Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | March 15, 2020
One Sunday after worship seven year old Kyle asked me a question, “I’ve decided I don’t believe in God. How can you believe in a God that you can’t see?”
Kyle was a smart kid. He would often sit in the service with his grandmother so that he could listen to the sermon.
I said, “I don’t want to insult you with an easy answer. Try talking to God and see what happens.”
I know how he feels. It’s not enough to say, “We believe because it says so in the bible.” We ponder many questions and if we label certain questions as off limits then we’re not fooling a seven year old. We might think that the big question where God is concerned is, “Why?” as in “Why does a loving God allow suffering?”
Underneath “Why?” is a deeper question and that is “So what?” For every dogma, creed and statement of faith that we put out there, unless we can at least begin to recognize the question, “So what?” we should go back to the drawing board and ponder in silence.
Any glance at the daily news will show us the stark reality of life. As the poet of Ecclesiastes described it –
11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)
People around the church where I grew up would say that God will teach us lessons. That we are like the vines that God prunes and that though painful, it’s for our own good. So that when something bad happens there is a reason for it. Things happen for a reason. God has a wonderful plan for your life. That’s one way of looking at it.
The call came in – there’s been an accident at the grain elevator – a member of your church, the husband of one of your elders got killed at work. I went to the house – family and friends were gathering – it was a warm summer day and very still except for the sound of a five year old girl wailing at the loss of her daddy.
That is the situation where we seem like mere fish caught in a net – the time of calamity that suddenly falls regardless of how one might think about God. Though people might be wondering, there’s no why. There is only now that this has happened, the less said the better. Someone picked up the crying girl to give her a shoulder to cry on.
If we ask, “How can you believe in a God who allows suffering?” we can ponder the alternative. What would life be like if with the power by which God said, “Let there be light” God said, “Let there be no more suffering!?”
An ancient Jewish folk tale wonders about the possibility –
Once upon a time God gathered together the heavenly host and asked for an accounting of their work. One by one the angels came forward and knelt before the throne of God. Each in turn spoke of all the many seen and unseen ways in which they had traveled through the realm of God’s creation.
There was one angel who waited nervously in line. When her turn came she knelt before the Lord and under the gaze of the Almighty said with great fear and trembling, “Lord there’s too much suffering in the world.”
And God said, “That is the way of the world.”
The angel replied, “Yes, Lord, but it seems so unnecessary.”
“I see,” said the Lord. “Do you think that you could do a better job than me of running the world. Here’s what we’ll do. The earth and all its inhabitants are yours for one year.”
The angel was greatly pleased and she went about the realm of humanity setting things in order. She healed all the diseases. She perfected the weather so there would no natural disasters. She made the crops grow in abundance. Then she took away people’s desire for violence, so there would be no more wars. The world at last was a perfect paradise. The people would be happy. God would be pleased.
It seemed that as soon as the well intentioned angel created paradise, within the blink of an eye, things started to go terribly wrong. The people grew sullen; discontent spread through the world. The crops sat unharvested in the fields and people became lethargic and sick. Violence broke out and nation began to rise up against nation. Long before the year was up, such cries of anguish rose to heaven that God summoned the angel to his throne in Heaven.
“What went wrong?” said the Lord. “I thought you were going to create paradise.”
And the angel replied, “Almighty God, I just don’t understand. I did everything to make things right in the world. Yet they are worse off than before. Why did this happen?”
God looked down kindly and said to the angel, “Perhaps now you will see that I am a loving God in spite of the suffering in the world. You tried to create paradise, but you took away their choice. Pain and suffering, death and decay are like fertilizer; remove the fertilizer, and the flowers will never grow.”
Not everything happens for a reason – but reasons can emerge from what happens.
A story of Jesus concerned a man who had a rash on his hand. Leprosy, which in their view included every sort of skin ailment. The guy could have been allergic to strawberries, but a physical condition like that would have made him an outcast. He might have been the village scapegoat. People thinking that Simon with the bad hand got dealt the bad hand by God and the rest of us must be alright.
One day he saw Jesus passing by and he said to him, “If you choose to, you can make me clean.” He didn’t say, “Fix my hand,” though that’s what he meant and what he meant was in fixing his hand Jesus would remove the implied curse.
Jesus was moved by pity and he said, “I do choose,” and the rash went away and the man was clean. The man went away praising God.
Imagine Jesus walking through a busy marketplace. There’s a man blind in one eye. There’s a boy begging because he can’t walk. In that house over there is a sick child. Down that alley is where a leper huddles. Jesus walks by. He had to walk by, otherwise his story would be of healing every single illness and malady in the land. At points along his journey he had to act, at least within his own thinking, “I choose not to.”
How did he choose whom to heal or not to heal?
If there is a choice, it belongs to us. Every person that Jesus healed eventually died. Just as does every person who ever lives. Underneath the question of whether or not we are healed, is the reality that whether we live or die, we belong to God. The choice we make has to do with our awareness of that reality.
For me the reality of human suffering does not call into question the existence of God. For me the question becomes – How do we connect with God in the midst of suffering? Usually, it is with the less said the better.
Like picking up the young girl and giving her a shoulder to cry on, we avoid applying meaning to other people’s pain. It is enough that we hold each other up and cry on each other’s shoulders. It is enough that we lean down and listen to an honest question.
A few weeks after Kyle asked me about God he came up to me again.
He said, “I decided that God is real after all and now I believe in God.”
I asked him “What happened?”
He said that he talked to God and God answered him.
I asked him, “What did you talk about?”
He said, “There was a boy in my school that I wanted to be friends with. I asked God to make him my friend. He’s my friend now. So God must be real.”
Amidst the din of the conversation in the fellowship hall it was almost as if I could hear the whisper of the Spirit saying, “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
I said to Kyle, “Thanks for telling me that.”
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38)
But my oh my, how these things do try. As much as life tries to convince us that we are accidents of the universe, floating on this rock in deluded self-awareness, the Spirit of God is reaching out in love, saying “I know you – I love you.”
For some faith is to say, “Yes! I am convinced of that!” For others, faith is more like saying, “I want to be convinced.”