While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
When Bad Things Happen
We want the world to make sense, don’t we? When something bad happens to someone bad it’s not hard to imagine thinking: “Well, he had it coming”. When something bad happens to someone good, or someone innocent, like a baby, we react to the unfairness of it all. The injustice is overwhelming sometimes.
This seems to be hard-wired into us. Evidence of this kind of reaction goes back into ancient times. Even in the Bible you sometimes see assumptions such as that anyone who is rich has been blessed by God and must be a righteous person, when real life tells us that some rich people got rich by being very bad.
We have struggled with this across the years and across cultures. Today, a popular word is “Karma” that we’ve borrowed from Hinduism, possibly because it suggests a universal law where the very universe balances out life. Traditionally, Christian cultures talked instead about the judgment of God, either in terms of problems of life: plagues, famines, invasions, fires; or in terms of some kind of settlement in the next life: rewards in Heaven, punishment in Hell; so much so that the Catholic church had to invent Purgatory, limbo and similar ideas to address what happened to people who weren’t totally evil but not pristine and holy, either.
Look at what Jesus does with this question: Pilate killed some Galileans as they brought their sacrifices to the temple, which could have brought all kinds of symbolic messages into his answer if he had wanted. Then he mentions people who died in the collapse of the Tower of Siloam just outside of Jerusalem.
What would we do about these kinds of incidents? We might protest police brutality and the injustice of the governor in using deadly force with these visitors who were, at worst, somewhat rowdy. We don’t know why this incident happened, but Galileans were renowned
for being both unsophisticated and rebellious. Who knows? Maybe they brought their transportation and had a camel convoy or donkey demonstration.
And as for the tower of Siloam, we would demand a public inquiry looking to see if the developer cut corners: maybe the engineer was someone’s incompetent brother-in-law, or the materials were sub-par. We would want to know if there’d been kick-backs and government corruption.
Some of us would want someone to blame. Some of us would want an explanation, maybe to prevent it from happening again, or maybe just so the world felt less irrational, less random and uncaring.
I heard someone on CBC earlier this week saying that the people of Ukraine were suffering and dying as sacrifices for Western democracies who were afraid to confront Russia directly, who were afraid of WWIII, and of nuclear weapons being unleashed.
And I was outraged; partly because there is truth behind it and the Christian imagery of someone dying for someone else’s benefit is a powerful one. It’s a truly unjust situation and I wanted to get hold of Putin and smack some sense into him! This was the other part: I didn’t want to feel guilty about their sacrifice; I wanted the president of Russia to take the rightful blame.
Jesus is brilliant, really. He takes all these natural inclinations and impulses and throws them out the window: Don’t look for “why” he says; let these tragedies motivate us to examine our own lives; instead of looking “out there” for explanations, let’s look inside to see if we are prepared in ourselves for the unexpected things that might happen.
We get hung up on the language in this reading. We hear “repent” and we think of sin and guilt. The title for this reading in many versions of the bible is “Repent or perish” which is appalling and imposes an interpretation before we even start reading.
That’s not what Jesus is talking about. “Repent” literally means to “turn around”; to “change direction”.
This isn’t about considering whether we are ready to die; ready to “meet our maker”; ready for judgement day. It is about stopping to consider the direction of our lives. Are we living the kind of life we would want to see in an obituary or a news report?
More to the point of Jesus’ lesson, are we living lives that reflect God’s values? Or as the parable says: fruitful lives?
We know what Jesus meant by that: the first being last and the last, first; the meek inheriting the earth; the weak being strong. All those things that lift people up, those things that create justice and make a difference for real people.
That’s what Jesus is really pointing out here: when bad things happen
we tend to complain about the injustice; instead we should be looking at ourselves and what we are doing to create the justice God is calling us to achieve.
That’s a hard lesson. We want the comfort of blaming someone else. Instead, we are called to accept the responsibility of creating the justice we are looking for, of being the change we want to see.
But then, Jesus was good at being a prophet, even when that meant revealing uncomfortable truths. If we want comfort, we should look to our other lesson, where Paul reassures us that God will never give us
more than we can cope with and that the troubles we face are common to all humanity.
That’s not completely comforting. Humanity has endured some appalling abuses over time, as we are being reminded these days, and people can struggle through suffering that we would prefer never to have to imagine, let alone endure.
The comfort is not that we will escape suffering and tragedy. Rather, it is that God will be with us every step of the way, no matter how bad things get. We are not alone. God will get us through, even if it is ultimately through death into the next life.
Until that time, Jesus is clear: tragedy and suffering are not punishments from God; they are not payback for something; they are not Karma. But, we can learn from them: to re-focus our lives on what really matters; on living lives that create the kind of justice we cry out for when tragedy strikes.
We want a just and balanced world and our Creator calls us to share
in creating this just world. So, when bad things happen let’s pause, and ask ourselves: “What am I doing to make this a better place?”