Sermon preached at a Solemn Requiem at Wakefield
16th September 2001
After the incomprehension comes horror - a combination of emotional numbness and physical sickness. We can all too easily imagine being trapped, on the hundredth story of a skyscraper, with no means of escape, or on a plane about to crash. The reality must have been far worse than anything we can imagine; but we do have some sense of what was involved.
The horror is quickly followed by overwhelming pity, and then by something else, bound to grow in the weeks and months ahead: the fear of what comes next. Will there be more attacks? Will there be war? What will happen to the world we know, with its relative security and comforts? What will happen to us?
In our incomprehension, and pain, and pity, and fear, we turn to God. But can God help? He didn't stop this happening. Could he have stopped it? And if he couldn't, can he help us now?
People often feel anger in the face of tragedy. The anger comes both from indignation, and from frustration that we cannot easily put things right. And sooner or later, for people of faith, their anger turns towards God. How dare God allow such things to happen? Is it still possible to believe in a God who is loving and good?
People tend to think of God as the all-powerful Director of the Universe, sitting up there either causing, or at least permitting, every single thing that happens down here. God's omnipotence has been one of the basic assumptions of almost every religion.
Young children see their parents as all-powerful. But there is a painful moment in growing up when we realize our parents do not control the world. This discovery is dreadful at first - but ultimately liberating. For we cannot be free until we understand that we are responsible for our actions, and that there are distinct limits to our power.
Jesus taught us to call God 'our Father'. Yet Jesus's teaching was inevitably grafted onto many ideas about God that were already current - such as the notion that God directly causes or permits every single thing that happens.
This assumption has caused a major problem for Christians, acute since the First World War. How could a good and loving God permit such terrible suffering? After the Second World War, Jews have asked the same question with particular reference to the Holocaust.
Because there seems to be no answer, a great many people have abandoned faith in God. They feel that if God did exist, he would not have permitted such horrors. But they have gone on assuming that God must be all-powerful.
Our everyday experience of being alive ought to make us question this assumption. We are free to an astonishing degree - free to act as we choose. We do not have a sense that God causes us to decide to apply for one job rather than another, or permits us to take a holiday in Spain.
Last Sunday night, I saw the second of three programmes on Channel Four about God and science. I heard again the suggestion that, far from disproving God, the processes of evolution and natural selection are an obvious way - perhaps the only way we can imagine - for God to create a universe where his creatures are genuinely free. But if we are free, then God cannot be omnipotent - not, at least, in the sense of always pulling every string.
Freedom is the necessary condition for love. Jesus reinforced the teaching of Judaism that God loves us. Six hundred years later, Mohammed taught the same thing. But if God loves us, and wants us to love him, then he had to make us genuinely free. And of course, if we're free, there's no guarantee that we may not sometimes choose evil.
All this has a specific bearing on the present world crisis. When we say we trust in God, we need to be clear that we do not expect God to pull puppet-strings and make everything all right, as if we ourselves had no freedom. That is not the way God works. He works through us. This may feel like a terrible burden of responsibility; but I believe it is no less than the truth.
God works through us, his children. All his children. Those who follow Christ; those who remain true to the Old Dispensation of Judaism; those who follow the teachings of Islam; those who are Hindus, or Sikhs, or Buddhists, or Zoroastrians, or disciples of Confucius, or those who profess no faith of any kind. All people are God's children; and it is only by seeking to work together that we have any hope of creating God's Kingdom of peace and justice and love.
This is not to say that all faiths are the same. It is to say that for people of any faith - Christians, Jews, Muslims, or anyone else - to pursue even an implicit spiritual imperialism, is to contradict the teaching of the great religions themselves, and to court disaster in world where it has become so easy for a few fanatics to wreck so much havoc so swiftly.
[Today's] Requiem is our natural response as Christians to the deaths of thousands of people. We ask God to hold them in his eternal love - not just the Christians, but all the victims. How God will do this for any of us is a mystery. But it seems obvious to the eye of faith - at least to mine - that God does love us all, both now and forever. As we pray that his love may embrace those who have died, we remember our need to love all who are alive, without discrimination.
On Thursday, I managed to speak with my father in America. He told me how hard he was finding it to say the Lord's Prayer : 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Many feel that difficulty. Yet this injunction is absolutely central to the Christian Gospel; and something very similar is found in all the other great religions.
Our relationship with God is not separate from our relationships with each other. The attacks on New York and Washington are not isolated or inexplicable acts. They are certainly horrific, and there will have to be some kind of response. But these attacks upon America, appalling and inexcusable as they are, must be the result of human relationships gone horribly wrong.
Any talk of making it impossible for anyone to do such a thing ever again must focus, not on destructive force (even though some of that may be necessary), but on the healing of relationships. And yet, because human beings are genuinely free, there can never be a guarantee that, some day, somewhere, a Cain will not kill his brother Abel.
Force, if used by itself, will only further the cycle of fear and mistrust between peoples and nations. Look at Northern Ireland, or the Balkans, or parts of Africa. Force, used by itself, only strengthens the resolve of the foe to fight back. For people of faith, the goal of every conflict must be that each side should come to see the other, not as foes, but as neighbours. That will never accomplished merely by hitting them.
So we come before God today, trusting his goodness, trusting the rightness of his way of love and peace and reconciliation, trusting Jesus Christ as our own Lord and guide, but respectful of all people, regardless of their faith - or lack of it.
We pray for the souls of all who have died, asking God to enfold them in his love. We pray for our world; for grace to create peace; for wisdom and long-sightedness on the part of President Bush, his advisors, and his allies.
Remembering the words of our Lord himself, we pray too for those who have caused such terrible suffering, asking God to turn their hearts, and thus stay their hands. We pray that the misunderstandings and offences which may have fuelled their hatred should be dispelled and healed.
And we pray that people everywhere, seeking - in their freedom - to know and do God's will, may become true neighbours, working together for a better future.
May God have mercy on us all. May the souls of the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. May God's kingdom come, on earth as in heaven. And may it be said of each one of us, that we have played our part in its creation.
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