Why?

This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 8, 2017, at CSMSG. This year every week seems to bring with it some new disaster, some new crisis of faith, and this week especially with the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. In this context it’s all the more natural to ask “Why?” especially of God – but one of the perennial troubles is that God is not always forthcoming with an answer. This sermon is an attempt to point the way towards a specifically Christian response to the matters at hand, as well as to the larger question of faith and suffering.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who live the and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

I’ll never forget, in the first weeks of being ordained a deacon (I wasn’t a priest yet) I went to the hospital with my father to see my grandmother. She had just undergone a complicated procedure for pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis which had taken her — and all of us — completely by surprise. Most of my dad’s four siblings were in Grandma’s room with us, and we were all talking quietly while she slept off the residue of the anesthesia. One of them asked me point blank, knowing I’d just been ordained, “So all right Blake, now tell us why this happened.” I confess I was at a total loss for words. I’m sure I mumbled something unsatisfying, and the conversation carried on.

Or another case, years before: a friend of mine committed suicide after graduating from college, after suffering through depression and various family issues for years. In his last email to me before jumping in front of a train, he said the one thing that troubled him the most, was “Why anything at all?” Not just, “Why is there bad in the world?” or, “Why is there good?” but, “Why is there anything at all?” He’d grown up a person of faith, but something about that particular moment in his life prevented him from seeing any reason at all behind any of the things he was facing. There was no satisfactory answer I could give.

The last time I preached, Houston was in the middle of historic flooding after Hurricane Harvey. In the few weeks since, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria have both hit, and we’ve just had yet another record-setting public shooting, this time in Las Vegas. “Why” is still the question on my mind, and I’m sure it’s an important question for many of you too — whether about these specific incidents or something else you might be facing. Are there any answers to be had from Christian faith? And if none are finally satisfying, why should we bother in the first place?

This is where the parables in the Gospel, and actually the whole Gospel itself, really begins to shift us out of our comfortable patterns of thought. In today’s parable about the vineyard and the wicked tenants, Jesus is telling a parable about himself, among other things. He is the son in the parable, who willingly goes to the tenants, and gets killed by them. Why on earth is this the way it works? We don’t know, though we’ve spent the last two thousand years coming up with one theory after another about why it has to be this way. The son gets killed by the tenants in the Gospel parable. The Son of God gets killed by those he comes to save in the Gospel. Why does it have to be this way?

You may know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian in the Second World War, who refused to collaborate with the Nazi state and found himself in a prison camp, where he was executed mere days before the Allies liberated it. In the letters he wrote from prion, he observed that asking why was always the wrong question, because it revealed two flawed assumptions. First, asking why is the wrong question because it assumes that knowledge will always fix things; and second, because it assumes the chief function of God is to satisfy our curiosity. The problem with this first is that knowledge simply doesn’t always fix things; more often than not it creates further problems of its own. And second of all, if God exists merely to satisfy our curiosity, then God can be dethroned in our hearts by anything that offers a more enticing or convincing explanation. This is the heart of all the so-called “Science and Religion” debates. If God exists to offer explanations, and if science offers a more detailed account of how atoms work (or whatever), what reason is there for holding the doctrine of creation?

But this is not what God is for, this is not what doctrine is about. God is not here just to offer explanations for thorny questions, questions about either the nature of reality or the painful experience of suffering. Jesus did not take on human flesh in order to answer our questions or to give us a satisfying “Why.” Instead, he came to cast a vision, and to live it out to its end: a vision where the Son of God shows up in our world not as the enforcer of some kind of divine fairness, or the all-knowing oracle who untangles all knots — in our parable today the son does not successfully demand anything out of those tenants, or convincingly explain to them their error. No. The Christian vision is where God himself shows up and gets murdered; where Jesus shows up in the world he made, and reveals himself not the enforcer but the victim; the Victim whose offering of himself on the cross breaks the whole economy of death and bridges the chasm between heaven and earth. For Jesus there is no answer to suffering, except to suffer it himself, and in so doing establish the victory of life over death, out of which victory he brings healing to the nations and to your heart and mine.

This is the paradox, the mystery at the heart of Christian belief: that in suffering, in loss, in pain, injustice, and unfairness, somehow God is present and heaven is near: not as the solution to a problem, not as the explanation, not as the cause, but as the victim, whose death breaks the power of death forever, and whose life is the source, the pattern, and the guarantor of all human flourishing and joy.

No, Christian faith does not answer any questions. It does however question us: do we really want to embrace the vision which Jesus casts? Do we really want to live in a world where the Son of God is the victim and not the cavalry; the suffering servant and not the righteous landowner? Do we really want to live in a world where the last are first, and I might not get what I have coming to me after all? Do we really want to live in a world where justice and righteousness and even law itself do not avail but only mercy, weakness, and love? Do we really want to live in a world where the meek inherit the earth, and where the rest of us will have to be content with a backseat when it comes to the priorities of God?

Make no mistake, this is not a satisfying answer, logically or rhetorically. And yet it is the answer which God offers, both in today’s parable and in the Cross. If the Cross is an answer at all, it is the answer to a question no one is asking. It doesn’t answer our “Why?” to Harvey or Irma or Maria. It doesn’t explain Stephen Paddock, pancreatic cancer, depression, suicide, or Bonhoeffer’s Nazi captors. But the God who is last, who puts himself into the breach and suffers the consequences he neither asked for nor deserved — this God is our God, whom we worship here this morning and whose table we will approach in a few moments.

No this is not a satisfying answer. But somehow I think we intuit that it might be the correct answer. We are always moved to see the photos of people shielding one another from bullets with their own bodies. We sense something deeply right about this, even while we know the cost is too much to pay; and it helps with sketching out the only response the Gospel offers. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is never to fight fire with fire; never to come up with reasons why it must have been the will of God; never finally even to pass or repeal legislation. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is to step into the breach with our own lives after the pattern of our Lord — and find, when the darkness closes in, that a Light shines there which the darkness cannot comprehend. In this way Heaven continually breaks into our world from within, not standing offering explanation or escape from without.

This is the only way the Gospel could be Good News to my grandmother. At that point there was no stopping the cancer. It could only be what it was, while the rest of us could only sit and watch in dismay. There was nothing anyone could do to fix it. Yet in her own quiet way, even as she slept in that hospital room, she gave the answer I could not offer. In her graceful dying, concerned only for the well-being of her family, she bore witness to Christ himself on the cross giving Mary and John into each other’s care; and, finding Jesus there in the midst of her dying, there is no question that he himself carried her home.

So, if you find the vision compelling and you really do want to be a part of the Christian response to the suffering in our world — don’t try to explain it, or offer some kind of half-baked solution that only makes yourself feel better and does no justice either to those who are suffering or to the God who claims them for his own. Rather, if you want to offer a specifically Christian response, put yourself in the way of heaven; put your own life into the breach. Let heaven break into the world, into your heart, from within; not reserving it to judgement or escape from without. Go where life is most threatened, most vulnerable, in the world and in your own soul. There, say with Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And find: that, embracing the God who is last and least, the victim of all earthly powers, his strength will transfigure your weakness, his death will transfigure your life into his own eternal love.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.