The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH

Delivered 1/28/01
Text: Matthew 7:24-27
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I am sure you have been hearing the reports coming from western India these past few days. Horrible earthquake, the worst in that nation in 50 years - 7.9 on the Richter scale, strong enough to be felt 1,200 miles away in Calcutta and Bangladesh, both well acquainted with tragedy themselves. Funeral pyres lit the night sky Saturday and officials said the rapidly rising death toll could reach 15,000.(1) Who knows how many more injured. So sad.

In the midst of those reports you may have also heard a reminder of another disaster, one that we all experienced 15 years ago today, the explosion of our space shuttle Challenger. Fifteen years ago. Seems like only yesterday. If I asked you where you were and what you were doing at a certain time three days ago, you might have to think a bit to recall it. But if I asked you who are old enough what you were doing when you heard about the shuttle or that President Kennedy had been shot or that Franklin Roosevelt had died, you probably could answer. It would be the same if I asked about the death of a member of your own family. They become events that stay with us for reasons that are too deep to explain.

I was in my study working on my sermon for the coming Sunday the day Challenger exploded (and as today, I ended up preaching a very different one than I had originally planned). I remember that there was a good deal of activity outside my door because members of the congregation were parading past coming in to look at family portraits that had been taken for the church's new pictorial directory. It had been a right jolly morning -- people enjoy seeing photographs of themselves and their families. But then, suddenly, it all changed. Someone came in and said, "Did you hear? The shuttle blew up."

As I recall, I was not even aware that it had taken off. Space flights had become routine. About the only awareness that I (and I suspect most of the nation) had of this particular mission was that it's take-off had been delayed five different times for one reason or another, and for the first time, one of US, a civilian, a social studies teacher by the name of Christa McAuliffe on what she had called "the ultimate field trip," was going to be a member of the crew. Then, those awful words: "Did you hear? The shuttle blew up?"

As soon as I could, I got to a television set, probably as most of the nation did as well. The videotapes: the picture-perfect liftoff, the billows of white smoke filling the blue coastal sky, and then that flash of orange and red, sparks billowing away from the space craft looking like some gigantic conclusion to a Fourth of July picnic. Then there were more pictures, pictures of spectators at the launch site -- people who indeed WERE in a picnic atmosphere as they watched their friends and relatives take off on their magnificent adventure, but whose joyous expressions turned ashen as they realized the enormity of the tragedy they had just watched with their own eyes. I remember watching as their eyes began to fill with tears. I kept watching as I felt my OWN eyes do the same, as the lump grew in my throat. "Did you hear? The shuttle blew up." From triumph to tragedy in a minute and twelve seconds...and not just for the crew and their families, for all of us.

No man is an island,
No man stands alone;
Each man's joy is joy to me,
Each man's grief is my own.

It hurt. It hurt seeing the pictures of the astronauts at their nervous breakfast...both happy and anxious at the same time. It hurt seeing the replays of the interviews that each of the crew members had given to the media at various times, their excitement masked by a smooth professionalism. All but Christa - HER excitement was not masked by anything. It hurt to think that such a vivacious and delightful all--American girl would never get to teach those lessons she had planned from space.

But life goes on, hurt or no. As much as I would have liked to, I could not simply plant myself in front of the television for the rest of the day. There was work to be done. Still, every chance I got, I would steal away for a few minutes to see if there were any new information about what had occurred. Of course, there was none. It had all happened too suddenly -- no warning. All that we were hearing was the somber reflection of people who had been close to the astronauts and the space program.

I remember hearing Ohios Senator John Glenn, the first American ever to orbit the earth, and who would do it again at age 77 in 1998, saying, "I guess we always knew there would be a day like this." But what had made this day so shocking was that we had come to expect perfection. We had become accustomed to triumph, and now we were confronted with tragedy.

Of course, thousands of homes across our land go from triumph to tragedy daily. A father suffers a massive heart attack; a mother succumbs to a fast-moving cancer; a little child is crushed to death under the wheels of a car she never even saw. From triumph to tragedy in a flash. Alfred Lord Tennyson said it best in his poem, "In Memorium": "Never morning wore to evening, But some heart did break."

Among the parables that Chinese teachers use is the story of a woman who lost an only son. She was grief--stricken out of all reason. Eventually, she went to a wise old philosopher who said to her, "I will give you back your son if you will bring me some mustard seed. However, the seed must come from a home where there has never been any sorrow."

