8 February 2015
Second Sunday before Lent
10.00 am Hadlow
Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-14
May I speak this morning in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have two difficult messages to convey this week. Firstly, and very sadly, I want to confront some inappropriate and frankly un-Christian behavior that has been going on in Church. Secondly I want to think about how we, as Christians, should react when we hear high profile people like Stephen Fry lambast the basis of our faith, as he did earlier in the week. So we have a mixture of the deeply pastoral and the highly theological this morning, please bear with me. [If you are here for the first time this morning then I especially apologise and I should assure you that this is not my usual tone.]
At the beginning of last week I received a message from a member of our congregation saying that that person and their whole family are on the verge of leaving this Church. The reason they gave was the way in which they were being treated and spoken to by one or two other members of this congregation. I shan’t go into too much detail on this occasion but they have been spoken to rudely on a weekly basis over a long period, and their commitment to the church was consistently questioned. In short they were made to feel unwelcome and they were bullied. And I am sorry to say that in my two years here I have also been very aware of a small group of people who have been consistently unwelcoming, undermining and who have even tried to bully me. Now I can take it and I have never mentioned it here before but I am not going to allow members of this church to be bullied out of our fellowship and I am here to stand up for them and against the few who seem intent on poisoning the well.
I find it hard to comprehend that some people can spend their whole life going to church and yet have failed to grasp the simplest of messages – we are called to love one another. This Church is meant to be the body of Christ called here together to worship God, to love one another and to serve those around us. And yet some people seem to be under the impression that this church is their personal fiefdom, or perhaps their private club, which exists to cater to exactly their tastes in all things, or to constantly replicate the past, and if things don’t go the way they want then their only response is to spread bitterness and to bully others.
Let me be clear – that is not the sort of church we are and that type of behavior stops here. I call upon those who have been responsible not only to stop but, more importantly, to reflect deeply on the Christian message and how that should influence the way we treat others. Frankly I call upon them to repent and change their ways.
And if repentance seems too much then at least heed a bit of simple advice: “If you can’t say something kind then don’t say anything at all.”
Over the last two years I have often asked myself what these people hope to achieve, what is their end-goal in bullying people and sucking all joy out of every encounter and seeking to drive away those who bring new ideas and energy to this place. In case they have not thought it through for themselves let me spell it out – all they will achieve is to create a hollowed-out church inhabited by a few bitter people moaning that it is not like the old days. Well, if you want to worship the old days go and find a museum. Much as I love traditional worship I also worship a God who calls us on and wants to create a vibrant future for this church.
I want this place to be a loving, welcoming, worshipping Christian family for people of all ages and, for the most part, I am pleased to say that it is, and people have said to me recently what a lovely church it is. However the only way we are going to keep it that way and to grow in love, in discipleship and in numbers is to stop the rot. I know that some people are only happy when they have something to moan and gossip about and if that is the type of church you really want to belong to then that is fine. However, it is not this church.
And my message to the 99% of you who are lovely is firstly that I am sorry that I have had to say this and, secondly, that if you encounter this type of behavior please speak to me at an early stage. Bullies and gossips flourish in darkness but soon wither away when exposed to the light.
So that was the hard bit of what I had to say this morning. Now comes the other hard bit.
On Sunday of last week Stephen Fry appeared on a Sunday morning program and he was asked what he would say to God if he ever got to meet him. Fry’s immediate response was: “What about bone cancer in children?” And then followed what can only be described as a diatribe against his view of God whom he characterized as capricious, mean-minded, unjust, a selfish maniac, that we would be better off generally without God and, interestingly, that he had more respect for the pantheon of Greek gods who, he said, didn’t pretend not to be human. I have to say that that last comment in itself shows a complete failure to engage with the Christian concept of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, which of course is what the gospel reading from John directs us towards. But I am getting ahead of myself.
First let me put Stephen Fry’s comments into a little context. Much as I have admired Stephen Fry’s work as a writer, comedian and actor for most of my life he is also a devout, if that is the right word, atheist. In fact I used to follow both Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais on Twitter but I ended up unfollowing them simply because they would never miss an opportunity to have a dig at faith. And when I say faith, of course I mean Christianity. They would never publically criticize Islam, probably out of fear of reprisal, and they wouldn’t dream of criticizing faiths such as Hinduism, because that would be seen as discriminatory. Never mind that Islamic states are amongst the most oppressive in the world, with the possible exception of North Korea, and that Islamists are beheading and burning alive their prisoners in the middle East or that Boko Haram have slaughtered thousands in Nigeria, and never mind that Hinduism subjects millions of people to poverty because of the caste system. No, the only faith group that it is both safe and, in fact, de rigueur, to attack is Christianity.
But the reason this got so much coverage this week, and the reason I am talking about it now, is because it raised the age-old question: “How can there be a God if bad things happen to good people.”
The philosopher AC Grayling posed the challenge quite neatly – he said that if one believes that God is both all powerful and all good then it is a logical contradiction for there to be suffering in the world. Either God cannot prevent suffering, in which case he is not all powerful, or he will not prevent suffering, in which case he is not all good.
The problem with this neat argument, and the problem which lies at the root at much of our fist shaking at heaven when tragedy strikes, is that our preconception of God as a deity whose function is to wrap his creation and each of his creatures in so much cotton wool that nothing bad can ever happen is fundamentally wrong and is certainly an unbiblical view of God.
So why does God allow suffering? Let’s think first about the suffering caused by our fellow humans – wars, terrorism, preventable poverty, environmental destruction and so forth. In my view it is clear from the earliest chapters in the bible that God always intended mankind to have the freedom to choose how to act towards him and towards one another and that our freedom to choose is a fundamental part of our humanity.
