** a quick note: the congregation had submitted questions to me about theological quandaries. Thus starts a sermon series attempting to answer**
If we took the time for all of you to share, I have no doubt all of you would have a story. But the underlying theme of all of our stories could be “when bad things happen to good people.” We all have a story that falls into that category–no doubt. Maybe it was the story of a young married couple excited at the arrival of their first child but had to make plans to bury their stillborn instead. Perhaps it was a friend or family member who was driving home and was the victim of a drunk driver. We could have hundreds of examples. We could also talk about why illnesses like cancer even is allowed to affect children. Most likely we don’t struggle with these questions daily, but when we do, it can almost be all-encompassing. When we engage in debates, questions, conversations around the topic of “why do bad things happen to good people” it’s called theodicy; basically, why does a good God not prevent evil things?
It’s interesting because we never ask why good things happen to bad people. If we do ask these questions, it’s usually out of judgement. Why does that criminal get 3 meals a day and cable tv while they’re in jail? But I digress. I am sure more than once you’ve heard me talk about a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness. I hope you’ve heard me talk about a God that loves you beyond your wildest imaginations. I pray you’ve heard me talk about a God that will never abandon you or leave you forsaken. I think that’s part of the reason why we struggle with God, and life, when difficult things come along. The temptation may even be there to say “ok God, if you’re so good, what are you thinking when this happens? Or when that happens?”
We humans, especially westerners, are a strange species sometimes. We want definite answers for everything. We like the idea that if you take 2 plus 1 you will get 3 every time. We know that you stop on red and go on green. We know that if you add yellow plus blue you will get green (does anyone else remember that Ziploc commercial?). We like to deal in definites. We like to be right. We like to win. I actually once heard a comedian joke that the reason Americans don’t like soccer is because at the end of 60 minutes, the score can still be 0-0 and the game will be over. That’s not how we work. We like a winner and we like a loser. Again, we like definite things.
And here’s where it gets messy. Our God is anything but definite. None of us know what God will or won’t do. Our faith is what keeps us holding on; and our faith is a gift. Here is what I can say without any doubt are definites about God: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and nothing can separate us from God’s love. How do I know this? (sing) The Bible tells me so. But, I am going to let you in on a few things that I’ve been thinking about and praying about in regards to this topic, and I hope it’s just the start of an ongoing conversation.
Let me get the big question out of the way first. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? I don’t know. But, I do believe that God is not some benevolent overlord that just waits for us to screw up so that God can laugh. I don’t believe that God has some kind of massive switchboard up there and says “you know, things have been going a little too well for little Jane or little John, I’m going to change things up a bit” and then throws a switch. I just refuse to believe that happens. But I also am going to respond with this: we are the body of Christ. We are God’s hands, feet, arms, heart, and ears in this hurting world. So why do we allow bad things to happen to good people?
I know we can’t stop every drunk driver, or every stillbirth, or every suicide, or every whatever tragic events we encounter. But we can advocate for justice, peace, understanding, and reconciliation. We can’t stop cancer. But, we can work to find cures through walks, bake sales, and encouraging our representatives in congress to pass medical laws that make drugs for such diseases easier to afford. We can’t stop stillbirth, but we can choose to share our stories if it happens to us, or do the Lutheran thing–show up with a casserole. We can’t stop suicides. But what we can do is have real conversations about mental illness and treat mental illness just like any other illness and not like something of which to be ashamed. I talked last week about making ripples, and things like this are the perfect example.
I think that one of the best things we can do for someone who is speak promises to them. Speak the truth in love (as it says in Ephesians). Sometimes speaking the truth in love means that you have to be willing to say “you know what, this sucks.” Being a disciple doesn’t mean sugar coating everything all the time. I think the most helpful thing you as a disciple can do is say “I know this is horrible, and I know it doesn’t feel like it, but God has not abandoned you. I know it may not feel like it, but God does not abandon us. And if it feels that way, I am just going to pray that it doesn’t last long.” Be a friend that listens, not attempting to fix anything but just listen. And be a friend that is present. Long after a really crappy thing happens (like a death) there are times when the crowds leave, the casseroles are long gone, and more coffee has been consumed than humanly possible that the stillness and silence are deafening. That’s when disciples, like you and I, need to be present. That is when we are the body.
I get it. This is not an easy topic. It’s one of the things I struggle with the most. I get angry with God. I get frustrated with God. I yell at God a lot. But in the end, I find that it is God who comforts me the most. In our Gospel reading today Jesus says “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus isn’t talking about literal hunger but metaphorical hunger. I am giving you permission right now to be angry with Jesus, to be ticked with God, and to yell at the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t mean that your faith has failed you. That means your faith is strong. When you argue with your spouse, kids, best friend, or whomever, it doesn’t mean that you don’t love them, but only that they’ve done something that displeases you. So it is with God. God is big enough for us to be angry with God. So instead of offering Hallmark style sentiments (just trust me when I tell you not to tell a parent who has lost a child that God must have needed another angel–it’s horrible theology) offer this: God loves you enough that you can yell at God and God will still love you.
We come to God in many ways, and anger is one of them; but, we’re still coming. And we will still be fed. Bad things will always happen. Bad things happen because sin is very real and very present. But, we have a God who died so that in the end all of our pain will be removed and we will find ourselves in our heavenly home at a feast unlike any we’ve ever seen. We are the body and we love because we were first loved by God. Being disciples doesn’t mean that we are immune to bad things happening to us. It means that when the bad things do happen, we have a safety net in which to land. We will be fed. And we will be comforted, even when we’re angry.