Sermon for Matins

12 September 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for Matins, 12 September 2004, Westminster Abbey

by the Reverend Dr. Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

Readings: Is 44:24-45:8; Rev 12:1-12

This time last week we were still trying to come to terms with the first shock of the news about the violent end to the school-siege at Beslan; today the news is dominated by the violence of Hurricane Ivan which has left more than two-thirds of Grenada’s population homeless, devastated parts of Jamaica and is now strengthening as it moves on to the Cayman islands and Cuba. This is the background against which we heard this morning:

I am the Lord, and there is no other,

Besides me there is no God…

I am the Lord and there is no other.

I form light and create darkness,

I make weal and create woe,

I am the Lord, who do all these things. (Is 45:7)

It seemed a cruel irony that on Monday, as the first burials took place in Beslan, the rain poured down, when last week, during the siege of the school, the children suffered from the extreme heat. And we know that those who will suffer most greatly, as Hurricane Ivan moves across the islands of the West Indies and into Florida, will be the poorest. Of course, we find ourselves asking yet again how God could let these things happen.

And of course I do not have a ready answer. All I can do is to share with you my own thinking as I have tried to come to terms with these events in my own heart and mind this week.

One answer that is sometimes given is that there has to be suffering so we can learn virtues like compassion. If there were no evil, we would not learn the value of good. The knockout response to this is, for me, given by Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, when he debates these questions with his younger brother, Alyosha,

‘Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but to do that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one tiny creature, the little girl who beat her breast with her little fist, and to found the edifice on her unavenged tears – would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me and do not lie!’

‘No, I wouldn’t,’ Alyosha said softly.

‘And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness at the price of the unjustly shed blood of the little tortured child and having accepted it, to remain for ever happy?’

‘No, I can’t admit it, Ivan,’ Alyosha said suddenly with flashing eyes.

F. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. David Magarshack
(London: Penguin, 1958), 2 vols, vol. 1, 5:4 ‘Rebellion’ pp. 287-8.

Ivan’s response to the problem of human suffering has been to ‘hand in his ticket’. He wants nothing to do with a God who seems to approve the torture of innocents. His brother, Alyosha, tries, not very successfully, to defend God. Sydney Carter put the thoughts of many of us into words when he made the dying thief say on the cross:

‘It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me,
I said to the carpenter, a-hanging on the tree.’

We could be fatalists, and say that, since God makes both weal and woe, we just have to accept whatever comes from his hand. We could even say that though suffering seems to us to be shocking and destructive, we only see part of the picture, and in the end it will prove to have been good – but all our moral instincts rebel against this. Nobody is going to persuade us that what happened in Beslan or in Grenada in the last few days, or in New York at the twin Towers three years ago, was actually good. If God indeed ‘makes weal and creates woe’, surely the woe created by a good God could only be the woe he was in some way unable to prevent. Christians have found it quite impossible to believe that God could positively desire anybody’s suffering, especially the suffering of a little child, to achieve a good outcome. It makes much more sense to say that if God is good, he is, for some reason we do not understand, unable at this time to bring his good purposes to fulfilment. At this moment there is a cosmic battle going on between good and evil and we are in the middle of it, much as we read in the second lesson: ‘Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’ (Rev 12:12) The picture in Revelation is of the death-throes of evil on the earth. There is no question for the author of Revelation that God is bringing all things to a good outcome, but until that outcome is complete the saints on earth have to remain faithful through real suffering and real persecution.

No doubt this rings true to our experience; the problem is – when we see the level of human suffering, as we have done this week - whether we can tolerate the picture of a God who lets this happen as he brings his purposes to completion. It is this that Ivan rejects, preferring to reject God altogether, than to accept a God who tolerates or might even desire innocent suffering.

Surely, as believers, we have to some extent to go down Ivan’s road. We have to ask whether the human agony we have seen so graphically in the last couple of weeks can be reconciled with belief in a loving God. We all know people, who, in the face of some awful event or suffering, like Ivan, have simply decided to hand in their ticket – and who can blame them for that?

Yet, before we do hand in the ticket, we ought to count the cost. When the problem of evil threatens to engulf my faith, I find myself coming back to the problem of good, and the problem of beauty. If God is dead, said Dostoyevsky, everything is permitted; but I simply cannot believe that the torture of a child is anything but a terrible, terrible evil; and that the care which some of the adults, and indeed some of the children, showed in the hell of Beslan was anything other than a good which shone through the darkness and in some sense overcame it. We don’t live in a world where we make up the moral rules, however hazy we might be about what some of those rules may be. We have a kind of instinct for compassion, and courage, generosity, truth and love which is not arbitrary: these things speak to us of the deepest realities of our human condition.

Which is not to say they are sure to triumph in the end. At the moment they seem locked in a cosmic conflict, in which even the weather is involved. In human terms, the outlook for our species is pretty dark, as it always has been; but I do not believe we have to deal only in human terms. I turn to Christ because without Christ evil wins out. Without Christ, one can see as many beautiful sunsets as one likes, and witness as many good deeds, but the sheer hell of Beslan or Auschwitz or the deadly power of a hurricane gives the lie to the presence of a loving, heavenly father. With Christ, though, it begins to look different. We may catch a glimpse of the costly love of the father shining through the self-giving of the beloved son.

This is not an intellectual, not a philosophical, answer to the problem of evil and suffering. I don’t know one – but entering into the mystery of God’s suffering is a way of living in the tension between all that speaks to us of the goodness of the Creator - a goodness reflected in the innocence and beauty of children - and the hatred or disaster which can turn that to fear and anguish in a moment. Last week, Bishop Teofan, the bishop whose diocese includes Beslan, was speaking about his experience of the siege. Describing how he offered himself as a mediator and then brought out wounded and dead children from the school, he said ‘I carried those children in my arms. I closed the eyes of the parents whom the terrorists killed in front of their children.’ (Tablet, 11 September 2004, 28)

That any human being should have to do that is an indictment of God. It is also an indictment of humanity. Bishop Teofan might long ago have handed in his ticket, and then what would he have had to offer in that situation? What he did seems to me precisely to demonstrate the power of the cross, through its ministers, to bring healing in the midst of death. It is an outrage, an enormity, that any person should have to carry the bodies of children to their parents, or close the eyes of parents killed in front of their children. Yet, if it has to be done, let it be done without facile optimism, without bitterness, with the greatest tenderness and love. Let it be done with the words of the Crucified: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

You have come here this morning, I guess, because you are not willing to hand in your ticket. You may want in prayer and meditation and anger to hold God to account for what you have seen this week, but, like Jesus in the garden, you will not, I hope, in the end, abandon God, for to abandon God would be to abandon your own deepest identity as a moral and sentient human being. When I think about handing in my ticket, I come back to the time when many of Jesus’ wider circle of disciples were doing just that, and he asked the Twelve, ‘Will you also go away?’ Peter answered, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (Jn 6:68) May we all, as we struggle with the identity of the God who is Lord of all, find in the words of the Crucified, the light that we need, the words of judgment and healing that are for us the words of Eternal Life.

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