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Understand tragedy differently

At the mission last Thursday night a very distinguished -looking and -speaking older man delivered a message that included a bit about the Titanic ― of all things ― that bothered both me and a friend.

The preacher, about 70 years of age, who had for years been a chaplain at a hospice run by Kaiser, told us that he thought God may have sunk the Titanic in response to human hubris.

The Titanic, he said, was crafted such that the builders proclaimed, widely, that it was unsinkable ― even to the extent that God, Himself, couldn't pull it down from the ocean's surface.

The luxury liner was build for the wealthy to act as "a party ship," he said, and not for a noble purpose. Thus, it was likely God's anger was roused and He determined that it would be sunk on its maiden voyage by an iceberg God placed in its path.

The preacher's message here, and something else he said relating to the beginning of World War II, raised the more general issue of Does God cause major world tragedies in retribution to punish people? to send a message of some sort? to make us fearful? And, Does God intervene to punish us, personally, when we do something wrong?

Rather serendipitously, the next day, I happened to view a video of a sermon by The Very Reverend Brian Baker of Trinity Cathedral [available as an embedment at the bottom of this post or at TVR Brian Baker's blog] where he spoke to the questions that arose relating to God's punitive intervention.

In his sermon on Mar 7, Dean Baker said this:
If I listen too closely to that voice, that voice that wants to be protected and safe by being good -- if I really let that voice sink in -- then when tragedy strikes somebody else, that voice [says], "I wonder what they did to deserve it?"

Now I know rationally I don't want to think those kinds of thoughts, but that little voice is there. "Did they do something?" And one of the ways I know that voice is there is because sometimes when tragedy strikes people ― particularly multiple tragedies, a series of tragedies ― sometimes, they come to me, and they ask: "Am I being punished?", "Is God punishing me?", "What have I done wrong?"
KJV of  Luke 13:1-9:
1There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things?
3I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
4Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?
5I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
6He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.
7Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?
8And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:
9And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.
Dean Baker then speaks of a message from Scripture (found in Luke 13:1-9, see sidebar):
Some people run up to Jesus and they tell him that there were some folks from Galilee who were in the temple in Jerusalem, and as they were making their sacrifice, Pilate's soldiers killed them ... Jesus knew why they were telling him this story. They weren't telling him this story to highlight the cruelty of Pilate. Instead, they were thinking 'If God is the cause of all events and if they were in God's temple and they were struck dead in God's temple, they must have done something particularly bad to be struck dead in church.'

And Jesus knew that they were thinking this, and he said to them, "Do you think that these people, these Galileans, were worse sinners than anyone else in the temple that day?"

[Likewise,] Jesus tells them the story of the time when people were standing by the Tower of Shalom when the towers fell and eighteen people died. And Jesus says, "Do you think that they were worse sinners so that they were struck dead? Do you really think that God is in the business of killing people for their misdeeds? Do you really think that?" No. That's not what God does.

Then Jesus says something that is totally confusing. He says, "Unless you repent, the same thing is going to happen to you." He says, "Do you think God is in the business of killing people for behaving badly? No! But unless you stop behaving badly, God's going to kill you." That makes no sense.

And it makes no sense because we [misunderstand] the word that's translated "repent." When I hear the word "repent" ... what I'm thinking I'm being told is "stop doing bad things." But the word that [is translated] as "repent" is the word metanoia. Now, meta means change and noia means mind. Metanoia means 'change your mind.' It means 'change the way you see the world'; 'change your worldview.'

Now, if you really do metanoia ― 'change your worldview' ― then of course your actions change. But it's not about 'stop doing bad things.' It's 'change the way you see the world.' And what Jesus is saying is If you see the world in a way that has God causing tragedy, because people have behaved badly, when tragedy strikes you ― which it will, because tragedy strikes everybody ― you have no other way of understanding it, than that God is punishing [you]. So if that's how you see it happening to other people, that's how you're going to see it happening to you.

Change the way you see the world. Understand what God does, and understand tragedy differently. You see, when tragedy strikes another, it can be an invitation for us to judge them, to keep them at arm's distance: God must be punishing them. Sort of makes it safer for us because then if I lead a good life, God won't punish me. It also removes any obligation of me helping them because they must have done something to deserve this. So, tragedy can serve that function.

Or, at the same time, in our mind, there's that voice of judgment. When tragedy strikes someone else, there's another voice as well. And that other voice is to serve them, to love them, to help them. When tragedy strikes, it could be an opportunity to love.
Dean Baker then moves on to the parable about a failing fig tree:
Jesus is trying to get people to change the way they see the world.

And he does this by [then] telling a parable. He starts with a common way that people understood things: "The ax is lying at the root of the tree." If you don't bear good fruit, the tree is going to be chopped down. That's what everyone thought. That was a common worldview. ...

The parable goes like this: There's a landowner who has an orchard. In the orchard are lots of fruit trees. All the trees are bearing fruit, except one. There's this one fruit tree for three years it's barren, and this fruit tree is taking up space in the orchard. ... The landowner goes to the gardener and says "Chop down the tree; it's not bearing fruit." That's the prudent thing. That's how we think.

But the voice of God in this parable is the voice of the gardener. And the gardener says, "No. I'm not going to chop down this tree. I'm going to loosen the hard packed soil, nourish it with fertilize; I'm going to water it. I have faith in this tree. I know that this is going to be the year when this tree is going to come alive. This is going to be the year when this tree bears fruit.

... God isn't in the business of chopping down unfruitful trees. God is in the business of loosening the hard packed soil, loosening our hard hearts, freeing them, nourishing them, freeing them. Because God is convinced that this is the year when we're going to come alive ...

... I don't know why tragedy strikes. I don't know why good people suffer. And that's the question that God never answers. But I do know that in each tragedy there's an invitation to us to come alive, to bear fruit, to love. ...

God is not in the Earthquake, Sermon 3/7/10 from Trinity Cathedral on Vimeo.


JLTan said…
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Galatians 6:6-8
Tom Armstrong said…
JL, That begs the question: Who is deceiving and mocking? and Who is pleasing the Spirit?
JLTan said…
I think what you said is exactly the context of the Bible passage; ie. Galatians 6:1-8.

I think we are all accountable before God. None of us is greater compared to Him.
Tom Armstrong said…
Thanks, JLTan.

I guess my problem is that I prefer Dean Baker's explication, but I can't completely dismiss what the distinguished preacher said. In the Old Testament, God exacts retribution.

The mission preacher didn't ground what he said in Scripture, but I think he could have.

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