holy cross sermon for the third sunday in lent, february 28, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo’am fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

In today’s Gospel we hear about two contemporary events in Jesus’ day when people were killed unjustly. We ought first to note that Jesus points to a worse fate than bodily death, which he says is the result of impenitence. So we ought to repent of our sins.

One of the episodes that the crowds ask Jesus about is an instance of what the philosophers call “moral evil” – the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. In other words, they were murdered. And the others – the eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them – were victims of what the philosophers call “natural evil.” They were simply victims – not victims of someone’s evil action, but of a freak accident. They were killed before their time, without any reference to justice at all, and by no one’s agency. Like victims of disease or a natural disaster.

These kinds of considerations are fodder for what is called “theodicy” – the branch of philosophy that deals with the problem of the existence of God and the problem of evil. The word “theodicy,” by the way comes from a book under that title by the 17th century German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, in which he addresses the question.

The question, in short, is how can there be evil in the world if God is all good and all powerful? How can there be hurricanes and volcanoes and wars and stuff – how can an all good, all powerful God allow innocent people to suffer on the grand scale that we see them suffering in the world? This question appears to be in the background of the conversation in today’s Gospel between Jesus and his interlocutors. The mind does not like to admit this kind of unjust suffering and death – it’s a problem – so those who are talking to Jesus suggest that the victims must have done SOMETHING wrong; there must have been some justice in their deaths somewhere. Surely. But Jesus says no. They were no worse sinners than you or me.

Many answers have been propounded to the question down through the centuries. How can there be so much suffering when God is all good and all powerful? My advisor at Yale, the philosopher Marilyn Adams, is the author of two books on this question. As I say, its such a puzzling line of philosophical inquiry that it has become a cottage industry unto itself.

One of the best and most striking attempts to deal with the problem of God and the existence of evil comes from the long section in Dostoevsky’s book, “The Brothers Karamazov” – the section called “The Grand Inquisitor,” an extended dialogue between the brothers Ivan and Alyosha.

And by a stroke of good luck (actually we Christians don’t really believe in luck, because we don’t believe in randomness) – by a stroke of God’s inscrutable orchestration of things, Bp. Robert Barron will deal with this very question in the Lenten series thiscoming Thursday evening. The title is “Providence and the Problem of Evil.”

But its more than just an intellectual exercise. And if you have ever been the victim of injustice yourself, or have ever had to suffer something for no good reason, or for no apparent reason at all, you will know what I mean. Or – what may be worse – if you have ever had to stand by helplessly and watch as someone else, maybe someone you love, has had to suffer – you will know what I am talking about. In what was to me the most moving section of the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov, Ivan brings up the example of children suffering abuse. How can God allow it? How can he not intervene?

The short answer is: I don’t know. God’s counsels are famously his own, and they are inscrutable. We very often simply don’t know his reasons for doing or not doing things. But we’re told that, his great and inscrutable mysteriousness notwithstanding, God is GOOD. He loves us. And indeed – though it can sound like a platitude – in the end, all will be well. The 14th century English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich, asked Christ in a vision about all of this – the mystery of sin and suffering, and why he doesn’t step in and put a stop to it. And the Lord responds to her by leaving the mystery intact, but assuring Julian that, in the end, the mystery will be revealed, and that all who suffered in faith will rejoice in seeing the disclosure. She said, “Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep me in the faith… and that at the same time I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in what our Lord shewed in this time—that ‘all manner [of] thing shall be well.’”

T.S. Eliot took up Dame Julian’s vision in “Little Gidding,” the fourth of his “Four Quartets,” where he writes:

“Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us – a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.”

And this puts one in mind of the sentiment expressed by C.S. Lewis – and others – that while it may be unclear how exactly it can be that our prayer can affect God, what is clear is that prayer can change us, and change us for the better, change us in a saving way. “…the purification of the motive / in the ground of our beseeching.”

While the mystery of suffering in the face of God’s goodness and omnipotence, as I say, remains intact, I fall back on the stark reality, the stark historical fact, of our own church’s dedication: the holy cross. The cross sort of swallows up the mystery of suffering, not through a logical syllogism, nor through anything that is really satisfying to the intellect on its own terms. God doesn’t answer the question, but he participates in the suffering. He comes to earth and suffers in the person of Jesus. And what is more, the Father witnesses the suffering of his only Son. So the mystery of unjust suffering is answered by an even deeper mystery: the mystery of God’s own suffering and God’s own bereavement.

A distraught woman called me up after the shooting at the elementary school in Sandy Hook a couple of years ago, saying she was having a crisis of faith thinking about all the dead children, and all the unimaginable grief of the parents of those children. What does God have to say about that? she wanted to know. I told her I didn’t know, but that Scripture bears witness to God’s PARTICIPATION in that grief. Not just in an abstract way, but God the Father watched – whether helplessly or not, none can know – but God the Father watched his only Son tortured to death in the hot sun on a hillside outside Jerusalem. And to suggest that God the Father did not somehow grieve and mourn and suffer seeing the death of his Son, it seems to me, is to stretch the meaning of the word “Father” past the breaking point.

And the word of the Gospel is that THAT suffering – the suffering of Jesus on the cross – can bring all suffering into right relief. It can be not only a balm, but a transformation of our suffering. When our suffering is united to the suffering of the crucified, it is caught up into it; it becomes a battle line in God’s slow victory over the great and final cosmic enemy, death itself.

It may not be ultimately satisfying to the intellect, but it is satisfying to my SOUL to know this. And in a way, as the church father Tertullian said, “Credo quia absurdum.” I believe it BECAUSE it is absurd:

“The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, [he was] buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen

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