The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Note: This text is a transcription from the recorded audio.
Gracious God help us always to seek the truth come whence it will, cost what it may. Amen.
As you may have detected from the Scriptures chosen for this evening, the hymnody, and certainly that incredible procession coming in of the various ministries of this Cathedral, my intention in planning this service was to focus on urban ministry and outreach—particularly as it relates to this city and this nation—and how the Cathedral is responding to those needs, and I’m still intending to do that. I think I’d get pelted if I didn’t, but I’ll confess to you that very early this morning when I was out for a walk, I felt led to go even more deeply into those issues and to explore the issue of where is God in the midst of suffering.
I don’t think we can look at the news, and what’s happening in Japan, an incredible tragedy, and what’s happening in the Middle East, and North Africa, and not ask where are you? In part this came to me out of the psalms class on Monday night, and one of the psalms that we were looking at was Psalm 46. Listen to the first few versus of that psalm:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
You can imagine the conversation that led us into, which is, Where is God in the midst of suffering? And that took us to the book of Job, not surprisingly, probably one of the best known books of the Bible that explores those tough issues. And, of course, in Job we’re looking at the wisdom tradition of retributive justice, meaning that the righteous will prosper and the wicked perish. Though we know from our own experience that’s not true, and of course the book of Job tries to explicate how this can happen. If God’s good and God’s just, and God’s powerful, what’s wrong with this picture? And you’ll recall that Job was righteous but every form of malady besets him.
His three friends come at first to be present to him—their most gracious and pastoral moment was when they just sat with him in silence for seven days. It then went downhill from there. They argue with him out of the wisdom tradition, saying there must be something wrong with you, and we know from Hebrew Scripture that people did believe that if you had some malady in your life, you deserved it. You look at Rachel and Elizabeth and the fact that they were barren and it was believed because they had some great sin, or someone generations earlier had been been very sinful and so God punished them.
In Rabbi Kushner’s very famous and popular book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he looks at the Book of Job and he basically holds three tenants in tention. One, God is just. Two, God is powerful. Three, Job is righteous. Well those three things can’t simultaneously be happening in the wisdom tradition, and so Job’s friends decide that, of course, God is just. God is powerful. Therefore, Job is not righteous; Job is not innocent. Job looking at the wisdom tradition says, I know I’m innocent and I know I’m righteous, and I certainly know God is powerful. Job has experienced that firsthand. So he decides that God is not just, that God is capricious, and that God punishes both the righteous and the wicked.
What Kushner’s book doesn’t explore is yet another alternative, which is Job is righteous, God is just, but perhaps God is powerful in a way that they don’t imagine. Perhaps God doesn’t exercise power to reach in and rescue, or to reward or punish. Perhaps God has us in the world vulnerable. So, that leaves us with the question, Where is God in the midst of suffering? I think that if we look at our Christianity as the expression of God’s incredible love to us and for us in the form in life and revelation of God in Christ Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—we realize that God is with us when we suffer. God heard the cries of the Israelites in bondage in Egypt. God loved us enough to take on human flesh and be incarnate and be up on the cross. The theology of the cross is what we hold fast to, that God does hear us, that God is with us.
One of my good friends and former rectors and mentors Luis León, the rector of St. John’s Lafayette Square, used to preach a lot about how God provides minimum protection but maximum support—minimum protection but maximum support. I think that when our world becomes stormy, I mean, we all believe we are good people and that good things should happen to us, so that it rocks us to the core when bad things do happen to good people, to innocent people as we see in Japan. But Christianity is not a protection plan. It is, as one priest-quipped, If Christianity were a protection plan, I don’t think we would choose a cross for a logo. And there’s a lot to that.
Suffering is all around us. We don’t have to look very far, and when you saw all these wonderful folks, processing in, holding up signs of the ministries in which we are engaged…this Cathedral is out there with those right in front of us who are suffering. Clothing the naked. Feeding the hungry. Tending the sick. Visiting the prisoners and setting the captives free, all under the leadership of our wonderful Cathedral missioner, Patty Johnson, who has to be one of the most compassionate and passionate advocates for those on the margins that I’ve even known, and certainly with whom I’ve ever had the privilege to work. The question becomes how do we see Christ? How do we see God in the midst of suffering?
I’d like to posit the view that we see God in the midst of suffering in one another. The love and compassion of Christ that dwells within each one of us and that calls us to reach out to those who are hurting. Jesus told the disciples that he wouldn’t leave them abandoned. He wouldn’t leave them orphaned, that he would send another, an advocate, a comforter. The Greek word is paraclete. It means one to walk alongside you. He was referencing the Holy Spirit. That the gift of the Holy Spirit would come and dwell around us, and dwell within each one of us. Christ’s own love and life dwelling and abiding in each one of us, empowering us to reach out to those who are suffering.
In terms of the people in Japan, it’s horrific. It’s almost incomprehensible. What we can do now as a community of faith is pray. In time there will be more hands on, tangible things that we can do to help respond to that enormous need, but for today we pray, and you’ll see soon some special prayer cards for the people of Japan that are going to be a part of our worshiping and daily community. But tonight we do have the opportunity to do something very tangible. At the conclusion of this service, we’re going to go straight to the back of this Chapel—the oldest Chapel in the Cathedral—and make 500 sandwiches that will be taken to Friendship Place to feed the hungry in this city, the nation’s capital. The capital of the most prosperous country in the world, where people are hungry and don’t have a place to sleep, and tonight you will have a chance to respond.
So back to the original question: Where is God in the midst of suffering? I think all you have to do is look around. At the end of Psalm 46, the psalmist has God saying, “Be still and know that I am God.” God is with us always, as near as our next breath, yesterday, today, and forever.