Sunday, June 24, 2012


A Sermon based on Job 38:1-11 and Mark 4:35-41.

This is a short question that we all have asked countless times. 
It is a question that is very easy to ask, but not always easy to answer. We begin asking this question as a small child. Why shouldn’t I touch fire? Why do I have to go to bed now? Why are things the way they are?

We might grow older and ask this question a bit less often, but we still wonder – why? There is a why question that is perhaps the most powerful and hardest to answer and it is “why do bad things happen to good people?” In philosophy and theology we call this “the problem of evil” – how do you reconcile evil in the world with a loving all-powerful God?

In many times and many places – people have answered this question of “why bad things happen” by saying that bad things only happen to those who deserve them. It might seem obviously false to us, but it has been commonly thought to be so, even in Jesus’ time. The disciples once asked Jesus – who had to sin that a man was born blind – was it his parent’s sin or his own sin? (John 9) Jesus said it was neither who sinned. Hindus have a complicated system of reincarnation and karma that insists that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people – that you deserve your fate. Classical Hinduism explains that it is your own fault when you are born into an unfortunate situation – you must have done something wrong in a previous life in order to be born to abject poverty and suffering.

When we try to automatically place the blame for bad things onto the victims we ignore numerous things, but there are three I'd like to mention: 
1. When we blame the victims we ignore when other people or society at large is responsible, and thus things are more difficult to change for better 
2. People really are a mix of good and bad, and 
3. Bad things really do happen to people who do not deserve it

We have a good example of this last point in the book of Job. Job lost everything – his wife and children, his property, his health – and some of his friends tried to offer him advice. They believed that Job did something wrong, and so must admit his guilt. In the story, Job is innocent of any wrongdoing. The book of Job teaches us that there isn’t always a good reason for suffering, and that it is not always our fault.

Towards the end of the book of Job, God responds to the accusations against Job and to Job’s cry to God. God’s response is interesting because God offers no explanation why things have happened to Job. God exclaims: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4) This is an echo to the question that people often asked God – “Where were you when I needed you? Where were you when such and such happened?” God doesn't often answer that question in the way we would wish.  God’s echo of our “where were you?” shows the distance between what we experience and know and what God knows and experiences.

In our gospel lesson today, the disciples are frightened by a storm. Jesus is asleep in the boat, and they woke him up and asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" (Mark 4:38) Jesus wakes and calms the storm. The disciples thought that just because they didn’t see an immediate reaction from Jesus meant that he didn’t care. But Jesus was in the boat with them and in control.

Along with “Where were you”, “Do you care” is another way of asking God why something happened. When things go wrong in our lives and in the  lives of those whom we hold dear – we wonder, where is God in all this? Does God even care? We wish that Jesus would wake up from his nap and do something.

I have no clear, easy answer to why bad things happen. If I did, I wouldn’t put it in this sermon anyways. I’d write a book and then become the richest person on earth.  There is not one answer or one statement that will satisfy every situation that we find ourselves in. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that I have the answer for why things happen.

There are certain things that we can know, for we all observe them. We know that there is suffering, there is pain, sorrow, loss, destruction, and death in this world. Sometimes it is our own fault, sometimes it is the fault of another person or group of persons, sometimes it seems to be no one’s fault.

Sometimes we can see the likely reasons why things happened – people do make bad decisions, people do make legitimate mistakes, and the physical world has chaotic phenomenon that can be studied by scientists – like hurricanes and earthquakes. But oftentimes, we don’t see a reason or are not satisfied with the reasons that we obverse. Yes, we know what causes hurricanes but why didn't God stop it? Yes, that person’s decision to drive drunk caused a person’s death but why didn’t God intervene? I wish I had an answer as to why God sometimes intervenes and sometimes does not – I’d write another book about that one.

Diogenes Allen discusses Job and the problem of innocent suffering in his book Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. Allen talks about how Job at first hopes that future generations will vindicate his name. In the future people will understand that bad things can happen to people who don’t deserve them. Job eventually accepts his fate and praises God for being God.

In his book, Diogenes Allen goes on to talk about Iulia de Beausobre and her book Creative Suffering. In the 1930s, there were the Stalinist purges and farm collectivization and ten million peasants died. Beausobre was arrested and tortured. Beausobre made the point that a person's suffering is not a complete or total event by itself. A complete event has to include a persons response to the suffering (and also the response of other people). The meaning and significance of the suffering is affected by how a person responds. The example she gives is from her life: torture. If a person responds to torture only with fear, self-pity, and hatred then the total event is made worse. However, if a person responds creatively to the torture then an element of redemption can be brought to the event. (paraphrase of page 81 in Theology for a Troubled Believer by Diogenes Allen)

How we respond to suffering is important. The cause of the suffering, the experience of the suffering, and the response to the suffering are all part of the total event. Each part is important, and often times the only part that is in our direct control is how we personally will respond to suffering.

What can we do about suffering? How should we respond?

First and foremost, our response to suffering should be to try to make the world a better place! Although much of suffering is caused by things outside of our control or even human control the fact is that a great deal of human suffering is caused by people. If each of us tried to alleviate the suffering that we directly cause or that we contribute to, the world would not be a perfect place but it would be better than it is now. As a society we try to change the circumstances that stack the cards against certain people. As a society, we try to provide safety nets to help people get back on their feet when bad things happen.

Secondly, we should respond to suffering by stepping outside ourselves and making connections to others. Realizing that we are not the only ones that suffer is an important step. When we connect ourselves to others and try to see things through their eyes and walk in their shoes, then we are more likely to have compassion and wish to help or at least not add to their suffering.

 Connecting ourselves to others when we are the one that suffers is also very important. When my cat was a kitten, he once jumped up on the couch next to my husband, held up one of his paws and started crying. My cat had hurt his leg and wanted help. This is extraordinary for a cat – because their instinct is to hide all wounds and illnesses from other creatures – cats do not want to show any vulnerabilities because they are afraid of being preyed upon. How often do we hide our wounds from others? How often do we hide our vulnerabilities? There can be an instinctual reason to do so, but it is not always helpful. It could have taken a long time before we realized something was wrong with our cat. I can take other people a long time to realize when something is wrong with us – and it doesn’t mean that they don’t care, they just are oblivious.

Thirdly, our response to suffering should be to connect ourselves to God. God knows what is going on with us and God cares.

In the midst of all his suffering, Job exclaims “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:25-27)  Job emptied himself and let go of everything except the praise of God.

God strengthens us in times of trouble. God is beyond our understanding – we were not there when God created the earth. We know that God loves us because God sent Jesus to become one of us, to live and love and suffer and die, and to finally rise and reconcile us all to God.
We all struggle with the question: why? Even though there is no one easy answer that will satisfy every situation, we can be encouraged by the fact that Jesus is in the boat, even if we think him asleep. God is our strength and salvation, and in the end we will know that our Redeemer lives and we will have true life with him.

I’d like to end my sermon today with a prayer for acceptance and strength to face whatever comes our way. This is a prayer for a sick person to pray for themselves, it is found in the Ministration to the Sick  section of The Book of Common Prayer on page 461:

"This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.  If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.  Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen."