When I was studying preaching in divinity school, I found that one of the difficulties in writing a sermon was that there was no congregation. The sermon was more an academic exercise than a pastoral response to the real needs of people. I was writing the sermon for my professor and preaching it to classmates, but the real flesh and blood people in the pews were absent.
That changed when I got into a parish. Here were real people with real joys and sorrows, real problems and pains, people with spiritual needs, physical needs, and emotional needs together in one congregation.
Because Anglicans usually sit in the same pew week by week, as I wrote my sermon I would picture in my mind the people I would be preaching to that Sunday. Who were these people? What were they experiencing in their lives? How were they coping with the ups and downs of daily life?
What I came to realize is that almost every person in any congregation has some kind of burden in their lives. Some people are going through enormous suffering. Others are facing the prospect of death. Others are transitioning from their home to an apartment or even to a care facility. Some are just struggling to survive without going hungry or homeless.
There’s the man in the back who is still mourning the loss of his wife who died after a bout with Alzheimer’s. He’s so lonely that he doesn’t know what to live for anymore. There’s the heartbreak of the young divorced woman with three children. She wonders how she is going to keep her house without going bankrupt. There’s the father struggling with alcoholism who pretends to be a model citizen while his inner life is in disarray. There are the parents struggling with children using drugs or making bad choices. One family sits in the pew stone-faced, still grieving over their son who was killed in a car accident.
If we look at our own web of connections, I suppose every one of us in this church know people who are in some kind of pain or suffering. Maybe it’s a physical disease or mental illness; maybe it’s a relationship breakdown or a financial crisis; maybe it’s losing a job or losing a loved one, but to live on this earth is to experience the ache of the human heart.
And when we ask why God made a world with so much suffering, we are never satisfied with the answer – as if there is an answer. What did we do to deserve this? Why does God allow it? Doesn’t God care about us?
These questions were asked of Jesus two thousand years ago. Pilate had killed some Galileans who happened to be innocent of any crime. Why did they die? Were they greater sinners than other people? Or take the case of the eighteen people who died when a tower collapsed and fell on them. Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem that God singled them out for death? Did they really get what they deserved?
In both cases Jesus denies there is any connection between tragedy and sin. The Galileans were not the worst sinners in Galilee; those killed by the falling tower were not the worst sinners in Jerusalem. So to the question of whether tragedy or suffering is punishment from God for sin, the simple answer of Jesus is – “No!”
But why do tragic things happen in this life? After all, couldn’t God have made a better world than one with so much suffering and pain? Jesus doesn’t answer that question. He just assumes that tragedy and suffering are part of the human condition. Bad things happen all the time, whether they are tornadoes or earthquakes or hurricanes, or people getting cancer, or dying of heart disease, or mass-murderers killing innocents in the Middle East or on the streets of Paris or a public school in the United States. Bad things happen, because this is the way the world is. And this should not surprise us.
In a world shaped by God’s creativity – freedom is central to the energy of that creativity. And freedom means that God gives up some control and power – not because God is impotent, but because God is love. In other words, an all-powerful God allows evil and suffering in order to preserve the freedom of creation. Tragedy happens in the creative energy, the randomness, and the freedom of natural law. Tragedy happens in the perverse human freedom of moral law. And being true to the promise of freedom, God does not intervene. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. Or that God is absent – far from it. In fact, fear and intrigue and jealousy and ambition end up nailing God to a cross. And what does God do? God embraces the suffering. God endures the suffering. God transforms the suffering – into the creativity of new life.
So the question is not “why?” Why do bad things happen to good people? The question is “how?” How do we live in a world where pain and suffering simply happen? That’s why Jesus says, “Repent – or you will perish like they did.” Repent means to turn away from the “why” question and turn toward the “how” question! Turn away from blaming those in authority, or blaming God, or blaming the victims, or even blaming yourself. Instead stay close to God. Stay grounded and connected to God’s grace. Because then, when tragedy happens, God will sustain you. God will hang from the crosses of your tragedy and pain. God will weep with you. And God will never abandon you. You will suffer. You will die. But you will not perish – unloved and alone – when and if you stay close to God who is always close to you.
In Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a Franciscan friar explores the reason why five people died in the collapse of an Inca rope bridge in Peru. The friar investigates the lives of the victims, seeking some sort of cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die. Why were they on the bridge precisely at the moment when it collapsed? Were they being singled out for some reason? The friar interviews everyone he can find who knew the five victims. Over the course of six years, he compiles a huge book of all the evidence he had gathered to show that the beginning and end of the person is all part of God’s plan for that person. However, the friar is condemned for heresy and the book is banned.
And yet, the book finds a place at a convent of nuns who care for the deaf, the mentally ill and the dying. The novel ends with the Abbess’ observation, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
That phrase, “love, the only survival, the only meaning” has stayed with me over the years, and I commend it to you. Those words were cited by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his address at the 9/11 memorial service in St. Paul’s Cathedral. They were cited by at least two American news commentators after 13 people died in a bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007. The book itself has been referenced by a number of prominent writers from Ayn Rand and John Hershey to Stephen King.
“Love, the only survival, the only meaning” – that’s the key to responding to tragedy and suffering in our world and with ourselves. Tragedy happens. That’s the way life is. There is heartbreak and heartaches a plenty. So the question is not why bad things happen to good people, but how do we respond to tragedy, to the pain and suffering of the people around us.
The French writer Albert Camus wrote a story called The Plague. The setting is in Oran in North Africa, a city suffering from a plague. People were dying every day in great numbers, and the parish priest felt it his obligation to preach about what was occurring.
In his first sermon, he told the people that the plague had come upon them because of their sins. “Calamity has come upon you, my brethren, and you, my brethren, deserve it.”
Time passes, and still more people die, including children. Father Paneloux enters the pulpit for the second time. Now the priest is able to include himself. It is not just “your” sins, but “our” sins. The issue is whether, in the face of the plague, we will deny everything or affirm everything.
But when the plague continues its course, Father Paneloux returns to the pulpit for a third time, and the whole issue is recast. It is not now a question of punishment for our sins, and not a question of affirming or denying everything. The priest says to the people, “My brothers and sisters, each of us must be the one who stays.”
That’s what it comes down to, finally. It comes down to the issue of whether or not we will stay. The question is not why but how – how can we live into the future in life-giving ways? How can we live for something that will make this world a kinder, better place for the people around us? How can we show love in the midst of hate, kindness in the midst of cruelty, and compassion in the midst of suffering? How can we shine with the light of God even when the darkness threatens to overwhelm us?
Yes, I know… each day we are beset by our own tiredness, our weariness in holding on, hanging on, trying to make it through another week, another month. There is pain in the people around us and pain in our own selves and pain in our world. Sometimes we just don’t know if we can cope anymore. But finally, as Father Paneloux said to his parishioners, it comes to this: Each of us must be the one who stays.
Each day the hosts of darkness gather around my bed, around yours, and we have to decide whether to hide or to throw back the covers and get up. This is the day the Lord has made. I am the person, you are the person, who will either stay or flee.
So hang in there and keep the faith. Don’t stop loving. Don’t stop caring. Don’t stop showing compassion and kindness and mercy. Don’t close your heart to tragedy but open it wide to the people in need. No matter what happens, or how many times it happens, no matter how many towers fall or tornadoes hit or terrorists strike, no matter the anxieties, pains and sorrows in our own lives, God’s love is greater still.
God will prevail against all the heartbreaks and heartaches in our world, and in the power and strength of God, so shall we!
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
February 28, 2016
Text – Luke 13: 1-9
Lent 3, C