Weal and Woe

Last Sunday at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, a fire started in the Biomolecular Sciences Building on the North Haugh here in St Andrews.  It happened during a routine washing up in a lab; the correct procedures were followed, and the alarm was raised.  Everybody got safely out of the building, thank God.  Fire crews quickly appeared along with the Police and the University’s own emergency response team.  Many people seemed to become aware of it about 7 pm, including students, scientists who work in the building, and the media.  I went down to the North Haugh, and saw flames at a number of windows, while lights continued to shine in neighbouring windows.  I chatted to hall of residence wardens guiding students safely to their halls, and to a policeman I used to know when he was a small boy.  It was clear that this was a major event which would have long-lasting consequences.

The following day, Monday, that became more evident.  I spent two or three hours with chemists and biologists who had gathered in the nearby Medicine Cafe.  There were countless practical issues which had to be addressed.  When could people get access to the building?  What should be done about electricity supply?  How should work be rescued?  In particular, what about the freezers and other forms of storage, in which were kept years of samples, discoveries, newly-made compounds, cell lines, cultures, reagents and many other crucial things?  Were they safe?  Salvageable?

That day, and throughout the week, a huge range of moods have been felt.  People have spoken of shock, guilt, fear, relief, loss, anxiety and exhaustion.  In some ways it has resembled a bereavement: the shocking news, gathering to be together, tears, a sense of loss, a not knowing what the future will be like in a very changed situation, numbness, tiredness.  From certain angles, the BMS Building looks OK, but from the front it is scarred, with a patchwork of blackened windows like a crazy crossword.  From some angles, the people who have worked there look whole, but many are scarred too.  In that building they have studied, run experiments, made discoveries, had successes and failures, written ground-breaking papers, shared with undergraduates, postgraduates, postdocs, colleagues, visiting scholars and others.  It has been the home for their careers, where their purpose has been fulfilled.  Listening this week, it has struck me again how deeply science runs through some people.  Understanding, discovering, synthesising, creating, collaborating, finding remedies, enriching our world – it may be a job or a subject in our degree, but for many it is way more than that: it is a significant part of the meaning of their life.

All this week, while listening to people, I have also known I was preaching today on Weal and Woe, on passages in Jeremiah and Luke, on depictions of blessing (weal is an archaic word for a sound, healthy and prosperous state) and woe (a term still used for great sorrow or distress).  And as I have listened to them, I’ve encountered a sense of woe, without doubt, but also blessing, in a way.  For the rest of this sermon, let me explore how these ancient scriptures may connect with our contemporary experience.

Our readings begin from the reality of woe.  Jeremiah knew there were places where life was difficult, when circumstances were tormenting.  He describes a desert, parched places of the wilderness, an uninhabited salt land, a year of drought.  He may well have actual material events in mind, in actual places.  But he also finds in a dry, hot, waterless place a metaphor for the troubles of life, our griefs, our sorrows, our fears and our woes.

When Jesus speaks to his disciples, he too acknowledges the reality of suffering.  After all he has just encountered crowds desperate for healing in body and mind.  And so when he speaks, he speaks of poverty, of hunger, of weeping.  The Christian faith sometimes has the reputation for overlooking suffering, for saying it is not really real, that things just appear to be bad, that death is nothing at all.  But the Bible is not so deluded.  These scriptures know all too well that life can be deeply affected by woe – by lack of money, by lack of resources, by illness and pain, by mental anguish, by fire, loss and despair, and by death.  And the Christian faith doesn’t explain away these things, saying There, there, you’re not really feeling that.  It’s just an illusion.  The Christian faith doesn’t work around woe, it goes through it.

Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  This is the same Jesus who wept when his friend Lazarus died, the same Jesus who sweat drops of blood in his anguish the night before he died, the same Jesus who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This is the same Jesus whom Christians believe is God.  We believe that God went through what we go through – sharing our fear, our loss, our anxiety and our exhaustion.  The humiliation, arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus surely gives the lie to the fake news that Christianity doesn’t take suffering seriously.

God does not work around loss and sorrow; he goes through it.  And in going through, he does not give up.  The love that took Jesus to the cross brought him to life thereafter, in the resurrection.  The one who was killed is with us now, risen, by his Spirit, still loving, still bringing to life.  Ugly scars are visible on the North Haugh, and the scars of his crucifixion remained visible on Jesus’ risen hands and feet and side.  He didn’t rewind the tape and offer an alternative Good Friday.  But the scars have been transformed in his risen life.  This is the meaning of the resurrection, that God, the loving God, is with us.

It is the meaning also of Jesus’ blessings in Luke:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

The blessing is in transformation.  The poverty, the hunger, the weeping are real. But they are not the end, the last word, the final chapter.  They will not be forever.  They are not the way it has to be.  Jesus has gone through the worst of life, and is with us, still loving.  And so he promises transformation: a community of love, fulfilment and joy.  The opposite of Christianity is not atheism – I often find huge common ground with atheists.  The opposite of Christianity is fatalism, and sadly I encounter that in the church.  Fatalism – the energy-sapping idea that nothing can change, that the future is written in the past, that it doesn’t matter what we do.  There’s a hint of fatalism in that common phrase, “It is what it is.” But even if that’s true, the Christian can go on to say, “But I trust in God. It will be different.  It will be richer.  It will be loving.  It will be beautiful.  It will be blessed.”

I have seen that sense of transformation this past week.  I’ve witnessed grief, loss, sorrow and fear.  Not every freezer was rescued.  Not all data is recoverable.  Not every career will be back on track in a week or two.  As our University website puts it, this is one of the most complex and significant challenges our university will face this century.  But I have observed this woe being transformed.  By the hard work of countless people across the University and beyond.  By people coming together to share in their common humanity, speaking, embracing, sitting silently together.  By those with particular responsibilities caring for their students and staff, thinking again and again of who has been and will be affected.  In this week of Valentine’s Day, I’d call that love.  By people budging up in their labs to make room for others.  By students expressing compassion for their lecturers, postdocs and postgrads in the lab where they are doing an Honours project.  By a renewed sense of vocation which has been palpable all week – in science, in teaching, in the worldwide community of research which has flooded the University, not with water, but with offers of biomolecular samples, lab space and expertise.  There has even been some laughter, not much perhaps, but an inkling that this will be transformed, that blessing will be known, that woe will become weal.

The scars in the BMS will be fixed, just like our wounds after surgery heal.  But in other ways the scars continue, and while the pain may lessen it will remain part of us.  The loss is real.  But it is also being transformed.  I have seen people of Christian faith, and others faiths and philosophies of life this week putting their trust in the future, that there are reasons to hope, that blessing will come.  Let us all take hope from Christ’s promise of transformation.  Having gone through the worst, he is alive, and brings life in his constant love.  Let us be part of that transformation, letting that blessing come to be.