“When Bad Things Happen, Part 1”
Luke 13:1-5, John 9:1-7
“Sermon idea—If God is all loving & all powerful, how can he allow suffering from natural disasters?” received 6/26/17
Once again, I need to start by thanking those who have submitted ideas for sermons in July and August. After thinking a lot about the suggestion for today’s sermon I decided to devote this sermon and next week’s to what theologians call “theodicy,” that is,”the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil.” [Oxford Dictionaries, accessed on line 7/12/17] Or “a theological construct that attempts to vindicate God in response to the evidential problem of evil that militates against the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity.” [Wickipedia, accessed 7/12/17]
This really is the central question of faith. It is one that probably everyone struggles with. In late 2004 there was a tsunami following an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Somewhere around a quarter million people died or are missing. In terms of casualties it was the worst natural disaster in recorded history. A man who was a member of this congregation at that time withdrew his membership, because he could not worship a god who would allow something like that to happen.
Right here in this congregation we have been struggling for nearly a year and a half, trying to make sense of Moriah Munsch’s death in a traffic accident last March. Moriah was a child of this congregation. We watched her grow up; she had her whole life in front of her. How could God let something like that happen? Where is God when disaster strikes?
How do we make sense of tragedies of this magnitude? How can we worship and serve a god we believe to be all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful when innocent people suffer and die?
I’ll start by saying the Bible does not speak with one voice about this. For example, in the Book of Deuteronomy, which records the very end of the wandering of the Hebrews, right up to the verge of their finally crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land, the Lord reminds them repeatedly to observe the Lord’s statues, laws and ordinances when they settle, “so that it may go well with you.” It appears that God is offering a reward for their obedience.
Yet the author of Ecclesiastes is puzzled that the wicked prosper and the virtuous and innocent suffer. If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, you’d think that the wicked would get theirs, wouldn’t you? A lot of people believe in Karma, it’s not a Christian term, but a lot of us use it as a sort of default position, that somehow, the great balance of universal justice will find a way for people who do bad things to be punished. Those of you who remember the sitcom Maude, might remember the title character saying, “God will get you for that, Walter,” to her husband.
The Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, held a belief called ”Deism,” which basically believed that the universe was created by an unimaginably generous Creator, who cannot intervene in human history. Deists did not believe in the possibility of miracles. The Jefferson Bible, which is still given to US Senators, was created by Thomas Jefferson by taking all the miracles out of the gospels. Jefferson saw Jesus Christ as a brilliant teacher, but not as the miracle-working Son of God.
If you’re a Deist there is no problem with theodicy. God made the world and left us on our own with it.
The plot that the Book of Job is built around is that God tests Job to see whether he renounces his faith in God after God tests, or afflicts Job with all kinds of loses. Does God send difficulty to people to test us? Are difficulties sent by God to test our faith? Are they part of God’s plan?
Peter Marty, editor of The Christian Century, does not think so. Last month he wrote this:
I was visiting a historic church some years ago and picked up a short history of the congregation. I learned that its first sanctuary had burned to the ground on December 3, 1903. “No doubt, to train his people for greater things,” the account read, “it pleased the Lord to reduce this splendid edifice of worship to a gutted, smoldering ruin by a disastrous fire.” Who would have guessed that God delights in burning churches down? The familiar spiritual catchphrase of our day, that “God has a plan for everything,” may have been absent from the narrative. But the idea was there all the same.
Pious clichés often use God to explain away difficult or tragic circumstances. My sense is that language of “God’s plan” brings a measure of comfort to many who feel a loss of control in a universe that is not always safe, predictable, or friendly. Assigning blame or credit to God for outlandish things can make hard or inexplicable situations suddenly seem reasonable. Christian Century, June 21, 2017, page 3.
When bad things happen, I believe it is human nature to try to make sense of it, or to find something good that comes as a result. Maybe God tests us. Or things like fatal traffic accidents and natural disasters are part of God’s intention. Some would use the word “plan,” part of God’s plan.
I will never forget planning Moriah’s funeral service. I met with family members from both sides of Mia’s family. I started by saying, “I believe Moriah’s death is contrary to God’s will. The God I worship and serve is heartbroken that someone so young has died like this.”
Following that meeting I had a conversation via email with one of Mia’s aunts. She wrote:
“I do have a question I hope you can help me understand better. I walked away from our meeting rather perplexed regarding your opening statement that you believe this was not God’s plan - not His will.”
