March 15, 1998

Sermon: How Have I Offended?

Luke 13:1-9 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them -- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' 8 He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.' " (NRSV)

 

Let me tell you a story that happened not so long ago. A true story of a young woman whose real name we won't use - we'll call Laura. One day, looking gaunt and thin, Laura walked into a police station to make a confession and present herself for arrest.

She went up to the desk sergeant and said that she had killed her baby. The sergeant was aghast and arrested her on the spot.

In her confession, Laura explained to the police that six years before she had smothered her infant daughter, and her crime had gone undetected. Now she was ready to pay for what she had done.

Laura went to jail. Unlike many prisoners she never professed her innocence, never complained about her incarceration. When the time came for her to have her day in court she once again repeated her confession and declared her guilt. But what was odd about this case was the fact that no one who knew her, including her ex-husband, the father of the baby Laura confessed to killing - no one who knew her believed what she said or could imagine that she was guilty of the crime.

The story of Laura is told in the book "The Bereaved Parent" by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff. Mrs. Schiff was a reporter assigned to cover the trial of Laura, and she was one of many who after learning of the circumstances of the death of Laura's child became convinced that Laura had not committed murder.

Yet Laura insisted on the truth of her confession - that she had picked up a pillow and smothered her child. Her case was dismissed when the autopsy proved conclusively that the child had died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and had not been smothered. This declaration of innocence gave great relief to everyone - everyone, that was, except Laura. Instead, tears ran down Laura's cheeks.

All the courts in the world could declare Laura innocent, but that would not purge her feelings of self-blame. Surely she must have been responsible; the guilt of the death was on her, and her offense was an unbearable burden.

It is a terrible thing to compound the grief of loss with the burden of guilt. Laura's case is more graphic and extreme than many, yet even in the past year I have sat with parents who have openly pondered what they did in their lives to account for the death of their child. Must there not be some wrongdoing on their part to explain the loss which battered and punished their heart. Such punishment, can it come without cause? It is a question as current as today and as ancient as Jesus and Job.

Jesus, in today's lesson, speaks about guilt and suffering: "Do you think those eighteen who were killed when the tower fell - do you think they were worse sinners offenders than all the others in Jerusalem?" he asks.

And Job - Job is the archetype of the righteous who suffer. The Book of Job in the Old Testament is the fullest working of this ancient puzzle in all of scripture.

Job is a good man who is robbed of his wealth, his ten children and finally his health. His relations and fellow-townsmen interpret his misfortunes as a divine punishment for gross sin and throw him out of the town.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, outlines three beliefs which everyone in the story of Job could believe as long as life went well for Job. But in the instant Job suffered tragedy, one belief had to be discarded. The argument in the book of Job is which belief must be sacrificed.

The three beliefs were:

One - God is in control

Two - God is just and fair.

Three - Job is a good person.

Let me repeat:

One: God is in control; God is all powerful and causes everything that happens in the world. Nothing happens without God willing it.

Two: God is just and fair and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.

Three - Job is a good person.

As long as Job prospers, you can hold on to all three beliefs. Once Job suffers you must let go of one to allow the other two to stand.

To comfort him in his loss, Job's friends come to see him. They offer him the conventional pieties - Don't lose faith because of this tragedy. It is God's will; God is good; God will see that the good prosper and the wicked suffer.

Job explodes. What do you mean? Are you implying that my children were wicked and that is why they died? Are you saying that I am wicked, and that is why all this has happened to me? Where was I so terrible? What did I do that was so much worse than anything you did?

In order to protect the first two beliefs - that God is in control and that God is just - Job's friends have sacrificed belief number three - that Job is a good person. Job will not consent to this.

Laura consented to it. Laura was her own accuser, judge, and jury. God is in control, God is good, therefore someone is to blame. Laura blamed herself, and that is why, although innocent of any wrongdoing, she walks into a police station and confesses to the murder of her child.

Rabbi Kushner, who you may know wrote his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People in response to the suffering and death of his own son Aaron at age 14 after an 11 year struggle with a rare disease, also would not consent to giving up belief three. He knew his son was not a wicked person, that his son did not deserve to suffer and die because of his own sin or because of the sin of others.

Nor could Kushner give up belief number two - that God is good and just. And the Rabbi felt that if someone tried to explain away the death of his son as serving some higher purpose, some example, some greater good, then that was the same as saying that God is neither good nor just, for who would cause the suffering of a child for such a purpose.

