Alas! Today, in the UK, the name Jimmy Savile is a byword for paedophilia at the heart of the British media and entertainment establishment. Held in such high esteem for his prodigious charity as well as entertainment work, feted with many honours and even knighted by the Queen and the Pope, Jimmy Savile turns out to have been a man with a severe personality disorder and a sickening and prolific sexual and child abuse habit. When, after his death, the full details began to emerge in 2012, the British Police described the alleged abuse as ‘staggering’ and ‘on an unprecedented scale’. The fall-out included the kind of expose we have also known in Australia, as a whole series of other offenders began to be identified, including Rolf Harris. As in Australia, such investigations also began to uncover whole cultures of neglect or buck-passing within revered institutions like the BBC. In Australia, much focus has been on our Churches, but we know the scourge of abuse has been much more widespread. Painfully, we are still hearing fresh stories, of abuse, and cover-ups. Determinedly we are seeking to do all we can to put into place both specific measures and a whole culture of care and awareness that seek to eliminate any such actions again. So, let me say again, as our Archbishop asks our clergy to repeat regularly, that if you, or anyone you know, has any information to share about sexual abuse, please come forward, to myself (as Rector) or to one of our designated child safety officers. You are assured of full confidentiality and any information you have will be passed on to the appropriate authorities and acted on. Our Church is not now, and cannot ever be again, anything other than fully supportive of handling abuse claims. For such abuse is one of the deepest stains on our church and national culture. We cannot simply Fix It for anyone who has been abused, but we can seek to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.
Now I have mentioned Jim’ll Fix It and Jimmy Savile’s abuse, because I think both of them can be similar to ways that some people approach God. On the one hand, it is possible to want a God who simply ‘fixes’ things for us. In a way, that is a kind of understandable, but naïve, childish way of looking at God. If only we pray, and act in the right way, then God will fix things for us or for those for whom we care. Sometimes that can indeed seem to come true but we will also be left terribly disappointed, and even traumatised, if we continue to relate to God simply like that. For, on the other hand, the experience of suffering in our world will ultimately betray the hopes we have in God if we continue to think of God in that way. Indeed, when things turn out very badly, we may even begin to think of God as a monster, even a bit like Jimmy Savile, when terrible things happen to good people. God may then not only seem to be of no use, but even malevolent: that is the experience of many people and a powerful reason for the rejection of Christian Faith today.
The brilliant British-Australian artiste Tim Minchin once wrote a typically biting satirical song about what we might call the Fix It God. Entitled ‘Thank You God’, it expresses the widely held atheist challenge, that if God does exist and hears some prayers for some Christians, then why doesn’t God fix the really big things like war, natural disasters and horrendous diseases in the extremely poor places in our world? It is a good question if we cling to a 'God’ll Fix It' idea of God. Ultimately, as another highly intelligent and articulate entertainer, Stephen Fry, has put it, the Fix It God becomes an ‘evil, capricious, monstrous maniac’. Why, for example, he says, if God is all-powerful, does God allow cancer in children, and insects whose only purpose is to burrow into the eyes of their victims? If such a divine creator does exist, why would we want to worship such a God?
Why indeed? One of the things about atheist protests about suffering is that they are right, though not about God That kind of God is not worth believing in. As Christians we simply waste our time and appear stupid and immoral if we disagree. Why don’t we agree on that point, and then move on to what really helps and what atheists miss? Jesus did. Take a look at today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is talking about two terrible events which were in the local news. The first was an act of horrendous political cruelty and human barbarism. The second was what we call a natural disaster. In both cases, a falsely pious response is to say that they were still part of God’s plan: and that those who were horribly murdered or tragically killed must have been being punished for their sins. Jesus however is having none of that. He’s with Tim Minchin and Stephen Fry on human suffering and natural evil in creation. These things, Jesus is saying, are not to do with God. God is not Mr Fix It. When such bad things happen to people, it is not generally because they are better or worse than others. They are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. What matters is how we respond. This is the central point of Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel today. He thinks it stupid to try to explain horrendous suffering and still more so if we try to drag God into it. What we must do however is to share in metanoia: repenting - turning around from despair - in, and to, the power of the love of God.
That is the best response to atheism, isn’t it? Trying to defend a God who is not worth believing in, might seem pious and worthy but it is wrong and self-defeating. The right and creative response to atheism is to look at Jesus himself and what he does. Forget, says Jesus, philosophical justification of the unjustifiable. Evil and suffering are cruel and wrong and they are not punishments of God. Some evils and suffering may be things we bring upon ourselves but others are simply meaningless: unless and until, that is, we give them meaning, - until we turn around and share fully in the love and mystery of God. And that, really, is the heart of Christian Faith, isn’t it? God is not interested in playing games of punishment or relief. God is the eternal source of that love which creates all things and seeks their fullest good. And that love is ultimately unbeatable and worth trusting in, even in the worst of all suffering and evil, even in the cross of Jesus, the greatest symbol of the ultimate power and triumph of our God of Love. A great English writer put it this way: the core of Christian Faith, she said, is not about giving a supernatural explanation of suffering, but a supernatural use of it. Do you see what she, and Jesus, in our Gospel today, is saying? Atheists may understandably rail against unjust suffering and evil, but what can be done about it?
Jesus’ answer is the way of the cross, which is the way of true prayer, the way of sharing in eternal pain-bearing, evil-transforming love. For when we pray, we are not, first and foremost, asking God to fix things, as seeking to share in that eternal love which will save, and heal even that which seems impossible to fix. So let us pray, as Jesus taught us, in Jim Cotter’s wonderful paraphrase:
Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker, Source of all that is and shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: The Hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth! With the bread that we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen.