Sunday, August 10, 2014

Evensong for Trinity 8: Psalm 86

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; 
be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.

The opening of our psalm as it appears in the NRSV – and variations of these words have surely been poured out in many places across the world this past week.
In Gaza, in Iraq, in Syria...and closer to home as well, men, women and children have cried out to God in the face of unspeakable violence, terror and pain.
They have cried for deliverance and yet the violence continues.
Where is God?
Why does he do nothing?
Does he not care at all?

Today's readings may not present an answer to those agonised questions...but this Cathedral, itself born from the ashes of war, of hatred, cruelty and violence, must surely be a safe place in which to ask them...for they are real and urgent, not simply for those who find themselves under fire as I speak, but for all of us as we try to live on in a world where such things can happen, where children are beheaded or buried alive – and nobody seems to intervene.

So – is there anything in our Scriptures to help us?
Can we find something to allow us hold on to faith in God, if not in humanity?
Today's psalm is one of many in the Hebrew Bible that give voice to lament – for individuals and for nations.
Already, by turning the stuff of raw suffering into prayerful poetry, the psalmist implies that there must be a pattern somewhere.
He fits his bitter experience into a framework that contains and shapes it, so that it may not simply overwhelm his life, and leave him in despair.
As we hear his words sung, the tranquil chord progressions of Anglican chant belie the intensity of the writer's emotions, - so that the music provides a short-cut from current pain to the equilibrium he strives to discover.

Beyond the cataclysms of here and now, is there any certainty of a larger purpose, an ultimate good – or is it all pain, discord, horror...?

Let's use our psalm to reflect together – on the pain of our brothers and sisters, on God's role as they suffer, and what this might mean for our faith.

It is, and always has been, a huge problem.
Sometimes, it seems that we in the Church have ducked the issue, refused to engage with it, as if some questions were too huge, too fearful to bring to God, lest God's answer is somehow inadequate...but such evasion is futile.
Better by far to follow the lead of our psalmist, who begins by being absolutely real about his situation.
There is no room for polite pretence here.
Things are utterly bleak and he is at the end of his tether. Poor and needy, with no resources of his own – all he has is a relationship with the God whose past performance encourages him to believe that God will, against the odds, act again.

Sometimes, of course, the past is all we can hold on to...the remembrance that once upon a time the world seemed a kinder place, God's presence a tangible reality, everything ordered as it should be.
It's that kind of understanding that shaped the words found scratched on a wall in Auschwitz

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I cannot feel it. I believe in God, even when God is silent”

But those are not words I would dare to offer in Gaza this week...nor drop unthinkingly into conversation with a family grieved beyond imagining by their experience of loss and suffering.
Remembering sunshine does not warm you as you shiver with cold, and past performance does not, of itself, guarantee a future hope.

Still the psalmist revisits a happier time, both to reassure himself and, it seems, to remind God of what God could be doing.
He enters the long established tradition of bargaining with the Almighty, hoping to persuade him to change his mind, take a different approach – as Abraham pleaded for the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, - as the Samaritan woman would with Jesus...
In point of fact, he seems to be trying something very much like flattery
“there is none like you among the Gods O Lord...You alone are great and do wondrous things” - like rescue me from my enemies...

But the evidence is not encouraging. The enemies remain present, rising up against him...and God is doing nothing.
Tempting at this point to walk away, to abandon faith...but this way lies ultimate despair and the end of any impetus to make a difference.
Eli Wiesel realised this, writing in the wake of the Holocaust.

"Master of the Universe, I know what You want- I understand what You are doing. You want despair to overwhelm me. You want me to cease believing in You, to cease praying to You, to cease invoking Your name to glorify and sanctify it. Well, I tell you: No, no - a thousand times no! You shall not succeed. In spite of me and in spite of You, I shall shout the Kaddish, which is a song of faith, for You and against You. This song You shall not still, God of Israel."

Though God can't be won round, manipulated to suit our agenda, though the pain of life may be more than we can bear, yet still, retaining the audacity to believe despite everything is the only way to move forward.
As Job discovered, having walked a path of deep and bitter suffering, in the end God is God, his thoughts and ways beyond us...
This is the place that our psalmist reaches, when he prays

Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;”

That is the only way.

There is no sense that his problems have eased, for his fervent pleas continue til the very end of the psalm...but these lines are a turning point, as he recovers an underlying confidence that has nothing to do with the external situation, a new equilibrium that comes from believing in a greater purpose.
While he is still surrounded by enemies, his inner being is stronger than ever before for he triumphantly reasserts his relationship with God, his refusal to be driven to unbelief
You have delivered my soul from the depths”

Fine – I hear you say.
And that helps the children of Iraq, the Palestinians shelled out of their homes, the Syrian refugees exactly HOW?
And you're right.
On one level there is no help, no comfort here at all – and there is so much need

But if we pray that prayer seriously, then perhaps help will we find ourselves moved by our prayers to become an answer in ourselves.
Perhaps the inhumanity that fills our tv screens can become an impetus for responses from us that proclaim a greater humanity – a demonstration of what it means to be shaped by and held in relationship with the God whose whole being is sacrificial love.
Pray with sincerity, and with an openness to God's call, and who knows what may happen.
Andrew White went from this place to achieve incredible things for God as the Vicar of Bagdhad...and I'm certain that Coventry has something particular to bring to the table as human intransigence and a longing for peace confront one another across the Middle East and beyond.

Certainly, there is nothing to be gained by disowning God, by placing all the blame for human suffering on his shoulders and walking slowly away.
After the war, a group of rabbis met to reflect on the atrocities that had taken place (atrocities that are used somehow, to give Israel a mandate to perpetrate further crimes against humanity)
They met to determine where blame might lie – in human sin or in divine indifference.
Could God have prevented the slaughter of God's chosen people?
Could God BE God, if He was either powerless or unresponsive?
The conversation was long, emotional, exhausting and the debate lasted painfully into the night.
Finally a decision was reached.
The ultimate guilt lay with God.
That group of men whose adult lives had been dedicated to serving God and his people looked at one another.
What would happen now?
How could they go forward from this place?
There was a profound silence.
Then someone went to the window, drew back the curtains, and they saw that it was dawn.
"Come," said a voice from around the table "It's time to worship God."

So in the face of human hatred and human need, in the face of our own indifference and our own helplessness, in the face of all the powers of darkness and destruction that seem to have the upper hand – it is time to worship reaffirm our faith, however fragile, and to ask that God will enable us to walk in his truth til that truth shapes the whole world, and the Kingdom comes.


Tim Brooke said...

'It's God they ought to crucify
Instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter
Hanging on the tree'

('It was on a Friday morning' - Sydney Carter)).

Tim Brooke said...

'It's God they ought to crucify
Instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter
Hanging on the tree'.

('It was on a Friday morning' - Sydney Carter)