Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2006
The Gospel: Mark 1:40-45
Sermon: "God Does Not Cause Pain"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
Mark 1: 40-45
God Does Not Cause Pain
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 12, 2006
Over the years I have had several opportunities to be in hospitals with people in serious conditions. I have also been to funerals of older people, teenagers, college students and youth. On many of these instances I have been present when people have come to express their concern and love for the person who is ill or dying. They have come to share their love with the family members who have gathered. They all mean well. They hug. They cry. They sit with the emotionally distraught family and try to offer comfort. Yet, in these times I have heard a phrase often spoken that relates specifically to the lessons we have heard lately. Many times I have often heard someone say to a distraught or bereaved family member, "This was God's will." They infer that it was God's will that the circumstances occurred that caused their loved one to be very ill, or struggling to survive, or to have just died.
Now, I know that the person who made the remark meant to comfort. They meant to offer words of peace. Yet, these words do not agree with the lessons we have recently read in Mark. Two weeks ago we read a lesson where Jesus cast out a demon in a man in the Temple in Jerusalem. Last week we remembered how Jesus healed Simon and Andrew's mother. She got up and immediately went back to doing her normal activities. This week we read a lesson about Jesus healing a leper. In three instances we read where Jesus healed. The lessons teach us that God works for wholeness. Yet, we still hear these words, "It was God's will", when tragedy occurs. We have a God who heals and yet, we sometimes find ourselves saying things that make it look as if we believe in a God who also causes hurt and pain.
These two conflicting views are always in tension. They cause us to wonder why bad things happen to good people. They also cause us to wonder why God doesn't do more healing now. These questions are not easily discussed and yet we have to attempt to answer them to find some cohesion of thought and some semblance of understanding. Therefore it is important for us to begin to search for something that begins to help us make sense of this dichotomy of an all knowing and powerful God who is loving and compassionate, and yet, suffering still exists.
In an effort to begin to understand we will look briefly at three things. We will look at free will, the presence of evil, and an imperfect world. When we look at free will, we see a place where there is both love and comfort, and pain and suffering. Free will is what makes us what we are, human. We have the ability to choose our actions. Unlike any other creature we have the ability to decide how we will respond to any and all situations in our lives. Free will gives us the opportunity to respond with great compassion and love or with anger and possibly hatred. Do we realize that our response has an effect on the person, our own selves and even the world around us? Each time we respond we cause something to happen. We spread the love of God or we spread something else. So, one place we find compassion in the world is in the exercise of free will. One place where we find hurt and pain in the world is in our exercise of free will. It is an incredible gift. It has wonderful possibilities. Like all great gifts it has its dark side. The greater the gift the blacker the dark side can become. It is like any great gift. A great orator can do wonderful things for God's people. Look at Billy Graham for an example. It is difficult to imagine anyone who has used this gift more positively then him. On the dark side, look at Adolph Hitler. It is difficult to imagine anyone who used the gift of oration to cause more pain and harm. Both men exercised their free will. Oh, what a difference the direction can take.
Free will doesn't answer all the bad things that occur in the world to people. It doesn't explain all the evil that occurs. Now, it is difficult for us to believe in a devil and demons. We do have a hard time with an entity in a red jump suit and a tail. Yet, there are some actions of some people that defy the understanding of free will. Free will involves an act of the conscience. There are actions that don't appear to have any use of conscience. Some of these unexplainable and horrific acts are genocide, torture, racism and many others. Just last week there was a news report about a group of teenagers who were beating homeless people. These were people they didn't know. They had never been hurt by these people. They simply decided to choose victims at random to beat with baseball bats. The use of free will doesn't explain that kind of an act. Yet, something is present. It is something that develops a bad thought into an horrific act. This source of evil is another way that bad things happen to good people. Anyone can be a victim of this sort of evil.
Finally, there is the case for accidents. Accidents come in many ways. Most of us are thinking about mechanical accidents like a car crash. Our reliance on many machines is one way that accidents do happen. After all, parts wear out, designs are flawed, and human people are the operators. When something goes wrong it was not intended. Most people do not want a car accident to happen. Sometimes they do. It may be the result of a mechanical error. It might be the result of operator error. The accident is not planned.
