Hard Sayings

Sermon at All Saints’ Coddington, Trinity 19, 2016

Lamentations 1.1-6; Luke 17.5-10

Biblical scholars sometimes talk about “hard sayings” in the Bible. As an illustration, I want you, for a few minutes, to consider with me our first reading from Lamentations. Anybody who has experienced the loss of a close relative or friend will recognise the grief and mourning that rises from every line of the opening of that poem, the first of five poems making up this “little scroll” or Megilloth that we call Lamentations.  The whole scroll is chanted annually on Tisha b’Av (the 9th day of the month Av) which is the reputed anniversary of the destruction of the First Temple (Solomon’s Temple) at Jerusalem in 587 BCE. Tisha b’Av is also the reputed date of the destruction of the Second Temple by a Roman army in 70 CE. The whole short book – five poems - is read in Anglican churches on Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week and on Good Friday.

This poem has been and continues to be used in an unbroken succession since – what? – say, 570 BCE. And its message seems clear and simple. It is a message of agony, torn from human hearts, and of accusation against God about what God has either done or allowed to be done against God’s people.

It is a poem that could be uttered by members of the Syriac church who have recently witnessed the destruction not only of their churches and monasteries, but of their priests and their fellow-Christians, while they themselves survive only as refugees. It is a hymn of accusation that could be sung against God as God’s children in Aleppo are killed in a complicated civil war and proxy war. Above all it is a poem that utters the bewildered grief of people who seem to have done no wrong but who witness the destruction of everything they hold most dear. Then, in 587 BCE and now in 2016 CE.

Now, consider with me another hard saying – this time in this morning’s reading from the Christian canon, part of St Luke’s account of Jesus’ teaching as, for the last time in his earthly life, he travelled to that Second Temple in Jerusalem. Verses 7-10 – the ones about the duties of slaves – are found only in Luke’s account and neither of the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Mark) has them. What strikes me first is what a different world that was to the one we live in. In our world, to be a Christian means supporting international campaigns to put slave-traffickers out of business and behind bars. It means being on the look-out for modern day slaves. They do exist, we know it, in their thousands in our country – and in the shadier parts of agriculture as well as in major towns and cities. As Christians we would, of course, report any signs we saw of such dreadful wrongs. But there’s St Luke telling us firmly – and in Jesus’ name – that a slave ought to work hard, be uncomplaining, and then work hard again because that is what slaves are for!

Clearly, we have to deal with a monumental culture gap. We need to look past Luke’s appalling picture to hear what he has to tell us, not about slavery, but about Christian discipleship. He is warning us that, once you belong to Messiah Jesus, you should not expect your life to be entirely your own. You should not expect your life to be easy either. No, says Luke: as a disciple you – like a slave – have to let go having the last word about your life, your decisions, your possessions, your money, your will. All of that must be left to God. God will guide you, direct you, at times command you. But perhaps what Luke, most of all, is telling his hearers is this: just because, at your baptism (and confirmation) you chose to live your life for God, you should not expect God to feel under some obligation to you. God makes no conditions with you – you are beloved, just as you are. But, by the same token, you can’t make conditions with God, as though God has some special obligation to you. It was and remains your choice to be God’s servant. And God has concerns for you, and also for the rest of God’s creation. Your privilege is to be part of God’s mission – a witness to God’s love. You do that of your free will – no less should be expected of you.

There is a warning here for all of us Christians, perhaps most of all for that minority who are seen as professional Christians, the clergy. If we look to our participation in the Church for some kind of public recognition, for a stamp of respectability or for some spurious authority, we are doomed to disappointment, and we are guilty of pride - even idolatry. We are worse-than-useless servants of God.

Now, will you join me in bringing together our two rather sombre readings, the one from Lamentations and the other from St Luke. These readings bring us face to face with the dark side of our faith. We lie to ourselves if we deny that sense of hurt, or outrage or grief when it seems that God has deserted God’s children, including at times ourselves. What kind of parent does that, and still lays claim to loving the children? The poets who wrote Lamentations believed that they had a right and a duty to cry out against the wrong they saw done to them, and to place their pain firmly in God’s court. Not for them a false religion of nice feelings that says “there, there” when there is no consolation.

It might be that, one day, that consolation could be found. After all, our scholars can show us that Judaism, the religion of the Second Temple and of the synagogues, was not even born until after the destruction of the First Temple and after the deportation and exile of all Judah’s human assets. Everything we know of the Jewish religion, apart from the early prophets and many of the psalms, begins with that time of deportation and exile in Babylon / Iraq – after what seemed to be total destruction. Even the fabulous stories of God’s people – of Abraham, of exile in Egypt, of the conquest of Canaan – all those founding stories of patriarchs and Moses and Judges and Kings – they emerge from the devastating experience of real exile, of real destruction. And they led to the foundation of what we know as Judaism, of the beginnings of holy scripture and of monotheism. From this distance, we can dare to discern the hand of God in that awful destruction, but we insult the humanity of the poets of Lamentations if we overlook their grief and devastation.

The same must be said of the sufferings of our own time and of our own personal and social lives. Maybe, somewhere down the road, beyond, perhaps, death itself, our pain and devastation may make some kind of sense. But it would be insensitive, obscene even, to dare in the midst of another’s suffering, to claim to see the hand of God. St Luke was right about that. Being a disciple of the Anointed One, of Jesus, buys us no favours from God, no exemption from suffering, or even annihilation. The most we can do in the midst of pain, suffering, death and war is to express our outrage, to spew out our anger and hurt at the God who seems to be absent. There is a story of a group of Jews who, when walking to the gas chambers in an extermination camp, began to sing a psalm – calling on the God who, then more than ever, seemed to be utterly absent. Like the dying Jesus, they could quote Psalm 22 “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It was the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who criticised so much of the Church that he had served when he warned of “cheap grace.” He had in mind the ways in which Christians have rushed to emphasise resurrection as a means of avoiding dealing with crucifixion, or have spouted words about forgiveness before they have felt, faced, experienced, comprehended and lived through whatever grief, hurt, cruelty or wickedness has been inflicted, pain that no amount of relationship with God can prevent. And, if you remind me that a Christian preacher is charged with preaching Good News, I will call Pastor Bonhoeffer to support me in saying that Good News counts for nothing if we do not first face the realities of sin and suffering in a fallen world.