"Why Bad Things Happen to Good People" 7-22-12

           Why do bad things happen to good people?  Tragedies like what happened in Colorado a few days ago cry out for some reflection on this question of the ages.  Immediately I thought, “oh no, not another Columbine”…but there was also the shootings at Virginia Tech some years ago, and of course, September 11th, 2001...we can name lots of tragedies can’t we?  Which all brings us back to “Why”?  In our OT reading this morning, the prophet Jeremiah blames Israel’s misfortune on bad kings.  And while checking out what people were saying in the blogosphere, folks were blaming what happened at the mall in Aurora on everything from the lack of gun control to President Obama! 

          Really folks, I cannot believe the hatred that spews forth from what is on-line these days…but whether you blame God, the killer’s parents, or allowing kids to play so many video games that they can’t separate fantasy from reality, is trying to find out who is to blame going to get us any closer to making our world safer?  Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves how our community of faith is strengthening the spiritual foundation of our youth?  (like La Casa de Cristo is trying to do by bringing their youth on a mission trip this week…)  Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves how a young adult like James Holmes, a PhD student at the University of Colorado, became so isolated, so alienated from society that he committed such a horrible act? 

          You see, how one comes to term with the existence of evil in this world usually either brings you closer to God or drives you away from religion entirely.  In talking with the youth today, I am often asked, “Why shouldn’t bad things happen to good people, just as they do to bad people?  Life is a random mix of good and bad: the rain falls equally on the just and the unjust.  The whole question is irrelevant outside of an understanding of a good and gracious God, but once this is affirmed, how do we reconcile God’s goodness with the fact of evil in this world?  This is called the “theodicy” question…

          You know the arguments:  God uses suffering to get our attention, to wake us up from complacency or unbelief, some propose.  Others suggest that God uses suffering to teach us something.  Many religious traditions have even viewed suffering as divine punishment for sins committed (remember when the religious authorities asked Jesus: ‘who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind’?).  However, none of these “theories” can really touch the greatness of God or the depth of human suffering.  They offer no comfort to those why cry out to heaven and feel the door is slammed in their face.  Why bad things happen to good people is rarely asked theoretically (except in the academy!), for the sole purpose of intellectual enlightenment, but out of the depths of pain or the experience of God’s absence--which I am sure most of the families who lost loved ones in that Colorado theatre are feeling right now…

          In his best- selling book of years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner tries to figure out why bad things happen to good people.  Specifically, he tries to figure out why he and his wife, strong and faithful Jews, lost their 13 year old son to progeria, that devastating disease that ages a body overnight and leads to painful and premature death.  Kushner’s answer to this basic question about suffering is interesting.  He decides that God cannot be both all-powerful and all loving.  His argument goes something like this:  If God really is all-powerful, then God really is responsible for all the suffering and agony in the world.  Such a God, for Rabbi Kushner, is unimaginable.  His answer then, is that God is not all-powerful.  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. (Kind of like us as parents, right? Want to protect them, but have to give them the freedom to make their own mistakes…) Kushner’s answer is intriguing.  But from a Christian perspective, he doesn’t go quite far enough in my opinion.

          If you think about it, Jesus was the personification of Kushner’s question.  Why did the worst thing of all (death on a cross) happen to this very best person?  In his example on the cross, Jesus refuses to answer the question “WHY”?  You see, for him, the why is not important.  In the mind and experience of Jesus bad things just happen.  In a world shaped by God’s creativity, freedom is central to the energy of that creativity.  And freedom means that God gives up some power and control, not because God is impotent, but because God is loving.  In other words, an all-powerful God allows evil and suffering in order to preserve the freedom of creation.  Bad things happen in the creative energy, the randomness, the freedom of natural law.  Bad things happen in the perverse human freedom of moral law.  And being true to the promise of freedom, God does not intervene.  But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care.  Or that God is absent.  Far from it.  In fact, fear and intrigue and jealousy and ambition end up nailing God to a cross.  And what does God do?  God embraces the suffering.  Then God transforms the suffering into the creativity of new life.  From Crucifixion to Resurrection.  The question is not “why do bad things happen to good people?”  The question is, “how?”  How do we live and how do we endure in a world where bad things simply happen?  The question is how do we live as Resurrection people?  Good Friday is not the final word.  Death and Destruction will not ultimately overcome us.

          There is a story of Martin Gray, a survivor of the Holocaust.  Following the war, he married, raised a family, and became successful in business.  But then, once again, tragedy struck in his life.   One day his wife and children were all killed in a forest fire that swept through their home in south France.  He was distraught after this senseless loss, and friends encouraged him to launch an investigation into how and why this horror had happened.  Instead, Martin Gray began a passionate movement to protect nature from future fires.  He explained to his friends than an investigation would focus only on the past, on issues of pain and sorrow and blame, on accusing other people of being responsible for his misery.  He wasn’t interested in asking “why”? He was only interested in asking “now what?”  “How can I live into the future, in life affirming and not life denying ways?  How can I live for something and not just against something?”

          German theologian Dorothy Soelle puts it like this: we see the injustice, the destruction, the senseless suffering--and yet we believe the justice, the coming liberation, the love that occurs in the night of the cross.  As Christians we must deal with the mystery of evil by creating a place in which “true human goodness, loving sympathy and compassionate self-sacrifice can occur.  A world where “soul-making” happens.”  (like several of the people in that Aurora theatre who threw themselves on top of others in order to protect them from being shot…) And while the origin of evil lies forever hidden within the mystery of finite freedom, God’s unconditional love transcends the theodicy question.

          So Jesus has compassion on his disciples on that day when they fed all those people.  I thought it was very interesting in our reading today from Mark--how the lectionary passage cut out verses 35-52, anybody know what was in those vs.? (feeding of the 5,000 walking on water)  Why were the miracles left out?  Perhaps because instead of focusing in on the miraculous, we are supposed to pay attention to the everyday, mundane work of trying to meet people‘s basic needs, having compassion for others…so, too does Jesus have compassion on us as we take on his work of healing and ministering to those in need. 

          So, we pause this morning to remember the victims and their families in Aurora, CO, praying that they know they are not alone in their suffering.  As St. Paul reminds us in Romans: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or peril or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through the One who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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.”

          The existence of evil is still perplexing and not all my questions have been answered--even though I have been in a coma for 19 days in my youth, and a survivor of breast cancer (it has sure made me a better minister!).  I don’t know why innocent people die, what I do know is that I always come back to my life experience and faith commitment, encouraging that new life which can be resurrected from the shattering experiences of death and separation.  The love of God has overcome death, is stronger than evil, and has more purpose than chance.  Bad and good things will happen to all of us, and God will be there loving us.  May God give us the courage to exercise that love in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  We must live into hope as resurrection people!  Amen.