Friday, January 31, 2014

Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe: “If you truly have faith, you won’t doubt" - February 2, 2014

Texts: Psalm 22:1-5, Luke 24:1-11

We have been examining some of those beliefs and assumptions people have about Christianity that aren’t necessarily true – “Stuff Christians Really Don’t Have to Believe.”  Today we’re looking at the idea that if you are a person of faith, you won’t doubt.    

There was a powerful movie made several years ago called “Cinderella Man.”  It’s the story of Jim Braddock, a boxer during the depression years.  After injuring his hand, his boxing career came to an end.  Unable to find regular work, the family struggled greatly.  Although he was a devout Christian, those bleak years strained his faith in God.  In one poignant scene of the movie, the Braddock family has no money, the kids are sick, the electricity has been cut off in their apartment, and they have little food.

Late in the evening, Jim came home from another unsuccessful day of seeking work.  The kids are in bed, coughing with a bad cold; the apartment was freezing.  The only light in the apartment comes from a small candle.  Jim sat down at the table with his wife to eat a meager bit of dinner.  He and his wife joined hands and bowed their heads to say a blessing over the meal, as was their custom.    She began, “Lord, we are grateful…” but Jim did not join her.  She looked up at him, her eyes asking, “Why are you not praying?”  For a moment he looked at her in silence, and then said, “I’m all prayed out.”

Maybe you have felt that way – as though you are all prayed out.  Maybe you have wondered if God exists, or if God is as good and loving as you have been taught.

Well, you are in good company.  Abraham and Sarah doubted the promise that they would be parents of a great nation; when she heard the news that in her old age she would have a child, Sarah cracked up – it was absurd.  Jacob runs for his life from his brother Esau only to be tricked by his father-in-law Laban.  Returning home years later, he is afraid for his life.  He is all prayed out.  Frustrated with leading the people through the wilderness, Moses is all prayed out.  Hiding in a cave, fearful, David is prayed out.  Crying out in anger and anguish, the prophet Jeremiah is all prayed out.  Over and over, the Psalmist feels that God has abandoned him.  After praying for healing but not receiving it, Paul is prayed out.

And then there is Jesus in the garden, praying that this cup might pass, and finally on the cross, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Some of you may have grown up with the idea that we should never doubt.  We should never doubt our faith, we should never doubt God, we should never question.  But doubt is not the opposite of faith.  Apathy is the opposite of faith.  Questions and doubts are simply a part of who we are, a part of our makeup, a part of humanity, and the way I see it, if it is good enough for these heroes of the Bible, it’s good enough for me.  When we have questions and doubts and when we may feel far from God, we are actually in good company.

St. Augustine spoke of the value of doubt.

Nobody surely doubts that he lives and remembers and understands and wills and thinks and knows and judges. At least, even if he doubts, he lives.  If he doubts, he remembers why he’s doubting.  If he doubts, he has a will to be certain.  If he doubts, he thinks.  If he doubts, he knows he does not know.  If he doubts, he judges he ought not to give a hasty ascent.  I love this being and this knowing.  Where these truths are concerned, I need not quail before the academicians when they say, “What if you should be mistaken?” Well, if I’m mistaken, I exist.

Doubt, says St. Augustine, is if nothing else a sign that we are alive.

In his later years, the great author Robert Louis Stevenson was a person of deep faith. But in his college days, he called himself a “youthful atheist,” shedding his rigid Christian upbringing, calling it “the deadliest gag and wet blanket that can be laid on a man.”  But as he grew older, Stevenson said he began to have “doubts about my doubts.”

Our questioning can lead us to a faith that is genuine and authentic. 

A pastor told about a family that was looking forward to the baptism of their child.  We don’t baptize infants here, but this would be like a child dedication service for us.  The mother and father met with the pastor, they had a nice conversation, and a date was set for the baptism.

