Strange things happen to clergy when they go into supermarkets wearing their clerical collars. On Wednesday I was scanning my shopping at the self-checkout when someone came up to me and asked if I was a vicar and then asked me what I thought about all that is happening at the moment. Did I think it was all down to the activity of the beast. Taking this to mean the pandemic and not international trade deals and how they affect supermarket stock availability, I said that there is evidence that the pandemic may have its origins in a virus leaking from a lab. In short it was humans meddling in what they would be best not to meddle in. He was delighted with my answer. “A switched on vicar”, he said, and off he went. It was an improvement on the man who came up to me some years ago, touched me with his lottery ticket and said “that’ll bring me luck that will”. The following week I buried his father – I thought it not the time to ask.
The thinking behind my answer of a lab leak came from a piece in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago (29/30th May 2021) about something called ‘gain of function’ research. This involves manipulating viruses to make them more lethal. The rationale is that doing this aids understanding and therefore the discovery of treatments. The counter argument is it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette to see if you can work out how the bullet comes out. The risk of one of these supercharged viruses escaping and causing a global pandemic is too great. You don’t say. In 2014 President Barak Obama stopped federal funding for gain of function research. The ban was lifted in 2017 and money has been poured into a research facility in Wuhan. The jury is out on this one, so it remains one of the possible causes. But all of the likely causes involve humans behaving in ways that are highly risky and just plain wrong.
Our readings this morning touch on this. Job is a book about suffering. It is long and at times miserable but it has flashes of wisdom and insight. The question of where does suffering come from has taxed philosophers and thinkers for all of time. So Job is a kind of thought experiment story to reflect on this. The cause of Job’s suffering is said to be that God is using him as a test pilot, to see how he shapes up with his faith when things don’t go well. Can he hold to it? Or is he really just a fair-weather believer, one who is faithful and devout in good times, but abandons it when things go bad. Ultimately the answer to Job, when he’s having a highly understandable moan, is ‘where were you when the heavens were made and if you weren’t around don’t expect to understand all the mysteries’ (Job 38:1-11). A bit of a paraphrase, but that’s the gist.
We can’t change the way the world is; the reality of being mortal, vulnerable, fragile and susceptible when things go ‘wrong’. Indeed the whole language of ‘things going wrong’ implies that it could be otherwise. We can do something about some of the causes which lead to these consequences, but not the reality that there is suffering, pain and mortality. Thinking about the problem of evil and suffering can lead us to ask, what did human beings do to make this happen? In the case of this pandemic, this is not mysterious as in it sprung from nowhere, but human activity is looking to be the likely culprit. Behave like this and you and others who are not responsible may well get their fingers burned. Speaking on Radio 4 this morning, former bishop of this diocese, Rowan Williams, said that it was blindingly obvious in this pandemic that we are all connected. The Aberfan Disaster, 55 years ago on 21st October in 1966, was man-made due to the siting and instability of the spoil heap. The Grenfell Tower fire in London was due to dangerous cladding, used despite warnings and shockingly still being used. An enquiry will be held in due course into how many deaths in this pandemic are due to failures of government making a bad situation worse.
On the sea, Jesus’ wave-tossed boat would now lead us to ask what led to the extreme weather conditions. And we are used to the answer that it is human activity leading to climate change. The accumulated pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere causes conditions that rock one small boat on a lake in Israel. So, ‘don’t you care that we are perishing’ (Mark 4:35-41), is an understandable cry, but the way the world is means that the affects of one group can bring disaster to another, who feel they are unrelated to it.
The problem of suffering and evil has no easy answer to it. It shakes faith and causes the most devout to wobble at times. And if our faith is to have deep roots it has to be able to cope with such challenges. It is ministering to people at the time of their deaths that I have found quiet members of congregations to show just how deep their faith is. Not necessarily people who talked about Jesus all the time, or who made the greatest outward show of faith, we might say they didn’t need such outward repetitions to cover for spiritual insecurities. But it was a faith that knew they trusted in God, even and especially in the face of the ultimate challenge for them, their own mortality and their response was one of praise and thanksgiving. The depth of their faith shone through and it is always deeply moving and inspiring.
I am fond of a story told by the broadcaster Gerald Priestland in his book on pain and suffering, ‘The case against God’ (1984, pages 13-14). He tells the story of a group of Jews in the full horror of a concentration camp during the Second World War. They decided to put God on trial and found God guilty of the worst crime going, that of permission, making a world where these things happen. When they were done, one of their number said, ‘let us not forget, it is time for our evening prayers’. The response in the face of such horror and suffering was to find God in their praises and placing their confidence in God. When in the words of St Anselm, 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, God is ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’, the ultimate who is beyond all trials, then God is our source and goal and will not let go of the one he creates.
It might be easy to wonder if there are really two forces in eternal combat – a good source and an evil disrupter – the beast as my checkout enquirer put it. But that only goes so far. If there is to be any hope, then the good source has to come out on top. In Jesus Christ we affirm that God does indeed come out on top and is not defeated even by death. As the ultimate source and the one whose purposes include a world where things don’t always feel comfortable or smooth, to put it mildly, it is only through praises that there can be any sunlight in the darkness of suffering and pain. The book of Job ends with not so much a song of praise as a declaration of trust in God and the Christian Gospel is only remembered and proclaimed because of the joy of Easter morning. Alleluia remains our song.
Sermon for Trinity 3, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 20th June 2021