In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I do have a sermon written for this morning, but right now I’ll just talk off the top of my head about what’s on people’s minds, the recent event to which so many in our community have responded, Thursday’s accident that killed a Roman Catholic priest practically at our front door, Father Michael Kelly, pastor of St. Francis deSales in Purcellville. He was a good priest, his people loved him, as we’ve read in the papers including the front page of the Metro section of yesterday’s Washington Post.
Like some of us he had a late vocational calling. He was born in Long Beach and grew up in the Marine Corps with his parents, his father being a career Marine though for some reason Michael went into Naval intelligence service. Left the Navy and went into consulting work in defense. His father, retired, started a consulting firm in Arlington. Michael went into his father’s outfit but later decided to test his vocation for the priesthood. He was ordained a Roman Catholic Priest in 1996, age 39.
He served several parishes around Washington and Arlington, was at St. Francis in Purcellville for the last three years. This past Thursday at 9.30 a.m. he was driving south on Route 704, Harmony Church Road (ironic name) right between us and Dr. Joe Rogers, going to the burial office for another priest. Remember that morning four days ago? There was a lot of wind. A tree was down across 704 so Fr. Michael stopped and got out and tried to clear the road for the safety of others, a good deed. It was his last.
Another car stopped behind him, driver got out to help him, but while Fr. Michael was clearing the road another tree fell down and killed him dead! Dead on the ground! Yesterday there was still his blood all over the road. This raised all kinds of questions for some people. It was certainly a traumatic blow for the people and other priests at St. Francis deSales, and for Purcellville. Out thoughts and prayers go out to all of them on this sudden unexpected loss. He was known as ‘a good guy.’ He was 52 years old when he was killed but seemed younger, he had endeared himself to people within the whole community by riding his bicycle all over the place. He also, just for fun, adorned his bike with side-boards representing the fuselages of various World War I and II airplanes. He rode them in parades in Purcellville. They all enjoyed it. He was known for waving at kids on school buses. He talked with people on the street, anyone he met. People loved him. He was a feisty guy.
The theological question – because our important questions are in fact theological – the point that’s really underlying the emotional question here is an anguished shout, “It’s not fair!” After today’s 8 o’clock service some of our members kept me in conversation for maybe 15 minutes on the same point, asking the same question. It’s suggested by a comment one St. Francis parishioner made to a Post reporter, saying that “I guess God needed a good priest, so he took Father Michael.”
Let that sink in! This is rank heresy. This is a most horrible insult to God Almighty, to accuse Him of such a thing, no matter what emotional stress or really bad teaching prompted her to say it. God doesn’t need good priests in Heaven – God needs good priests in Purcellville… Right? God knows that, and I hope all parishioners at St. Francis will soon understand that: God didn’t kill Father Michael Kelly… a tree killed Father Michael Kelly… OK?
Why did that tree fall? Because this is a fallen world. God didn’t send the serpent into the Garden of Eden to cause trouble. Evil does exist. Right and wrong do exist. We can not ascribe to God everything that goes wrong in our lives or in the world. Saying “I can’t help it” or “The devil made me do it” is bad, but to say that God made me do it, that God controls every decision and every action, is far worse, is totally contrary to everything in the New Testament which continually calls us to choose Jesus Christ, necessarily both assuming and presuming that we are free to choose.
We are given free will or we wouldn’t be able to choose to love, but we misuse and abuse our freedom. We must not blame God for our mistakes… Right? God made this world to be perfect for us. God made Eden to be good, and good for us – I’m convinced that there was no poison ivy in the Garden of Eden – but we blew it! We had it, but we fouled up, we sinned, we put our pride, ego, our wishes first, and we’ve been paying for it every since. So we have to live with poison ivy – but don’t blame God.
