Watch or read Pastor Alan Sherouse’s sermon from the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020, continuing our sermons on some of the questions found throughout the gospels. Visit our Stay Connected page for more on worship and church opportunities throughout this period of building closure due to the coronavirus.
We’re asking questions this Lent. It’s a season full of questions; a wilderness full of wondering. And ours is a faith like that, too — full of questions.
The Bible bears this out. When? How? Why? The gospels are full of such questions.
Your life is full of them, too. Especially so in a season where things have been suspended, cancelled, turned upside down. Big plans have changed. Things you’ve counted on have been lost. You’re at a distance from the things you love, the people you need, the church you depend on. Its disorienting, all this fear and uncertainty replacing so much that was stable. It’s an involuntary entrance into a wilderness like Lent, where the familiar is obscured, the promise of Easter seems a vanishing mirage, and the other side of all seems so far off. So many questions.
One of our church members told me this week how her son asked, “Why did God let this happen?” I recognize that question. I’ve asked it before. I’ve heard it before.
I remember when my friend J.R. asked me that question. I met J.R. when I was a counselor at Camp Barnabas – a camp that exists to provide the encouragement and adventure of a camp experience to children living with disabilities.
J.R. was a sixteen-year-old camper who was a Camp Barnabas legend – admired for his humor, and enthusiasm, and overall charm. So I was thrilled when I learned he was one of eight campers that ended up in my co-counselor’s and my cabin that week.
Most of all, J.R. was admired for his deep faith, and the trust he seemed to have that God was with him, even amidst his challenges. He would share this with the camp each year on storytelling night, telling the camp how he was eight-years-old when he and his mom went out for groceries, and how the other driver had been drinking, and from that point on, he had lost the use of his legs and used a wheelchair to get around. This year was no different. J.R. shared his testimony, and everyone seemed so moved and encouraged.
Later that night, after the dance and the s’mores and the songs, when everything began to settle and the sounds of the Ozarks began to lull us all to sleep in Cabin 3, I walked around the cabin for a final bed check. That’s when J.R.’s hand reached out and grabbed by arm as I walked past. It startled me. But I leaned down, as he pulled himself up, and he said to me – and it was only a whisper – “Alan, why did God let this happen to me?”
Why? If God loves us so much, and if God can do so much, and if God can control so much, why does God’s creation suffer so much? If God is good, and God is powerful. Why?
JR’s question is my question. It’s your question. It’s a question we ask in the dark sometimes. A “2am question,” my theology professor used to call it. And even the strongest, most faithful, with the most compelling testimony of faith among us is bound to ask it. “Why?” It’s the right question. A question at the heart of our faith. Why? Why did God let this happen?
That phrasing — let this happen — itself might hold some beginning of an answer. It assumes that God doesn’t cause all to happen, but sets into a motion a world that in its freedom can turn violent, or viral, or irresponsible, or dangerous, and amidst it all, God does the most that can possibly be done to bring about the good.
“All things work together for good,” Romans 8:28 says in the most common translations. But another way to translate the verse is that “in all things, God works for the good.” Do you notice the difference? It’s not that all things are good and perfectly planned. Not all things fall within the good intentions of God. Instead, in all things God works, scrounges, and tirelessly seeks to bring about goodness.
I suppose I said something like that to JR. It’s what I say to myself when the question startles me. But ultimately, there is no final answer to the question of why. There’s no answer that’s fair to J.R., or to any of us. There’s no answer that we can really accept as final. Sometimes things happen. Sometimes people get injured. Sometimes people get sick. Sometimes life is so unforgiving and unfair. Sometimes people even die, when we want them to live long and full and free.
That’s where Martha finds herself in today’s passage: grieving her brother. “Why did you let this happen?” she must have asked. She must have shaken her fist at the sky “WHY?!”, or whispered in the nighttime of her wondering, “Why?” Except that’s not exactly what she asks in our passage. Not “Why?” Martha asks “Where?”
“Where were you when my brother died?” The grieving sister asks it with us all. Not “Why did this happen?” But “Where were you, Jesus?”
It’s a different question. And this is the question that we see answered again and again in the story of the compassionate God who is with us in our suffering. God is so powerful and strong and immovable, we like to emphasize. Only a powerful, composed God can change things, some would claim. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw it differently. Writing from the tragedy and suffering of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer once claimed, “Only a suffering God can help.”
Such a picture of God is elegantly presented in Jurgen Moltmann’s book, The Crucified God. You can hear his conviction in the title. The crucifixion was not just something that happened to some human son of God. In Christ, God the Parent – the Creator of us all – experienced the reality of suffering and pain. The cross is something that happened to God. And it’s fully and finally God’s ultimate identification with hurting, broken people in this world.
Jon Sobrino describes it another way. This Latin American liberation theologian has always believed that God is on the side of those who are poor and oppressed. A Jesuit priest, Sobrino was sent to El Salvador in 1958, where he soon observed the systematic mistreatment of the masses of those who were poor and underprivileged. His own beliefs were shaped by the injustice he saw, and it began to affect his teaching and proclamation at the University of Central America in San Salvador. He took up the themes of freedom for the poor, liberation of the oppressed. In the midst of the El Salvador Civil War – which took the lives of nearly 75,000, many civilians – Sobrino and his colleagues spoke out openly against the government.
On November 16, 1989, the government responded. Members of the military broke into the rectory at the University and killed six Jesuit priests, and two other members of the staff. Jon Sobrino, it happens, was away from San Salvador on that date and survived the attack meant for him. He returned to try to make sense of it all. He found himself in the study where his brothers had been killed. It was littered with bullet holes, and ripped paper, books strewn about, and blood on the floor. One book caught his eye. It had been knocked off the shelf, sitting on the floor, covered now with blood: a copy of Jurgen Moltmann’s book, The Crucified God. And Sobrino realized in that instant that the crucified God takes on — soaks in — all the suffering of humanity.
It’s the God who in Christ came near to the suffering of this world. The God who never steps away, but is always drawn toward us. The One who in Jesus looks on our world — looks on what the poet R.S. Thomas once described as our “vanished April” — and says “Let me go there.” And so Jesus sprints to Lazarus. Because where suffering is, there you will find him.
Notice what happens. First, Jesus weeps for him: suffering right along with Martha and all of those around.
Second, Jesus calls to him within his tomb, reminding that the Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name and will always come to find us, even out beyond what we can know or understand.
Then thirdly, Jesus invites the community to unbind him and set him free. He senses that this suffering has been felt by those around, and that they need to be a part of Lazarus’ liberation and new life. He could have untied Lazarus’ grave clothes, or dropped them with a word, but he seems to know that those around need to be a part of the miracle. They need to experience a part of the new life in their midst. They need to know that they themselves can be a part of the answer to Martha’s question, which was really the question at the heart of them all. So Jesus says to all those around, “You unbind him. Set him free.”
I’ve never seen this happen exactly — someone raised to life. It exists beyond my knowing, somewhere in the mystery of God and the revered story of holy scripture. In the same way, I’ve never heard the answer to “Why?” I’m going to keep asking it with you. I’m going to keep asking it with JR, with my young friend in our church, and with all of us who whisper it in the nighttimes of our lives. I’m going to ask it believing that doing so, and resisting an easy answer, is part of my faith, and part of the faithful response God calls forth in me.
But even as I do, I’m going to remember that I have seen Jesus weep with those weeping. I have sensed that the one who called Lazarus also knows my name. And I have experienced the community inspired by him calling me forward into new life and hope.
In other words, I’ve heard an answer to Martha’s question. “Where are you, Lord?” we ask. And the one who makes his way to each of us stands among us now to say, “I am already there.”