Posts Tagged ‘hope’

Desolation and despair

June 4, 2016

Pentecost 3 – 2016

Luke 7:11-18

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, who shines light in the darkness, turns despair to hope and raises the dead to life. Amen.

There are a number of images from recent times that are seared into the minds of many of us. For example, think of the desolate picture of an emaciated child who is sitting on his haunches with his head in his hands and beside him is a buzzard just waiting for the child to die. Another picture that has haunted the world in recent times is the heart-wrenching image of young Aylan, the Syrian refugee washed up like flotsam on a lonely beach. Both children were victims of conflicts in which they had no part. Both pictures are confronting images of despair and desolation in a world in which selfishness, greed and a desire for power leads to suffering for the innocent.

I’m not sure that any of us can begin to imagine what it must be like to be a parent in a country devastated by drought or war. We cannot conceive how it must feel to know that we are unable to feed or care for our children. It is impossible to really understand what it must be like to live with the fear that hunger or disease might kill us first and leave our children alone and unprotected in a harsh and uncompromising world. Nor can we envisage the sorts of horrors that lead parents to risk their lives and the lives of their children on dangerous journeys across sea and land.

Few of us will ever know the despair and desolation that characterizes the lives of millions of people throughout the world. Thankfully we will probably never know what it is like to live in on the rubbish tips of Manilla, or to live in constant fear of Isis or Boko Haran. We will not have to live with the constant fear that haunts the slums in countless countries throughout the world. An accident of birth has ensured that we are by and large protected from some of the horrors that are the daily experiences of so many.

Despair and desolation are at the heart of today’s story. It is only in the last century, that women who had no father, husband or son to support them have not faced a life of destitution and isolation. What was true in the memory of some of us was no less true in the first century. A woman without a man in her life was entirely dependent on the charity of others.

In today’s story, Jesus is confronted with a widow who had only one son and now he is dead. She may have had many daughters, but they were no protection against the harshness of the world. If married, they would have been absorbed into their husband’s families. If still at home, they would have been a drain on whatever resources the widow still had.

We know only the bare details of the story. Jesus, for reasons unknown has travelled to Nain. There he observes a funeral procession. Even though the widow is a stranger and the funeral is in full swing Jesus finds himself unable to remain distant and aloof. He “sees[1]” the widow and has compassion on her (and her situation). He interrupts the proceedings and orders the woman not to weep. It is an extraordinary situation. Without invitation, Jesus steps into the woman’s grief and desolation and without being asked he restores the son to life and the child to his mother.

Can you imagine someone entering a church or a chapel at a crematorium and halting the proceedings while at the same time ordering the bereaved not to cry? They would almost certainly have been evicted from the building for being disrespectful and for adding to the family’s distress. This would be equally true in the first century – interrupting a funeral procession and appearing to make light of the widow’s grief would have been social suicide, demonstrating a lack of respect and a failure to understand the gravity of what is going on.

Jesus interrupts anyway. It is almost as if he is compelled to help. He cannot bear to see so much present and potential suffering – especially when he can do something to stop it. Two lives have come to an end – that of the son but also that of the mother. Jesus brings life and hope. He gives a future to the widow and life to her child.

Mass media has made us aware of the enormity of suffering in the world. It is easy to be overwhelmed, to turn off, to feel that there is nothing that we can do to really make a difference. Some issues are so complex that we are at a loss as to how to help we are afraid to interfere in case we make things worse. When suffering does not directly touch our lives, it can be easy to stand aloof – to blame the victim for not doing one thing or another, or for taking a risk that from the comfort of our arm chairs we deem to be to dangerous or unnecessary.

Jesus could not stand apart. While he could not and did not provide hope for every widow in Israel and while he could not and did not heal every Israelite who was suffering from demon possession, disease or infirmity, Jesus did what he could when he could.

You and I cannot, collectively or individually, bring an end to the suffering in the world. We cannot house all the homeless, protect the vulnerable from harm or find a cure for dementia or for cancer. That does not mean that we should do nothing. As followers of Jesus we need to find ways to bring life and hope into situations of desolation and despair. Where we can, we need to disrupt, interrupt the things that are going on around us. By our actions and our words, we need to say that so much suffering should not be the norm.

We need to have the courage to interfere and to challenge the world to follow our lead.

