Friday, June 7, 2013

Suffering --- What Is the Question? --- What Is the Answer?

RCL Proper 10C
9 June 2013

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
       Today we hear the stories of two similar miracles.  Miracle stories are, in my opinion, two-edged swords.  On the one hand a miracle story encourages us by offering us hope as we face human suffering, whether our own suffering or the suffering of others.  On the other hand a miracle story always begs some uncomfortable questions that touch our hidden fears and unspoken doubts.

       Today's miracles are almost identical.  In 1 Kings the prophet Elijah is led to the home of a widow with one son, her only 'social safety net' in the ancient world of extended families and patriarchal power.  Elijah has miraculously brought the widow and her child safely through a famine brought on by drought.

       The child's death shortly after the famine passes is surely a low blow to his mother.  Even Elijah finds it a bit perplexing!  But Elijah throws himself on God --- and then on the child!  The child is revived and we are left to suppose that he and his mother live happily ever after.

       Let's jump ahead a few centuries to the time of Jesus.  Palestine is occupied; political turmoil is in the air; women, especially widows, are no better off than they were in Elijah's time.  Jesus, at this point in Luke's gospel, is on a bit of a roll; he's just healed the centurion's servant --- with a little help from the centurion's surprising faith.  Jesus leaves Capernaum and travels to Nain, some sixteen kilometres north of Capernaum.  There he encounters a familiar sight in first-century Palestine:  the burial of a man untimely dead.  Jesus does what he often does in the gospel of Luke:  he fixes the problem.  The young man is raised, the widow given back her security and the crowd --- by 'crowd' read 'those of us who are listening or reading Luke's gospel' --- are given another reason to believe that Jesus is the Beloved of God, the Christ of promise.

       All this is the sound of the first edge of the sword we call 'miracle' swishing through the air and slicing through the Gordian knot of human suffering.  But there is a crueler edge to this sword, the difficult-to-answer, sweat-in-the-night-producing questions miracle stories raise.  I'm glad Elijah resuscitated the widow's son, but what about all the other widows' sons who don't have a live-in prophet?  How lucky the widow of Nain is that Jesus just happens to be passing by, but what about all the other widows' sons from towns not on Jesus' itinerary?  Does God not care about the others?  Swish!  Through the air the double-edged sword flashes and the second cut cuts even deeper than the first.

       Throughout the millennia there is one question that has troubled believers and delighted scoffers:  Why do bad things happen to good people?  At some point in our lives, whether in the past or the present, each one of us has asked this question.  I know that when David was born with a cleft lip and palate, Paula and I, who had lost a child the summer before and who had been so careful during this pregnancy, asked ourselves this question in one of its many forms.

       No doubt we have heard or offered ourselves a variety of answers.  Some people blame God for either causing or allowing suffering.  Other people blame themselves or see themselves as victims of known or unknown forces at work in the world.  Still others see suffering as a necessary part of the universe that helps us gain insight into what is good in contrast to what is not.  Time constrains me from exploring all the possible ways we answer this question.

       I will tell you in whom I believe and hope.  I believe and hope in the Love who gave birth to the universe and who is unimaginably greater than anyone can fathom.  I believe and hope in the Love who came among us in Jesus of Nazareth and who heals and reconciles in ways humanity has ever conceived.  I believe and hope in the Love who breathes life into all living creatures and who whispers wisdom into the hearts, souls and minds of any who is listening.

       My faith and hope in this Love does not insulate me from the pain, suffering and despair that I and others endure.  This Love does not lead me to unreasonable fantasies that entice me into inaction, hoping that all my troubles and the troubles of others will be suddenly relieved as though we had won a divine Lotto 649 or Lotto Max.  What this Love leads me to do and become is what Saint Paul says when he writes that 'suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.'  (Romans 5.3-5)  Saint Paul is not trying to explain why we suffer; he only offers us a perspective on who we can be even when we suffer.

       So, when miracles occur --- and they do --- let us give thanks, but let us not fret when miracles do not occur.  When someone experiences a miracle --- and they do --- let us be glad for them, but let us not become envious or despairing.  The Love who created all things is still at work making all things new.  The Love who healed us is still at work breaking down all that stands between us and this Love.  The Love who inspired the prophets and the apostles is still singing songs of hope and wisdom into the ears of our hearts, souls and minds so that we have the courage to endure with patience the race that is set before us.

       Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do the innocent suffer?  I do not know.  But I do know this:  when bad things happen, good people rise to the occasion.  They are raised up by the Love in whom they trust and in whom they hope.  Amen.

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