Myth Busters: Everything Happens for a Reason, I Corinthians13:8-13

When my son was in high school one of his friends was killed in a terrible car crash. Like most preachers’ kids Matt struggled with the expectations placed on him, especially in the small community where we lived. Unfortunately a well-intended preacher at his friend Shane’s funeral added to Matt’s frustration with the church by telling the folks at the funeral that “everything happen for a reason.”

Like all the myths we’re looking at in this sermon series this one contains some truth and is well-intended but not always helpful. There are several scriptures that can be used to support this myth: Ecclesiastes 3:1 “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Proverbs 16:4 says, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Romans 8:28, where Paul says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” But as with all theological statement these verses need to be read in context and with the understanding that the biblical authors were all fallible human beings like us struggling to understand things that just don’t make sense.

At one level it is certainly true that everything happens for a reason. Actions have consequences and they are often unintended or unanticipated. Genetically engineering food and pumping animals full of antibiotics have increased our food supply which is good, but we are learning the hard way the unintended consequences are super bugs resistant to all known medications. Cancer is one of the most difficult plagues on humanity to understand, and we applaud the advances research has made. But we are still not doing enough to prevent various cancers by changing our lifestyles and especially the way we eat. Actions have consequences, and until we stop poisoning our food and air and water we will not find a magic bullet to cure cancer.

Health care in general is a hot topic, and again we can’t just blame God or fate for illnesses but must take proactive steps to live healthier lifestyles. Our aging population in particular is a big challenge. 30% of what is spent on our healthcare in a lifetime occurs in the last year of life, and that is often because our focus is too much on the quantity of life and not its quality. A friend told me recently about his mother. When she was 92 years old and in failing health some of her doctors wanted to amputate both of her legs to keep her alive a little longer. These kinds of costly and unnecessary procedures occur because we are afraid to face the reality that we are all dust and to dust we will return. We need to have important conversations about end of life issues based on values and not economics or fear of our inevitable death.

The good part of this myth that everything happens for a reason is that it is really about trust and faith. When our ability to make sense of things reaches its limits that’s when faith kicks in. The mysteries of life and death challenge us to accept our limitations and to make friends with ambiguity, but too easily accepting this myth short circuits that important process. It can be used to avoid taking a leap of faith into the unknowable mystery of God.

The beautiful words of I Corinthians 13 are most often heard at weddings couched in the romantic notion of love that bears all things and never ends, but that’s not what Paul was about when he wrote this beautiful passage. Remember Paul advised people not to get married if they could avoid it. The preceding Chapter 12 of I Corinthians sets the stage for chapter 13. In Chapter 12 Paul addresses jealousy and arguments the church in Corinth was having about which spiritual gifts were the best. Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to describe different spiritual gifts and challenges the church members to accept their own limits and value the gifts of others. And then at the end of that chapter about the body of Christ, Paul says I will show you a better way to achieve spiritual maturity, the way of love.

In chapter 13 Paul says all the spiritual gifts are temporary and partial. This earthly life, including all of our knowledge will pass away – but inquiring minds want to know now. We don’t to wait! We did the whole wait training thing in Advent and we’re tired of waiting. We want answers to life’s mysteries right now. The human search for knowledge and truth is good up to a point but it always gets us in trouble when we overreach our limits. Ever since Adam and Eve couldn’t resist the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil we’ve wanted to know more than our pay grade qualifies us to handle.

Look at what Paul says: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Now we see only in a mirror dimly, like when you get out of the shower and the mirror is so fogged up you can’t see a thing. But we don’t want to know in part, we want shiny clean mirrors. We want certainty not ambiguity especially when it comes to matters of eternal importance to us. The frustration is that it is those very questions about death and life after death that we cannot have certainty about.

Paul says that to be adults in our faith is to give up our need for certainty. Those who study human development know that at different stages of maturity we are capable of handling different levels of truth. Small children are helpless and need the certainty that concrete and solid answers to their questions provides. They need to know they are cared for and will not be abandoned by the important figures in their lives. They expect parents and other significant adults in their lives to know stuff they don’t understand. Who hasn’t experienced the inquisitive mind of a three year old who wants to know why the sky is blue, and why she needs to brush her teeth and how the dish washer works, and why grandpa is bald? There is no end to their questions. We have a gas fireplace at our house that has no chimney, and every Christmas our grandsons ask us again how Santa can get into our house if there’s no chimney.

