Text: Luke 24:111 Topic: How to make sense of chaos and suffering
Ancient sailors puzzled over why some of their colleagues who sailed west simply did not return. What happened to them out in the great beyond? They put their heads together and came up with a solution: the Earth is flat, and if you sail too far west, you simply drop over the edge. Astronomers gazed up into the black abyss, charting the courses of sun, moon, and stars across the heavenly ceiling. The ancients believed they understood the shape of the universe: the Earth sat in the center, and all the heavens surrounded it. Like the sailors, they were wrong. At the time, it certainly seemed to make sense. It is my theory this morning that all of us are trying to make sense out of life, trying to make the unexplainable explainable.
A little girl, covered with bruises and scars, is taken on a gurney toward the ambulance. Her arms and legs are peppered with old and new cigarette burns. She was found shivering and naked, chained to her mother's bed in a room with open windows. No one knew how long she'd been there, but she was filthy. As they took her out through the living room past her mother, the child looked at her mother with big, imploring eyes and cried out, "Mother, if I die, then will you love me?" She was trying to make sense of her suffering, trying to give it a context she could understand.
For three years the disciples had Camelot with Jesus. Those must have been the most wonderful three years for any group of people in all of history. There were signs, wonders, miracles; Jesus' words, presence, and friendship. They sensed peace with him, as well as the stimulation to grow and change. Jesus warned them along the way. He said: Remember, it's not going to last forever. The time will come when I must go to Jerusalem and be delivered into the hands of my enemies, and they will kill me. They heard it over and over again, but when the good news is so good, who dares to believe or even listen to the bad?
It happened exactly as Jesus said, and the time came when he was delivered into the hands of his enemies and executed on a cross. All of those who followed him scrambled about trying to make sense of it. Judas went out and hanged himself. Some of the disciples gathered together in a tight little knot to mourn Jesus' passing. Thomas, one of the disciples, had to adjust to the unthinkable by being alone. Peter, still unable to believe that he had stood outside in the courtyard and said, "I don't know the man," stumbled blindly off to the tomb. Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Joanna went there, too, with their spices and burial garments. They went to make order out of chaos, to make the unmanageable manageable in their minds. That's what we're all doing today, because life is full of upside down moments. We have time to consider three ways to respond to chaos and bring order out of the confusion that inevitably comes our way.
We can choose to despair.
The first way is the way of Judas: the way of despair. By his actions, Judas said: "There is not a thing in the world God can do to redeem this moment. There isn't a thing you can do to change the chaos, so you might as well just join in with the despair."
On the night President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, my best friend and I went through our little community in Oregon and took down all the street signs with names like Reese Road and Upper Drive and Boonesbury Road. We didn't take down the stop signs or hazard signs; we didn't want anyone to be hurt. It's just that up to that moment, everything had been perfect in our lives. What were two 16-year-old boys supposed to do when an assassin's bullet rang out? We did the only thing we could think of at the time. We joined the chaos. We became part of the destruction. I'd never done anything like that before or since.
You would be amazed to discover how many people in this world have found the only way to respond to the chaos in their life is to join the despair and destruction. All of the violence, vandalism, substance abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, mental illness; all of the quiet forms of subtle self-destruction are just ways for us to say, "God is not active in this world, and all is chaos. It is without form, and it is void." That's the way the universe was described before God became active in creation. Before God becomes part of life, life is chaos.
I think a lot about Judas. I wonder what was worse about his sin than the sins of all the others, especially Peter's. The authorities asked, "Tell us where we can find Jesus," and Judas told them. But what about Peter? At a time when Jesus needed a friend, Peter just stood outside in the courtyard and swore and cursed and said, "I don't know the man!" What was so much worse about one man's sin? Yet, Peter went on to be the great leader of the church, and Judas went out and hanged himself. The only difference I can find between them is that Peter believed God could do something with that awful moment, whereas Judas believed God could not. I have often wondered what great thing God might have done through Judas if he had not given up on God.
