You asked for it – Why do good things happen to bad people?

FUMC_Web-Header-july19_1400x733Scripture – Psalm 1

One of my favorite passages by writer Anne Lamott is when she talks about the school lunch. I’ve shared before from her book Bird by Bird, where she says that school lunches “only looked like a bunch of kids eating lunch. [But] it was really about opening our insides in front of everyone. . . . The contents of your lunch said whether or not you and your family were Okay. Some bag lunches, like some people, were Okay, and some weren’t. There was a code, a right and acceptable way. It was that simple. . . .you didn’t want it to look like Jughead had made your lunch.  If there was one thing you prayed for, it was that a code lunch suggested that someone in your family was paying attention, even if in your heart you knew your parents were messing up left and right.”

There’s a code and a pattern to school lunch.  A right and wrong way to do bag lunches at our workplaces, even. There’s the same code in our families.

When we eat together, we know we’ll bring a dessert, we know Aunt Molly will bring a salad. We know Cousin Eddie will bring a warm can of soda from the backseat of the car. There’s a pattern, a shared expectation, of how the meal will go.

We’re used to patterns. And so when patterns don’t work out for us, we get out of sorts.

  • Those of us who grew up in America grew up with the American dream. That if we work hard, we’ll be rewarded.
  • Those of us who grew up in colonial America with the Protestant Work Ethic believed that our duty is to work hard and that success is a sign of God’s favor. I’m not saying any of you were around in colonial america times, just that it’s part of our DNA.

We know these codes and patterns and they give us guidance and drive and occasionally comfort.

The people in the Bible lived and died by these patterns. In tribal societies, that tribe’s code of conduct and patterns of living defined them against all others. And we are part of the heritage of one tribe that God saw had the potential to be a great one. The Hebrew people had the 10 commandments, they had Leviticus and the purity codes, and all sorts of patterns and expectations. Like the school lunch turning our insides out, the way they lived and ate showed the rest who they were.

This all sounds great until you were the one on the wrong side of the code. You could be outcast and cast out of the tribe, or made to do some penance.

So the Psalm for today seems to be describing the two types of people and you didn’t want to be one of them. It’s another code.

  • If you were good in God’s eyes, you are like the tree planted by the water, you tree bore fruit, good things would happen to you.
  • If you were not good in God’s eyes, then you would be like the chaff blown from one side to the other.

This was the code. The pattern. The people and nations who were good with God had good things happen to them. In Scripture, if you were good, you were rewarded. This doesn’t mean perfect. Most of the leaders in Israel were flawed people, but they were described as faithful. If you were not faithful, then you weren’t planted by God’s water. But if you were faithful, then good things happened to you.


This code, this pattern, doesn’t seem to work for us today. The sermon title is Why do Good Things Happen to Bad People. Because they do. The bad guys get away with it.

  • The people who murder African Americans get away with it.
  • The corporations avoid the fines they deserve for destroying an ecological area, or learn nothing and live to have an oil spill another day.
  • The divide between the 1% and the 99% grows by the day.
  • Nine transgender young people have taken their lives in 2015 alone…that we know of.
  • We read those in the news, but even worse are the ones that we actually know.
  • The drunk driver who walked away from an accident after devastating a family.
  • The cyclist killed in the bike lane by a hit-and-run.

These seemed to end up worse for the innocent and the good people than they did for the others.

So our experience doesn’t match Scripture. It doesn’t match the Protestant Work Ethic. And it doesn’t match the American Dream. The disconnect between Scripture and Reality causes us to question God’s goodness, whether God cares. We wonder why God allows good things to happen to bad people, and bad things to happen to less bad people.

In our history, we’ve come up with many ideas. Thomas Jay Oord, a Nazarene theologian, outlines these in one of his works on theodicy, meaning “how evil exists alongside God’s goodness.” He notes that throughout history, a variety of reasons have been suggested for why a powerful and loving God does not prevent evil. Some theologians, like Augustine, have rejected the idea that any genuinely evil event ever occurs. Similarly, Ireneaus and John Hick see all negative events are finally means for producing the human character that God desires. “What now threatens us as final evil,” proposes Hick, “will prove to have been interim evil out of which good will in the end have been brought.”

