Why do bad things happen to good people? This is a question that has been asked probably since that darned apple was consumed in the garden. It’s asked in various ways, but it all boils down to that same question of bad things happening to good people. There’s a fancy word for this kind of questioning and thinking. It’s called theodicy. And, I’ll be honest friends, it’s kind of a wormhole question that sucks ya down and won’t let go very easily. The other thing is, questions like these cannot be answered in this lifetime. That doesn’t mean we should (or will) stop asking them. But knowing that they have no answers may actually come as a relief. Or, perhaps, it is just a source of frustration. Add it to the list of things you’d like to discuss with God when we all get to where we’re (hopefully) going.
Much of our text for today deals with these theodicy questions. Those poor Galileans. It’s like Pilate didn’t even care about their sacrifices. Why did this happen to the Galileans? What did they do to deserve that? And those poor people in the tower of Siloam. 18 people died! How does that happen? What did they do? It sounds silly when we talk about it in relation to the text. But, even just this last week I’ve heard theodicy voiced in other ways. One of the worst, most vile was in relation to the floods in Nebraska. Now, mind you, I’m heartbroken about these floods. Nebraska is a place I consider one of my homes. I know and love people who live there. Someone somewhere suggested that the floods are happening because Nebraska, as a state, voted for President Trump. That is terrible theology. I heard several forms of theodicy wrestled with after the tragedy at ADM. As I said, we’re going to ask these questions knowing full well we’re not going to get any answers.
Honestly, quite often, we use questions that we wrestle with in times of theodicy to avoid what Jesus is really calling us to: repentance. Of course, that may lead to even more confusion. What in the world do repentance and theodicy have to do with one another. If the classic question is “why do bad things happen to good people” and I (personally) had nothing to do with that bad thing, then why would I need to repent of anything? Good question. I want to start with the idea of repentance and focus on two aspects: individual repentance and corporate repentance. Now, I may use the word corporate off and on and I am using it to talk about a group of people, not an actual corporation. If we were to repent of something as an entire church, that would be a corporate repentance.
Repentance is a church word. We pastor-types use it a lot with the assumption that you all know what we’re talking about. But it can also be one of those things that is said a lot but you’re really not exactly sure what it is. We especially talk a lot about repentance during Lent. Repentance is part of what we’re called to do to prepare ourselves for the trial, execution, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus. So, repentance literally means to turn around. It means that you’re going to do a 180 in your life. You will be letting go of old thinking. It’s more than saying that you will do better, it’s actually doing better. Repentance means you’re actually going to change. We often talk about confession and forgiveness. But our confession and forgiveness is actually three-fold: (1) confession, (2) forgiveness, and (3) repentance. Whole-hearted repentance means that we gain or establish a new perception of what is real and true. And yes, we’re going to even screw up repentance. We may fall back into our old ways. But, if we’re actually trying to repent then God will be there with mercy and grace and forgiveness.
As I said, we have individual repentance and corporate repentance. Individual repentance is a bit easier to understand and talk about, so I am going to start there. This is repentance that is done usually only by you and you alone (with the help of God). I think about this in our relationships: marital, friendship, work, or otherwise. You did or said something wrong, you’ve been forgiven, and then you make it a point to NOT do or say that thing again. And yes, sometimes that’s easier said than done. I get it. After all, it seems we sometimes hurt the ones we love the most.
Corporate repentance is a bit more tricky and I think this is where we tend to get tripped up. I also think it’s a place where God is trying desperately to move and we keep fighting God at every turn. Corporate repentance is when a group of people make the decision to change their thinking and being in the world. Here’s a mundane example: let’s say you as a family are very distressed about destruction of the earth and the effects of global warming. It is impossible for you as a family to stop global warming. That would take the involvement of a lot more people. But, what you see as repentance for your involvement in the direct effects of global warming may be to start recycling.
Corporate repentance can also be done as a church. Did you know that our denomination, the ELCA, has started to acknowledge the hurts caused in the name of “progress and civilization?” When the church has met for large churchwide meetings and gatherings, there has been a moment when we acknowledge the Native American tribes that the land we’re now on used to belong to as well as lamenting the ways the land was taken from those tribes. We can’t rewind time. But, like I said last week, when we know better, we do better. Repentance is necessary to avoid theodicy type questions. Instead of blaming individuals for when bad things happen, repentance encourages us to look inward and question how we might have contributed to the problem.
To go back to what I talked about earlier, the flooding in Nebraska isn’t the fault of anyone here or anyone that lives in Nebraska. But, maybe it will encourage us to take a closer look at how we steward our waterways and land. Maybe we repent from disbelieving in things like climate change and start to have real conversations about how we respond to climate change. While we don’t know what happened at ADM, we repent from blaming Lt. Hosette or FF Cain of course. But maybe we also have more conversations about workplace safety, or why people feel the need to work long hours. I don’t know. Repentance is hard. God is with us when we do it, for sure, but it is hard.
The result of repentance is this: fruitfulness. When we are fruitful (like the fig tree in our story) then we are better equipped and prepared to respond to the brokenness in the world. Repentance starts with seeing people. We see their humanity instead of their shortcomings. After all, that is what we desire for ourselves, right? We want people to see us for us, not for the ways in which we have failed. It’s almost as if (gasp) we want others to see us the way God sees us. We can pray that we view others the same way. I have said this time and time before, we don’t have broken people, we have broken systems. Repentance is the tool that helps us to repair broken systems. It is hard work, like I said. And yes, this work may not bear fruit in our lifetime. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in it. God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, empowers us in this work. You have been forgiven. You have been redeemed. Now, the work of repentance starts. It is time for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. We can’t just say that we repent, we must actually do it and model it for others. So next time, instead of asking “why do bad things happen to good people” maybe we repent of that thinking and ask why is there a broken system happening to anyone and what can I do about it?