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Preached:  March 24, 2013
Palm Sunday

Sermon Series on Brian McClaren’s book Naked Spirituality

There are times in most of our lives when we have endured so much pain, so much suffering, so many situations that are beyond our control, when we are reduced to a one-word prayer – WHY???

As we embark on holy week, we journey with Jesus through the shouts of the crowd “Hosanna, Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!” knowing all too well that the week will end with Jesus hanging on the cross, crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Many people shy away from Holy Week services because reading through the passages of Jesus’ suffering is painful.  And each year when I am confronted with those texts, I offer up that distraught prayer that haunts me every year at Holy Week -WHY?  Why must Jesus die like this? Why must it end this way? Why the nails and cross, why, in the end, such an agonizing and shameful death?

Faithful Christians throughout the Church’s long history have struggled to address this question, and their various answers have been described as “theories of atonement.” Emphasizing one part of the Biblical witness or another, these theories attempt to address the “why” question by describing Christ’s death as a substitution for our own, or of Christ satisfying God’s requirement for holiness, or of Christ paying the penalty for sin, or of the example Christ’s death sets for us, or even of the victory Christ wins over death and the devil.  None of them ultimately satisfies.  Our questions persist, and they persist within the context of our own lives as well, when we can no longer make sense out of the pain and suffering of our own lives, or the lives of those we love.

The distraught cry of why is what we utter when we are confused by our circumstances, outraged by a sense of injustice, or feel out of control: “Why did the cancer came back?” “Why was I chosen to be “downsized?”  “Why is my child struggling so?” “Why do I feel so alone?”  Why? It’s the question that helps us articulate our deep desire to find meaning in meaningless events, to understand – and thereby not feel quite so overwhelmed by – events beyond our control.

CS Lewis, in “The Problem of Pain,” writes:  “When I was an atheist, if anyone had asked me “why do you NOT believe in God, my reply would have been…. PAIN.. People cause pain by being born, and live by pain and in pain they mostly die….. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.”

For many, suffering and sorrow are an excuse to REJECT GOD.  It is a problem for those of us who believe and  trust in God. If we believe in a powerful and good God, how can things like this happen? In our faith… we struggle to understand. We seek to make sense of the disparity.  In seeking understanding through the lens of faith, it has produced several different answers to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people.”

If God is powerful and good, why is there still evil in the world. Surely God could have prevented those cells from turning into cancer… surely God could have stopped that car… surely God could have kept that baby alive. If God is powerful and good… why wouldn’t God?  This is where the theological term Theodicy comes in:  Theodicy is an argument to defend the goodness of God in the light of human suffering.

We have all heard the arguments regarding Theodicy before, in one form or another.

Protest Theodicy looks at all the pain and suffering in the world and declares IF there indeed is a God… there is no way God can be a good God.

Process Theodicy says:  If we determine that God is good… then we are still left with the problem of evil in the world. Process Theodicy declares, “Well, if God is indeed good, then God must NOT be all powerful.”  Indeed God always intends the good to happen, however God can not stop evil from happening without breaking the laws of physics, or breaking free-will. God didn’t want puppets!

God’s Will Theodicy says, “Perhaps… it is for our own good. Surely, it is just part of God’s bigger plan.”  “Suffering is good for you; it builds character.” “Somehow… this will work out for the good.” This kind of Theodicy believes that God will somehow use pain and suffering in your life… to make you better, to make you stronger, to prepare you for something in the future.  I can see why this one is a popular one… there are several things in my life that were just plain awful to go through, but they’ve made me a better person. Those trials indeed made me stronger.

Try going to the bedside of someone dying and say… “This is going to make you stronger.”  “Don’t worry… something good will still come out of this!”

And then there is the very damaging theodicy that says, “God is teaching us a lesson.
God is punishing us.”  or “You must have done something to deserve this.”

I have heard all of these kinds of explanations and they ALL fall short for me.  I have heard these kinds of explanations to try to explain tragedy and suffering: “It is God‟s will.”  “Everything happens for a reason.”

Now, good things can come even out of the worst things that happen in this world—that is our resurrection faith as Christians—but that’s not the same as saying that God plans horrible things in order that good can come out of them.  That would make God unbelievably cruel.

The truth is, there is no satisfying answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people. Theologians have been wrestling with this question for thousands of years. No one has yet come up with an answer, if by answer you mean explanation, and so, if we haven’t turned away from God altogether, we come before God with this prayer on our lips: WHY???  It is the Spiritual Practice of lament and agony, somehow willing yourself to survive through a sense of abandonment

Brian McLaren calls it: The prayer you offer on the longest night of the year, in the dark night of the soul.  It is the prayer that says I don’t have answers but still dares to hope that there is an answer, and so it asks. The word WHY holds open a crack in the door, a hope against hope that there is some reason for this madness?  But not by explanation, or by some greater plan.

In uttering that question why, Jesus validated that pain, abandonment, doubt, and despair are part of the human condition.  But we hold on to the hope that they are not the last word.

Romans 8:18-23 18   I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

When the worst case scenario really does happen, or the unimaginable descends upon you, You have a choice: I’ll just curse God and turn away, or you can dare to ask, “What good can we pull from this mess? What meaning can we make of this madness?”  The former invites resignation. The latter seeks creative possibility.  It holds open the possibility that even though God did not intend for you to suffer, there may be some future good that can somehow come out of this present agony.

We have choice in the matter.  All that I’m going through will make me better or bitter.  You can either break down or break through.

McLaren:  What possible good in the future can be brought out of this tragic suffering in the present?  It makes no assumption that what you are going through was inevitable or intentional, but it also makes no assumptions that the present moment is meaningless. It holds open the possibility that some future meaning or good could somehow be wrested from this present tragedy and loss.

Dare to hold the simple word why before God.  Feel your pain, unanswered prayer, exhaustion and disappointment.  Don’t rush away from it.  Let why be a container.

Allow the why of unjust suffering to tilt toward the future – and allow it to become a why not.  Why not a better future full of compassion, more justice, more harmony, more connection, more vitality, more beauty, more truth, more grace?  Moving in the direction of hope, of light, of life.  You can choose to will future good in the midst of present suffering.  To will future light in the midst of present darkness, to will resurrection in the midst of present death.

God’s presence may come back and say, here’s why….so that some good may come.

Why not a better future?  More compassion, justice, harmony, connection, vitality, beauty,  truth, grace?

Why should I not give up hope?  Why should I not become cynical jaded, despairing?  Why should I not lose faith?  Why should I not just seek to save my own skin?  Implicit in your question will be the answer, “So that some good may come.”

In this willing, there is a sense of God’s presence, forever willing goodness, truth, and beauty, and waiting for others to will it too.

You may not have intellectually satisfying explanations for your suffering, but you can now see the ways that God was with you in the midst of it, and how that carried you through.

At some point, we are forced to realize that God can no longer be understood as the Protective Parent who will keep us safe from harm. Rather, God is the loving Presence that keeps company with us, shares our anguish, and enables us to keep going and to keep loving in a world that includes unexplained evil and pain. Our psalmist ends his prayer by giving voice to a faith and a hope that is seasoned, now, a faith that, as McLaren says, This is mature faith that has “walked through the dark valley of the shadow of death and come out the other side.”

Having kept the question of why open as long as you can, you let go.  Dare you do so now?  Falling not from the God above you, but into the God below you.