Understanding Negative Events

A sermon based on Mark 7: 1-8, 14-23,
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 30, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Two weeks ago my auto mechanic indicated it was time to plan for winter. Thinking about snow in August is the kinda thing that I am not sure will ever stop jarring me. See I spent my first nineteen years in sunny California. And I actually can remember all of the days that it snowed in San Jose while I was growing up . . . all two of them. The first was January 21, 1962 it may have been an inch of snow and was gone the next day – I was five but I remember it still. We were all so proud of our snow angels and doll sized snowmen. Our second snow day was fourteen years later. I was a freshman at San Jose City College. It was February 5, 1976 and it is the last snow on record in San Jose. The official measurements have it at a whopping ½ inch of snowfall.

One of my high school friend’s mom actually still has a snowball in her freezer from the blizzard of ‘76. Every ten year anniversary of that ½ inch blizzard – I kid you not– the San Jose news people come to her house and do a story on the snowball.

With only two days of snow to my name as a kid, unlike a lot of you I had only one chance to drive in the snow, the ½ inch blizzard of 1976 . . . and as luck would have it I rode my bike instead. So I grew up with no snow driving experience. And as you might have guessed my lack of snowpertise has led to some interesting adventures here in Ohio where a ½ inch of snow is basically considered frost.
So far the worse adventure I’ve had with snow, though, was not in Ohio, but in Oregon. It did not snow a lot on the Oregon coast, maybe two weeks a year. But it did get cold for weeks on end and every seven years or so the nearby lake – about the size of Apple Valley Lake– would freeze over. During our first snow there a friend called and said the lake was frozen over and I should drive out to see it. So I drove to a hillside park that overlooked the lake.

I want to emphasize hillside. The snowy unplowed road went down to the lake’s boat launch. In other words the road was a straight steep shot into the lake. As soon as I crested the hill on the downward slope I hit ice on that road. Had I not been “Ooooing” and “Ahhhing” at the lake I might have noticed the neighborhood kids sledding and sliding down and around the road and maybe what happened next, could have been avoided.

See my car with me in it went into an unintentional and uncontrolled slide headed straight to the lake. I have no recollection how it happened but the car had shifted in the slide so that the driver’s door faced the lake. This meant that I could not bail out without being run over by the car. And I could not climb out the passenger side because the angle up was too steep. I was on my way to a cold and possibly deadly dunk in the lake.

I did, however, have the presence of mind to roll the window down and tell the children who were sliding and sledding and calling out to me on the down-slope side of the car to get out of the way. One of them asked how come I was sliding my car into the lake. I actually recall answering “ I’m not! Move out of the way.” I’m pretty sure the kid yelled back “We were here first, you move out of the way.”

My scary slide in that car came to a slightly flat spot on the road not far from the lake and I somehow managed to notice and thought to slowly gas the car hoping the less inclined slope would allow my tires to get traction. They did. It worked. And I was able to get over to a bigger flat area and stop the car maybe twenty feet from the lake. I was so happy to have survived, as well as to have avoided the news headline in the paper “Lame-headed Lawyer Lands LeMans in Lake: Services Held Tuesday.”

Had I actually gone into the lake some pastors might have argued it was God getting me for being a lawyer, or a Feminist, or a Gay Rights advocate, or maybe a bit of each. But really what happened that day was I was inexperienced in snow and ice driving and I was careless in my thinking to boot and the laws of nature, gravity – weather and ice on hillside– played out. Right? We can all see that in the retelling. God was not pulling strings to send me into the icy waters of a lake. And I did not foil God’s plans by making a deal with the devil. The laws of nature did what they do.

And as a human being I did what humans do, I made a mistake and then I reacted and made choices trying to obtain the best outcome of a bad situation. Like, shooing kids out of harm’s way; not completely panicking, and using my head to escape danger (and terrible headlines).

We live in a culture that’s tainted by a number of religious folks who teach something along the lines that everything that happens is because God personally decided to pre-program it to happen. This stems from a notion that God is all powerful, directs every event and wields power to make each event go just exactly as God wills. Under this theology everything that happens has been preconceived, planned, directed and manipulated into happening by God.

Now no one has to agree with me, but I am convinced that this is not a healthy theology. It’s not. Most of us have it, or portions of it in our head, but as far as I can tell it’s not true. It simply can’t be. In a word it’s illogical. First of all it denies our experience and knowledge that laws of nature apply without subjectively. Gravity and friction and frozen ice cause heavy cars to slide downhill, and cold water to drown and freeze people. There’s no intent to do so, that’s just the nature of it. We also know that good people have bad things happen to them, and that bad behavior is often rewarded, “deserving” results are very often not what happens.

And even setting aside science and empirical evidence, the theology that God chooses to cause all events as a “logic,” illogically countermands the theological teachings and our experiences that God is love and loves us unconditionally forever. Love would not intentionally hurt the object of love, indeed love would do all it could to rescue objects of love from peril and to certainly not cause or plan peril. We know this is a truth because even mortal love would result in our using every super power we had to avoid suffering and to stop suffering. In other words, if humans had superpowers they’d stop things like a accidents, diseases, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, holocausts and wars from happening. So why doesn’t an all powerful much more loving God stop them?

