Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pentecost 22C (Luke 18.15-30)

Recently, I’ve been having a few pangs of conscience, and I guess I should really admit it – I’m not really very green.

Of course we do the obvious stuff – sorting the recycling rubbish from the other stuff, we’ve got a worm farm that eats up all our vege scraps because actually that’s just as convenient as throwing them in the bin – and a whole lot more fun – also we’re gradually changing over to the new lightbulbs that give out an unearthly anaemic glow but don’t use as much power, and we’ve bought a water-wise washing machine – but to be honest we could do a lot more if we set our minds to it – and to tell the truth whenever I read about level five water restrictions in Brisbane or melting polar ice caps in the Arctic I do get this guilty feeling that I might have had something to do with that ...

How green is green enough?  There was a program on TV a little while ago where a sort of Green Gestapo would descend on some profligate household with a TV in every room and an industrial sized electric hot water system working overtime trying to cope with the 45 minute showers and work out how many tonnes of carbon per year the environmental vandals were spewing into the atmosphere – then they’d make “recommendations” – any resemblance to a totalitarian regime was strictly intentional, I guess, and after a few months come back again to see how their victims measured up – I was struck by the fact that the tonnes of carbon per year each of us emit seemed almost to be the new measure of personal morality – without trying to make light of a serious issue it seems we’ve created for ourselves a whole new way of feeling guilty and anxious. The danger seems to be in getting so judgemental and hung up about the whole issue that we lose sight of the whole idea of living in joyful harmony with the environment and one another.

How holy is holy enough for the kingdom of God, and when does holiness flip over into a sort of looking down the nose at people who don’t recycle their spiritual grey water?  This is more or less where we’ve been going with Luke’s gospel for the last couple of weeks, and Jesus keeps upsetting his audience by giving them example after example showing that real righteousness might just be the opposite of what they’d always assumed.  We got the example of the grateful Samaritan, the outsider with the wrong religion who recognises his true relationship with God and returns to give thanks – then the persistent widow who keeps on badgering the unjust judge until she gets justice is a reminder that God is on the side of the vulnerable and the poor, and last week we heard the story of the righteous tax collector whose prayer hits just the right spot – “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.  Jesus’ listeners get the point, and so do we – holiness is not about looking holy, or even about doing good – holiness is about recognising the truth about our own lives and the truth about our relationships with one another and with God.

We get the point.  We know that sometimes we’re hypocritical and that our rhetoric sometimes doesn’t match our actions, and we can work on that.  We do recognise the contradictions when church becomes a club for “nice” people, or for educated people, when the loud or disturbed or unkempt are subtly filtered out.  We take Jesus’ point that God’s priority is for the downtrodden and the broken and the unsavoury who know their need for God’s mercy better than the comfortable and the sanctimonious, and even if deep down we recognise that our priorities are sometimes a bit different from God’s, we’d like to think we’re working on it.

But today, Jesus raises the stakes.  We could relate to the Samaritan, we could relate to the widow and even, in our deep-down awareness of our own lack of perfection, we related pretty well to the tax collector.  Now Jesus insists on hob-nobbing with children – and here we need to put aside our 21st century preconceptions, because the ancient world wasn’t quite as child-friendly as ours.  Parents, no doubt, loved their children but with 30% infant mortality and about two-thirds of the survivors dying before their 16th birthday you didn’t get too attached.  Not only was childhood a vulnerable and precarious existence, children didn’t really get treated as actual people who mattered.  Maybe these parents wanted a blessing or two to skew the odds.  We don’t know why exactly the disciples were trying to shoo them away, maybe they were just being good minders but Jesus says ‘no, let them come’ – not just because children are the future of the church – not because they’re cute, which they probably weren’t – not even because it’s how we treat the weakest and the most vulnerable that shows whether or not we’ve actually got what Jesus has been on about all this time – but because there’s something here you grown-ups had better pay close attention to.  Not only are children OK by God, but the only way you’re going to be OK by God is if you too can come as a child.  That’s what Jesus says to them.