But after this meeting, the father sent a lengthy email to the pastor.  He said that he wasn’t sure he could go through with it, he wasn’t sure he could stand with the child as the child was baptized because he was an atheist, and he didn’t know if he could in good conscience say that he would raise this child in the faith.

Well, the pastor and father met and talked some more, and it was clear that this man wasn’t really an atheist, he was at best more of an agnostic.  He had a lot of questions and uncertainties about God.  Now, this was someone who came to church.  The pastor asked the man, “Are you planning to bring the child to church?”  “Oh, sure,” said the man, “I’m just not sure I believe all this stuff.” 

“Well, what is it that you don’t believe? “the pastor asked.  And it turned out that what was really bothering this guy was a set of beliefs from the very conservative, fundamentalist church he grew up in that he wasn’t sure he could believe. 

From his upbringing, this father had it ingrained in him that faith was yes/no, either/or, black or white, with no room for doubts or questions or even different ways of looking at things.  He had been handed the faith and told take it or leave it, this is the way it is, with no opportunity to work things out for himself, and without allowing for the possibility that faith is more than just agreement with a set of propositions.

Sometime we get the idea that Christian faith is about answers – that Christianity is a set of answers to life’s biggest questions.  Christianity certainly offers us answers, but it is a lot more than that.  And sometimes the answers are not as simple as abc, 123.

What about Jesus?  Look at his life and his teachings.  Look at the way he operated.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but this week I learned that Jesus asked eight times as many questions as he answered.  Eight times.  Jesus was actually a lot more about questions than he was answers.

Yet the church is stereotyped in our culture as an institution that believes it has all the answers.  We can come across as so dang sure of ourselves.

Tennyson said, “There lies more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”  Now, my mother was a Tennyson.  I’m not sure if I am related to Alfred Lord Tennyson, but I do feel a kinship with his thoughts here.

A couple of days ago I read a column by David Brooks of the New York Times.  I don’t necessarily read everything he writes, but the last two David Brooks columns I have read I thought were great columns and pretty well agreed with him.  In the past I have sometimes read a David Brooks column that I liked, but two in a row was some kind of record.

Anyway, Brooks talked about the way that many in the modern world view religious faith as judgmental, hypocritical, and out of touch.  He quoted Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who noted that the faith expressed by many is often dull and insipid – a kind of religiosity in which “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored for the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather that with the voice of compassion.”

Heschel described another way of faith.  He frequently talked about what he called Radical Amazement.  He said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is phenomenal… to be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Brooks said that while there are many who seem to have that dull, rigid faith, there is “a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.”  There are those who may not have it all figured out, may not have it all together, but can nevertheless experience joy and amazement.  Brooks gives the example of Audrey Assad, a Catholic songwriter.

She had an idyllic sort of childhood in a church with a very black-or-white understanding of faith.  But in her 20’s, life’s tragedies and complexities began to mount, and she experienced a gradual erosion of certainty. 

She began reading through the Barnes and Noble Great Books shelf, reading books she had missed by not going to college.  She began reading theology, including the early church fathers.  Her religious journey led her to various churches quite different from the church of her childhood, and she eventually became a Catholic, but certainly not without questions.  “I was ready to be an atheist,” she said.  “I was going to be a Catholic or an atheist.” 

Brooks wrote,
She came to feel the legacy of millions of people who had struggled with the same feelings for thousands of years – feelings of doubt, feelings of uncertainty.  “I still have routine brushes with agnosticism,” she said.  “I still brush against the feeling that I don’t believe any of this, but the church always brings me back… I don’t think Jesus wants to brush away the paradoxes and mysteries.”

Here is someone for whom doubt is part of a vibrant, living faith.  Her music, which does not ignore the complexities and pain of life, connects with a lot of people – because life is complex.

Our scripture today is that great Easter text, the story of Jesus’ resurrection in the gospel of Luke.  The resurrection is the center of Christian faith, and yet when the disciples first heard, they didn’t believe.  All four gospels say essentially the same thing: the people closest to Jesus had a hard time believing that he was alive.

