We are all having a hard time these days
– medically, economically, emotionally.
One way or another, this is rough for everybody.
We have all heard so-called Biblical explanations
of hard times -- punishment for sin
-- part of God’s secret plan -- test of faith; etc.
We may or may not buy those explanations,
but they keep echoing in our minds.
Today’s Epistle lesson sounds
like one of the bad explanations.
1st Peter says: “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal
that is taking place . . . to test you.”
That makes God sound like a cosmic Josef Mengele[i]
dousing us with disease and death
just to see how we’ll take it.
So, let’s be clear. The Bible does not have
one overarching answer
for why life gets so dreadfully hard.
It has lots of ideas by people struggling
to make sense of things.
They don’t agree.[ii] They are just doing the best they can.
Most of the things they say include a thread of truth.
But they are at best partial answers.[iii]
Philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams says,
“The Bible is fairly short on explanations of suffering,
but long on” (how God preserves
and redeems us through it).
Take today’s lesson.
If we can push the mute button on those echoes
ringing in our heads,
we’ll notice the text never says God sent
“the fiery ordeal.”
The return address on that package was Rome
– not Heaven.[iv]
Peter says the ordeal functions as a “trial”.[v]
There’s truth in that. Hardship exposes our characters.
Today, we see some people behaving
with remarkable kindness, exemplary compassion,
bravery, generosity, and patience.
We see others hoarding, price-gouging, profiteering,
gunning up, and acting in selfish disregard
for the safety of others.
Peter isn’t explaining away ordeals.
He’s counseling us how to practice our faith in hard times.
Peter says: “Discipline yourselves. Keep alert . . . .
Know that your brothers and sisters in the world
are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. . . .[vi]
Above all, love each other . . . .
Use whatever gifts you have to serve others.”[vii]
Just as hardship shows what we are made of,
it can be an opportunity to become better,
more fully human.
-- an opportunity to become more caring,
compassionate, generous, kind.
The meaning in hardship isn’t any explanation
we can read in a book or hear from a preacher.
The meaning depends on what we do with it.
We can shrink into fear, bitterness, and blaming.
Or we can grow toward a new unity in our struggles.
We have had larger catastrophes.
The current death toll from Covid-19 is around 6 million.[viii]
The Spanish Flu killed 50 million;
New World Smallpox, 56 million;
The Black Death, 200 million.
The 2004 tsunami killed 225,000 people in a day
and countless more in the ensuing famine and civil war.
But those disasters were localized in particular regions.
This pandemic is global. It touches the whole world.
So, might this be the time to extend
our circle of compassion to include
refugee camps in Bangladesh and Lesbos
-- think Episcopal Relief & Development
or migrant detention centers in Texas
and next door in Aurora
-- think Episcopal Migration Ministries,
or United Nations planning to rebuild the economy
better for the environment
-- think Episcopal Creation Care.
There is much we could do, so much we could become .
Might this be the time to extend our compassion
around the world to all the people Jesus loves?
[i] Nazi scientist who performed horrific experiments on Jews during the Holocaust. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/josef-mengele
[ii] The idea that God sends hardship as punishment for sin is problematic to be sure, first off because good people sometimes suffer disasters while bad people often fare quite well. In Antiquity, people believed that hardships were the work of the gods. Virgil called them “the merciless gods.” The pagan gods meted out blessings and curses randomly according to their whims. The best way to win a god’s favor was sacrifices. It was a system of cosmic graft. The Deuteronomic tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures agreed YHWH sent blessings and curses, but he did it according to his concern for morality. It was a carrot and stick spirituality, but it was a step forward in religion. Still, it didn’t ring true to experience. Later the Wisdom writers taught that if one lives wisely, he will flourish. But that didn’t always prove true either. Job’s “comforters” tried to advise him how to get back on his feet by quoting the Book of Proverbs (part of the Wisdom literature) to him. Job replied, “Quote to me no more these proverbs of dust.” God shows up at the end of the book and agrees with Job. These are examples of how different ideas were expressed trying to make meaning out of suffering. But none of them carried the day.
[iii] In Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Marilyn McCord Adams says that the various theories of why the world is a mess if God is good generally have some value, but she calls them “partial answers” and says that the danger of treating a partial answer as a general theory is that it ends up “attributing perverse motives to God.”
[iv] Depending on the actual date, it might have been Ephesus instead. Either way, it was persecution from the state religion of the Empire.
[v] We translate Biblical words as “trial,” “test,” and “temptation” but they all come down to occasions that invite or pressure us to fall away from our faith, become less than our true selves. The primal occasion of a “trial/ test/ temptation” is the serpent inviting Eve to eat the fruit in the Garden, Genesis 3. There is no indication God sent the serpent to administer a moral exam. God already knows our hearts. Jeremiah 7: 10; Romans 8: 27. Trials and temptations in Scripture are, generally speaking, not from God.
[vi] I Peter 5: 8-10.
[vii] I Peter 4: 7, 10.
[viii] I am by no means saying a death toll of 6 million is “not so bad” and of course the numbers are still rising. It is horrifically tragic. The point here is that although there have been larger disasters, the difference in this one is that it not regionally limited. It is global. HIV/AIDS was also global, and it killed 25 million just between 1981 and 2012 when the number of deaths per year began to decline. But major segments of the population still felt they were not at risk. In this case, we all fee7,10l at risk and are more directly impacted by social distancing.