You see, it just got even harder being green.  Jesus says something similar in John’s gospel, something that on the face of it is just as impossible, he says to Nicodemus, unless you are born afresh, unless you are born from above, you’re not going to get the point, and you can’t get into God’s kingdom – and Nicodemus says the obvious and the sensible thing, the thing that shows he’s totally missed the point – well, how can you be born afresh when you’re already grown up?

Today, Cameron has brought along his mum and dad, and his big sister Ella, because he’s going to baptised.  When I had a hold of Cameron for the first time the other evening, I think I got a glimpse of what Jesus was talking about.  You see, Cameron’s only two months old, so he’s really not very self-sufficient yet.  He hasn’t got it all worked out like you and I have, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do for a living, he doesn’t care about the election, he doesn’t know anything about science or religion – Cameron is blissfully ignorant of all the grownup stuff that he’s going to have to negotiate his life around in 20 years or so - in fact I think the only thing that’s really, really important to him right now is his dad’s strong arms and his mum’s hug and his big sister’s bright face.  The only thing Cameron really knows is that the people around him love him, and that their love is what keeps him safe.  Not only that, but the very most important lesson Cameron is ever going to learn in his life is the one he’s soaking up like a sponge right now, that the sort of love that reaches out to other people and heals them and keeps them safe is actually what life is all about.  See what Cameron just taught us?  God isn’t much interested in religious ritual, God isn’t much interested in our stuffy morality and God’s certainly not overly interested in how much we understand, in how much we achieve or in how much we possess.  What God is interested in is how much we know we depend on one another’s love, and on God’s love too.

Only trouble is, that’s pretty hard for grown-ups.  We certainly need kids around us to remind us how it’s done.  Like Nicodemus, we find it a contradiction in terms, we can’t let go of being grown-up and self-sufficient and knowing stuff.

So, along comes the guy that, actually, we should be able to relate to the easiest of all.  You don’t have to be a government official, or rich, to know where this guy’s coming from.  He’s a busy adult, he’s got stuff happening in his life, he’s got responsibilities and possessions and people depending on him.  ‘Well, that’s all very well’, he says, ‘but there’s no going back to childhood for me – how am I going to be OK with God?’  And Jesus gives him the famous answer that makes rich people everywhere squirm, but it should make all of us squirm, because it’s not just about money.  “Sell everything’, he tells him.  ‘Just give it away, and follow me wherever the Spirit takes you’.  ‘Let go of the safety net – you don’t need any other security except me’.  The point is, Jesus might as well have told him to fly to the moon, because he can’t do what Jesus is asking him.  I can’t do it, either.  I know what he’s asking me to do – but like the rich ruler, I’m looking for ways in which I can be a disciple in amongst the busyness and the clutter of my life.  I’m looking for the spirituality of the everyday, and is Jesus telling me it isn’t possible?

Like being green, being holy seems to lead us into the paradox that we can’t really do it and still live normal lives.  And that, finally, is the real point.  ‘What’s impossible for you’, Jesus reminds us, ‘is all in a day’s work for God’.  Because when it comes down to it, holiness isn’t a DIY project at all.  The greening of your spiritual life starts right when you notice that it’s God’s initiative, not yours.  Don’t tie yourself in knots of being acceptable to God.  Just delight the fact that you are.

 

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Pentecost 21C

One of the things Alison and I like to do when we go down south on holidays is to go down one or two caves.  I think my favourite is the Jewel Cave near Augusta – that’s the one with the marvellous reflection of the stalactites across the lake – I always find it incredible that this world exists just a few metres below the surface of our everyday world.  What I find even more incredible is that these limestone caves are carved out over hundreds of thousands of years by the groundwater flowing through the rock – the slight acidity of the water gradually dissolves the rock and carves out a space, then eventually the roof overhead can’t support the weight so it collapses –the cavern gets bigger, and the water dripping through the rock forms stalactites and stalagmites – and that’s all it is – just the gentle drip-drip of water literally dissolving tonnes of solid rock.

