Rev Leigh Weber March 17, 2019 Luke 3:31-35
Why do bad things happen to good people? In some form or another I’ve been asked that question a lot. I’ve asked it myself too. I’ve sat with parents losing a child. Invariably they want to trade places with their little one, “Why them?” I’ve come alongside individuals who have received tragic phone calls that none of us wants, those that start with “I’m sorry but…”
I’ve been present when words like “cancer” and terms like “Stage Four” were put together in the same sentence. I have sat with spouses and children and I have also sat there hearing those words spoken to my own family, when my husband was first diagnosed. And I cry too, with you, for you. I struggle for words, I feel insufficient, I feel the unfairness and the hurt of each one of those moments. At those times, my heart breaks open and I ache…I lament.
Earlier this week, I had a different title for this sermon, the one that is listed in your bulletin. Earlier this week I had a different sermon. Earlier this week, I had another hymn for after the sermon. Earlier this week, I was primarily thinking about Pi Day and Session and all of the things that I had on my list, the people to see, the meetings to attend.
Earlier this week, I had been lulled back into that state in which I live, in which, I suspect, many of us live. It’s been long enough since the last mass shooting to at least make space to think about other things, and the news has been filled with so many other things, a downed plane, a warming planet with our young people leading the cry to save it and so much more.
And, like every week that I preach, I moved through it with these texts in my head, moving from background to foreground in my thoughts again and again. God’s covenant with Abraham in the Genesis text, Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem in Luke. And that place of refuge in the psalm. The determined and tenacious love of God, to pursue and pursue humankind, to come alongside, to weep with us and for us, to offer us refuge. Determined Love.
And then somewhere in the late evening hours this past Thursday, after much pie had been eaten, dishes washed and carpets vacuumed, after Session and dinner, after the ferry, after the drive home, after I brushed my teeth and climbed into bed, I checked my phone one last time. Gunman in New Zealand mosques, many dead. And as I sat there holding my phone, I heard myself saying, “God of mercy and grace, why DO bad things happen to good people and why is there so much hatred in this world and where and how on earth do I even begin to respond?” And I cried…because it’s just so unbelievably wrong.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem…” I can’t imagine the utter heartbreak he must have been feeling at that moment, on his way to a city meant for holiness but one that kills her prophets. I can’t imagine the utter heartbreak he must have been feeling as sons and daughters of Abraham knelt to pray Thursday evening. Heartbreak, lament, determined love.
Jerusalem, I will love you even though you will add me to the number of slain prophets. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing? At the same time that Jesus’ heart is broken for what Jerusalem has done and what he knows it will end up doing to him, he remains faithful to them, committed to them with a determined love. He aches to have them in his arms.
God keeps God’s promises, God is faithful to God’s covenant and Jesus, God Incarnate is a continuation of that story of Divine faithfulness to the covenant made with humankind.
Look at the text we just heard from Genesis. This man Abram, whose children will eventually encompass Christian and Jew and Muslim, he says to God, “I have no heirs; you promised; how’s that going to happen?” He can’t see it. But God says, “Don’t be afraid, don’t worry, it’s going to happen, your own flesh and blood. And then Abram asks, “But what about the land, how’s it all going to happen?” But God doesn’t explain, God doesn’t give Abram a formula for how it all plays out. God just lives into what is promised, not just for Abram but for all of his descendants.
And that covenant is with those inhabitants of Jerusalem that Jesus wept for, the Pharisees who told him that Herod was out to get him but who would play a key role in his eventual death themselves. God’s covenant is with all of us even when we can’t fully see how it will play out in our lives.
We often fail to live into the covenant, but God never fails, God remains faithful and determined even as we wander and get lost, as we drift in and out of intimacy with God. God keeps God’s promise. And there are times when God simply weeps.
Bad things happen to good people. And sometimes human beings do very bad things. And searching for explanation is an exercise in futility. Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on this Genesis text is this “God is a God who makes promises with no evidence at hand or in sight. God is powerful in purpose, hidden in performance, faithful over time.”
Jesus’ cry in Jerusalem is sourced in the faithfulness of God to the covenant. Jesus can’t turn away from them, no matter what they are doing. He can’t turn away and he can’t look away. He will see them again on his way to the cross, he can’t back down, God doesn’t back down.
God is all in even when we break God’s heart. Jesus’ cry is filled frustration and grief, and determination that his children could somehow come together under the wings of God’s love.
That was the story in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. And that is the tragic truth of today. Jesus weeps, Jesus’ heart is broken, and Jesus won’t look away because he simply can’t, he’s all in.
So, what do we do? What do we do when it’s unbearable to process anymore? We live in a nation that has seen dead first graders in Connecticut, gun down concert goers in Las Vegas, many running for their lives, human beings in synagogues and mosques, worshipping and praying and searching for meaning. We live in a nation and increasingly in a world where violence is commonplace. And we’re tired. We’re so tired we get numb and we don’t know what to do.
