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Sunday, October 31, 2010

How to become a saint

Texts: Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31 

If the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is to be believed, it is really rather difficult to become a saint.  There are several requirements.  First, one must be dead, which does tend to dampen the ambitions of many a popular preacher!  Second, one must have lived a very virtuous and holy life.  Not necessarily from birth, but certainly from the time when a person first began to follow Christ in earnest.  Third, one must have produced at least two ‘miracles’, that is, unusual phenomena that may not, after careful investigation, be accounted for by reference to the normal processes of what is ‘natural’.  It is quite permissible, as it happens, to produce a miracle after you are dead.  Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, for example, was exhumed from his grave several times over a period of three hundred years, and his body had not decayed in the way that bodies should.  To the Roman authorities, that kind of thing will boost your sainthood score enormously. 

Of course, sainthood was not always so.  In the New Testament a saint is simply a disciple, a person who has heard the gracious call of Christ to follow, and chosen to obey that call out of a fundamental faith and trust in God.  At one level, then, sainthood should never be understood as something one may ‘earn’ through a life of exemplary virtue or heroic deeds.  For sainthood is a gift—the gift of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ.  It is also true, nevertheless, that there are those who really believe and trust in this love of God, living their lives out of its power . . . and there are those who don’t.  In the passage from Ephesians that we read a moment ago, the writer prays earnestly that his hearers will live out of the enormous power of God, demonstrated in the works God wrought in Christ for our salvation.  Note well, the power is God’s, not ours.  Yet the writer still feels the need to pray that such power may become the most important fact in his hearer’s lives, which implies that they are not yet the people God has called them to be. 

It is in this sense, then, that I can see some point to all the Roman posturing about sainthood.  Underneath all the rules and procedures, under all that detritus of centuries, what the canon-law of saints really says is this:  that saints are people who shine with faith and trust—not in themselves, their own virtues or achievements—but in the virtues and achievements of Christ on their behalf.

This, then, is the paradox of Sainthood or, if you prefer, discipleship.  Disciples live from a power, a virtue, a miracle which they have not generated for themselves.  They depend, utterly, upon Christ.  Yet, it is precisely that attitude of dependent faith which makes them radiate with goodness, care and compassion.  Think about it.  If we have died to ourselves in baptism, if we have been crucified to the basic values of this world, then the life we live in faith is not our own life at all.  It is God’s.  It is the divine life that was made human in Jesus.   We rise from the waters to live the life of Christ: to imitate and repeat his life in our own.  In this perspective, the amazing faith of the saints is no more than a grace that is actually believed in and received, rather than considered but then put aside when it really counts.

What is the difference, then, between a Mary McKillop and your average church attendee?  From God’s perspective, not a great deal!  God loves both of them.  God forgives both of them.  God calls both of them to die, to take up their cross and follow Christ into a quality of life and love that the world cannot give.  Yet one of them chooses to live from the power of this gracious call, to trust in its power, and the other (one suspects) chooses to do so only very rarely.  One chooses to love as Christ loved, loving the neighbour even to the point of great personal sacrifice, while the other perhaps chooses to put faith aside when the going gets tough or when there is money or status at stake.  One really believes that Christ’s life, no matter how difficult, is the only life worth living.  The other suspects that Christianity is impractical, a set of admirable ideals mind you, but not to be lived too literally.

This morning you and I are called to be Mary McKillops.  To let go of all our hungers for health, wealth, family and security—to surrender such things into the hands of God—and to hunger instead for the commonwealth of peace and justice that Christ will bring.  A hunger for the kingdom is exactly like the hunger for food.  If you are starving, if you have nothing to eat, you will do almost anything to find nourishment.  You will travel hundreds of kilometres over rough and dangerous terrain, like the refugees of South Sudan, in search of the one thing you need to sustain life.  So it is with the desire for God’s kingdom.  It is a desire that consumes all else, a desire which comes to us as a painful longing that the world might be different than it is, a desire which drives and motivates us as though it came from a place other than ourselves.  And so it does, for it is the desire of God!

