Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why?: Explaining When Bad Things Happen

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Psalm 88:

When my older brother was twenty, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer; the number one cancer killer of men under the age of 35.  He went into the student health clinic on Monday, had surgery on Wednesday, and my grandfather died of cancer on Thursday.  As you might imagine it was a rather rough week for my family, leaving us all with a lot of questions but without a lot of answers.  As we discussed last week when we began this series looking and answering some of our why questions, there are some fairly typical answers that have been provided for why bad things happen to seemingly good people, and one of those answers is that bad things happen as punishment for sins we have committed.  That is the answer that my father provided for himself in the midst of this.  He believed, and still believes, that my brother’s cancer was God’s punishment for my father for some sin that he had committed.

There is certainly scriptural witness for this idea.  After King David commits adultery with Bathsheba and then has her husband Uriah the Hittite killed, we are told that the first child they have together dies as an infant because of David’s sin.  And then there is the curse given to Ham, the son of Noah, that is acted out on the next generation.  But as I have said before, scriptural does not always provide a universal witness on this because the Bible is a series of books in conversation with each other and they often disagree.  And so we read in Numbers of Zelophahad’s daughters, who are not to be punished for their father’s sins, but most importantly for us is the story found in the Gospel of John.  Jesus and his disciples see a blind man, and the disciples ask him “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  And what does Jesus say, “Neither this man nor his parents.”  The reason people believe things like this are the result of sin is because we want to make some sense of what is going on.  There is also a large amount of guilt that gets taken on, some of it survivor’s guilt, of why wasn’t it me instead of them, and so we search for something to give meaning and purpose to it, but I do not believe that others are punished for our sins.  But are we punished for our own sins or for corporate sins?

Again this is something that we hear all the time. If an earthquake strikes LA or San Francisco, we’ll hear all about it being God’s punishment for the perceived sins being committed in those cities.  When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, it was the sins of the city that caused it all to happen, and we could go on down the list.  And again there is scriptural witness for this, especially from the prophets.  The reason why ancient Israel is being captured by other empires, the reason why Jerusalem will be taken and the Temple destroyed is because of the sins of the people in not following the will of God.  But do we really believe that New Orleans, or Florida, or other gulf coast states which are prone to be hit by hurricanes are filled with more sinners than Minnesota is which seemed to be spared from Earthquakes and Hurricanes?  Now I’ve lived in Minnesota and so feel safe to say that I don’t think it’s the case, and if there is more sin in New Orleans it’s because all the Minnesotans go down there to do their really good sinning.

Two thousand years ago when we didn’t understand how hurricanes form or plate tectonics worked, this might have been a reasonable explanation, and would certainly explain some things. But today we know that Haiti and Los Angeles and San Francisco and Chile are not punished by earthquakes because they are sinful, but instead because they sit along fault lines.  We understand that we live on plates that are moving around, which are part of the creation.  We know that in order to have mountaintop experiences we have to have mountains and they are formed by the collision of these tectonic plates pushing against each other, and when they do that there is a lot of destruction that takes place.  We understand that the center of the earth is full of molten lava, but in order for the earth to cool itself so that the planet doesn’t explode, that lava rises to the surface where it cools and then sinks back down, cooling the planet itself, and sometimes that lava moves all the way to the surface and a volcano is formed or explodes.  We can still see this process taking place in Hawaii as the islands are continuing to be formed.

But let me put one final nail in the coffin on the idea that these things happen because of sin, or as punishment for sin.  First, it’s often said that God has to punish us for things we do wrong, because that’s what good parents do.  I certainly punish my daughters when they have done something wrong, and sometimes they don’t fully understand all the reasons, and so doesn’t God do the same?  Well here is the big difference.  When my daughters are in trouble and are being punished, they know exactly what they are being punished for.  God does not do that for us, our punishment could be for one of any numerous transgressions we have done wrong.  If I was to just go up to my daughter and spank them or send them to a timeout without telling them why they were being punished, you would rightfully question my parenting skills, and worse if I was to do something to them, like inject them with cancer or aids or paralyze them, you would rightfully think me a monster and put me in jail for a very long time, but that is the very thing that we say that God does to us and to others all the time, so what is the difference?  I’ll tell you there isn’t a difference, and God doesn’t do it.

But as Christians here is the biggest problem with this argument.  If God punishes us or others for sin, then what is the purpose and role of Christ and the cross?  If God still punishes us for sin, then Christ’s sacrifice was meaningless, because it obviously did not do any good.  It has not reconciled us with God; Christ did not bring salvation to the world, because Christ did not bring forgiveness!  If we are to take our understanding of the purpose, the mission and the results of Christ and the cross seriously then we have to abolish forever the idea that God continues to punish us or the world for its sins.  God doesn’t do that because of the cross.  If other religious traditions want to make that claim about God, they can, but as Christians for us to make that claim says that everything we have been taught and believed is a total sham, that Christ’s sacrifice for us was not sufficient and does not apply for all time, that God still needs to collect his pound of flesh.  But that is not the Christian witness.  Christ died for our sins, the price has already been paid, God doesn’t collect any more.

