On Wednesday one of our regular members came into church for the Eucharist. They were the only adult as it turned out. I noticed that they were a bit different from their normal bright self, so when it cam time for the sermon I sat down and asked ‘Are you ok? You look a bit sad.’ They said ‘Yes, with all the ISIS stuff and the people being killed by the Ebola virus, there is not much that I can do.’ ‘This is true’ I replied. ‘We’d better pray than sermonise.’ So we went to the intercessions and prayed.
So this event stayed with me enough to keep thinking about it after church. The first thing that comes to me has to do with the place of the intercessions. What this member of the congregation has done is exactly what the intercessions are for in the Eucharist. We hear the Word of God, we bring ourselves into the company of God and a conversation begins. The intercessions are like a pouring out of the contents of our hearts before God. All you have to do is to read the psalms or the Lamentations or the book of Job to see how God’s people have struggled with God and poured out their distress about what is going on before God. Listen to this piece from Psalm 73 that was in Morning prayer this week
“I was filed with envy at the boastful
when I saw that the ungodly had such tranquillity
for they suffer no pain and their bodies are hale and fat,
they come to no misfortune like other folk
nor are they plagued like other men
Therefore they put on pride as a necklace”
This is the kind of real talk that is possible between God who loves us, and us who are troubled.
My colleague, Clive, has written in his congregation’s magazine about the ‘expat bubble’ that some people in Switzerland live in. The place is so beautiful that it is easy to turn off the TV and imagine that we are in paradise. Being ex-pat’ means that we either cannot or do not engage in local politics. As Clive says we live in a ‘’bubble’ that protects us from he harsh realities of the world.
But this is not the way of the People of God. It is not easy to leave the television on. It is not easy to keep watching. Jesus himself offers a great payer of intercession in John Chapter 17. This prayer is for the disciples who will come after him. He prays ‘Father I do not pray that you will take them out of the world, but that you will save them from the evil one.’ Being in the world but in the presence of the various kinds of evil means that we till be in pain, like the person who came to Church. This pain is the pain of God which we, God’s people share in. It is right then that we stop sermonising and talking about to go straight away to talking to God.
I am reminded of the hymn ‘O Love that Will not let me Go.’ One verse says ‘O cross, that liftest up my head, I do not ask to fly from thee.’ We do it particularly on Good Friday, but our whole life is asked to be one, that, like Mary and John, stays by the cross and shares in the sufferings of Chris: only this time as these sufferings happen in God’s people in Africa suffering from the Ebola virus or in Iraq being confronted with either giving up Christianity or death.
This is what our intercession could be like, and one of the ways that we could give a credible witness to the faith here. We could on purpose enter into prayer, and not shield ourselves from the suffering of the world by the beauty of our land or the comfortableness of our lives.
I think that the thing that disturbs me most about the events in Africa and Iraq is that I feel impotent in the face of them. I do not understand how anyone could come to exercise such violence at close quarters and think it was a good thing. In order to do this to other human beings, there has to be some mechanism that says ‘These people are not worthy of the same treatment that I am worthy of.’ I feel the impotence that comes from not understanding.
And normally I am not in favour of military violence either. I can’t imagine myself wanting to kill another person. Of course it happens at a distance now. I do not ‘kill’ anyone. I pull a trigger, I fire a cannon or a rocket propelled grenade. I make and set a bomb. I launch a missile from 5,000 Ft in the air. But on the receiving end, I am killed, I have my legs or arms blown off, I have shocking internal injuries, or come how with a shattered life. Who would want to willingly do this or suffer this?
But seeing the extremes of the ISIS group, which seems to go beyond ‘conventional’ killing I can’t help thinking that there must be some way to stop these people. I don’t mean actively defeat them but to prevent them from coming in and doing extreme violence to people who have not done anything to them.
The psalmist of psalm 73 is equally perplexed. He says ‘I sought to understand this, but it was too hard for me Till I went into the sanctuary of Go and then I understood what their end will be For you set them in slippery places and cause them to fall from their treacherous footholds …As with a dream when one awakes: so when you rouse yourself O Lord you will despise their image.
The psalmist comes before the face of God. He is directed away from what he does not understand and directed toward God. So far, this is fine. This is what we do in intercession. Then he says “God will execute justice in this case.(eventually)” This means that for those on the receiving end, the only proper response is to suffer with Christ. Could I do that? How glib is it to ask that of the children and parents of those being killed in Iraq or those dying in Africa when nothing is being asked on me! Could I suffer what they are suffering. What would my answer be?
There are few who believe, and even fewer who behave like Christians
and refrain from doing evil [themselves], let alone not resisting evil [done to
them]. And for the rest God has established another government, outside the Christian estate and the kingdom of God, and has cast them into subjection to the Sword. So that, however much they would like to do evil, they are unable to act in accordance with their inclinations, or, if they do, they cannot do so without fear, or enjoy peace and good fortune…If there were [no law and government], then seeing that all the world is evil and that scarcely one human being in a thousand is a true Christian, people would devour each other and no one would be able to support his wife and children, feed himself and serve God. The world would become a desert.
Unlike the call to suffering of the early Christians, Luther thinks that there is room for violence in order to make a space for kindness and gentleness which would otherwise be wiped out. That is what the air strikes are doing now I guess.
What should I do? Go there? At the moment all I do is to not turn away, pray (lament) and give money. Self justification ha no place here though.