The saint is not one who gets everything right, who is always successful and admirable.  The saint is one who trusts in God, who believes God’s promises, even when the chips are down and there seems little foundation for faith.  The saint is one who, in a sense, becomes who he or she is because he or she is first able to allow God to be who God is, and this in the midst of  a body and soul given over to God to do with as God wills.  This is a calling not simply for the especially intelligent or gifted or capable.  It is a calling for us all, because in the end sainthood is not about self-generated achievement or sanctity.  It is about trusting that Christ will complete his work in us, even when our sin looms large. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wounded by God

Texts:  Joel 2. 23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4. 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18. 9-14

The book of Joel is amongst the most enigmatic works of the Hebrew bible: ‘enigmatic’ because it reflects on an event so disturbing that the authors seem hardly able to speak its name.  From the start of the book to its end, one may read about the dark and terrible effects which that event had in the minds and hearts of the people.  You can read, also, about the prophet’s attempts to heal that darkness, the way in which he tried to soothe the wounded and comfort the despairing.  But you will not discover, with any real certainty, what the event was that actually caused it all.  Some interpreters say that the land was overtaken by a horde of locusts, a veritable army of insects, so large that every living thing, plant or animal, was destroyed in its wake.  Others say that the book reflects upon one of the climactic invasions of Hebrew territories by the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the Greeks, after the manner of so many of the other writings in the Hebrew canon.  But how is one to decide between the two?  For if the authors are writing about locusts, they describe them with the aid of an elaborate and chilling military metaphor.  And if they are writing about an invading army, the image of swarming locusts is invoked to describe its horrible effects on the population of Israel.  But, in the end, the honest reader is left with a sense of radical undecidability.  Something happened.  Something truly awful.  But we can’t really know what that something was.  All we are left with are startling images and the emotions they evoke, traces of a trauma which cuts so deeply that the authors seem unwilling to name it directly, even to themselves.  It is too painful.

This is often the way with a trauma, which I understand to be an unexpected event, a wounding which is visited upon us from somewhere ‘beyond’ our usual frame of reference, a happening which so interrupts the ‘normal’ flow of our lives that we can scarcely believe it has happened.  One day we are healthy and happy, the next day we have cancer.  One moment we are happily married.  The next we are inexplicably alone.  We are engaged in the one of the normal tasks at work, sending a fax, say, when suddenly an aeroplane crashes into the building and explodes.  How does one integrate such experiences?  How does one find a language to explain what has happened, even to oneself?  It is difficult.  Very, very difficult.  Because what has happened seems impossible.  It could not have happened, and certainly does not happen in that person’s world.  And because the impossible is also impossible to name, the only means by which a traumatised person may begin to integrate their trauma, to make it somehow real, is to draw an analogy with something else that person knows.  To paint a picture with colours they have already seen.  To tell a story with characters they’re already familiar with.  To make a song with a tune they’ve been humming all their lives.  That’s why the writers of Joel spoke about their own trauma in terms of locusts and armies.  These were things they already knew about.  Devastating things.  And they provided the images by which the new trauma might be approached but not approached.  Described but certainly not tamed or domesticated.  Acknowledged as real, but never finally mastered or integrated into their known world. 

But now I want to note something even more enigmatic.  The principle name in Joel for the unnamable trauma which had befallen the people is not, in fact, either locusts or invading armies but “THE DAY OF THE LORD”.  Listen as I locate the places where this intriguing phrase is found: 

Alas for the day!  The day of the Lord is near: as destruction from the Almighty it comes.  Is not food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of God (1. 15-16).

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!  Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it in near - a day of darkness and gloom (2. 1-2).

The earth quakes, the heavens tremble.  The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.  The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army . . .  Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed - who can endure it? (2. 10-11).

The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape . . .  and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls (2. 31-32).

Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision!  For the day of the Lord is near . . .  The Lord roars from Zion . . . the heavens and the earth shake.  But the Lord is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel (3. 14, 16).

In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the stream beds of Judah shall stream with water; a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord . . .  Judah shall be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem to all generations (3. 18-20).

