When bad things happen to…everybody

Subtitle: A post-modern reconsideration of the core premise of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner.[1]

The text of the sermon, based on Luke 13.1-9, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022.

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Some people tell Jesus about a grisly incident. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine, sent soldiers to massacre a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. Why? We don’t know. Although history records that Pilate was neither innocent nor ignorant of the use of brutal, lethal force.[2]

Jesus, in response, recalls another tragedy. A tower along the city wall crumbled and fell, crushing eighteen Jerusalemites who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Two calamities. One, an act of state-sanctioned terrorism. The other, an accident. Both, deadly. Both, stark reminders that life is precarious. Bad stuff happens. And capricious. Bad stuff happens randomly.

(I’m reminded of my collegiate days as a political science major. Particularly, Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher and a founder of modern political thought. He wrote that life in the state of nature, that is, without government, was “nasty, brutish, and short.”[3] However, we’ve had enough instances of governmental malfeasance and malevolence, historically and currently, to question Hobbes’ trust in authority!)

Two calamities, compelling people then and us today, with inquiring minds, wanting to know: “Okay, Jesus, what do you say?

A word of comfort? Hmmm, not quite.

An explanation? No.

Then perhaps a vigorous preemptive defense of God against a potential charge of Divine mismanagement of the universe in permitting terrible things to happen. (For if God is Sovereign, the supreme power and authority in the universe, then there are only two reasons for anything that happens in time and space: either God willed it or allowed it.) No.

Rather Jesus simply advises us that we cannot equate tragedy with divine punishment. “Do you really think that those who suffer are worse sinners than all the others? No.” In other words, there is no causal relationship between sinfulness and calamity; whether wrought by human hands or natural forces. Or by God, who, quite the opposite, Jesus reminds us, “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[4]

What is undeniably, demonstrably true is that life is fragile and fickle. For everybody. Bad stuff happens. To everybody.

Thanks, Jesus!

Having gotten our attention, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you, too, will perish.” Jesus is talking about death. Not physically. That’s unavoidable. But rather eschatologically. That is, the death of our souls of life lived apart from God. And one way, the way to avoid that is to repent. To turn away from our innately human self- (often selfishly) interested way to return to God’s way. For as life is fragile and fickle, so are we concerning our faithfulness to God. We are sinners (which doesn’t mean we’re bad, but human; for “sinner” is another definition for “human”). Therefore, we are consistent in our inconsistency in seeking and doing God’s will.

Now, here’s some good news. Finally! The parable of the fig tree. Planted, cultivated, fertilized and watered, but producing no fruit. Nevertheless, given more time and care to do what it was meant to do.

We are as fig trees. Created by God; rooted in the soil of this world. Fertilized; redeemed by Jesus. Watered; empowered by the Holy Spirit. All to produce kingdom fruit. Chiefly, love. And, as we live, it is by God’s grace and mercy, allowing us always, in each and every moment, time to repent.

What does repentance, bearing kingdom fruit look like? I can think of few better guides in this season of Lent or at any time and, particularly in this time of our world-at-war, than those words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.[5]

Thus, let us pray: Lord, make us – also as tenders of your garden of the world – instruments of your peace; so that, wherever, whether around us or within us, we tread the ground of hatred, let us sow love;

wherever injury, forgiveness;

wherever discord, concord;

wherever doubt, faith;

wherever despair, hope;

wherever darkness, light;

wherever sadness, joy.

Amen.


[1] In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner published When Bad Things Happen to Good People; the result of his reflections on the death of his son Aaron at the age of 14 to progeria, an incurable genetic disease. Kushner, through the biblical lens of the Book of Job, avers that God does not intervene in the course of life either to protect people from tragedy or to reward or punish them for their actions. Rather, God, offering unconditional love, calls us to exercise our freewill and to discern meaning and purpose in our lives.

[2] See The Jewish War, 2.9.2 (c. 78 CE) and Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.1 (c. 94 CE) by Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE)

[3] From Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

[4] Matthew 5.45b

[5] Full text: Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, page 833)

4 thoughts on “When bad things happen to…everybody

  1. Incredibly well said! Thank you for your insightful words. Truly… stuff happens (and God is there to help us cope and thrive) amen.

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    1. Thank you, my dear Jane.

      As an aside, the epistle text appointed for 3 Lent was 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; which concludes: No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. This verse, I think, is the source of that oft-repeated (tho’, I think, incredibly wrong) expression: God won’t lay on you more than you can handle. In my experience, there is much that hath been laid on my heart and soul that is beyond my capacity to bear or to endure. Hence, I have come to believe that God doesn’t allow me to carry that which is greater than God can bear. Thanks be to God!

      Love,
      Paul

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  2. Paul,
    This sermon really spoke to me!! I was sooo looking forward to 2022 after the two years of Covid, then Omicron arrived. So many bad things happened in my life just in January and I kept asking God to make the bad things stop. But it didn’t and so I pressed on. What I guess I didn’t realize until just now is that through all the bad stuff I kept watering my faith and tried to tend to those around me who were also suffering!! Bad things definitely happen to everybody but God is there through it all!

    Much love!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. God is there through it all! Amen to that! Thanks be to God!

    Love

    Like

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