Thursday 25 February 2016

Sermon for Lent 3: A heads-up from Jesus on the mystery of evil

It’s awesome, though it shouldn’t be surprising,
that God still speaks to the church through the scriptures;
that the Gospel stories, written so long ago,
address contemporary issues and troubling questions.

Take our reading from Luke (13:1-9).
A number of Galileans offering sacrifice at the Temple
had been murdered by the local Roman police.
(Pilate was a particularly petulant and pitiless prefect.)
In another, unrelated incident in south Jerusalem,
a building, the Tower of Siloam, had collapsed,
crushing to death 18 people.
Don’t events like these happen all the time?
Does a week go by when, somewhere, there hasn’t been a mass murder,
or a gas-explosion or a house-fire suddenly extinguishing human life?
People just going about their daily business when –
bam! – thunder from a clear blue sky.
Why do bad things happen to ordinary people?

Some folk claim to have an answer, an explanation,
just as those who spoke to Jesus had an explanation:
calamity is a punishment for sin, personal or collective.
Some religious people offer the same kind of explanation today.
When Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans in August 2005,
destroying roads and buildings, devastating the economy,
and killing nearly 1,500 people;
or when a magnitude 8 earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010,
destroying 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings,
and killing over 300,000 people –
some church leaders knew exactly why these disasters had happened:
they were God’s righteous judgement –
in New Orleans, on all the drinking, gambling, and prostitution,
in Haiti, on the island’s practitioners of voodoo and demon-worship.
(Never mind the rather careless divine targeting.)

And as for people killing people – 9/11, for instance –
well, some American church leaders at the time said
that God was using the terrorists as agents of his anger
against atheists, liberals, feminists, and gays.
(Never mind – what’s the euphemism? – the “collateral damage”.)
No doubt some pious pundits said the same thing
about the November terrorist attacks in Paris –
when they weren’t scapegoating asylum-seekers
or demonising the entire community of Islam.

But why stop there?
Ordinary adults are one thing –
but what about children,
what about the massacres of innocents?
The 16 shot dead at Dunblane Primary School in March 1996?
The 20 shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2014?
The 500 killed in Gaza, in their homes, in hospitals,
during the Israeli offensive in the summer of 2014?
The thousands killed in Syria since the start of the civil war in March 2011?
Pray tell, what is the explanation for their deaths?
Did they get what was coming to them?
Or perhaps it was the fallout from the sins of their parents?
I mean, God was surely gunning for somebody, right?

This whole idea of offering a theological explanation
for such terrible events –
is it not a callous and repugnant response to horrendous evils?
And the idea that to explain such evils is somehow reassuring –
how do you work that out?
If, for instance, my child dies of a malignant disease,
and I am told by someone that it is all part of a providential plan –
is that supposed to make the tragedy easier to bear?
Is it not rather just the opposite?
For am I not now confronted with an even more horrendous evil:
God could have and might have intervened to save my child –
but he didn’t –
does this not turn God into a monster?
And this sociopathic deity I am supposed to worship and adore?

These are the kinds of issues that Jesus confronts in our reading.
He tells the crowd very clearly that this kind thinking –
drawing conclusions about divine retribution on human sinfulness
from catastrophes and atrocities –
it is not only arrogant and ignorant, it is toxic.
Those people who were offering sacrifice,
those people who were at the tower –
they weren’t killed because of any wrong-doing,
they weren’t being punished for their wickedness,
they weren’t getting what they deserved.
As the Clint Eastwood character William Munny says in the film Unforgiven:
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
As Hamlet puts it to Polonius:
“Use every man after his dessert, and who should ’scape a whipping?”

Jesus impatiently dismisses this kind of populist theology.
And why?
Because it assumes that God is basically just like us
(only infinitely bigger and more powerful) –
an idol whose mind we can read and whose purposes we can plot.
Because it is inevitably and conveniently self-serving –
a deity who endorses our own personal and religious agenda.
But, above all, because it is morally unintelligible,
because it expresses a grotesque distortion of the character of God,
the God we know not in natural suffering or human evil,
but in Jesus –
the one who is never vindictive, vengeful, or violent,
the one who is always gracious, merciful, and peaceful,
the one who would rather absorb than inflict suffering,
the one who would rather die than kill.

