Unanswered Questions After Charleston

Here’s my sermon from Sunday morning, after the racially motivated shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.

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Pent4 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 6-20-15

Job 38:1-11
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

Why?
Why do bad things happen?
To good people!

It’s a question that’s been on my mind all this week, since news broke of the massacre, on Wednesday, of nine people at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. Why?

Our Bishop, Tom Aitken, had this to say: “As Lutherans, reading Scripture through the lens of the gospel, we see [violence] is condemned; It is addressed by the prophets and most clearly by our Lord Jesus Christ in his life, actions, teachings, parables, death, and resurrection. Violence against the earth and violence against people are actions cut from the same piece of sinful thinking and sinful action. They are the refusal to respect and steward the gifts God has graciously given us and more: They are the insolent slap to God’s face and the move towards becoming our own ‘god.’”

And this word, from our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton: “The nine dead in Charleston are not the first innocent victims killed by violence. Our only hope rests in the innocent One, who was violently executed on Good Friday. Emmanuel, God with us, carried our grief and sorrow – the grief and sorrow of Mother Emanuel AME church – and he was wounded for our transgressions – the deadly sin of racism. I urge all of us to spend a day in repentance and mourning. And then we need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us.”

And, then today’s lessons offer plenty of danger and violence, but not much of an answer. We heard a section from Job where God replies to his complaints; and we hear Mark’s re-telling of the stilling of the storm.

I suppose there’s no better place to start than with Job. You remember the story, yes? About a man of God who was tested? On TV this weekend, we watched a movie: Clash of the Titans. It’s the heroic tale of Perseus, the demigod, son of Zeus who had to save his people from the wrath of Zeus’ brother, Hades. You see, the people had thumbed their noses at the gods, desecrating the temples, knocking over the statue of Zeus at Mount Olympus – and so it was payback time. Or, as Liam Neeson (who played Zeus) so declared: “Release the Kraken!” (which was this giant sea monster who eats everybody up to appease the gods). It makes for plenty of action, but it’s totally opposite our story in the Bible.

Here, Job lost everything and it wasn’t his fault. God trusted him… and knew he was a model person of the faith – the “straight-A” student in God’s heavenly academy! He had it all – health, family, riches, cattle, devotion, happiness – he was right with God and in one day… he lost it all. The Devil sauntered up to the Lord, “So, I’ve noticed what a good man Job is.” “Yes,” said the Lord, “one of my finest.” “Well, that’s fine and good when all’s hunky-dory; but what do you say you give me a whack at him – let me test his faith – take away some of his security. Then he’ll curse you to your face!” “Give it your best shot,” says the Lord.

And so, within a matter of days, Job’s whole family is killed in an earthquake – except his wife, whose advice to him is: “Why don’t you just curse God and die!” It must have been a horrible experience. Then Job’s cattle died of disease – he breaks out with sores all over his body – I mean, how much can one man take? “Why is this happening?” he cried out to God. And this was God’s response? “Who are you to question me!” That’s what we get in our reading for today: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Gird up your loins, like a man, and face me!” Now, I’m not sure I like the tone of God’s voice in all this. But Job doesn’t give up. Even in the face of unanswered questions, Job never curses God. He kept the faith.

Or, what about this story in Mark, of Jesus stilling the storm? They’re together in the boat and a storm blows in and the waves come crashing down upon them. They’re fighting for their lives and where’s Jesus? Taking a nap in the stern.

Teacher! Don’t you care! We’re perishing!

And, of course, being a chip off the old block, he uses the same tone of voice with them as God did with Job: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

Ouch.

What do we do with the unanswered questions of our faith? How do we explain suffering?  Years ago, I remember hearing a lesson about this. Murray Haar, who teaches at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, once described the 5 ways we try to answer the question of suffering in the Bible. They don’t work, he says, but they’re very popular, and they’re all right there in scripture. And I don’t like any of them either!

1. It’s your fault. You’re a sinner. You must’ve done something wrong. This is the voice of Job’s well-meaning friends who ask: “What did you do to deserve this?” When everything bad that could happen – did – they think it must be his fault. It’s also the voice of the NRA Board Member, Charles Cotton, who blamed the pastor for the death of his parishoners in Charleston, saying, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead.” So, you can see how playing the blame game just doesn’t work.

