Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent Year C
28th Feb 2016
The Third Sunday of Lent Year C.
1 Corinthians 10. 12 “God is faithful”.
In today’s reading we learn of a human tragedy, of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, which killed 18 people, and with it the question which plays upon everyone’s lips. It is a question that seeks to doubt the existence of a loving God because of the existence of vast amounts of human suffering. Why suffering then? Or, more pointedly, Why does God allow so much suffering? At 9.15 a.m. on Friday 21 October 1966, a waste-tip slid down a mountain into the mining village of Aberfan in South Wales. In its path was Pantglas Junior School. The children had just returned to their classes after assembly, when the tide of waste engulfed their school. One hundred and sixteen children died, and five of their teachers. The hymn they’d sung in assembly was "All Things Bright and Beautiful".
The whole nation was numb with grief, and with the grief came incredulity. At such a time the idea of Christian Faith in a loving God is tested to the uttermost. And it becomes (rightly) impossible to present any kind of reason for justifying the existence of God from any formal argument. That would be a kind of sacrilege. But the question remains, who is the God who seems to permit the disasters that have happened and their terrible randomness and needlessness?
It is important to realise what God is not. He is not the One who changes the basic laws of nature and gravity on which our lives are founded. Jesus is to show us the way not around or apart from a state of suffering and of struggle but to lead us through it while we are within it. This is the direction to which the fuller meaning of human existence tends. It is borne by Christ on the Cross. For Christ has gone ahead of us to show us that this is must be The Way.This is not to deny the terrible realities of human existence but to aknowledge them. If God is Love then this is a love which will prove trustworthy. This is not to be glib and nor is it to make these things seem automatic or easy. It does not take away the fact of life as a running of risks and obeset with trials of tragedies of many kinds. And along the way many will have lost faith – especially when things have felt so broken up they seem for ever irreparable. .
In what sense then, can God, even in the midst of all evidence to the contrary, ‘remain present’? On July 7th 2005 I found myself in the middle of a group of people, transport police, firemen, chaplains and railway personnel in a kind of hell. Down below, in the depths of King’s Cross Underground Station lay a scene of almost unimaginable horror. I remember the feeling of the eerie silence that befell King’s Cross on that day, and the sense of radical dislocation, both emotionally and in relation to tat eerie quietness. Everything seemed strange and out of place. And that disclocation was the fall out of what had happened and of the scenes of horror that lay down in the undergound. But in all that awfulness strangeness something quite remarkable was going on. Helpers on the ground were going about doing their duty and doing it without fuss and doing it thoughtfully and carefully. In and through the horror and the chaos was the doing of ‘mending work’ in the ordinary business of caring, reassuring, saving, listening; of the showing of basic human concern with generosity and of kindness. All these things, were, in the midst of this terrible event, the revealing of the living God, who, from the heart of human devastation, was already working through individuals for a realisation of the trustworthiness of human care and love. And in this lay no cure for all that devastation but at least the beginning of a kind of mending. Archbishop Donald Coggan once said, “With the breaking comes the re-making”. An experience of human living is inevitably an experience of living with the brokenness of our existence and the accompanying need for healing grace.
A young priest in a church near the village of Aberfan on that terrible day in late October 1966 was called upon to preach the evening sermon. And he found he could not preach at all. That is to say he could hardly put any words together. It was a sermon communicated with barely concealed sobs and half formed and nervous outpourings. Perhaps that was all that could realistically be offered? But it was at least an honest offering in which could be recognised the breaking down of any glib or easy argument for the existence of a loving God. Christian Faith is tested in the keeping of those questions which cannot in this life have ready or easy answers. The message to us at this stage in the Lenten season is that God’s mercy lies ever before us, and the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner….’ has become the prayer of Humble Access, the way of communicating our need in the acknowledgement of the givenness of things and of the availability of God’s understanding and mercy with our need of it.. This is why, even after Absolution we continue to say ‘Lord, have mercy’. As the Carol Jung said ‘Bidden or not bidden, God is present’. He is faithful. We believe and maintain such belief not as ignorant of the question of suffering but in the experience of its presence as a wound. God in Jesus holds before us the call to self-sacrificial love as faith’s ultimate challenge : that is, the love which for St Paul ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things endures all things’ even in the face of pain. (1 Corinthians 13.7-8). This is the love that never ends. This is the Way of Christ. This is the Cross and this is where we are being drawn and this is where things tend for the Christian Church at this midpoint in Lent.