Sunday, January 17, 2010
A medical orderly waves flies off an old man asleep on the ground outside his nursing home in Port-au-Prince, Sunday. (Julie Jacobson, AP Photo)
I have been thinking about one of the points which was made in the sermon this morning. The reading was about Jesus turning water into wine. Now that “sign” (as John would have it) is pretty much like a magician’s trick, let’s face it. The wine runs out at a wedding. A worried Jewish mama wonders if her son can do anything about it, to avoid embarrassment. The son needs to be pushed a bit, but then starts working this magic trick with water. And everything turns out a really good vintage at the end.
When I studied Theology, I was interested to read something very similar in the pseudonymous Gospel of Thomas. (The 3rd Century Gospel of Thomas was one of about 19 “Gospels” from which the 4 Canonical Gospels were eventually chosen). There was a curious passage in it where Jesus moulds clay pigeons on the Sabbath. When people object to this, he claps his hands and the pigeons fly away. I have often compared these two supposed incidents and wondered what on earth the difference between them might be.
The priest this morning wisely did not dwell on the nature of miracle. In John’s Gospel, in any case, they are never referred to as miracles – they are “signs”. So, what might this be a sign of then? The preacher raised an interesting point – that this event (whether historical or not is irrelevant) took place in the context of a party, where people were getting drunk. A titter went through the congregation. He made the point that this story is about the abundance of God. The generosity of God. The sheer extravagance of God.
Only yesterday, I was having a discussion with my Mother-in-law. We were talking about the recent fatal shark attack on Fish Hoek beach this last week. She would have it, that God is in control of everything. When your time is up, it is because God decided that this would be the moment of your death, at the start of things. I suspect that besides sheer fatalism, there is something comforting which she finds in this notion. God is in control. God makes decisions about things and there is a level of dependability – even comfort in that.
Mischievously, I raised the issue of Haiti to her. I asked her whether God also had that in the plan from the beginning of time? She fell silent. I knew she would, as have scores of my students before. It is impossible to posit a loving, all-powerful deity in the face of manifest evil.
It is an age-old problem for theists, of course. The existence of evil. But it takes a Haiti to bring it into the sharpest relief. What kind of a God would allow that sort of thing to happen? What kind of a God would do nothing to stop it, if it is was something in that God’s power to put a stop to? Either God is powerless to stop it; or not loving; or evil. Those are your options. Those are your only options.
So, to hear a sermon, this morning in church on the abundance of God, the generosity of God, the extravagance of God, as illustrated in the story about changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana needs to be unpacked in relation to the devastation going on before our eyes in Haiti. Those two pictures need to be placed side by side.
And curiously, Christianity is not just about a God up there. It is also about a God who is “one of us”. Who suffers terribly, and who dies. That too is some of the extravagance of the Christian God. If it wasn’t for that aspect, I would venture to say, the Christian God would be ultimately demonic, utterly capricious and lacking in any moral perspective whatsoever. With it, there is, at the very least, an element of conundrum. And there are some who would say, that saves the day from a philosophical perspective.
For the rest of us, all we can do is find some way to show compassion to people who are suffering. If we do so as church, that is fine. As mosque, as temple. For some of us that living of compassion is the only way to demonstrate the nature of the divine (and indeed to experience the divine in that activity). By being as human and as humane as we are able.