Another form of "accident" occurs in some of the ways we have treated our environment. We have invented cleaners and pesticides. We have developed methods of mining and constructing. We have acquired knowledge in the fields of biology, chemistry and medicine. All of these inventions and all of this knowledge has been devoted to make life easier for us. Yet, some of the long-range affects of our knowledge have actually hurt us and not helped us. For example, DDT was meant to kill lice, mosquitoes and other pests. Yet, long term it negatively affected eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey. Sea turtles and other forms of ocean life have also been hurt. We are still not sure what the full negative affects are in humanity. X-ray is a marvelous invention that has helped many in diagnosing many diseases. In the 30's and 40's, x-ray was also used to treat chronic sore throats. The result was the development in many people of thyroid cancer. No one intended for it to happen. The initial thought was that these things would help. They are a kind of "accident" if you will. Accidents like these are another way bad things happen to good people.
So, free will, the presence of evil, and accidents are three ways that we can see how bad things happen to good people. I'm sure there are more, but these three are the most prevalent. So, God doesn't have to make bad things happen. God doesn't have to will bad things to occur. They will happen because we live. As long as we live, these three things will have an influence on us, both good and bad.
Even those three things have the possibility of affecting our lives positively and negatively, we still wonder why God doesn't step in and keep us all from harm. Once again, we come back to free will. Imagine our world if God did not give us free will. Imagine what it would be like to have no choice at all in what we do. For if we remove free will from us, we remove any ability to make a decision. We are left only with instinct. Instinct is not good or bad. Instinct is. By giving us free will, God gave us one of the greatest gifts. We can affect our world positively. We can help. We can comfort. We can love. We do all of these wonderful things because we want too. Now, by giving us free will, God also gave us something. God gave up absolute control. We have to be careful here. Yes, God has a plan. Yes, God has a will. God's ultimate plan is for all of creation to return to God. God's will is for this return to occur because we love God by choice. God doesn't want us to love God out of fear or coercion or subjugation. God wants us to love God because we recognize who God is as creator. We love God for the wonderful gifts given us: for life, for free will, for love, for laughter, and for joy. We love God because God gave us the gift to be free. Ultimately, we can not prevent God's plan from coming to fruition.
However, by giving us the right to choose God also gave up some control over our day-to -day existence. How can we be free if we make a choice and then God changes it for us? Suppose we decide to respond to someone in love and God says fine. Then think about what would happen if we decided to respond in another less positive way. We lean back to get a good swing and just as we get ready to connect, God stops us. We don't want to stop. We want to hit. God stops us. Folks, that's not free will. It is a cheap existence. It isn't even grace. Yes, God could stop us. God could correct all our mistakes, but we would never learn and we would never be able to exercise free will. I am convinced that God gave us free will in order for us to grow in our understanding of the depth of the meaning of the word love. It is only through this gift that we can possibly experience love to its fullest, richest and deepest extent. Yes, we have a loving and compassionate God. God wants us to use our free will and God wants us to experience the fullness of love. In this imperfect world we see and experience all the wonders and all the hurts associated with free will. We experience compassion and joy through the presence of God and hurt and pain through the presence of evil. We rely on the wonders available to us through science and inventions even as we occasionally hurt ourselves through the same knowledge. Most of all we recognize the presence of a gracious, compassionate and loving God as we experience the love of God in all of our joys and our sorrows, our hopes and our fears. We recognize the presence of God as we exercise the wonderful gift of free will as we live in this imperfect world around us. No matter what we do, no matter where we go, no matter what decisions we make, we can always take great comfort in knowing that God is always present.
Come, Lord, Come, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Come among us here that we might feel your presence, lead us and guide us, comfort us and sustain us. In you we do find refuge. In you we do find hope. In you we experience the fullness and the wonder of unconditional love. Help us and allow us to experience this love today. Amen.