A great deal of our education system is based on that same kind of concrete, factual pursuit of knowledge. In school the test questions usually have one correct answer. For instance, if I asked you which letter comes after the letter A in the alphabet, what would the correct answer be? If you said “B” that is correct, but it is only one of 25 correct answers. Young Albert Einstein was asked that question by one of his teachers early in his life, and the teacher was not pleased when he replied, “They all do.” Most of us are not encouraged to think outside the box of concrete certainty as children, but when we become adults we need to adopt grown up thinking which sometimes means admitting we don’t know and can’t know some things yet.

What Paul is telling us is that when it comes to matters of theology a mature faith is one that can look into the ambiguity of a cloudy mirror and still be at peace with the uncertainty of faith. The statement that everything happen for a reason is meant to provide peace of mind by telling us that God is in charge and everything will be ok in the end. But we don’t live at the end of God’s drama when things make sense, we live in the confusion of the present and those words meant to comfort often backfire. Let’s look at some of the reasons that’s the case.

Number 1: If God’s in charge of everything, then we have to blame God for both the good and bad stuff too. This problem is a cousin to the myth that Mebane covered two weeks ago, namely that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Both myths imply that God makes bad things happen for some reason we can’t understand. When we are scared and feel out of control, we need assurance that God is, but the downside of that is we have to hold God accountable for all the bad stuff too and there goes any comfort we get from God. Even Wesley’s familiar Covenant service prayer we used here just 3 weeks ago to begin the new year falls into that trap when it says “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt… Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

Does God cause suffering? There are certainly places in the Bible that indicate that’s the case, for example the whole book of Job, or God’s punishment by death of Ananias and Sapphira for cheating on their church pledge in Acts 5. Some people are sure God is responsible for the election of Donald Trump, and others of us are wondering if this is God’s punishment for the sins of our nation. It obviously can’t be both. Did God give Clemson a victory in the Fiesta Bowl and cause the agony of defeat for OSU? Is God causing the unbelievable suffering in Syria or for the refugees trying to escape that mayhem?

Of course not. We worship a God of love, and the biblical accounts of God’s direct intervention in punishing people were the best answers the people in biblical times could give to some of the most mysterious and difficult questions in creation. We still struggle with those same questions today, and will until we see God “face to face.” Until then we can only know in part.

Number 2: The second problem with this myth is that if we surrender all control of everything that happens to God we absolve ourselves of all responsibility for human causes of suffering or injustice. Rev. Adam Hamilton who has written about these myths in his book “Half Truths” says a friend sent him this comment from a Facebook meme: “Yes, everything happens for a reason, but sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” Our actions have consequences. My son’s friend died not because an all-powerful God willed it so, but because of poor judgment and excess speed by a teen aged driver.

Blaming God or the devil or someone else for all our problems pushes us into the dangerous territory of going into victim mode. Woe is me, everybody hates me! The world is against me! We cannot control external events that happen to us, but with God’s help we can control how we react. Do we learn from our mistakes and those of others or waste a learning opportunity? To go victim robs us of chances to reflect and learn and to use adversity to strengthen instead of weaken our faith. It’s hard to increase our faith when we’re angry and blaming the very God who could be our greatest source of strength in time of trouble. That’s not to say we can’t be angry at God or our circumstances. Anger is one of the natural stages of grief. God can handle our anger and isn’t going to abandon us or punish us for being mad. It’s just when we stay angry too long that we multiply our suffering.

Blaming God for our suffering is also costly because it robs us of one of the greatest gifts God has given us, our free will. Sure, sometimes it feels like we’d be better off without free will if we could avoid suffering, but that’s not true. We cannot achieve our full humanity if God is just a puppeteer and we are robots or marionettes. God gives us freedom of choice so we can experience the joy of growth and doing good. Without freedom there is no ability to choose love, and as Paul teaches us, Love is the greatest gift of all that lasts when knowledge and prophesy are no more.

Number 3: And that brings us to the 3rd problem with the myth that everything happens for a reason. When we see knowledge and the ability to explain everything as our purpose in life we are treading on the thin ice of wanting to be like God. We want answers and we want them right now. Adam and Eve had everything they could ever need in the Garden of Eden, but their desire to be like God cost them everything. Worshipping absolute answers makes it impossible for us to live by faith and put our trust in the God who is beyond all human comprehension.

