Monday, 9 May 2011

What do we do now?

(notes from a sermon preached in Hodge Hill, 8th May 2011 – on Luke 24:13-35)

In Jewish tradition (in the Talmud), as the Israelites escape through the Red Sea and the waters come crashing down on the Egyptian army, the angels of God burst into songs of praise and celebration. And God silences them: “the works of my hand are drowning in the sea, and you would sing in my presence?”

There has been cheering, singing and flag-waving outside the White House this week, and claims inside it that ‘justice has been done’, because a man has been killed. Assassinated, it seems, quite deliberately. But what has really changed? Al Qaeda lives on, and martyrdom is in their bloodstream. There are threats of revenge attacks already. And what has the USA communicated clearly to the world? That whoever is strongest, wins. The spiral of violence continues. What do we do now?

Much closer to home, in Comet Park, just down the road from where I live, £30,000 of new play equipment was installed, some 6 weeks ago, after a long battle by local residents to get the money and see the results. On Palm Sunday, one of the three pieces, a big climbing frame, was completely destroyed by fire. Last Thursday, the huge 12-seater swing was totally destroyed in a similar way. Destruction seems to have won the day. What do we do now?

The two disciples walking back home to Emmaus are on no gentle afternoon stroll. They are going home because it’s all over. The one they followed, placed their hopes in, has been brutally executed by the authorities. Now they are running for their own lives. Their words to each other are full of fear, grief, and perhaps more than anything, crushing disappointment. “We had though he was the one…” But now he’s dead. It’s all over. What do we do now?

And then someone joins them on the road. A stranger. A strange stranger, by all accounts – one who seems to have missed the recent headline news, but has some challenging things to say of his own. And here’s a small miracle: these crushed, grieving, fearful ex-disciples dare to let this stranger walk with them, open their hearts to him, listen to his strange words, and invite him home to eat with them. This is brave hospitality in deeply troubling times.

And what do they discover? Their stories, as well as their bread, given back to them, broken open, re-told as if a different world had just dawned…

Firstly, that the judgment of the authorities, the ‘powers-that-be’ was wrong – that not justice, but scapegoating, had just happened: that getting rid of the troublesome one to make everyone else feel better; that division of the world into the ‘baddies’ and the ‘goodies’, that turns out to be a lie.

Secondly, that violence, and the powers that rely on death and destruction, don’t have the last word. However much the Empires and the lynch mobs may want to believe they can make full stops, dead ends, they’re deluding themselves. Here is a witness that says “it was inevitable… but…”.

But thirdly, and crucially, this victim returns without the faintest trace of victimhood, resentment, blame or vengeance. He is completely free of that whole destructive game. He returns to those who had given up on him, and to those who had betrayed, denied, judged and executed him too, breathing peace, gratuitously offering new life: ‘open your eyes, turn around, begin again, trust me, love me, follow me…’

This is why we need seven weeks of Eastertide, and year after year of repeating it. It’s barely believable, so alien to common sense, what is being given back to us here: our imaginations are being broken open, slowly but surely, to learn to live this different story.

We follow Jesus by following in the footsteps of those Emmaus disciples. Easter faith begins with a receiving what the risen Jesus offers us. But as Christ’s body, we, the community of Christians, aren’t just passive recipients – our actions and words and ways of living are also deeply shaped, ‘patterned’, by those of the risen Christ himself:

  • coming alongside the grieving, the disappointed and the fearful – in gentle humility, as guest
  • listening to others tell their stories, ‘hearing into speech’ the laments
  • finding God’s grace and imagination to gratuitously ‘give back’ what we have heard, what we have been offered (by our neighbours, even by our ‘enemies’), peacefully, creatively, within a bigger story, in a way that doesn’t close down, but opens up new life between us and beyond us
  • in the journeying, in the listening, in the re-telling, in the breaking of bread, making love visible, to ‘see, hear, touch’…

This ‘making visible’, this ‘telling’, this ‘bearing witness’ is perhaps the core ‘resurrection practice’ for Christians. It begins, often, with lament: making visible, heard, the suffering, the anger, the pain, the crushing disappointment, that is so often hidden, silenced; ‘watering the cracks in dry ground’ with tears shed and shared. And somehow, this lamenting makes space to make visible something new – something creative, hopeful, peaceful – reconciliation, restored community, new creation.

At dusk on Easter Eve, in Comet Park, half a dozen of us from church gathered for our Easter Vigil, making a circle of makeshift seats in the ashes of the burnt-out climbing frame, with lanterns to help us see each other’s faces as the sun went down. We had come armed, with ‘seed-bombs’, the weapon of guerilla gardeners – clay, compost and wild flower seeds – designed to bring splashes of colourful new life to otherwise inaccessible patches of waste ground. And we’d come with stories of hope to share – to remember the possibility of new life, even in the darkness of night. We’d planned to be here several weeks before the fires, but it felt all-the-more right to be here now.

And as we gathered, so too did a group of young people. Muslim young people, as it happened. They had come to the park to play, but they were intrigued by us – not so young, and here with no doubt strange accessories and strange purpose. We tried to explain. And the seed bombs we’d planned to spread around on our ways home, we shared with them, and they went away, with just a little hopeful excitement, it has to be said, that they might be able to grow something, from an unpromising grey ball. We went away, of course, with the great privilege of having made some new friends. One of the stories we told that evening was of a sunflower which once grew on a bomb-site, which was trampled into the ground in a fit of mindless, angry destruction – but which, entirely unexpectedly, a year later, was to leave a patch of waste ground covered in bright yellow life.

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