What I find most revealing about this ‘day of the Lord’ is that it names a trauma, but not only a trauma.  It is also the name which Joel gives to the experience of God’s salvation, that moment of exodus and of freedom that is the beginning of a new age when the Spirit of God’s peace and justice will fall upon all people, from the least of them to the greatest (2. 28-29).  ‘The day of the Lord’ is therefore  - somewhat paradoxically - both a trauma and a healing, a judgement of sin and an invitation to new life.  Indeed, one might say that the trauma and its healing are mysteriously joined here, that they become the inside and the outside of the same experience.  One might even say that the Book of Joel encourages us to believe that the people of Israel might never have retained their sense of God as saviour without their having been wounded by God as warrior and judge. 

Emmanuel Lévinas, a Lithuanian-Jewish philosopher who died in 1995, wrote about these things more profoundly than anyone I know, but he gave them a particular spin.  Lévinas argued that human beings are so self-absorbed that the only way in which God can get our attention is to make us suffer in a very specific way:  to take us hostage as sufferers of another person’s suffering.  Lévinas, whose parents were killed in the Nazi death-camps, believed that God comes to claim us through a fundamental disruption of the relatively ‘safe’ worlds most of us inhabit.  By confronting us with the face of suffering in another human being, God calls us to be transformed.  In the encounter with another’s suffering, says Lévinas, we are substituted for this other:  we feel his or her pain in our own bodies, and we know ourselves to be responsible in some way.  Our peaceful lives are therefore peaceful no more.  The world changes, and we are changed with it. 

This accounts, I think, for the way in which even the most cold-hearted Australian observer sometimes changes their view of asylum-seekers or Aborigines when they actually meet such folk face-to-face, when they finally see and hear their stories through words, tears and the lines of suffering etched on another’s face.  When encountered by the face of another’s suffering, and not just rhetoric about it, we are confronted with a gaze that makes an absolute and irrefusable claim on us.  It cuts through the right-wing rubbish about individuals and individual responsibility and calls us to make an ethical response: to act as if it is we, ourselves, who are responsible for this other’s suffering.  This, according to Lévinas, is a call from God to justice, and it comes to us in the real flesh-and-blood face of the neighbour.

As always, there is much more that could be said.  But I will close with this.  The faith of Christ is about the redemptive power of wounds.  It is about apostles locked up in prison cells, their lives being poured out as a libation for others, who see visions of God, and angels, and heavenly rewards.  It is about hateful people like tax-collectors, exploiters and thieves par excellence, tripping over their wounds and their wounding of others, only to find that God has welcomed and healed them by that very movement.  It is about congregations who are unjustly deprived of their churches who nevertheless discover that through poverty of spirit comes a richness in faith. The faith of Christ is about people who take up their cross daily, that unique cross which God has chosen for them, and carrying that cross as though it were a pearl of great price or a treasure found in a field.  Because that’s what the cross of Christ is, for Christians:  an instrument of suffering in which the very glory of God’s love lays concealed.  So I say this to everyone here who has suffered, or is suffering, a trauma (and I know that you are!) It is a difficult saying, but true nevertheless.  Love your wound and befriend it.  For it is probably an angel of God in disguise.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Prayer for Justice

