Why? The Following Is My Effort to Answer that Question.
This is the sermon I gave on Fathers’ Day, June 19, the Sunday following the Sunday of the Orlando Massacre.
At first, I thought writing this sermon was going to be kinda fun – Fathers’ Day! I was really looking forward to that. I found this wonderful description of fatherhood from author Ben Fountain (Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk), who said, “…nothing really prepares you for kids, for the swells of emotion that roll through your chest like the rumble of boulders tumbling downhill, nor for the all-enveloping labor of it, the sheer mulish endurance you need for the six or seven hundred discrete tasks that have to be done each and every day. Such a small person! Not much bigger than a loaf of bread at first, yet it takes so much to keep the whole enterprise going. Logistics, skills, material; the only way we really learn is by figuring it out as we go along, and even then it changes on us every day, so we’re always improvising, which is a fancy way of saying that we’re doing things we technically don’t know how to do.”
“…small person. Not much bigger than a loaf of bread… it takes so much to keep the whole enterprise going. Logistics, skills, material…” I love it! A father describing childcare as troop movements!
And of course, he hit upon what we all know – we have to figure it out as we go along. No child arrives with instructions. You can read all the advice books you want, but nothing beats the hands-on experience, the ability to improvise. And faith… And prayer…
I looked forward to starting my sermon with that.
But then, last Sunday, just as the altar party was approaching the back of the church to process in with the first hymn, someone came up to us and asked us if we had heard about the massacre in Orlando. Luckily one of our Lay Eucharistic Ministers was able to add the victims to our prayers. But that was the first we’d heard of this tragedy.
Of course, I had no sermon prepared for it. All I could do was bow my head with everyone else and pray for the repose of the souls of those who died, and their families and friends.
Orlando seems to have become the epicenter of tragedy recently. And the question that immediately arises is “WHY?” For us as Christians that is our cry to God – “WHY?” For those of us who are priests, this is an especially painful question because people often ask us “Why?” and believe me, we struggle with the answer.
If God is a loving God, and I believe God is – how can God allow things like this to happen? Does God want things like this to happen? Are we supposed to learn some sort of lesson from this? No – No – and No! I don’t believe God would ever cause this. Bad things do not happen as a punishment any more than good things happen as a reward. We are blessed by God’s grace; freely given unconditional love – there are no debits or credits. There is no heavenly bank account.
So how is this horrible slaughter an expression of God’s love for us? The answer of course is – it isn’t. God weeps with us for all the victims in Orlando, for the patrons of the Pulse nightclub, for singer Christina Grimmie, and for little Lane Graves. God weeps with their families, their brothers and sisters and friends.
So how can God allow things like this to happen? Well, the bottom line is – we don’t really know. But I have thought and prayed about this question, not only in regards to this latest tragedy, but also horribly similar tragedies in the past. How can such terrible things happen with our loving God?
So please try to follow me here as I share with you my thoughts on this. After a lot of prayer I believe it is important for your priest to make an effort to speak to the role God plays in events like these. Where is God here? Here’s my effort at it.
We are created by God and we are created as imperfect beings. I understand that the Fall in the Garden of Eden is the story given to explain our imperfections, but God could have always started over with perfection. Yet God didn’t do that. Why not?
As God’s creation, our primary function is to love God. That is the first and greatest commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls and minds.
So why didn’t God create perfect people who would always be ready and able to love God? I believe the answer is because God didn’t want robots or puppets who simply popped out automatic love for God. No! That isn’t love. God doesn’t want automatic, “perfect,” mechanical love from us. God doesn’t even want love from us that comes from a sense of obligation. God wants love freely given. We can understand that. We all want to be genuinely loved – really loved – freely loved. God wants love given because we want to.
There is only one way that we can love God freely, and that is if we have free will. And there we have the great variable of creation. There we have the opportunity for chaos.
We are not “perfect.” God doesn’t want us to be “perfect.” God wants us to be human. And as humans, we are flawed, imperfect creatures. And it all starts with the gift of free will.
Looking at this from a positive point of view, our free will, this element of chaos, also gives us the opportunity to be creative – to think and act creatively. That is the unknown, unpredictable element about us.
But there is also the dark side to free will. We can choose. We can choose not to love God. There are those who will say that it is solely a matter of denying God and denying the good in oneself, and embracing what we call evil, or allowing evil to enter into our lives, but I think it also involves evil as chaos, a dark chaos. This choice, this dark side, this chaos is also part of our gift of free will from God – the dark side of free will. That is what was exercised by the killers in Orlando. Frequently, this dark side is set in motion and fed by ignorance and fear.
We are gloriously human. We are delicate and complex organisms. All of Nature is delicate and complex. All of creation is glorious and flawed. Without those flaws – we – all of creation – could not have the infinite variety that we have. That element of chaos is the part of creation that can result in divine creativity or madness. The outcome can be beauty or horror. The wonder of us is that we – are – flawed. It’s our blessing – it is also our curse.
There is evil. There is madness. There is imperfection. The poor man who was possessed by a legion of demons in our Gospel reading today? Two to three thousand individuals made up a Roman legion. That’s how many demons possessed that poor man. Sort of a massive case of multiple personality disorder.
Was he that different from the man who was obsessed with Christina Grimmie? Or the man who was clearly so frightened of homosexuality and disturbed by other elements of the western way of life that his fear grew into an obsession. His terrible fear grew into hate. He too, like our poor man running naked through the gravestones appears to have lost all reason. This is the dark side of free will.
It is part of what we as human creations live with. Now, how do we choose to live with it? Do we choose to expend our energy, our God-given life energy, hating back or trying to find someone to blame? Or do we look for Jesus’ example to us? Jesus knew the pain of that madman and he knew the pain of the demons that possessed him. Jesus gave them all what they wanted and needed. (I feel kind of sorry for the pigs, though.)
Jesus knows our flaws. How many of us who are parents or who have ever cared for children have made mistakes, have turned our heads away for just a few seconds and didn’t see the danger our child might be in. That can happen to anyone. How do we respond to the tragic death of little Lane Graves? By blaming his parents? What’s the point of that? We respond with God’s love and we grieve with those parents for the pain they are going through. We can accomplish so much more by praying for them in their pain and celebrating our fathers and father figures and the joy they bring us on this Fathers’ Day.
Oh there is the tendency to feel rage, even a righteous rage (as Jesus did when he cleaned out the Temple) – but be very careful. That rage can become the very thing that caused Omar Mateen to careen over into destructive insanity
Sometimes it’s hard to trust in God. But we need to. We need to be open to God and to the pain of this event. We need to trust that God weeps with us. Haven’t you ever watched one of your kids make a terrible mistake or hurt themselves in some way and there wasn’t really anything you could do about it except to weep with them when it was over? We all have had those moments. And I don’t think either we or our children ever fully understand them.
We can rejoice in the fact that we are wonderfully created, with flaws that are a part of that wonderful creation, with elements of chaos within us that can be wonderfully creative or destructive. We can rejoice in the fact that God loves us always and unconditionally, all of us, no matter who we are or what we do. We can rejoice in the fact that God can and will grant us peace.
Where is God in these terrible tragedies? God is with us.
For Your Kids
I have a book that I found for my children to help explain why their Grandma (my mother) was dying. It’s titled Lifetimes. It talks about every living thing having a lifetime – a beginning and an end and living in between. And it reminds us that dying is as much a part of living as being born. Death is as much a part of God’s creation as birth. The book is in my office if you ever want to look at it.