January 27, 2010
Almighty God, may your Word be our light in the darkness, and may these words help to spread that light in the world. Amen.
Our gospel this morning is perhaps one of the best know stories about Jesus, a story that continues with our Epiphany theme of revelation—this time the revelation of God’s power and authority working in Jesus. Sometime shortly after his baptism and after calling his first disciples, we find Jesus attending a wedding in Cana—an ordinary event, to be sure but also a joyful and celebratory one. At the wedding, the supply of wine runs alarmingly low, and although he at first seems reluctant to do so, Jesus uses the most basic of elements—water—to demonstrate the power of God working through him by turning it into wine.
Turning water into wine, in the grand scheme of things, seems almost frivolous, and yet that is the miracle that first reveals Jesus’ power. In an act that is both understated and generous, Jesus demonstrates the abundance God holds for us; in doing so Jesus foreshadows a kingdom in which there is abundance for all, an abundance of those things which sustain physical life to be sure, but more importantly an abundance of the grace and love of God that sustain us spiritually.
In light of this week’s events, however—the horrific earthquake in Haiti, the unspeakable suffering and devastation in a country already living on the margins—it is hard to see that abundance; it is hard to see God’s love for the world at all. A disaster like this can test our humanity, test our faith, can move us to cry, “Where is God in all this?”
This is of course an age old question: How can evil and suffering exist in a world viewed as good at its creation by its creator, a God thought to be all knowing, all powerful, and loving? It is a question that is voiced throughout scripture, in the laments of the psalmists, in the cries of the prophets, in the plaintive voice of Job, and even in the cry of Jesus on the cross. Where are you God, and why have you forsaken me?
Over the years there have been many attempts to explain this paradox. We probably all have our own implicit theories that guide our thinking—for better or for worse. Probably one of the most common notions is one that we heard bandied about in the news this week from a well known conservative Christian: Evil and suffering are God’s punishment for sinners—people are just getting what they deserve, and haven’t we all been warned? For those of us who believe in a God who loves creation, who promises care and protection for the innocent, this type of explanation is not only inadequate but also offensive. And in the face of it, rarely are the “most evil” the ones who suffer; far more often it is the innocent—can we look into the faces of children who cry for their lost parents and really believe that they are deserving of the wrath of God being visited on them in this way?
If suffering isn’t divine punishment, could at be, as some speculate, that suffering is necessary somehow to elicit the moral qualities of empathy, compassion, and care in humans which otherwise would not be cultivated? Suffering – at least the suffering of others – does sometimes bring out the best in us—witness the outpouring of aid flowing towards Haiti right now—we do often rise to the occasion—but what about when we don’t? What about when evil begets evil and perhaps more importantly, what about those who are afflicted, those whose lives are simply destroyed by what they must endure?
Of course, we could just avoid the question of why God allows suffering and evil altogether and focus on eschatological hopes for redemption. We could embrace suffering as something to be borne because at the end time the glory we will experience in the presence of God will more than compensate for it. This approach, however, allows us to ignore suffering in the here and now and to simply shrug off the conditions in the world that we might otherwise work to change. At its worst, this kind of thinking might actually glorify suffering.
For me, these understandings of suffering and evil make no sense. They are inconsistent with my understanding—from scripture, from prayer, from experience—of a loving and beneficent God, a God whose Son became incarnate for our redemption, whose love for us seems to know no bounds. Why would a God who loves us and who created us to delight in us allow suffering, often unmitigated, to be so prevalent in the world? At the end, it remains a mystery to me, and I am forced to consider that perhaps all my attempts to make sense of it are themselves misplaced. Perhaps we are not meant to understand evil and suffering, only to live with it.
It is here that the work of contemporary theologian Wendy Farley gives me some hope, in fact, saves me from despair. Farley reminds us that we live in a world that is by nature less than perfect, a world that although created by an all powerful God, operates according to natural principles. In Farley’s view, creation is inherently defective even though created by a good God; because creation is separate from God it must be less than God and thus less than perfect, and in this fact lies creation’s “fatal flaw.” In such a defective creation the very diversity and variety that contribute to its goodness also give rise to conflicts that make suffering inescapable. The natural order of the world too contributes to humanity’s suffering. Worst of all some suffering seems irredeemably unjust.
What Farley contends is that in the face of the inevitability of suffering our energies are wasted in attempting to understand it. What is more important, ultimately, is our response to that suffering—our response and God’s.
For the God who lovingly created us, the God who showers us with abundance, the God whose authority was revealed in deeds as small as changing water into wine and as large as raising Lazarus from the dead—that God, our God, suffers along with us. And in that suffering our God works through us to make God’s presence felt.
And so, we find God in the hands that wipe away the tears of those who mourn their loved ones, we see God in the survivors who, as one eyewitness report tells us, huddle on an open field singing hymns well into the night and greeting the morning with prayer. We find God in the doctors and nurses who work in unspeakably poor conditions to heal the wounded, we encounter God in the offerings of food and medicine and clothing and money that are flooding in around the world. We find God in the outpouring of prayers for the people of Haiti, in the torrent of compassion, in the unity we find in reaching out to those who suffer.
Here’s the thing though—we shouldn’t wait for tragedy to strike to see God, to do God’s work in the world. Just as Jesus first revealed his power and authority in a relatively mundane way, turning water into wine at a wedding, rather than waiting for some more dramatic occasion, so too should we look for God’s grace and act as Christ’s body in our quotidian activities.
And so when the emergency is, when the dead are buried and the wounded are healed, when the rebuilding is over and life returns to some semblance of normality, in the space before the world’s next cataclysmic event, we must not abandon our role as Christ’s body, doing Christ’s work – in Haiti, or in New Orleans, or in Palestine, or anywhere else where there is need. For where there is suffering, there too is God—calling us to be there with him, calling us to love our neighbors as ourselves, calling us to be partake of that abundant grace God holds for each of us. Amen.
 Farley, Wendy (1990). Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy.
Westminster/John Knox Press.