So in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is telling his disciples that prayer is like that.  Prayer is like the gentle persistence of water that wears away stone.  The widow is like the water, in Jesus’ day to be a widow was to be utterly powerless, and so all she can do keep on pleading – she is a picture of persistence that is assertive at the same time as it is humble – and the judge of course is like the stone, he is stony-hearted, he cares for nothing and nobody.  So in this story the widow’s persistent naming of injustice overcomes corruption and self-centredness.

I like the point that gentle persistence and the refusal to accept injustice has its own integrity and strength.  There’s something here to think about, when we get dispirited about living in a world where self-interest rules, where sometimes it seems the voices urging compassion and generosity and justice get drowned out.  The widow is a good model for us, and I don’t think it’s any accident that Jesus talks about faith in the same breath as holding up this example of a person who cares passionately about justice.  I think that’s what Christians are called to do, to name where injustice is in our world, to work toward justice, and if that often means that the church seems to be swimming against the tide, that we are taking a position that isn’t too popular, well, that’s when we need to remember this widow.

But how is this story a good analogy about prayer?  Because, what’s being said here – that God is like this corrupt judge?  When we pray, we have to wear God down by going on and on about things until we get what we want?  This seems like a peculiar image of what the relationship between me and God is supposed to be like.  In verse 7 Luke has a go at working this out, presumably he has got this story that Jesus told, and in verse 6 and verse 7 he puts in some interpretation.  According to Luke, this isn’t an analogy, but a contrast – it’s not the sort of parable where Jesus says ‘the kingdom of God is like this’, but the sort where Jesus says ‘if it’s like this in real life, how much better is it when the one you’re praying to loves you, and wants to give you good things – when the Judge isn’t corrupt but just and merciful’.  If even this corrupt judge can be worn down, well, God is going to rush to help.

So that makes it better?  Your prayers are like that, no sooner do you ask, then – ‘poof’!?  There’s still a problem, isn’t there?  If this is your image of what the relationship between you and God is like, then I think there’s still a problem.  For two reasons.  One, because it’s exactly the same as the relationship between the widow and the corrupt judge, it’s just a difference of degree.  But the deal’s the same, it’s still the deal where we’ve got to pray hard and pray often, the logic’s still, ‘look, if we all pray for this then God will answer us’, the power of prayer is that if we bombard heaven then God can’t refuse us – and the problem with this is that it thinks of prayer as a string of demands, that there are some things that God is getting wrong in running the universe, so we need to correct the course, issue a few instructions because unless we let God know that we’re really serious about wanting these things, then God unfortunately is going to continue getting it wrong, keep on looking the other way.  The other thing that’s wrong about this image is that just occasionally God doesn’t give us what we want.  Or is it just me??  Even when the thing that you’re praying for is just and good.  Even when lots of people are praying for the same thing.  Have you ever had the experience of praying for something that matters a great deal and feeling that you’re not getting any response at all from God?  Just silence and darkness?  If so, you’re not alone.

Except, what if the silence and the darkness of God, that people who pray know all too well, is pregnant with  possibility like the drop of water gradually forming on limestone stalagmite underground in the Jewell Cave, slowly building up until it’s ready to splash onto the limestone of the cave floor?  What if God isn’t like the limestone rock, massive and rigid but bit by bit getting worn away, what if God is more like the insignificant but persistent drop of water?

