Readings: Exodus 3:1-15 (burning bush), Romans 12:9-21 (how to do ‘love’ in Christian community), Matthew 16:21-28 (Peter gets ‘Messiah’ all wrong)
A few years ago, before Janey and I started having children and could go on holidays to far-flung places, we spent a week in Sharm-el-Sheikh, and one day, having perused the tourist guide books, we took a taxi ride into the Sinai desert. After a couple of hours of driving, we arrived, in the middle of nowhere, at the small, walled monastery of St Katharine’s. And with hundreds of other tourists just like us, we were given the guided tour. We rounded a corner, and there, said our guide, was ‘the bush’ – the bush out of which God spoke to Moses. I have to confess to having been a bit underwhelmed. Firstly, it wasn’t burning; and secondly, it seemed to be a very well-maintained creeper, climbing up the monastery wall, fenced off carefully, with information plaques in countless languages explaining its significance. In short, it was more than a little domesticated.
More often, I suspect, the times when we have found ourselves standing on ‘holy ground’ have not been the places the guide-books have signposted us to – they have been much more unexpected, coming to us in our peripheral vision, beckoning us to turn aside from our busyness and give them our attention. And so the bush, so the story goes, beckoned Moses when he was out in the middle of nowhere, looking after his father-in-law’s sheep, on the run from the Egyptian authorities for murder. Often it’s when things are tough – illness, bereavement, redundancy, relationship break-up, some of the other real struggles of life – that we suddenly discover (or with hindsight realise) that we’re standing on ‘holy ground’. Sometimes it’s got something to do with the place we’re in. More often, it’s about the relationships of the moment – with family or friends, church community or neighbours – even, and perhaps more often than we expect, with complete strangers.
But these spots of ‘holy ground’ are not often ‘easy’ places to be. Someone who knows that better than most is Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities for people with profound physical and mental disabilities, their families, and their ‘assistants’. Vanier describes 4 distinct stages of ‘entering community’…
- first, there is an initial JOY – when the warmth and love is exhilarating – and people begin to lift their masks and barriers and become vulnerable to relationship with others
- but quickly, this joy can become TERROR – as the vulnerability of relationship reveals our wounded emotions, the difficulty of living with others (‘especially with some people’, says Vanier!) exposing ‘our limitations, our fears… our poverty and our weaknesses… our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies…’, our ‘inner monsters’, that we can more easily keep hidden when we don’t have to relate to other people the whole time
- and our immediate REACTION, Vanier suggests, ‘is to try to destroy the monsters, or to hide them away again, pretending that they don’t exist. Or else we try to flee from community life and relationship with others, or to assume that the monsters are theirs, not ours. It is the others who are guilty, not us.’
- but finally, slowly, pains-takingly, community can become a place of safety and ACCEPTANCE – ‘At last some people really listen to us; we can, little by little, reveal to them all those terrible monsters within us, all those guilt feedings hidden in the tomb of our being. And they can help us to accept them by revealing to us that these monsters are protecting our vulnerability and are our cry for and our fear of love. They stand at the door of our wounded heart… Community life with all its pain is the revelation of that deep wound. And we can only begin to look at it and accept it as we discover that we are loved by God in an incredible way. We are not awful sinners, terrible people who have disappointed and hurt our parents and others. An experience in prayer and the experience of being loved and accepted in community, which has become a safe place for us, allows us gradually to accept ourselves as we are, with our wounds and all the monsters. We are broken, but we are loved. We can grow to greater openness and compassion; we have a mission. Community becomes the place of liberation and growth.’
The passage from Romans that we heard earlier is talking about a similar kind of ‘broken’ community. It’s concerned not just with how to ‘get along’, but points us to begin to discover community as holy ground through, and not ‘in spite of’, the brokenness and vulnerability. ‘Be patient’, and ‘persevere’ are, perhaps, the key words.
And this, as Peter discovers (and Moses too, come to that), is ‘the way of the cross’. It’s not about ‘getting it right all the time’, a way of painless victory, of one success after another. It’s not about ‘fixing’ brokenness with ‘targeted interventions’ with the right ‘expertise’, let alone some kind of tough, ‘zero tolerance’ approach to failure, as current government rhetoric seems to argue. It’s about discovering community as ‘holy ground’ through, and not ‘in spite of’, the brokenness and vulnerability, the monsters and the failures.
For Moses, this means accepting both his murderous past history, his ‘anger issues’, and his present overwhelming sense of inadequacy. For Peter, it embraces his blundering mistakes, his endless capacity for putting his foot in his mouth. And it’s possible because “‘I am’ will be with you” – ‘I am’ who has heard our cries, who knows our suffering, who sees our monsters; ‘I am’ who knows us and loves us; ‘I am’ who, knowing us through and through, still sends us with a mission: to ‘Go… tell… set free…’
There’s a little ‘PS’ to this sermon, from my wise friend Rachel Mann. Writing days after the riots and looting a couple of weeks ago, she said: ‘Concerning the rioters and looters my instinct is not to punish with ‘extreme prejudice’, but to suggest that – alongside custodial sentences – they be exposed to the reality of living in monastic settings – Buddhist, Benedictine, whatever, I don’t mind. Absurd as this may sound, there is no doubt that the world of the monastery is a world where folk have to learn to get along with each other despite vast difference and simmering anger, and in which ‘what we own’ is much less significant than ‘who we are’. Take the piss out of me if you like, but given thirty years of failed government schemes and rampant consumerism, I suspect that in many cases it may yet be worth a try.’
How is this kind of community beckoning us, here, in Hodge Hill? And how might we open it up to those who need it most?