[Lambeth Palace] Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave this sermon during his visit to Christchurch, New Zealand, on 3 and 4 November 2012 – where he met with communities still recovering from the devastating earthquake nearly two years ago.
Speaking at the Eucharist at Christ’s College, Christchurch, Archbishop Williams reflected on the Gospel of John and its challenging lessons for us all in the wake of suffering, disaster and loss. “We say in the name of Jesus, ‘Take us to where it hurts most. Let us come and see.’ And we say, ‘Trust and you will see. Something will be uncovered for you in the middle of all this. In the middle of the pain, the grief, and the confusion.’”
The full text of the sermon is below.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Before anything else, I simply want to say thank you for the invitation, Victoria, Linda, and all of you, to spend this brief time in Christchurch. As many of you know, this is a city that has a rather special place in the thoughts and the affections of the other Canterbury back home, and I know that people in the city and in the cathedral congregation there would want me to pass on their love and the assurance of their prayers to you all, and it is a privilege to be able to come and do that, to share that with you, and to share some of the extraordinary experience of this city. So, thank you – it’s a delight and a privilege.
I want to speak for a few minutes about the Gospel reading we have just heard, because in so many ways it’s a deeply challenging, even shocking story. The reading begins with one of the sharpest cries of criticism and protest against Jesus that we meet anywhere in the Gospels. If you had been here, says Mary accusingly, my brother would not have died. So where were you? In the wake of any kind of suffering, disaster and loss, it’s the question that springs to the lips of all of us. And even if God were sometimes to intervene, to lift the burden of disaster, to prevent something happening, we would then meet the second great cry of protest and criticism, which comes from the bystanders of the story. ‘He opened the eyes of the blind, couldn’t he have stopped this man from dying? He does this miracle, why doesn’t he do a few more?’ So right at the start of this reading, God in Jesus Christ is on trial. It’s a theme that runs through the Gospel of St John, in fact. Again and again Jesus appears to be in the dock. He is facing criticism, he is facing challenge. In the great climax of Chapter 19 of the Gospel he faces his trial before Pilate and eventually falls silent, faced with Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’. But here in Chapter 11, it’s as if the personal feeling of countless human hearts is given expression. ‘’If you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ And so where were you?
The first thing that we might take from the Gospel reading, therefore, is that God doesn’t seem to want to silence our questions. Jesus doesn’t round on Mary and say, ‘Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about’; he doesn’t say, ‘Don’t ask me awkward questions’. What does he say? He says, ‘Take me to where the body is. Take me to where it hurts most.’ ‘Come and see’, says Mary. And when our cries of protest rise to God about suffering in our own lives, suffering in the world, suffering in our neighbours, that’s the challenge of the Gospel. Are we able, like Mary, to say, ‘Come and see. Come on God, come on Jesus, I’ll take you to where it hurts most. I lay bare my heart, my circumstances to you. Come and see.’ God does not shut us up, God does not say, ‘Don’t ask awkward questions’, but he invites us to invite him to see, to witness. And what happens next in what is famously the shortest verse in the Bible is that Jesus wept. Not only does he not say to Mary, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He doesn’t even say, ‘Well actually, I have an explanation for all this. If you’ll just sit down for half an hour, I’ll explain the universe to you so that it all becomes perfectly clear, and you can see why it was absolutely natural and inevitable that your brother died.’ Often of course, when people say they’d like explanations of suffering, they don’t really mean it. Because if you said that to them, ‘Sit down for a moment and I’’ll explain the universe to you, and you will see why there’s no problem at all’, do you think people would thank you for that? Jesus doesn’t explain. He weeps. His first reaction is that he has indeed come and seen. And he weeps. He expresses his solidarity, his absorption of the pain. He says, ‘This is mine too’. Jesus says, ‘I am not a God who lives far away in a distant heaven to whom all these sufferings on earth are a matter of indifference. What touches you, touches me, and I am going to be there where it hurts most. And you invite me to be with you where it hurts most. Know that I carry that grief in my love.’