The theology of that crowd in Jerusalem,
the theology of mouthy church leaders with a hotline to heaven –
we can respond to it only with contempt and derision,
and to them with exasperation and pity.
There is simply no way to get from the Gospels to their God,
who, in fact, is an image of the devil.
The God of whom Jesus is the image –
he is not a cosmic micro-manager of malice – zap! –
he is a God who loves creation into being,
lets creation be in freedom,
and acts in creation as – and only as –
a God who preserves and sustains.

And then the second half of our reading.
After his discussion with the crowd, Jesus tells a story:
the parable of the fig tree.
(Do you like figs?)
At harvest time, the owner of an orchard comes to collect the fruit.
(Date and fig bread, sticky cinnamon figs, fig and blue cheese tart – yummy!)
One year, two years, three years the orchard-owner comes …
But no figs!
“What’s going on here?” he says to his gardener.
“This tree is a waste of space. Chop it down!”
The gardener pleads, “Please, sir, let’s give it another year.
I’ll loosen the roots, throw on some compost, throw in some TLC.
Who knows? Maybe next year …”

Doesn’t this story speak to us?
Jesus looks at us, and what does he see?
He sees that often we are dry, barren, fruitless.
But chop us down? No! He gives us time.
He is patient with us, very, very patient with us –
though he does tell us that Harvest time is coming,
so we should “repent”. That is:
“Quit judging others; mind your own business!
Examine your hearts!
Redirect your lives!
Reimagine the world!”
Because the Lord can use all the hands he can get
to help gather the ginormous crop he’s growing,
to prepare a mega-feast to feed the world.

And as for those perennially vexatious questions –
Why do bad things happen to the ordinary and the innocent?
Where does evil come from? –
Jesus doesn’t answer them.
Which is rather a heads-up, isn’t it?
Because if Jesus doesn’t answer them,
why should we presume to answer them?
With Jesus, we should simply get on with our practices of TLC
wherever we find people hurting –
whether saint or sinner, whether Christian or Muslim –
because such distinctions mean nothing to God.

Not that we shouldn’t ponder the problem of suffering –
and even ask, desperately, “Why, O God?”
We most certainly should.
But not as a question expecting an answer,
rather, as a prayer, a prayer of lament
(check out the Psalms – they are our teacher here),
which though they look like demands for an explanation,
are actually, deep down,
articulations of pain and protest,
and appeals for comfort and strength.
Such prayers will keep us honest, humble, and compassionate –
honest about our bewilderment at the experience of suffering,
humble about our impotence to probe the origin of evil,
and compassionate towards others in their anguish and grief.

Finally, this.
While the teaching of Jesus provides no answer
to the problem of suffering,
it does answer another question:
Why is it that, along with all the ugliness –
why do we find so much beauty in the world?
We talk about the mystery of evil –
but what about the mystery of good?
Where could it possibly come from?
It comes from God, of course!
The Reformers called God the fons omnium bonorum,
“the fountain of all good”.
The gospel of God is the gospel of God’s prodigal goodness.
If people do bad, does God love them any less,
and smite them from a height?
If people do good, does God love them any more,
and give them special privileges?
God is love, from all the way up to all the way down:
a love as inexplicable and indiscriminate as suffering,
a love as immeasurable and inexhaustible as goodness,
and a love that, finally,
will clarify the obscure,
fix the broken,
and renew creation.


roger flyer said...

Wonderful, thoughtful stuff, Kim. Thank you.

ChrisW said...

I find the passage beginning "the one who is never, vengeful or vindictive' simply astonishing. I have been reading the gospels recently and I would say that, prima facie at least, they reek of vengefulnes, vindictiveness and violence (albeit postponed until the afterlife.)

Tara Lynn Morgan said...

Wonderful post!

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