Reverend Stacy Swain
“Build Plant and Pray”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; 2 Timothy2:8-15
Last Sunday, before worship, one of our little ones asked me “Why does God let bad storms hurt people?” Her words took me back a bit —such an enormous question coming from such a small person! Such a profoundly relevant question of faith from one so young. The question of why God lets innocent people suffer is one of the most difficult questions yet pressing questions with which any person of faith in this day and age, or in any day and age, must wrestle. If faith is going to be relevant it must come to terms with suffering.
For millennia, people have gone about trying to answer this question of theodicy, of why there is innocent suffering, by tying life circumstances to the will of God. We see terrible things around us and believe that God is somehow responsible. If there is a terrible storm, God must have sent it — or at least did nothing to prevent it. We hear this thinking in the text from Jeremiah today. On one hand, the text says that Nebuchadnezzar had taken the people into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon and in the next breath we a hear that responsibility for exile has been shifted from Nebuchadnezzar to God and that it is God’s will that the people are sent into exile.
Seeing life’s circumstances as works of God’s hand, can lead to quite meaningful and comforting answers such as understanding that is a test from God. Are we faithful just in the good times or will we be faithful through the rough times as well? This is the question that frames the book of Job. The book of Job, as you remember, opens with a conversation between God and Satan where Satan challenges God to a wager saying that Job is only righteous and faithful because Job is so prosperous and happy. What would happen if all his hedges were removed? And so suffering befalls Job as a test of faithfulness.
Others understand that through suffering God can teach us to grow in strength and perseverance. This is certainly true for the Apostle Paul. Paul becomes more and more adamant in his conviction of the new life made possible by dwelling in the spirit of the risen Christ, as he endures more and more hardships through prison, beatings, and eventually death. We hear this in the reading this morning from Paul’s letter to Timothy where he recites what scholars believe is a well known early church hymn — “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will reign with him.”
Now while I do not want to discount that many people find these two answers to the “why of suffering” to be meaningful and comforting, I am, however, troubled by this trajectory of thought, because this way of thinking can lead to problematic and even dangerous convictions about God and God’s motives. An extreme and shocking example of this is the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas, whose members show up at funeral services of fallen soldiers with signs saying “God hates your feelings” and “God hates fags.” They ascribe the death of American soldiers to God’s punishment for society’s tolerance and even embrace of homosexuality.” Now constitutional rights of free speech is one issue, but this kind of thinking is just dangerous theology. The Westboro Baptist Church believe that they understand the mind of God so fully that they can see quite plainly the will of God in the death of these soldiers. Now this case is certainly an extreme, but if we begin to think that we can see evidence of the will of God in the suffering around us, if we think that can look into pain and see God’s motives behind it, where does one draw the line? Was Hurricane Katrina God’s divine retribution for the sins of New Orleanians and Americans more broadly?
One day, when I was working as a hospital chaplain as part of my ministerial formation, I entered the room of an elderly woman who was going through a very difficult time. We had been talking for a while when I asked her how she found the strength to face her hardships. She said to me: “well I have learned that when I am facing something really terrible I have a choice. I can either spend time trying to figure out why it is that this is happening to me. Or I can spend my time trying to figure out how I am going to deal with it.” “I have found.” she said to me, “that asking why really leads nowhere, for how can we really know the answer to why? But how on the other hand,” she continued, “how gets me thinking and moving forward. And that gives me strength. So I choose to ask how, not why.”
I would like to suggest that, when faced with suffering, we ask not “why is God allowing this to happen?”, but instead we ask “how we are to live in the midst of such suffering?” What is it that God would have us do? I like to suggest that we look not to the circumstances around us to inform about what we know of God, but instead to let what we know of God inform how we are to live faithfully in the midst of the hardships we face.
In this light, my answer to the question of that precious little one last Sunday was not to start with the storm and try to make sense of what the storm tells us about God, but instead to share with her first what I know about God, and to let knowledge of God to inform how it is we are to respond to bad storms. I told her that I know that God loves her; that God does not want bad things to happen to her or anyone else; and that when bad things happen, God is right there with us in that hardship. I have seen and felt how God walks with us even in the valley of the shadow of death, how God prepares a table for us even in the presence of our enemies, how God leads us to green pastures. God does not enslave. God delivers. God does not bring suffering upon us but seeks instead our redemption and release from suffering.
This “how” is what God chose for the people in exile as well. For Jeremiah tells the people how they are to live again, there in the midst of their suffering. He tells them: Build houses, plant gardens, dig in constructively and make a life here. But perhaps the most radical message was to instruct the people to pray. For up until this point, it was believed that the seat of prayer for the Hebrew people was Jerusalem and most specifically the temple where the presence of God dwelt — there in the holy of Holies. It was the temple that mediated the presence of God for the people. Those in exile assumed that since they were far from Jerusalem, far from the temple, God must be far from them. But Jeremiah says “no” Pray in the midst of that foreign land, in the midst of your hardship. Pray in fact, so courageously that you dare to pray for your enemies, for their peace is your peace. Pray so that the dislocation and devastation can be transformed into Shalom. The passage continues beyond what David read for us today and in it the LORD assures the people saying : “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart I will let you find me, says the LORD.”(Jer 29: 8).
For the people in exile it would be years before they were led home to Jerusalem. It took much longer than many in Jeremiah’s day ever imagined it would. But our time is not God’s time and what can seem like an eternity to us, can be a moment in the unfolding of God’s great salvation history. Even in our hardship God is working out our redemption and the redemption of all that.
And so, when faced with the profound scope of suffering today, may I suggest that instead of trying to ascribe motives to God as explanations of our suffering or worse yet, of the suffering of those around us, we trust that God loves and seeks not our pain but our welfare, not hardship but Shalom. Let us not get caught up wondering the why of bad weather, illness, loss or any other kind of suffering against us or anyone else. Let us instead draw strength remembering how much God loves us. How God is with us in hardship, and that in the great sweep of salvation history that is the biblical witness, God “has plans for us, plans for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope.” (Jer29:11). Perhaps the pressing question of our day, seen in this light, is not why is there suffering but how are we to build, plant and pray in the midst of suffering so that God’s promise of a future with hope can be born in us and in all God’s people. Amen.
 Nina Totenberg. “High Court Struggles with Military Funeral Case.” National Public Radio. October 6, 2010. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130379867. Downloaded. Oct 7th. 2:36pm.
 Anne M. Arlinghaus. “Religion, Rhetoric, and Social Change After Hurricane Katrina.” Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, Volume 2, Number 1, Spring 2006.