SERMON 11 OCTOBER 2015
Last Tuesday morning, I sat at a table in the kitchen at Leigh Memorial Uniting Church in Parramatta. Clive and I go there every Tuesday morning at 8.30, when we can, not for breakfast, but as part of a group discussing the Bible readings for the coming Sunday. We sat there, just a few hundred metres away from where 15 year old Farhad had shot and killed a civilian police employee and had himself been shot. We sat and read the passage from Job whose cries of anguish at God’s apparent absence are searing. Where is God to be found? “If I go to the east, he is not there; if I go the west I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.” says Job. Job has been in anguish. If only he could make his case to God, God would understand and Job would have some answer, be able to understand why things had gone so wrong for him. Some of us sitting at that table wanted to give in to the temptation to hurry through to a point where Job finds some kind of resolution to his suffering, even if it is not what he was looking for. The lectionary doesn’t let us do that. We were all still in state of shock at the shooting by such a young person, whose school was just around the corner. I thought to myself “How do I stand up and preach on this on Sunday?” Maybe we have all moved on, as we do so quickly, from those feelings. We seem to hear so many shocking things day by day. But I thought to myself “I can’t stand in that pulpit and look down across the people gathered in that congregation. I can’t be separated off by that height and that distance, because to stay true to today’s readings is painful and calls us to struggle together. If we are to wait and struggle in the apparent meaninglessness we all need to find a community where we can find even wordless support. A community of faith, which we are, is surely a place where we can be at our most vulnerable, questioning, doubting, fearing and know that that is all right, as well as being a place where we can sing and praise God and give thanks and hear words of life, grace, forgiveness, affirmation and liberation.
But it is hard to be drawn into this Job-space and to wait there. I wanted to choose to sing one of my favourite hymns, one that was sung for me decades ago on my last Sunday at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh before I got on a plane to fly to New Zealand, leaving family and friends: “You are before me Lord, you are behind”. “And if I take my flight into the dawn or if I dwell on ocean’s furthest shore, your mighty hand will rest upon me still and your right hand will guard me evermore.” Job, or the lectionary, wouldn’t let me do that. So I am here with you in this space that carries echoes of emptiness and aloneness that is truly fearful. It is the Easter Saturday time, the time of waiting, not knowing what lies ahead. It is fearful because we know it is easy to lose our bearings, and, in our desire not to be stuck in our discomfort, to make a move which could make us more lost.
Many years ago I was driving with the family through the mountains in Scotland. It had snowed heavily, but the snow had stopped and the road had been re-opened. We were driving on a narrow road up a hill with a steep drop way down to our left. Suddenly the wind got up, it began to snow again and the wind blew snow down from the hillside to our right. We were enveloped in a white-out. It was quite terrifying, not just for what was happening but realising how quickly we lost any sense of direction. There was a total absence of any kind of markers at all, in time or space. We had no idea how long it might go on for, and clearly it was too dangerous to move. Now obviously we got through, and the white out, in the event, didn’t last very long. But it has become, for me, a kind of metaphor for absence. The nothingness of absence. And absence, as well as presence, is part of the human experience of God.
You may well say that God is never absent, that it is us who have got lost, gone astray, and maybe that is so, but for Job, it was not he who had got lost. It was God who was not to be found. The Psalm for today, which we didn’t read, is Psalm 22, those words which Jesus cried from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus knew about this absence.
The trouble is, there is often nothing obvious that we can do except to try and find the strength to wait through it until something changes, and to hold onto the faith that it will. That is why we need our community. Through the ups and downs of life for Church everywhere, there is that role that is so important, of carrying the flame of faith and keeping it alive in the good times and the flourishing places so that it may support and, as it were, lead through those who are facing tough times. It’s like the image in the well-loved hymn “Across each continent and island the dawn leads on another day, the voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away.” “The sun that bids us rest is waking our friends beneath the western sky, and hour by hour fresh lips are making your wondrous doings heard on high”. At least that is what it feels it should be like, though, to be honest, I am not sure that it always works like that. But, when we can’t do much for ourselves, it does help to know that there are others who can. So we have to stay real in the times of absence and not allow fear to overwhelm us.
Here, in this place, there may be unknowns about the future and anxiety in our imaginings about how much control in decision making we may have, but we are not in a white out. There may be a sense of having to live through a time of “wait and see” but we are not lacking signposts. We are not lacking in courage or faith, or sense of purpose or care. God is certainly not absent. The reading from Job may resonate, and I expect there are more than a few of us who would, in safety, admit to having experienced times when God did seem absent. The power of its message for us today maybe more in giving expression to a fear that lurks within our world when the images of powerlessness and anguish lie up against violence and senseless brutality. Our vocabulary that now uses the word “terror” as part of everyday speech indicates an absence of many of the values that we know are so important for the nurturing of peace and goodwill between peoples.
