Today’s sermon deals with the ultimate question of life: WHY.
Now, I’m aware that some of you choose to pronounce this word differently. For example, some people tend to say, “whah-eee.” Interesting approach, but incorrect. As I was taught from an early age in the South, the word is pronounced “Why.” Rhymes with the word “my.” Or pecan pie. So again, today’s message is about the ultimate question of life: Why?
It is ingrained in us as human beings to ask why. We’re hotwired to look for patterns; to look for cause and effect in everything. That’s how we’ve survived for six million years.
We learned that if you strike two stones together, for example, sparks would come out. Cause and effect. We learned that if you try and ride a Wooly mammoth, you will die. Cause and effect. We start at an early age asking things like, “Why is the sky blue?” “Why are there leaves on a tree?” “Why do we have to eat lettuce?”
We continue to ask why into adulthood. We question the silly things, like why is it that when a sign says “wet paint,” we must touch it to be sure? We question the frustrating stuff, like the news about pandemic fraud where it was discovered that the government gave loans to 342 people who said their name was “N/A.”
But then there’s the vast and unanswerable “why” about human suffering and pain. Like why that drunk driver swerved into that lane, on that day, in front of that car? Or why that cancer cell started growing in that person? Or why that gunman showed up at that school on that day, in that classroom, and aimed at that child?
Why do evil and suffering exist? For people of faith, this is an especially troubling question. Why do terrible things happen in a world that is supposedly governed by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God? The fancy term for this question is “theodicy.” And it’s every pastor’s biggest nightmare. Because if you are theologically responsible, you must be willing to stand in front of your congregation and say I don’t know.
I like how the author and theologian C. S. Lewis dealt with it. Lewis lost his wife to metastatic breast cancer, and out of his questions – his “why” – he wrote the now famous book, A Grief Observed. In it he said, “Sometimes, Lord, one is tempted to say that if you wanted us to behave like the lilies of the field you might have given us an organization more like theirs.”
So many of us are in great pain. Pain from loss, pain from illness, pain from a hopeless heart. And we ask why? We search for predictability and patterns. Unfortunately, there is no clear cause and effect. And the Bible doesn’t exactly give us crisp clear answers.
Take the book of Job, for example. There, faithful Job is struck down for seemingly no reason. When he asks God why, God basically says, this is on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know.
Then there’s the story of Lazarus. Jesus gets word that his friend Lazarus is about to die. Rather than hurry to his side, Jesus takes his sweet time getting there. Meanwhile Lazarus dies. When Jesus arrives, he then raises Lazarus from the dead. Why? Why not just save Lazarus before he died in the first place? And while Jesus was at it, why didn’t Jesus save all the other people in that tomb as well?
If we are looking for clear cause and effect in the Bible, we’re not going to get it. And you know why? Because the writers of the Bible didn’t have an answer either. So, they presented these great questions in the forms of stories, and parables, and poetry. Working it out – just like we are all trying to work it out ourselves right here and now.
And here’s the thing. It’s okay to try and figure things out. It’s okay to ask why. One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. James Cone, had a powerful perspective on this. One day in class, someone asked him how you balance the need to ask why with the need for simple faith. And he explained that they’re one in the same. “To question and to wonder, is to love God with one’s mind.”
We all experience tragedy and pain and loss. Sometimes in horrible and unexplainable ways. And we ask why? And that’s okay. God gave us a brain to question and to wonder. The trick is not to get stuck in that place of questioning.
Friends, if you don’t take anything else away today, take this: It’s okay to ask why. But doubt and questioning are not our ultimate destination. It’s simply a waystation. At some point, we must start moving again. And the key to moving forward is found in our scripture today, the beloved 23rd Psalm.
This is a scripture I bet we can all recite by heart. If not, you should take some time this week to put it to heart. It’s always astounding how relevant these ancient scriptures are to our modern-day pain. Especially the line “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” Such a powerful statement of courage and faith.
I always tend to focus on the line, “I shall fear no evil.” But my dear friend, and pastor, Dr. Otis Moss, has a different take. He believes that the most important word in Psalm 23 is “walk.” The Psalmist didn’t say, “Yea though I sit in the valley of death,” or “Yea though I stand in the valley of death,” or “Yea though I am mired in the valley of death.” They used the Hebrew word halakh which means to go, walk, or travel.
When we focus on the word “walk” in Psalm 23, we realize that any time we find ourselves in the shadow of the valley of death or the shadow of a huge obstacle or the shadow of change and transition, the best and only thing we can do is keep walking. Just keep walking.
You want to obsess over finding cause and effect. Fine. But just keep walking. You want to rail at God about your pain or misfortunes. Fine. Just keep walking. You want to ask why all the time. Fine. Just keep walking. Why? Because with movement comes meaning.
The author Rabbi Harold Kushner lost his son at age fourteen to a rare and horrible disease. But he rejected the idea that God was somehow responsible, or even that there was some rational explanation for suffering. He explained, “Let me suggest that bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us… But we can redeem those tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them ourselves.”
And after struggling for years with the why, Rabbi Kushner took his pain and imposed meaning on it by writing a book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People – a book which has helped millions of people through loss like his. In short, he just kept walking.
And Rabbi Kushner is not alone. From the survivors of 9/11 to the families in Newtown, Connecticut, people in the worst of tragedies have made the difficult but bold choice to keep moving. Because with movement comes meaning, and with meaning comes a reminder of the love that still surrounds us. With meaning comes a reminder to be grateful in all circumstances.
Now let me add a caveat. As we all know, storms come and go. It’s easy to take things for granted after a gale of a crisis have eased. But our gratitude must stay constant. For example, here we are in a world coming out of COVID. For months we sheltered in place. For years we isolated. During that time, we yearned for the simplest of things. Now, we’ve totally forgotten those things and are back to taking life for granted.
The poet and author Laura Kelly Fanucci said it this way back in the summer of 2020:
When this is over, may we never again take for granted
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbors
A crowded theatre
Friday night out
The taste of communion
A routine checkup
The school rush each morning
Coffee with a friend
The stadium roaring
Each deep breath
A boring Tuesday
How quickly we forget. We must keep walking because with movement comes meaning, and with meaning comes gratitude. And that path will lead us home.
In 1995, the Academy Award for best short documentary was for a movie entitled “One Survivor Remembers” based on the life of holocaust survivor Gerda Klein. In her acceptance speech, Gerda told the story of being in a blizzard on one of the death marches, passing by homes with lights in the windows and smoke rising from the chimneys and wanting nothing more than to simply go home again. So, she kept walking.
Fifty years later, Gerda wrote a memoir and filmed her survival story to remember those who never came home. She ended her acceptance speech with these words: “Allow me to ask you to do one simple thing. When you return to your homes tonight, don’t enter right away. Just pause for a moment and look at your house. think about its warmth, its security. And think about the people inside, your family. Think about what they mean to you, and what blessings you possess.”
Friends, we’ve all been in that vortex of trying to make sense of this crazy world – feeling angry, confused, resentful, asking why, why, why! But this cycle of questioning is not our ultimate destination. It’s only a waystation. For even in the places of greatest loss, love still surrounds us. And if we keep walking, eventually we’ll start to connect with our blessings of lights in the windows and smoke rising from the chimneys once again.
So, just keep walking. Walking from pain into purpose. Walking from frustration into faith. Walking from longing and lament into love. And that love, my friends, includes the deep and constant love of God.
For the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Please, say it with me as we close…) He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil (I will keep walking). For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.