You see, I started wondering – what if we pick this parable up and look at it the other way around?  What if we take the characters off the page and look at them, and see who they remind us of?  This judge, the one who cares about nothing and nobody, the one who’s corrupt and ready to take a bribe, the one who’s just out for himself even though he’s supposed to be there to hand out justice.  The one who’s set rigid in the concrete of his own selfishness – who’s that?  Does that sound like God?  Or does that sound like you and me?  Does that sound like the world we live in?  What about the widow, the one who comes humbly and persistently, so gently you sometimes don’t even notice she’s there, the one who loves justice so passionately that she’s prepared to take umpteen dozen knockbacks, the one who wears you down by speaking the truth and pointing out the difference between what the world is and what it is meant to be?  Does that sound like you?  It doesn’t sound like me.  Or does it sound more like God?  What if you and I are the stony-hearted judge and God is the widow who keeps bothering us, who keeps on hoping that we will notice what she’s saying and that we’ll have a change of heart.  Does that sound more like what the relationship between you and God is really like?  It does to me.

Because if this is really what it’s like, then it tells us some very important things about prayer.  It tells me that when I’m busy working out my list of instructions for God, when I’m telling God what to do, if I think that God is silent that might be because I haven’t been listening.  This widow doesn’t have a very loud voice.  You see, Christians sometimes think prayer is about us telling God what we’d like God to do.  It turns out the other way around - that prayer is about God whispering to us what God would like us to become.  It turns out that God might need me to be quiet and listen, that prayer might be about opening up to God everything that I am and everything that I’ve become, and letting God show me the difference between that and what God made me to be.  The one who needs to be worn down turns out to be me, not God.  God’s compassion, and God’s justice is a given, it is gently trickling, if you like, in the groundwater of the universe – it’s maybe me who is the whopping great rock that gets in the way, that needs to be worn smooth so the water can flow around me.

That’s one thing.  That prayer is about listening to God, and noticing where God is, and letting God flow into the cracks and crevices of our lives.  And the second thing is that what gets changed in prayer is us.  If our prayer is authentic, what gets changed is us.  I heard a story about a congregation who prayed for years that God would bless their parish by sending new people to them – and of course new people did come from time to time, they’d sit in the pews and nod and smile – and then they’d drift away again.  So the congregation thought about it for a while and asked themselves what they really should be praying for, and then they started praying that they would be changed into a community that was ready to include new people, new possibilities and new ideas.

That’s a scarier prayer, because it means we have to give up on the idea of being a rock – that things will always stay the same, that we’ll always be in control.  Instead, we need to ask God to reshape us, to make us more responsive, open and oriented towards the future.  Like water, in fact, flowing with the imperceptible, life-giving movement of God’s Holy Spirit.

Now, that’s a prayer!

 

 

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pntecost 20C

Probably you, like me, had it drummed into you as a kid that you had to say 'thank you' when you received a gift, even if it was just clothes or something that you didn't really want.  You had to say thank you when your mum put your dinner in front of you, even if it was cabbage.  You had to say thank you when a family friend gave you a lift in their car, even if it was to somewhere you didn't particularly want to go, like school.  You had to say thank you even if you didn't really feel grateful, even if it was just something that grown-ups were supposed to do for you.  You see, as a kid, you were surrounded by adult grace, by the everyday actions of other people that made it possible for you to get on with the business of learning, and growing, and exploring the world.  The downside of being made to say 'thank you' was that it became a chore, a duty that you did because for some reason adults placed great store on being polite.  The great benefit, if your experience was anything like mine, is that as you got older you began to realise that we are never really separate from other people, we're never really independent, and the continual small gifts we receive from other people aren't ours by right.  Like the gift of being socially recognized, the gifts of recognition and affection that make it possible for us to live in community.  Learning to recognize when we have received a gift from another person, and to express gratitude is about recognizing that at a deep level we receive who we are as a gift from one another.

So real gratitude is not just about being polite – real gratitude is about perceiving what the gift is, perceiving how we have been transformed by it, perceiving where the gift comes from and what it means – real gratitude is about perceiving the truth about ourselves and the truth about those around us – in other words it's about seeing or perceiving who we are in relation to other people – and in relation to God.  And so our gospel story this morning, which is about gratitude, is also on a deeper level about seeing and being seen.