The answer most often given now for why bad things happen is that everything happens for a reason, that absolutely everything in the world planned out and that nothing happens without it being a part of God’s overall plan, or at the very least in contributing to God’s plan.  So no matter what happens, from someone getting cancer, to plane crashes, to infants dying, it is all part of God’s plan, and it all makes sense in some way even if we cannot understand how.  I’m sure that all of us have at least heard this idea presented before, and some of us may believe it.  There are lots of reasons given as analogies to explain this, but one of the best known is that the universe is like a rug or a tapestry.  This idea was popularized by the author Thornton Wilder, who said that all we see is the bottom of the tapestry, which has strings of various lengths and it appears random and haphazard, as if there is no real rhyme or reason, but God sees the front of the tapestry which is this beautiful image and so each of us plays a role in the beauty of the whole, and to be a part of that we sort of have to accept what happens to us as the part of that whole.  It’s a nice thought, and a nice image, and perhaps it brings comfort to some people, but I am not one of them.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, you can see a series of seven tapestries known collectively as The Hunt of the Unicorn.  They are widely regarded as the greatest tapestries ever created, and thus one of the greatest works of art as well.  They were probably created in the 16th century, but no one knows for sure, they might have been done in Brussels, but no one knows for sure, and it’s possible they were made for the marriage of Anne of Brittany to Louis XII of France, but no one knows for sure.  One of the greatest masterpieces ever made is shrouded in mystery, but there was still one surprise that no one expected.  In 1998, the tapestries were taken down so that some conservation work could be performed .

At some point, linen backings had been added to the tapestries to protect them and also to help support them so they could be hung, but the backings had become brown and brittle with age, and so they were going to be removed and replaced.  But as they removed the backings, what they found astonished the conservators.  Because instead of finding the backs looking like the image given by Thornton Wilder, instead what they found was a mirror image of the front, but done in different colors from the front.  The tapestries were basically two different tapestries woven into one.  It turns out they were even more amazing than anyone had known about for centuries.  If God is weaving a tapestry that is what I imagine God’s tapestry looks like, and that we not only participate in it, but that we can also see it before our eyes.

But even though this idea that everything happens for a reason and that God is responsible might be the most popular reasoning given for our question of why bad things happen, it is also the least biblical.  While it might be used to explain natural phenomenon, although as we already discussed even that is a stretch with modern understanding, it cannot be used to explain human behavior and why we do bad things to ourselves and to each other.  All we have to do is look at scripture to see time and time and time again that God is not in control of what is happening because people are constantly doing things that God does not want them to do.  We can start with Adam and Eve and move our way through and we see this is what is happening.  Why does God bring destruction in the flood as recounted in the Noah story?  Because God is totally exasperated at what people are doing.  Why is Jerusalem being destroyed?  Because Israel didn’t do what God wanted.  Scripture continually tells us about all the ways that we disobey God, but it also tells us about the ways that people remain faithful even in the midst of suffering.

But let’s just say for a moment that God is in control of everything and that everything happens because God, at the very least, allows it to happen.  That means that a daughter who is sexually molested by her father, that’s part of God’s plan.  An infant who is born with a genetic disease and dies shortly after birth, that is part of God’s plan.  The kindergartener’s who were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary, God wanted them to die, it was part of God’s plans.  That what Hitler did was not some massive tragedy, or maybe not even evil, because it was part of God’s plans.  God needed 11 million people to die in concentration camps, and maybe at the end of time we’ll all be told why.  If God caused it, allowed it to happen, then that means that God willed it to happen.  God wrote this piece into your life story.  Is that really what we believe?

In responding to this very claim, a woman whose infant died at the age of six weeks said, “There is no way that the death of an innocent six-week old… is part of some master plan.  And if it is then I’m simply not interested in the God that has that plan.”  I agree.  If that is the God who created the universe then I will put down my Bible, fold up my degrees and hand in my ordination, because that is not a God I can believe in, and it’s certainly not a God who is worthy of worship and praise.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his masterful work When Bad Things Happen to Good People said, “To try to explain the Holocaust, or any suffering, as God’s will is to side with the executioner rather than with his victim, and to claim that God does the same.”