The idea that God needed a good priest so He took Father Michael? Let’s narrow this down from the absolutely ridiculous to a very much more personal question. A woman recently told me that “My grandmother is ‘X’ years old and she has no quality of life. She’s cognizant but totally incompetent, bed-ridden and fed by a tube, drained by other tubes, immobile… But her mind is clear, she knows exactly what they, what we, are doing to her. And for months now she tells me whenever I see her, ‘I’m praying to die. Enough. Enough of this. I want to die. I pray to die. Will you pray to God for me to die soon?’” And the anguished woman with whom I was speaking always answers, “Yes, Gran, I love you, and I pray to God every night for to to die.” Then she asked me, “Lige, is it a sin to pray for someone to die?”
Do we imagine that this is some sadistic whim of God Almighty, to keep this woman alive in a world where she doesn’t want to be? Or to make her ill in the first place? That she suffer here when she really wants to be living in joy in a better place? Is this God’s will? NO! We must not… we must not, fall into thinking that everything that happens is caused, willed, “predestined” by God. If you’re going to say this, then you have to believe that God wanted Hitler – God wanted your parents dead – God wanted our children to die… This is nonsense, if we’ll stop and put it into any kind of perspective. This would have God decide every election!
If we look beyond the gruesome death of Father Michael Kelly, look at the whole human situation even within our own personal knowledge, our families, people we know about, we’ll see that to say God wills all these happenings is not only confusion but heresy. What kind of God are we talking about? NO! We’ve been given free will and we make mistakes, and we do wrong. We’re living in a fallen world where there is poison ivy, and every tree will eventually fall. And even your nicest, most beloved dog or cat will kill anything he or she can catch. They are hunters, carnivores. We live with that. We have to realize, and I’ve said it before: God is not the master planner who has every detail planned, predestined and plotted in advance, because that would mean that He’s responsible not only for everything that (from our point of view) goes wrong or is ‘bad,’ God responsible not only for the tree that falls on Father Michael but also for every mistake you and I make. Are you going to blame God for what you’ve chosen to do?
Be clear: God is not The Master Planner – in a world of free will and entropy, of matter and minds that decay, God is, God has to be… The Master Improviser! You and I continually foul up. Trees continually fall. As Anita said when we first heard about Father Michael, remember the Tower of Siloam – it fell and killed 17 people (Luke 13:5, look it up). People asked Jesus, in effect, ‘Was this God’s doing?” and Jesus said “ No – Do you think that those 17 were the worst sinners in all of Jerusalem?” This would mean that God had somehow plotted and planned and selected the worst 17 sinners in all of Jerusalem, and got them all together on one spot, and than made the tower fall on them. Jesus, by putting it this way, without driving the point any further made them realize how totally ridiculous the theological presupposition is, that everything that goes ‘wrong’ is God’s will, or a punishment for individual sin? Towers and trees do fall, even on priests.
God is not a master planner: God has a goal, which is to get human souls intact, put together, healed, loving Him and then loving each other with Him in Heaven forever. That’s His goal, but a goal and a plan are two different things: in pursuing His goal He then has to be The Master Improviser. Because of our free will, it’s like picking up quicksilver off a hardwood floor. We constantly “do our own things,” and God constantly improvises how to bring some good out of the messes we make. Romans 8:28 properly reads “that in everything God works for good,” not the same as Him causing everything so that He can rescue it. If you and I didn’t make messes of our lives then we wouldn’t be here in church repenting because we wouldn’t be regretting, and we wouldn’t be living in hope pf forgiveness because nothing would our fault.
I hope you know this? I hope you don’t think God goes around causing cancer or killing priests or causing drunk drivers to kill children at a a bus stop. I hope you’re never tempted into the cheap cliché of saying “It’s God’s will.” When we say that we’re really saying “I have no answer for your question, so shut up!” This is a fallen world, a mortal killing world, which is why we need a Saviour.to come to us, as at this Christmas season and every day. In Him we can rejoice, we can live in the ambiguity of our messed-up situation, and give thanks to God for what He has already done, and trust Him for our futures, and pray to Him now and tomorrow for healing, rescue, and salvation,
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.