A quick illustration: A few years ago Vivienne played the good fairy in a pantomime. As the story unfolded two of the characters decided to take a wicked course of action that would bring ruin to their brother but, in the end, the good fairy stepped in and made them change their minds by casting a spell so that they become good, albeit against their will. So, some wickedness was prevented but it was at the expense of their free will or their freedom to make a bad choice.
Now, you may say that it would have been good if God had acted like the good fairy and taken away the free will of, say, the 9/11 plotters and prevented that disaster from happening or if God had prevented the concentration camps by taking away the free will of the Nazis but it only takes a moments thought to realise what a dangerous route that is. If God takes away the free will of other people to prevent suffering then, presumably, God would also take away our free will every time we made a wrong choice – if we drove too fast would God act as a speed limiter and make us slow down to prevent the suffering caused by an accident, if we choose not to donate blood one day and God knew that someone would die for want of that unit we would be marched like a zombie to the clinic to prevent the suffering of another. I think you can see where this is going – when God gave humanity free will he took the biggest risk ever because it meant that humans could always make the wrong choice, but it is the price we pay for not being automatons.
However, surely, a choice made to do good made out of genuine free will is of infinitely greater value than a person whose will is bent to God’s against their will to prevent suffering. So, to answer AC Grayling I would say that God is both all powerful and all good but, from the moment of creation, God has chosen to limit the exercise of his power in the interests of giving us the room to be and become fully human.
So what about natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis and what about diseases like cancer or even Ebola – why isn’t God preventing these and allowing the innocent to suffer?
Well, firstly and most importantly we inhabit vulnerable physical bodies in a dynamic physical world. Tectonic plates shift and cells divide and sometimes those things can create the conditions for life to arise and sometimes they shift and divide in the wrong way and create the conditions for death, even premature death. The bible itself actually mentions numerous earthquakes and there is no shortage of premature death there either so we shouldn’t imagine that we are thinking of things that were either unheard of or couldn’t be mentioned in scripture.
So why does God allow this? Well, firstly, shouldn’t we be asking: on what are we basing our expectations of God? If we try to make God into a good fairy who waves a wand and protect everyone from every tragedy then we will always be disappointed in that God. But, actually, shouldn’t we take our image of God from the bible? The bible certainly does not tell us that God wraps his people in cotton wool and never lets anything bad happen to them – on the contrary much of the story of the nation of Israel is about how they learned to recognise and to worship God despite the bad things that happened to them – held in slavery in Egypt, taken into captivity in Babylon, occupied by the Romans. Time and time again, in the psalms, in the book of Job and in the prophets there is recognition that we live in a fallen world, that bad things do happen to good people and that whilst we may shake our fist at God, ultimately the only answer is that he is Sovereign, he is in charge, that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts. As educated Westerners we find that so frustrating because we want to be in charge and, if necessary, to serve a Freedom of Information request to find out what is going on but, as Christians, we are subject to a higher power, and I don’t mean the Archdeacon.
And as Christians we should also remember the element of faith that Stephen Fry lacks: that death is not the end. I said a moment ago that we inhabit physical bodies in a physical world but we are also told in the bible that these bodies are like seeds that need to die in order to become transformed and resurrected bodies, in a resurrected and re-created world in which death is no more and where God wipes away every tear.
So we do currently live in a world that is fallen from perfection, a world in which human free will can cause suffering and in which we occupy physical bodies in a physical world full of change and risk.
So, finally, Where is God in all this?
I would say in two places – we worship a God who does not stand far off from our suffering but rather a God who entered into our world and took suffering upon himself in the person of Jesus – the same Jesus who did not live a life of ease and comfort but who went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights and who later took that wilderness experience all the way to the cross. In Jesus God did not avoid suffering and death but rather transformed it into resurrection and victory and the fruits of that transformation are for us to share. So humanity does not suffer apart from God, on the contrary God has been there before us and shared our suffering in the person of Jesus, God the Son.
But God the Holy Spirit is also there, in the midst of the suffering, in the actions of all the thousands of people who seek to help alleviate suffering. God is there in the free will decisions of human beings to care for and help each other. God is Love and when we demonstrate our love for others in need through practical action we are reflecting something of God’s love for us.
God is not to be found in the avoidance of suffering – that god is an idol no more worthy of worship than a good fairy in a panto, much as I love her. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ and, I hope, our God is to be found not in the avoidance of suffering and pain but in the coping with suffering and pain, in choosing to love and to be human and to be humane towards one another despite the suffering and pain and, like Jesus in the wilderness, resisting always the temptation to give up and despair when we are at our weakest.
So when these challenges to our view of God are raised, as they always will be, we need to constantly ask ourselves, in what image of God is my faith based? When that question comes do not think about God an abstract being apart from us who watches our suffering from afar, but think about Jesus, God with us, suffering, dying and rising again for us and think about God the Holy Spirit who motivates us to love others in their suffering and who can enthuse us to lift our eyes beyond our own suffering to the joys of the kingdom of heaven.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
Now this has been a long sermon and, in many ways, a difficult sermon. So I am going to end with a joke:
“A Vicar went to the dentist for a new set of false teeth. The first Sunday after he got his new teeth, he could only preach for eight minutes.
The second Sunday, he could only talk for ten minutes. The following Sunday, he got up and spoke for 2 hours and 48 minutes.
The congregation had to mob him to get him down from the pulpit and they asked him what happened.
The Vicar explained the first Sunday his gums hurt so badly he couldn’t talk for more than 8 minutes. The second Sunday his gums hurt too much to talk for more than 10 minutes. But, the third Sunday, he put his Wife’s’ teeth in by mistake and he couldn’t shut up…”