The first way is the way of despair.
We can choose to doubt the Good News.
The second way is the way of the women and the disciples who heard the Good News but didn't know how to live with it. There's an epidemic of that response within the church. There are people in church week after week, who know all the answers but don't know how to make them work in their lives.
I can picture a conversation that took place early in the morning, before sunrise, between Mary and Joanna.
"Mary, are you awake?"
"Oh, yes, I'm awake. I haven't slept a wink for two nights since Jesus died. I just can't relax; it hurts too much."
"Rather than just lay here in the dark hour after hour, why don't we get up and go to the grave and prepare his body for the burial."
They got up, took their spices and burial robes, and off they went to the grave where they were met by an angel. "Wait a minute," says the angel. "What are you doing here with all those dead things? Don't you remember? He told you that he would go to Jerusalem and be delivered to his enemies, and they would kill him. He said that on the third day he would rise again. Don't you remember?"
Yes, they did sort of remember. He had said that a time or two. But it doesn't make sense for someone to rise from the dead. It makes more sense to prepare the dead body for the grave. It is hard to believe the promises; harder still to live by them when you know the truth. We find it so hard to believe and to live by what we know. A few weeks ago Don McCurry said, "I don't understand why you Christians don't pray more. God answers prayer." We who call ourselves Christians have a lot to believe in, but sometimes it's hard for us to act on what we know. The angel might have said, "Having heard the Good News, why do you insist on believing in the bad?"
I love that old story about the medical missionary who was traveling in her car when she ran out of gasoline right on the outskirts of a little village. She didn't have a gas can to carry the gasoline in. So she took the only container she had, which happened to be a bedpan. She went into the little village, filled it with gasoline, and carefully carried it back to the car. She was pouring it into the gas tank when a priest drove by. He slammed on his brakes in a cloud of dust, rolled down his window, and said, "Sister, you've got a lot more faith than I have."
There's a lot to believe in when we believe it. It makes such a difference. Why do you seek the living among the dead? Having heard Good News, why do you believe the bad? That's the second way to respond to chaos: to doubt Good News.
We can choose to believe God is in control.
There's a third way to respond to chaos. I call it the "unchosen way," because so few people ever follow it. It is the way of believing that God is a God of order, and that where God is, there order will be. God is the God of Good News, and where God is, good news will prevail.
I have a friend named Peter who heard, at the age of 28, the unthinkable news that he had cancer. The doctor said the prognosis was very poor. His kind of cancer meant that he would probably die within the year. Peter went home, looked at his wife, looked at his three small children, and raised his eyes to heaven to say, "O God, why is this happening to me?" He fell into deep despair.
Peter had always enjoyed hiking in the wilderness with his wife and friends. In an effort to lift his spirits, his wife arranged for a day trip that would not be too strenuous for him in his condition, and off they went through a cathedral forest and across a rocky ridge until they came out into a little bowl holding a beautiful lake. Magnificent forested hills surrounded it, presided over by a beautiful snow-capped peak. The forest service had built a little cabin there for campers, but reservations had to be made a long time in advance. While Peter's wife was inquiring about the cabin, he walked on with his friends, who could sense his despair.
"What are you thinking, Peter?"
He looked around and said, "Everything is wrong about this place: the mountains, the lake, the forest. It's all so permanent. It's been here a thousand years. It's been here forever; I won't be here forever. My wife's over there making arrangements for a year from now, and I won't even be here a year from now." You can understand how he was feeling. My friend Peter never did make it to the lake. But not because he was gone. Rather, the mountain was gone and the lake and the forest. All of it blew into oblivion when Mount St. Helen exploded. But Peter survived.
Jesus said, "If you have faith, God will remove mountains." This is the essence of the message for you today: hold on to your faith no matter how great the mountainous obstacles might be; keep believing that, where God is in your life, order will come, and where God is, Good News will prevail.