The Rev. Anne Michele Turner
June 21, 2015 (Proper 7B)
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Arlington
Some of you may have seen an interview with the British actor Stephen Fry earlier this year. Fry is a vocal atheist, and his interviewer baited him a little, asking him what he would say to God should he one day happen to meet him. Fry’s immediate response? “Bone cancer . . . what’s that about? How dare you?” He went on to say this:
“Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outward, from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that do us? It’s simply not acceptable. On the assumption that there is one, what kind of God is he?”
Perhaps it is a strange thing to begin a sermon by saying that I identify with an atheist, but I do, at least in part. I have these questions, too. I want to know why the design of this world depends so much on suffering. A lot of terrible tragedies can be explained or understood by the flaws in humanity. The shootings in South Carolina this week are heavy on my heart, but I know that they are our human fault. They happened because of us weak, messed up people and our clumsy, sinful fingers.
But what about the suffering that we step into when we are born? The suffering that just is? What about storms that wash us away in their flood? What about cells that mutate or wither or grow out of control? What about the inevitable march of disaster and disease for which we can blame no one person, and for which no one can answer except presumably the God who set it all in motion?
They are the questions of anyone who pays attention long enough. They are the questions of an atheist, and the questions of a priest. And, judging from our texts, they are questions of both testaments of the bible, old and new.
From the book of Job, we have essentially the situation that that British interviewer was positing. After 30-some chapters of attempts to find explanations for inexplicable loss, Job is finally face to face with God. It’s not quite “How dare you?”—but Job demands an explanation. The thing is, he doesn’t get one. God’s reply to him makes an entirely different point. “Where were you, when I laid the foundation of the earth?” For these eleven verses, and for several chapters beyond them, God goes on to spell out just how separate he is from Job’s human concerns. God’s power to design and create the world defies understanding. God will be God, whether Job likes it or not.
From the Gospel of Mark, we hear essentially the same point, although it’s made in the form of a narrative rather than a dialogue. The disciples are in a boat, swamped in a storm, and Jesus–Jesus doesn’t even notice. When the disciples finally wake him up and he stills the wind, they have to reckon with his other-ness. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” There’s reverence in their response, for sure, but there’s also some fear and, I think, disappointment. What seems to be so troubling here is not the presence of supernatural powers, but of supernatural personality. Jesus is not like the rest of us. This guy can sleep through a hurricane. The world could be falling around him and he wouldn’t need to notice. Are the disciples really OK with that kind of indifference? Are any of us?
What do we do with this conundrum? If God is indeed who we believe him to be—if God created the heavens and the earth, the typhoons and the floods and everything else straight down to the most destructive little insects—then God is not like us. God does not seem to worry about the same things we worry about. And God does not seem to mind some collateral damage along the way of life. What do we do with that? Some biographers claim that it was the suffering inherent in evolution and natural selection that made Darwin lose his faith.
I can’t solve a problem that Darwin couldn’t. I am not more clever than Stephen Fry, who is a very articulate man, and I do not have an answer to this question that millennia of tradition have wrestled with.
But I am standing up here because I believe that there is good news for us, still. And the good news is this: that if God is going to allow suffering, God is not going to be apart from that suffering. If God is going to make a world which depends on storms and disasters, then God will be rocked by the storms, and devastated by the disasters, too, because that’s the way that he can be with us.
We discover it in Job, if we pay attention to what’s happening. Conversation between human and divine has clearly been set out of bounds. In fact, Job himself has suggested it’s impossible. Just before the bit we read today, here’s what Job says: “Should he be told that I want to speak? Would anyone ask to be swallowed up? Now no one can look at the sun, bright as it is in the skies after the wind has swept them clean.” And yet, despite this clear, categorical difference, God stoops to talk to Job. God wants to be in conversation with him, even across this huge gulf of ontological status.
And we discover that desire for presence still more clearly in Mark’s gospel. Quite literally, Jesus is in the same boat as us. This journey across the sea began with an act of solidarity, so subtle that it’s easy to miss: “they took him into the boat, just as he was.” Just as he was—they sound like throwaway words. And yet that phrase points to the divine difference. Jesus is not the same as these men. Jesus is different. And yet, different and exalted and powerful, clearly not even needing a boat at all to get where he wants to go, there he is, with them, right in the stern, in the very place that steers the whole boat.
God does not seem to want to protect us. But God wants to be with us. This is the message I hear in scripture today. It is the promise of the voice from the whirlwind, the promise of the storm and the calm, the promise, in the end, of the cross. God wants to be where we are, to know what we know, to suffer what we suffer.
I don’t understand why any of it goes down the way it does. But, I am also thinking that perhaps logic is not what I need most, and for a lot of us, I don’t think understanding is our deepest need. I don’t mean to be dismissive or anti-intellectual in this; I thoroughly believe we need to set the best efforts of our minds to the problems of religion and to scrutinize religious claims with rational thought. But I also think our deepest desires are not met through intellect. I think what we need most goes beyond the mind, goes deep into the heart. And that is where we most want a reply from God, in the heart. And that is where God most profoundly speaks.
Do we want an answer from God? Yes. But we do want a visit from God? Yes. Even more. This, in the end, is the realization that Job comes to. “My ears had heard of you,” he says. “But now my eyes have seen you.” So it is with the disciples, too. First, they were taught by God. But, then, they see God, revealed. They don’t just go on secondary sources and a scaffold of logic. They have a primary experience.
The storms blow on. Parasites grow and feed and destroy. Diseases flourish unchecked. Floods sweep away what is precious. Suffering continues. I do not understand why God allows it to happen, any of it. And yet I also know that God chooses to wake to all of it. God is with us, in it, through it, beyond it. And God will never allow it to continue apart from his presence or apart from his love.