And if we think about it, generations of flawed and puny humans have worked with what little power we have to end or at least mitigate such things. An all powerful loving god could end them instantly–especially if that god planned them all to begin with!

The question I’ve heard the most ever since I started taking and teaching Christian classes is in one variation or another “Why does God let bad things happen?” And so I preach on this question and I teach on it and study and read and pray on it. This summer the question came up almost every Sunday in one form or another during our Thinking and Taking About God class. Why does the all powerful One not use supernatural powers to stop suffering?

I’ve mentioned before that the nature of such questions is called “theodicy” a Greek word derived from the theos for God and dike’ for justice or right-ness. Theodicy is the name given to humans working out understandings to justify a just and good God in the light of suffering or bad happenings. Basically it comes down to how we understand the nature of God and the causation of events.

We want to believe, to think, that God’s nature includes any and all powers – even supernatural powers– that we can imagine. So we call or consider God all powerful. But again, logically, if God is all powerful why hasn’t God used any or all super natural powers to stop the bad things?

See a central problem in theodicy is the notion that God is all powerful, supernaturally so. We tend to believe and think God can move heaven and earth at will. The difficult idea that lots and lots of people do not want to even imagine, let alone agree with, is that while we experience God as good and loving, in reality we don’t actually experience that good and loving God as using supernatural means to move heaven and earth to immediately halt negative events.

Believe as we might, experientially, God cannot be reasonably said to instantly stop awful things from happening. Because they happen. Logically this either means God can’t or isn’t using supernatural powers to instantly stop bad events. God is not acting all powerful in that way in our day-to-day lives. And truthfully, objectively speaking, it is also fair to say that we as humans experience that both good and bad events occur in our lives and they have two general causes: nature’s laws bring them about and/or humans choose to cause them.

Natural laws cause good and bad things as a matter of course without intent. It’s the laws of nature happening. Those happenings can have negative or positive effects. Snow falls it’s pretty, it replenishes water supplies and kids play in it. Snow falls and people also slip, are in car accidents, and freeze to death. od set the world up with laws, ways of nature that occur without regard to causing intentional harm or events. Nature happens.

And we as humans cannot stop the laws of nature, we do not have at our disposal our dreamed up supernatural powers. But what we do have at our disposal is choice. No other species seems to have this, at least not to the extent we seem to. The Bible in the Garden of Eden stories refers to humans as obtaining the knowledge of good and evil. With the knowledge of good and evil comes the option of choosing to do one or the other. While we may not stop the laws of nature we can react to them or even use them by making good or evil choices. God may have caused natural laws to be in place and God may have given us knowledge of good and evil and the ability to choose one or the other, but God lets them run their course; except that God has created a will in humans, perhaps in all of nature, to strive to be saved from lesser ways of being. Innately we all want to be the best that we can be. That’s a power our Creator uses on earth for sure! It is pretty hard to deny the will for betterment exists. Empirically we experience it. If we listen there’s a continual beckoning in every moment of every life to make the best of it and to make the best of our being– alone and together.

We have a choice to do good or do evil and only one of those choices leads to our best-ness! And that is what Jesus can be heard to be teaching in the lesson today. He’s addressing dietary rules as not relevant to our best-ness, he’s pointing out it’s our heart’s choices, they are what defile.

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” . . . “It is what comes out of a person that defiles . . . For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

This is important. When bad things happen, it’s not the devil playing with us, it’s not God getting us for some infraction known or unknown. What it is, is one of two things: a natural event or a human choice we got caught up in. Humans cannot really alter natural laws, what we can do is affect human choices. We can defile our lives, other’s lives or creation, by our choices . . . what comes from within. Or we can act on God’s forever call to best-ness and save us and others from a lesser way of being. Religious rules that do not address what is within us – what lies within and comes out of our heart– are immaterial to Jesus’ Way. What matters is what lies in our hearts and what we do from our heart, what choices we make and put into action.

And of course Jesus taught us how to make the right choice and what action to take. It’s not about choices that affect natural events. It’s about choices that affect our conduct to better us individually and collectively. The right choice in all that Jesus’ taught (we hear almost every week here), it is to love. It IS that simple, love– the desire for well being in action.

Love is the light in the darkness of any and all bad events in life, whether natural or human made. It’s the human choice that becomes action prompted and propelled by the power we know God has, the forever beckoning to goodness– the call to salvation from a more negative way of being. To choose love is to provide God’s power to positively affect life. We can even bring about positive effects from negative events by our choices. We can affect well being. And over time we can even work to stop or lessen negative events, effects like accidents, disease, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, holocausts and wars. Remarkably God has empowered us to mitigate or even stop negative events.

The good news is that through our love . . . God works miracles!