A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 3, 2017

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost + Proper 17A
First Lesson: Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Second Lesson: Romans 12:9-21
Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

hurricane-harvey-rescue-3-ap-jt-170827_4x3_992For the past several days, I’ve been shocked by the images and reports coming out of south Texas and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Stories of families having to evacuate their homes because of the rising flood waters. Stories of first responders trying to rescue those who are trapped in their homes. Stories of complete strangers coming in from other parts of the country to assist those in need.

I have dear friends in the Houston area. Many are fellow priests who have been impacted by the flooding as well. They’ve been on Facebook posting updates, pictures, and live videos, letting us know what’s happening and what we can do to help. One friend, in particular, posted a video a few days ago explaining the strange mix of emotions that his parishioners are feeling right now. Naturally, some are very angry and frustrated about what’s happened. Some are simply happy that their homes were spared. Others are remorseful because they know families who have lost so much. I would imagine that many people right now, including people in other parts of the country who may have family members and friends who have been impacted by the storm, are experiencing that same confusing mix of anger, joy, and remorse.

Then, there are people who feel the need to rationalize why all of this has happened or to point to an explanation. For example, the other day, as I was talking with someone about the storm and how terrible it is for so many people, she casually mentioned in our conversation, “Well, everything happens for a reason.”

But, does it?

Does everything happen for a reason?

Is there a reason why terrible things often happen to good people? Is there a reason why tragedy strikes in sometimes unexplainable ways? Is there a reason why natural disasters often kill countless people other than our own human frailty?

Now, I have no doubt that the woman I was talking to had sincere intentions when she said, “Everything happens for a reason.” After all, It’s usually meant to bring comfort to people who are suffering or recovering from a great loss. I’m sure that many of us have grown up hearing this familiar platitude, as if it came directly from the mouth of God. But, it didn’t. In fact, no where in the Bible does it say, “Everything happens for a reason.” There are portions of Scripture that are similar but none that were intended to suggest that every tragedy or painful experience that we have in our lives was predestined by God for a particular purpose.

There are things that happen all the time, terrible things that seem to have no reasonable explanation, like a hurricane that displaces thousands of people and causes them to seek shelter in nearby churches and convention centers. Everything happens for a reason? Try telling that to the family who has lost everything.

The reason why this statement is so troubling is because it points to God as the one responsible for our pain and suffering, as if God is somehow punishing us or causing us pain in order to teach us a lesson. It suggests that God actually wants us to suffer. It’s a theological concern for sure, and one that we should carefully consider before using it as a way to comfort someone. Everything that I know to be true about God tells me that this is wrong. The God that I believe in and the God that I worship is a God of love and compassion, a God of unending grace and mercy. This is not a God who punishes us for our sins but one who forgives us and dwells with us in our grief, one who suffers with us when we suffer. We know this because of Jesus- the one who suffered and died for us and opened for us the way to eternal life.

In our lesson today from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus explains to his disciples that he must soon travel to Jerusalem and be handed over to great suffering and death.

We meet a very conflicted Peter. If you’ll recall, in last week’s Gospel, after Peter confesses to Jesus that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Jesus tells Peter that he will be the rock on which the church is built and that he will be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. You can imagine Peter’s surprise, then, when Jesus rebukes him in our lesson for today and says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Of course, the reason Jesus says this to Peter in the first place is because Peter can’t wrap his mind around the fact that Jesus, the one that he just confessed as Messiah, will be given over to suffering and death. He can’t wrap his mind around the fact that the Anointed One, the one whom prophets long foretold, would simply be handed over and killed at the hands of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Or, perhaps, he didn’t want to believe it. Perhaps, believing that Jesus must suffer and die would surely lead to his own suffering and death. This is not what Peter signed on for, and this is certainly not what he, or any of the disciples for that matter, expected in a Messiah.

Like the disciples, I’ve found that God often works in ways that are surprising and unexpected.

Like the disciples, so many of us become disappointed, frustrated, or even confused when our expectations of God aren’t met. This is what happens when we try to contain God in our own God-shaped boxes. Disappointment, frustration, and confusion lead us to ask questions like, “Why did God allow this to happen? Doesn’t God love us?” or “Why is God punishing us? There must be a reason why all of this is happening.”

But, sometimes there isn’t a reason. Sometimes, terrible things happen that are beyond our control, and when we stop trying to fit God so neatly into a box of our own design, when we let God be God, we begin to see that God is truly present, even in the midst of suffering. We begin to see that God is bigger than we can possibly imagine and capable of revealing his love even in the worst of situations. When we let God be God, we begin to see that, through God’s people, the love of God is made known in miraculous ways. Look at the people in Texas and Louisiana who have come together to care for one another. Look at the police officers and first responders who have risked their lives to rescue total strangers. Look at people everywhere who are looking for ways to help. If you want to know where God is in all of this, don’t look to the devastation of the storm or to the sweeping flood waters. Look to those who are answering God’s call to serve, and there you’ll clearly see the face of God. Amen.

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