I heard this song yesterday on the radio…
Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searches all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her
Those lyrics come from Gordon Lightfoot’s song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald which remembers the sinking of that freighter in Lake Superior, killing 29 men on Nov. 10, 1975.
When it comes to death, we often wonder where the love of God goes, did someone die because of some punishment from God or from some sin. When people suffer, is it all part of some plan or purpose?
(If you really want to wrestle with this, I invite you to read the book of Job.)
Jesus takes up this idea in today's Gospel reading with two recent incidents of his day, when some people from Galilee are killed by Pontius Pilate, and some residents of Jerusalem die in a tower collapse. Some must have thought that these victims were being punished by God for their sins and concluded that since these events did not befall them, that they were somehow free from sin.
Sadly, whenever a terrible tragedy happens, some ask who is to blame – it happened after the tsunami in 2004, after Hurricane Katrina, after the Haitian earthquake. They must have done something to deserve such a tragedy…
Jesus denies such assumptions. Those murdered were victims of Pilate’s sin. Those killed by the falling tower may have been the victims of an accident or maybe an earthquake, or perhaps the contractor used substandard materials and caused the death which would be his sin.
No matter what, Jesus tells us not to blame the victims of any tragedy & not to couple that with congratulating ourselves for not being victims. Life is so much more complex than that and we often don’t fully understand. I think of a Zen story about a farmer and his son:
A farmer's only son set off to attempt to train some wild horses, but the farmer's son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer's misfortune. "Oh, what a tragedy! Your son won't be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You'll have to do all the work yourself, How will you survive? You must be very sad". they said. Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, "Who knows? We shall see"
Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor's men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor's army. As it happened the farmer's son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg. "What very good fortune you have!!" the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. "You must be very happy." "Who knows? We shall see!", replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.
As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. "Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you"! But the old farmer simply replied; "Who knows? We shall see."
As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: "Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy", to which the old farmer replied, "Who knows? We shall see!" (http://www.rainbowbody.com/newarticles/farmerson.htm)
Like this story, Jesus invites us to see with God’s eyes, not to fall into the sin of thinking of ourselves as more blessed or better than others, because of circumstances that are often beyond our control.
In this broken world, too many of our neighbors suffer (through tragedies, accidents, illness, natural disasters) and as Christians we are called to try to alleviate suffering and not to increase it. Sometimes, we make things worse.
Sometimes, we try to understand such events by saying "God never sends us more than we can handle." This actually is a misinterpretation from 1 Corinthians, in which Paul says, "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."
Not all afflictions are "tests." Tests are temptations to sin which we may or may not give into - and Paul says there's always some way out, some way to "say no" to temptations. Paul's words are meant to be encouraging when we are faced with such temptations and don't apply to situations which are not tests like tragedy.
"God never sends us something that we can't handle" assumes that anything that happens to us God has sent as a test, which is not true! Similar understandings are often put as “It must be God's will.” Or “Everything happens for a reason or purpose.”
Try saying that to someone who's family member has just been killed by a drunk driver, or died in the Holocaust. This is not a remark of faith; it is a remark born of fatalism. Every time we say the Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
This means that God's will is done in heaven, & God's will is not yet done on earth. The world is broken and it is on its way to being healed thanks to God's action in Jesus Christ. But the mending of the world isn't finished yet and that's why we pray "Thy kingdom come."
God does not willingly afflict or grieve us. Such things happen because the world and all the people in it have been given freedom by God. And some people abuse that freedom. Why do accidents, tragedies, happen? There may be a cause and effect but we need to take care that we do not blame the victims. For what is God about? As David Bentley Hart put it,
“God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death… sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”Suffering and death may be a part of our mortality but they are not part of God’s work or purpose. As Desmond Tutu said, “There's no question about the reality of evil, of injustice, of suffering, but at the center of this existence is a heart beating with love." Even in the darkest moments, God’s work and purpose is love, and that is what our job is today, to offer that love. Thanks be to God. Amen.