Texts: Jeremiah 31.27-34; Psalm 119.97-104; 2 Timothy 3.14 - 4.5; Luke 18.1-8

When I was 13 years old I had a dream which I will carry with me all my life. In the dream I was wandering down High Street in Sheffield. It was a lovely day, but suddenly the sky became black with stormclouds. And then a great wind blew in from the west, a tempest which became so violent that it threatened to pull the trees from the ground. But this storm was more than just a storm. Somehow I knew it to be an angel of darkness, come to uproot and destroy everything in its path. Quickly I ran through the streets, imploring everyone I met to seek refuge in the house where I lived. 'It's the only safe place', I told them. But most laughed at me and went on their way. By the time I arrived home, accompanied by a few trusting souls, the storm had begun to howl in a truly unearthly manner. As we closed the door, I felt the storm reach out as if with claws to prevent us. With a very great effort, which took all our strength, we managed to close the door and collapse on our loungeroom floor. Through the window we could see cars being tossed in the air as though they were feathers. Buildings were ripped up and thrown down in pieces. People and animals and trees were being swept away as if by a giant tidal wave. But through the deluge, somehow, though the walls shook and the ceiling groaned to the point of breaking, our old weatherboard house stayed together. And we stayed together too. We huddled in a circle and prayed as we had never prayed before. We prayed that God would spare our souls. We prayed for the storm to pass. And though we began that time together in panic and fear, very soon a calm descended upon us. Even as the din outside became violent beyond imagining, the sense of our safety in God's care became more and more certain. And, eventually, I felt a strange compulsion, to leave the circle of prayer and go outside. I felt a strong and urgent compassion well up within me. A compassion for those perishing outside. I forgot my fear. Though the storm had become like a raging demon, I opened the door and went outside. With chaos all around, I addressed the tumult in a quiet voice, saying 'You can't enter this place. It is a house of God'. Immediately the wind died to a whisper and the dark clouds dispersed. The birds began to sing once more, the sun came out and I awoke.

For the people of Judah, the exile to Babylon was like the apocalypse of my dreaming. In the imagination of their poets and prophets, the army of Babylon was like an evil angel, come to uproot and destroy everything they had ever achieved. For some, exile was the end of their faith in Yahweh. How could the God who had led them out of slavery in Egypt now send the evil wind of calamity into their midst? What kind of God would do that? Why had the angel of death who killed the firstborn of Egypt now turned his sword towards Israel? For others, though, the turmoil of exile occasioned a deep and heart-wrenching reconsideration of their relationship with God. In the depths of their despair, they turned, as if for the first time, to the Torah or Law given by Moses. There they heard about a covenant made with Yahweh, a covenant which promised peace or Shalom to Israel if only the people would love Yahweh before anything else, and demonstrate this love by keeping the law. For these exilic Hebrews, the law became the focus of a new act of spiritual devotion. In meditating upon it day and night, they became aware of their immoral and broken condition under the covenant. They became aware of their culpability as a sinful people who had abandoned the just requirements of the law. And it broke their hearts. As the Psalmist said 'My eyes cry streams of tears because your law is not kept'.

But then a moment of transfiguration occurred. Out of the new depths of their meditation upon the law, they sensed that God was calling them into a new kind of covenant, a covenant not so easily broken because it was less like a contract and more like a relationship. The difficulty with much of Israel's understanding of the covenant prior to the exile was that it was literal and legalistic. Israel's teachers were overwhelmingly of the opinion that obtaining God's favour was primarily a matter of obeying the letter of the law. But people were not, by and large, taught that you could never hope to obey the law unless you loved the law, unless you lived with it day and night and allowed it to form the very core of your stance towards the world. People were not, by and large, taught that the law had a spirit, and that spirit was the mind and heart of its creator, the Lord Yahweh. Prior to the exile, people were not often taught that to meditate upon the law was to enter into an intimate relationship with Yahweh himself. But this was always God's intention. This was what God had longed for from the beginning. And so the apparently 'new' covenant we read of in Jeremiah is not really new at all. What is 'new' is the experience of exile, of brokenness, and what that does to Israel's capacity to understand God's ways. Let me quote:
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.
In the exile, the Hebrew people began to realize that it was not obeying the law which gave them a right relationship with God. It was a relationship with God which enabled them to live in God's way. Crucially, the exile taught Israel that the law was there to form their relationship with God; it was not a list of dos and don'ts to earn God's favour.

Now, let me ask you a question. Are you here this morning because you love God, or are you here because you want to earn God's favour? Are you here because you want to know God, to be transformed by God, or are you here because you want to be a good Christian? Motives are very important, you know. They make all the difference. Search your heart. Are you, perhaps, a religious person, one who has a contract with God? One who says, 'God, I am afraid of life. In return for being a good Christian I expect you to keep me safe from pain and hurt and let me into heaven when I die!'. Or are you, instead, a godly person, one who has a relationship with God? One who experiences God's love and forgiveness; one who weeps day and night because the world is so lost to God's peace?