So what do we do instead of telling people in pain that “everything happens for a reason?” We recently attended a funeral for a 33 year old army vet who got hooked on pain meds because of a back injury he got in the service. On New Year’s Day Alex finally lost his battle with addiction. He left a young widow and a sweet four-year-old daughter named Hope. How do you tell his friends and family that all this happened for a reason and expect that to help? You don’t. It was the first Jewish funeral I’ve ever attended and I was impressed with what the Rabbi said instead. He quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner who published a book entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” 20 years ago. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever read on this subject.

The title of the book is not WHY bad things happen but WHEN because they happen to everyone sooner or later. And essentially what Kushner says is that “Why” is not really a question in these cases, it is a cry of pain. And we all know what to do when someone is in pain. They don’t need answers, they need comfort. They need someone to love them, to walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death. We don’t have to say anything; we just have to love.

If we had the answers to suffering we could use them, but we don’t. We are not God. We see in a mirror dimly, and that’s ok, because Paul assures in Romans 8, just us as Jesus did, that God is with us always and nothing in all creation can ever separate us from that love. So “faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

In his play “J.B.” based on the book of Job, Archibald McLeish puts it this way. J.B.’s wife is trying to help him struggle with the why question about his unbelievable suffering, and she says to him “The problem J.B. is that you are looking for justice and there is none. There is only love.” When we are hurting or those close to us, that love is all we need, and it lasts forever.

Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, January 22, 2017

COMMIT TO COMMIT, Exodus 20: 14, Matthew 5: 27-30

Note: The sermon that follows was part of a series on the 10 Commandments, “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.”

“You Shall Not Commit Adultery.” Some of you are thinking, “Finally, we’ve gotten to a commandment I haven’t broken.” And some of you carry a heavy burden of guilt or anger at yourself or someone else who has failed to live up to commandment number 7. I have good news and bad news for us all because this commandment is about much more for all of us than sexual fidelity.

I got an email two months ago asking me if I was available to preach one part of a series called “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.” I love to preach and my calendar was open; so I said sure. Lesson learned – before making a commitment be sure you fully understand what you are committing to do.

I didn’t bother to ask which commandment since it was several weeks away. Fast forward to mid-June when the series began. I got out my calendar and started counting the Sundays until August 3 and arrived at the conclusion that I would be preaching on number 7,”You Shall Not Steal.” When I emailed our pastor to confirm that conclusion, her reply was a classic. She said, “No, we will be skipping one Sunday in July to do a mission report. I have you scheduled for adultery on August 3.” I assured my wife she had nothing to fear – I might be scheduled for adultery on August 3 but after preaching three times in one morning, the only attraction a bed would have for me is a nap.

Everyone chuckles when I tell them I’m preaching on Adultery, but this is serious business. As with the sixth commandment, this one is short and very unambiguous. “You shall not commit adultery.” And, as with “You shall not murder,” Jesus ups the ante in the Sermon on the Mount with one of those things we just wish he hadn’t said when he gets to adultery.

Matthew 5:27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
And then it gets worse —

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Wow! If we enforced that one literally we’d have a world full of blind folks with no hands!

A young boy in Sunday school was asked to recite the 10 commandments. When he got to number 7, he said, “Thou shall not commit adulthood.” Part of the problem with obedience or lack thereof when it comes to the commandments is a refusal to commit adulthood. We are all a bit like Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up.

St. Paul’s beautiful words about love in I Corinthians 13 are by far the most quoted scripture at weddings, and that chapter includes the line, “When I became an adult I put away childish things.” Faithful maturity means committing adulthood, but that commitment has to be renewed on a daily or sometimes hourly basis, as Paul himself points out in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Anybody relate to that if you’ve ever resolved to go on a diet or start an exercise program?

The two scriptures we read today make it sound so simple. Just don’t do it, and Jesus says the way to not do it is to not even think about it. Would Jesus say that if he lived in our wireless world? We’ve heard a lot recently about a “sexualized culture” in the OSU marching band. Big surprise! We live in a hyper-sexualized culture that uses sex to sell everything from Pontiacs to popsicles. Early Christian monks hid in monasteries to avoid worldly and sexual temptation, but there is nowhere to hide from the realities of human sexuality in a wireless world.

