he turns and walks out.
All of us here know something about suffering, We can’t live life without knowing suffering intimately. It comes to us unbidden, unwanted. And when it comes, that deep suffering, we too stand in the darkness. Like Jesus in the temple, the rising of memories crash in on us. What are we to do with this? The idea of being like Jesus, of being able to face into suffering , ours or others, is beyond us. But, like Jesus, we have no choice. We too have to walk right into the suffering, the pain, the brokenness. There is no other way.
Life gives us no choice when it comes to encountering suffering. And rarely do we have much choice in how we move through the suffering. All we know at the time is that we have to get up, literally, or in John’s case metaphorically, and put one foot in front of the other, and take a step. Then another.
There is an old story from the Torah: a person asks the rabbi, “Why does the Torah tell us to place these words upon our hearts? Why does it not tell us to place holy words in our hearts? The rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.
Generally speaking we live with closed hearts, guarded as if the heart can be protected from suffering. But suffering bursts that illusion wide open, like a needle in a balloon or a nail in a tire.
Suffering can shatter our hearts to bits and pieces, like a glass crashing to the ground. And in this broken state some of us use our suffering to inflict suffering on others – sharp pieces here and there waiting to slice open a vein in the next person who crosses our path.
But, while we have no choice in whether we suffer or not, we do have a choice in HOW we suffer. Maybe not immediately, but at some point in time, we are able to make some choices about how our suffering affects us. That’s when suffering has the potential to break us open.
If we had read the verses that come just before the passion reading we heard this morning, we would have heard the story of the woman breaking open a jar of nard to anoint Jesus. This story appears in all four Gospels, and it’s a story about suffering with love. This kind of suffering opens us, deepens our compassion, touching our innermost being. This kind of suffering opens our hearts like a lid on a jar or a hand turning from a fist to a cup.
Today begins the holiest of weeks in the Christian year. This week we will walk with Christ. We will share a meal, and wash feet, we will face into the darkness holding vigil as we pray through the night, and we will find ourselves hanging on the cross, broken.
Perhaps, by the time a week has passed, this journey will help us see how the broken heart and the suffering and the cross, and God’s love are one and the same…
….for it is on that cross that God’s heart is not shattered, although one would expect that to be the case, but rather God’s heart is broken open for you, for me, for all of us, broken open and overflowing with love.