Luke tells a story about a persistent widow. She lobbies the local magistrate for a just solution to her plight. And though the magistrate has no regard for either God or justice, he eventually rewards her efforts just to get her off his back. Luke tells this rather strange little story in order to show us what a true disciple of Jesus is like. She is like a widow who longs for justice, and will not cease from crying out until she gets it. But where does such depth of longing come from? What kind of experience can sustain that sense that I deserve a better deal than what I've got right now? A relationship with God. A life of prayer and meditation upon the life of God revealed in the crucified form of Jesus Christ. A life of communion with the God who is, himself, like a hungry widow who roams the earth crying out for food. In the end, its communion with that God, its spending time with that God, which gives you the burning desire for a better deal, and the strength to keep on asking.

If you are a religious person, I encourage you, this day, to come in from the storms of life which so frighten you, and begin that life of communion with God. Gather with the faithful to read God's lore, to meditate upon its stories of faith, and be transformed. There, in the bosom of God's love, you'll lose your fear. You'll be able to stand up and face those demons which tear at your soul, and say to them: 'You may not enter, this is God's dwelling-place'. And in the depths of your communion with the crucified one, whose hands are outstretched to embrace the whole creation, a new yearning will take root in your soul. A yearning for justice. A cry for peace. The birthpangs of God's promised healing.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Open Hand of Thanksgiving

Texts: Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7; Psalm 66; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19

When we read the gospels we must remember that we are reading sermons from ancient preachers. Luke, for example, is writing to an urban congregation which is struggling to understand what it means to follow Jesus in a society where many are very rich but others are very poor. Many of Luke’s stories are designed to guide his congregation in making decisions about their money, their property, and their prosperity. His overall message, as we noted a couple of weeks ago, is that followers of Jesus should regard their material resources not as private possessions that are there for their own good and wellbeing alone, but rather as a gift which has been given for the good and wellbeing of the community as a whole. According to Luke, the wealthy family finds its salvation by making its resources available to the poor, the outcast, and the widow. Someone once asked Athol Gill, a former professor of New Testament at Whitley College, if there was any good news for the rich. He replied “Yes indeed. The good news for the rich is that they don’t have to be rich anymore. It is in giving themselves and their resources away that the rich will find their salvation.”

The story we read this morning reinforces this essentially Lukan theology in two ways. First it shows a relatively rich Jesus using what gifts and resources he has, not for his own sake, or for the good of his own tribe or family alone, but for the sake of those from ‘beyond’, those who (in his society) were marginalised, sick, and foreign. We are not, perhaps, accustomed to thinking of Jesus as ‘rich’. But in several ways he was. He was a Jewish male, and a rabbi, who (as the son of a carpenter) came from the merchant classes of first century society. That meant that Jesus enjoyed a status and authority that most of his compatriots did not enjoy. Although Jesus has clearly left his family’s business interests behind, he nevertheless carried with him a great deal of that stuff which the French sociologist, Pierre Bordieu, called ‘social capital’—the confidence that you will be respected and deferred to by your peers simply because of the skills and know-how that you inherit from your social class and family. Even this materially poor Jesus was therefore pretty rich, in first century terms. One sees that in the story we read when the lepers address Jesus as “Master”, a designation indicating his superior social status.

By contrast to Jesus the male Jewish rabbi from the merchant classes, the lepers in the story have to be regarded as very poor. Whatever they had been in their former lives, they were now complete outcasts. Religiously they were no longer able to practise the outward observances of the Jewish faith, because their disease prevented them from going to Synagogue or temple. That meant that they could never purify themselves of sin after the Jewish system of sacrifices. Their community would therefore have regarded them as permanently and irredeemably ‘unclean’. No Jew would have been permitted to go anywhere near them, for fear of being rendered ‘unclean’ in ritual terms. Even their families would have cut them off. Furthermore, their disease now prevented them from pursuing whatever business interests or jobs they might have enjoyed before they became ill. This meant that they could not even support themselves as ‘gentiles’ for whom the religion of the Jews was irrelevant. Lepers were therefore entirely dependent upon the compassion of others, a compassion which was certainly not ‘required’ of any of their Jewish compatriots.

