Suffering, Faith and Providence
There was a haunting image of a woman's face caught by the television cameras on Monday evening news bulletins. It was of Jacqueline McQuade, the mother of 18 year old Erin McQuade and daughter of Jack and Lorraine Sweeny all three of whom were killed by the Glasgow bin lorry at George Square on December 22nd. She herself would also have been killed had she not just crossed the street to go to a cash point. However she saw with her own eyes the death of her daughter and parents. 29 year old teacher Stephanie Tait also lost her life in the same accident. These four had something in common – they were Church going Roman Catholics. The nurse Pauline Cafferkey fighting for her life having contracted ebola is also a Roman Catholic whose faith inspired her to risk her life to help in the battle to stop the spread of that terrible disease. She, at least, is likely to survive and recover. But the McQuade family in particular have been struck down in an unimaginable way. I think that such tragedies must encourage atheists to ask 'What use is believing in a God who lets such things happen?' 'Is life and death not just random chance after all?' 'Christian – where is your saving God?'
We have just sung the words of Psalm 121.
I to the hills will lift mine eyes,
from whence doth come mine aid.
My safety cometh from the Lord,
who heav’n and earth hath made.
Thy foot he’ll not let slide, nor will
he slumber that thee keeps.
Behold, he that keeps Israel,
he slumbers not, nor sleeps.
The Lord thee keeps, the Lord thy shade
on thy right hand doth stay:
The moon by night thee shall not smite,
nor yet the sun by day.
The Lord shall keep thy soul; he shall
preserve thee from all ill.
Henceforth thy going out and in
God keep for ever will.
But we ourselves may ask the questions the McQuades must be asking. Did God let their feet slip? Did God go to sleep? Did God fail to watch over them. Did God fail to keep them from all harm. Did God not watch over their going out and coming in. To us there is no good purpose in the death of an 18 year old girl in particular, a 29 year old teacher, two loved parents and grandparents, not forgetting the other two women who died Gillian Ewing and Jacqueline Morton. But we do not know whether these women had any Christian Faith. The McQuades did have and so did Stephanie Tait and for that reason I want to try to make some sense of this otherwise senseless tragedy. I suppose what I'm trying to do is defend belief in God in the face of events which defy and deny that belief.
We have to ask whether these unfortunate people in any way contributed to their own demise. It seems not. How many Christian people were out Christmas shopping that day all over the world? Buying Christmas gifts is hardly a sin although the scale of the buying nowadays could well be against the best wishes of God for His people. And that leads us to consider the large cultural event that Christmas is now. It is hard to say that God is a priority for most people at Christmas time. It is undeniable that most people think of Christmas without bothering to attend worship or acknowledge Jesus as God's Son. Powerful driving forces of commercialism, materialism, money and greed combine with hedonism to characterise the Christmas period.
It is true that many who have no Christian Faith adopt a charitable outlook at this particular time of year and enter the general spirit of kindness and thoughtfulness that is abroad. Giving and receiving gifts are very happy human activities. We should acknowledge and credit all the extra charitable donations that are made for example by many many people. Even so, a prophet of the Old Testament might criticise the whole thing as a godless indulgence and challenge people to return to real Faith and Christian life and practice. Jesus himself said that life is much more important and has much more meaning and depth than getting possessions. The American inspired now global market materialist purpose of life is a form of idolatry. That Christmas advertising should be so powerful and prominent is simply wrong. It is unbalanced and what we saw of Black Friday suggests absurdity and even madness.
Real and true Christians then are vulnerable amid such a collective frenzy. If we give ourselves up to the power of what society is doing, we place ourselves at risk. Shopping has become a great leisure activity as well as a necessity. I am always astonished at the large range of things for sale that no-one actually needs. Spending money and acquiring possessions however is a human trait deeply embedded in our psyche. In the generality of life we take risks every time we go anywhere. We hear of car accidents, shipping accidents and plane accidents. You can go skating and fall and break your wrist or go roller blading and fall and break your ankle. Football spectators are at risk. Remember the Ibrox Disaster and the Hillsbrough disaster. Extraordinary coincidences occur to hurt injure and kill. Some school children went on an expedition to the North Pole. One boy died after being attacked by a polar bear during the night. You have often heard the saying 'Wrong place – wrong time'. Think of the Clutha Bar tragedy and now the Glasgow bin lorry tragedy. Why did the helicopter lose power and fall to earth directly above the Clutha Bar? Five meters difference would have saved the lives of those who died. Why did the crew members not stop the runaway truck? Why did they not switch the engine off, knock it out of gear, pull the hand brake or use the emergency cut off? 300 meters is along way to travel without seemingly doing anything to stop the carnage. Did the driver have health problems he had not told his employer about? We may never know the answers to these questions. Death is life. People die of cancer, many in earlier years. Other diseases overtake the human condition every day everywhere.
