The Right Rev. Eugene T. Sutton
Let us pray. Tell us what we need to hear, O God, and show us what we need to do to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well the good news today is that Jesus gives us two pieces of good news today. The bad news is that at least one of those teachings does not appear like good news, but it looks like bad news. But one surely piece of bad news occurs at the beginning of this Gospel Lesson.
Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to suffering and death, and having continual controversy with his critics, those hypocrites, those for whom Jesus is very concerned that they may be so hard-hearted as to be unable to repent. They come to Jesus and say, “Rabbi, have you heard the news today? There’s been another terrorist attack. Worshipers in the Temple from Galilee some say Samaritans—and we do know about them!—they were attacked while they were sacrificing. The soldiers of Pilate came and murdered them and mixed their blood into the sacrificed animals.” A terrible deed.
Jesus uses this opportunity to give them a wake up call about their own needs. And he said to them, “Do you think that those Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans?” Jesus senses the question behind the report. The question is, “Why them? Why did they suffer?” And Jesus went on further to say, “You remember last year’s report—the Tower of Salom? It fell. Why? We don’t know. Bad workmanship. Human error. Earthquake. For whatever reason that tower fell and eighteen were killed. Do you think those that were killed were worse offenders than those who were not? But, “Why?” they asked. Why did those innocent suffer, and we ask the same thing. Why, O Lord, please tell us. We want to know. Why did those Galileans die? Why did those who worshipped under the Tower of Salom die? Why did those twenty thousand die last year at that earthquake in India? Why did three thousand—almost—die on September 11th—those innocent ones who just went about doing their daily work in life. Why them, and not others? And you can add your own list.
Why me, O Lord? Why did I get this cancer? Did I do something wrong? Am I being punished for some past sin? Why did my father have to go through the suffering that he did? Was it the sins of his father? Or something else? Why did my grandchild, one woman says, why did my grandchild live to see the age of three months? Was it something we did? Whose fault was it? Are we being punished? Why do the innocent suffer? Why, O Lord, please tell us, Jesus. We are waiting to know.
And so Jesus gives the first piece of good news. And to that question he says, “No, you are not suffering because you are evil. God does not cause people to suffer, and certainly bad things do not happen to people because they are evil.”
But yet the question persists. It’s as old as the human race. Why, O Lord?
In the Scriptures, in the Book of Job, in the Old Testament, dedicates itself to that question. Job was a good man. Why should he lose everything? He served you, O God. Why did you inflict him with such pain? Psalm 37 asks the question. Psalm 73 asks the question. And in the New Testament in the Book of John, the ninth chapter, the Disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned? This man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” The question assumes that there is a direct correlation between sin and suffering. To those Disciples and in today’s Lesson Jesus denied that direct correlation.
But still the idea persists. Illness, poverty, disease, loneliness and death, is the punishment for sins known or unknown, things done or left undone. You would think that Christians would have settled that two thousand years ago in Golgotha, when Jesus on his way to horrifying death, brutalized, scourged and scandalized, this man who was holy, who was sinless, went through excruciating pain. You would think that the question would be answered there. “No, God does not reserve suffering and death to the guilty,” and “No, those who enjoy prosperity and good health are not doing so necessarily because of Divine favor.”
Even so, it persists.
A generation ago Thornton Wilder in his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey— that novel is the account of a priest’s effort to prove that the reason that that bridge collapsed with certain persons on it—five of them—was to be found in the moral flaws in the lives of those persons. Of course, the priests efforts, and all such efforts fail.
In his best-selling book several years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner tries to figure out—why do bad things happen to good people? Specifically, he tried to figure out why he and his wife, both very devout, faithful worshipers of God, faithful Jews—why did they lose their thirteen year-old son to progeria—a devastating disease that leads to painful and premature death? Kushner’s answer to this basic question is very interesting. He decides that God cannot be both all-powerful and all loving. His thinking goes something like this. If God is all-powerful, then that means that God causes all the suffering and all the agony in the world. It’s his fault—because he had the power to either affect it or to make the pain go away. But such a god, for Kushner and indeed for most of us—is unthinkable that such a God would be so sadistic as to inflict pain. So, the answer must be that God is not all power. This all-loving, always-compassionate God is unable to prevent suffering and pain. Instead, God chooses always to be with us in the midst of the agony, sharing the pain of what a powerless God has been unable to prevent.
Kushner’s answer is intriguing. And of course we, like him, knows that our suffering God is with us in the midst of the pain. But from a Christian perspective, that answer does not go far enough. You see, for Christians we are able to hold God as all loving and God as all-powerful. We hold those two together. The crucial distinction for Christians is not between love and power. But it is between power and control. The distinction: what is control? And what is power?