With that in mind, the action of Jesus in healing these lepers should be seen for what it is: an example of how the wealthy Christian disciple is called to behave towards the weak and most vulnerable members of our community. Listen to what Luke the preacher says to all his listeners: ‘if you have skills, or money, or property of whatever, be generous. These are given you that you might have compassion, that you may share what you have with those who have not.’

But that is not all that Luke would want to say. There is a second point in the story, a second way in which his attitude towards riches is conveyed. Note that while most of the healed lepers take themselves immediately to the priest to be re-admitted to the religious and social privileges they used to enjoy, one of the lepers turns back to give his thanks to Jesus. Instead of taking what Jesus gives him, and using that to bolster his own self-interest, this man throws himself at Jesus feet in an act of thanksgiving and obeisance. In first century terms, prostrating oneself at the feet of a teacher was tantamount to declaring that you wanted to be that teacher’s disciple, and therefore to give everything one possessed by way of money, property or skill, over to that teacher’s service.

Listen carefully to what Luke the preacher is saying: a disciple is one who takes what God has given with thanksgiving. But the form of that thanksgiving is one which does not hoard what has been given, but rather, freely and wholeheartedly makes available what has been given for God’s own intentions and purposes. The gift given is never, therefore, regarded as something to be personally possessed. For the disciple of Christ, the gift given is returned again by the act of thanks-giving, which means that what one receives is then given over to God to be given again and again and again. This is a thanksgiving which does not close its hands around the gift, but opens its hand to give once more to God’s beloved poor, orphans and refugees.

Now, we have just witnessed an election campaign dominated by the buying of votes with money. ‘If you vote for us,’ each of the major parties said, ‘you will have more money in your pocket to provide for your family.’ Well, listen to what Christ would say to all of us who fell for this message. Life is about a whole lot more than providing for your family. It is also about sharing what you and your family have with those who have not. It is about welcoming refugees. It is about working for justice and health for Aboriginal people. It is about protecting our natural resources so that they will be there for the enjoyment and use of future generations. It is about building not a society, but a common-wealth. It is about giving thanks to God for the gifts we have been given by sharing those gifts with others.

People of God, if that is not what we are about, then we are not Christ’s disciples and we have no right to call ourselves Christian. Not even if we are amongst the most senior politicians of the land. If we are Christians, I believe that we must vigorously oppose any policy which is likely to widen the divisions in our land between the haves and the have-nots, between those who can resource themselves and those who cannot. For, if we don’t, the weak and the vulnerable will become even more weak and vulnerable. And we will have ceased to contribute toward a genuinely good and compassionate society.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Power of the Broken


Texts: Lamentations 1.1-6, 3.1-33; Psalm 137; Luke 17.5-10

In 586 BCE the armies of Babylon the Great swept down from the north and sacked the city of Jerusalem, capital of the monarchy of Judah. The great wall which surrounded the city was breached and pulled to the ground. Both soldiers and civilians were put to the sword. Women were raped, children were beaten to death. The city’s religious and political elite - priests and courtiers - were shackled together and carted away into exile. And the two great symbols of Judah’s proud heritage - the twin towers of temple and palace - were desecrated entirely, and torn to the ground.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a prosperous citizen of this great city. You have become accustomed to thinking of yourself and your fellow-citizens as the chosen ones of God, the nation rescued by God from slavery in order to become the light of the world. You believe that the temple and its priests are hallowed and holy, the sacred conduits by which God addresses and blesses the people. You believe that the king is heir to a messianic promise: that he is the anointed of God, who will always be there to protect the city from her enemies. Consider, then, the horror you feel as the Babylonian armies gather in the valley below. Imagine your shock and disbelief as the walls are breached and your countrymen put to the sword, as the priests, the king, and the noble families are carried off in chains. Imagine, if you will, the howl of despair that begins in your gut as the chosen people of God, with their noble law and their liturgy, are returned to the slavery from which they came. Imagine being that citizen who is left behind in the rubble, amidst the ruin of a disgraced city, the citizen who speaks in these opening words from Lamentations:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal . . .The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan;her young girls grieve and her lot is bitter.
Consider your bitterness and the overwhelming swell of your vengeance as one of those taken to Babylon, as one asked to sing a song of Hebrew worship for the entertainment of your captors. Today's psalm reflects on exactly that circumstance:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung our harps . . .How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? . . . O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
Consider the swirling blackness of your desolation. The shock. The loss. The utter destruction of the dream which was Judah. The words of Lamentations are devastating:

I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God's wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light . . .he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.
What does one do when such a thing has happened: when the illusion of safety and prosperity has been shown to be just that - an illusion; when that sense of election to a sacred mission and destiny has been shattered, and the God who promised to protect seem suddenly to have become the enemy?