 

[1] In Luke’s gospel, “seeing” has particular significance. Jesus “sees” the whole person, the whole situation.

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Resurrection – the refusal to give evil the last word

March 26, 2016

Easter Day – 2016

Marian Free

 

Christ is risen! He is risen today! Alleluia!

Jesus Christ is risen today! The strife is o’er the battle done!

Throughout Western Christendom today, songs of triumph will ring out as believers gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. In the light of recent events such triumphalism seems like a slap in the face for all those who are grieving the victims of the Brussels attacks; for those who face weeks, if not years of surgery and therapy as a result of their injuries and for those who are left wondering “who or what next?”

How is it possible to make sense of the resurrection in the light of the attacks in Brussels, the Royal Commission into child abuse, the coroner’s investigation into the Sydney siege and the pictures of the millions of refugees who would rather face a dangerous sea voyage or wait desperately at border crossings than live with war or poverty? How can we speak of victory in the face of the suffering in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and countless other places where people just like you and I face the daily horrors of war, the gnawing pangs of hunger and that constant knowledge that it is beyond their power to do anything to protect their children?

There are days when it is difficult not to despair, to wonder if the resurrection of Jesus is an ancient fairy tale or an empty gesture. There are times when we can be forgiven for asking whether Jesus’ death and resurrection made any difference at all. It is clear to anyone who looks that the world that Jesus came to save has not changed. Everywhere we look we see poverty, oppression, injustice, discrimination, warfare and terror. Sometimes it seems as though the signs of life are overwhelmed by the ever-present evidence of death.

And yet, in the midst of horror and despair there is often evidence of life – a refusal to give in to fear and to hate, a determination to hold on and a commitment to live more fully than ever before – to demonstrate that darkness cannot extinguish the light.

It is interesting to note, that in the increasingly secular world, it is Christian symbols, symbols of the resurrection to which people turn when tragedy strikes – the light of a candle, the image of the cross, the placing of flowers, the utterance of prayers, the gathering in memory. The world may not have changed, but the resurrection is deeply embedded in our collective memory. Whether they believe in Jesus or not, at times of despair, people turn to images of the resurrection – images of hope for the future, images that remind us that life can be wrought from death. They seek comfort and support in communal ritual action and in the words of Christian hymns and prayers and they lay flowers in remembrance. Unconsciously, even those who claim not to believe will at times of trauma, turn to the story that provides the world with hope.

On Easter Eve, the Paschal Candle is lit from the new fire. In the darkness of the night the flickering flame is a reminder than when death and terror have done their worst, there is still hope, it is a sign that ultimately the darkness cannot overwhelm the light, nor evil triumph over good. The resurrection is at the centre of our faith – the extraordinary truth that God raised Jesus from the dead, so that all might live. As if that were not enough, the resurrection is also a daily reminder, that it is possible to rise above the ugliness and baseness of human nature, that human beings can and do perform extraordinary acts of selflessness, that in the midst of horror we find courage, strength and compassion and that in the presence of evil we refuse to be cowed or to live our lives in fear[1].

In a world that is far from transformed, the resurrection of Jesus gives us confidence that good will triumph over evil, that love will conquer hate and that life will prove to be stronger than death. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of hope, a light in the darkness, a reason to hold on when all seems to be lost.

This is why, even in the midst of despair, we can say with absolute confidence “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

 

[1] Within hours of the explosions in Brussels, locals had arrived at the airport volunteering to drive travelers to other cities. When the earthquake struck Christchurch, people mobilized to get food and water to those who were cut off. When the traffic was stuck because of a major accident, a woman bought bottles of water and distributed them. Simple actions, reminders of the goodness of human nature, the willingness to make sacrifices – small or big and of the determination not to let evil or tragedy have the last word.

Equal measures of anticipation and trepidation

November 30, 2013

Advent 1, 2013

 Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:9-14, Matthew 24:36-44 

Marian Free

 In the name of God who both comforts and disturbs, who has come among us and who will come again. Amen.

During the week I conducted a limited survey to see what sort of event or activity made different people both excited and terrified at the same time. Sally thought it would be getting ready for a parachute jump, Jon said that it was his impending ordination. Michael said that for him it would be preparing for a band performance. A Facebook friend expressed both joy and fear at the prospect of moving house.