Luke said that the news of Jesus’ resurrection seemed to the disciples “an idle tale.”  But it’s actually better than that.  The Greek word used here means “absolute nonsense” or “crazy talk.”  In fact, it’s the root of our word “delirious.”

Eventually, they came to believe.  A big part of that, I think, is that they spent time together.  Again, all four of the gospels mention the disciples being together a lot.  Sometimes hiding together when they are afraid, sometimes meeting in someone’s home, sometimes out fishing, sometimes eating together.  But they are together.  The community was very important.

The Church at its best gives a place to belong, a place to stand, a place to know we are home – even with all of our questions and uncertainty and doubt.  Sometimes, it might even be that when we have a hard time believing, others can believe for us and carry us along.  Like Audrey Assad said, “I still brush against the feeling that I don’t believe any of this, but the church always brings me back…”

There are those who are absolutely sure of everything and see doubt as weakness, who see doubt as sin.  But the Bible does not see it that way. 

Imagine a world with no doubts.  That means no questions.  That means no re-examining of things.  It means that we are stuck forever in the faith of our childhood.  If we don’t ask questions, if we don’t examine what we believe, if we are not allowed to have honest doubt, then we will never change, never learn, never grow.

I’m not sure what is behind this idea that Christians shouldn’t ever doubt.  Maybe it comes out of a spiritual one-upmanship, “my faith is stronger than your faith” attitude.  Maybe it is a way of reinforcing the power of authorities and institutions, who can say “Believe as you are told.”  I’m not sure where that comes from.

But I know this: Jesus, who asked questions much more than he gave answers, affirmed and welcomed everyone in all of their humanity, with all of their questions, and helped them to grow.  The Church is to be a place where questions are welcome.  It is a place where we care for and encourage one another as we journey together with Christ.  Our doubts and our questions are simply part of the journey.  Amen. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe: “Everything in the Bible is 100% Literally True” - January 26, 2014

Texts: Psalm 119:97-105, 2 Timothy 3:14-17

I grew up in a church that thought very highly of the Bible.  We had Sword Drills in Sunday School.  Some of you know what I am talking about; they were called Sword Drills because Ephesians 6:17 says that the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God.  So the Bible is your sword, and in a sword drill, the teacher or leader would say something like “Present Swords,” and you would hold your Bible out like so.  They would then call out a scripture, and the contestants, being the students, would look up the scripture.  It was like a race to see who could find a Bible verse first, and you became well acquainted with the order and structure of the Bible in the process.

I remember the Bible I had when I was a boy.  It was the Revised Standard Version – we weren’t hung up on the King James, like some churches.  It was black leather or probably bonded leather, and it had a zipper.  My name was embossed on the front.  The Bible had an almost magical quality, and you treated it with great respect.  I would not have thought of marking or underlining in the Bible.

Later, as a high school student and into college, I took Bible study more seriously.  I had a New English Bible, a new translation that had come out.  I would sometimes underline and make notes in the margins.  The Bible was maybe less of a holy object and more of a guide book, a tool for study, a way of growing closer to God.

In my college years I started to think more critically and broadly about the nature of the Bible.  This was spurred in part by thought about issues such as the role of women in the church and the relationship between science and faith as well by religion courses I took.  It also helped that I had friends from other traditions, like Roman Catholics and Seventh-Day Adventists.  I took a religion class with a Shia Muslim from Iran – there were a lot of Iranian students at Evansville who had come there during the time of the Shah.  Being in a more diverse religious environment can lead you to think more deeply about your own faith.

There was a lot of talk at the time about the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture.  The implication was that Christians had always had these beliefs about the Bible, but nobody spoke of the Bible in this way until the late 1800’s, and not many spoke of the Bible in this way until the 1970’s.  Inerrancy and infallibility are clever fighting words, because to disagree makes it sound like you are saying the Bible is full or errors and lies.

