Where is God in This? sermon Rachel Thompson Bedford Presbyterian Church 15 March 2009 Scripture Matthew 15:29-31 After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. Matthew 8:1-3 When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. “I DO choose,” said Jesus. “Be made clean.” Do you think Jesus ever chose NOT to heal someone? None of the stories in the Gospels even hint at such a thing. There are many stories of Jesus and even the disciples healing all kinds of diseases, including mental illness. In the Gospels alone, there are over 50 stories of healing. It’s a major theological theme. And, as in the passage above, the healing performed by Jesus was taken to be proof of the power of the God of Israel. It was one of the most common and convincing proofs. Most often, the stories of healing are connected to an individual’s righteousness or faith. IF you had faith in God or Jesus you would be healed or your loved one would be raised from the dead. BECAUSE God had the power to heal, God became an object of worship. And then on the other hand, and this is a very important other hand, and one of the reasons I love the Bible so much – Just like in life, there is always Another Hand. So, on the other hand, there is the Book of Job. A righteous man, a man who followed all the rules, who revered God, who was held to be blameless in the eyes of God, loses EVERYTHING (temporarily). His house, his lands, his flocks are lost, his children are killed and he is stricken with a loathsome disease. He curses the day of his birth. Where is God, he wants to know. Why is this happening to me? It’s an old, old question, of course. One that theologians have wrestled with since theology began. It is raised so powerfully in the Book of Job, which flies in the face of the theology of much of the Old Testament. Much of the history of the downfall of Israel is presented as God’s retributive justice. Written in hindsight, the belief is that God punished Israel because Israel did evil in the sight of God. Then up pops the Book of Job saying, wait a minute, we’ve noticed that it isn’t always the evil who suffer. Here’s the story of a man who did everything right and he suffered anyway. The scholarly name for this is theodicy. The question is -- How can we believe in the omnipotence of a good God when we have all around us the evidence of the existence of evil, not to mention suffering? Theologians of all religions have wrestled with this question for millennia. I ran into this question head on when I worked as a chaplaincy intern at Westchester Medical Center. I was in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education, a requirement for ordination in our Presbytery. At the beginning of the program, each of the interns is assigned to a unit, and that becomes their primary responsibility. I was assigned to two units – Trauma and Neurosurgery. I’ve been with parents who’ve lost their son to brain cancer; with a family whose mother just died; with a destitute young Mexican laborer who fell off a roof and broke his back; with a young father who had a stroke and is paralyzed on the left side; a young mother struggling with multiple sclerosis. I could go on and on. It was an extraordinary experience for me, much of it very difficult, but it’s really just ordinary hospital stuff. It’s life, it’s mortality, it’s fate. All of us, I’m sure, have loved someone who has been touched by fate in a profoundly negative way, or even been touched ourselves. Here’s the truth: Life is unfair. Suffering abounds. Just ask Job. And like Job, we may wonder, WHERE IS GOD? Here is what I believe. God does not choose to take our children away from us; God does not give us brain cancer or heart disease; God doesn’t cause a traffic accident that leaves one person dead and another alive. It’s fate. I don’t believe in a God who controls the events of our individual lives, because that would be a cruel God indeed. During that long summer in the hospital, my own theology was tested and honed. What I have come to believe is that fate is neutral. Calamities occur – there is no moral significance one way or the other. Things happen. These events are the workings of fate, not God. Where God comes in is in the way people respond to the calamitous events in their lives. God doesn’t cause your cancer, but God is the source of the courage to face it, God is the source of the love of friends and family who gather around you, God is the source of the dedication of doctors and nurses whose lives are devoted to healing. When Fate engulfs you in misfortune, you may righteously weep and rage, and yet you don’t give up on life or love; when you have the courage to live your life fully to the last day; when you come and sit, day after day by the bed of your child or parent or spouse, that is bedrock God. That was the God who embraced me that summer in the hospital. And still, I have asked myself, is there comfort in this God? What if a calamity happens to me or someone I love, and I am praying hard for a certain outcome. I’m praying to a God that I know doesn’t make decisions about which one of us lives and which dies. Will I lose faith in such a God? What does faith mean under these circumstances? Several years