One of the benefits of teaching at a seminary is that you get to hear lots of good preaching–something I never take for granted. Yesterday in chapel, the preacher was our worship professor, Mark Oldenburg, who is one of the very best preachers I have ever heard, and one of the .01% of pastors who can preach a compelling, coherent sermon without notes. Don’t try this at home, people.
Anyway, the crux of the message–or at least, what I took away from it–was that in the face of a terrible tragedy like that which occured on Friday, the Bible actually doesn’t have any great answers [in fact, Mark’s exact words were: “The Bible does have answers; they just suck.”] And, as Christians, it’s OK to admit that, wrestle with that, and face the uncomfortableness of that–and not have to retreat into some facile, entirely unconvincing platitude that if we just have enough faith we’ll understand, or God must have a plan or a purpose for it, or God will bring good out of it somehow: again, as Mark said, there isn’t enough good in the world to justify what happened, or even make sense of it.
Instead, what Mark suggested is to heed the final words of the James text, which was the reading for Monday [James 5:7-11], and “take the example of the prophets.” The prophets were not patient–with either God or the people; and the prophets were not passive or accepting–not by a longshot. The prophets held both the people AND God accountable, and it is OK for us to do the same. So, for example, we might ask ourselves why we live in a society where automatic weapons are so easy to come by and mental health care is not [an example from another part of the sermon]; and challenge ourselves, our government officials and each other that that simply isn’t good enough. And, more importantly, we can grab God by the lapels [Mark’s image] and say also to God: “this isn’t good enough!” Not because we want this or that kind of world [as though God has some obligation to fufill our personal desires or ideas about what is best], but because GOD HAS PROMISED to be God for us, to be with us, to redeem injustice, and to show mercy. We can and should hold God accountable to God’s promises, reminding God of who God is, and who God has revealed Godself to be in relationship to us. “God can take it,” Mark said–and I would add that in the face of such tragedies, an active, vibrant, honest relationship with God demands this kind of prophetic call for justice, this cry to God for grace and deliverance. Why do we think we have to be so polite to God, pretending things are OK when they so clearly are not? Do we think God doesn’t know our pain, and our anger? Do we think those feelings, those words don’t belong in a “good” relationship with God? Look again at the prophets, and take heed.
So, as we continue to mourn, we also continue to pray, with our hands clenched on God’s lapels, saying with the prophets, “You promised, God! Don’t forget your promises to your people.”