Sermon: After the Tsunami
Preached on 16th January 2005
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
I need to return to the tsunami. Three weeks on, the shock is subsiding a little, though not our prayers and profound sympathy for its victims, and not our determination to support the relief effort that is truly a global expression of care.
The questions raised by this terrible wave that crashed on to the shores of the Indian Ocean have not gone away. They are not new, of course, or different from the questions faith always asks in the face of suffering. The Books of Job and Jeremiah, the laments in the Psalms, the passion narrative all testify to the Bible’s honest scrutiny of human pain, whether due to natural causes or human agency. Sometimes, as in Psalm 88, it’s as if the light just goes out: that psalm, a bitter cry emanating from the depths of God knows what suffering, that ends in sheer despair with the single word ‘darkness’. Sometimes, faith rises to extraordinary heights, inconceivable to most of us, as when Job says: ‘though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’; or the prophet, in an oracle unmatched anywhere in the Bible for its daring, says: ‘I am the LORD and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.’
We have always lived in world full of threat and risk. The universe, necessarily, is a violent place. Its huge energies, unleashed in the births of galaxies, stars and planets, have made our earth what it is, capable of sustaining and cherishing life, sustaining and cherishing us. In its 4000 billion year history it has experienced tectonic convulsions, solar flares, volcanic eruptions, meteorite impact, climate change the like of which human beings have never seen in the microscopically brief time we have been here. Some of these global events have been so catastrophic that they have extinguished millions of living species, abruptly changed the course of evolution: we would not have evolved without them. What is more, cosmologists tell us that if the physical constants that define the universe were even minutely different, it could not exist: we could not exist. Providence has tuned them thus. The anthropic principle suggests that only this universe of danger and flux could give birth to us: it was, in a way, expecting us. Risk and accident are the price we pay for being here.
Our forebears understood this, that nature is bigger and more powerful than we are. Only our Promethean generation finds it hard to think that we are not gods, cannot do all things or know all things, cannot tame and control the awesome forces that fashioned us. This is the only ‘sense’ we can make of the calamity of these past weeks, the only meaning it carries in the divine scheme of things. The worst thing we can do for its victims is to engage in speculative theodicy. It is futile to ask ‘where was God on Boxing Day?’ Like the Book of Job, we know that the victims of this and every other disaster did not deserve this. There is no logic to it, no fairness. We simply cannot speak about why it happened, other than in terms of natural causes we understand. We demean the dignity of those caught up in this disaster if we try to explain. In the face of that whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent; and only speak the concrete, incarnated words of compassion and practical care.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his thoughtful piece in the Sunday Telegraph the week after the wave, recalled the Aberfan disaster of 1966, when our generation were teenagers. Amid the clamour of vacuous speeches pouring piously from the lips of religious people, he heard only one word of real wisdom and comfort. The Archbishop of Wales at the time said: ‘I can only dare to speak about this because I once lost a child. I have nothing to say that will make sense of this horror today. All I know is that the words in my Bible about God’s promise to be alongside us have never lost their meaning for me. And now we have to work in God’s name for the future.’ Canon Bill Vanstone wrote about Aberfan in his book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, that God was not at the top of the slurry heap pushing it down on to that school and all those children who died, but at the bottom of it, at the receiving end of its grief and pain.
This is what we must say to one another about the tsunami: that God is its victim too. On Boxing Day he was where he always is: in the sea and on the beaches, in the shanty towns, cities and resorts, among the crowds, amid the elderly, the children, and the poor. And because of this, he is not far from all who have suffered or died or been bereaved. Why do I believe this? Because of the passion, because it was the destiny of the one who made the cosmos and walks among the galaxies, who came among us to become a victim of pain and death. St John never loses sight both of the cosmic significance of the Word made flesh and of his call to walk the way of the cross for us all. In this morning’s reading, John the Baptist points to the Lamb of God who comes as saviour of the world. The world – that is where I want to lay the stress – cosmos in Greek, this beautiful, mysterious, dangerous, life-giving and life-taking world that is our home.
For the Hebrews the sea was a deeply ambiguous place: so sustaining, yet always carrying the threat of demonic, chaotic forces that would wrench the land from the fragile hold of agriculture and civilisation. To the peoples of the Indian Ocean, the sea can never again simply be a thing of beauty, enjoyment and livelihood. It will always bear the memory of fear and destruction. Yet faith does not fail when it cannot understand or explain. Think of one of our best-loved psalms, perhaps written out of some calamitous watery disaster.
God is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea. Though the waters thereof rage and swell, and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same. Be still, then, and know that I am God. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.