This sermon was given by our priest-in-training, Sue, on Sunday 18 June.
On Wednesday morning we woke up to yet another tragedy. This time there was no deliberate act of violence. A London tower block 24 stories high housing over 400 people had been engulfed by fire. We know now that at least 30 died. Many more people have been injured or traumatised by what they have seen, fire fighters as well as residents. For us here this morning the question is: how can we cope in the face of so much suffering, and continue to believe in a loving God? In today’s reading Paul goes some way to answering that question. He does not explain why these things happen, but he does tell us how we can keep going in dark times.
Firstly, he says that suffering produces endurance. You might quite rightly reply that it produces other things, too. Most of us when things go wrong are angry. If an individual is responsible, we are angry with that person. Sometimes we are angry with nameless people who we know should have done more. Often we are angry with God. The Psalms are full of people expressing their anger
I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
That is one of the milder passages. Others express real fury and desire for revenge. However angry we feel, it is there in the Bible.
Anger can be positive. It can provide the energy needed to change things. Residents of the Grenfell tower block had been concerned about fire safety for several years. It is not yet clear exactly how the fire spread so quickly. But what is clear is that this is the UK, not a developing country, in the twenty first century, and we have the expertise to prevent incidents of this magnitude. And the people affected were the poorest people in social housing with very limited choices about where to live. It is scandalous that this has been allowed to happen, and those responsible must be called to account. But anger must not spill over into violence.
Until very recently Northern Ireland was a place of anger, violence and revenge. It seemed impossible to break the cycle, as every death brought about reprisals. Yet peace came by those who refused to let anger consume them. One such man was Gordon Wilson. On Remembrance Day 1987 The IRA planted a bomb in Enniskillen, just by the Cenotaph where the remembrance service was taking place. Gordon and his daughter, Marie, a nurse, were there and when the bomb exploded they were buried in the rubble. He held her hand as she lay dying. This is from a book written about the troubles:
In an interview with the BBC, Wilson described with anguish his last conversation with his daughter and his feelings toward her killers: “She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say.” To the astonishment of listeners, Wilson went on to add, “But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.
Gordon Wilson was an ordinary Christian. He worked as a draper. But in his grief his faith was strong enough to take him past anger into forgiveness. His witness affected many people, and was a turning point in the violence in Northern Ireland.
To go through the anger, the despair and the grief and to somehow carry on with life is the endurance Paul talks about in our New Testament reading. We grit our teeth and do what we must, and somehow get through it. We take it one day at a time – sometimes one hour at a time – but we get on with the business of living. Sometimes we feel no hope and dare not focus on the future but we do not throw in the towel, because that is not an option. People depend on us and we keep going: that is endurance.
Next Paul tells us that the endurance that comes from suffering produces character. For a moment let’s step back a bit from the horrors of suffering and think about endurance more generally. We encourage our young people to push themselves to their limits, to see what they are capable of. I’m thinking of projects like the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, where they go out into wild countryside, carrying all their own tents and food. They have to keep going whatever the weather – they will face times of discomfort, tiredness and loss of motivation – and that’s on a good day. We encourage them to train for sports, or take part in sponsored activities, to prove themselves, to find their limits. When things don’t go according to plan we pick them up, dust them off and encourage them to have another go. We know that a little adversity is character building. Genuine suffering is another thing altogether, and we would not for a moment wish it on those we love, but we do recognise that those who have survived it come through stronger and wiser. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is a cliché, but if we can avoid falling prey to bitterness or despair, like many clichés, it is ultimately true.
Lastly, Paul says, character brings hope. We often use the word in a weak sense – I hope to see you on Saturday, or I hope I will pass my exams. It’s a vague optimism with fingers crossed. With Paul hope is a solid and certain thing. When he looks to the future he has the complete assurance that it will be bright. For those who have suffered – which, in fact is all of us one way or another – we know that it is possible to come through it. By the power of God’s spirit we can reach the place of peace, in the knowledge that God’s love surrounds us, and his arms are beneath us, those we love, all people, and the planet itself. Jesus has proved that to us by coming to live with us on earth and dying on the cross, voluntarily sharing our pain. When we suffer, God suffers, too.
In the face of great tragedies we are not left without resources. We can, and must, pray for victims, for relatives, for the frightened, for the angry, and above all for peace and justice. We can add our voices to those who speak out for the poorest in society. And we can face the great challenge to hope in the face of suffering, and to live our lives as befits those who believe that the creator of the universe has every one of us in his care.