Luke 13: 1-9
Am I the only one here who talks to themselves?
Isn’t it interesting that our human brain has evolved so that it is constantly talking to itself? Our brain is constantly telling itself a story about what it is experiencing.
A few years ago I read an interesting article on resilience.
Researchers are interested in how different people experience trauma differently from one another. Two people have the same traumatic experience. One then has life-long PTSD. The other changes, learns, grows, recovers. One is traumatized. The other is resilient.
One way of describing this difference is that one person constantly RE-LIVES the experience; while the other person learns how to RE-CALL the experience without reliving it. Their response to a trigger is, “Oh, that reminds me …” They have quite literally RE-MINDED themselves by developing a whole new set of neural pathways in their brains that mute RE-LIVING and switch on RE-CALLING.
When we talk to ourselves, we tell ourselves stories.
What we call “TRAUMA” is when something bad happens that doesn’t fit into any of the stories we have been telling ourselves. Our daily news is full of these events. A child is shot and killed while enjoying a warm summer evening. A truck smashes into a hockey team’s bus. A heat wave kills 70 people.
The Bible is also full of such events. And then, as now, people ask, “WHY?” Why did this happen? This makes no sense. It doesn’t fit any of the stories I tell myself about God; about life’s meaning; life’s purpose. A tyrant kills innocent, unarmed people. A tower unexpectedly collapses and kills bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. WHY?
Talk to me Jesus. Tell me why this happened. How can I believe in God when senseless bad things happen? Tell me a story, Jesus. Help me to stop feeling so helpless, and hopeless, and tired, and angry, and sad.
I’m guessing I am not the only one here today who has felt this way.
What could Jesus possibly say that would make sense of suffering?
Well, about 150 years ago, Charles Darwin, wrote a book, On the Origin of Species, that offered a new story about why things are the way they are.
You’ll notice that Darwin’s book has an interesting sub-title:
“The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”
That should give everyone pause before uncritically swallowing Darwin’s theory. Just stop and recall how “The Preservation of Favoured Races” is functioning in today’s politics. But that’s another sermon.
Darwin made the observation that just as humans have been selectively breeding new dogs, cats, cows, and corn for centuries; nature has also been creating new species for millions, no billions, of years. The amazing diversity of life forms that we see around us is the result of natural selection, nature’s own breeding program.
Darwin’s theory is pretty much universally accepted today. Even most religious people do not see evolution as contrary to belief in God, or as undermining believing the Bible “as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life.” (As The United Church of Canada’s founding Articles of Faith put it in 1925.)
And here at Canadian Memorial you have even made a point of highlighting evolution: Evolutionary Christian Spirituality
But what is the story that evolution tells us when bad things happen? What could evolution possibly say that would make sense of suffering?
Evolution – and all of Western science – says this about suffering:
Most things happen according to the laws of nature
My father was killed in an accident when I was three. When I ask science why he was killed, science says, “A train travelling at this speed in this direction, and a car travelling at this speed in this direction will arrive at the same location at the same time.” Laws of gravity and momentum are the reason my father died.
Science also says this about suffering:
Some things happen randomly
My older sister died of cancer when she was a 23-year-old mother of two. When I ask science why she died, science says, “Cancer is a random mutation of a cell in your sister’s body.” Random mutations are the engine of evolution. Evolution is the reason my sister died.
I’m guessing I’m not the only one here today who agrees with science, but also believes there is more to this story than science can tell.
What can be said to try and make sense of tragedy and suffering? What stories does our Christian faith and tradition offer us?
“God has a plan” is probably the most commonly used story to explain why bad things happen. Personally, I think it is a really bad story. “Plan” means “intended,” and “caused.” It also suggests, “no other possibility.” So. You mean to say that from the beginning of time, God had it PLANNED that my father and sister were going to die, and there was no possibility something different might have happened. If that’s who God is, I’m not sure I want to believe in God.
So let’s stop a bit, and think again about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of suffering.
Let’s start with God. And let’s start by recalling that Christians do not believe in God.
Okay, okay. I know Christians are always going on about “God.” But actually, Christians believe in The Trinity.
“God” is NOT a singularity. God is not a noun that suggests a Someone that exists somewhere in time and space. Christians don’t believe this.
Christians believe that “God” is actually a community, a Holy Three who are One.