Inerrancy means that the original manuscripts of the Bible were completely God-inspired and totally free of any error.  Some pushed it to what is called the plenary verbal inspiration of scripture – that God dictated each and every word to the Biblical writers – so there was really no human thought or input into the scriptures.

All of this referred to the original manuscripts of the books of the Bible, but none of those are surviving.  The earliest New Testament manuscript we have is from the first half of the second century, and it only contains parts of John chapter 18.  All of the earliest New Testament manuscripts contain only fragments of books; the oldest complete New Testament we have is from around the year 350.  I can remember this big debate over the inerrancy of scripture, but it was essentially a theoretical debate over original manuscripts that didn’t even exist.

Infallibility meant that the Bible is always right, that it cannot be wrong.  For many this extends not just to matters of theology and doctrine but to science and history and psychology and geography.  Well, the best information I have is that the earth is not flat.  And I realized fairly quickly that those who claimed to believe in an inerrant, infallible Bible nevertheless did plenty of interpretation and fancy footwork in order to do an end run on troublesome passages.

There was the televangelist who preached against divorce as a terrible sin, but then changed his mind as he himself went through a divorce.  His Biblical interpretation changed.  There was the hellfire evangelist who came through college campuses in the early 80’s, Brother Max.  Brother Max said that a woman’s place was the home, but come to find out his wife was out working to support the family while he was on campus preaching at the sinful college kids.  Brother Max had some kind of convoluted answer for that.

More than this, it seemed to me that in many cases a literal reading of the Bible just couldn’t hold water – it was intellectually dishonest.  It seemed to me that all of scripture did not have the same authority, and all of it was not meant literally.  There are plenty of sections that we don’t follow – that even those who claim to take everything literally and live by it don’t follow.

Is anyone here wearing a wool/cotton or cotton/polyester blend fabric?  Leviticus tells us that blended fabrics are an affront to God.  Does anybody like shrimp?  Or better yet, does anybody here like a good pork tenderloin sandwich?  Well, shame on you: if you eat pork you are violating God’s law.  Based on the Bible, a Bacon Festival is an unimaginable sinful event.

Did you ever get in any trouble as a teenager?  Do you know any unruly youth?  (that phrase is kind of redundant, isn’t it?)  If people followed the Bible literally, I’m afraid that very few of us would be around, because the Bible clearly says in Leviticus that unruly youth are to be stoned at the city gates.  I have heard people say, in reference to the Bible, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” but in a lot of cases they don’t really believe it and that doesn’t really settle it.

Then there were those stories that seemed just too dramaticized.  Was a man named Jonah really swallowed by a great fish and then after three days barfed up out of the fish’s belly?  Did God really give Satan permission to kill all 10 of Job’s children, saying you have to spare Job but go ahead and kill everybody else for all I care?  Maybe Biblical books like Jonah and Job are not to be read as literal history so much as something like parables, stories that convey deep truths to us.

Increasingly, it seemed to me that you couldn’t just treat each book of the Bible in exactly the same way.  They have different purposes, different intents, different styles.  And the fact is, the Bible is not one book, but a collection of books, some passed on orally for centuries before being written over a period of hundreds of years.

The gospels have differences among them.  Take the story of Simon and Andrew following Jesus.  As the Gospel of John tells the story, Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist.  So, it seems, was his brother Simon.  One day John saw Jesus, and said that Jesus was the true Messiah.  John sent Andrew to go and follow Jesus. Andrew brought his brother, and Jesus immediately chose Simon to be his protégé.

The Gospel of Matthew tells a somewhat different story.  Jesus came to a fishing village, saw Simon and Andrew at work, and asked them to follow him as “fishers of people.”  The Matthew and John accounts don’t fit together.

If you understand the Bible as 100% literal truth, historically accurate by today’s standards of history (which, it might be said, are very different from the understanding of our ancient forbears), then these differences are a problem.