Eagerly she started her search, going from house to house. In every case she learned that a loved one had been lost. Finally, the truth dawned on her. "How selfish I have been," she said. "Sorrow is common to all."

Hearts break every day - perhaps yours...and not just because of sudden death -- a marriage that had held such hope and promise falls apart; a home into which great love and care had been invested burns to the ground, a total loss; a precious possession that is prized for more than just its monetary value is stolen by a sneak thief. The problem is that we do not expect it to happen. We do not worry about those things. We just assume that everything will be all right despite all the evidence to the contrary. As a matter of fact, we consider it our DUE. Even in the Declaration of Independence we find that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are described as "unalienable rights," rights that can never be taken away. We EXPECT triumph. But, far too often, we are confronted with tragedy.

And then come those same questions that people raise, not only in the face of a disaster like the Challenger or a horror such as people are experiencing in India, but anytime calamity strikes: Why? How could a good God allow such a thing? The feeling comes that if God is REALLY God, if God is REALLY in control, then God is not good. Or the other side of that coin - if God is really GOOD, and all these things happen anyway, then God is not God because there are things that are beyond divine control. As Woody Allen has said, "God is an underachiever."

Those are not new issues. They are as old as human existence. The book of Job is really one long compendium of the questions people raise when confronted with catastrophe: Why? Why me? Why him? Why them?

Jobs story, of course, is one with which we are all familiar. Here was a successful and prosperous man, a man whose life was one triumph after another, suddenly confronted with the destruction of his property, the death of his children, and finally the loss of his own health -- more suffering in a short time than most of us ever endure in our entire lives. And he and his friends raised those same questions.

Finally, after Job and his friends had talked enough, the voice of God broke in. "Tell me, Job, where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who hung the stars in the sky and how did he do it? Who tells the dawn to break and the night to fall, and how does it happen? How does the wind work? How many clouds are there?" One unanswerable question after another with Job finally responding, "Gee, Lord, I guess there is a lot about life I cannot answer." And the Lord says. "Right. There is a lot you will NOT be able to answer."

The message of the book of Job is that there are indeed things that we will never know -- at least in this life -- things that are beyond our understanding. Our call is to not lose our faith in the face of them, not to begin foolishly blaming God for whatever is not to our satisfaction in this world. As Job said, "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him."(2)

It was that same kind of trust that sent Jesus to the cross. The gospels make clear that Jesus had no desire to be tortured or to die -- no sane person would. But he endured it...and the tragedy of Good Friday turned into the triumph of Easter. How could that have happened? I do not know. God does. And that is all that matters.

The danger we face in dealing with disaster is the same one that Job faced -- loss of faith. It is not an unusual problem. Jesus himself talked about it 2,000 years ago. He described two people; both normal, everyday folks; both of whom eventually were confronted with those overwhelming problems that inevitably confront us all at some time or another. For the one, the problem became too much -- there was no loving God whose provision could be counted on to see him through the shadowy valleys or deep waters -- his life had no solid foundation. It was built on "sand" and crumbled under the waves of misfortune.

But the other had rested his life on the firm foundation of a faith in a living, loving Lord who could be trusted for deliverance even in the face of the most awesome disaster. There was no temptation to find fault with God, just a resolute reliance on the continuing care and love of the one whom scripture describes as the personification of love.

Yes, there will be some who might lose faith because of the tragedies that occasionally (and too often) occur. But for those of us who call ourselves Christian, that should not be a problem. After all, it is Christians who sing:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame.
But wholly lean on Jesus name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.(3)



On the night of the Challenger disaster, President Reagan spoke to the nation. It was to have been his State of the Union address, but that plan was changed. He reflected on the events of that day and then said, "I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them." Then he concluded, "The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"(4)

From triumph to tragedy in a minute and twelve seconds, fifteen years ago today. I have no idea why God allowed it, nor this week's horror in India, nor the earthquake two weeks ago in El Salvador nor so many of the tragedies we encounter in life. But I do know this...and I know it with every fibre of my being. This is gospel. I know that my God brings triumph out of tragedy. God always does. God always does.

Amen!


1. http://www.cnn.com/

2. Job 13:15

3. Edward Mote, "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less"

4. http://reagan.webteamone.com/

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