Hope in disastrous times- sermon for 6 October 2013: Year C, Proper 22

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 6 October 2013: Year C, Proper 22

SERMON
Texts: Lamentations 1:1-6 and 3:19-26
Luke 17:5-10

Hope in disastrous times

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have a wonderful memory of the first time I saw the Mediterranean Sea. I opened the blind on a sleeper train window in the south of France, and saw a sea which was a blue colour I thought you could only get in paintings. For most of us, ‘the Med’ is a place of beauty, relaxation, fun. But, like any sea, it is also dangerous.A few weeks ago, the 24 hour news channels gave full coverage of the raising of the Costa Concordia cruise ship from the rocks on the island of Giglio. It made great TV pictures, and one could only admire the skill of the salvage engineers who are attempting to remove the ship without causing damage to the local marine environment. It was also a reminder of the terrible night she hit those rocks. But that night there was another disaster off the coast of Malta. Here’s the story from the Church of Scotland website:

On Friday 13th January 2012, the Costa Concordia was lost in the Mediterranean, in a tragic incident which attracted world headlines. Almost all the 4,252 people known to be on board were saved, 32 died or remain unaccounted for.
That same day, the first of three boats carrying African refugees across the Mediterranean from Libya towards Malta and Italy was rescued by coastguards, in an incident which attracted no news coverage whatsoever. 72 were saved, including a pregnant woman and 29 children.The second boat was rescued two days later by a Maltese armed patrol vessel, assisted by the US Navy. The 68 who were saved included a mother who had just given birth. They’re now in Malta.
… The third boat didn’t make it. A distress call warning of engine failure was intercepted by the Maltese maritime authorities the morning after the Concordia disaster. Then no more was heard…. until the last week of January, when the first 15 bodies were washed up on Libyan beaches –at least 55 were lost.
In Italy, following the Concordia, there are investigations, prosecutions, and claims for damages, stress and compensation. Large sums of money will ease the stress of a holiday gone wrong.
In Malta, there are survivors who have lost absolutely everything – including husbands, wives or children. Many were fleeing for their lives in the first place. Life must somehow begin again, after release from detention, which for some could be anything up to 18 months. They will be placed in one of Malta’s ‘open centres’. Tent Village houses several hundred already, in a mix of ex-army tents on concrete bases, or ‘cabins’ which, with some irony, are converted shipping containers. Stifling ovens in Malta’s high summer; cold, damp and depressing in winter. … On a warm, still, summer Friday evening in June 2011, a large group of people gathered on the waterfront of Grand Harbour, Valletta. Rev Doug McRoberts of St. Andrew’s Scots Church, and Father Joe Cassar of the Jesuit Refugee Service led a refugee remembrance service. Flowers were placed on the water in memory of those who died on their journey to freedom – more than 1500 last year alone between Libya and Malta, according to [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. The start of the service was delayed by a couple of minutes, to allow a large cruise liner to exit the harbour, with all her lights on, her siren sounding, and her passengers – some already in evening dress – lining the decks. She was the Costa Concordia.

The Costa Concordia sinking has had lots of coverage in the media. I watched a programme which told the story of the sinking with interviews with survivors and footage from on board the ship made by people with their video cameras and video phones, and it was compelling television. But how many of us really aware that there are many more ships sinkings taking place in the Mediterranean which the media hardly notice? This week, one such sinking did get reported. Yet another ship laden with refugees on Libya caught fire and sunk off the tiny island of Lampedusa, which belongs to Italy. Despite rescue efforts, it is thought that over 200 people have died in this latest tragedy.

And this is not an uncommon occurence. A few months ago, the Council of European Churches stated that, ‘in the period from 1 January 1993 to 29 January 2012, at least 16,136 people died at the borders of Europe. The actual number of victims is much higher than this, since many deaths go unrecorded’2 . Many of those deaths have been in the Mediterranean, as people have sought to get away from poverty and conflicts in northern Africa, or in places like Syria. People often pay traffickers to bring them to Europe, in these overloaded, leaky boats. Even if they do survive, they face hostile border officials, or may find themselves exploited or abused, virtual slaves here in Europe, even here in the United Kingdom, many of them even forced to work in what we euphemistically now call ‘the sex industry’.

Today’s Old Testament reading could, perhaps, stand as a response to the misery and hopelessness which is the lot of so many people today. We read from the Book of Lamentations, a series of poems which respond to another human disaster, a tragedy which is central to the Hebrew Bible. In 586 BC, the nation of Judah came to an end with the fall of Jerusalem. Thousands were killed, and most of the rest of the population taken into exile in Babylon. The Temple of Jerusalem, so long central to the religious life of the Jewish people, was destroyed. The book of Lamentations was one response to this disaster. Still today the Jewish people read them on the Ninth of Av, a commemoration, not only of the end of the First Temple, but also the destruction of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans not long after the time of Jesus, and never restored (the mosque known as The Dome of the Rock now stands on the site).

And so there was much to lament: a city ‘now like a widow; The noblest of cities… fallen into slavery… No one comes to the Temple now to worship on the holy days. The young women who sang there suffer, and the priests can only groan. The city gates stand empty, and Zion is in agony. Her enemies succeeded; they hold her in their power’. We just heard a little of it today, but there is much more, a tragic portrait of a city fallen into ruin and despair. For example, chapter 5 speaks of the mothers of Jerusalem who ‘let their babies die of hunger and thirst; children are begging for food that no one will give them. People who once ate the finest foods die starving in the streets; those raised in luxury are pawing through garbage for food’ (Lamentations 4.4-5).

