"Uvalde" by Pastor A.J. Houseman
This morning our Gospel message points us to look at “Christina Unity”. Jesus leaves us with this last prayer. His prayer for us is that we may become one. We may become one in the way that Christ and God are one. The divine space between each of us full of grace, love, and communion with each other on a sacred level.
And yet, as I went to write to you this week about this, a young man walked into an elementary school and killed 19 children and two teachers. I cannot faithfully stand here before you today and talk about Christina Unity without acknowledging the severe crack in our common humanity.
I was reminded by the words that the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton spoke in 2016 regarding another mass shooting. In 2017, I wrote about this response and the question of Theodicy in our faith.
Theodicy is the fancy name for the big question: why does God allow suffering? Or put another way, where is God in the midst of suffering?
I’d like to share my answer to this question that makes the most faithful sense to me:
The suffering in the world can be broken down into two categories as described by theologian Daniel Migliore: Natural Evil and Moral Evil. “Natural Evil – the suffering and evil that human beings [and creation] experience at the hands of nature. Moral Evil – the suffering and evil that sinful human beings inflict on each other and on the world they inhibit.”
These two distinctions are very important. Natural evil is maybe not even evil at all. Carnivorous animals are created to hunt and kill their prey. Animals who are herbivores also kill and eat plants. The world is created with life and death, with an ever-changing evolution of renewal. It is inevitable that all created things will die, that is the natural law, and through this death we see new life being born in its wake.
As a tree dies and rots it becomes fertilizer for new plants to grow. An animal that is killed for food gives nourishment and life to the animal that consumes it. As the earth itself revolves around the sun it ages and changes. The earth has changed significantly in its billions of years of existence, both giving life and fostering death. For humans, life is limited too, even the healthiest person on earth will die, and this is natural.
In all of these circumstances there is suffering, but is it God’s fault? Maybe.
I believe this is less of God’s “fault” as it is a gift from God. “God has created a world of both birth and death, both rationality and contingency, both order and freedom, both risk and vulnerability. In such a world, challenge, struggle, and some forms of suffering belong to the very structure of life. To wish the world were immune from every form of struggle and every form of suffering would be to wish not to have been created at all.”
Without suffering, we would not be able to appreciate life, without the limits of our own existence we would not be able to fully embrace the beauty, joy, hope, love, and mercy given through the experience of life that is created by God. It is through suffering that we grow and learn. It is through suffering that we experience the compassion and mercy of one another on this great journey through our limited life. It is through suffering that we can more fully embrace the love that God has for us and the gift God gave us through Jesus Christ.
The second kind of evil that Migliore describes as “Moral evil” is something I would call the “unnecessary evil.” This is the evil that we, as humans, inflict on each other and the world.
I define sin as: by actions or the omission of actions we are hurting one another, ourselves, or creation on a personal and corporate level. This is the suffering I think we get most caught up in when we try to answer the questions of why bad things happen, or where is God when they happen.
In his book, Night, Elie Wiesel’s depicts a boy being hung from a gallows during the Holocaust to answer the question “where is God?” Wiesel’s answer to this question, “[God] is hanging on the gallows.”
This past summer, in her response to the shooting at the Orlando nightclub, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton offered this response, “We are killing ourselves. In the mind of a deeply disturbed gunman, the LGBTQ community was severed from our common humanity. There is another way. In Christ God has reconciled the world to God's self. Jesus lived among us sharing our humanity. Jesus died for us to restore our humanity.”
Suffering is a part of life, this much we know for certain to be true, however, I believe, that in all suffering, especially the unnecessary suffering, God is bearing this suffering alongside us.
If God is not suffering with us, but rather creates this suffering as punishment or stands idly by while we kill ourselves, then God is a sadist. The idea of God as a sadist is contrary to the Gospels, and to the covenants God made with Noah, Moses, and Abraham.
The biblical narrative leads us to a God that shows love and mercy in the midst of human suffering. God gives us a commandment to love one another, not a commandment to impose suffering through human ideologies and taking divine power into our own hands.
When we sit in the grief and the tragedy of more lives lost, of the lives of children lost at the hands of a fellow human’s violence. You may ask why? Why does God allow such things to happen?
We are killing ourselves. I saw on Facebook this week a post where someone had listed all the school shootings in the United States… The list is very long.
I don’t have the answer for you of why these things happen. But I do believe that when they do, God is in that classroom hiding under a desk, God is on the gallows, and God has been shot because God is suffering with us.
In the very response to human sin, our harmful acts or omission of acts against others, ourselves, and creation, God became human and bore these sins in a death filled with suffering to reconcile us to God. God didn’t choose to punish all of humanity from now until the end of time to take payment for all of our sins. God chose to bear the cross. God chose to suffer with us.
“You are in me and I am in you, and they are in us.” Our pain is God’s pain, our loss is God’s loss, and our suffering is God’s suffering.
For the dead and their families in Uvalde, Texas: Kyrie Eleison. Lord have Mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. Amen.
1 Migliore, Daniel L. “Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology.” Second Edition. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Copyright 2004. Pages 118-119.
2 Eaton, Elizabeth. “Presiding bishop issues letter in response to Orlando Shooting.” ELCA News Story. Published June 13, 2016. Located at https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7834