First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
Date: May 19, 2019
Scripture: Islam, Hadith of Tirmidhi, 2 Samuel 12:14-23
Sermon: “When God Can’t”
Islam. Hadith of Tirmidhi
There is a polish for everything that becomes rusty, and the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.
2 Samuel 12:14-23
Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.’ Then Nathan went to his house. The LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, ‘While the child was still alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us; how then can we tell him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.’ But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, ‘Is the child dead?’ They said, ‘He is dead.’
Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the LORD, and worshipped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, ‘What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food.’ He said, ‘While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, “Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me, and the child may live.” But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.’
It was the tradition in the small town we lived at the time that the clergy of the ministerial alliance took turns, so to speak, at the middle school graduation ceremony delivering an address to the graduating 8th grade class. The setting involved a stage set up in the gymnasium with chairs for each of the school board members, principle, superintendent, etc. One of the years I remember was not one in which I spoke, but rather I was sitting on the stage as a member of the local school board.
That evening the speaker stepped to the podium and looked out of the class and all the parents, grandparents, family, and friends gathered together and opened his remarks with this statement, “What a wonderful evening, you who are graduating on to high school, I want you to know, there isn’t an adult in here that would not trade places with you right now.”
I sat with that statement for just a second and leaned over to the board member sitting beside me and said, “I don’t know about you, but I do NOT want to be 13 again.” 13 can carry with it of course fond memories of carefreeness and joy… but 13 can also bring with it memories of the struggles, awkwardness, and unknown-ness of coming of age. Those days can be filled with minor annoyances as well as life altering experiences. For me I want to touch on one of those life altering experiences.
One of the things I remember of age 13 were the days preceding and following the death of my 15-year-old brother. It was 1972, we lost Chris just a month shy of his 16th birthday as the result of a head injury received in a football game. Even today almost 47 years later, it can seem as if it happened yesterday and it can seem as if it was only a dream centuries ago.
It is interesting the power of the mind to hide and cloud one’s memory in a traumatic time of life. A sort of defense mechanism I suppose in those darkest hours of our days. However, one of the clearest memories I have is the morning of the funeral. We were still at the house and the house was full, full of family, friends, church members…. in hindsight, it makes me wonder if it was actually THE day of the funeral, or was it before, maybe the day before, but I do remember it as if it were yesterday. A full house, lots of visiting, hushed voices, hugs, tears, some laughter. I stood in the dining room just off the living room of the house, just taking it in, to a degree, numb, but conscious of the adults in my presence.
It was a confusing time, difficult time… and as I stood, I remember a family friend who was not from Meade but from another town we had lived, he was a music teacher, not mine, but my sisters and a long family friend. His eyes met mine, and he moved across the room and stopped just in front of me. And kind of pursed his lips, as if trying to think of something to say to 13-year-old kid in this setting and circumstance… what do you say?
Several years ago, I ran across a list of things the church and Christians need to stop saying to those who are grieving…. They were all familiar to me… perhaps you as well… I’ll share just a few…
He is in a better place…
No, he should be here with me…
There is a reason for everything…
No, there can be no reason for this…
You can still have another child…
I know how you feel…
No, you don’t.
It was just her time…
Heaven needed another angel…
God will never give you more than you can handle…
As if God somehow did this?
It was just God’s will…
I remember a story my dad shared with me after I was older. Dad, a United Methodist clergy too, said he had gone to a district meeting shortly after Chris’s death. As they were leaving a colleague caught up with him and said, “Jim I know this is a difficult time. It was just God’s will.” Dad told me he turned to his colleague and said, “If I believed that, I would turn in my ordination credentials, leave the ministry, and go back to farming.”
God is in control…
That is just the short list… Well-meaning friends and family and even the church can say things that at best are not helpful and at worst, only deepen the wound and the crisis of faith we often go through.
There are those times when we feel like we ought to say something, need to say something… and there is that hesitation, struggle, uncertainty that comes not only from the one about the speak, but from the one who is about to hear. We need to be mindful of that hesitation… because sometimes saying nothing and just showing up and being present is the best response. In my memory, though I know it didn’t, in my memory in that moment, as my friend hesitated the whole room went silent.
Such experiences… large and not so large can also cause us to ask those difficult questions of faith and life. Why do bad things happen? The famous book Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold S. Kushner, an excellent book if you haven’t read it. Or the book, the Will of God by Leslie Weatherhead is another that helped me wrestle with my understanding of how God participates with us in the world around.
It is an important question of faith I believe; a question worthy of much time, thought, ponder, prayer, and study. Why God? I have found myself asking numerous times throughout my journey. For me, this puts some responsibility upon God for not only good things that happen but bad, which is cause for deep consideration. And it can be more than just wondering and considering God’s role, but just why in general? Why do these things happen, either on a small or grand scale?
Sometimes things happen just because they happen, as a result of bad decisions on our part or because of others, or circumstance. Why can be the simplest of questions to answer, and one of the deepest questions that reaches into the very depths of who we are and our understanding of God. The why question begs larger and more in-depth questions. For to consider why is to also consider where. Where is God. Do we understand God as a disconnected being out there somewhere, intervening now and then with a miraculous event now and then, or is God completely out of the picture and it is up to us?