But what I came to understand was that the Bible is not intended as a book of history.  Rather, the Bible is a book of meaning.  To treat the Bible as a historical factbook actually diminishes it.  The Bible is a wonderful book filled with poetry, instruction, letters, parables, hymns, the struggles and victories of the community, and towering stories of faith.  To read all of the Bible as a book of historical facts or a science textbook would cause us to miss the point. 

Matthew and John each speak to the awesome reality that two generations after Jesus died, Andrew and Simon were still remembered among those who had left everything to follow Jesus.

That is what is amazing here: they left everything to follow.  They didn’t simply choose a place to call their “church home,” or a place to get married or to make an occasional charitable contribution.  They had left their jobs, their homes, their previous loyalties, all that was familiar -- in Simon’s case, even his name – they had left everything to follow Jesus, not knowing where that would take them.

This was total commitment.  This was “all-in,” putting everything on the line for Jesus – who was, remember, still a stranger to them.

And then there is us.  We want to hold back.  We want to hedge our bets.  Sometimes we want just enough religion to inoculate us against the real thing.  The story of these first disciples puts to shame our rather feeble ideas of what it means to follow Jesus.

The calling of Andrew and Simon is a wonderful, powerful, inspiring story that challenges us deeply today.  But if you simply read this as historical reporting and try to somehow explain the discrepancies between John and Matthew, you are missing the point.

The Bible is a disorderly collection of 66 books, first told orally and then put to paper over a period of 3000 years.  It is written in ancient Hebrew and a corrupt form of ancient Greek.  It contains a whole gamut of different genres of literature.  There is a history of centuries of interpretation that has often been shallow and self-serving.  This is a complex book, and understanding the message of scripture is not always easy.  Interpreting scripture requires humility.

There are dangers in interpreting the Bible.  One danger is Bibliolatry - worshiping the Bible and making it an object of veneration.

Symbols are an important way that we convey meaning.  The flag is a symbol of our country.  It is more than a piece of fabric.  If somebody were to burn a flag, wow, that would get our attention.  We would be upset.  We would be offended. 

In communion, the bread and cup are more than just Wonder Bread and Welchade.  A cross is more than just a piece of wood or metal.  Symbols matter. 

I remember a wedding I was in, while in college.  A couple of friends, Sally and Ron, were getting married at Sally’s home church in Cincinnati.  When it came time to light the unity candle, Sally dropped the lit taper that she was using to light the unity candle.  She dropped it right on the open Bible on the communion table.  Immediately I had this image of the Bible going up in flames at your wedding.

The Bible is more than just another book, it is a powerful symbol.  Presidents are not sworn in with their hand on the Miriam-Webster dictionary or Moby Dick or The Hunger Games, they are sworn in on the Bible. 

The problem with such symbols is that we can confuse the symbol for that to which it points and wind up worshiping the symbol itself.  We can make the Bible an object of worship.  We can make the Bible into an idol.  But we don’t worship the Bible; we worship the God to whom the Bible points.

Fredrick Buechner writes,
If you look at a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it.  If you look through a window, you see the world beyond.  Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.
The Bible itself is not the point.

Another danger of interpretation is literalism.  I’ve already mentioned some of the places in the Bible where a literal interpretation can lead us astray.

The great preacher and theologian Howard Thurman told about his grandmother, who was born a slave:
My regular chore was to do all of the reading for my grandmother – she could neither read nor write … With a feeling of great temerity I asked her one day why it was that she would not let me read any of the Pauline letters.  What she told me I shall never forget.  ‘During the days of slavery’, she said, ‘the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves … Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul.  At least three or four times a year he used as a text: “Slaves be obedient to your masters … as unto Christ.”  Then he would go on to show how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us.  I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would never read that part of the Bible.
A literal interpretation can sometimes contradict the message of the gospel.  Peter Gomes said,
Language is not an end but a means, and the end is communication with meaning and significance.  The language of the Bible is meant always to point us to a truth beyond the text, a meaning that transcends the particular and imperfectly understood context of the original writers, and our own prejudices and parochialisms we bring to the text.  Literalism is not part of the solution to this problem – literalism is the problem.
 The Bible offers us guidance, inspiration, challenge, hope, correction.  It can bring wisdom and healing.  Written far in the past, God still uses scripture to speak to us today.  The Bible is the Church’s book.  When we gather for worship, words from the Bible are read and spoken and sung.  We love the Bible and cherish the Bible.  But we do not worship the Bible.  We worship the living God, to whom the Bible points.  Amen. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

“Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe: God Causes Cancer, Car Wrecks, and Catastrophes” - January 19, 2014

Texts: Romans 8:21-28, Luke 13:1-5

I don’t know about you, but it’s not uncommon for someone willto make a comment about Christian faith that I find careless or uninformed, if not offensive.  The person may or may not be a Christian, but they seem to have a sense of “this is what all Christians believe” when in fact there are Christians who feel quite differently. 

It might be a letter to the editor in which Christians are set up as narrow-minded literalists, and the writer in one stroke discounts the whole of Christian faith by arguing against something that I don’t believe.  There is a whole host of beliefs commonly ascribed to Christianity that are really not the core of our faith - beliefs that we really don’t have to believe and in many cases should not believe.

“Good Christians don’t doubt.  If you have enough faith, you will never have doubts.”

“The world was created in seven days.  A Christian can’t believe in evolution.”  This is a key component of a larger belief that if science appears to disagree with a literal Biblical perspective, then science has to be wrong.

In that vein, you will also hear, “Everything in the Bible is literally true.  I don’t interpret it, I just read it and believe it.”  Nobody actually does that, but you will hear that claim.

Another one is, “When it comes to church, men are leaders and women can be good helpers.”  That is more or less the position of the church I grew up in.

“Christians should stick to saving souls and keep out of social issues.” 

“Bad People will be Left Behind and fry in hell.”  The whole Left Behind series of books tapped into a stream of Christian faith that is obsessed with End Times prophecy.  There are those especially enamored with the idea of the Rapture – even though the word “rapture” never appears in scripture.

Well, I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  For the next few Sundays, we’ll be looking at some of these statements and beliefs; I’ve imaginatively titled this “Stuff Christians Don’t Have to Believe.”

And the first of these beliefs, which I want to look at today, goes something like this: “God is in control, and for reasons we don’t understand God causes tragedies.”

Jason Berryman, a former Iowa State football player, died a little over a week ago.  He was one of the most talented players we’ve had here – as a freshman he was named the team MVP.  But he had a troubled life and was released from the team after run-ins with the law.  He played briefly in the NFL and also played Arena Football for the Iowa Barnstormers.

He was found dead of gunshot wounds in his home in East Texas.  He was 28 years old.  Former players remembered a tremendous talent, but also a good teammate who was easy to like but had a troubled life.  Trying to make sense of things, his former coach, somebody I like and respect a lot, said, “God works in mysterious ways.”

But that’s the question.  Was this God’s work?

A woman wrote, “My mother in law suffered in terrible pain with liver cancer.  When she finally passed, the nurse told my husband, “God wanted a special angel and she’s an angel now up in heaven with God.”  The nurse doubtless was trying to make this man feel better, but it only made things worse.  The woman wrote, “So what this nurse is saying is that God had my mother-in-law suffer terribly and die just because he needed an angel?” 

Or consider the experience of a woman named Dorothy:

I was nine years old when my mother died and I was very, very sad. I did not join in saying prayers at my parochial school.  Noticing that I was not participating, the teacher called me aside and asked what was wrong.  I told her my mother died and I missed her, to which she replied, “It was the will of God.  God needs your mother in Heaven.”  But I felt that I needed my mother far more than God needed her.  I was angry at God for years because I felt he took her from me.
In order to feel that there is meaning in tragedy and maybe to justify God, people will sometimes say that God needs a person and so God takes them from us.  But there is also the line of thought that bad things happen as a punishment for sin.

