SERMON PREACHED AT THE ORMOND CHAPELHOSPITAL HILL, NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
ORDINARY SUNDAY 13
(28th June) 2015
Readings:2 Samuel 1:1, 11-27
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
There are some desperately broken hearts in the stories of our faith on this day. The bereaved heart of David cries out from the pages of faith-history, reverberates through time as he grieves beyond words the loss of his beloved friend Jonathan. We need not turn this into a celebration of gay love, as some have done, though nor need we decry the love of human beings for members of their own sex, sexually expressed or not.
This though is greater than the love of eros-passion, as the these days derogatory-sounding aside of “surpassing the love of women” is designed to tell us. This is the love of those who stand side by side, through thick and thin, who have as we like to say today, one another’s back. But as the hard words of the psalmist (always a part of a funeral if it is to be correctly taken) remind us “our days are like the grass: we flourish like a flower of the field. When the wind goes over it, it is gone.” So are the deepest human loves and friendships, including those of married love but not limited to them. Such loves are restored to us only in the promise “but your loving-kindness O Lord endures…” and in the belief that God’s resurrective love conquers even the brutal separation that death is.
Strangely the brief and timeless lament of David over the slain Jonathan has given us the cry “how are the mighty fallen,” yet in more recent parlance that has been turned not into a heart-cry at the fallibility of all human aspirations and achievements but into a tall poppy syndrome sneer at the fall of those who over-reach their allotted place. Such a reversal of the original meaning is a travesty: here David laments the highest degrees of love, for one day even they must, having flourished like a flower of the field, nevertheless succumb to the wind, sudden or gradual, of mortality. We know that.
Though disguised in the cut and thrust of first century church politics, Paul too is crying out at the plight of those whose lives are experiences of brokenness and neglect. He and the Jerusalem Christians, probably including Peter and James the brother of Jesus, agreed on very little. When though it came to the compassion to be shown to the poor and especially to those starving for their faith (for that is a theme previously addressed between the lines in 1 Thessalonians) there Paul and the Jerusalem pillars could agree: “It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” Amen and amen, though we churches of the Global North or former West too often forget to remember the redressing of obscene disparity that may well dull the reverberations of our prayers.
But it is to the desperate hearts around Jesus that we must most often turn. What of the soldier whose child is dying? Childhood mortality was brutally common in the first century, but ever since soon after our ancestors climbed out of the primeval swamp we have desperately loved and wanted to pre-decease our children. This man dwells at the threshold of the grief that only those who have outlived their children know or understand. Yet greater even than his desperation is that of the hated and abused and unclean woman who scared-dares to touch the hem of the passing robe of Jesus.
These are cries of desperate hearts. Where is God when it hurts, when the heart-crush is so great we can no longer carry on? Suicide and substance abuse rates suggest that the rates of loneliness and despair are as high now as at any time in history. Prayers stay unanswered – and I won’t even attempt to gloss that statement with the kinder “appear to stay” unanswered. Prayers stay unanswered – and as our communities increasingly harden our hearts either to the naïve capitalist trickle-down theories of noblesse oblige or the social capital theories of communal responsibility more and more desperate human beings fall through cracks. Where is God when it hurts, and where is God when our neighbour hurts?
Where is God when a pan-handler approaches us, a beggar confronts us, a busker from the hard end of the economic equation plays for us? I am not naïve: we can’t solve the suffering of our world by handing out our loose change, but at a time when there are few safety nets and not even many ambulances at the bottom of the cliff I suspect we are cauterizing our compassion when we set ourselves a steely stare and walk past those who are or who purport to be needy. Aid agencies may well tell us that institutional change needs to be made to address the plight of the poor, but that doesn’t help the broken alcoholic sleeping under a bridge. Slowly our hearts are hardened and in any case we find more and more reasons to keep the dollar in the bottom of our purse or pocket.
In cauterising our hearts to the cry of the grieving or the hungry or any of those who Jesus calls “blessed” in the Beatitudes, we are generating a sclerosis of our own spirits. I am increasingly moved by the Jewish teaching of the sparks of light that we are commissioned to carry across our corners of the universe. It may not be profoundly sensible in terms of social theory, but the dollar you place in a beggar’s hand – or of course the sandwich or coffee you buy her – may just be the in-breaking of divine light into a hurting heart. It may and probably will not achieve lasting change to unjust social structures, or even to the beggar’s long-term future, and there will be some who have the gift to address those too (as our Marks of Mission remind us), but it will momentarily touch a life with warmth and Christ-light, and as a side-effect chip away at the unfeelingness, the sclerosis of our own hearts and souls. The hippies are right: practice random acts of human kindness, for these sparks of compassion are sparks of the love to which we as bearers of Christ are challenged.
We will be ripped off. We will see our dollar for a sandwich turned into a dollar for a beer. We will find that the recipients of random acts of kindness are not always sycophantically grateful or obsequiously appreciative. Why should they be, or more to the point, why should we be expecting thanks? Jesus challenges his followers to act out their compassion and justice in secret. It’s not a bad rule, saving our heads from swelling and our hearts from making generosity all about us. It may however be a part of, as Leonard Cohen put it with Jewish wisdom, “the crack in everything that’s where the light gets in” for donor and recipient alike.
Jesus went on his way and two lives were restored, and many more touched, as they would later be by the Jerusalem Collection so feistily championed by his follower Paul. That touching of lives dwells at the heart of Jesus’ challenge to us to do likewise: never to be so hardened of heart that we cannot touch and strangely warm and encourage the lives of those we meet each day, however foolish our actions are in eyes of the wise and the prudent. Similarly we must never be so hardened of heart that we cannot open our lives to the love of a friend or a lover. In both cases our hearts must be so set beyond the limitations of human sight that we begin to see glimpses of the source of the light that gets in through moments and actions of love.