Where is God; is God present here and now, spirit, energy, like the very air we breathe, in the words of Paul a “God in whom we live and move and have our being,” a God who is intimately a part of us, participating with us for the common good of all?
And that question leads us to ask further questions… Who is God? What is God’s character? Do we understand God as a judgmental, angry, vengeful God prepared to rain wrath down upon us for not doing what God wants or wills? Do we understand God as nurturing and loving who works with us to bring good news and good life to the world around us?
And in the midst of all this wondering, pondering, considering, prayer, and study… why? Where? Who? There continues to be struggle, heartache, bad things, suffering, and grief. Some of the most heart wrenching, question inducing, prayer prompting, soul searching stories I find in the bible are those texts that both deepen my journey and challenge my faith and understanding about why, where, and who God is.
This story we read from 2 Samuel this morning. A faith challenging, a God understanding challenging, ponderous, prayerful story…David has had Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed on the front lines of battle so he could take Bathsheba as his own wife. Nathan the prophet has discovered David’s deed, and has come to the palace and confronted him. And according to the story, it is not bad enough that David has taken the wife of another, has had her husband killed, now, according to the story… God will kill the first-born child of David and Bathsheba because of what David did.
Now, I don’t know about you… but for me, there is something terribly wrong with this story that runs counter to anything I have ever come to know about God and why, where, and who God is. It is a terrible story in the sense of any kind of justice, compassion, kindness, and love of God! Let me first say, I believe the writers, community, and culture at the time this story was written believed just as it is told, God was in control of all things, and they believed that as a result of David’s sin, God struck the child ill so that it died. But not unlike Brian McLaren in his book, A New Kind of Christianity, “just because in our texts we have a tribal understanding of a wrathful, angry God does not mean we are stuck with such an understanding.”
While I know they believed such a thing, I find other indicators via my own journey and study, and faith that says God does not strike our children ill so they die for any reason, let alone for something their father did.
What I do find in this story, as well as other stories in our texts, such as the story about the raising of Lazarus when Jesus wept and raised him form the dead, or the little girl who Jesus ad been told she was dead… as well as this story of David pleading for the life of his child… what I do find is in each instance they were not alone… they were together in some sense of community… and in the story of David as well as the others… there was either action or command in word… “to get up…”
Let me give a bit of my own journey… I will use my brother for an example…
I believe we are all immersed in the very presence of the Divine. And in that presence, we participate with God in what God is already about and doing in the world… or we don’t.
I believe our bodies are wondrous and fragile creations. Durable sometimes beyond believe and vulnerable susceptible to much harm and damage.
We have increasingly incredible technology at our fingertips, whether we are talking medical technology or technology that helps us understand, respond, and react to natural disasters.
I also believe we are connected not only to one another but to the whole of creation, the whole of the universe and cosmos in ways that we can perhaps at best only begin to understand.
And so, for example with my brother, I am without doubt that he was profoundly immersed in the Presence of God, and I know physically his body was strong and in exceptional condition. The prayers of his family, church, community, across the state were heartfelt, fervent, and many were unwavering and persistent. He had the best of medical expertise, technology, and care that was available in 1972. I believe all of this was profoundly present in the community that surrounded not only him but all of us.
I have also come to believe that even with all of that, the very presence of God, the best of physical condition, the best of care and technology, the deepest and most faithful of prayers, and the connection between we and the Divine… that there are times, conditions, circumstances, injuries, illnesses, tragedies… that even God and our participation with the Divine cannot rectify and heal this side of death. And that, I believe, is why community and connection are so important…that no matter the outcome of the particular circumstance… we are still connected to one another.
I remember my mother’s prayer while Chris was in the hospital. Even in the midst of hoping and praying for recovery…– “God, give us the strength to carry on regardless of the outcome.” It was a prayer of community.
I remember standing in the dining room in that uncomfortable silence, I can still see myself in my mind’s eye… there is even a bit of a knot in my stomach now when I consider that memory… I think that knot comes from encountering so many along my journey since who feel they need to say something… and really, they should have just been silently present…. I remember Larry standing there with his lips pursed and finally dropping down to one knee, and with one arm on my shoulder saying, “Kent, we’re going to get you through this, we’re going to get you through this.” And with that, he rose to his feet and faded back into the crowd of people in our house. The we’re is about community.
I have not seen Larry since that day, but I have never forgotten that moment, nor those words… those words of community, connection, and love. We’re is about community. And so for me the question in this understanding of the journey of faith, is not why… I can answer the question why… Why did Chris die at such a young age? Because of a terrible fluke accident during a high school football game and these fragile bodies we inhabit.
This was a life and faith altering moment for me, because of those like Larry who reminded me, who remind me again and again…it isn’t the why that feeds my soul… it is the HOW … how are we going to get through this? How? ….Together…. We get through this life, this faith, this journey together. We belong to one another, we need one another, we are not alone… we are ever connected, never separated from the love in which we hold one another in community.
I hope you too will Ponder these things… remember those who have been the HOW in your life… if they are still among us… let them know, card, call, text, email, facebook… etc….
And never forget, We do this together. For there in the very connection of those who love us and whom we love… there in that gentle word, compassionate glance, hand gripped in our own, and warm embrace IS the very Presence of God… is the very love of the Divine and we pray each time such presence and connection gives us the courage and strength to “get up” one more time and carry on no matter what we encounter. And we know this is true. And it is… So.