Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why?: God After Auschwitz

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  We began a new sermon series on the questions of why. The text was Psalm 91:

I know that there are some people who can tell you exactly which each of the Psalms are about, and what psalm you should read for just about any occasion, but I am not one of those people.  I came across the psalm because it is one that Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens promotes, and last week after the Ravens beat the Denver Broncos he was giving thanks to God for giving him the talent, which is okay, and for giving the Ravens the victory, which I have some problems with.  Of course as he was saying this Peyton Manning was walking away, and I turned to Linda and said that God must like the Ravens more than he likes Peyton Manning, although since Denver unceremoniously got rid of Tim Tebow maybe God was indeed punishing them.  But far too many people are under the greatly mistaken belief that if you believe in Christ, that if you do what God wants you to do and are faithful that our lives with be sunshine and lollipops.  That is certainly what the Psalm that we just heard seems to imply: Believe in God and everything will be grand, we will have no worries, God will take care of everything and we will be eternally protected from anything going wrong.  But when we read the 91st Psalm we know that it doesn’t ring true.  When we look around we don’t see only the wicked being punished, and I use that word lightly, but instead we find ourselves asking why do bad things happen to good people.

And there were two stories from the past few weeks that prove this point that have left two different churches rocked to their core.  From the outside, Harriet Deison appeared to have the perfect life.  Born into one of Dallas’ oldest, wealthiest and most respected families, she married her college sweetheart Pete, who became a Presbyterian minister, with whom she had two daughters, who had given her nine grandchildren.  In addition to her work with the church, she was well known and respected in the Dallas gardening community, she was a judge for the garden club of America, but she also battled crushing episodes of depression for much of her life, and it was in one of those bouts of depression that she went to a gun store on the outskirts of Dallas, bought a gun, then went out to the parking lot and became a victim of suicide.  Leaving behind a mourning family, community and lots and lots of questions.

And then there was Rev. Terry Greer, pastor of a large United Methodist Church in Alabama, who is accused of shooting his wife to death last week, before shooting his daughter, who was able to wrestle the gun from him and flee from the house, probably saving her own life.  Rev. Greer then took a kitchen knife and proceeded to stab himself in the chest and neck multiple times trying to take his own life.  Leaving another community shocked and full of questions, trying to figure out exactly how something like this could happen and where God is in all of this.  Where is God in the midst of tragedy and turmoil, in the midst of suffering and pain, in the midst of disaster and despair, in the midst of the darkness and heartbreak that surrounds us?

When we hear about yet another school shooting we wonder why six year olds are being killed.  When we hear about a natural disaster hitting someplace, sometimes killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions more, we ask questions.  When we hear about the 25,000 people who dies of starvation each day, including 17,000 children, we wonder why this takes place in a world that has enough food to feed everyone.  When we hear about the 2,000 children who die every day because they contract malaria from a mosquito bite, which could be solved with a net which costs only ten dollars, we wonder where God can be in all this.  If God is good, and kind, and loving, and just, and all the things that we claim about God, then how can there be evil in the world, how can there be pain and suffering?

This is known as theodicy, and so we are going to be spending the next four weeks trying to deal with some of these issues, trying to answer some of the why questions.  The answer I give to these questions is going to be very different from where some of you are, and certainly some of the answers typically given by the church.  So like when we covered the book of Revelation, I am going to ask you to listen to what I say with an open mind.  For some of you it will provide you with an answer you might have been thinking but had never before heard and it will provide you with some comfort.  For others it might rock what you had been taught and thought, and maybe leave you a little unsure of what to believe anymore.  And a third group might just get angry and simply say, it can’t be that way, I refuse to believe it, and that’s okay.  But if you are in one of the last two groups I do ask that you still pay attention and take to heart so that you might be able to better respond to those who are dealing with these questions in a different way and be very cognizant of what you are saying to them, or how what you are saying can and often is interpreted by others which leads them not into relationship with God, but instead away from God.

Langdon Gilkey has said that “the reality of evil in our world is the greatest intellectual threat to the convincing power of Christian theology….”  And I would add that this is true because the answers that have been given by the church simply don’t work anymore when seen through the lens of the Holocaust.  I can tell you that in my work with youth and young adults, that this question of theodicy, how can there be a God of love and have the suffering in the world, is one of, if not the, question that leads them away from the church.  When they begin hearing about six million Jews, reportedly God’s chosen people, along with another five million others who were killed in concentration camps, or the twenty million Russians who were killed in the war, they want some answers, and to be honest the answers that the church has typically given just don’t work anymore.

In his seminal work, Night, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Eli Wiesel tells of his experiences as one of the few people to have survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  One of the stories he recounts was of an execution that he and his fellow prisoners were forced to watch.  As they were coming back from work, they saw the gallows had been set up along to execute three prisoners including a young boy who had been accused in a plot of stealing some items.