I made the choice this morning of reading the gospel from a different translation – the New International Version – because it translates Luke's original Greek better as 'ten men who had leprosy', rather than 'ten lepers'.  The difference is subtle, but just as people today who work in the field of disability insist that we should talk about people who live with a disability rather than disabled people – emphasizing the person not the problem – Luke does the same thing in his original Greek manuscript and again it's about seeing accurately, it's about refusing to accept that a person is just the sum total of the labels that society puts on them.  In the context of the social world of the 1st century, this is a huge thing – if you were labeled a leper then you were unclean, you were isolated from society and forced to live outside the towns and villages and fend for yourself – reduced to traveling around in groups for protection and begging from a distance – just like the ten men in this story do when they encounter Jesus.  Somehow they have heard about Jesus and they beg for compassion – and after they call out to him, Luke tells us that Jesus sees them – what Luke means is that Jesus sees who they really are – Jesus sees their need.

There are two parallels to this story, and the first one is with the Old Testament story of Namaan the Syrian, who comes to Elisha the prophet to be healed of his leprosy.  But where Namaan at first refuses to do what Elisha says, this group of men take Jesus at face value – when he tells them to present themselves to the priests – off they go.  At this level it's already a story of faith that God is working through Jesus of Nazareth.

The second parallel is with the story of the Good Samaritan.  Because in that story, Jesus also talks about seeing – the priest and the Levite see the injured man but are more concerned with ritual purity – but the Samaritan traveller sees the man's need, and the opportunity to be merciful.  This Good Samaritan is the no. 1 example of compassion to one's neighbour – seeing the truth about our relationship with those around us - which Jesus says is half of what it means to keep the Torah.

The Samaritan in today's story – the second Good Samaritan – embodies the second half of what it means to fulfill the law, and that is seeing the truth about our relationship with God.  Now when I say Samaritan, mentally translate it to Muslim and you'll get the idea – Samaritans practice a false religion, they have peculiar laws about food, Samaritans are hostile towards us and we don't trust them.  But Jesus is telling us that these two Samaritans together have become our model for salvation.  What the second Samaritan does, of course, is to see what God has done for him – the gift of healing is indiscriminate, all ten are made clean but this outsider recognises the gift as the action of divine grace and he comes back – not just to say thank you like I did for my cabbage, but to praise God because he recognises that God has touched his life through his encounter with Jesus.  Together, these two outsiders in Luke's gospel embody the whole of what Jesus says the Law is about.

But why come back?  After all, Jesus simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests. The other nine, who presumably weren't Samaritans, were probably grateful too – we don't know - maybe they went to the priests in Jerusalem like they were told, and gave thanks there.  Maybe the Samaritan came back because he was a Samaritan – excluded twice over, once for being a leper, once for being a Samaritan – he would not have been welcome in Jerusalem, would not have been allowed into the temple, so he comes back to give praise to the one who healed him – that is, to God – through Jesus as the one through whom God is acting.

Well, we don't know why he came back.  Luke apparently isn't interested in that. Luke's more interested in saying something about how the boundaries of God's grace have just got bigger.  Through Jesus, God's grace is going expand to include even foreigners, even those the world defines as unclean or impure, even those who don't practice the "right" religion.  Luke is telling us a story about a daring boundary crossing, daring both on the part of Jesus but also on the part of the Samaritan.

I'm struck by how the Samaritan's physical posture changes. When we first see him, he and the other nine keep their distance.  None of them break the rules of their disease. But when he comes back, he lies down at Jesus' feet.  You see, one of the things this healing has made possible is the movement from isolation to intimacy. And maybe that's why he came back, not simply because he wanted or needed to say thank you but out of a desire for intimacy with God - a sense that faith doesn't just mean performing rituals but being drawn into a relationship with God that's intimate and dependent.

