Saturday, August 9, 2014

What Shall Good People Do When Bad Things Happen?

RCL Proper 19A
10 August 2014

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28

Click here to listen to the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 Eucharist.

In May of 2002 the Government of British Columbia held a referendum on principles for the negotiation of treaties with First Nations.  This referendum generated considerable opposition led by the churches and by the Jewish community.  When the plans for the referendum were first announced, I was contacted by members of the Jewish community about the renewal of a Jewish-Christian dialogue that had been inactive for a number of years.  I readily agreed to participate and I obtained the support of Vancouver School of Theology as one of the sponsoring bodies.  This renewed dialogue has continued for twelve years, but not without its own ups and downs.

Certainly the various conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians have tested the friendships of the members of the Dialogue.  This most recent conflict between Hamas and Israel has been and, I think, will continue to be one of the more difficult trial for us.  No one with any genuine compassion and religious faith can tolerate attacks upon civilians, whether those civilians are Israelis living within the range of rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas or Palestinians living under air, ground and artillery attack by the Israeli Defense Force.

This conflict has been going on for such a long time and some of us may have even begun to experience the despair that the opponents will ever find the road to peace, regardless of whatever 'roadmap' is offered to them.  At the end of the week one of my closest friends said that peace in Israel and Palestine will only happen when their love for the children overcomes their hatred of each other.

Conflicts such as this one also raise questions for people of faith as well as fuel the energies of those who believe that religious faith of any kind is irrational and potentially dangerous to the common good.  In one sermon on one Sunday in the midst of August I cannot give a comprehensive answer to all of the questions nor can I convince the 'cultured despisers' of religious faith.  But I can offer some reflections on today's story from Genesis and one of the questions it raises.

Our old friend Jacob, now known as Israel, has reached old age and prosperity.  He has been reconciled to his brother, Esau, and know enjoys the blessings of plenty.  He has many wives, many children, many flocks and many servants.  But, as often happens, all of these things pale in the light of the child of his old age, Joseph.  I don't know about your families, but I do know that in my family, David and Anna have frequently accused me of spoiling Owen, our youngest.

Joseph is not only loved by his doting father, but he also seems to be beloved by God.  The ability to interpret dreams was considered a divine gift in the ancient world and it is reasonable to understand how such a gift might make others jealous of the recipient, especially if that person also 'loved best' by a parent.  Fortunately, most siblings do not take their jealousy and spite as far as Joseph's brothers who first plan to kill him and then, guided by their better angels, decide only to sell him into slavery.  Joseph is an innocent if not annoying member of the family who does not deserve the fate his brothers contrive for him.

At the heart of today's reading is an ancient question:  Why do bad things happen to good people?  In our Scriptures the Book of Job is an extended exploration of this question.  Job's so-called 'friends' give various answers to explain the suffering Job is experiencing.  By the end God finally enters into the debate and, in so many words, says, 'I am God and you are not.  You have no idea why such things happen, so I counsel you to remain silent.'  As we shall hear next week, the writer of this portion of Genesis believes that the evil that has been done to Joseph is part of a broader divine scheme to save the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God is ultimately in control, the writer suggests, so 'keep calm and carry on'.

My friends, I do not know why bad things happen to good people.  I do not fully understand why a rocket falls on someone who is merely doing her or his daily shopping or an artillery shell hits the home of a family celebrating the end of Ramadan.  I can, and do, hold accountable those who choose violence rather than peace, coercion rather than negotiation, but that is cold comfort for those whose loved ones have died.  I have no words to explain to them why the dispassionate laws of physics result in such tragedies.  I do not believe this evil is part of God's plan for the re-creation, reconciliation and renewal of creation.

Because I do not believe this, I have decided that to ask why bad things happen to good people is not always the right question, whether asked by a believer or a non-believer.  I think that the question we should be asking is this:  What shall good people do when bad things happen?

As part of my involvement in Jewish-Christian dialogue I have read accounts of the so-called 'righteous Gentiles', non-Jews who risked and, in some cases, lost their lives to protect Jews from the Nazis and other anti-Semites.  What fascinates me is this:  When these good people are asked why they risked their lives, they almost unanimously said, 'Because it was the right thing to do.'  They reject the title of 'hero' nor do they understand what they did as extraordinary; they understood their actions to be those of ordinary people who, in the face of great evil, simply did what was right.

No matter what the situation or conflict, good people act justly.  They work to ensure that no human being is treated as an object so that no human being is denied what he or she needs to live with dignity.  God people make personal sacrifices to achieve this.

No matter what the situation or conflict, good people commit themselves, their time, their talents and their treasure.  They understand that there is unlikely to be any short-term solution to the challenges they face and so they prepare themselves.  If a miraculous solution appears, they are not afraid to greet it, but they do not depend upon it.  They know that goodness must, like water upon a stone, persevere to overcome the evil they confront.

No matter what the situation or conflict, good people do not rely solely upon themselves.  They know that they need God's help and they seek that help through prayer, study and worship.  But they also know that one of God's greatest sources of strength is the life of the community of faith.  Within that community they gain the wisdom and insight that comes from the 'common mind' of people who share their commitment to overcome evil with good.

Whether our hearts are burdened with the conflict in Gaza or with the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in Iraq or with the degradation of our natural environment or with the challenge of creating a just society here in Vancouver, God sets before each one of us and before our community of faith the question:  What shall we good people do when such bad things happen?  And I do believe that we, with all our shortcomings, faults and failings, are 'good' people.  By gathering here, Sunday after Sunday, we declare to the whole world that we are committed to living and working out God's vision for us and for all creation.  By the choices we make with our time, our talents and our treasure, we declare to the whole world that we are committed to long haul.  By our many acts of faith, we declare to the whole world that we rely upon God and upon each other as we respond to the needs and concerns of our times.

That's what good people do.  They do not wring their hands and believe that they are powerless in the face of evil.  They keep calm and carry on, working with God and with others, whether of our faith or not, so that the 'good news' overcomes the darkness of sadness and despair.  Amen.

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