“The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs.  In unison the nooses were placed around their necks.  “Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.  But the boy was silent.  “Where is merciful God, where is He?”  someone behind me was asking.  At the signal the three chairs were tipped over.  Total silence in the camp.  On the horizon, the sun was setting….  Then came the march past the victims.  The two men were no longer alive.  Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish.  But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…  and so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.  And we were forced to look at him at close range.  He was still alive when I pass him.  His tongue still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.  Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?”  and from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows.”  That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”

Every time I read that quote, I am not quite sure what Eli Wiesel means by his claim that God is on the gallows.  The first interpretation could be that God is with us through everything and so God is there with those who were being executed, just as God was there with those who continued on in the camps.  The second interpretation could be that God is dead.  That this manifestation of evil, the suffering being inflicted on those in the concentration camps, has killed God, or at the very least rendered our understanding of God completely and totally obsolete, and either our understanding of God has to change or we have to get rid of the idea of God altogether.  I think that maybe Wiesel meant both, because for a while he did indeed turn away from his faith (death of father), but he has since returned although his comprehension of and understanding of God has forever been changed, as it must, just as it does for us when we undergo some tragedy or suffering that brings us to our knees crying out to God and asking why or where is God?

But for an ever increasing proportion of the population the answer given by religion, or at least by the church is no longer convincing.  In order to begin to answer that question we have to start with the reality that it’s okay not only to question God about that, but even to be angry and yell at God about these types of situations.  One time I said that during worship and afterwards someone asked me whether I really thought it was okay not only to question God, but even worse to be mad and yell at God, and I told her that not only did I think it was appropriate but it might even be necessary.  She disagreed.  But how can we say that we are in relationship with God if we are not being honest with God about what is really going on in our lives and what we are thinking and feeling?  And do we honestly think that God is not big enough or strong enough to deal with us being mad at God?  If God can’t handle it, then God is not really God.  In addition, what we find throughout scripture is people crying out to God, people questioning God, and people seeking answers to their questions about why people, or why they, suffer.  We need look no further than Jesus’ cry on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus is actually quoting the 22nd Psalm here.  The Psalms are the longest book in the bible, and 1/3 of all the Psalms are complaint psalms, or psalms of lamentation.  Listen to some other lines from the 22nd Psalm, or this from the 13th Psalm.  The scriptures, and in particular the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, is filled with people not only questioning God, and crying out to God, but also a search for answers.  The longest of the prophets is Jeremiah, known as the crying prophet, who are traditionally wrote the book of Lamentations, and if he did indeed write both then the most writings by one person in scripture are of this person crying out to God.  Then, of course, there is the book of Job, widely regarded as one of the greatest epic poems in literature, in which the main character is a righteous man who is afflicted with tragedy and suffering, and in which Job seeks answers to his questions about why he is suffering when he has been faithful and righteous.  But as it turns out there is not one consistent answer given about why there is suffering in the world, and what we have to remember is that the Bible is a document that is in conversation with itself, and because it’s a conversation it is not universal in its witness to the answers to the questions we ask.

But the answers that are sort of typically given are that everything happens for a reason, that God is in control of everything, and so things happen because God wants them to happen, even if we can’t discern the reasons why.  Or things happen because there is evil in the world, often personified in the person of Satan.  Or things happen because of sin in the world.  I have presided over funerals for an 18-month-old boy, for people who lived with advanced Alzheimer’s for long periods of time, for a teenager who died of a drug overdose, for people who died from suicide, for a man who went into the emergency room three days before his only child was to with a splitting headache and less than a month later he was dead of a brain tumor.  I have worked with people who suffer from chronic pain, those who have been sexually and physically abused, as children and as adults, people who have been left by a spouse, parents who have lost children,  and people whose worlds have been turned upside down, and none of the answers we typically hear, or that we give, are satisfactory to me or to increasing millions of people.  We have to talk about God differently than we ever have because of the reality of Auschwitz, and so next week we will look at those answers and I will tell you what I find in scripture for why there is suffering and pain in the world.

But the last word for today comes from another survivor of Auschwitz whose words are recorded in a book entitled The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors.  He says, “It never occurred to me to question God’s doings or lack of doings while I was an inmate of Auschwitz, although of course I understand others who did….  I was no less or no more religious because of what the Nazis did to us; and I believe my faith in God was not undermined in the least.  It never occurred to me to associate the calamity we were experiencing with God, to blame him, or to believe in him less or cease believing in him at all because he didn’t come to our aid.  God doesn’t owe us that, or anything.  We owe our lives to him…”  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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