And the defining characteristic of this Holy Three is their dynamic relationship. When Christians tell stories about God, we tell about a community, not an isolated individual. We tell about a dynamic relationship, not unchanging identity. We tell about a verb, not a noun. And that verb is “Love-that-is-Justice.” We worship The Holy Trinity who are what Love-that-is-Justice1 is.
Now before we go on, there is one more thing we must go back and correct. Christians do not believe in The Trinity either.
Well we do, sort of. But the problem is with the word “believe.” The English meaning of this word has changed over the centuries since the Bible was first translated into English. It has come to mean that I have a personal OPINION. That I agree with a certain set of ideas. And so the word, “believe,” no longer accurately translates the original Biblical word which means: TRUST, BOND WITH, BE LOYAL.
Christians don’t “believe” in The Trinity, we TRUST The Trinity.
Well, how does a story of trusting Love-that-is-Justice make sense of suffering?
The love of The Holy Trinity is always consistent. It is not capricious. Is never distracted. Doesn’t fall asleep or forget. Doesn’t love somebody else more.
The love of The Holy Trinity is always all-in. Holds nothing back. Expects nothing in return. There are no conditions. No contracts. No pre-screenings or prior approvals.
The love of The Holy Trinity is always totally for the good of the other. Is never selfish. Is never self-centred.
The love of The Holy Trinity is always for right relations of all things with all things. It seeks for all of creation to embody the dynamic Love-that-is-Justice that it is. It seeks relationships that are always both loving and just.
The love of The Holy Trinity has all the power that love has. It never controls or coerces. It rejoices in the freedom of the other; in the beauty of their autonomy, and integrity, and wholeness. It never uses force or threats. Never over-rules.
I don’t know about you, but I can say, “Amen,” to this story. So far.
But there is a trick here. A catch that you might not like. Notice that I did NOT say, “The Holy Trinity has all the power,” period.
In one way or another, God’s over-arching power is too often used to try and make sense of suffering. But this is NON-sense. If God has all the power, then God also has all the responsibility either for causing or allowing suffering. If that is who God is, then I’m not sure I want to believe in God.
But if God is what Love is, then God cannot have all the power, because love requires freedom. If there is no freedom, there cannot be love.
And here’s the catch. Freedom is another word for randomness. Random things happen, not because there is no love. Rather, random things happen because love requires freedom.
Love cannot be love without freedom, without randomness.
But here is the hard part.
Random things are not just. Are not fair. Are not deserved. Have no purpose. Have no meaning. They happen for no reason.
Our story has arrived at a contradiction; an impossible possibility.
The Holy Trinity is Love-that-is-Justice
Love requires freedom / randomness that is not just
We trust that The Holy Trinity is Love-that-is-Justice. But love requires freedom. And freedom means that things can happen that are random / undeserved / unfair / unjust.
So how does the story of a God who is a Trinity, a community, a dynamic relationship, a verb that is what Love-that-is-Justice is help us to make sense of suffering? Help us make sense of underserved bad things?
In my experience, it is not possible to make SENSE of suffering, to explain it. It is not possible to make suffering reasonable.
In my experience, all attempts to explain suffering just make me more angry; because the reasons used to explain it just makes it clearer that the suffering is unjustified, unfair, undeserved.
But also in my experience, the story of the Verb that is what Love-that-is-Justice is, HOLDS my suffering.
It lets me experience my suffering without forever re-living the trauma of it. One never gets through it, or over it. But we do learn to hold it. To learn, and grow, and heal, and go on. We learn to be resilient.
And I also trust another truth that will also have to be another sermon.
I trust that the activity of Love-that-is-Justice is NOT constrained to this time and place. The suffering that we experience here and now is real. Is outrageously real. And. But. Our experience here and now is not the end of the story. Because there is more "here and now" than we can experience here and now.
That’s been my experience. I’ve learned that the Love-that-is-Justice of The Trinity can be trusted.
I wonder if I am the only person here today who has learned this trust? I pray that being part of this community is an opportunity to learn and experience this love, this freedom, this justice, and this trust.
May it be so. Amen.
This sermon was originally preached at Canadian Memorial United Church of Canada, Vancouver, BC, July 29, 2018.
Permission is granted to use all or part of these materials for non-profit use. Please acknowledge the source as, "David Ewart, www.davidewart.ca/2018/07/can-god-be-trusted.html"
1 I use the phrase "Love-that-is-Justice" because I want to ensure that we recall that God's love is always about right relationships; relationships that are always both loving and just.