2. The enemy did it. There are people “out there” who did this… ISIS or Al-Qaida, or even the devil made me do it. And this may be true, to some extent. I do believe that there is evil in the world that we cannot fully contain. As we believe, Satan was dealt a ‘mortal blow’ 2000 years ago at the cross. Yeah, he still has some damage to do – there’s no doubt about that as we turn on the news this weekend. But his days are numbered. We know how the story ends. With death being swallowed up in victory.

But danger of saying “the enemy did it,” is that it gets us off the hook. This time the alleged shooter of those bullets at Bible study, Dylann Roof, was none other than one of our own: a member of an ELCA church: St. Paul’s Lutheran in Columbia, SC. No, the enemy didn’t do it. It was one of our own, raised in our faith, heck, his confirmation picture is probably hanging in the fellowship hall! So we go to number three…

3. It’s God’s fault. How could God have allowed this to happen? God must be incompetent, or somehow limited… or maybe not so all-powerful after all. Sure, God may be all-loving, but if that’s true how could God allow such suffering? Which leads us to number four…

4. There’s a good reason for this, but we don’t get it. It’s all a part of God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. And you know the slippery slope that leads us down, when we begin to believe that God causes the suffering of innocents for the sake of some grand plan that’s beyond us. No, I cannot imagine a God who willfully causes suffering. So, we come to the fifth way people try to make sense of suffering…

5. One day God will come and set things right. Soon and very soon… God will come. Hang in there. Help is on the way! Well, tell that to the families of the Charleston Nine, for whom it’s already too late.

No, today is not a day for easy answers. It’s never easy to stare into the face of a situation sparked by senseless violence, fueled by centuries of racism, and fed by the fears of those who are different from us.

Today is a day to call out, and to trust that even in the unanswered questions and the storms of our lives, God is with us. In the end, Job’s fortunes were restored, in all their fullness. He found joy in life again. He and his wife had many more children, and lived a full life. But God never did answer him. There are no easy answers to the deep grief that can visit us when we least expect it. Oh, I’m sure Job never quite got over the loss of his family… but what mattered most is that God never left him – not one step along the way.

I wish I could say that church is a safe place, but we know better now. It is a good place… but if it’s safety you want, there are no guarantees. Because where are they headed after Jesus stills the storm? Right smack into another storm. Here’s how Pastor Kate Layzor describes the lake they were crossing… and how these disciples, most of whom were fisherfolk, were suddenly out of their element, just like I feel sometimes in ministry. She writes:

“Jesus’ ministry is one dangerous crossing after another… ‘Let’s go across to the other side,’ he says, sounding like someone proposing a pleasant evening cruise. But he’s talking about the Decapolis: pagan territory… It’s as if he turns to his followers at the end of a long day and says, ‘I’m beat. Let’s go touch base with the Roman occupation,’ and they set sail straight into a waiting storm…”

And who do they meet on the other side? A demon-possessed man at Gerasene… tormented by Ghosts in the graveyard – so many that he names them Legion.

How would we ever be able to stand without Jesus in the boat? By our sides? In our hearts? In closing, I want to leave you with one more story of how people have made sense of suffering in this world. It doesn’t come from the Bible. I comes from a church in Charleston, SC – a church built by freed slaves, forged in the crucible of a faith that sustained their ancestors – who labored in forced servitude on southern plantations. What can we learn from this church? Let me remind you of the name of the church where this horrific act of violence took place: Emanuel, which means: God With Us. Take it from people who know from experience, that the only thing that gets us through the storms – is Jesus, God with us. And then decide what you’re going to do as you go out into the world this week. A good place to start is the home page of their website (at EmanuelAMEChurch.org). There you can read their mission statement, which simply says:

“Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be as passionate.”

Many of the families of the victims have already set the tone, by showing that passionate love and forgiving the alleged shooter, and calling for God to have mercy on him. What will we do this week amid all of the storms and unanswered questions in our own lives? Let us begin by crying out and trusting that the Teacher is still there. Then, let us too, be passionate in our love for all people.

Let us pray: O God, guide us through our stormy seas. You alone know the dangers each one here faces as we leave this place and cross to the other side of our homes, our work places and our neighborhoods. Wake up from your slumber and save us, that we may be about the work you have set before us, in Jesus name we pray. Amen.

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2 Comments on “Unanswered Questions After Charleston”


  1. Thanks for sharing, John.

    Like


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