Clouds of witnesses in storms of doubt

A sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

(Isaiah 5:1-7, Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2, Luke 12:49-56)


In one of those moments I can’t quite forget, I flash back to some of the media coverage surrounding the Oklahoma City bombing.  A woman who had lost both of her elderly parents in the blast was being interviewed just a day or two after that city was changed forever.  She told the reporter, “Well, if God saw fit to take my parents home this way…”  I’m not quite sure I heard the rest of the interview.

I remember thinking out loud, as I am wont to do, “Wow, she’s blaming God for the Oklahoma City bombing!”

I tried to find an audio or video clip on the internet as I was preparing this sermon, but I had no luck.  What I was reminded of, however, was that the Oklahoma City bombing occurred just three days after Easter.  One account recalled the shredded banner on a Methodist Church just blocks away from the bombed out building could still be read, “Come See His Glory.”

If a casual observer were to hear the texts this morning read out of context, she might think this was a Sunday deep in the shadows of Lent, not in the green, green days of Ordinary Time.  We hear ominous, prophetic warnings coming from Isaiah to a disobedient Israel.  From Hebrews we hear a litany of early church martyrs whose lives were given up for the fledgling faith.  And finally in Luke, Jesus’ words are not among his most encouraging, predicting division and hardship.

Wow!  Where is the good news in all of this bad?

We in Blacksburg certainly know what it means to get bad news, to be at the epicenter of sorrow.  Perhaps we hear texts like these a little differently than we might have even just a few years ago.

Some people are truly ready to move on, to put our fears, our grief, our anxieties behind us already.  But I need to tell you that not everyone is quite so ready.  I had an honest question the other day – was this God’s plan?  Believe it or not, this was not a question regarding the events this past April.  This was a question from a woman whose husband has just been diagnosed with cancer.  “Is this God’s plan for his life?”  She asked – a very honest question.

Theologians and regular old people in the pews have wrestled with this question in every generation that has cared to write down their thoughts, their hopes and their fears.  Why do bad things happen to good people?

Where was God during the holocaust?

Did God send Hurricane Katrina to punish the sinful city of New Orleans?

Why didn’t God heal my grandmother’s cancer?

What I hear in these readings is, yes, a considerable dose of bad news.  Hard times are coming.  Faith has consequences.  Even a figure like Jesus, whom we love to point to as our champion of peace, can bring division and turmoil.

Where is God when the bad news comes?

I find some of the language in the reading from Isaiah curious – the prophet speaking for the Lord makes it seem as if God is taken by surprise by the disobedience of Israel.  God "expected justice, but saw only bloodshed."  Clearly, this was not God’s plan.  Many theologians and religious traditions want to believe in an all powerful, all-controlling God, who has predestined and fore-ordained every event, every action we see, from hurricanes and earthquakes to wars and car accidents.  I guess they take comfort in blaming God for everything that happens, good and bad.  Perhaps for them it is easier to blame God for evil than to believe that God would allow chaos.

For me, however, when I hear of tragedy whether it be on a large scale or on a small scale, I turn my gaze back to the moments in scripture where God’s people came together despite hardship and calamity.  The writer of Hebrews is speaking to a fledgling Christian community that is facing persecution.  The writer points to this great cloud of witnesses for inspiration.

Don’t forget those who have gone before.  Yes, some were martyred.  No doubt the original audience of this letter was too acquainted with the idea of martyrdom.  No doubt they had lost friends and family in ways like those the writer describes.  But the writer also recalls the times when God’s people rose above evil – those who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, won strength out of weakness.  The writer even points to Rahab the prostitute as an example of courage and faith.

The writer uses these examples to encourage a church that had experienced much evil and was facing more ahead of it.  Our ultimate example, the author writes, is Jesus himself, the pioneer of our faith.

Jesus may not sound much like a pioneer in the text from Luke.  These are no doubt some of the most “difficult” words of Jesus.  Some have used them to justify all kinds of things, including wars against non-Christians.  I heard one conservative evangelist, when asked about a sermon he preached full of references to God slaughtering infidels, in this case mostly Muslims, the preacher got that fire in his eye and he quoted this passage.

I don’t, for myself, hear Jesus advocating division and violence.  Jesus’ words recognize the fact that the Gospel, the good news, will divide people.  There are those who want no part of justice.  There are those who will not listen to God’s word regarding the poor, the outcast.  Jesus is amazed that those listening to him were much better at reading the skies to tell the weather than they were at reading the signs of the times.

Our question is, when the forecast grows ominous, when the news is bad.  Where do we turn?  You can shake your fist at God.  Go ahead, God can take it.  You can question God.  We have plenty of Job’s around here.  You can even scream and cry and refused to be consoled.   But in the end, you are still part of us.  You still belong to this family.

Our good news is not one of division.  Our good news is that Jesus welcomes us all.  Full of doubts?  You are welcome here.  Not ready to forgive?  You are welcome here.  Angry at God?  So are many others here.

We must not forget the cloud of witnesses who went before us.  And we must not stop being that cloud of witnesses to those around us today who need a community to support them and accept them, no matter where they are.

“Is this God’s plan for his life?” the woman asked me.  An honest question, one to which I have no easy answer.  I believe there are things we cannot know, veils we are not allowed to peer behind.  Where is God in tragedies, both personal and global?  I for one will not say that God is responsible for causing tragedies to happen.  What I can say from the depths of my heart, with the psalmist, is that God is present with us.  God is here with us.  We incarnate the love of God for each other.  We represent God’s answer – the body of Christ.  Broken, bruised and hurting though we may be, we are the Body of Christ, given to a world full of pain and loss.

The Methodist church in Oklahoma City took down their shrapnel ridden banner.  In the days after the bombing, it was replaced with a new banner.  Beside blown-out windows now boarded up, across the scarred façade of their building, the people of the church hung the words, “Our God Reigns and We Will Remain.”

For me, this captures the essence of what our response must be in the face of evil.  We are here.  We will remain.  We aren’t going to run away or close our doors in response to evil.  We need our community to get through dark days, whether they be dark days on campus, or in our community, or in our personal lives.  No, we don’t have all the answers.  I can’t tell you “why,” but I can tell you how we will get through whatever agony or pain or doubt you are facing.  We will come through this darkness – together.  Amen.

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