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Sermons

Those Who Kill the Body

February 13, 2005

Bible Reading

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying, "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

"I say to you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. I will show you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after having killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two coins, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows."

(Luke 12:1-7)

Read also: 1 Kings 19:8-13

Reading from Swedenborg

On several occasions I have seen what looked like a never-ending stream, quite a distance away on the right-hand side and on a level with the soles of the feet. Angels with me have told me that this route is taken by all those who are arriving from various parts of creation, and that they look like a stream due their great numbers. From the size and force of the stream I realized that myriads arrive every day, so that I could appreciate just how vast creation is. (Arcana Coelestia #6699)

Sermon

I am sure that every one of us has been affected by the tsunami disaster that happened on Boxing Day. Strangely, it happened just one hour and exactly a year later than an earthquake the previous Boxing Day that killed about ten thousand people in a town called Bem in Iran.

We shouldn't read too much into such coincidences; after all, there are only 365 days in a year. But the thought came to me that the name Boxing Day is rather meaningless. Perhaps we should rename it Humanity Day: a day of acknowledging our care for the world's people, our responsibility for each other, and our shared love, in whatever way it feels right to do this. And of course, because it would follow straight after Christmas Day--the day of God's birth into this world--the two would go together very meaningfully, just like the two great commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31). And who knows . . . doing this might even reinstate Christmas as a real celebration of God, but linked with this following celebration of humanity the next day.

Meanwhile here we are, one week after the tsunami, still very much in the early stages of dealing with it--coping with the sheer practicalities that will go on for months and years; coping with the emotions and feelings that we have for everyone affected by it; and coping with those deep awesome questions about the meaning of life, and where God is in it all.

If we have a belief in God, it makes it all the harder in a way, because as well as the human predicament of a disaster on this scale, we also feel we have to set it alongside an intellectual explanation that sounds rather pompous and theoretical. Yet if we have no explanation at all, what does our belief in God add up to? It is like when a close friend loses his or her partner suddenly, and words and ideas are just inappropriate for the time being . . . and we do best simply holding our friend in our arms.

Or do we? We have come to feel that the right way to handle human grief and loss is by saying nothing and showing everything. Our friend feels enfolded and respected, and we feel we have dealt to some extent with their need. But suppose we challenge the real value of doing it like that--this unspoken caring--and contemplate taking a risk and encouraging them to face up to what has actually happened, and all the questions that lie behind the fact of their loved one's death? This would be a huge risk because it could seem so brutal and confronting. But depending on the person, it may be what they are desperate to know and hold onto: that someone who is their friend has a fully developed, clear-sighted sense of what life means, and is prepared to go into it with them for their sake.

I have a friend whose love is immense and guaranteed. This very loving friend doesn't let a single opportunity slip by to challenge the very basis of life. He watches like a hawk, and fronts up with questions and further questions that force the issue and go beyond what is normally allowable, and makes me feel very uncomfortable . . . because of his love for me. And if I once suspected that my friend was doing what he does to undermine what I personally believe, the friendship would be over. But it isn't like that at all. The only thing he would ever attack would be my own comfort zone.

We have created a culture of cocooning ourselves against realities that are actually quite stark issues of life and death. In the Western world we are incredibly protected against having to face up to anything. Even our funeral arrangements have become laminated with "ambience." It is quite amazing.

Everybody nowadays knows what a "wake-up call" means; and when some terrible event happens, this is one of the first phrases that gets bandied around. But nobody is prepared to say what we are being woken-up to with this wake-up call . . . as if the phrase itself is accomplishing something!

In the Gospels we get a picture of Jesus confronting people head-on, as well as consoling them in their heartaches. In fact, it says at times that he watched them (the people who were against him) to see what they would say or do. And his role in dealing with people seems to be to unsettle them and take them out of their comfort zones because he has such incredible passion and love for them. His role is to force them to think and to face up to themselves, because that is one of the deepest yearnings of love itself: to lead people from where they are to where they can get to--even if they struggle against it all the way. This is one of the ways of describing what the Lord wants to do for us because of his love for us--and how much we struggle against it.

