I have tried several times this week to write about the tragedy at Virginia Tech, but I could not. Here is the sermon I am preaching tomorrow. My prayer is that it will help.
Finding God in the Midst of Tragedy
Suppose everything we thought and believed got stripped away from us in one horrific event. Suppose all the answers we thought we had to all the questions we thought people wanted answered, seemed hollow and empty.
Suppose our friend is gone, killed by forces that to us are incomprehensible. And suppose in the midst of this loss and tragedy – this relentless “why” – we see God again in the ordinary moments of life.
This is what happened this week at Virginia Tech, and what happened almost 2,000 years ago beside the Sea ofTiberias.
Everything the disciples thought they knew about God and about themselves was stripped away from them. First, when they all betrayed Jesus by forsaking him, and then at Calvary as they watched him killed. And even though they had seen the resurrected Christ, the disciples were still reeling from the
events they had witnessed.
Now, a couple of weeks after the resurrection, Peter – tired, confused, frustrated and bewildered – goes back to fishing — back to what he knows, back to the last thing that he felt comfortable with. Back to doing something familiar, as if to try to get in touch with his life before all the horror and uncertainty.
Others follow Peter’s lead, back in the boat casting nets, swearing like sailors, acting like men. Stripped, sweating, angry, tired, and working hard to stave off the grief and confusion that overtakes them without warning.
So they fished, but it was a futile exercise. Fishing had lost its meaning for them. They could not go back to life as it was before, and they could not go forward to life as it would be. They were trapped between what had been and the unfulfilled promise of what was to come. And they were alone.
On the shore, a solitary figure calls out, “Friends, haven’t you caught any fish?” Someone in the boat bellows back, “No.”
“Then throw your net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” When they throw the net over the right side of the boat, no sooner has it hit water, than it fills with fish – a lot of fish.
John, sensing something strangely wonderful, says to Peter, “It is the Lord.” Always the impetuous one, Peter pulls on his tunic and jumps into the water, making his way to Jesus. The others bring the boat to shore, and as they are doing so, Jesus says, “Bring some of the fish you have caught.”
Peter jumps back into the boat, and drags the net to shore. And here John give us an amazing detail. “But even with so many, the net was not torn.” The net held, even under this tremendous load of fish. Remember that. The net wasn’t torn, it held up under the load.
On the shore, Jesus has breakfast ready. As they’re eating this post-passover meal, Jesus turns to Peter and the conversation goes like this –
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
“Feed my lambs.”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Take care of my sheep.”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.”
And then it sank in — at dawn, while they were eating, and the rooster was crowing in the distance – Peter had declared his love for Christ. Three times. The disciples must have looked at each other in disbelief and with tears. Jesus had given Peter, and by extension them also, the opportunity to make right a horrible wrong – to affirm his affection and disavow his denial of Jesus.
And so breakfast with Jesus on the beach changes everything. Jesus’presence with the disciples becomes an object lesson in the power of God, of healing, and of hope.
Abstract theories do not offer hope —Jesus does. Impersonal doctrines do not make things right – Jesus does. Jesus’ presence in the midst of an on-going tragedy changed everything. And John puts that detail about the nets not breaking there for a reason.
So, “Where,” you ask, “is God in the tragedy at Virginia Tech?”
There are those who will trot out the ancient question, “If God is all-powerful and all-good, then why didn’t he prevent the carnage on the campus?”
That question tells us more about our immature understanding of both God and this creation, than it does about anything else. We must admit today that we do not know enough about God to pose that question and we do not know enough about the forces of darkness to form an answer.
Professor D. Z. Phillips, in his book, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, cautions us against easy explanations for the problem of evil:
“Such writing should be done in fear: fear that in our philosophizings we will betray the evils people have suffered, and, in that way, sin against them. Betrayal occurs every time explanations and justifications of evils are offered which are simplistic, insensitive, incredible, or obscene.”
So, today we do not cheapen the loss of life with easy answers. But there are some things we can know in the midst of our grief.
The first thing we know is, this was not God’s will. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, “thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” God’s will is not always done on earth, as the tragedy of this week reminds us.