We are told that we are made in God’s image, so where does our sense of justice, of righteousness, of kindness, of generosity, of mercy come from?  Where do we get our sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, of decency and virtue, but from God?  So how can we possibly say that we find the holocaust, or the death of a kindergartner through random and senseless violence evil and repugnant unless God too finds them evil and repugnant?  How can we cry out to God in the midst of our pain if God doesn’t have any qualms with our pain, and in fact is the one who inflicted it upon us?  Is it possible that we have a better and more just sense of right and wrong or good and evil than God does?  I think that’s what we say when we say that God is responsible for everything, and that it is all part of God’s plan, that our understanding of good and evil are not complete.  I reject that idea, while I might not understand true justice, mercy, kindness, or righteousness, I know that my understanding of them is just a fraction of what God’s is and God guides me in my understanding.

I do not believe for even one minute that my brother’s cancer was given to him by God.  I do not believe for even one minute that the children of Sandy Hook died because it was God’s will.  I do not believe that the 316,000 people killed in the earthquake in Haiti, or the 283,000 killed by the tsunami in South Asia, were killed because it was God’s will.  When the Rev. William Sloan Coffin’s son was killed in an automobile accident, in an attempt to comfort him, and perhaps also to defend God, Coffin was told that “it it God’s will,” and Coffin thundered, “The hell it is.  When my boy was killed, God was the first who cried.”    The God that I believe in, the God that I know and read about in scripture, and the God that I worship knows what it is like to lose a son to senseless violence.  He knows what it is like to hear his son cry out in the midst of pain and suffering, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” and he knows the pain of watching his son take his last breath, because we are told that when that happened that the sun’s light failed and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two and I believe that that was God’s cry of pain and anguish.

But, even though we might say that everything happens for a reason, we don’t actually live our lives as if it’s true.  Because if it’s true, why do we ever go to a doctor to get better, if it’s God’s will then we will either get better or we won’t?  Why do we go to war to stop the Hitler’s of the world?  After all what they are doing is God’s will, so why are we trying to stop it?  Why do we wear seat belts, or even more why do we drive safely at all?  Why not just drive like maniacs because if it’s God’s will for us to live or die, then it’s not dependent upon what we do or don’t do?  Or more importantly for us as Christians, if everything is God’s will then we do we bother to pray, because any prayer that we lift up is just interfering with God’s plans?  With everything being God’s plan and being preordained, then prayer, which we will look at next week, is nothing more than a bunch of hot air thrown out to a God who is completely indifferent to us and to the world.

I suspect that deep down most of us do not really believe that everything is God’s plan.  As United Methodists, or at least as people who subscribe to Wesleyan theology, we also believe in free will, and that we have the ability to do God’s will and the ability not to do God’s will, and when we don’t do God’s will then bad things tend to happen.  We have within us the capacity to commit acts of absolute evil, but we also have within us the possibility to create acts of absolute beauty and love as well, but the choice lies within us.

We are told that at the beginning of creation, that everything was formless, that it was chaos, and that out of the chaos God created the earth and the heavens.  I am of the belief that creation is not done, and I see that every day I wake up.  I need look no further than my daughters to see creation still taking place, although I can see it in other places as well, and that means that there is still chaos in the world, which means that bad things happen, things that God does not ordain to happen, but which happen nonetheless.  Albert Einstein once famously said that his God did not play dice with the universe, and so he spent his life trying to disprove portions of quantum mechanics, but he was not successful.  There is even now a field of science which studies chaos theory.  This answer may be totally unsatisfactory to some of you, and obviously because of time I did not answer all concerns or all ideas, and we’ll try and touch on some of them in the next two weeks.  But here is the good news for those of you who think that what I just said is a heresy because everything is God’s will, you can’t be mad at me because it was obviously God’s will to say what I said.  And let me also say that I am not saying that God is not involved in the world, because I would not be standing here before you if God had not muddled in my life and called me into the ministry.

But here is the ultimate point: While God is not responsible for all the things we go through, the one thing we can be sure of is that God is with us as we go through them.  When we get rid of God because of our suffering or the suffering of others, we have not changed the reality of that suffering, all we have done is get rid of the only source of hope and strength and peace and assurance and healing that can be found in the midst of those events and God can bring something good out of the midst of tragedy, suffering and turmoil, not because God caused it, but because God walks with us through it.  God will be with us through everything that goes on in our lives, that is the promise we receive from God.  But today the last word comes from Rabbi Harold Kushner, who I already quoted from earlier.  His first son died of progeria, or early aging disease, at the age of 14, and he writes of the events that affect our lives, “These events do not reflect God’s choices.  They happen at random, and random is another name for chaos, in those corners of the universe where God’s creative light has not yet penetrated.  And chaos is evil; not wrong, not malevolent, but evil nonetheless, because by causing tragedies at random, it prevents people from believing in God’s goodness.”

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