Friday, 1 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 15: Why suffering ?

Sermon, Third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 10:1-13Warnings from Israel’s History
We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example...

Luke 13:1-9
Repent or Perish
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 

It’s often thought that suffering drives people away from believing in God.
‘The question of suffering’ is cited as evidence that there is no God, or if He exists, He must be a monster.
With both our readings touching on undeserved suffering and on judgement, I’d like us to look at this question from 3 different angles.
·      Firstly, is it the case that the ‘problem of suffering’ drives people away from God per se?
Or are there other factors involved?
·      Secondly, is the question of suffering one that can be asked in isolation from real life?
·      And thirdly, what does the Cross say to the question of suffering?

1.  So firstly, does this difficult question drive people away from faith in God?
We discussed the question of suffering at our recent Lent Course on Wednesday evening and it produced some interesting thoughts, which I’ll come back to.
But if it were true that the question of ‘why is there suffering in the world?’ drives people away from faith, surely it would follow that those who suffer mos (in war, from hunger, infant mortality, lack of education) would be the ones who found it hardest to believe in a good God.
And those who generally enjoyed a good lifestyle, positive life experiences, enough to eat and lack of war and conflict, would be the ones who found it easiest to believe in God.
In fact it appears that the reverse is true.
Active faith in God is far more prevalent in the ‘Third World’ than in the ‘First World.’
Globally the Anglican Church is growing, though that growth is almost entirely in the global South, whilst in the affluent West, belief in God is dwindling, if we are to believe the surveys.
Having said all that, it does appear from our readings that people have always been exercised by the question of suffering.
And mostly people are exercised when they themselves are facing suffering.
Which takes us to our second point.

 2. Secondly,can you talk about suffering as a merely academic topic anyway?
The writer, Stanley Hauerwas is well known for tackling this problem and is one of the best writers on the actual effect of personal suffering on someone’s life as well as asking the academic question ‘Why does God allow suffering?’
He writes: ‘Sitting in my office, reflecting on the problem of evil is more like a game than a serious activity. I am not even sure that I have the right to engage in such speculation…’ (Naming the Silences, p. 2).
In his autobiography, Hannah’s Child, he writes movingly of how all the time he was a Professor of Divinity in a series of American Universities, he was living with his wife’s deteriorating mental health, until he feared for the life of their son, Adam.
The ‘question’ of suffering was active and live for him.
At our Lent Course we watched a clip of an extended interview with Matthew Frost, CEO of Tearfund in which he talks of the suffering across the Third World caused by human induced climate change.
This is not random suffering, or the fault of a God who doesn't care.
In fact he we are complicit in the suffering of the poor whose crops are adversely affected by unusual droughts and floods, because climate change is being exacerbated by human activity, which impacts the poor first.
He then spoke of personal suffering, in that he and his wife had twins with Down Syndrome, and his honesty about how challenging this was for all of the family is very compelling.
But his testimony to the grace and love of God in the heart of their family is also compelling.
So that’s suffering put in a real life context.
Your crops won’t grow because of things outside your control.
And babies are born with challenging conditions, or life threatening illnesses. Or they miscarry or are born dead, or die in infancy.
A friend with whom I trained has just taken the funeral of a nine year old boy in Telford, killed on a pedestrian crossing.
The question of suffering can never be just academic.

In our gospel today some people come to Jesus and tell him about a murderous act of evil that some Jews have suffered at Pilate's hands.
And somewhere else a Tower has apparently randomly fallen on a group of unsuspecting people.
Does this mean they were more deserving of judgement than others?
Did they deserve their suffering?
Jesus answers an emphatic NO.
Accidents do appear to be random.
But it’s how we live our lives in relation to Almighty God that’s the most important thing we can do, not how we try to avoid illness, accident or premature death.
The Jews who wandered in the desert wandered away from God and did reap what they sewed in the spiritual realm.
And we will too if we don’t live in fellowship with God, trusting in his mercy.

  3. And finally, what does the Cross of Christ say to the question of suffering?
It seems to me that the best ‘answer’ to the question of suffering, if we’re looking for one, is to point to the Cross.
Once again we’re indebted to the theologians on this one.
Jϋrgen Moltmann was an soldier in the German Army and in 1945 was taken prisoner in Belgium.
Horrified at what the Nazis had done in the death camps, he embraced faith and it was nurtured when he met Christians in a Scottish POW camp, where an American Chaplain gave him a copy of the New Testament.
He went on to become one of the greatest theologians of the modern era.
Moltmann, interviewed in Third Way recently
His book The Crucified God is a provocative title to begin with.
He suggests, and builds a whole theology around the fact that the crucifixion changes forever our understanding of God.
For centuries, theologians had held that God was impassive.
In other words, he was unchanged by the events of the world, by suffering.
This seems strange to us now, but to the ancients, God was God, and He was always unchanging and unchangeable.
Moltmann takes a long hard look at the dark side of the human condition (remember he had lived through war) and he centres it all around the cross, inside the heart of the Trinity – God gives Himself in Christ, for the life of the world, for our redemption.
God is forever the ‘Crucified God.’
Whatever you make of this, to point people to the Cross of Christ, to the suffering Saviour, is to say ‘God is not untouched by the suffering of the world – He knows all about it and has taken it into His very self'.
This means we know God is right there in our darkest moments.

As we gather to break bread and drink wine out poured we too partake in the death and resurrection of Jesus; we ask for grace to be identified with him in his passion.
There is no better way to embrace the purpose of God in our lives, than to take part in this acting out of his death and resurrection and what it means for us as we ponder Christ's call on our lives during Lent.

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