I replied, “You understood that part. I do not believe that Moriah’s death in this car accident, in this way, was what God wanted, what God desired for Moriah, or anyone who loved her. I believe her death is contrary to God’s will. And I believe that God’s heart is broken as many of ours are, at Moriah’s death. And as Carol said Moriah’s in God’s arms now.”
I mentioned both lessons for this morning in my response.
In both lessons this morning Jesus addresses the futility of trying to find a cause, or a reason for disaster. While he does not say it directly, it is clear that he does not believe that God targets catastrophes to take out the worst people. He talks current events. Did that tower over in Siloam fall on the 18 worst people in Galilee? Or what about those Galileans who were offering sacrifices when Pilate’s goons went into the temple and slaughtered them? Did God arrange that? Were those thugs doing God’s will? Jesus says, “No, but unless you repent, you’ll end up like them.” I think that means you will die suddenly, utterly unprepared to face death.
Then there’s this lengthy story about the man born blind to whom Jesus restores sight. Was the man blind because his parents were sinners, or because of his own sin? Again, Jesus indicates it was neither the sin of the man, nor the sin of the parents that caused his blindness. In fact, Jesus never even hints at the cause of the blindness, just that this man’s blindness was an occasion to help people see the power that God has in Jesus to make a bind man see.
A little more of the email conversation between Moriah’s aunt and me, she wrote “If the Presbyterian faith believes that God has power over death then what does that mean?”
I replied, “Which do you think? God could have prevented an accident like Moriah’s death and chose not to? Or God could not intervene and is heartbroken with us?”
Moriah’s aunt asked “Being omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, if it wasn't Moriah's time to go, if He wasn't calling her home, wouldn't He have done some sort of divine intervention on her behalf? Psalm 139:1 Says He knows everything about us and later in vs 16 it says that all our days are written in His book. I just can't get anything other than this WAS His plan!
Remember I said the Bible does not speak with one voice on this? Moriah’s aunt quoted scripture that says exactly that God has determined the length of our lives. Still, I replied
“It’s hard for me to lead people to worship a God who would intend this kind of thing. I believe it is a much different kind of faith to recognize that God is present with us, especially in the midst of tragedies like this.”
At my last church there was a 9 year old boy who had a very aggressive abdominal cancer. He was in the hospital for months receiving—and then recovering from—chemotherapy treatments. I visited him at least once a week, as did the other pastor. I’ll never forget the time I visited him alone, every other visit there were parents or grandparents present. He asked me, “Why did God give me this cancer?”
And I answered, “I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense to me, but I believe that God is suffering with you, that everything you feel, God feels.”
“So when I get the chemo and there’s a funny taste in my mouth and food doesn’t taste right, God feels that?”
Earlier I quoted Peter Marty about pious clichés like “God has a plan.” Here’s how he concluded that thought.
Two weeks ago, a helicopter lifted a 19-year-old in our congregation to a regional hospital after a hit-and-run driver skipped a stop sign and plowed into his motorcycle. When a family friend learned that Pete’s right leg had to be amputated, she phoned Pete’s mother to reassure her that this hardship was part of God’s plan for Pete. The mother was aghast. As she explained to me later, this bit of folk wisdom falsified her own experience and faith. Wasn’t there more reason to fear rather than love a God this morally ambivalent or malevolent?
The quick answer would be yes. Interpreting God’s sovereignty to mean that God causes all circumstances to occur is a dangerous theological game to play. It turns people into passive subjects of a God who has a penchant for displaying power chaotically. Like marionettes dangling helplessly in thin air, we’d be forced to move through life while a stage-managing God yanks our strings whenever God pleases. Scripture doesn’t lend credence to this idea. Jesus never counsels people to accept their suffering as the Lord’s will. God may work in inscrutable ways, but there’s no evidence that God works in nonsensical ways. [end Marty quote]
I’ll close, for now, with the concluding paragraph of the meditation I gave at Moriah’s funeral:
Remember, this is the first of a two part series. My hope is that you’ll think about theodicy in the coming week, and bring your thoughts and questions to worship next week. For now, I’ll close with the conclusion of my meditation from Moriah’s funeral
“We’ll grieve the death of someone who never got to grow up. Our challenge though is to hold both these ideas together: Mia is in God’s arms, and God’s heart is as broken as our hearts are—even as God’s love surrounds Mia right now. Amen.”