John Killinger is a retired pastor and professor and the author of over 50 books.  I first became familiar with Killinger when I spent a year doing a campus ministry internship at Virginia Tech.  We were just down the road from Lynchburg, home of Jerry Falwell and his growing empire that included the Thomas Road Baptist Church, The Old Time Gospel Hour, Liberty University, and the Moral Majority.  Falwell was a well-known fundamentalist.  But there was another preacher in town with a growing reputation, and a very different perspective, a different take on what faith and the spiritual life is about – John Killinger.  It all made Lynchburg a very interesting place.

In one of his books, Killinger shared that the church he grew up in attributed everything to God – even disease, heartbreak and death.  To believe otherwise would have somehow lessened the power and sovereignty of God.  When his nine year old sister died, the pastor said at the funeral, “God has taken her to be with him in heaven.”  Killinger said this may have comforted his parents, who were in shock and probably didn’t reflect on the theology of it.

But just as often, Killnger’s community would equate tragedy with  God’s punishment.  They had a neighbor who was a decent enough guy during the week, but on the weekends he drank heavily and was mean and abusive to his family, terrible to his wife.  One night when he was too inebriated to know better, he went to sleep outside in a cold rain, got pneumonia and died.  Everybody said God had done it because of his sins.  Some even said he was going to burn in hell.

When a respected citizen in town was stricken by a muscular disease, people said that there must have been some dark, secret sin in his life.  When the wild, hard-living son of the minister crashed his plane into a mountain on a rainy night, people said that it was God’s punishment for being a thorn in his saintly father’s side.

Does God send tragedy as punishment for sin?  There was that stream of thought in the Old Testament, but Jesus disagreed.  In our gospel reading, two tragedies are mentioned.  Pilate had slaughtered some Jews in Galilee; was this was because of their sin?  No, said Jesus.  A tower in Siloam fell, killing 18 people – was it because of their sin?  Again, no, said Jesus. 

There are those who will imagine that difficulties in their lives must be because of some sin – that the hardships they face are punishment from God.  And maybe more commonly, we want to hang that on others, as seen when somebody like Pat Robertson blames national tragedies on the sins of Americans (though not his own, of course.)  He agreed with Jerry Falwell that the ACLU, pagans, feminists, and gays had to take a lot of blame for 9/11 and he said that the earthquake in Haiti was because of a pact slaves made there with the devil 200 years ago.  (Of course, those who allegedly made the pact didn’t suffer from the earthquake, but logic didn’t play a real big role in all of this.) 

Well, it is natural to want to make sense of tragedy and death.  We want an explanation; it’s human nature.  But as Paul says, “We see now through a glass dimly,” and there are some things we will never make sense of this side of eternity. 

In an interesting take on this, Rabbi Aron Moss while we want an explanation for why the innocent suffer, it’s best that we don’t have an answer.  He asks us to imagine being in a hospital and hearing a woman screaming with pain.  Outside her room, her family is standing around chatting, all smiling and happy.  So you yell at them, “What’s wrong with you?  Can’t you hear how much pain she is in?” They answer, “This is the maternity ward.  She is having a baby.  Of course we are happy.”

When you have an explanation, the pain doesn’t seem so bad anymore.  We can tolerate suffering when we know why it is happening.

But what if someone came along and gave us a satisfying explanation?  What if the mystery were finally solved?  What if we asked God why innocent people suffer, and actually got an answer?  Then we would be able to make peace with the suffering of innocents, and that, says Rabbi Moss, is unthinkable. 

If we could make sense of innocent people suffering, we would be able to hear the cry of children in pain and not be horrified.  We would tolerate seeing hearts broken and lives shattered, because we could explain it all away.  But as long as we can’t explain suffering, says Moss, we have to work to alleviate it. 

Though as a theologian he no doubt gave thought to the problem of why bad things happen to good people, I am glad that Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t stop there.  He gave his life to alleviating suffering and improving the lot of the oppressed.

William Sloane Coffin was pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City.  I once had the chance to hear him preach there, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1985.  A few years later, Coffin’s 24-year old son, Alex, was killed in an automobile accident.  A week later, Coffin climbed into the pulpit at Riverside and preached about Alex’s death.

He said, “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and at least one thing that should never be said.”  The night after Alex’s death, he was sitting in his sister’s living room when a woman came in carrying a bunch of quiches.  She walked into the kitchen, looked over her shoulder and shook her head and said, “I’ll never understand God’s will.”

Coffin said he was up in an instant, and said, “I’ll say you don’t, lady!”  He followed her into the kitchen.

He said to her, “Do you think it was God’s will that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper, that he was probably driving too fast in that storm, that he probably had a couple ‘frosties’ too many?  Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights on that stretch of road, and no guard rail between the road and Boston Harbor?”

Tragedies in our lives are not God’s will.  God doesn’t want such pain for anyone.  The God we worship, the God whom we know as Love, does not capriciously strike down people.  The notion violates everything we believe about the nature of God.

So – where is God in all of this?  Where is God in our pain?  Where is God in times of tragedy?

God is right there, alongside us.  Even in the worst of times, God is there.  As William Sloan Coffin put it, God’s was the first heart to break when his son died in the icy waters. 

The story is told of a man lying on his deathbed, reflecting on his life.  At his bedside was his wife of seventy years.  The husband turned to his wife and said, “I remember when we were just starting out and I got fired from my job; you were there by my side.  And then when the house burned to the ground, you were right there by my side.  And then there was the car accident.  When I woke up in the hospital, you were the first person I saw.  And when I had the heart attack, you were right there by my side.”  The husband, lying on his deathbed, said to his wife, “Do you know what I think?”  His wife, her heart filled with love replied, “What do you think?”  And her husband said, “I’m beginning to think that you are bad luck.”

It’s a great joke, but there is also has a great message there.  Whatever happened, the man’s wife was there, with him.  Whatever happens in life, God is right there, with us.

We read earlier from Romans chapter 8: “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.”  That’s the way most of us remember the verse.  But that may not be the best translation.  “All things work together for good” sounds an awful lot like saying, “it’s all for the best.”  “All things work together for good” sounds as though God is behind everything, that God causes everything to happen, and that whatever happens is by definition good. 

But that may not be the best translation of the verse.  The New English Bible reads, “in everything, as we know, the Spirit cooperates for good with those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes.”  It is not that everything works together for good, but rather in all circumstances, God is working for good.  Even in terrible circumstances, even in pain, even amidst tragedy and loss, God is working with us to bring good. 

Why do bad things happen to good people?  I really don’t know.  We can give answers like humans have free will and can choose to do terrible things.  We can use things like weather patterns and tectonic shifts to explain tornados and earthquakes and tsunamis, but none of it is very satisfying when we have suffered loss.

There was another tragic death for the ISU football team just a few days ago.  Defensive line coach Curtis Bray, 43 years old, a much-loved coach, a man described as a gentle giant, a beloved husband and father, died after collapsing at work.

Bill Fennelly, the woman’s basketball coach, was quoted in the paper, talking about Coach Bray.  He said, “Every time he’d see me, he’d put his arm around me.  He goes, ‘You got any linemen for me?’”  The article in the Tribune said that as he spoke about Bray, Fennelly got choked up.

“Those things are hard,” Fennelly said. “I don’t understand those things.  I don’t know how that happens.”

If we want to look to coaches for our theology, I’m going with Coach Fennelly on this one.  We want to make sense of things, but sometimes it’s better to just say, “I don’t understand,” and to trust that in the midst of our pain, God is there alongside us, working together with us for good.  Amen.