Tuesday, August 16, 2005

When Bad Things Happen to Good People 

A Sermon for Pentecost 5
Genesis 21:8-21, Matthew 10:24-39
(First published by DesperatePreacher.com, May 2005)

It’s the classic problem, really: Why do bad things happen to good people?

It’s a loaded question—with hints of doubt, anger and fear—it threatens our sense of justice and of God’s goodness. It has been a question that for centuries theologians, prophets, and common everyday people like us have wrestled with. It’s not an easy question to answer; and the answer has a lot to do with how you approach the world, your relationships with other people (both loved ones and strangers far away), and how you approach your God.

Today’s scripture from Genesis tells a part of the story of Abraham—although he’s not the central figure here. The main characters are actually his wives, and to a lesser degree his sons. You see, at this point God has promised Abraham that God will raise a nation out of Abraham’s descendants. But you’ll remember that he and his wife, Sarah, couldn’t get pregnant. So Abraham took another wife, his maid-servant Hagar, and she bore him a son, Ishmael, and Abraham was happy. A little while later Sarah miraculously conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Now you can start to see the tension here.

The crisis comes when Sarah sees little Isaac playing with his elder half-brother Ishmael. Sarah becomes jealous—she was probably a little jealous before, Hagar becoming pregnant and her son being Abraham’s first-born son. But now that Sarah has her own son, things are a little different. And as much as she was concerned about the nation that would follow Abraham’s descendents, at that moment she was probably more concerned about little Isaac being as loved by Abraham as Ishmael was.

So in a terrible testament to human shortcomings, Sarah asks her husband to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael—send them away, she says. “To where?” Abraham asks. “I don’t care, just send them away.”

Understandably, Abraham is more than a little upset. He obviously cares for Hagar, and this is his son, after all. So he takes his troubles to God, and God tells Abraham not to worry about Hagar and Ishmael, and to do as Sarah says. It doesn’t make it easier for Abraham to do it, but I can imagine his seeing God’s reasoning here.

God is saying first that family is most important. In marriage, Abraham made a covenant with Sarah, and if she feels this strongly about it, for the sake of the family he should do as she wishes. It is sad and upsetting, and in a perfect world Sarah would not be so unforgiving, so unloving. But she is human, and flawed, and all too often our faults show at their worst when dealing with people closest to us.

But Abraham doesn’t send Hagar off with nothing – the next morning he burdens her down with food and water, and tearfully sends her and Ishmael off.

Hagar wanders around, hurt and lost inside herself, grieving for her home and the future of her son. And soon the food and water run out. She can’t bear to see the hunger on Ishmael’s face as he withers away. So she sets the child down under a bush, out of the sun, and goes just close enough that she can make sure that nothing happens to the child, but far enough away that she can’t watch her own child die in the desert. She put her weary head into her arms and cried. But then God enters the story a second time.

God sits down beside Hagar and says to her: “Don’t be afraid, I have heard the voice of the child. Don’t worry, he will live, and I will make a nation out of his descendents, too.” And God shows Hagar a well of water nearby, and she filled her canteen and ran back to give Ishmael a drink. He would survive.

Now, this doesn’t mean everything is alright. Hagar is still hurt, she must still find food and shelter and raise a young boy by herself. It’s not like she won the lottery and has no more cares in the world. Nothing about the situation has changed all that much, except that God has shown care for her when no one else would. But sometimes, that makes all the difference.

There’s a couple lessons to be found in this episode. Hagar learned that precious few situations are genuinely hopeless, even when things seem at their worst. She also learned that good things can come from bad. Not always, and this doesn’t make the bad good-in-disguise. Sarah’s jealousy and vindictiveness, and Abraham’s apparent unwillingness to defend Hagar against Sarah’s spite, are bad. There’s no getting around that, and let’s not confuse the issue by trying to say that because some good came from it in the end that those feelings and reactions were good to begin with. Oh no.

For however much Hagar was happy to hear that her son would survive and build a nation, too, I’m sure she would have been much happier had Sarah swallowed her pride and allowed Abraham to be a father to two sons. Would that have been better? Of course. But people don’t always make the right decisions. It doesn’t mean that everything thereafter is necessarily bad, but the ability of people to transform situations into good things doesn’t change the essential evil of those bad decisions that started us down this road.

So Hagar learned that good can come from bad, that that doesn’t mean that the bad was actually good, but that one thing God can provide is a reason to hope.

Meanwhile, Sarah is at home when she hears the news that God is out in the desert spending time with Hagar and Ishmael. That’s Abraham’s God! Why isn’t God here at our tent with us?! And it takes a while before Sarah is ready to accept her lesson: God loves and works with even those whom we hate and would cast out. Even the people we send away, or sentence to walk in the desert alone… the people we would be rid of, the people who are objects of our jealousy, our spite, our vindictiveness, our blame. Even those people, God loves and cares for. Even they deserve a home, food, water, happiness.

It is a hard pill to swallow – to see so clearly how wrongly one has acted, and how much one has hurt another person, another mother, even, just caring for her child. It is tough for us to see in people we hate the things we share in common, and our role in making them what they are. But that is the lesson God lays before us in caring for all people—our enemies, the poor, the sick, the criminal, the murderer.

In Matthew 10:29&30 we read, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.” God cares about everything and everyone in the world – even the things that are most expendable to us, or most disgusting, or most terrifying, or most confusing, or most foreign. No matter how much we dislike or hate someone, or no matter even how little we care about someone, God is still working with them. God is still caring about them.

There’s a little comfort in there – that no matter how badly we act, no matter how cruel or spiteful we become, God will still be with that other person. We can’t act evil enough toward someone to make God not want to be with them. And inversely, despite even our worst shortfalls in being a better human, God will never give up calling us to be more loving. God will never give up asking us to risk more for love. And very rarely is a situation entirely without hope of redemption.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Sometimes, bad things just happen. Sometimes they happen as a result of things people do – intentionally or not, maliciously or not. But there shouldn’t be any surprise in that. But that’s not the end of the story. Good things happen, too. And sometimes good things happen within, or because of, or through bad things. That doesn’t mean that the bad stuff that happens isn’t bad. Oh, it is. But it does mean that something different is there. In the worst moments (as well as the best) God’s love is there – and where God is, there is yet reason to hope, yet reason to love. And that’s comforting in itself.

There is always the possibility that we can love all children as our own, love their mothers and fathers as members our own family. Nations will be born from the fruits of our actions either way, but we can choose now what our descendents will inherit from us – a legacy of jealousy and cruelty, or one of loving acceptance and nurturing. Neither one is easy. But one is the one God calls us to, and that makes all the difference.


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