For these folks, pain and suffering are merely instrumental for securing some greater good. In the words of the old Steve Miller Band song, “You’ve got to go through hell before you get to heaven.” In the words of a more contemporary theologian to this 35 year old, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller.” At their best, these ideas seem to say to wait it out and good will triumph in the end no matter your present groanings, as Romans would say.

I can’t buy into this that God stands by, able to intercede, and chooses not to.

I find more credibility in believing that God is interceding all the while, guiding us away from wrath and abuse and violence, and some people can hear that better than others.

This is the parallel half of last week’s sermon. We talked a bit last week about praying to God for healing, and most of us when we pray we do pray for healing, but second-place, I suspect, is prayers for justice. For God to intervene and like Thor throw down lightning bolts if study greco-roman history, or a really big hammer if you just read comic books. We ended up, or at least I did and the three of you still awake might have, we ended up with that a community of healing best lives out God’s healing powers by being attentive to one another’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

A small tweak to last week’s quote attributed to Albert Einstein: There are only
two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing will be just. The other is
as though everything could be.

Maybe the Psalm isn’t about what God will do. Maybe it’s about us.

No matter what comes our way, if our roots are in God’s love and grace, we’ll be able to find the best way through it. We may get struck by lightning, endure a drought, get scuffed up. But we’ll have the nourishment to keep us going longer than otherwise.

The chaff isn’t connected at all. I’m from Oklahoma and I think of the westerns where you’ve got two gunslingers squaring off, it’s high noon, and what tumbles by? A tumbleweed. A former bush that dried up due to lack of rain, then its roots were too shallow and it became dislodged, tumbling from Western scene to western scene.

When we aren’t connected to God’s everflowing stream, we can tumble from this way to that. And one of the ways we tumble is from concept of God to concept of God. You here have found an image of God and an expression of God’s community that is found in the heartbeat of this church. From the ways how we worship, from the ways how we celebrate classical music, from the ways how we live beyond our walls in outreach, from the ways how we have multitudes or gaggles of children, you’ve found an image of God that resonates with you. And I’m thankful.

I’ve found it illuminating that at Barnes and Noble and Borders and everywhere except Powells, the Religion section is right next to the self-help section. At Powell’s its next to the Recovery section, which makes much more sense to me. But everywhere else it is self-help. We find the concept of God that most speaks to us. You may believe that all the events of today and yesterday have a purpose. That’s fine. For me, I have a different image of God and that came from a person experiencing homelessness who was on a MAX train.

Many of you know that I take public transit, the MAX, almost every day as I commute from Beaverton to the, gosh, the MAX train stop is so far away from the church. As a raging extrovert, I sometimes chat it up with the poor individual next to me who left his headphones at home that day. Anyway, I was chatting with a guy who was a former paratrooper who would jump out of an aircraft and parachute into armed conflict. We totally have the same job.

He was telling me of a training exercise that went awry. His squad jumped out of the plane and one of his squadmates’ parachutes didn’t open. He had already pulled his chute and could only watch helplessly as his teammate fell too fast down. Suddenly, another soldier rocketed closer and closer to get to him and the ground got closer and closer, they finally met, embraced, and then the parachute pulled. They landed quite roughly and both had to be evac’d and convalesced at the hospital for a few days. The man on the train said that he visited and asked the one soldier why he was able to get to the other so fast in order to save him.

The soldier looked him in the eye and said “I wasn’t trying to get to him to save him. I was trying to get to him so that he didn’t have to die alone.”

That’s an image of God with us that sticks with me. God who doesn’t cause bad things to happen. God who doesn’t punish us. But God who is with us even when others are not, even when our family and friends are not, even when like Job it feels like we’ve lost everything–God is with us.

God is with us when we make those small choices each day to seek a more just society that doesn’t wander why bad things happen anymore.

That same mouse click or tap on the phone that lets me express my outrage on Facebook, I can use that same action to join a movement or start a movement, or to donate to those already in it.

That same shrug at work at a co-workers insensitivities could become a shake of the head and a healing conversation.

That same time spent on entertainment could be spent (in balance) on sitting with others in need.

It doesn’t have to feel like you are saving this person. It just has to feel like you don’t want them to go through life alone.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Comments are closed.