But there’s still more. As I say, this is quite a shocking story. Jesus comes in for a great deal of challenge here. Not only Mary, but her much more bossy and forthright sister Martha is determined to have her voice as well. ‘Take away the stone’, says Jesus looking at the grave. ‘’You must be joking’, says Martha, ‘there is a three-day old corpse in there, and in case you hadn’t noticed, this is tropical weather.’ And again Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Shut up and pay attention’. He says, ‘Remember what I said: trust and you will see glory’. Trust and you will see glory. The first reaction that Jesus shows is solidarity and compassion, and the next thing he speaks about is promise. Trust me and you will see something. You will see something extraordinary that you never dreamt of. And all of that, I think, frames something of how each one of us and how all of us together as a Christian community respond to suffering and disaster. We don’t silence the protests; we let them come. We say in the name of Jesus, ‘Take us to where it hurts most. Let us come and see.’ And we say, ‘Trust and you will see. Something will be uncovered for you in the middle of all this. In the middle of the pain, the grief, and the confusion.’ This is how we respond in a God-like, a Christ-like way to the challenges of the world’s pain, the world’s suffering, to our own wretchedness and muddle. To disaster that strikes our city, our community. Don’t silence the protest; go to where it hurts most. Be a sign of promise, and say, ‘You will see something if you hold on’.
And because this is today the commemoration not only of the Cathedral’s dedication, but of all the Saints of the Church, it gives us just a bit of a clue as to how we recognise saints. Saints are very definitely not people who have perfect explanations for everything that happens. Saints may have their failings, but they’re not that annoying. Saints are people who don’t silence us, but let us speak out of what is most real to us, even if it’s painful, even if it’s challenging. A saint is somebody who says to you, ‘You have God’s permission to be yourself, even if that means pouring out the anger, misery, guilt, confusion.’ And a saint is somebody who says, ‘Let me come with you to where it hurts.’ A saint is someone who says, ‘Trust and you will see what you never imagined’, because the saints in the Church are above all the people who give us hope, the people who show us that things can be different, that humanity doesn’t have to work in a sort of cyclical, miserable reworking of resentment, unhappiness, and selfishness. Saints break that open and they tell us, ‘Trust God and God alone knows what you will see in his world, and what you will see of him.’ And it might be worthwhile this morning as we worship and reflect together for each of us to think just a bit about people in our own lives who have done some of that for us: the people who have allowed us to be ourselves, who, when we have faced deeply difficult and challenging moments, have said, ‘It’s all right to be in a mess about that. It’s all right to express that you’re angry, that you’re confused.’ Think of people in your experience who have been with you where it hurts most. Above all, think of the people who have given some sense that it could all be different.
Last night at the great Concert organised for the student volunteer army I had that vivid sense that things could be different. I was surrounded by people who were in their own way, though they would all have been deeply embarrassed by it, showing holiness. That is, they were showing that something could be different. They were trusting in the belief that they would see something change. In that sense they were standing where Jesus stands in this morning’s Gospel: not denying the confusion, the hurt, or the pain, but going where it hurts most, and above all, promising, promising glory, promising vision, promising the new life that bursts out at the end of the Gospel story, when Jesus speaks his great words, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the dead man comes out, and life is restored. A change greater than anyone could have expected arises out of that blur and swamp of anger, accusation, and confusion in which the story begins. It’s perhaps whySt John’sGospel is for so many Christians so very dear to them. Jesus is on trial. Jesus stands before his accusers receiving and absorbing the questions and the accusations that they throw at him. But instead of embarking on self-justification, instead of trying to avoid the question, instead of trying to silence people, he lets them speak until they run out into silence. And then he just says, ‘Take me where it hurts. Trust and you will see.’ For all those who have helped us to see, and have been with us in those moments, thanks be to God. They are around us this morning, living or departed, as we celebrate this feast of new life, as we affirm the great change that Jesus brings, taking into ourselves his life as our food and drink. We thank God for new life never exhausted that is his and ours in Jesus Christ and the gift of his Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
© Rowan Williams 2012