Jesus was asked about these kind of disasters as we heard in the Gospel reading earlier. Two recent random incidents were presented to him. Pilate's murderous cruelty towards some zealot insurrectionists and the fall of the Tower of Siloam on top of 18 people all of whom died. If you rebelled against the Roman Empire then you took a great risk that you would suffer in the end. To that extent violence has its own outcomes. But in the case of the accidental deaths Jesus said very clearly that those who were unfortunate enough to be caught were not to blame for their deaths. It was not a punishment. They were no better and no worse than anyone else going about at the time. If we apply his logic to recent events in this country then we have to say that the McQuade family were not singled out for punishment by God for anything.
However Christianity has always taught that there is an evil influence in the world. Christianity has always suggested that Christians in some way are targets for hurt, damage and danger. It seems to be the case quite often that a Christian here and there is the victim of what otherwise seems a random occurrence. One of the New York policemen Rafael Ramos, recently murdered, was training to be a chaplain. But by and large in any year on earth many people are killed in everyday life in all sorts of circumstances. Think of the young people killed on our roads through inexperienced driving. Christians are part of that mix. There was no intention to kill the revellers in the Clutha Bar. It was not a deliberate act. Three people in the helicopter also died. There was no intention to kill six shoppers in George Square that day. Machines are fallible. Humans are fallible. Mistakes are made. Sometimes there is a dimension of human negligence as in the Costa Concordia cruise ship sinking.
However for Christians – there is a difference. We pray faithfully and always for God's help and protection. No doubt the McQuade family had done so all their lives. Which of you does not pray for your family and friends? Do you not ask God to watch over them? Keep them from harm? And so we are back where we started. Archbishop Tartaglia went to see Jacqueline McQuade and just wept with her. For he had no answers. Why did God allow this to happen? We do not know. Jesus however did not leave things there. He warned people that this is the way life is. Be prepared for any eventuality, he said. Be ready. Repent of your sins and make your peace with God. Live with a clear conscience, forgiven and saved. We need to do more. We need to take the opportunity that Christian life and calling gives us. We cannot waste the days, months and years. We can put them to good use in the Lord's service. We can wake up and become alive to the Living God. We can give ourselves a shake. We can open our hearts to the Risen Jesus Christ. We can be pro-active in our Christian commitment.
At the beginning of this – another year of Grace – let me share some things with you. In the Session Room there is a list of the Sundays of 2015 for people to volunteer to read the Bible lessons. Hardly anyone has done so. It means that I have to telephone or email around to get someone to read on Sundays. Every week of 2014 requests for readers were read out in the Intimations. Often I still had to find someone. What is wrong with you? Why is that list not filled up? Why can you not even offer to read the Bible lessons when you are more than able to do so? Do you have to wait to be asked? Why does no-one come to the weekly prayer meeting? Why do you not come? People moan about the state of the congregation but they do not see the need to pray about it. That's where the answers will come from. Some people are still testing God's patience by putting in feeble offerings. And some with gifts and skills are withholding them from the Lord's need and service. These are just examples of a lack of interest and seriousness in Christian life.
Do not give in to depression, despair and negativity. Jesus rose from the dead. Resurrection, recovery, revival are all possible. But you need to play your part. You must respond to the Lord's call. The days are evil. There is a fight on for Christianity and you need to care about it and do something about it. The McQuade family have the peace and consolation of their Christian faith and the promise of eternal life and salvation in Jesus Christ for those they have lost. The media speak only of the sadness of their loss at Christmas time. But the truth is that the real meaning of Christmas came true for the McQuade family and for the family of Stephanie Tait in both the most heart breaking and most comforting way.
Get going then. Get moving. Jesus Christ needs you and this this land needs Jesus Christ. Be ready. Be awake. Be active. Discover the joy of Christian living and witness and service throughout this 2015.