Sunday Message for 20 March 2022: “Stuff Happens”

Stuff happens. Terrible things occur all the time and our species has an insatiable appetite for asking why. For better or for worse, there’s no single, satisfying answer.

The human condition is fraught with peril and punishment, calamity and consequences. Disease, persecution and perplexing problems plague humanity. We needn’t dwell on the negativity but there’s also nothing wrong with trying to understand what’s going on.

It’s notoriously difficult to try and explain why bad things happen. Theologians and philosophers use the term “theodicy” to refer to studies of suffering. One of the vexing problems is that tragedies don’t necessarily happen only to bad people; disasters also happen to good and innocent people. It also troubling when death strikes randomly, with no apparent cause or explanation.

In many cases suffering arises from an obvious connection to someone’s choices. Consider how most people would not be surprised if you touched a hot stove and got burned. In this case, there’s a simple and observable cause and effect and it is your fault for acting recklessly. If, however, a young child is diagnosed with cancer then that’s different. The sense here is that the child is not guilty of anything and has done nothing wrong, made no choice to get a fatal disease and therefore should not suffer.

Skeptics of religion point to the way in which suffering among children and other classes of innocent, vulnerable persons counts against the existence of an almighty, all-powerful and loving God. They say that we needn’t be afraid to shake clenched fists toward heaven and demand why a loving God could simultaneously create and destroy the universe. Critics have valid points, and we need to be humble and admit that satisfactory responses to the problem of suffering don’t come easy.

Jesus addressed the topic of suffering when he discussed Pilate’s persecution of Jews and the collapse of the Siloam tower (Luke 13:1-9). In the first instance, the Roman Governor Pilate had Galileans killed, likely as a response to a threat against his imperial authority. About the people Pilate ordered killed, Jesus “asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:2-3). Pilate’s actions suggest that some of the bad things that happen are done for an explicit purpose and a single person is responsible for the evil.

As to the Galilean worshippers that Pilate ordered murdered, Jesus said that they were not being punished for their individual sins, that they were not worthy of death simply because of what happened to them. It is tempting to think that God is always judging people. This tendency is rampant in the Old Testament, which gushes blood from a punishing God who hurls everything from flood and plagues to enemy invasions.

Jesus also cautioned critics who thought the Tower of Siloam victims were being punished by an angry, vindictive God. “ ‘Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did’ “ (Luke 13:4-5).

In the Siloam tower calamity, the disaster occurred for no apparent reason. The Siloam tower incident seems to be either a failure of the structure’s physical integrity, due perhaps to an earthquake, or even a combination of a natural disaster with poor construction. Either way, we don’t know the precise factors. Such events are often dismissed in every day talk as “acts of God.” Such a designation is seldom helpful because it encourages a view that God actively seeks to hurt people.

Jesus’ response to the two incidents suggests that even if a cause for suffering can be identified, such as Pilate killing Galileans, then such an unjust death should not be blamed on the victims. Death claims us all, whether a person dies at a ripe old age or is stricken young. Yet we should also remind ourselves that the loving God revealed by Jesus provides spiritual life beyond physical death.

Implicit in Jesus’ response is the idea that you can’t control other peoples’ decisions (such as Pilate killing Galileans). You also can’t control weather or natural disasters (such as the Siloam tower falling). What you can control are your attitudes and actions. Death may be the most unpleasant reality of all; you can’t escape the grim reaper. But Jesus’ crucial point was that no one need die spiritually. Choosing spiritual life lessens the tragedy of an eventual physical death. The body must return to ashes but the soul is redeemable.

Suffice to say that all life on earth is subject to change and decay. It’s therefore helpful to stay positive as much as possible and to perceive God more as rescuer than punisher. Suffering is often due to direct and obvious consequences of someone’s actions or the interplay of physics. Especially for injustices, we are supposed to restrain evil and help victims recover from the crimes committed against them.

Bad things happen, but blessings also occur which provide comfort during losses. Keep your faith. Persevere even when it seems that the world is unjustly blaming you. Keep calm and carry on? Yes! Even better, stay faithful and be blessed. Suffering won’t go away, but how you think about and respond to calamities, disasters and evil will either help or make things worse.     –Reverend Larry Hoxey

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