Some people think that faith is a way of denying or shutting out tragedy or pain. But you cannot read Lamentations and say that that is true of the faith of the Bible. Instead, Biblical faith faces squarely the reality of suffering. And it ask questions of a God who so often seems absent when we suffer. Psalm 74 is another place where the destruction of the Temple is dealt with. Listen to the pain in this prayer:

All our sacred symbols are gone;
there are no prophets left,
and no one knows how long this will last.
How long, O God, will our enemies laugh at you?
Will they insult your name forever?
Why have you refused to help us?
Why do you keep your hands behind you?

Psalm 74.9-11

For Christians, all this is brought into focus by words from another of the psalms, which Jesus is said to have uttered as almost his last words as he died on the cross. They are the first words of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (cf Matthew 27.46,; Mark 15.34). Here are words of deepest despair, accusing and questioning God. And they are spoken by the one Christians call ‘saviour’.

We have much to lament of, whether it is the great disasters of war, violence, the death of refugees, the exploitation of trafficked workers. But very often it comes home to us personally- we none of us go through life without experiencing despair for one reason or another. Oddly enough, I don’t think faith insulates us from all that. Marx called religion ‘the opium of the people’- he thought it saved the working people of the great Victorian cities from worrying about their wretched plight. Today, I suspect, he would see how we block out the pain of the world in a secular ways- above all with an all-pervausive media and entertainment industry which constantly tempts us to look away, to ignore, to occupy ourselves with trivialities. And even when they do report the news, it’s people like us they tell us about- people on cruise ships, not on overloaded fishing boats.

But Christian faith does not flinch from harsh realities. How can it, when our Bible contains a book called ‘Lamentations’, and the founder of our faith died in a painful execution? If anything, perhaps we need to make space for us to lament, to cry out to God, to express our despair and the fact that too often, we find it hard to hope. Because it seems to me, as I read the Bible, that anger towards God, despair, doubt, and lamentation are all part of the life of faith.

‘To have faith’, says a New Testament author, ‘is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see’ (Hebrews 11.1). I don’t think that’s just wishful thinking- the Bible is too realistic for that. Instead, perhaps what we too often cannot see is that, even when we say, ‘Where are you God’, God is, in fact, with us in our despair, our suffering, our doubting and our lamenting. There is not much hope in the Book of Lamentations- it is pretty grim reading. But as we find in many of the Psalms, very often Biblical prayers move from despair to hope, because of a sense that, despite appearances, God is involved in it all. Listen to this from Lamentations:

The thought of my pain, my homelessness, is bitter poison.
I think of it constantly, and my spirit is depressed.
Yet hope returns when I remember this one thing:
The Lord’s unfailing love and mercy still continue,
Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise.
The Lord is all I have, and so in him I put my hope.

Lamentiations 3.19-24

For people without faith, this is a shocking move. For people with faith, this is a very, very difficult move. And yet there it is- the sense that ultimately God will not abandon those who suffer, for God is with them in their suffering, that God suffers alongside them. That, at least, is the best I can make of the paradox of the cross. Somehow God was never more present than when Jesus cried out, ‘why have you abandoned me?’

Today in our Gospel reading Jesus speaks bluntly about faith. How often have we thought, ‘I would do better with more faith!’ It might help us, after all, as we despair at the state of the world, as we lament the suffering around us. So his disciples ask, ‘Give us more faith!’ And Jesus answer is, ‘You don’t need any more. With a mustard seed sized amount of faith you could make a tree jump in a river’. And then he goes on to not quite tell a parable, but to make a comparison. ‘Who among you would say to your slave…’ knowing full well that probably nobody in the crowd who’s following him is rich enough to own a slave. But they all know what slave owners are like. It doesn’t matter if the slave has just come in from plouging a field, if his master wants his dinner, then his master gets his dinner first before the slave does. And they never say thank you. Slaves just do as they are told. (And no doubt it is still like this for many people around the world today who are in some kind of slavery).

This is not a parable to tell us what God is like. It is, however, like the daft image of the tree jumping in the river, a brusque reminder to us about what faith is supposed to be about. In the lead up to this passage, Luke gives us three parables of Jesus- about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and finally a lost son who, despite sinning against his father, is welcomed home with open arms. So our God has come looking for us, and loves us despite what we have done, how we have failed. And then we hear a story about a farm manager, which leads to the saying that we cannot love both God and money. And then there is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, about how God cares for the poor, and takes very seriously our failure to help the neediest. All of that, in different ways, is about faith. So if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, and we put it into action, we can do great things. Faith is not just saying that we believe in some set of dogma. Faith shows itself by our willingness to serve.

You will remember earlier I mentioned the memorial service for refugees, led by the Church of Scotland minister in Malta and his Catholic colleague from the Jesuit Refugee Service. I’ve sometimes thought that being the Church of Scotland minister in sunny Malta must be a nice job- leading worship and looking after the ex-pats and the tourists. But remember those refugees living in the shipping containers and the old tents under the hot Maltese sun? Here’s more from the Church of Scotland website:

The St Andrew’s Scots Church in Malta is co-ordinating a growing project called Out of Africa … into Malta which seeks to meet acute and longer-term needs of the [refugee] individuals and families through a series of initiatives. From coolboxes in the summer to keep food fresh and safe from rats, to children’s snowsuits and blankets in winter, these small things make life more bearable.
Also the project has established Malta Microfinance and imaginative ways are being sought over the next three years to stabilise families and community groups, and provide the means by which they can leave the tents and cabins permanently, building a future. The same opportunity can be offered to Malta’s poorest families; a sharing of opportunity and a real chance of achieving better integration among people from widely different backgrounds and experience, but whose problems are shared.
Out of Africa … into Malta is a real ministry and mission opportunity on the southern edge of Europe, where continents and cultures meet, often uneasily.

Mustard seed faith?

Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo