A memorial homily preached when a congregational elder, concerned that his thirty-year-old schizophrenic son would hurt somebody, killed the son and then took his own life. Names of family members have been changed.
The Reformed theologian Karl Barth said that people come to church with only one question: Is it true? The providence of God, the saving power of Jesus Christ, the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection from the dead, the forgiveness of sin: Is it true? When we come to church on a Monday afternoon for a memorial service for two people who died untimely deaths, the question is even more compelling.
There are other questions, of course -- questions one asks late at night when sleep won't come. We are only human, after all, wanting to know why bad things happen to good people who didn't do a thing to deserve the hand life dealt them.
Do you remember Rabbi Harold Kushner's best-selling book a few years ago? Most people thought the title was Why Bad Things Happen to Good People; it was When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The Christian faith begins at the same place as the rabbi's book. Faith doesn't spend a great deal of time explaining why bad things happen to good people. In a world that fell from grace a long time ago, brokenness, illness, and tragic endings are facts of life -- inevitable, universal, unavoidable.
Because we are human, we want to know why. The Scripture promises that someday we will know, but that day is not today. What we need is reassurance that the resurrection is real. Can God be trusted with the deaths of those we love? We can live without an explanation, but we cannot live without knowing that God can be trusted.
In answer to our question, God says, "Yes, it is true." Christ died and was raised so that Jim and Mark could live again. Eternal life is true. Even when fear and sorrow beat their restless wings around us, it is true that God will lead us through the worst life can do. When the shadow seems so thick there can never be light again, it is still true: The comfort of God will seek us out and gradually subdue our grief and restore our spirits.
"How have you endured all of this?" I asked Carolyn (Jim's widow and Mark's mother) on Saturday. "God and the angels," she said. You see we are not dealing today with a God who comes around only when things are rosy. There is a cross up there! The God we know in Jesus Christ knows about suffering. The God we know in Jesus Christ gets to the valley of death before we do, so that he can be ready to catch us when we stumble blindly in, so that he can guide us through the dark. It is true that God can be trusted.
It is also true that bad things happen to good people. Look at Mark. He could no more help his illness than someone helps having cerebral palsy or Hodgkin's disease. Look at Jim -- a man of God who would have given up his life for his son any day, and did, in the end. None of it was God's will. Don't you know that God's heart was the first to break last Friday morning? Where is God in all this? Grieving with us, weeping for us, but more than that -- drying tears, creating life out of death, hope out of despair, forgiving sin, restoring wholeness.
God is so relentlessly committed to being the God of life that God can use even the worst that can happen for God's good purposes. The question is not why bad things happen but, Can God be trusted when they do? Should we hope again? Can we live again, and if so, how?
The Gospel is so exquisitely clear and simple at this point: "Abide in Christ, it says." "Bring your brokenness to me," Jesus says. Cut off from him, how could any live? But abiding in him, staying close to his body, the church, we can endure.
Yesterday I met Lauren. She is three years old, Jim and Carolyn's granddaughter, a bright and happy little girl. She had a ready smile on her face as she sat on Carolyn's knee and met the preacher. "Tell Joanna what you say before you have your supper," Carolyn said. Lauren looked at me, a perfect stranger, and spoke as if she was sharing with me the most wonderful news imaginable. "God is great," Lauren said. "God is good." Suddenly I could not wait to come to church today, so that I could tell you what Lauren said and what the Scripture promises and what faith knows even when the pain is piercing and the shadows fall. God is still great. God is still good. It is true!
O God, you who can roll away even the hard, cold stone of death, send us forth from this place surrounded by the comfort of your Holy Spirit and give us each in our hearts the powerful presence of your peace. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.