Monthly Archives: June 2014

God is in the response

The Rev. Dr David Pitman preached at Centenary UC yesterday. His sermon is full of wisdom for those who grieve the loss of loved ones. Here it is:

 

INTRODUCTION

In a recent episode of Call the Midwife…. 

Sister Julienne says, “God is not in the event, God is in the response”

This is very good theology!

 

Back in 1982, the Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner, wrote a book entitled, When bad things happen to good people. The book came straight out of his own experience. He and his wife had a son, Aaron, who at three years of age was diagnosed with “progeria”, a disease that causes rapid ageing. Aaron looked like an old man while still a child and died two days after his 14th birthday.

Filled with grief, Rabbi Kushner confronted in himself the eternal question, “WHY?”

Why Aaron? He was an innocent child!

Why me? I am a deeply religious person committed to a life of serving others!

And, why does a God of love allow things like this to happen?

Over the 45 years of my own ministry, this has been the question most often asked of me, in a great variety of different circumstances, as people have endeavoured to deal with:

  • The death of a baby
  • The ravages of cancer
  • An unexpected and tragic accident
  • The injustice of dismissal or redundancy
  • The debilitating impact of alzheimers disease
  • The loss of a business due to the actions of ruthless financiers
  • The destruction caused by natural disasters
  • The horrors of war and genocide
  • The bashing of elderly people in their own homes
  • The cruelty and rejection of someone thought to be a friend

 

WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN?

There have been many attempts to offer an answer to the eternal “WHY?” Numerous philosophical and theological books have been written on the subject. The book by Rabbi Kushner is a very good one. It also happens to be very personal and readable. We have another one in the Old Testament. We call it the Book of Job.

I want to summarise a couple of the responses made to this most searching and difficult question, and tell you why I think they are inadequate, or even misleading.

 

The bad things that happen are God’s punishment for our sin.

This response suggests that because we are sinful and disobedient people, God has to punish and discipline us in order to make us more obedient and faithful, and God does this through inflicting on us those crises and experiences that cause us pain and struggle and grief.

Now we understand very well that some of our actions are foolhardy and that we often suffer the consequences of our foolishness. In such circumstances we have no one to blame but ourselves. If we have any sense, we learn from our mistakes and try not to repeat them. To blame God for our own foolishness does no good at all, especially for ourselves.

However, the belief that God is the initiator of pain and suffering, in order to promote obedience and holiness, makes no sense. For a start, we see plenty of people all around us who live fundamentally good lives. They are essentially honest and caring folk who do their best to be responsible parents, faithful friends, and reliable employees. Yet they seem to be on the receiving end of all manner of bad luck.

This was certainly the experience of Job. The OT book that bears his name is devoted to an exploration of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Job’s friends were in no doubt as to why Job had suffered so much pain and loss and grief. He must have sinned in some awful way and was experiencing his just punishment. The problem for poor old Job was that, no matter how hard he searched his heart, he could not understand what he could have done to deserve so much tragedy.

On the other hand, we all know people who are irresponsible and selfish, who act dishonestly or unethically, and yet whose lives seem remarkably free of struggle and strife. If God wants to promote obedience and holiness through the experience of personal crisis, he seems to be going about it in a decidedly odd and ineffective manner!

In any case, this is a belief that Jesus specifically rejects. In John 9, we see the religious authorities asking in regard to a man born blind, “Who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither! Yet through this man’s blindness the power of God will be revealed!”

Is suffering God’s punishment for sin? NO!

So, let’s make a conscious decision right now to put this false and misleading belief out of our minds. All it does is make us think badly of both God and ourselves. And it is not true to the faith of the New Testament!

 

God makes bad things happen to test our faith.

I have heard this statement many times over the years, and a number of variations on the same theme.

For example:

  • Suffering is God’s way of seeing how much we trust him.
  • God has a reason for everything. All we need is to have enough faith and we’ll be able to see what that reason is too.
  • Suffering is good for us. It makes us better people.

Thornton Wilder wrote a book in the early 1960’s called, The Eighth Day. It is a story about a family ruined by bad luck and the hostility of others. The novel has no happy ending. Instead, Wilder offers us the image of a beautiful tapestry. Looked at from the right side, it is a work of art, unique and colourful in its design and detail. But from the other side, all we can see is an ugly maze of seemingly unrelated threads and knots. Wilder’s message is that beyond the pain, grief and suffering of life, there is ultimately something beautiful and good. We may not be able to see it now, but one day we will.

Wilder is right!

Suffering is not good. It is bad!

Bereavement is not good. It is bad!

Tragedy is not good. It is bad!

We should never pretend otherwise. And we should never use the language of faith to obscure the fact that these things are bad!

It is true that our faith and trust in God will help us to cope with and live through these crises.

It is true that we may be able one day to look back and see that we have indeed become better and stronger people because of what we have been through.