When a major natural disaster happens such as this tsunami, which was so strong that it made the planet wobble on its axis momentarily, we can certainly respond practically in humanitarian ways by donations from our abundance to their poverty and desperate need. Sometimes, some of us feel acutely embarrassed at having so much and having it so easy when so much of the world has almost nothing--and is then hit by a disaster like this one. But abundance is not wrong if it allows us to do what we are now doing. Abundance is then a divine provision for such emergencies.

But that apart, dare we handle it theologically, and see it up-front in terms of God and divine providence that is "over everything"? This is very challenging because it asks us to rethink the idea of God that we hold in normal, uneventful, and safe times, when it is very easy for us to think about our heavenly Father.

I have been following a fascinating debate on a ministers' email discussion group in which thoughtful ministers have thrown up the most provoking questions for others to respond to--and not just for fun, but to push the boundaries properly. Here was an early one: If creation was from God and was good, how do you explain God allowing the natural world to be so unstable? Isn't that less than perfect? Shouldn't God, for the purposes he has for us all, have established a universe and a world that would best do the job? He could have done so.

What a great question! It prompted a hundred answers. One person suggested that the world was in fact originally stable, but because mankind went off the rails the world became unstable (a bit like global warming!). Another person strongly contested that hypothesis, and said that the only way in which the world could change was that God knew in advance how man would become, and provided instability and allowed for disasters so that people would keep facing up to their responsibilities. In other words, it was to stop us from becoming totally selfish.

At the end of the day, we have the fact (whether we like it or not) that the world does have a degree of instability, even though for the vast majority of the time it is quite stable and dependable. We then have to put that alongside God, who made the world.

Perhaps it is most helpful to say what isn't so, because as soon as we start thinking about God, we tend to reduce God to being too much like a person--and people are limited and weak, unlike God. God is not wondering what on earth happened. He hasn't been taken by surprise as we have.

But also, God did not cause this disaster for some grotesque reason. Nor is God doing nothing about it. Get those two horrendous ideas right out of the way, and look carefully at what we are left with. Then look at that again and again, because in that space we have the beginning of realization. It says in 1 Kings 19 that Elijah beheld a wind, a fire, and an earthquake, but the Lord was not in them. And then it says there was a still small voice . . . but it doesn't ever say that God was that voice or in that voice. That is for the one experiencing it to work out and work with.

One by one, however it happens, we are living life and moving from this life into the next: into eternity, which is real life. That's the bottom line that actually explains everything and brings us peace--and allows us to live useful and enjoyable lives, too. When I read the passage from Luke 12, it seems to be saying so much on the theme of dealing with natural disasters. Perhaps the yeast of the scribes and Pharisees is the comfort zone of complacency that we must not indulge in, but must have challenged.

Yet Jesus goes on to point out that physical death is not the ultimate death, but is only a transition. The real death we can create for ourselves is not found in tsunamis or earthquakes, but within ourselves, through the loss of our love and our humanity, and of our sense of a Savior who leads his flock like a shepherd, when by ourselves we would be at the mercy of every predator. That world--the world where our Savior's flock dwells--is one that is entirely safe and stable, and will never change. Amen.

Prayer

We come before you, Lord, aware of the immense pain in our world today. We ask for greater awareness and a deeper commitment to what will heal our world. May we be attentive and alert to how you would have us live our abundant lives. Awaken us each day to gratitude for all that we take for granted. Let our eyes do more than just read the stories in the daily paper or watch them on the evening news. Let our eyes take those stories into our heart, where we are one with all who dwell on earth. Touch our compassion so that we know the pain of the grieving and the anxiety of the homeless. Compassionate Creator, stir in our souls. Call to us again and again to be true children of the universe. Amen.

Rev. Julian Duckworth