A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on December 16, 2012.

A couple of months ago  I published a book called The Beowulf Trilogy in which Part III is “Yrfa’s Tale.” My first sequel to Beowulf, published six years earlier,  followed a warrior’s effort to lead his tribe to a safer place but Part III, Yrfa’s Tale,  looks at the same events  through the eyes of the warrior’s wife, and halfway through she talks about their first child  and how the baby died in an epidemic not yet two year’s old.

“ I almost envied her,
To be at rest, beyond the rub and rush
And weariness of wending in this world,
But I would ask the question none can answer:
Of all the evils in this life of ours,
The constant care and conflict crushing us,
Why has the Heaven Ruler high above
Assigned the little ones to suffer so?”

There are many things that can be said  after Newtown, many things that need to be said, about the anger that flares out of control  in our society and the prevalence of violence and the role of government  but the first question is always “Why?”  You can explore that question at many levels:  the easy questions are the practical ones: Why did this man explode in violence?  Why were guns so available?  Why don’t we have a society that deals better with people in trouble,  and doesn’t make these explosions so easy? Why are there more than twice as many deaths from guns in this country  as in any other western democracy  and more than three times as many as in Canada? What are we doing wrong?  What can we change?

But those are the easy questions  that we have to answer together later.  The harder ones, if I can put it this way,  are my department. Why did God create a world with so much pain?  Why so much suffering?  John Milton in Paradise Lost  said his purpose in writing was  to “justify the ways of God to men.” And that’s the number one priority of the preacher:  not so much to explain, to answer all questions,  as to put things in context, to provide the balance and the perspective  that are always absent in the immediate chaos.

Why?  Why?  That’s always the question we ask first and, as I said, we can explore it  at many levels.  But the deepest level asks:  Why do bad things happen?  Why should children suffer?  The human instinct is to look for an explanation.  We want the world to be logical and human civilization exists  only because we expect the world to be logical and instinctively look for reasons. If we know why, we can do something about it,  so we look for reasons.

Almost ten years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner  wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People  and it was on the best seller list for weeks. Kushner set out to explain “Why?” He reduced the options to two logical choices:  either God is not almighty or God is not good. Well, yes, in terms of human logic  those are the choices.  A good and all powerful God that we can understand would not allow such evil. So either God is not good  or God is not almighty. Kushner chose option One:  God is not omnipotent. But that assumes God answers to human logic  and that human logic can answer all questions.

But why should we assume that? The Book of Job confronts the same question.  Job was a good man and dreadful things happened to him and his friends, using human logic,  implored him to recognize  that he must have done bad things. But Job resisted  and finally God spoke  and God asked the obvious question:  “Where were you  when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4)  How can the created thing  know the Creator’s mind?

Every child asks every parent that question:  Why? And every parent learns to say, “Because,”  because the child is too young to understand. Eventually the child will be old enough  for better answers. When children become adults and have an adult understanding they can be given adult answers. But human beings do not grow up to be God  or arrive at God’s understanding. There will always be “Whys” beyond us.  We can’t assume  there are answers to every question that we will understand. At a point we have to be satisfied  with the answer that doesn’t satisfy the child and can’t really satisfy us:  Because.  Just “Because.” It doesn’t satisfy our need for reasons  we can understand, but we are not God.

If I were God, I would do things differently,  but I think we are better off with God running things than with me. I don’t understand and I’m not sure I will ever understand but God is all powerful and God is love  and that’s all I need to know.

I do, however, know one thing more  and that one thing more makes all the difference: it’s “incarnation.”  God made us  and therefore God knows  how little we understand and therefore God came into this world  to be with us in all our limitations. That’s what Christmas is all about:  God here, God in human life, God in a cradle, God on a cross,  God suffering for us, God suffering with us.  As the Bible also says: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are.”  (Heb.4:15). Our God is not some distant impersonal power  but One who comes to be with us. That, for my money, is the only reason to be a Christian:  God knows our sorrows. God has been here. And God is here.

An incarnational faith has more than words to offer.  Jesus left us a meal to share, a physical evidence of God’s presence.  Not just words, but bread and wine, something tangible,  something physical, something real.  Not just words. There’s a point in the musical My Fair Lady  when Eliza sings:

“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
Don’t talk of stars burning above; If you’re in love, Show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire. If you’re on fire, Show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don’t talk of spring! Just hold me tight!”

Now, that’s incarnational religion:  “if you’re in love, show me!” And God does love us and has shown us. St John wrote to his fellow Christians: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”  (1 Jn.  1:1)

So God shows us God’s love  physically: on the cross, in the sacraments, outward signs of inward reality. Did you notice on Saturday – how could you not – how people were hugging each other? Parents were hugging children,  parents were hugging parents, strangers were hugging strangers. And when they brought on the experts and asked,  “What should we do?” They said, “Hug each other.”  We don’t need grief counselors to know that,  do we?  We do it instinctively. We are what God made us to be:  physical human beings,  who instinctively reach out  for the physical contact that reminds us of who we are.  We are not isolated, self-sufficient individuals but part of the human family  who cannot survive alone.

It would be nice to have answers,  to be able to explain, to use our reason to find answers and cope,  but we cope better by hugging, by coming together and being what God made us to be  and what God also has shared. When they brought children to Jesus  he didn’t sit them down to hear Bible stories, he took them up in his arms  and hugged them.

Our worship here today  is structured around that point.  Half way through the service  we stop talking for a while and reach out to each other physically.  A sermon is important but not the center. A sermon can help but it never has all the answers  Anyone who tells you they have all the answers is someone who is ducking the hard questions.

Finally, you know, there’s a question for all of us as we move on:  in the close-knit fabric of human life, what role do we play now? Are we doing more to increase anger or to deepen unity?  Every cross word, every impatient release of anger,  changes the world. Most people are not murderers  but most of us do yield to anger from time to time and whatever we do spreads like the ripples in water when a stone is thrown.

I read a book recently called The Confederates in the Attic.  It’s a book that explores the way  the Civil War still poisons our relationships. There were no winners in that war.  You can’t kill 750,000 people and then just move on.  You can’t kill one and just move on. John Donne said it best 400 years ago:

No man is an island, Entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own or of thy friend’s were.
Every man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

When theologians tell us that the cross  is God’s way of showing us the consequences of human sin  it’s hard to argue the point. Sin has consequences.  We are all one body. Every human act has consequences  and the first lesson to draw from this last week is that we need to love each other more,  to forgive each other more quickly, to be more patient, more kind. It’s simple, almost trite, but essential.  Two weeks ago we were reminded  how President Roosevelt, on a dark day seventy-one years ago, told us that December 7, 1941, was “a date that will live in infamy.” I wonder whether December 14, 2012, can be a better date: a date to remember not for revenge  but for renewal.
Let the deaths of these children not be in vain.
Let us resolve to make a difference in their memory, to be different ourselves.
Remember the children,
and be kind,
and forgive.

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