Now, over twenty years ago there was an interesting incident that made the news that would exemplify the difference. There is Mason, Tennessee, a small town in Tennessee, an amazing thing happened: an escaped convict from a Tennessee prison had turned himself in. Here’s the reason why: He escaped from prison, and he had picked up a gun, and there he came to the house of Louise and her husband Harold deGraffenried. Encountering the husband outside with the gun, he forced him inside, and there he met up with Louise. And then the trouble started. He had the gun, but Louise was not afraid of the gun. That short, black, grandmotherly woman told him, “Son, put that gun down, and I’m going to make you breakfast.” Now for those of you who have had any taste of soul-food breakfast, grits and homemade biscuits and eggs and all sorts of things with fat in it that we know in our hearts are good for you. You know, or you wouldn’t be surprised, that there are amazing restorative powers inherent in this kind of breakfast.
Well, while she was cooking this breakfast and letting the smells of that cooking reform him, she said, “Son, let me tell you about my faith. And she talked about her faith in a God who can get her through anything, and will get him through. And she talked about the power of this God to reform and to redirect lives. And before you knew it, somewhere in between those fried eggs and the sopping of molasses he laid down his gun. And she called the authorities. And he turned himself in. The escaped convict had control. He had the gun. But Louise deGraffenried had power. There is a fundamental distinction between control and power. His object of control could not move her. But the power she called upon moved him.
It’s important that we see that difference both in our personal lives and in our theology. It’s vital that we understand that God’s omnipotence is about power, not about control. This dunamis (in Greek), this power of God, is not a controlling power. It is a power that disarms. It is a power that moves individuals and events towards God’s purposes. God is all power, but not all control. God has plenty of power, but little control. God gave up trying to control for the sake of love. And God is love.
Every couple, every couple in love, every man and wife, every father and mother with their children, knows this principle: if you try to control the other, you will not in fact love.
There’s an old song that I love so much growing up. It goes, “I’m going to make you love me; yes, I will, yes, I will.” Well we sang last week; I won’t ask you to sing this week on that. But what’s true for Motown is devastating for human beings. You can’t make someone love you. God can’t make us love God, or each other, because inherent, imbedded in creation, because of the sake of love, is freedom. Without freedom, there can be no love. We have to be freed up in order to love, create, reason, and live in harmony with God and creation. God does not control the cosmos or control human beings such that we are marionettes conforming always to the will of God. Where is the love in that? There can be no relationship in that.
But the price of freedom, as we all know, is loss of control. Do you need to be in control? Do you need God to be in control? The world does not hold together because of control. The cosmos are held together, theologically, because of freedom. Freedom.
God, then, does not normally extend the laws of nature for such controlling acts would sacrifice the freedom that is at the heart of creation, and would throw the creative order into chaos. If God were all controlling, then we would have no longer any basis for personal responsibility for our actions. Further, it would encourage judgementalism. If God controlled events, then what role do we have? And if God controlled events, and bad things happened, then to the extent that it happens to them, then it must prove that they are evil.
And that brings us back to the Gospel Lesson. “Rabbi, have you heard the news today? A new terrorist attack. Those people suffered. They were sinners. Those Samaritans. Those ones. So to answer that, Jesus gives the second piece of good news in our Gospel Lesson today, but in our world it sounds like bad news. That lesson was: Repent. Repent.
To repent does not mean to take on a woeful, sad demeanor. To repent is not self-flagellation. That’s neurotic. To repent simply means “to turn”, to change the direction. We may think of it as changing the direction in which we are searching for the good life, the fulfilled life, the abundant life, the fruitful life, that God intends for us.
As long as we focus our attention on events ‘out there,’ and ‘those people’’—whoever ‘them’ is, scapegoats, who are the object of our insecurity within ourselves. As long as the focus is ‘out there,’ we will never get to the abundant life that God intends. As long as we look for the world to give us the model for life, that model will always have a word in front of it—and that is ‘more.’ If only I have more what? Money? More power? More possessions? More security? More affection? More sex? More pleasure? More things? If only I had more!—then I would have a good life. Then I would be happy.
Jesus redirects by saying, “repent, turn, change,” don’t look “out there”; look inside. Reform. Renew. Refresh. Return. Repent.
What will you find inside? You will find the true you, that self that God created in freedom to conform to God’s will. It is that crucial turn, that focus inside, that gets us away from the question of why? But then the question for our lives becomes how. How can I love you and my neighbor and myself, Oh God, in this situation? No matter what happens. Because things happen we may never know why. It’s the created order of freedom. But my question is how?
How do I move on? How do I bear the fruit of love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control? How can I be a tree that bears that fruit?
May God help us to ask that question today, and thus repent.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.