We are not made for war

Sermon preached at Grace Cathedral for the Royal British Legion Service of Remembrance.

I never knew one of my uncles. Bernard was my mother’s favourite brother, just a few years older than her. He died when he was a teenager, not yet old enough to vote at that time. His plane was shot down over the English Channel in the second world war. Three of the crew survived, including Bernard. They had two life rafts, which could take 2 men each. One was fully functional, the other was damaged. Bernard volunteered to go in the damaged one. The other two crew members were rescued. Bernard was never seen again.

There’s a line from a Siegfried Sassoon poem that has been on my mind as we prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice, the end of World War 1. He was a poet and a soldier who lived through the hell of the trenches and saw the peace that followed. He writes words about his generation’s attitude to soldiers and veterans that challenge us still: “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave… You believe That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”[i]

‘You believe that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.’ I do believe in chivalry – in the virtue of courage offered in defense of other people and of values that matter to us. I am deeply proud of my unknown uncle for putting other lives ahead of his own. I greatly respect all those who fought against Nazism – the allies from the United States, from Great Britain and the commonwealth, from Scandinavia and Europe – including Germans who tried to bring down Hitler from within. This was an evil that had to be opposed – just as we must oppose the antisemitism and racism we see today.

But I also believe in the second part of Sassoon’s line – that war is a disgrace. That there is nothing glorious about human beings settling their disputes by killing one another. That there is nothing heroic in nation states unable to build peace with justice except through sending their young men – and now young women also – to die at one anothers’ hands. I’m with that other great poet of the first world war, Wilfred Owen, when he says we should ‘not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’[ii] It may sometimes be necessary but it is always tragic never sweet and fitting.

This beautiful cathedral in which we meet today is here for a very simple reason. It is to help us try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. The one who taught us to love our enemies. The one who revealed a God who calls us to turn weapons into farm implements and promises a time when no-one shall make us afraid. And so all worship which happens within these walls is to a God who chooses peace over war, who chooses forgiveness over revenge, who chooses love over hatred. And who calls us to make these very same choices in our own lives.

God’s vision for us and for our world is one in which we no longer have to fight against injustice or for the rights of the oppressed because all people will be loved, respected and able to flourish. God’s vision is of a world where divine love is fully known and every child of every race and nation is safe and fed. Where no-one shoots Jewish seniors as they worship together or college students as they relax together. Where no leaders threaten each other’s people with mass destruction and put the profits of conglomerates over the future of the planet. Where we no longer fear those who are different from ourselves but love to learn from them and to share our own truths with them.

But we know we have not yet achieved that vision. Not even our own country, let alone our world, embodies peace and justice for all. And some of those who have paid the dearest price for this are our veterans. Remember that line from Sassoon began ‘you love us when we’re heroes home on leave’. We are not actually very good at loving our veterans. Honouring them, maybe, on days like this. But not offering them the practical love that would make dealing with the stress of moving back into civilian life, let alone the torment of PTSD, easier to bear. Our veterans and their families carry the wounds of humanity’s aggression and imperfection and deserve the care and support of us all.

Let me tell you another family war story. My dad was in Germany in the last weeks of the second world war. At one point he stepped into an opening in the woods at the same moment as a German soldier. They looked at one another across the clearing and then each turned their back and walked away. We are not made for war. We are not made to kill. We are made for peace. We are made for mutuality and shared delight. It is up to us in our generation to do all we can to build peace in our homes, our cities, our country and our world.

There are moments when God’s vision of peace for the world feels a little closer to us. One of those moments was the one that we commemorate today – armistice, the end of the years of brutal death that made up the first world war. And I want to finish with another poem of Siegfried Sassoon. One that speaks to the hope for peace and the joyful fulfilment of God’s love made real on earth. It’s called ‘Everyone Sang’

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away … O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

 

 

 

[i] From the poem ‘Glory of Women’ in Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918).

[ii] From the poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ in Poems (Viking Press, 1921).

Job and the Tree of Life

Sermon for Pentecost 23 at Grace Cathedral

The book of Job that we have been hearing over the last few weeks feels tragically relevant today. Job, a righteous man, is visited with undeserved suffering losing his wealth, his family and his health. He cries out to God, in anger and distress. He cries out as we do when we hear of another mass shooting – this time at a Jewish synagogue as a violent anti-semite brings untold suffering down on innocent heads.