ago, I was just on the other side of such an experience myself, so I hope you won’t mind if I tell a personal story. I have a son, who at that time was 17 years old and he was as full of teen-age life and high spirits as a person could be. One weekend he went snow-boarding with a friend and took a bad spill. The next day I took him for an x-ray to see if he had a fractured tailbone. It took a few days to get the results back from the xray, but I didn’t think much of it, as he seemed to be feeling better each day. Finally I called the doctor to ask about the x-ray and he said, “Well, there’s no fracture, but the x-ray has showed something else. It has nothing to do with the fall, and we need to check it out right away. The x-ray shows something on one of the bones,” he said, “which looks like a tumor. He has to go for an MRI as soon as possible, to rule out bone cancer.” He said a few comforting things about the possibility of its being benign, but as any parent in this room would know, the words “bone cancer” were shrieking through my brain, and I was scared to death. A few days later my son had the MRI and then we waited three days for the results. The test was inconclusive and so we took him for a CAT scan and waited four more days for results. I know that this is not an uncommon scenario in this day and age in this part of the world. I know there are people here who have experienced the agony of sitting and staring at the phone, praying for it to finally ring and praying for the person at the other end to say “We have good news.” Those days of waiting were very difficult. I owe an apology to the hapless telemarketers who happened to call during that time. But here’s the good part. I live across the driveway from my husband’s church, as Paul and Shodie do, and I frequently start my days by going next door to sit in the sanctuary to meditate and pray. As soon as I heard of the possibility of my son having bone cancer, I went to the sanctuary every day, sometimes more than once. It was one of the times in my life when I most needed God. I might have liked to have believed in a God who – if God chose to – could make sure we had good news. A God who would look at my son and say, it would be a tragedy to strike down such an adorable, life-loving boy. But I’ve been through too much. I have lived too long. I’ve seen other adorable, life-loving children struck down and I know God would not allow that to happen if God could stop it. But here’s the thing. I prayed like a banshee for my son. What mother wouldn’t? I prayed with all my heart for benign test results, for good health, for a long life for him. And as I sat there morning after morning, I felt God right beside me in my prayer. I knew that God was with us and for us. That God’s deepest self IS life, not death; IS health, not illness; IS strength, courage, and most of all, LOVE. It was an enormous comfort to me to go to the sanctuary and sit with God and feel myself immersed in the great river of grace and life that God represents to me. I felt supported and loved in my love and concern for my child. I believe that our hearts pray God’s own prayer for health and life. That’s what God always wants. That’s who God is. I can understand the stories of Jesus’ healing miracles as evidence of God’s will if not God’s power. Those healings represent the yearning and direction of the evolution of life toward wholeness. I found that my faith was strengthened during those difficult days, that my belief in God was an enormous support for me. I was glad that I didn’t believe in an omnipotent God who might or might not choose to hand my son a life-threatening disease, for reasons beyond my understanding. I was thankful to lean back into the arms of a God who loved my son and wanted life for him as much as I did. And I knew that if God and I were disappointed, if we got bad news, that we would weather the storm together. Another enormous comfort to me was the friends who heard what was worrying us and said “I will add my prayers to yours.” These things matter! It matters that you are all praying for Paul. There is power and comfort in prayer and in knowing others are praying for you. I felt the love of God and the healing touch of Jesus embodied in these friends. And that’s my story. After four days of waiting, we finally heard. The phone did ring. The person at the other end did say, “We have good news.” We rejoiced and I know that God rejoiced with us. And if it had been otherwise, I know that God – the mysterious creative force in the universe – would have resonated with our sorrow. But for us, this time, the news was good. The first thing I did when I hung up the phone was to go over to the sanctuary where I shared my gratitude and relief with a God who I knew was already filled with joy. What I’m saying to you this morning is that you can have faith in this God as you express your concerns for Paul and the other concerns of your lives. You can lean back into the embrace of God and know that you are deeply known, that your life – with its joys, fears, and sorrows – your life has meaning, your concerns matter and that you are loved and held in God’s gentle embrace. Forever.
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