And so Jesus declares that the man has been made whole.  All ten have been healed, but only this one receives Jesus declaration of healing which in the Greek is literally: your faith has saved you.  The physical healing was just the beginning of the journey towards wholeness for this man whose experience of isolation was beyond anything we could imagine.  When we're most truly whole is when our lives express a deep gratitude toward God and toward the people around us who reach out to us across all the real and imagined boundaries of our social world – and by doing that give us life and dignity and joy.  Dependence is not the dirty word that our culture makes it, dependence on God and on one another is just the simple pattern and the plain truth about life.  Luke knows that this man is healed by God, not by his own faith, but he also knows that true wholeness comes when the experience of God's grace meets with the human response of gratitude and delight.  True wholeness can be present where physical healing can't happen, and we see this in those who are so tuned in to God's grace that they experience all the circumstances of their lives as filled with God's goodness – where the most harrowing ordeal becomes the opportunity for greater and greater dependence on God.

A bit more Greek: the word for what this man does when he returns and lies down in front of Jesus and gives thanks is eucharisté, and that is what we are going to do in a few minutes time.  As we share the bread and the wine what we are doing is giving thanks for the gift of God's grace which fills all the circumstances of our lives, no matter how joyful or how painful they may be.  Gratitude is the heart's memory of grace, the human response that completes the circle of blessing and wholeness.  Let us give thanks.

 

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Pentecost 19C - Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem

On 6 October 1973, on the Jewish day of atonement called Yom Kippur, the fourth Arab-Israeli War began with simultaneous attacks from the north and south by the forces of Syria and Egypt.  The war, which lasted about three weeks, ended in a military victory for Israel and ended with a negotiated settlement and the Camp David agreement which normalised relations between Egypt and Israel.

Thirty-odd years later, the so-called road-map to peace in the Middle East is looking more and more tattered by the day with the State of Israel threatened by the Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah over the Lebanese border, and the home-grown Hamas and Fatah militias in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank, a powerful brew of hostility simmering among the population of Christian and Muslim Palestinians forced from their farms and villages in the wars of the sixties, seventies and eighties, generations defined by the pressure-cooker environment of the refugee camps.

For me, it’s when I see the TV news around Christmas time, the reports of violence on the streets of Bethlehem, the clashes between soldiers and children that sadly echo the themes of our own sacred stories that it really comes home to me.  The holy city of Jerusalem, birthplace of the three great Abrahamic religions mocks our efforts at holiness by remaining one of the least peaceful places on the planet.

Our reading from the Book of Lamentations reminds us that this trauma has very deep roots.  Actually, it was always going to be a problem for any unimportant bunch of semi-nomadic herders who decided to try their luck at planting vineyards and crops of wheat right here.  To call it a land of milk and honey was always actually something of an overstatement – the rainfall’s a bit iffy for subsistence farming for a start but the biggest problem is that the Promised Land just happens to be smack bang in the middle of the route that the armies of the superpowers of the ancient world had to take to get anywhere that really mattered.  Egypt, Assyria, Babylon – later on Persia, then the Greek Seleucid Empire and the armies of Rome – they all took turns at marching on through.  This is one of the most fought over pieces of real estate anywhere, not because it’s particularly valuable but because it’s really in the way.

Lamentations is written sometime after the devastating siege and the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon in 582BC – a series of military assaults ending in a terrifying siege that brought unprecedented suffering to the inhabitants, starvation and even cannibalism, ending with the king Zedekiah being led away in chains, blinded after seeing his own children killed in front of him.

The sacred and holy places of the city invaded and defiled. The treasures of the city and of the very temple of God looted and destroyed. The royal palace, the temple, the houses of the people burned to the ground.  The life of the city and of the nation had come to a terrifying end.

The book of Lamentations speaks in the language of grief and sorrow to describe this terrible loss. There is no turning away from the pain, no denying or avoiding it. This is a funeral dirge for a fallen city, emptied of people – not only a military defeat, but a theological disaster, incomprehensible because Jerusalem was not just the capital city but the place where God had consented to live with God’s people.  The terrifying conclusion of Lamentations is not just defeat and destruction but that God had rejected and abandoned God’s people, that God had gone mad, that God had actually attacked God’s own people in a fit of rage out of all proportion to any crime they might have committed.

