Sermon Text: Tell Me Why
I like explanations. As human beings, we want reasons. We want to know why.
For example, once we get to a certain age, we look at obituaries. If someone died at our age or younger, we want to know the reason. The world makes a little more sense when we can see why.
Think about the horrific mass shooting in New Zealand. We want to know why. When we learn that it was committed by an angry white guy who hates people with dark skin and a different religion, at least we have a little sense of why it happened.
There is the tragedy of the two Binghamton high school students walking on the sidewalk last week who were hit by a car. One was killed, and one is terribly injured. The explanation was a driver high on illegal drugs.
We want explanations. We want reasons. We want to know why.
It’s very human to want all that. But there is a problem. Even when we have an explanation, even when we know the reasons, the pain remains. The grief is still deep.
The sorrow is still there.
Explanations and reasons don’t take away the hurt. The searing tragedy of the two girls from Binghamton is not taken away because we know how it happened. The New Zealand massacre is still a horror, even if we know why the shooter did it. But we still want the explanations. It’s always been the human thing to want to know why.
In our story from Luke’s Gospel today, people come to Jesus looking for an explanation of a recent tragedy in the news. Pontius Pilate, like the New Zealand terrorist, had killed a bunch of people while they were at worship. Those who came to Jesus looking for an answer seem to want Jesus to say that they had it coming.
There is an old strain of religious thought that says bad things happen because we have sinned and it’s God’s punishment. You can find this teaching in the Bible. But Jesus does not agree with it. He disagrees with the idea that these Galileans deserved what happened to them. And then he mentions another recent tragedy, this one an accident, where people were killed by a falling tower. He rejects the idea that people deserved it.
Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a fruitless tree and a gardener. The gardener urges patience over punishment. Jesus does not follow the old Biblical teaching that when bad things happen, it is because people are being punished. Jesus holds patience above punishment.
This is not the answer people seem to expect. Jesus teaches another way — and he lives another way. Jesus lived among us and loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners. He healed the sick and proclaimed good news to the poor. He wanted to draw the whole world to himself. But he did not teach an answer to why bad things happen.
We want the world to be fair and to make sense. But stuff happens that is not fair and does not make sense.
What we need is not an explanation. What we need are not reasons. What we need is help getting through. What we need is strength to go on. What we need, to put in one word, is love.
When my best seminary friend died young, a nun told me, “God must have wanted him more than we did.” What a terrible thing to say! And I told her so! I’m glad she never said it to my friend’s widow. Explanations and reasons don’t always help, and sometimes they hurt.
I have never appreciated it when someone explains to me why my daughter is profoundly disabled from a theological perspective. And even though a scientific answer might be true — that her autism is a genetic disorder, and her mental deficits are because the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck during delivery and briefly starved her brain of oxygen — knowing that does not help at all.
The answer is not what I need. The explanation is not what I need. What I need is strength, and what I need is love.
My wife and I decided early on that we would not allow our daughter’s disability to break us up, as so often happens to parents of disabled children. Instead, we committed more deeply to each other that we would get through it all together. And we did.
What gets human beings through these awful things that happen? Is it an answer, like the people wanted who asked Jesus about a local tragedy? Is it an explanation, so that the world will make a little more sense? I don’t think so.
I think what gets us through it all — through the grief, through the terrible times which sometimes arrive — what gets us through it all is love. The love of our families, the love of our friends, the love of our God. That’s what gets us through. That’s what give us the strength we need.
My wife’s heart was deeply touched this week when she saw a picture of something done in New Zealand in response to the shooting. It was at one of those shrines that spring up on sidewalks with flowers and candles and notes.
She saw a hand-lettered sign that said, “I will watch while you pray.” Whoever made that sign was not a member of the same religion as those who were attacked. Maybe whoever made that sign was not religious at all.
But she — or he — was human, and was showing compassion. The message of that hand-written sign is that we are in this together. And when you hurt, I hurt.
The only thing that gets us through is love. We don’t always get the explanations and reasons we want. But that’s not what gets us through, anyway.
The only thing that gets us through is love.