Job has three so-called friends in his affliction who are ironically called comforters. Their form of comfort is to tell Job that his suffering is basically his own fault – that he must have done something sinful and bad that has brought down God’s punishment on him. They, like us very often, want their world to make sense. They don’t want to believe in a universe where suffering is random, where our prosperity and flourishing is not entirely under our own control. They are trying to persuade themselves as much as Job that the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.

But Job is having none of this. He knows he hasn’t done anything wrong – nothing to merit the sudden tragedy that has overwhelmed him. He refuses their simplistic view of the world and instead rails against God. He cries for God, he all but swears at God, he demands God’s attention and explanation. And what does he receive? Silence. Absence. No response, no engagement, no explanation that could make sense of all this grief.

The silence of God in the face of Job’s pain has worried faithful Christians across the centuries. But it speaks to me of something that is very real in my own spiritual journey. There are many times when I pray into silence – when my cries seem to be swallowed up into an eternal silence that gives nothing back. When my certainty of the continuing presence of God is an act of will rather than a felt reality. If the Bible is to speak truly then this experience needs to find a place in its pages.

But God’s silence in the book is not absolute – as we heard last week and today it’s broken at the very end. Then God speaks to Job in both affirmation and admonishment. God affirms Job’s righteousness, he agrees with Job that this tragedy was not caused by Job’s sin, and he tells Job’s friends off for their callous lack of empathy and compassion. And in affirming Job’s continuing righteousness it is clear that Job’s questioning and lamenting were also not sinful. Job’s sin didn’t cause his suffering, and Job’s ranting and railing at God wasn’t sinful either.

There are two big hairy theological points being made here. The first is that prosperity and suffering are not linked to virtue and sin. The person who won the billion dollar lottery this week did not win because they’re good; the congregation of Tree of Life Synagogue who faced loss and grief this week did not do so because they’re bad.

I’m not sure how Christians could ever believe otherwise. It’s clear in our most foundational, truest, formative story: the story of Jesus. You can be completely without sin and still end up nailed to a tree. Our faith and virtue are not given us as armour to protect against suffering, they are given as weapons to fight against suffering. Or a less martial example – they are the same construction tools that Jesus’ wielded in his life – love, compassion, forgiveness – that bend the arc of existence towards righteousness.

We, like Job, long for an answer as to why this is so. Why do bad things happen to good people? The answer that Job gets is to be reminded of how little he comprehends about God and the world. God lets him know quite clearly that she is beyond Job’s grasp and understanding. That there is beauty and grandeur, meaning and pattern, wildness and creativity that is visible to God’s eyes but not to our limited human vision. We get above ourselves if we think we have God figured out. We get above ourselves when we think the whole universe revolves around us and forget its glorious breadth and scope. This is no answer, but it takes a lifetime’s prayer to find a better one.

The second big hairy theological point is that God will not judge us for howling out the pain this causes in her face. Job rants at God, blames God, shouts at God – and God still calls him righteous. It is Job’s comforters who are dismissed by God for their smug self-satisfaction, not Job for his rage and defiance. Do not be afraid of bringing your whole self into your relationship with God. Do not be afraid of shouting at God from the depth of your hurt. God’s love is not such a feeble thing that our anger can bruise it, let alone ever break it.

And I don’t only know this from reading Job. Just as I see the silence of God reflected from time to time in my own spiritual life, so I know from my own experience that our anger does not dent God’s love. I have sworn at God for the pains of my own heart and for the pains I have ministered to in others. This has never broken anything in my spiritual life but done the opposite – opened me up so that God’s healing Spirit can come in. In this year of truth be true and honest with God in your prayer life, not polite and inauthentic!

There is only so far that words can take us in exploring the mystery of the world’s suffering. Our truest and best response to the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue is not to explain its theological implications but to work to ensure such shootings never happen again. To take up our virtue and faith as peace-wielding weapons, as holy tools, against violence and hate. To counter anti-semitism and all forms of racism whether we see it in others or in our selves. To take practical steps to addressing gun culture. To live out of love, compassion, kindness and forgiveness.

God’s final answer to Job was not an explanation but a presence. God came to him. In our Christian faith God doesn’t offer explanation but presence. God came to us in Jesus, God comes to us in her life-giving Spirit. Together we find God’s presence in prayer and music, in bread and wine. Together we can be God’s presence in the world – loving, nurturing, courageous, open. Playing our part in our shared Jewish and Christian calling of tikun olam – healing this hurting world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pentecost pigeons

I’ve been recommending widely a book I’ve read recently: Consider the Birds – A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible by Debbie Blue. It’s easy to read but has a wealth of new understanding and insight contained in its 10 chapters. Each chapter focuses on one bird that crops up in the Bible narrative – from the eagle to the vulture to the partridge to the sparrow – and finds new ways of understanding them symbolically. Reading it you may learn some things you were unaware of about the love life of the ostrich but, somewhat more importantly, you might also gain a new understanding of some of the love and life contained in the scripture.