But this does not mean that the original experience was somehow good in and of itself. Nor does it mean that God inflicted it on us to find out how much faith we have. The problem with all these so-called explanations is that they assume that God is the cause of human suffering. God never caused a bad thing to happen, and God never will! God’s purpose for us is only ever GOOD!

 

PERMISSION TO ASK “WHY?”

It is inevitable that at various times during our lives we will experience personal and family crises and, like so many others before us, will ask “WHY?”

Asking “WHY?” has always been the response of God’s people to crisis.

Called to lives of ministry and leadership in extremely difficult circumstances, people like Moses and Jeremiah asked “Why me?”

Immersed in the catastrophe of personal pain and loss, Job cried out, “Why me?”

Again and again in the Psalms we hear that same cry.

Psalm 13:1-2
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

Psalm 77:7-9
Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

Psalm 22:1-2
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but I find no rest.

It is our experience from time to time, in the complexity of our life’s journey, to feel that God has left us, that he is absent, that for some reason he has forsaken us.

Yet at other times we feel that God is as close to us as our breath, that he is in the very depths of our being.

It was so for Jesus.

Listen to the words of his prayer for the disciples in John 17, as he gives expression to his strong sense of unity with God the Father:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. May they be one, as we are one.”

Within a few hours, Jesus is dying on the cross, and cries out in pain and grief and loneliness:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So, take comfort and courage from the personal experience of Jesus.

God never leaves us, or forsakes us.

But there are times when it feels that way.

There is no shame or weakness in recognizing and expressing our feeling that God has left us alone in our struggle. With God’s people of old, we can cry out to God from our heart:

For it is in the acknowledgement of our weakness that God can become our strength

It is in the acknowledgement of our loneliness that we can know the love and companionship of God as never before

It is in the acknowledgement of our grief that we can experience the peace of God that passes all understanding

It is in the acknowledgement of our anger and frustration that the grace of God can bring resolution and renewal

Out of the loneliness and pain of the cross, Jesus cried out in anguish,

and in his grief experienced yet again the reassuring love of God,

so that he was able, with confidence, to declare in regard to both his life and his dying,

“It is finished!”

In this life, there is no clear and final answer to our “WHY?”

We can feel that God is absent at any time, but in that moment, as we are honest with ourselves and with God, our faith takes us beyond our feelings into the reality of God’s unceasing presence, and the power of his love and grace.

Psalm 22 begins, as we have seen, with the anguished cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Listen now to how it concludes.

“I will tell your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.
For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
He did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
Those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!”

(Psalm 22: 22,24,26)

And what of Psalm 13, that begins: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Listen to how this Psalm ends.

“I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

(Psalm 13: 5-6)

The witness of the scriptures is very strong at this point. When we openly and honestly pour our hearts to God, the healing work of his love and grace can begin in us, comforting our sorrow, restoring peace to our troubled spirits and instilling a sense of hope and purpose for the future.

This is a deeply spiritual reality. Ultimately we are healed and renewed because we have encountered the love and grace of God when we are most weak and vulnerable. God cannot help those who believe they are self-sufficient and can do it on their own!

This is the testimony of the apostle Paul, who in his own personal and life-time struggle with what he described as a “thorn in the flesh”, heard Christ saying to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” And he was able to affirm, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

(II Corinthians 12:9-10)

And it is also the testimony of Rabbi Kushner who, at the end of his book, writes:

“I think of Aaron and all that his life taught me, and I realise how much I have lost and how much I have gained. Yesterday seems less painful, and I am no longer afraid of tomorrow.”

 

CONCLUSION

We don’t know why bad things happen to good people. What we do know is that terrible things happened to the greatest and best person who ever lived. He did no wrong, yet was crucified. And because of him we too can say, “Yesterday seems less painful, and I am no longer afraid of tomorrow.”

 

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The first to jump

It’s the 37th anniversary of the birth of the Uniting Church in Australia. If you haven’t done so yet, please watch this video by our President, Rev. Dr Andrew Dutney:

 

Here is a brief sermon I’m preaching this evening:

Readings
Hebrews 13.1–8
John 17.20–26

 

The first to jump

 

Today is the 37th anniversary of the Uniting Church. Happy birthday to us!

I’ve been around the traps for a while, and I remember in the early years of the Church’s life that people used to say The Uniting Church has no identity. Who are we as the Uniting Church? I don’t hear that so often anymore. I wonder why that is. Maybe we have an identity, or maybe those who kept asking have given up.

So let me ask, What do you think the Uniting Church’s identity is? Who are we?

You could perhaps mention

  • our Church’s breadth and inclusiveness;
  • its strong stance on social justice;
  • the way women are not discouraged from ministry (though many women  still find this a difficult road).

Is there anything else?

Let me answer my own question with a confession: I used to regularly look at the church advertisements in the Sunshine Coast Daily. They could be both amusing and desperately cringeworthy. But I always liked what the Uniting Church did with their advert.

