Reflection for the twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time by Michelle Miller
“If you ever wrong them, they will cry out to me … I will surly hear their cry …”
The first reading from Exodus does not mince words. God is reminding the Israelites that how they treat those who suffer is being monitored.
But if we are not careful, we will read these lines and only walk away with feeling the wrath of God. We might only feel God’s glaring eye, and shutter at the idea that we will endure punishment for doing wrong to those whose burdens we do not attempt to make lighter.
But how else can we look at these scriptures?
“If they cry out to me, I will hear them, for I am compassionate.”
So not only does our God hear the cry of those on the margins…our God is compassionate … “com-passion” … to suffer with.
So what are we to do with a God like this … a God that “suffers with?”
We are the only religion that worships a crucified God. We are called to embrace powerlessness. Really? Do any of us really welcome or celebrate powerlessness?
Many of you know that I am now working with indigenous communities in the north, attempting to continue to build bridges of relationships between northern and southern Canadians. With every trip to the north, I know less and less. With every trip to the north, I see more of the complexity. With every trip, I feel more powerless. I don’t like it. And yet, isn’t it the only way?
To suffer-with is the ONLY road that I am called to journey with my indigenous brothers and sisters. “They,” or anyone else we encounter that seem to be on the margins, don’t need our guilt and shame. They need our compassion … we are each called to suffer with.
But what does that even mean, to suffer with?
For me, I know it means to shut up and listen. I was told early on, in visiting the north, to try NOT to lead in a conversation. To instead, try to let time and space be the guide of any conversation. What? Me, not lead a conversation? That’s like asking the sun not to shine! I had so many questions, so much curiosity, so much that I thought was compassion! But was it really?
So, I started to try it on my trips to the north. When I encountered a new person, I just breathed … allowed our presence with one another to be enough. Imagine. Then I had to learn not to join in their story, unwittingly attempting to match their experience in the name of friendship. That would not really be “suffering with.” No, I had to learn to just be. To admit in the depths of my being, my own powerlessness. It’s not a lesson that is coming easily.
There is a story of a priest who arrived in the north and tried for years to get some programming going. He worked very hard and got a few things off the ground, but nothing seemed to happen unless he was the one pushing it along. After a few years of exhaustion, he finally asked a few members of the community why he was the ONLY one that seemed to have any motivation. Why were they not following his lead???
“Father,” they finally told him, “you came to us with your cup already full. You did not come with an empty cup and allow us to fill it.”
How many of us walk around with our cups already full? We have no room for what life must teach us, especially from the margins. With a cup that is full, there is no room for real learning, no room for powerlessness, no room to suffer with.
How full is your own cup? What will you dare pour out to leave more room?
The great mystics and saints always asked for experiences of humiliation that would remind them that they were not in control. To me, there would be nothing worse. I guess I won’t ever be a mystic or a saint!
And yet, isn’t it through our powerlessness that we experience the very compassion of God that we are promised. I keep looking for another way… there has to be another way! The cross is just a symbol! So, while I’m busy demanding my own way, God’s presence is dripping around me … in the unlikeliest of places and in the unlikeliest of people.
As Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it, “Earth’s crammed with heaven … and every common bush afire with God. But only they who see … take off their shoes … the rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”
Who in your own life have you lost patience with? Bring them into your mind now and let them sit on your heart. What would it be like to put aside your ideas for them, your suggestions, your judgments of them? What would it be like to “suffer with” them?
In a culture that praises being relevant and powerful, what will it mean for any of us to embrace powerlessness?
Together, let us remind each other of the promise that has been made to us.
In our nothingness, we have everything.