The only people left in the land, the poorest of the poor, were left to try to eke out some sort of livelihood amongst the destruction.  Everything that had any sort of meaning was broken, beyond the possibility of repair.

Understandably, I guess, the lectionary of the Church’s year avoids Lamentations.  Just this snippet, today, and then we open ourselves to its almost overwhelming grief during the difficult journey through Holy Week.  The brokenness and the rawness of Lamentations is not so unfamiliar to us, even in our modern world, but we’d rather not be reminded.

We live in a culture of denial, a culture that says there is nothing broken that money can’t fix.  Throw it away and buy another one.  There’s no disease that can’t be cured.  There’s no problem that we can’t distract ourselves from with possessions.  We don’t like Lamentations because it reminds us of the hard places of our world that we don’t know how to fix, places in our world and in our own lives where we are broken and poured out, helpless places we don’t want to be reminded of.

On a national scale we experience that sort of denial when we stop feeling compassion for the weakest and the most vulnerable – when as this week, for example, with virtually no protest we allowed our government to decide for us to stop accepting refugees from the holocaust of Sudan that for years has shamed the inaction of the powerful nations of the world – on the basis that they don’t fit in.  Well, I can see how traumatised survivors of torture and abuse might have some trouble fitting in.  But we need to resist this sort of invitation to turn away from the pain and the need of other people.  The uncomfortable reality of course is that refugees from Sudan – as well as from other troubled places of the world - hold a mirror up to us in which we get to see the quality of our own humanity.  Our Anglican Sudanese communities, the Sudanese congregations of our own Diocese, have blessed and enriched us all by their willingness to share their lives and their faith with us, their pain as well as their joy.

I wonder if the reason we find it so hard to deal with the brokenness and pain of other people because it opens us up to the hard places in our own lives?  Our own experiences of feeling utterly alone or rejected, experiences of failure, of limitation, of feeling unloved or of not loving ourselves.  Our rejection of others that we’d rather forget.   The words from the doctor you didn’t want to hear.  Losing the one you love and knowing that something has been broken that can never be fixed.

How do you keep on going at times like that, when the world as you know it has just been broken and can’t be put back together?  How do you keep believing in the possibility of joy and the goodness of God’s creation when your world has collapsed?

Every week we come here to take part, together, in an action that I (for one) barely understand, the sharing of broken bread and poured-out wine that becomes new life for us by joining us to our Lord’s death.  It’s no accident, I think, that Jesus offered his disciples these things not just as a convenient symbol to help them remember what he did, but as a way of allowing them – and us – to enter into who he most fully is.  Grapes get crushed and allowed to ferment – wheat is harvested and ground up to make bread – changed into a new reality.  And then the wine is poured out and the bread is broken up so that there’s no way we can put it back together again.  And yet Jesus tells us that in the pouring out of the wine and in the breaking of the bread there is unity, and integrity, and wholeness.  In this fragmentation that can’t be undone there is completeness, because it’s not when everything’s going swimmingly, it’s in the moment of fracture, in the crack you hear when something breaks and you know it can’t be unbroken, that you encounter Christ.  What is broken beyond the possibility ever of being fixed becomes the bearer of grace than can transform us and make us new.  That’s what it means, I think, that God chooses to be revealed to us most fully in the failure and trauma of the cross, the weakness and vulnerability that St Paul tells us is the transformational power of God.

The Book of Lamentations is hard reading, unremitting in its awfulness, the self-obsession of despair that seems by the third chapter to have given up and sunk into depression, until, suddenly, a brief and powerful memory occurs to him:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.  

In Jerusalem, in Sudan, in our own moments of being fractured, shattered, and brought to ruin - if only we will accept it, love is waiting there for us to be found and lived anew.