Blue’s first chapter focuses on the pigeon. Not many people’s favourite bird. In fact one often described as a flying pest or a rat on wings, and one that is believed to be a blight on the urban landscape that should be exterminated rather than celebrated. Seemingly a far cry from the pure white dove that is one of the symbols the Bible gives us for the Holy Spirit. But, as the book reminds us, a dove is a pigeon – they are both members of the Columbidae family. In fact it was more likely to have been a common Palestinian rock dove rather than a white turtle dove that hovered over Jesus’ head at his baptism– and the grey rock dove with its iridescent green and purple neck is considered to be the ancestor of our common domestic pigeon.

With this change in our visualization the symbol for the Holy Spirit suddenly changes from something indicating purity and exclusiveness to something indicating commonality and ubiquity. Pigeons like to be where people are, they don’t discriminate between the ‘good’ areas and the ‘bad’ areas but crowd wherever life is to be found. That sounds like quite a good description of God too.

This is how Blue draws out the metaphor: “Maybe the spirit of God is so common – wherever life is, that we don’t recognize it or necessarily respect it … Maybe we don’t notice because we are looking for something pure and white, but the spirit of God is more complicated than that – fuller and richer and everywhere. Perhaps we’ve read the dove wrong – it is not as pure as the driven snow. Maybe we get a little hung up on purity. God after all created LIFE (everything, swarming and creeping, fruitful and multiplying). Maybe the Holy Spirit of God is more creative than puritan. Maybe we are mistaken about what holy means.” Consider the Birds – A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, p12.

This year I am choosing to see the presence of the Spirit of God in the common pigeons that peck at the dusty pavements, rather than in the white doves that coo in peaceful parks. When a flock of pigeons dance in the sky I will be reminded of the dance of the Spirit of God in all things. When I see pigeon poop all over buildings I will be reminded of the incarnation – that God became flesh in all its messy reality, not just the pure and proper bits. When the sun catches the iridescent colours on a pigeon’s neck I will be reminded of the beauty that God’s spirit brings to all her beloved daughters and sons, not just those who shine in the eyes of the world.

From the wayside

Michael Leunig, one of my favourite prayer poets, has this to say about those suffering from colds:
God bless those who suffer from the common cold.
Nature has entered into them;
Has led them aside and gently lain them low
To contemplate life from the wayside;
To consider human frailty;
To receive the deep and dreamy messages of fever.
We give thanks for the insights of this humble perspective.
We give thanks for blessing in disguise. Amen

I’m not suffering from a cold, but I am currently laid low by a different virus and having some doctor-ordered time at home. I feel I should embrace this space with a Leunig-like welcome but instead am mentally kicking against the pricks as hard as I can.

So this post is to remind myself that I am not called to be Superwoman but called to be Ellen. And being Ellen means accepting the need to sit by the wayside from time to time, remembering that I am dusty and mortal, and that the world will keep turning even when I’m not doing much to help it spin.

I hope you are healthy and hearty and full of life. But if you’re wearied and heavy-laden, whatever the cause, I hope you know that there is good company at the wayside and the possibility of blessings that we cannot yet perceive.

The Poetry of Things

There is a beautiful Georgia O’Keeffe painting of autumnal leaves which has the title ‘The Poetry of Things’. It is resonant of incarnation, of holy embodiment, and of the delight and worth held by the material and transient. Where in this world of beauty and terror, continually created and beloved of God, do you find a poetry that speaks to your innermost being?

Hope and Love

Hope
There is a considerable difference between secular optimism and the spiritual virtue of hope. Optimism relies on a blind faith that things will get better, hope on an eyes-open trust in the nature of God. The glass of God’s grace is never half full or half empty – it is always overflowing.

Love
You are God’s beloved.
Know it.
Feel it.
Live it.
Share it.

Faith

What we believe is important, not least because it shapes our priorities and our choices in life. But equally essential to a faithful life is where we put our trust. Who or what do you trust beyond measure? Where is your heart secure in the knowledge that it will never be betrayed?