And the cast of characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, where the commandments reside, don’t help much. Sister Joan Chittister in her book, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, starts her discussion of adultery this way. “The problem with this commandment is that no one in the Hebrew Scriptures seems to keep it.” Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Jacob married both Leah and her sister Rachel, David knocked off one of his generals, Uriah, to try and cover up his affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. When Abram and Sarai were too impatient to wait on God’s promised son, they took matters into their own hands and Abram took Sarai’s servant Hagar, and she became the mother of his first son.

Yes, that’s ancient history, but to understand why we must take this commandment seriously today we have to make some sense of this seemingly blatant contradiction between what the scriptures say and the behavior of our spiritual ancestors. To oversimplify, at least part of the answer is that the biblical narrative is set in a sexist, patriarchal world where women were property. Having lots of wives and children were signs of prosperity and a future for society. There were no DNA tests to determine paternity and the lineage of one’s offspring determined inheritance; so the sexual faithfulness of a woman was critical to the whole socio-economic structure of the society. This commandment for Moses and Solomon was not about adultery as we know it but about respecting the property of others.

Marriage in biblical times was not based on ‘love’ as we think of it. The great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” makes that point in a humorous but very profound way. As Tevye’s and Golde’s daughters repeatedly challenge the sexist ways of their culture, loveable old Tevye begins to evaluate those traditions as well. In one memorable scene he surprises his wife of 25 years with this question: “Golde, do you love me?” And her response is classic. She says, “Do I what?”

So how do we understand and apply this commandment against adultery in our very different wireless world? The key is that it is all about commitment. Even though marriage in Jacob and Leah and Rachel’s day was totally different than ours, the common denominator is commitment to a set of responsibilities and obligations to each other which have to be taken seriously and kept to insure family and cultural stability.

An anonymous author has defined commitment this way: “Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Commitment is especially important in our transient world that moves at warp speed. We are a people deeply in need of stability. Extended families are over-extended or non-existent. When I grew up all of my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins lived within a 20 mile radius. My mother didn’t need a cell phone to keep track of me. If I got in trouble she heard about it from her mom or one of her sisters before I got home!

Not so today when families are spread out all over the country. The village it takes to raise kids is gone. The support system for caring for the elderly at a time when the number of people in their 80’s and 90’s is growing exponentially is history, and the pressure all that puts on the nuclear family can cause a nuclear meltdown.
Those we love need the assurance that we take our commitments to them very seriously no matter what happens. Not because God says so or someone else said so. We have to be faithful to our commitments because we said so.

Marriage is a prime example of commitment because the promises we make are so huge. The words are so familiar they flow off the tongues of starry-eyed brides and grooms too easily. To love another person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness in health, till death do us part. This is not a 5 year or 50000 mile guarantee. You don’t become a free agent when the contract expires. It’s for keeps.

I saw these words spray painted on a freeway overpass a few years ago: “John loves so and so forever.” I don’t know the name of the beloved because it had been painted over. Apparently “forever” turned out to be longer than John expected. And forever has gotten longer. When the average life expectancy was 40 or 50 till death do us part was a lot shorter than it is today. Caring for someone in sickness and health requires a whole lot more commitment when a spouse suffering from dementia no longer knows your name or is dying by inches from ALS or cancer.

“Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Even on days when you don’t like each other very much. Love is not a feeling you fall into and out of. Love is a choice, a commitment. Is it humanly possible to love like that always? No. That kind of unconditional love is from God and we are merely promising to imitate it. God doesn’t say “I will love you if you do this or don’t do that. God says I love you period.” That’s commitment, and it’s what faithfulness in marriage or any relationship requires.

So what happens when we fail to live up to that high standard? When we break our promises and commitments or are even tempted to? Do we pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands? Or go on a long guilt trip to nowhere?
No, there’s another adultery story in chapter 8 of John’s gospel that shows us a better way.

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Have you ever wondered what Jesus wrote on the ground during that confrontation? No one knows of course. No one had a cell phone to take a picture of it. But from what Jesus has said to me on the numerous occasions when I’ve flunked the commitment test, I think he simply wrote one word, and that word is “Grace.” Grace for the woman. Grace for her self-righteous accusers, And Amazing Grace for you and me if we admit our sin and recommit to God’s way of faithful love.

[Originally preached August 3, 2014 at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio]

Steve Harsh, Ph.D., M.Div.
Writer, Teacher, Pastor
My Blog: http://peacefullyharsh.com