Note: Because I was at Annual Conference this past week, June 19 was "Preach it Again" Sunday. The congregation at Upper Rogue UMC selected this sermon to be a "repreach."
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE ETERNAL
Luke 13:1-9 Upper Rogue UMC February 28,2016
Why is it that bad things so often happen to good people? Why do young children suffer and die from terrible diseases? Why does a young mother suddenly find herself a widow? Why , earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and storms kill thousands? Why does a tornado destroy one house and leave the one next door untouched? Why does God allow these things to happen? That is the unspoken question put to Jesus in this morning's gospel lesson.
At that time some people were there who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God. Jesus answered them, "Because those Galileans were killed in that way, do you think it proves that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? (Luk 13:1-2)
The answer Jesus gives, “Repent and turn from your sins” strikes us as the kind of question-dodging answer we expect from a politician; and we walk away wondering, “what was that all about?” Indeed there is an entire discipline of theology' Theodocy, that is devoted to the question of evil; and the Bible isn't very helpful. “Read Job.” they say; but Job isn't about evil, Job is a response to the belief that God rewards righteousness with health and prosperity and that if bad things happen to you, it's because you are not righteous. This inaccurate theology is still being preached; just turn on your TV.
Even in Matthew's Beatitudes, when Jesus reminds us to “become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil.” we are left with no explanation of evil. Why?
Maybe, just maybe, it's a question we don't need answered. More important than the source of evil is the knowledge, the truth, that when, not if, bad things happen to us, we do not face them alone. Why we pass through the valley of the shadow of death is not as important as knowing: “ thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Christmas of 1994 was, for me, the Christmas from Hell. It started just after Thanksgiving, when a member of my congregation, who was also a dear friend and golf buddy lost his fight with cancer. I was with the family in his room. Together we cried, together we prayed. Then is was time for me to leave them alone with their grief.
As soon as I left the room I was corralled by one of the nurse's who said they needed me in the ER, STAT! That's not a term they use with the chaplain very often, so I knew it was serious. I learned there had been a fatal wreck in the south of the county. Two 18 year old cousins, who were also firefighters, had hit a patch of black ice on their way to school. The care went off the road and rolled over, ejecting the passenger, who was pronounced dead at the hospital. When I entered the ER waiting area I found the father of the deceased boy about to go fisticuffs with his sister-in-law, the mother of the driver.
A week or so later, the eve of the last day of school before Christmas break, I was tapped out to the Coast Guard Station in Garibaldi: a place to which I had never been called before. A fishing boat coming in across the bar had capsized. The captain survived and was in the hospital, but two persons were missing; the deck hand and the 10 year old son of the captain's girlfriend. He was on the trip as his birthday present. As we awaited the arrival of the Coast Guard chaplain from Astoria, I dealt with the frustrated Coast Guard personnel....being ready, able, and willing, but unable, to help is a hard pill for those in public safety to swallow. Then the mother arrived and a whole new dynamic began.
The next day, I participated in a school assembly and helped man the safe-room. Kids came in and cried, some yelled, some wanted to pray, and some just wanted to write or to draw pictures. I saw a lot of Santas dressed in black.
Then, a few days after Christmas,when Tillamook County had the rare situation of snow on the ground, we were tapped out to bring our tanker to a house fire east of Tillamook. When we approached the dairy, we saw a fully involved mobile home. Before we even received our assignment, the two paramedics on scene came over: “Good, you have the chaplain with you. Can we take him, we really need him.” Our chief release me and as walked toward the main house, I was told there were two children, under the age of 5, still in the burning house. My job was to be with the parents.
After all this, to say that I was a spiritual,emotional, and physical basket-case would be an immense understatement. I spent the next day walking with our dog on an otherwise deserted Tillamook Spit. Remember last week when I asked if you'd ever been angry with God? Well, I was, and I made no secret of it. I wanted God to know just how I felt.”How could you do this to me? What have I done to deserve this kind of treatment?! I can't take it any more! I won't take it any more. I'm ready to quit. Quit the ministry, quit the chaplaincy, quit the whole thing!” And by the time I was done yelling and screaming at God, God could have no doubt that I was upset. After the yelling, I found a log, sat down and cried my eyes out. And when I dried my tears, God came to me and said: “I didn't do this TO you. I would never Do this to you, I love you. I was with you, even as I needed you to be there for all those people. And looking back I saw that I was never alone. Everything I went through, God went through with me.
And I think that's the promise Jesus has for us in this story. Nowhere in the Bible are we promised a life of ease and prosperity; indeed it is just the opposite.
Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you.
(Mat 5:11-12) ... You will be taken to courts and beaten with whips in their meeting places. And because of me, you will have to stand before rulers and kings to tell about your faith. (Mar 13:9) Jesus assures us that before he returns: Nations will go to war against one another, and kingdoms will attack each other. There will be great earthquakes, and in many places people will starve to death and suffer terrible diseases. All sorts of frightening things will be seen in the sky. Before all this happens, you will be arrested and punished. You will be tried in your meeting places and put in jail. Because of me you will be placed on trial before kings and governors.
And, of course, the Revelation of John is filled with vivid descriptions of the trials and tribulations the earth, and all of us on it, will endure.
We cannot escape evil, we cannot escape the tragedies of life, we cannot escape the unleashed forces of nature or humankind. When we are walking through Hell, we can only keep going (for heaven's sake, don't stop!) And we can only keep going because God, who came and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, continues to dwell with us and walk with us. That's the promise we have. Claim that promise as we rise and sing together #130, God Will Take Care of You.