Well, one wonders if these are the kinds of questions which the Americans are asking themselves these days. And not only the Americans, but anyone who, before Sept 11, 2001, saw themselves immune to the terrors of the 6 o’clock news; or who saw the Western project of civilization as somehow ordained and supported by God. Isn’t it curious how God is always on one’s own side, rather than on the side of those ‘others’, those people of different language, culture and belief. Isn’t it curious how the God of universal justice becomes, in the imagination of a threatened people, a warrior god (with a small ‘g’) who takes our side in battle of our tribe against theirs? . . . But I am getting ahead of myself. The question I really wanted to ask today was this: When the world has fallen apart and the foundations of safety and certainty have been shaken, how should the person of faith respond? Hear that again: how should the person of faith respond?

Well, there are a number of options, really. And we have seen all of them in the last few years. But they are also there in the Scriptures, as the people of faith in an ancient culture reflected on a similar question to ours.

The first kind of response one can make when the world has fallen apart, is to go looking for someone to punish. Here one feels that someone else is responsible for what has happened, and justice demands that they be punished in proportion to the damage they have inflicted. You know, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Now, let us not underestimate the incredible power of this response, the emotional and, yes, spiritual energy that underlies its pervasiveness in human experience. You see, the desire for revenge actually finds its genesis in a genuinely religious impulse - the instinct for justice. ‘If God is just’, the argument goes, ‘then what has happened to me must be paid for. The guilty must, themselves, receive the wounds they have inflicted upon the innocent. Only then will justice be satisfied’. The impulse for justice stands behind many of the vengeful outbursts we find in our Scriptures, including those lines of terror found in Psalm 137:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator, happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! 
Why would an Islamic man hijack an airplane and crash it into a building full of people? Why would he blow himself up in a Bali nightclub? Because he is driven by the religious impulse for justice that is deeply embedded in all the Abrahamic religions, including Christianity. ‘The Christians have killed and oppressed my people for decades’, he says to himself, ‘and so I will make myself the instrument of God’s justice. I will kill and terrorise the Christians’. Now, before I move on, I simply want to acknowledge the sheer power of this logic for every human being. When, as a child, someone hits or teases you in the playground, you feel hurt, you feel wronged. And it is our instinct for justice— the eye for the eye— that motivates us to respond in kind. Who of us can really say that if our own children were maimed or abused, we would not feel the same as the Psalmist? There is truth in these lines, even if it is an uncomfortable truth for civilized, urbane, people to countenance.

A second response that one might make when the world has been shattered is that of a fall into sheer despair. The kind of despair which, again, we find in the words of the Lamentations:

My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; So I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord’. The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul cannot escape these thoughts and is bowed down within me.
Anyone who suffers from depression, or anyone who has experienced a significant bereavement, will know this feeling all too well. It is what the Desert Fathers called acidie or ‘the noonday demon’. A sense that creeps up upon you, even in the noonday of one’s powers, at the apex of one’s ‘success’ in life, with a troubling question: ‘What is all this worth, anyway. So, you’ve achieved things, you’ve done a good turn for another, you’ve penetrated some of the mysteries of life. SO WHAT! What does it really matter? Everything passes away, like sands through your grasping hand. And there IS NO GOD who holds and values all this in his own hand and heart. It’s just an empty universe. In the end, there is nothing! So why bother?’

