Friday, March 04, 2011

Epiphany 8A- a service of lament

On Sunday 27th February, in the wake of the horrendous earthquake in Christchurch, I decided that our worship at Beechworth should have a theme of lament, in empathy with our brothers and sisters across the ditch.

I have reproduced here the call to worship and words of our opening hymn, which set the tone for our worship, along with the sermon I preached.

Call to Worship (based on Psalm 131):
The Psalmist cries:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great
and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul…

After the events of the week,

we come with heavy hearts and many questions,
as we bring our worship to God.

Hymn: A Touching Place (TIS 677)
Christ's is the world in which we move.
Christ's are the folk we're summoned to love,
Christ's is the voice which calls us to care,
and Christ is the One who meets us here.

To the lost Christ shows his face;
to the unloved He gives His embrace;
to those who cry in pain or disgrace,
Christ, makes, with His friends, a touching place.

Feel for the people we most avoid.
Strange or bereaved or never employed;
Feel for the women, and feel for the men
fear that their living is all in vain.

Feel for the parents who lost their child,
feel for the woman whom men have defiled.
Feel for the baby for whom there's no breast,
and feel for the weary who find no rest.

Feel for the lives by life confused.
Riddled with doubt, in loving abused;
Feel for the lonely heart, conscious of sin,
which longs to be pure but fears to begin.
(words by John Bell)

Sermon - Matthew 6:24-34
I often scratch my head in awe at God’s sense of timing. For example, in the lead up to last Sunday, there was a pastoral matter involving conflict between two parties in one of my congregations. When we came to the Gospel reading for last Sunday, there were Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. Rather fitting really.

It appears that God’s done it again this week. After being dumbstruck and reduced to tears as we watched the news coverage of the Christchurch earthquake, we now read Jesus’ words: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink… your heavenly father knows you need all these things. Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

These words of Jesus, telling his listeners not to worry, but rather trust in God and seek the kingdom, can sometimes become almost a cliché to us. We hear them quoted, often almost frivolously and without much thought.

As we think about these words, it’s important to consider their context. In Jesus’ day, the society of Galilee and the general area could sustain a movement where its members turned up in towns or villages expecting to find board, lodging and hospitality, because the community at large was not so poverty-stricken that travellers wouldn’t be looked after. Looking around the society, Jesus’ followers could see that there was enough resource and goodwill to clothe them like the lilies of the field and feed them like the birds.

However, we all know situations where this doesn’t work; where without outside intervention people shrivel in starvation and face exposure and death through lack of shelter. So, simply transferring Jesus’ words into sites of famine or disaster is at best naïve, and at worst grossly irresponsible.

I am torn when I read the words: “Do not worry about your life”.

Part of me wants to believe, and take comfort in the belief, that God is in control, and God knows what he’s doing. In fact many people do believe this- so much so that they have almost a blinkered faith, never questioning, as if they never see the world around them.

BUT when I see the bloody suppression of the protests in Libya by Colonel Gadaffi, where we saw the Libyan military firing on their own citizens, or the tragic loss of life and so much more around Christchurch after last week’s earthquake, I can’t help but ask: “Where is God in all this?” or even, “IS there a God in all this?” (as I’m sure many people around the world are asking now).

This morning, the Hornby-Riccarton Methodist Parish in Christchurch will be grieving as they mourn the loss of their beloved organist, who was assisting a team to remove an organ from an historic church in the central city, that was damaged back in the September earthquake. Their minister said, “We are all numb and sad and struggling to accept the reality of the situation. Please keep praying for us.”

A comment was made in one of the newscasts during the week that the nature of the Christchurch community is such that everyone will know someone who was killed or injured. No one in the city is untouched by this horrific event. It reminds me of the Port Arthur massacre back in the 90s when I was living in Hobart. Everyone in Hobart seemed to know someone who was at Port Arthur that day, or someone involved in the response to the massacre. The nature of a small city is that there is a close-knit community, so that when something of this magnitude happens, everyone is affected.

Earlier in the service, we listened to the song Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Somehow I suspect the words ‘don’t worry be happy’ won’t quite cut it for these people. To say, “don’t worry, God is in control” would be hard for the people of Christchurch to hear right now- even those who are people of faith.

So how do we cope with a situation like this?

A few weeks ago, I shared a prayer of lament that was written by the Secretary of the Central Queensland Presbytery in response to the recent floods. There is a long history of lament in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In fact lament is a good, acceptable and normal part of our worship. Just look at the book of Psalms – there are many psalms of lament, and interestingly many of these start out with the psalmist beating his breast, proclaiming doom and gloom and questioning God, but by the end of the psalm the tone has turned to praise and recognition of a loving, merciful God being in control.

Because we’re human, we have emotions, and are affected by things around us; and it is right and proper and necessary for us to express our feelings. Because of this, when something tragic or traumatic happens, we need to lament and grieve before we are able to rejoice and ‘not worry’.

So, where is God in our lament?
According to German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, God is right there with us in the thick of our lament. In his book The Crucified God, Moltmann describes Christ as ‘our divine brother in suffering’. We know from reading the gospels that Jesus suffered on the cross and experienced the full gamut of human suffering, but Moltmann goes further, asserting that when bad things happen to God’s children it is God’s heart that is the first to break. God the Father is not immune to our suffering.

So, if God is love, if God is all powerful, why are bad things -like these natural disasters of cyclones, floods, bushfires, earthquakes- allowed to happen? “It’s not fair!” we cry.

Psalm 23 is a popular text for funerals (I have certainly preached on it many times!) because it speaks to the situation of desolation and despair. The psalmist speaks of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, or the valley of deepest darkness- a place that the people of Christchurch would be familiar with right now. Whenever I preach on Psalm 23 I always share this wisdom from Rabbi Harold Kushner. In the book he wrote on the 23rd Psalm he says:

“God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was that, when we had to confront the unfairness of life, we would not have to do it alone, for He would be with us.”

This is the message of hope for us today from the Gospel- do not worry – because no matter what comes, God will be with us- lamenting with us, crying with us and comforting us. May that be so for all who suffer today.