The question of values is, seemingly, placed right there before us in the gospel reading. It is such a well-known story, this one of the rich young man, the well-brought up young man, who was probably his parent’s pride and joy. We can almost imagine his background: well-educated, well-connected, well-liked. And Jesus loved him. He was a good person. He wanted to do the right thing and was trying hard. He ticked all the apparent boxes. Except for one box that maybe only Jesus really saw. It seems as though no-one else would have noticed it, because, hey, he is doing all right. But the young man sensed something. He must have had some unease, because why else would he have approached Jesus and asked him what he should do? He was still anxious about the future. There was only one thing that he lacked. Can you name what it was? What is the lack? He apparently had everything. “Go and sell everything you have…” What is it that we may lack when we have money and comfort and do all the right things and keep all that our religious beliefs demand of us? It’s a hard question and I don’t know that I am going to give you an answer. The only thing we know is that the young man wasn’t able to allow his desire to be completely at peace with himself to set him free from his man-made security. Maybe I have just answered the question, for myself anyway. Maybe it is something to do with freedom. Whatever it was, the disciples were not lacking in it. I wonder if it had felt like freedom for them when they gave up everything to follow Jesus. Perhaps there had been a glorious moment when they left all their old lives behind, when they answered Jesus’ call, a moment when the excitement of it all was indeed a liberation. But it is doubtful that that feeling was top of the list when they struggled to make sense of who this Jesus was and what being his disciples meant: now knowing where the next meal was coming from or when they might see their wives and children again. Jesus wanted the young man to come and follow him, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t let go of his stuff, his security, all the things that he thought defined him. He turned away and wept. He knew he couldn’t do it and, maybe, for the first time, he knew he had failed what was the most significant test of his life. A test so hard that Jesus used that phrase that teases our imagination, about the camel going through the eye of the needle. It is not such a random metaphor. There was a gate in Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle, presumably because of its shape and extreme narrowness. The only way to get a camel through there was to take off its baggage and even then it was a tight squeeze. The rich young man had a lot of baggage, real and metaphorical. We do to. Everyone has baggage. In Jesus’ presence we know we are asked how much of that do we need? How many of the burdens of our past are we still carrying, unable to accept that it is possible to be freed? How much of what we think is our security is really that?
We may be afraid of losing what we have got, and most of all our security. We may be afraid of losing the things that we think give us our identity and so we restrict our choices about what we do and where we go and who we follow. But I wonder what it is that really gives us our identity, as individuals or as a community of faith. What is it that allow us to open our ears to the mystery of Christ’s call to follow and to open our eyes to trust when we can’t see what that means? Somewhere in there may lie the things that remind us who we are, as individuals and as a community. Maybe we discover more about who we are as we live with insecurity. Is it these understandings that give us the strength to carry on finding meaning as we support one another through times of struggle, of fear? I don’t think we can confidently answer those questions with a “yes” unless we are at work nurturing the life of faith within our community, not only for our own sake, but so that we may live faithfully in a world where the values point often in another direction. It is that upside down kingdom where the first find themselves last, and those who are regarded as the least become the first.
The contrast between the lifestyle of the rich young man and the disciples is stark. The contrast between how this gospel reading seems to address our consumer-driven, pleasure-seeking society is also stark. Jesus was not a kill-joy, but he did know what really led to joy, and it brings us back, it seems, to freedom. We do have freedom to choose what we do at so many levels of our lives.
I was left reflecting on the connection between absence, which is what Job experienced, and the one thing that the rich young man lacked, and which held him captive; the thing that seems to relate to freedom. Absence and freedom. One signifies nothingness, the other signifies possibilities. Both are kind of liminal experiences where we wait to see what will emerge. Our faith tells us to hold on through the fear that absence brings because our faith tells us it will not last. Freedom also depends on our faith telling us that it is all right to let go, to let go of our fear and insecurity, our baggage, because only then will we discover freedom. If we are to nurture that kind of faith, we need each other. We need to know that there are others around who will support us when we feel wobbly and who we may, in turn, encourage with our caring. It is not about being a community where everything is strong, but, much more realistically, where we share our vulnerable humanity and weep and laugh together, talk, pray, keep silent and sing together.
I have to tell you I found it quite hard choosing hymns to sing today because my thoughts were wandering down rather complicated and shadowy paths at times, as you have no doubt realised.
There is one hymn I thought of rather too late, since I didn’t know that you would know it, but I want to read you the words now. It comes from the New Zealand Book “Alleluia Aotearoa”. The words are written by Colin Gibson, who was, until not so long ago, a professor of English at Otago University, a Methodist, an organist and musician.
Where the road runs out and the signposts end
Where we come to the end of today,
Be the God of Abraham for us,
Send us out upon our way.
Lord you were our beginning
The faith that gave us birth.
We look to you our ending,
Our hope for heaven and earth.
When the coast is left and we journey on
To the rim of the sky and the sea
Be the sailor’s friend, be the dolphin Christ,
Lead us on to eternity.
When the clouds are low and the wind is strong
When tomorrow’s storm draws near,
Be the spirit bird hovering overhead
Who will take away our fear.