We also know that this tragedy is not a “wake up call,” nor did it happen so that we can learn something. These are the kinds of easy answers that sin against those who were killed.
Rather, the question we ask today is not “why” this has happened, but why does it not happen more often than it does? Why do we as human beings not abuse, violate, and kill each other more than we do. The mystery is not Why is there evil? The mystery is Why is there any good at all in this world?
And that is where God is.
— God is in the conscience of most people who respect others and value their fellow human beings.
— God is in the hearts of professors who teach and students who seek to make this world a better place by their own study and contribution.
— God is in the heroism of Professor Liviu Lebrescu, who once survived the horrors of the Nazi hell, and acted without regard to his own life to save the lives of his students, placing his body between the gunman and them.
— God is in the bravery of students who held another classroom door shut against a killer seeking to take more lives.
— God is in the courage of policemen and emergency personnel who ran toward the sound of gunshots, allowing others to run away to safety.
— God is in the calm thinking of the student who saved his own life by stopping the blood spurting from his own artery until help came.
— God is in the actions of those who want to do something, and who wear the maroon-and-orange
even though Virginia Tech is not their alma mater.
— God is in the hugs and tears, and expressions of grief and sympathy that have flowed to Blacksburg this week from around the world. God is present in each act of love and thoughtfulness and kindness.
For God is moved by this tragedy, too. The evidence we have of how God acts toward our suffering in this world is in the example of Jesus.
Jesus saw tragedy – sickness, blindness, lameness, the darkness of demon-possession, hopelessness, despair, hunger, and grief – and moved over and over to end the suffering and relieve the pain of those whose lives he encountered.
Jesus wept over Jerusalem when it would not respond to God’s love, and cried in grief when his friend Lazarus died. Even while knowing that he would bring Lazarus back from the tomb, Jesus was still moved to tears.
Jesus in his own suffering on the cross saw his mother’s pain and asked John to care for her from that time on.
Jesus is moved by our fear, our grief, our pain, our loss, our suffering because he, too, has suffered. And he weeps with us when we weep.
But mostly he is present among us, as he was on the beach that morning. Healing us, encouraging us. Guiding us, providing for us – showing us that the nets can hold.
A Jewish Midrash – a kind of commentary on the Old Testament – tells this story about the exile of God’s people:
“When the Holy One, blessed be his name, comes to liberate the children of Israel from their exile, they will say to him:
‘Master of the Universe, it is You who dispersed us among the nations, driving us from Your abode, and now it is You who bring us back. Why is that?’
“And the Holy One, blessed be his name, will reply with this parable: One day a king drove his wife from his palace, and the next day he had her brought back. The queen, astonished, asked him, “Why did you send me away yesterday only to bring me back today?”
“Know this,” replied the king, “that I followed you out of the palace, for I could not live in it alone.” So the Holy One, blessed be his name, tells the children of Israel: “Having seen you leave my abode, I left it too, that I might return with you.”
God accompanies his children into exile, even the exile of grief and sorrow. And He stays with us there, until that time that He can return from that exile with us.
Wednesday night when our community gathered at Watson Memorial United Methodist Church, we did not find comfort in our denominations. In that room on Wednesday night were Calvinists and Arminians; premillenialists and amillenialists; pietists and predestinarians. But we did not find comfort in our divisions or doctrines.
Rather, as we gathered at the Lord’s Table, we found hope in the unity of God’s people, and in the body and blood of Christ, for at that Table God was present with his people.
Communion – the memorial of hope, the memorial of pain, the memorial of life – is for us the presence of Christ.
Where is God in this tragedy? Where he has always been. Among his people. With us, present in his creation, moved by our tragedy, making our nets strong enough to bear the load.
Eli Wiesel, holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace prize laureate, tells this story in his book, Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea:
“When God sees the suffering of his children scattered among the nations, He sheds two tears in the ocean. When they fall, they make a noise so loud it is heard round the world.”
Wiesel goes on to say, “It is a story I enjoy reading. And I tell myself: Perhaps God shed more than two tears during His people’s recent tragedy.”
And I would add, perhaps God shed 33 tears, and the sound of those tears was indeed heard round the world.