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Allen Valleys Churches

The Diocese of

Newcastle

Last Sunday’s Sermon

Perhaps it will be the lady in the Co-op. Or the man on the bus, or in the pub. But sooner or later, if they have not already done so, someone is going to engage you in a conversation. And it will be along the lines of ‘what about these hurricanes then? And that earthquake in Mexico, or those forest fires? Not been a good year, has it?’ And if you are unlucky, they will start asking how God allows such disasters to happen, or why he doesn’t do something to help; that sort of thing.

If you were able to see it coming, you might be able to counter the argument. There is always plenty of warning of a hurricane. We understand meteorology: we can predict tropical storms very accurately: the problem is that people, often the poorest people, continue live right in their path. And we know about plate tectonics: we know that earthquakes are a hazard in many areas of the world. The problem is, we don’t build houses strongly enough to resist the forces that we know the earth can unleash. And twenty-four hour rolling news makes us much more aware of disasters around the world and their effects. You could argue that there are just too many of us on the planet: we are victims of our own success as a species. You could argue that if the earth were not geologically active, and with a vibrant weather pattern, there would be no life at all. Our planet would resemble Mars or Venus, dead and lifeless.

You might dare to argue more theologically. Does God grieve any less at the death of a hundred people than at the death of a thousand? Less at the death of ten than of a hundred? Of one child than of ten? So the numbers game is a human perspective, not a divine one.

You might even try to argue that all of this pain, all of this torment is summed up, collected together and given meaning in the death of Jesus, who suffers alongside and on behalf of the whole of humanity, bearing our heartache, sharing our loss.

You might come up with all these arguments, and others beside. They may even work, and convince the person to whom you are speaking. But none of them will quite convince you, when again you look at the pictures, and read the stories; when you see the slowly-rolling tears, and listen to the sobs.

The man on the bus, the lady in the shop do at least glimpse the anguish that lies behind the questions they ask. We might or might not be able to counter their arguments, but if we were we to meet with the actual victims of these recent tragedies, what could we do but remain silent and grieve with them?

So what do we do, as people of faith, when faced with suffering on such as scale as we have witnessed this year? How do we make sense of believing in God, when our hearts go out to the bereaved and the injured, who had no-one to save them, no-one to prevent their anguish and suffering?

What do we do? We try to live with the pain, refusing to be satisfied by easy answers, refusing to take refuge behind convoluted explanations. There will be plenty who will see these events as: signs of the end of the world; or evidence of God’s judgement, or some such. Such ideas are defence mechanisms, really, for those who cannot bear the reality and the sorrow.

We try to live with the pain; and we look to the tradition of faith that has sustained us, and our spiritual ancestors, though untold sorrow and disaster. Take Moses for instance. Moses speaks directly to the confusion and sorrow that we face after the events of these last weeks. He has a credibility gap. He too struggles to hold onto faith, with an unclear future ahead of him, and a confusing past behind him.

We’ve been following the story of the Exodus from Egypt in our readings over the last few weeks. We’ve heard how quickly the euphoria of freedom turns into complaint against the new future of life in the wilderness. We’ve heard how quickly the Israelites assume the worst, and persuade Aaron to make an idol as a focus for their worship, rather than wait for Moses to return from wherever it was that he’d got to up that mountain. What the compilers of the lectionary have omitted from our sequence is the unedifying tale that comes next, of how the Levites impose a punishment on the people for turning so quickly to idols, and slay three thousand, three thousand! of their fellow refugees, in an orgy of religious fanaticism.

So now, Moses, weighed down with grief, perplexed and afraid for the future, is remonstrating with God once again. He’d never wanted the job of leading the people in the first place; and he’s had precious little by way of thanks for his efforts. At the crucial moment, God seems to be letting him down; and right now, he stares disaster in the face.

‘You have been telling me,’ he says to God, “Lead these people”, but you have not let me know whom you will send with me! You have said, “I know you by name and you have found favour with me”. If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways, so I may know you and continue to find favour with you! Remember that this nation is your people... If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?’

It is a breath-taking outburst! How does he get away with such impertinence? Because he is speaking heart-felt truth; and God can always cope with the truth.

This tradition of remonstrating with God, being honest with him, not hiding anything, not thinking we must conceal our true feelings; this tradition runs through the Old Testament. It’s here in the prophets, through the psalms and the poetry, into the histories of the nation. This is how the children of Israel cope with disaster and calamity. Remember how Job rails at God; Job, whose whole family is apparently wiped out just to settle a bet. Remember the surviving exiles by the rivers of Babylon, weeping for destroyed Jerusalem, their lost lands and their slaughtered families. ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’

We inherit this tradition. We face up to the pain, we draw strength from being honest with God; and we pray. Church is not an hour off on a Sunday. Worship is not a leisure activity. Being a Christian is not an escape from the world. Praying for the world is hard: it means we cannot ignore the pain of our fellow human beings. Prayer means engaging with the world and its concerns, rather than turning a blind eye to everything that happens beyond the horizons of the Allen Valleys.

It is uncomfortable, heart-breaking. Yet as we pray, we join with all our spiritual ancestors, who have protested against disaster and injustice, against pain and suffering; whom God has heard, and wept alongside; to whom like Moses, he has gently offered hope.

The words of the collect once again: God our saviour, look on this wounded world in pity and in power; hold us fast to your promises of peace won for us by your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Sermon is based on the following passage from the Bible: Exodus, chapter 33, verses 12 - 23

© Jon Russell 2017