Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 7 February 2010
7 February 2010 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster
Readings: Gen 2:4b-9; 15-end; Rev. 4; Luke 8: 22-25
The collect this morning makes today’s theme very clear: ‘Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children …’. The teaching that everyone, women and men, poor and rich, of every skin colour and race, is made in the image of God is a vital part of the Christian message. Each one of us is of infinite value – but precisely because each one of us is of infinite value it becomes that much harder to discern God’s hands in all his works. This is what I want to talk about this morning.
Our first reading began, ‘In the day that the Lord made the earth and the heavens …’ and went to talk about how the Lord made human beings, as the liturgy says – ‘the crown of all creation’. The second reading celebrates the end of creation, when God is praised in heaven with the words, ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’ The Gospel reading showed us Jesus asleep in the boat when a storm blew up on the sea of Galilee and the disciples woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing.’ We heard how Jesus ‘woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves: they ceased and there was a calm. … Then [the disciples] were amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”’ In different ways, our three readings celebrated the sovereignty of God over creation at the beginning of time, in time, and at the end of time.
But how, I wonder, would we read these words if we were in Haiti, or anywhere else that has been devastated by a huge earthquake, or volcanic eruption, or great storm? If Jesus had the power to calm the wind and the waves, showing himself to be at one with God the creator of wind and water, how can he, and how can God, allow a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti? Thousands have died; many are still dying for lack of water and medical help; children are suffering along with adults – and all this in one of the poorest capital cities on earth. Nobody has been spared: women and men, poor and rich, priests, nuns, aid workers, teachers and doctors – all made in the image of God and all numbered among the dead. Doesn’t a disaster like this make it pretty well impossible to discern the hand of a loving God in all his works?
We now know that the process which causes earthquakes is built into the fabric of the earth. Geologists speak of huge tectonic plates which float on the earth’s surface, moving and grinding against one another. Between the plates there are fault lines, and when plates move against each other, as they must, there is friction. They rub against each other. When they move, they judder, and this causes earthquakes. The more the plates stick, the bigger the earthquake when they move. There has never been a time, since the surface of the earth became hospitable to life, when there were not earthquakes. If God made the world, this is how he made it: this is the way it was designed.
If this is so, we have to ask, did God choose the time and the place for the plates to move, creating the terrible earthquake in Haiti? How can we discern the hand of a loving God in works like this?
From a Christian point of view, only the incarnation – if you can believe in it - gives us the beginning of a way of thinking about this agonising problem. In Jesus Christ, we see God, of God’s own free will, entering into the limiting conditions of humanity: sharing what it is to be a fragile human being, sharing sickness, pain, sorrow and death. If humans are always vulnerable to the dangers of existing in the world, this is a vulnerability God has shared in Christ. This is where the hand of God is to be found within his works.
Why should God do this? The New Testament tells us it is to create something genuinely new – a new humanity. This new creation is itself fragile and vulnerable, but this is the way God has chosen to create – to work within the geological and biological processes of earth, for which he must ultimately be responsible, to create something beyond our imagining. I start to find a glimmer of hope that good can come out the suffering of creation only because of what I see in Jesus, - when he is, of his own free will, plunged into the abyss of human fragility in order to take forward the process by which something better will come into being. Paul speaks of ‘travail’ in creation, like the travail of a woman in labour:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now. (Rom 8: 18-23)
Paul talks of creation being subject to ‘futility’ or ‘emptiness’. Creation can be pitiless and destructive. And yet within creation there is the fragile hope of something better. Creation is a ‘work in progress’.
I didn’t listen to much of the reporting from Haiti – the crying of one child, badly injured and without medical help, was enough. Of course, there is hope in the compassion and generosity with which human beings respond to such tragedy, but there is in the Christian gospel a deeper hope that one day suffering like this will end, and God’s good purposes will be complete.
In reminding you of the story of the stilling of the storm, I missed out some vitally important words. When the wind and the waves died down, and all was calm, Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Where is your faith?’ Not, we might say, in the beauty and wonder of creation, though it often strikes us beautiful and wonderful beyond words. Not in what is for what is can at times be dreadful - but in what will be, and in God’s pledge of ultimate transformation, the cross. Faced with a pitiless creation, it is in the cross that we discern the pity of God; in the wounded hands of God that we find hope for a renewed creation. So, to rewrite today’s collect with the suffering of Haiti in mind, perhaps we can pray: ‘Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your wounded hands in all your works, and in the cross of Jesus Christ, the beginning of creation renewed; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.’