The book of Job comes to a rather unsatisfactory ending. Job is faithful and does not curse God, so God promises to give Job more health, more children, more wealth. The book affirms that Job was a good man and that Job's suffering was not a result of sin, but it does not resolve the tension between the three beliefs. Rabbi Kushner goes a step further. He sacrifices belief number one - that God is in complete control and that nothing ever happens apart from the will of God.

Kushner asks if the reader, especially the reader who has suffered, can forgive God for creating an imperfect world - a world where nature and the laws of nature do not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, the righteous and the wicked.

What we call acts of God - fire, flood, accident, disease, - he would call realities of nature. He would say the act of God is the compassion of people who rush to help and heal and comfort and rescue. He asks if we can believe in a God who cares more for goodness than for perfection.

He would, like Job, like Jesus, unequivocally deny a necessary link between tragic loss and personal sin and guilt. Not that such a link is never there, but it is not necessarily there. And how heartbreaking it is when good and decent, caring human beings have their suffering compounded by guilt and the haunting question of How Have I offended you God? Why did this happen to my child, my spouse, my life?

It may be that in trying to answer such questions, in trying to explain the cause of suffering, we in the church have inadvertently compounded the pain of those we seek to comfort. We have sought to defend God from charges of cruelty or capriciousness, and have succeeded only in adding to the loss and guilt of those who suffer.

It may be that we can't answer for God in the sense of giving an explanation - a reason for suffering based on principles and past events. But perhaps we can answer for God in the sense of offering a response. A response not of explanation but of understanding - not of defense but of empathy. Perhaps the God who embraces goodness more than perfection depends upon us to offer this response in his name.

God's heart goes out to all who suffer - God's heart in our hearts.

God's hands seek to support all those who falter - God's hands in our hands.

God's word seeks to reassure all those who accuse themselves of sin and shortcoming in the face of pain and loss - God's word in our word.

I pray to God that nothing I ever do or say - whether as a person in the street or as a pastor in the pulpit - nothing ever adds an ounce of guilt to the weight of suffering of those who suffer tragic loss. For I believe that Christ came into to the world not to judge, but to save; not to reject, but to redeem; not to weigh us down, but to set us free. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

May our response to those who suffer truly be an act of God bringing some measure of comfort and, through that comfort, a sense of forgiveness, peace, and hope.

Let us pray:

Holy God, in the quiet of this moment, call us by name, lift our spirits, deepen our faith and give us new eyes to see your blessing and purpose all around us. For you are the giver of peace, the source of joy and a whisper of love in the stillness. Speak to our hearts as we open them before you in silence.

L: Let us join together in prayers for our church and our world. Each petition will end with "Lord, in your mercy" and the congregation is asked to respond: "Hear our Prayer"

With all our heart and our mind, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy -Hear our prayer

For the peace that is from above, for the lovingkindness of God, for the salvation of the world, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy -Hear our prayer

For the unity of the church of Jesus Christ and for an end to the prejudice and hatred that exists between religious communities, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy - Hear our prayer

For the needs of our neighbors in New Milford and in the greater Danbury area, for our country, our President, and all who exercise authority among us, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy - Hear our prayer

For all who suffer want, deprivation, oppression, and fear, let us pray to the Lord, in your mercy - Hear our prayer

For all who are struggling with illness and disability, with the loss of a loved one, with broken relationships, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy - Hear our prayer

Especially we pray for: the DiTullio family, for Hilda Schaltegger, for the families of Charlie Staib, Norris Wildman, Patrick Perry, and Philip Barksdale.

We ask your healing power to be with Lillian Carlisle, Gail Bradle, Jan Putnam, ....

and those we name in the silence of our hearts.

(silence)

Lord, in your mercy - Hear our prayer

Lord, mercifully assist us in our prayers. In all things teach us to seek your will. Direct our lives as we walk in the Way of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

 

Loving God, move us from tragedy to blessing,

from fear to trust.

from despair to hope,

Let your love surround us and fill us with peace.

That our lives may be useful to Christ's work.

with words that bring reconciliation.

With prayers that bring healing.

With actions that count for justice.

Grant us a blessing to for our journey in this world

and even to life eternal.

Amen.