Our relationship with God

Sermon preached at All Saints, Coddington, Lent 2 2016

Philippians 3.17 - 4.1; Luke 13.31-35

What I want to address today is a very intimate matter and, of course, I cannot see into the intimate corners of your hearts to know if I’m telling you something you’ve always known or whether I am asking you to re-think some old certainties. What I have to say is about my and your personal relationship with God. I have major difficulties in this area which come to light every day when I’m saying my daily Office, especially when I get to the psalms. I feel so uncomfortable about these psalms that I argue with them. Later, in my intercessions, I find I am arguing with God. What is the point of my praying for peace in Syria and Iraq? Am I expecting God to intervene and stop the killing? Is God going to replace implacable hatred with goodwill and harmony? Do I seriously believe that God is going to divert bombs that have been aimed at a hospital or a school? Is God going to intervene to protect Yazidi women from rape by Daesh terrorists? Will God stop young men murdering hostages?

I am haunted by the psalmist who continually hails God as a saviour, as one who keeps safe the faithful. “God our Rock will defend us.” I don’t see it happening, and my experience drowns out the psalmist’s verses of trust. Perhaps it gave those writers some strength. They apparently felt sure of God’s saving interventions. But I remember the newsreels I watched as a child: those clips of Allied troops as they reached Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Treblinka, Dachau and Auschwitz…. As another psalm says: where is now your God? Or as Jesus himself said: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” My discomfort is only that of a troubled bystander. I don’t have to staff an MSF hospital under bombardment, Neither I nor my immediate family was sent to an extermination camp. But every day terrible things are being done to our fellow human beings and – so far as I can see – God is not intervening to stop it.

There is no getting away from it. We live in a world where cruel things happen. And they’re not all far away in some foreign place that we don’t have to worry about. Our skilled and able defenders remind us that we should have no doubt that terrorist attacks will take place in the UK again and again. Even in rural Herefordshire, the apparently small, domestic horrors continue. People are driven mad by anxiety and depression, and children are abused - what a tidy little word that is, covering unspeakable pains and horrors. And it all happens while we continue to pray that God will see, that God will love us, and that God will make us and our neighbours safe.

By now you may be thinking: is this man here to spread his doubts? Doesn’t he know he is supposed to preach a gospel of salvation? Why isn’t he telling us about the great hope we share - tell us that God really is in charge and that we are safe in God’s hands? Well, as I said, I cannot know what is in the intimate corners of your heart and whether or not you are asking yourself those questions. However, I do owe it to you to share such truth as is revealed in Scripture, in the teaching of the Church and in the experience of other Christians, including myself.

So I will try to answer the question: where does God come into our reckoning when we view the way our world is. I will turn to Scripture, but first I turn to the traditions of the Church and, in particular, a poem by that 16th century radical, Teresa of Avila. It’s called Christ Has No Body:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

We should not assume that Teresa’s poem applies only to Christians. Jesus made it plain that there are people who are not working with the grain of God’s creation: in both Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels, Jesus describes them as “against me” and thus against God’s Rule. Other people – even if they were not disciples – Jesus described as “not far from the Kingdom.” In other words, you don’t have to be a signed up Christian to be on God’s side – there’s room for many more, and we are all called to be the hands, eyes and feet of God in God’s world.

And, from Scripture, I take support from St Paul’s startling insight in the epistle reading this morning. Paul lived a hard life, in times that were hard – life-threatening for Christians. Life was cheap and human rights didn’t exist. But what Paul grasped was that if God’s will is to be done, he’d better get on with his bit of it while there was time. What he also had was a conviction that he was not only a citizen of Rome and of the wider world; he was not only a Pharisaic Jew; he was also a citizen of another domain altogether. He had found a place as a citizen of God’s heavenly domain. He could not see or touch it, though it was vividly real to him, and from it he drew his strength. It was that which enabled him to engage so wholeheartedly and energetically in his contemporary world. He kept glimpsing God’s heavenly world through all the disappointments and the dangers of his life. It was that world that gave him his conviction that the love of God is in the end more powerful than a regime characterised by a longing for power, for wealth, for sexual dissipation, for greed in all its forms. But can you imagine Paul’s comments on how our commercial and financial systems work nowadays? What do you think he would say about the priorities of our national and international budgets, about our financial and political priorities? I think he would not leave us feeling comfortable even if we could believe that his criticisms came from his love for us!

People sometimes say to Christians that it must be wonderful “to have a faith” as though somehow we never get depressed, we don’t feel utterly broken when we are bereaved, we don’t mind when our businesses collapse or we lose our careers. It may indeed be wonderful to have a faith, but it is never going to be a means of bypassing suffering, nor of protecting us from knowing how the world really is. As often as not – listen perhaps to Bishop Angaelos of the persecuted Syriac church – we hang on to that last gasp of hope that, even though God is not going to stop a bomb falling, yet God’s domain must come on earth. Jesus found it worth living and dying for that, as have millions of his followers ever since. It is not an easy option, but it is the best hope we have.