Sunday, 26 March 2017

Who is to blame for suffering?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
26 March 2017
‘Siege and Salvation’

Lamentations 4.1-22   

Sometimes, this week included, as we have heard,
            the world can be a pretty dark and terrifying place,
and the question I want us to think about this morning,
            is whose fault is this?

Where, if anywhere, are we to apportion blame
            for the pain, suffering, and death which dominates the media,
            and sometimes our own lives also.

This is not an abstract question, asked out of theological curiosity,
            because the issue is too real, too raw, for disembodied philosophy.

What I want to know, in very real and concrete terms,
            is who I can blame for the awful realities of so much of human existence.

The ever-wonderful Stephen Fry gets to the heart of this issue
            with a interview in which he sees the suffering of humanity
             as ‘the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God’
                        (as Douglas Adams once famously put it).

Let’s watch this clip now…

The logic which Stephen Fry uses here is fascinating;
            in a nutshell, his argument is that if God exists,
                        then God must be held responsible for the sufferings of humanity;
            but that such a God would be so monstrous
                        that atheism is a better alternative.

For Fry, the sufferings of humanity are not ultimately God’s fault,
            because for him God does not exist;
rather, they are the responsibility of natural processes,
            such as competitive evolution, or random genetic mutation.

So who do we blame for suffering?
            Well, says Stephen Fry, blame nature!

We need to be careful to hear his argument in the context
            of the ongoing attempts by some Christians to discredit the theory of evolution
            by asserting their belief in an all-powerful benign creator God;
and in this debate I think Stephen Fry’s argument is highly effective.

Let me say this very clearly:
            I don’t believe in the God he doesn’t believe in either!

I don’t believe in a monstrous tyrant who capriciously visits suffering upon the earth;
            or who sets in motion some determinist system
            which leads inexorably and unavoidably
            to acts of terrorism, war, and violence.

But I do still want to know where to lay the blame for all that suffering,
            and I’m not sure that pointing the finger at evolution entirely removes the problem.

As Stephen Fry well knows, the wisdom traditions of all the major world religions
            have been wrestling with the problem of theodicy, as it is called, for millennia.

People of faith are no stranger to the question
            of how to sustain any kind of belief in God in the face of suffering;
and have long faced the conundrum
            of whether all attempts to do so simply end up making God monstrous.

Which brings us to the book of Lamentations.
            This week is the fourth, and some of you may be glad to know, penultimate,
            sermon in our Lenten series looking at the little-read book of the Bible
                        that makes the depressing Psalms read like happy ditties.

This week we re-join the lamenting poet in the ruins of Jerusalem.

The Babylonians have done their worst, the temple is destroyed,
            the city is devastated, and the ruling elite have been taken into exile.
A famine has set in, and people are dying in the streets of the holy city.

The language used to evoke this situation is heartbreaking,
            and stands as some of the most beautiful and yet bleak poetry of all time.

‘The precious children of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold,
            are reckoned as earthen pots.’ (v.2).

‘The tongue of the infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst,
            the children beg for food, but no one gives them anything.’ (v.4).

‘Those who feasted on delicacies perish in the streets;
            those who were brought up in purple cling to ash heaps.’ (v.5).

‘Happier were those pierced by the sword
            than those pierced by hunger.’ (v.9).

And perhaps most devastating of all,
            ‘The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children.’ (v.10).

This is the biblical equivalent of the current late night news reports
            on the growing famine in East Africa;
as the unflinching gaze of the camera
            brings starving children, dehumanized mothers, and despairing fathers
                        right into our living rooms,
            to challenge our own security and to hold us to our humanity.

And who is to blame for all this?

That is the question on the lips of the poet of ancient Jerusalem,
            just as it is the question on our lips
            as we see suffering, starvation, and sorrow in our own world.

We search for a reason, we long for culpability to be declared.

So is God to blame?

If God does exist, should we turn to him in the white heat of our anger
            to demand mercy, judgment, or indeed any response
                        beyond clinical, calm disinterest?

Well, maybe.

The poet of Lamentations certainly has God firmly in his sights
            as he fires his words into the void of history.

Hear verse 11: ‘The Lord gave full vent to his wrath;
            he poured out his hot anger, and kindled a fire in Zion
            that consumed its foundations.’

So maybe that’s it, then.
            God, if there is a God, is to blame.
            It’s his fault.

Except, I cant help but feel this answer is too easy.

