The following sermon was given during Lent of 2016 by The Rev. Nathaniel S. Anderson - Pastor of Church of the Epiphany-Christ the King in Wilbraham. Pastor Nathaniel and his wife Carolyn Starz are the proud parents of Inga, born February 2017 and James, stillborn at 34 weeks in November 2015.
As a part of your seminary training, Lutherans and Episcopalians (and pretty much every stripe of Christian) spend one summer as a hospital chaplain. Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE as it is called, is a bit of baptism by fire - you’re thrown into patient rooms with nothing but a prayer book and a name tag. As the low chaplains on the totem pole, your first unit of CPE usually means being on call once a week during the overnight hours. You sleep in the hospital, usually with one eye open, as you wait for the pager to wake you from some very poor sleep. I spent roughly a dozen nights on call and I saw everything from sudden deaths and traumas to an urgent call from a nurse in the Emergency Department who was convinced a patient was possessed by the devil. Literally 5 minutes into my first ever night on call, I walked through the doors in my collar, and was immediately asked, “Father, would you please perform an exorcism?” My classmates still laugh about that one. Despite quickly becoming experienced at handling intense situations, I was still anxious just about every night I was on call. Each and every night I prayed the same prayer, “Please God, don’t let a baby die tonight. There’s no way I can handle that. I won’t know what to say.” I never expected that one day I would be standing over Carolyn’s bed after we lost our son James, facing a just-jostled-from-sleep chaplain intern confronting that very situation.
Everyone knows there are certain things you just don’t say when a baby dies. Especially as the chaplain. Silence is preferable to easy answers or saying ‘something.’ I’m pretty sure every chaplaincy department drills that into you on the first day. And yet early that morning, the chaplain that met us apparently didn’t get the memo.
“Well,” she said, “Though we can’t say how, we know that this is a part of God’s plan.”
Normally, when a chaplain utters such a simplistic and insensitive platitude, those on the receiving end rip them apart. And yet, seeing her discomfort, the deer in the headlights look in her eyes, her complete inability to do or say anything else, Carolyn and I could only feel sorry for her. This chaplain was completely overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. And I’m almost certain if I had been in her shoes during my first year of seminary, I wouldn’t have done any better. Ideally, I would have just kept quiet. But I don’t know.
When I first came back from my leave of absence, I said that it would be a while before I could talk about what happened with James. And quite frankly, I’d rather not talk about something so raw and painful. But with this morning’s Epistle from 1 Corinthians, I feel compelled to address this. Because, unfortunately, these words from St. Paul are so often misunderstood and used to perpetuate incorrect and unfaithful interpretations of how we deal with tragedy. This reading brings to mind several unhelpful and grossly incorrect sentiments. These include:
“God is testing you.”
“You must have done something wrong and are being punished.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
And, “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”
Most pastors have a very specific theological term to describe these type of sayings:
“God is testing you”
First, I’d like to address the notion that God tests or punishes us. Jesus himself dismisses these claims out of hand in our Gospel reading. Jesus recounts a couple of recent tragedies - Jews that were killed by Pontius Pilate, as well a freak accident - the tower of Siloam falling and killing eighteen innocent people. The common thinking at the time was that such events were not accidents or simply the actions of an evil man, but rather were retribution for some affront against God. Jesus asks the crowd, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than [anyone else]?” Jesus decisively answers his own question, “No, I tell you.” Jesus is clear - such tragedies are not punishment for sin, but rather death is an inevitable reality of our existence. In addition, we need only look at Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, our reading from two weeks ago and a central theme to our Lenten observance, to address this notion that “God is testing you.” Jesus is brought into the wilderness and tempted, not by God, but by Satan. And when the Devil encourages Jesus to test God, Jesus replies decisively that we are not to put God to the test. While events and issues in our lives may test our faith, that is in no way the same as God himself doing the testing.
“God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”
Next, and somewhat related, the middle part of 1 Corinthians 10:13 may bring to mind this trite expression. Paul writes, “And he will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” It’s important to note that this tangental section of 1st Corinthians comes about when Paul is discussing one of the many controversies in the church at Corinth. Specifically, is it ok to eat meat that was previously sacrificed to idols. Paul is describing the temptation to eat food that is not kosher. This is far from a struggle with crushing adversity. It also must be said that Paul had nothing close to our modern understanding of mental health — no one was overdosing. And when you consider all that Paul did not experience — how privileged he was as a Roman citizen, how he wrote these words before enduring his most arduous trials, we must consider the obvious possibility that Paul was just wrong. Never let anyone tell you that “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Because it isn’t God who causes us to suffer, and there are indeed situations, circumstances and illnesses that are far beyond what any one person can reasonably be expected to handle. If you feel overwhelmed and without hope, ask for help. Seek treatment. Look for support. This is not evidence of a weak faith but rather a courageous step toward healing and wholeness.
“Everything happens for a reason /
It’s all part of God’s plan”
And of course, this unhelpful sentiment uttered by that chaplain. Such a view implies that God wanted our son James to die. That God wants children to go hungry, and cancer to kill and addiction to ravage. All to fulfill some greater purpose. Brothers and sisters, I do not believe in that God. Instead, I believe in a God who takes all that is evil and wrong in our world and transforms it into something good. I believe in a God that took something as horrible as the death of Jesus on the cross and transformed it into the means of our salvation. I believe in a God who promises that the dead will be raised, that war will cease, that the hungry will be fed and the poor lifted up. The Easter promise is one of redemption — of God transforming our world and our lives. The work of our Lord Jesus, who, as our Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “Will change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.”
Those who have been there
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t hold up the beginning part of verse 13. “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” This has been one of the most striking realizations following James’ death. As horrible as the experience has been, we are not alone. I have found great support in the nearly dozen women within our very parish who have suffered a stillborn loss. And many others who have struggled with miscarriage. Beyond this specific type of loss, I’m amazed when I look around this church and see so many who have lost a spouse or a parent or a child. Amidst the fog of our grief, I wonder, “How do you keep going? How have you found that ‘new normal’ in your life?” I have heard from so many of you who know exactly what we’re going through, or who have experienced something equally as devastating, and heard that, “It gets better. It takes a long time, but it gets better.” And I find great hope in that. That though death and loss and suffering are an inescapable part of our human experience, that somehow, and by the grace of God, we move forward.
The chaplain who met with us in the hospital didn’t know what to say — and she didn’t need to say anything. Sometimes there is nothing you can or should say. The death of our son continues to be a struggle for us. When I preach words about the hope and promise of God, at times I believe them stronger than ever — and at other times I’m preaching to myself and need to hear these words as much as anyone of you in the pews. But in many ways, I’ve come to the realization of my ultimate and overwhelming dependence on the Gospel. How I really need to believe this stuff. Really need to place my hope in these promises. Before this, life was easy, I had never suffered any major setback, it was easy to be happy and carefree. I can no longer say that. Like so many of you I have suffered and cried out to God in despair. My faith has been tested. And yet I know that it is not God who tests me, but rather God who stands by me and supports me. God who hears my questions and my anger and my praise. God who promises that at the last day, our beloved James, and all of us, will know God’s ultimate redemption. Amen.