The various congregations shared the advert, and their motto was ‘Part of the Body of Christ’.

Part of the Body of Christ. I really like that.

I think this is one good way to state our identity. The Uniting Church is part of Christ’s body. We don’t claim to be the whole thing, we don’t even claim to be the best bit. We are part of the body, making our contribution to the health of the whole Body of Christ.

And I think the best contribution we make is this: we do things first.

You know, when a bunch of kids get together, there’s always one who gets the ball rolling. One who takes the first jump into the river from the high riverbank, or who is first to climb up to the highest tree branch. The Uniting Church is that kid.

What gift does that kid bring to her group, the kid who’s always first to do something? She shows others that it’s safe to jump, or climb.

Or, she shows them the trouble you get into when you do. And perhaps the other kids can then jump safely.

Leaders of other churches have said they like us because of that. I wonder why that is?

Because we do difficult things first, we show them if it’s safe. Or not. When the first member of the group jumps in the water, you find out if it’s too cold. Or too shallow. Or if there’s a submerged rock. Or if in fact it’s ok.

If you want an example, all you have to do is look at the Uniting Church’s discussions on homosexual people and ministry. We had an interesting time throwing that one around. It wasn’t an easy time for this congregation, with people on one side or another or on no side, just wanting it all to go away.

During all this, I was interested to hear that leaders of other churches, including quite conservative churches, were thankful to us for doing this. Why? Because they know they’ll have to go through it themselves one day. We aren’t ‘the gay church’. GLBTI people everywhere have found a voice, and are making themselves heard. And when they are people of faith, Christian people, they want their churches to respond to them.

Among the mainstream churches, we have responded first. But the others will also need to listen one day.

You know, the Uniting Church doesn’t always do everything perfectly. Sometime, we don’t do things well, and we’ve also been known to fail. But when we do badly, I’m convinced that it’s not because we’ve tried to do things too early; it’s rather because we’ve lost our nerve.

Let’s not lose our nerve.

We are part of the Body of Christ. We aren’t the best at everything, but we have our part to play. Doing things first isn’t the only thing we do, but it’s an important gift to the rest of the Christian Church.

I celebrate that gift, and other gifts the Uniting Church brings to this country. I am glad to be a part of this part of the Body of Christ.

 

 

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Apparently, something’s happening tonight…

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Grace, Love, Communion … (Trinity Sunday, Year A, 15 June 2014)

Readings
2 Corinthians 13.11–13
Matthew 28.16–20

 

Last week, I said that while preachers often feel the Trinity Sunday is a hard gig, I really feel that Pentecost is the hardest day to preach and to do justice to the message.

Today, I’m not so sure. Trinity may be the hardest day to preach after all. But here goes!

‘Trinity’ is the best way we have to speak of the unutterably great, incomprehensible God who came to earth in Jesus Christ and who comes to earth today as Holy Spirit.

God is unutterably great; God is beyond the understanding of our best minds. God has come to us as a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, exactly as we are yet without sin. God is poured out upon us as the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God.

When the New Testament speaks of God, it often links God our Father with Jesus the Son.

For example, Paul begins 2 Corinthians like this:

Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is clear from the New Testament that we can’t think of God, we can’t talk about God, we can’t know God without Jesus the Son.

And then the New Testament also speaks of God in a threefold way, so Paul ends 2 Corinthians with these very familiar words:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

And there are other places too. For example Galatians 4:

God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’

Or Ephesians 4:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

There are other examples, but let’s look at the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel. Here, the (singular!) name of God is given as Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

And that’s the Name we use of course, whenever we baptise anyone. The name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I wonder what would happen if we only baptised people in the name of the Father? Or just the Son? Or just the Holy Spirit?

Continue reading

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The Holy Spirit *is* the Spirit of Christ (Pentecost, Year A, 8 June 2014)

Readings
Numbers 11.24–30
Acts 2.1–21
1 Corinthians 12.3–13
John 7.37–39a

 

Today is Pentecost, which means next week is Trinity Sunday. Preachers often feel the Trinity Sunday is a hard gig, but I really feel that Pentecost is the hardest day to preach and to do justice to the message.

How do we preach the Holy Spirit, whom we picture as wind, water and fire? How do we hold wind in our hands? We know the Spirit only by the effects she has in our lives. It’s like what John says (3.8),

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

We only know the Spirit by what the Spirit does. We can’t pin the Spirit down. Ever. We can’t say

  • You have to believe the right doctrine to receive the Spirit;
  • A bishop must lay hands on you if you are to receive the Spirit;
  • The Spirit comes only as a second blessing to particular believers;
  • You don’t have the Spirit if you don’t speak in tongues.

We can never put the Spirit in a box or enclose her in any theological system.

With apologies to Donovan, we may as well try to catch the wind as speak of the Spirit.

One thing we do know: the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If we speak of Jesus Christ as we speak of the Spirit, we may say words that are true. Let’s try it with a few reflections. Continue reading

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