Colossian 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13
Over the past weeks and, indeed years, it seems that there is has been a near ceaseless string of the notably bad. We often call these notably bad injustices, or perhaps unjust acts. We are now several years into a seeming endless and unfathomably tragic Syrian war. Nigeria and our sister church there has been wracked by violence by Boko Haram. Young unarmed black men and women killed. LGBTQ community targeted. These are of course notably bad and though we now hear about them quickly and regularly because of technology they are also not new. As the Teacher in Ecclesiastes states—“there is nothing new under the sun.”
While big and notably bad events internationally are on our minds and more local—that is, within this country—events have interrupted our lives we have also gotten notably bad news from even closer to home. A few Sundays ago Jess texted saying her boyfriend’s six year old son was in the hospital and it was discovered he had a large brain tumor. Since then it has been determined that this is not only present but that it is an aggressive form of cancer. This is notably bad. It is bad and we want to respond—but how? While we need to find ways to support them generally, this morning I am particularly interested in considering how we understand such events and how we relate to God about this.
How does one think about a child getting brain cancer? Even if one could explain it, it still is present. An explanation, if one were possible, does not undo the notable badness of the situation. Indeed it certainly feels that such a situation is unjust. How could it be just for a child to have such a sickness? But to say this makes us want to blame someone or something. If a doctor had done something wrong then we have a culprit. If the government had allowed something to go uncared for then we could assign blame. In the instances of the notably bad—the injustices mentioned earlier in the broader world, we may be able to pinpoint a cause and hold the party accountable.
In the case of this sickness, we could also blame God. This is of course a normal response. How could God allow something like this to happen? This was a question posed by the child. He said he didn’t want to come to church because he was mad at God. This possible accusation seems to become even more tenable when we read our Luke passage. It begins with Jesus praying and when he finishes his disciples ask for instruction in the matter. His response is two-fold. An example and then a bit of commentary and explanation. The example prayer goes:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Jesus immediately tells a story to illuminate this prayer.
5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
The story and lesson seems pretty straight forward. Jesus, without a lot (or perhaps any?) qualification seems to imply that if you ask—at least if you ask persistently—God will answer. He doesn’t say if you ask in just the right way or with the right formula or right state of mind or spiritual state. He just gives the direction to ask with persistence. Now, we know things don’t happen quite this straightforwardly—in fact it has always been like this. Even Jesus, when praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion prayed that the “cup” (meaning his suffering and death) would be taken from him. Christians have, as a result, wrestled with this since the beginning.
In Matthew, as part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus includes a similar teaching to pray. The Matthew version of the example prayer is longer but bears a similar resemblance. After the Matthew version Jesus expands some themes from the prayer—one seems to exhort not to worry.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[j] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?[k] 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God[l] and his[m] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
A theologian writes, “[T]o be a ‘forgiven people makes us lose control. To be forgiven means that I must face the fact that my life actually lies in the hands of others. I must learn to trust them as I have learned to trust God. Thus is it is not accidental that Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread. We cannot live to insure our ultimate security, but must learn to live on a day-to-day basis. Or, perhaps better, we must be a people who have learned not to fear the surprises as a necessary means to sustain our lives. For, ironically, when we try to exclude surprise from our life, we are only more subject to the demonic. We become subject to those ‘necessities’ that we are anxious about because without them we fear we lack the power to control our lives” (Peaceable Kingdom, 89).
I want answers. I would like to be able to explain why this child has cancer. Why that child is caught in a war zone. If we suffer when we are older it may be easier to explain it away as part of our complicity in sin or evil or at least our complacency or minimally that we have experienced life and are thankful for it. If I were to explain it, however, would it make it any better? If I were to explain it, however, would it make it any better?
The cancer would still be there in a person who obviously doesn’t deserve it. In the book of Job, Job suffers. The book begins with a heavenly scene in which the angels are passing before God—trooping up to the throne of God. One angel is Satan. We witness his proposition to challenge Job’s faith in God. Saying surely Job worships you because he has it so good. Who wouldn’t be thankful? After a back and forth Job experiences a series of devastating catastrophes—destruction of family, property and his own body. Job’s friends visit him. For the better part of twenty chapters they essentially say—God is just you must have done something wrong. Job resolutely says I haven’t done anything wrong. Eventually God speaks. It says, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?
Note that this does not really answer the question. It doesn’t explain the suffering. Even if it did explain it would it help? Perhaps what we really want is for suffering to mean something. If I work hard on something and put in the struggle and the strain I want something out of it—I want to succeed at my job, want to stop violence, want to fix my plumbing, want to end hunger, want people to benefit from my sermon. This, however, is not fully in my control. Perhaps only the smallest sliver is in my control. If I want to end hunger, I could, for example volunteer, at our soup kitchen. If I want sermon to be meaningful I can reflect on the community, read scripture, pray, and put in the work. This isn’t guaranteed to succeed though.
In Luke we see Jesus instructing to ask. He says seek, knock, ask. “And it will be given to you.” The main point of this though is persistence. Jesus teaching is to persist in prayer. Persist in prayer. He says even though the friend might not give because he is a friend he will give because the neighbor keeps on knocking.
In Matthew we read “Do not worry about tomorrow.” Don’t worry about tomorrow because today has enough worry. This is not “don’t worry” or “there is nothing to worry about.” This is not a brushing off of worry or the things we are prone to worry about but don’t get ahead of yourself and take on more worry than you should.
Persist in prayer and don’t get ahead of yourself and take on more worry than you should.
“We cannot live to insure our ultimate security, but must learn to live on a day-to-day basis.” In this there is a type of freedom. Since we cannot guarantee anything we might as well live in the freedom of the knowledge of the love of God. We experience the knowledge of the love of God and in fact, the love of God found in the community of the body of Christ.
Honestly I would like everything to work out—for it to be made all better. Many—likely most times when I am actually thinking about it—I feel desperate for this. Out passage in Colossians read, “6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
Filled with the Spirit we can make a response that brings good. This can be the spot where the love of God is made manifest in our world. This love is shown in the Body of Christ in the power of the Spirit for the Glory of God. Let us pray. Let us persist in prayer. Let us love. Let us love well.