I long to stand with Stephen Fry,
            to pass the responsibility for it all to God,
            and then to walk away from him
                        and stand in rational post-faith fury at the futility of faith;
            taking such crumbs of comfort as my post-enlightenment cosmology can offer,
                        and devoting myself to works of humanity and justice.

But I don’t see that it helps.
            It’s too easy an answer, or maybe it’s no answer at all, I’m not sure which;
but the question still remains hanging in the air
            like a disconcerting dis-chord awaiting resolution.

Thankfully the poet of Lamentations doesn’t leave it there either.

God, if God there is, is certainly angry in Lamentations.
            But angry at what, and wrathful with whom?
And here we enter the darkness of suffering at a different level.

Jerusalem was always more than a city,
            more than a home for its inhabitants.
It was to be the embodiment of a dream,
            it was to be the light of the world,
            it was to be the place where God dwelt with people.

Jerusalem was the hope of the nations,
            the joy of the whole earth,
and that dream had been betrayed.

The city of peace had become a city of violence.

The leaders of Jerusalem, her priests and prophets,
            had shed the blood of the righteous in the midst of the holy city (v.13).
They had so far departed from their mandate
            to care for the people,
            and to embody the gracious covenant between God and Israel,
that they are held responsible for the downfall of the city
            at the hands of the Babylonians.

It was their failure in leadership that led to the catastrophe,
            and simply pointing the finger at God, saying ‘he did it!’,
starts to sound more like an attempt to offload guilt and responsibility
            than it does a theologically nuanced answer to the suffering of the people.

It’s too easy for us to make God the scapegoat
            in our efforts to avoid our own complicity in the suffering of others.

And so the Babylonians, sensing the weakness at the heart of the Israelite position,
            did what empires will always do and swooped in to destroy the city.

The analogy with Sodom offered in verse 6,
            the city mythically overthrown in a moment by divine fire,
looks less and less relevant to the Jerusalem scenario of the 6th century BC.

The citizens of Jerusalem were betrayed by weak, self-serving leaders,
            which left them prey to a hostile military force
            seeking conquest and imperial expansion.

This wasn’t God’s fault at all!
            Humans did it, and we do it still.

The current famine in Africa,
            the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since 1945, according to the United Nations,
            is firmly the result of human activity.

As Saudi Arabia and Iran conduct their proxy war in the Yemen,
            vast numbers of people are being displaced
            from their homes, their land, and their food sources.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group,
            have driven 2.6 million people from their homes.

South Sudan has been ravaged by a 3 year civil war,
            leading the United Nations Humanitarian Chief Stephen O’Brien
to conclude ‘the famine is man made.
            Parties to the conflict are parties to the famine,
            as are those not interfering to make the famine stop’.[2]

It’s Jerusalem under Babylon all over again,
            and it’s happening in our time and in our world,
            and it isn’t God doing it, it’s us.

The present tragedy in Africa owes much to the history or European colonialism,
            and to the ineffective and corrupt leadership
            that flourished in the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the western powers.

When you factor in the failed harvests due to the changing climate
            as a result of the developed world’s consumption of fossil fuels,
            our collusion in this situation becomes ever more compelling.

And it is not acceptable for us to blame God for it,
            because to do so is to add cowardice to complicity.

Similarly with acts of terrorism,
            including that which enacted itself on the streets of our city this week.

God is too-easy a target for our outrage and anger,
            as Julia Hartley Brewer demonstrated.

She tweeted this week, in the wake of the events in Westminster,
            ‘Can everyone stop all this #PrayforLondon nonsense.
            It’s these bloody stupid beliefs that help create this violence in the first place.’

According to her logic,
            the man in the car with a knife in Westminster is God’s fault,
            and those who continue to turn to God are as responsible as he is…

So, taking he challenge seriously,
            should we pray? And if so how, and what for?

If we simply beseech God to end the famine,
                        and cry out to him for the starving children,
            and ask him to take away the anger
                        that burns in the heart of a violent and disturbed man,
            we are no better than the hired mourners of biblical times
                        who were paid to shriek and beat their breasts at funerals.

If we pray for the suffering of others without recognizing our own sinfulness,
            we make God our scapegoat;
and in doing that we make him a monster unworthy of worship.