I’m sure that it is the same for all of us. When we do something new or adventurous, we are filled both with excitement and trepidation. We have a sense of anticipation that the adventure or experience will expand our horizons or bring a sense of achievement, or that the new skill, new home will enrich our lives in some way. That said, no matter how many precautions we have taken, no matter how prepared we are for the event, there is always a sense of stepping into the unknown. We cannot know the outcome until we step out in faith and because we cannot know the end result, there is always the fear that whatever it is may not work out as we had hoped, that we are not up to the task, or that something unexpected will crop up and undermine all our expectations.

There are a number of occasions that make us both nervous and excited, and which have us filled with equal amounts of anticipation and dread. I would contend that Advent is (or should be) such a time.

If we are honest, most of us at this time of year are busy getting ready for Christmas. That means that we are buying presents, thinking about menus, organizing the family get together and hanging decorations. We know that it is Advent because the church is using the colour purple, we have an Advent Wreath and the Pew Bulletin tells us what Season it is.  Sometimes, that is the extent of our Advent preparation. We are filled with anticipation because Christmas is coming, we will see our families, exchange gifts and enjoy the Christmas services. It is a wonderful time of year, filled with expectation for the future and memories of the past. Advent fades into the background, not least because in the world around us, preparation for Christmas began months ago.

Of course, we know that Christmas is really about Jesus, about God’s coming among us over two thousands years ago. At best, we are filled with a sense of wonder that God could choose to be so fully part of human experience that despite all our shortcomings God would send Jesus to save us.

However, as our readings remind (or even warn) us, Advent is much more than a warm, fuzzy expectation about Christmas. The Season of Advent has the dual purpose of preparing us to welcome once more the child of God among us and also of reminding us of our need to be ready for Jesus’ coming again. It is the former that fills us with anticipation and joy and the latter which fills us with a certain amount of trepidation and even dread. While we should be as excited to greet the returning Jesus as we are to celebrate the infant Jesus, we tend to be at least a little anxious about the thought of Jesus’ coming again, an anxiety fueled not a little by the New Testament descriptions of such an event.

In today’s readings the emotions of hope and fear are equally balanced. The Old Testament reading and the Psalm look forward in anticipation to that time when God shall come, but the New Testament readings sound a note of warning and suggest that Jesus’ return will not be so benign. Isaiah chapter 2 and Psalm 122 envisage a wonderful time when all people shall turn to God and there will be peace among the nations. However, Paul’s words from the letter of Romans teach us to temper our expectation with caution. He writes: “You know what time it is” and urges his readers to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light”. “Salvation is nearer than when we first believed.”  It is because our salvation is near that it is essential that Jesus not find us in reveling and drunkenness, quarreling and jealousy. NOW (not next week) is the time to put our lives in order, to be confident that, should Jesus come tomorrow, we would be ready and happy to greet him.

It is the words of today’s Gospel however, that are the most ominous. We are reminded that we do not know when Jesus will come. There will be no warning. Jesus’ coming will be unexpected and many will be caught unprepared. We are told that will be getting on with our everyday lives when suddenly, without notice, Jesus will be here among us. Just as the thief catches a householder unprepared, so too Jesus will come upon us when we least expect him.

The message is this: “keep awake!” – expect Jesus’ return at any moment. Ensure that there is nothing in our lives that we would want to hide from his view. Be aware that at any moment Jesus could come upon us unawares. If there was a cause to be anxious about Jesus’ return, this would be it – that Jesus would come and we would not be ready – that there would be some aspect of our lives that would not stand up to closer inspection.

The Season of Advent provides us with a time to examine our lives; to open ourselves to God’s scrutiny, to ask ourselves whether – if Jesus were to come upon us now – there be anything we would wish that we had put right beforehand.

“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” There is no reason for fear – the coming of Christ among us is a cause for rejoicing – the earth will be renewed, God’s reign will be firmly established. Jesus’ coming again will herald the dawn of a new day when pain and suffering will cease and there will be harmony between the nations. Jesus will come again as he did before – to save and not condemn. Our task is to lead lives worthy of Jesus’ love for and trust in us.  Confident in that love we will welcome his return with the same joy and enthusiasm with which we rejoice in his birth.


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