A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 6, 2014
Isaiah 54:10 ESV; Mark 13:5-8 KJV
Why does trouble or disaster strike? This is one of the greatest faith questions of all time. For the past two weeks, we have been following news of the massive mudslide that on March 22nd devastated Oso, Washington, and the small community of Steelhead Haven. It has been described as “one of the deadliest mudslides in U.S. history.” A sea of mud about a mile wide and in some places over 40 feet deep just swallowed up everything in its path. Some two dozen houses were destroyed. Fireman Steve Mason said houses “look like they were put in a blender. . . “ And over thirty persons have been confirmed dead, and several more are missing. It could take weeks, or even months, before the full scope of the devastation is known and the search for victims has ended.
No doubt many are asking “Why?” “Why do such things happen?” Why does trouble strike? Why do natural disasters such as floods, mudslides, hurricanes, wildfires, and tornadoes befall us? Why do tragedies (plane crashes, auto accidents, shootings like we heard about at Ft. Hood this past week) happen? Often such natural disasters are referred to in the media or insurance policies as “acts of God.” Are tragic events acts of God? Or signs of God’s displeasure? Are they punishment for sin? Is there any reasoning behind it all?
I did not read the story from Luke this morning, but once, while Jesus was teaching, someone in the crowd shouted, “Jesus, Pilate has just slaughtered some Galileans who were worshipping in the Temple. What do you say about that, Jesus? Were they killed because they were great sinners?” (cf. Luke 13:1-9.) If Palestine had had newspapers in those days, the headline might have read something like this: “Pilate mingles Galileans’ blood with their sacrifices.” History records that Pilate was a ruthless ruler who often had the Jewish people killed for little or no reason. It is conjectured that on this occasion Pilate may have suspected the slain worshippers to be insurrectionists. Nevertheless, the popular belief of that day was that such tragedy was the manifestation of God’s judgment. Human suffering was the consequences of sin. If God is responsible for everything that happens in the world (as was widely believed in that day and time), and if God is a just God, then calamities must be the result of human sinfulness.1 But Jesus repudiated that idea and said extraordinary suffering does not equal sinfulness, and those who experience tragedy in their lives are not necessarily guilty of some great wrong. He contended that those unfortunate Galileans were no more sinful than anyone else. By taking this stance, Jesus was agreeing with one of the major teachings that the writer of the Old Testament Book of Job was trying to get across—suffering is not the result of human sin. It is not a sign of God’s displeasure or punishment. Tragedy does not imply transgression.
Jesus was also reminded of eighteen people who were killed when a tower fell upon them. Some had inferred that they must have been great sinners for such a tragic thing to happen to them. A problem in this line of thinking is that it puts the blame on the victim, something that is too often done in our society. Again Jesus refutes this line of thinking. He says they were no worse sinners than anyone else. It was just a freak accident of chance. God didn’t send the tragedy. And God was not responsible for it. If human beings die because a building collapses, or because they are in a tragic car accident, or because a stray bullet hits them, it is not because God has arbitrarily chosen to strike and punish them for their sins while others go free.
Sometimes tragic things occur as the result of human freedom, because of the freewill to make our own choices, for good or for ill. Often tragic events of life that some may attribute to God are in reality brought on by the laws of nature or forces of evil in the world or because we make less than wise decisions. Consequently, a lot of things in life get blamed on God that God has no part in.
The good news is that the God that Jesus sought to reveal is a God of love; a compassionate God—a refuge and strength and very present help in times of trouble. In his book titled A Way Out of No Way, United Church of Christ minister and political leader Andrew Young recounts: “. . . many clouds have darkened my life… I lost the Democratic primary for governor of Georgia…. I learned that my wife, Jean, had developed cancer… my son, during his first week in college, was stopped by police…and brutally beaten for no apparent reason…. It has been indeed a dark time in my life—a life that, heretofore, seemed charmed and protected from personal tragedy and adversity. Yet, even amidst these dark times, the presence of God has been all too clear. Even in tragedy and calamity there is newfound strength and meaning. The way I must now follow is not yet clear to me, but as I remain sensitive to the hand and plan of God amid the turmoil and confusion, I see that I have not been abandoned by the Lord of Life and Creation. Just as God has led me in the past so will God lead me now and in the future.”2
One more important truth to bear in mind as we think of the events of the past two weeks is the fact that life is fragile and uncertain. We never know when we get up in the morning to face the day if it might be our last, or the last one of someone we love. The residents of Oso, Washington, were going about their daily business: remodeling a home, grocery shopping, babysitting, and the like. Disaster struck without warning. Such should teach us to try to live each and every day as if it might be the last one we might ever live. If everyone did that, what a different kind of world it would be.
So, when trouble strikes, what can we say? My faith leads me to believe that God is not the cause of tragedy and trouble in our lives. Sometimes people use their freewill in such a way that it brings hurt to the world. Sometimes we suffer because of the evil around us. Sometimes stuff happens because of the law of gravity and other natural laws of the universe. Not to blame the victims, but sometimes people don’t use the best judgment when building their homes in places that are subject to natural disaster. As Dave Ammons, of the Washington State’s Secretary of State Office, put it, “There are risks to be taken in living in some of the most beautiful places on Earth, along riverbanks, unstable cliffs, mountaintop vistas.” And then sometimes, bad stuff just happens without rhyme or reason.
Well, last Sunday, residents of Oso, Washington, gathered to sing and pray at the Oso Community Chapel that had been aiding some of the victims. One of the church elders read from the Book of Isaiah: “’Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my [that is, God’s] unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”
We can take comfort in knowing that a supporting presence and un-thought-of strength can be manifested in spite of and in the midst of disaster and trouble. We are capable of dealing with far more than we might ever imagine. And when we do have do have to deal with the unexpected disasters and troubles of life, it is good to know that we, like the residents of Oso, Washington, have a supportive community like this United Church to face the disasters, troubles, and uncertainties of life with us. Amen.
1New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 270.
2United Church News, March 1994, p. 4.
USA Today, March 31, April 1, 2014.
Wall Street Journal, March 29, 30, 31, 2014.