When our kids were very little, they would launch into the rapid fire whys: one why after another. It usually started with some simple conversation. I might point out how the leaves had started falling off the trees. One of the kids would ask, "Why?" I would answer something like, "because that's what leaves do when it gets colder" to which they would respond, "Why?" "Because it helps the tree survive." "Why?" and the cascade of whys continued. One of my favorite questions they asked is “Why is the inside of our mouth wet?” I’ve asked a lot of questions since I was old enough to talk, but that one never came up!
As we get older the questions don't go away, they just go under cover. When someone asks how we are we don't immediately respond with, "I've been stumped by the event horizon of black holes," or "I just don't know why my life isn't going the way I expected." This isn't a botany or a physics class, but this is a place where we ask the important questions of life. I invite you to explore some significant questions with me through this sermon series called, "Why?" We probably won’t get to the definitive answers, but let’s ask together.
Today we take on a big one - Why do people suffer? That’s a big question for a small sermon. The Winter Bible Institute that begins today following the service will re-examine suffering through art, through views of violence and suffering in Christian traditions, through the impact of scriptural texts on ideas about suffering in communities and in national discourse, and finally through exploring what we mean when we talk about Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. You won’t want to miss this five week institute.
As you know, the question of suffering often leads to questions about God. People in physical or emotional pain have asked me, "Why is God doing this to me? Is God punishing me?" Witnessing or experiencing deep suffering, personal or national trauma, and pervasive injustice makes our souls wail, “Why?!” Sometimes that cry bursts out so the world can hear it. Sometimes it shrieks in silence.
When has your spirit cried out like that? Before we had children, when I feared we might not be able to have children, after many months of waiting and worrying, we were expecting. We were ecstatic. Then I had a miscarriage. I was filled with pain, fear and anger. I railed at God, “If you can’t prevent this, what good are you?” When has your spirit cried out? When have you asked, "How can there be a loving God and such suffering?"
Cultures and scriptures struggle with these perennial questions. We hear many assumptions about God batted around in popular culture. For example, “If you do the right things in life, good things will happen and God will protect you from pain.” Put another way: “Only good things happen to good people.” Another belief I’ve heard a lot is “Everything happens for a reason.”
Do scriptures and the Christian faith support those assumptions? First, does the Bible show us that only good things happen to good people? The Bible struggles with this question too. Deuteronomy says that if we worship God and follow what God calls us to do, we will prosper and have a good life. Yet, the whole book of Job in the Bible is dedicated to just this question. It’s the
story of a good man who loses everything. His friends try to make it his fault. They try to find some reason for his widespread calamity. Today, often we still blame victims of tragedy or injustice.
The Israelite people suffer under slavery in Egypt for 400 years. Later, the kingdoms of Israel are invaded and people are taken into captivity. The Psalms are full of communal railing against God for hardships in life.
The life of Jesus in the New Testament is a story filled with persecution and death. In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew today we hear Jesus calling out to God, asking why God has abandoned him.
So, the assumption "that all will go well in our lives if we love God" is not fully supported in scripture. What about that other common saying: "All things happen for a reason." People search for the biblical reference for that saying. They can’t find it, because it's not in the Bible. It implies that God plans everything that happens to us and in the world. While there is this strand of thinking in the Bible, I'm sure we wouldn’t say that God willed the murder of innocent children in Pakistan, the horror of the Holocaust, or the killings in Ferguson and New York. Once I heard someone in another state say that God spared their state from the impact of hurricane Katrina. Does that mean that God wanted the destruction and death that came to other states?
Horrible things happen for reasons, but I don’t believe they come out of God's acting will. Natural forces cause hurricanes and earthquakes. Illness is part of living in a physical body. Human will, not God's will, caused the holocaust and other human atrocities and injustice.
I was so saddened to learn that biblical scholar Marcus Borg died this week. His perspective on God and Jesus have always spoken to my heart. He writes how our actions are often contrary to God’s desires: “We live in a world still under the sway of "the powers" - powers in individual and collective lives that lead us away from God and God's passion for life on earth.”
We are not promised a pain-free life and it is not God’s will that we suffer, but where does that leave us? That’s what I wondered when I was in the greatest pain. I prayed and pleaded with God. I wish I could tell you that I had a transformative experience of the divine that strengthened me, gave me hope, and lifted my heart. That didn’t happen. What did happen? Friends stayed close. Colleagues listened. People cried with me and shared their pain. And I found the way forward -- through the messy mystery of love and care I was shown. Others lived God’s answer to my prayers. I discovered I was not alone my suffering.
That is what the scripture underscores: we are never alone, even if our friends fail us. Job loses everything except his faith and God's presence with him in his suffering. An overarching theme of scripture is a people who struggle and suffer, but who find strength and renewal through God's presence with them. Jesus' last words in Luke's Gospel are "Into your hands I commit my spirit" or as Eugene Peterson translates it: "I place my life in your hands!"
Marcus Borg goes on to say, “In the midst of all this, there is a source of sustenance that can help us in the darkest night.”
That’s what The Gospel of John proclaims: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” I knew that verse when I was struggling, but others helped me believe it.
Kelly Clem knows about darkness. She lost a lot more than I did. Maybe you remember hearing what happened. She says, "I was the pastor of Goshen United Methodist Church in 1994. It was Palm Sunday. We were halfway through the service and a tornado dropped down and destroyed the entire church. Twenty people were killed. One of those killed was my 4-year-old daughter Hannah. I went towards where Hannah was. I did find her but she was unconscious and I just talked to her and I patted her and reassured her that I was here." The emergency workers weren't able to revive Hannah. Even at the time Pastor Kelly knew that the destruction and death wasn't God's will. Very soon after the tragedy she was asked how this affected her theology. "I’m not feeling very theological right now, but I know I don’t blame God. God has been with us throughout all of this. God did not make this happen." Later she reflected "There’s been so much healing in my life. One friend in particular is my friend Dorothy Ann Webster who came and helped me..." Several years later Pastor Kelly went on to help her colleague and friend Dorothy, after her church in Harvest, Alabama was hit by a tornado.
How do we experience God’s light-giving presence with us in the darkness? We hold a candle for each other. Our why turns to we. I held on for dear life to the hands and hearts that reached out to me and they brought me back from despair. We find divine company in the circle of love around us, within us. It’s not easy. It’s not simple, but it is persistent, this sacred movement toward life and love. Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God and tells us it’s within us (Luke 17:20-21). It moves us from why to we. Paul knew that when he wrote "You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27).
God's will works through you and me even when we are wounded. Through our presence with each other we remind each other what we hear in Psalm 46: that God is very present in times of trouble, offering refuge and strength. So, we don't have to be afraid even if our whole world changes or the mountains shake in the depths of the sea.
I saw the movie Selma this past week. One of the most moving moments of the film for me was when the body of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot and killed on a peaceful march, was lying in the morgue. His grandfather was there to identify the young man. Through his tears, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says, “There are no words. But I can tell one thing for certain: God was the first one to cry for your boy.” God is always the first one to cry. Use your life, even your deepest struggles to work for justice and healing, to remind someone else: God is always the first one to cry. Amen.
Sources: God Provides, Doesn't Protect, by Marcus Borg, April 17, 2007; http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith Why? Making Sense of God's Will, by Adam Hamilton Selma, 2014; Director: Ava DuVernay; Writer:Paul Webb