Giles Fraser, writing in the Guardian this week, said that

Prayer is not a way of telling God the things he already knows.
            Nor is it some act of collective lobbying,
                        whereby the almighty is encouraged to see the world
                        from your perspective if you screw up your face really hard
                        and wish it so.
Forget Christopher Robin at the end of the bed.
            Prayer is mostly about emptying your head waiting for stuff to become clear.
There is no secret formula.
            And holding people in your prayers is not wishful thinking.
It’s a sort of compassionate concentration,
            where someone is deliberately thought about
            in the presence of the widest imaginable perspective
            – like giving them a mental cradling.
But above all, prayer is often just a jolly good excuse
            to shut up for a while and think.
The adrenaline that comes from shock
            does not make for clear thinking or considered judgment.
Those who rush to outrage say the stupidest things.[3]

But this is not to say that God is not present in suffering.
            Historically speaking, the cup of suffering passed, in time, from Israel to Edom.
The merry go round of imperial oppression turned on its axis,
            and the strong became weak, and the weak became strong again.

Edom’s turn came, and her betrayal of Israel
            was met with her own period of violence and suffering.
As was Babylon’s.

No empire can hold sway for ever,
            and the collapse of power always engenders suffering in the population
            as the weak pay the price for the shortcomings of the powerful.

And so the world shares the cup of suffering,
            and we pass it from hand to hand like a chalice of blood,
            each nation drinking deeply in its turn from the wine of destruction.

Empires sow the seeds of their own downfall
            and reap the harvest of their suffering,
and the cycle seems endless through history,
            from ancient Israel, to East Africa, to our own city.

Which brings us to Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, praying:

            "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me;
                        yet not what I want but what you want."
            "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done."

Where is God in the midst of suffering?
            He is there, in Gethsemane, drinking the cup of suffering with the rest of humanity.

This, surely, is the message at the heart of the incarnation.
            This is what links the birth of the baby in the manger,
            with the death of the man on the cross of Good Friday.

In the book of Lamentations the Jewish king, the Lord’s anointed,
            is taken into the pit.
This is almost certainly the king Zedekiah,
            who fled from Jerusalem into the desert through a breach in the city walls
            but was captured by the Babylonians.

The second book of Kings tells the story of what happened next:

            “They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes,
                        then put out the eyes of Zedekiah;
            they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25.7)

This moment of personal torment and torture for one man
            was also the end of a national dream:
                        for a King of David, to rule over the people of David,
                        in the capital of David for ever more.

It is the ultimate moment of defeat, and not just for the people of Jerusalem,
            it is the end of the dream of a people of God in Jerusalem.
The covenant project of ‘God with us’
            fails at the hands of the Babylonians.

Which is what makes the last two verses of chapter four so startling.

The siege and destruction of Jerusalem is complete.
            The ideology of the city is shattered along with its walls,
            and its hope has died as its king has gone into exile.

And into this hopelessness, the poet offers a glimmer of hope.
            One day, this too shall pass.
            The wheel will turn, the cup of suffering will go to the next person,
                        the world moves on.
            God is not yet finished with humanity.

But that is a story for another day, for another week.
            We can’t get to Easter too soon.

We must sit a while with Jesus in the Garden,
            with the cup of suffering at his lips.

We must sit with the disciples as they see Jesus betrayed and beaten,
            and recognize their own complicity in his sufferings.

We must sit with the Marys at the foot of the cross outside the walls of Jerusalem
            as hope departs from the world.

We must sit in the long exile of Holy Saturday
            as the world waits in suffering and darkness, and all hope is lost.

And who is to blame?
            Who nailed Jesus to the cross?

Was this God, visiting the sins of the world on his only begotten innocent son?
            I don’t think so.
A God who would do that is a monster not worthy of worship;
            worthy, perhaps, only of fear or disbelief.

No, we nailed Jesus to the cross. You did it, and I did it.
            We are the centurions, and we bear the guilt.
But, and here’s the hope…
            God does not leave us in our fallen, broken, guilty, humanity.

The miracle of the one on the cross is that he is God with us,
            suffering alongside us,
taking our guilt and shame upon himself
            and forgiving us our sins.

I have long thought that if we find ourselves wondering where God is,
            in the midst of human suffering and pain,
we probably don’t have to look very far to find him.

This is the God of the cross, after all,
            the God of the incarnation,
            the God who comes to us in Jesus and transforms our story.

So today, as we continue to grapple with this ancient poem of Lamentations,
            as we stare long into the abyss of despair
                        and sit with those who hope has all gone,
            and as we are confronted with our own guilt an complicity
                        in the suffering of the world,
let us allow ourselves a moment of quiet repentance,
            and let us dare to hope that God has not yet, quite, finished with us.

[1] He was asked what he would say to God if he met him. He said he would tell the deity: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right.”
“It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
Fry added that he would ask God: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?
“Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him; what kind of God would do that?”

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