I don’t know why bad things happen. I have some ideas about what’s systemically behind it, but I don’t know what causes someone to finally pull a trigger and take a human life. I simply don’t know why any ideology or hatred could drive someone to walk into a place of worship or a place of learning and destroy human life so senselessly.
But here’s what I do know. We can’t be lulled into looking away. We can’t fail to call it out. We can’t NOT name it. And we can’t stop loving, radically, lavishly loving, at all costs. We have to speak up when we see others mistreated because of their ethnicity or their religion or anything else, even when doing so scares us.
Jesus named what he saw, he called out injustice and he never looked away. He also never stopped loving and deeply weeping and desiring to gather his people under his wings and shelter them. And neither can we. We are his earthly body now and our arms are the shelter he longs to provide.
A few hours before our Ash Wednesday service, Paul Mitchell from the Methodist Church came in to my office to go over the service and bulletin with me. Paul isn’t just a colleague, he’s a good friend and he is truly my brother in Christ, and we share our life stories with one another and pray for one another. And honestly, I hadn’t been having the best week, not one big thing in particular, just a lot of little things and I was tired, and I had shared much of it with him that morning. So, after a few minutes, he pulled out his phone and said, “I have something to read to you.”
On Ash Wednesday, if you’re in church, the minister will invite you to the observance of a “holy Lent” and mark your forehead with the ashes of repentance.
Let me be very clear about this at the outset: I love you so much. I delight in you. I cherish you. Forever.
Here are a few more things I want you to comprehend. Despite what you’ve been taught, “holy” does not mean pure and unearthly. “Sin” does not mean breaking my rules and making me mad. “Penitence” does not mean listing and wallowing in all the ways you’re wrong and bad. Repentance does not mean promising to do better to stay out of trouble.
Please think about these words a new way, on Ash Wednesday and every other day going forward.
What if you only sin when you refuse healing and cling to brokenness? When you use those sharp broken edges to hurt yourself and others?
What if holiness is when you choose to be whole, even though you’re terrified? When you embrace and enfold those pieces of yourself you’ve lopped off to fit into others’ molds?
What if penitence is when you see yourself clearly, and know, speak, and live from your heart?
What if “repentance” is re-membering your true self in all her messy glory?
What if, this Lent, instead of focusing on the ways you’re not good enough and the ways you fall short, you commit to your own healing?
I was there at the Big Bang, enlivening every particle, atom, and molecule. You are made of me, and through me you are connected to everything and everyone. I am every-damn-where, girl. You swim in me and I in you.
This means, my dear, when you let yourself be healed, your healing heals the world. And when you cling to your brokenness, the world stays a little more broken than it needs to be. Your healing is important and necessary. You think your healing is selfish. That’s incorrect. Your healing is crucial. I’m using that word deliberately, sweetheart. Your healing IS the crux – where you and I come together.
This Lent, the only fasts I want from you are these: Fast from distractions that allow you to stay wounded and broken. Fast from believing you’re not good enough. Fast from making yourself small, and nice, and silent. Fast from all judgment, especially of yourself.
This Lent make space for me to flow into you and through you.
Befriend your fear, your anger, and your sadness. They are a deep source of nourishment and strength.
Let your love go free.
Let your joy be unconfined.
Sweetheart, healing isn’t complicated, and it’s always available. All you have to do is tap into it, like a maple tree in springtime or an aquifer of living water. You know this. But it’s so easy to forget, isn’t it? All you have to do is let me clear out the dams and the trash, the resentments and identities and old, too-small skins, that keep you stuck and stagnant. Relax your heart armor just a little. And then allow yourself to flow, child. That’s all you have to do. I’ll do the rest.
This Ash Wednesday let those ashes symbolize our unending connection, a connection so easy to forget and so simple to strengthen. When the priest wipes those gritty ashes on your forehead and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” celebrate your elemental oneness with this dear, dirty earth and with me. I am in those ashes, in the dust, in the stars, and in you.
Girl, I need you! You’re the only you I created. So, please, let yourself be the creation I made you to be. You don’t need someone outside yourself telling you how to live. Trust yourself. Trust your heart. Trust me. I’ve got you.
All my Love,
My heart was so heavy when I woke up Friday morning, and I felt so absolutely insufficient to make a difference in this world, to work for the Reign of God. “How do we make a difference God, what are you calling us to do?” Then I pulled out the letter, “I am every-damn-where, girl. You swim in me and I in you.”
God is faithful, even when life hurts. I don’t know all of what we might be being called to here but what I do know is that Jesus laments, weeps, even when he can see the wrong, we humans commit. And he’s not afraid to name them, to call them out. But he also never loses sight of the hurt. God simply never looks away. He’s faithful to the covenant even when being so must be heartbreaking. God needs you, you’re the only you he created. So, please, let yourself be the creation God made you to be. And don’t ever look away. There are times when your tears are all you can give, and Jesus teaches us that human life is worth every one of them.