When the foundations are destroyed— whether by terrorists, or by legitimate governments (as in the case of Aboriginal people in this country) or by the simple bereavements of everyday life—it is sometimes very, very difficult to see what the value of building them was all about in the first place. And so one loses the will for anything, and slips into despair. Now. Again I want to acknowledge the sheer humanity of his response. The noonday demon is visited on every human being, without care for religion, social standing or race. No-one is immune, not even those who wrote the sacred words of Scripture. The noon-day demon is part of our experience. And the Scriptures acknowledge that with a startling realism.

But there is a third option for people of faith when their worlds have been shattered. And that is the option which is hidden in that very designation: the option we call ‘faith’. Now faith, according to the gospel of Luke, is a fundamental belief and trust in that which is impossible. It is to believe that a tree can uproot itself from the ground, take a walk, and replant itself elsewhere. It is to believe that the apparently ‘normal’ way of things, the logic of the everyday, work-a-day world can be fundamentally interrupted by a power which regards such things as far from necessary. It is the power that we call “God”, or “Grace”. Faith believes that the impossible is possible, that the unthinkable is thinkable, that the power of love is stronger than the power of death.

Now, listen to me, because this is important. Faith does not accomplish this belief by simply denying those other two desires we spoke of earlier, the desire for justice and the fall into despair. No. Faith has never been about taking us out of either the world or the bodies which we inhabit as human beings. It has never been about our escaping, about fantasizing ourselves beyond the troubles we encounter in the midst of life. Anyone who takes that particular path is kidding themselves. Faith, rather, acknowledges the power of those two experiences but takes them in a different direction. Faith identifies in both vengefulness and despair a kind of holiness, a seed of the good and the hopeful, and taking that seed into its care, waters and nurtures the seed until it is grown to a joyful maturity.

Let me explain what I mean. Faith recognises within the desire for vengefulness the holy seed which is a longing for justice. But faith finds another way for justice to be fulfilled. Rather than gathering all its power for a retaliatory strike, faith gives its power into the hands of another power. The power of God. Faith recognises that there is no-one who is righteous, not even one; so that when someone attacks me, my desire for just retaliation will inevitably be clouded my own sin, my own impurity of heart, by the limits of my own vision. So that were I to respond in kind, another kind of injustice would be accomplished. Evil would be added to evil, and the kind of justice I long for would certainly not be accomplished. In the words of Matthew Arnold, there is no justice when all the combatants are soiled by evil. Faith, therefore, longs for something which is impossible, and recognises that the only one who may fulfil that longing is God. A God of love and clear vision who may be trusted to interrupt the logic of revenge and bring peace. Faith believes that the way to tackle terror is to resist it with another kind of logic altogether. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, said Jesus. Why? Because only God knows how to accomplish the justice we long for.

Similarly with the experience of despair. Faith recognises that there is a holy seed even in this experience. When we come to the end of our powers, when our achievements have been destroyed or seem useless in the grand scheme of things, faith gently reminds us that the life of joy and peace for all is built not by ourselves, but by God. Even death and despair are the angels of God. They come to teach us that unless the Lord builds the house, the building will not stand. That unless we empty ourselves of all ambition and desire, the desires and ambitions of God will never find the necessary space in our hearts to take root and grow. In one of the most pervasive religious narratives of our time, the Star Wars films, the Force is unable to do its work unless the Jedi knight disciplines his own anxieties and desires. The Force will not flow unless the Jedi lets go of both his fears and his desires. All that is self and ego must be surrendered so that the will of the Force may be done. Now, this is more that just science-fiction. The makers of Star Wars nicked this insight from the great religious traditions of the world, Christianity included. The mystics, the writer of Luke included, teach us that we are servants of a power which is not our own. That we must do what is proper to servants, the will of our master, no more and no less. And that means letting go and letting God. For, in the end, it is only the soul which acts in concert with God who will survive and prosper.

The good news of the gospel is this. When the world falls apart and the foundations are shaken, God cares. God recognises the pain, the despair, and the anger which goes with that experience. And God does not leave us on our own. God reaches down into our confusion and gifts us with faith—a belief that the inevitable is not inevitable, and that the impossible is indeed possible. That when our own powers are at and end, and when we are not competent even to do justice, that God’s power of love will yet prevail, that God will accomplish the justice and the peace we long for. If only we will surrender. If only we will have faith.