Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of my more nerdy pastimes is looking through older Episcopal hymnals and comparing the development of our own Church music over the years. Primarily, this takes the form of looking at which hymns were removed or added between, for example, the 1940 Hymnal and its immediate successor, the 1982 Hymnal which is currently in use. Sometimes it is obvious why hymns were removed. Despite its rousing tune, the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” fell into an unfortunate emphasis on human effort and a lack of any theology of grace and divine action. Some hymns, on the other hand, were taken out for reasons neither I nor some experts I’ve asked could determine. Chief in this category for me is Phineas Fletcher’s text “Drop, Drop Slow Tears”, set to Orlando Gibbons beautiful and memorable tune. Some of you may know that one.

And then there are those hymns that one has a hunch why they were removed, but bemoans their absence nonetheless. One of these is a great 12th Century hymn by the Cluniac Monk Bernard of Morlaix. Now, Bernard of Morlaix was a bitingly satirical writer in his time, and some of his works come across as a touch lugubrious. I commend to you his extended poem De Contemptu Mundi (On Contempt of the World) for a great, depressing read. Anyway, he wrote a hymn, which is really quite lovely, but I suspect it is its opening line which kept it out of our present hymnal. The hymn begins with the unequivocal declaration that “The World is Very Evil”.

Most of us don’t like to think or say much about the reality of evil, not only because it’s a little creepy but also because it presents a theological problem which all of us have probably encountered whether we knew it or not. The so-called “problem of evil”, or to use the technical term “theodicy”, has likely confronted each of us in very profound ways. We’ve all asked the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” Underlying this question is a more basic, though often unspoken problem. If God is all good and all powerful how could he allow evil to exist. How could he permit the pain and suffering which so many of us experience in such profound and life-altering ways.

We shall return to this problem, but first it must be noted that whether we find it palatable or not, evil does exist. There are “powers and principalities” to use the biblical language, which attempt to work against the purposes of God. There are circumstances, and I would go so far as to say “spiritual forces” which attempt to separate us from the love of God and which strive to hinder the progress of the Kingdom of God.

Let’s take today’s Gospel reading for an example. On the surface, it appears to be a frightening, though altogether natural situation. Jesus and his disciples are at sea, and a storm threatens to harm or even kill them. A close reading of the Greek and a more fulsome understanding of geography, however, suggests that there is more at play here than a natural inconvenience.

So, first to the Greek text, there is one particular word we find in it which colors the meaning of the story, and which our English translations do not take account of. The word is epitimao and it is what our version translates as “rebuke”. In fact this little verb shows up a number of times in the New Testament and it is always associated with the demonic. Whenever Jesus casts out a demon, he rebukes it. When, in the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus tells Peter “get me behind me Satan”, the imperative is called a rebuke. So strong is this connection that when Jesus rebukes the storm at sea, we may be sure that Mark means to tell us that Jesus is literally demonizing the storm. Jesus recognized that this particular storm was not just an ordinary effect of weather patterns, but was animated by a spiritual force which meant to consternate the work of God.

If this weren’t enough, it is significant that this particular storm is meant to have happened on the sea of Galilee. Now, some of you may have been to the Holy Land and seen the Sea of Galilee. Nearly twenty years ago now, I had the opportunity to cycle around this body of water; I am no athlete, more was I back when I did it, but I did it all in a day. Calling it a “Sea” is exceedingly generous. It is a smallish lake, about 33 miles in circumference and only eight miles across at its widest. So, Imagine driving to Fostoria and back- you’ve just about driven far enough to circumnavigate the sea of Galilee. Needless to say, we’re not talkng about being in open water, and it’s unlikely that a violent storm could come upon a ship so suddenly. Mark knew this when he wrote the Gospel, and Jesus knew this when he quieted the mysterious storm. It is not meant to be a surprise to the reader, then, that there was something dark and supernatural at work in this particular storm. That it should come upon Jesus and his disciples in the midst of their ministries suggests that there was a force working against the purposes of God which was accountable.

The scriptures affirm that there are truly forces at work against God and his people, that hardship is not always coincidence or bad luck. To put it bluntly, the Gospel affirms the reality of radical evil. In hemming-and-hawing about the matter or by the materialist conceit, the explaining away of everything in terms of natural phenomena, this evil is permitted to do its worst work. As C.S. Lewis put into the mouth of the devil in The Screwtape Letters, “the greatest trick we can play is to convince them that we don’t exist.”

So, we know that evil, radical evil, is a reality and attempts to tear apart the work of God. But this still leaves us with the question with which we began. If God is all loving and all powerful, how do these forces get away with it? Why do bad things happen to good people? If you figure that one out, write the book, get it published, and see countless theologians put out of a job, because you’ve solved the problem about which more ink has been spilled among Christian thinkers than any other.

In fact, the problem will stay with us unanswered until the end of days, because that’s precisely what God tells Job in today’s Old Testament lesson. Most of you know the story of Job. He was that righteous man in ancient times who suffered so much at the hand of the evil one. Ultimately, Job complains in words similar to our modern questions. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” God responds thusly:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements– surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? — when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, `Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

God’s answer, in a nutshell, is “you can’t understand.” None of us created the universe. None of us knows precisely where it’s going except for the glimpses of our future hope we find in Scripture. This isn’t an anti-intellectual shrug of the shoulders, as it were. It is, rather, a recognition that our own capacity for understanding is limited, which is the recognition that none of us is God. Thus, trying to solve this particular problem, the problem of evil, is actually somewhat presumptuous. In my office I have a lovely framed print a friend gave me with a quote from Flannery O’Connor which makes the point more pithily than I can do: “Evil is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”

And it is certainly something to endure. It is something which each of us will endure at some point in our lives. We cannot possibly reckon why “bad things happen to good people”, why evil exists, and that means it’s okay when any one of us cannot possibly understand the travail in which one finds oneself. We don’t need to think it’s our job to figure it out, or worse, come up with some explanation for why “God is punishing us”. That’s not how it works.

While we cannot understand the pain and distress which we face from time to time (or for some, all the time) we nonetheless have a tremendous reason for hope. Maybe Bernard of Morlaix was right and “the world is [indeed] very evil,” but ours is the God who ultimately quiets the stormy sea of our existence. We will continue to undergo much strife in these days, but we know that there is a safe harbour at the end. We know that God will ultimately put all things to rights for His faithful people. We may from time to time face ineffable fear, not knowing how God will fix things, but just like the disciples on the boat that stormy night, we may take comfort that the Lord will come and not be slow to act. For as the psalmist said:

They mounted up to the heavens and fell back to the depths; *
their hearts melted because of their peril.

They reeled and staggered like drunkards *
and were at their wits’ end.

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.

He stilled the storm to a whisper *
and quieted the waves of the sea.

Then were they glad because of the calm, *
and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

May we live confident in that hope, knowing that the harbour for which we are bound is absolute and eternal fellowship with the Lord who saved us from the stormy sea.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.