Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

When Fatemah’s seven-year-old daughter woke up from her evening nap, she asked her mother if it was morning already. Light was streaming through their window. But this was no natural illumination: their neighbourhood  – in Aleppo in war torn Syria – was ablaze with the fire of phosphorus bombs.

“When those bombs strike, our hearts shake before the buildings do,” said her mother, Fatemah, speaking on Skype with her daughter nestled next to her in their dimly lit room, the sound of machine gun fire clearly audible in the background.

Over the past 10 days, bombs have rained down upon the ruins of eastern Aleppo – the besieged districts of Syria’s largest city. Unrelenting carnage …

“We had a lot of dreams for ourselves and our children,” she said. “We want to protect them. We lived part of our lives, but our children haven’t.”

The war has “eliminated everything called life”, she said, and now they are left wondering if they will survive until the next day.[1]

The war has “eliminated everything called life” …this mother Fatemah cries out to the world, hoping that someone is listening.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills: but where shall I find help?” The psalmist cries in the psalm we heard our choir sing tonight, Psalm 121. “My help comes from the Lord who has made heaven and earth.”

“The sun shall not strike you by day, nor shall the moon by night. The Lord will defend you from all evil; it is he who will guard your life.” (Psalm 121: 1-2, 6-7) This psalmist continues.

In the midst of the phosphorous bombs, Fatemah and all the mothers and fathers in Aleppo might wonder about that. They might wonder when help will come, might wonder about this defence from evil, about this holy guard on their lives and the lives of those they love. In this dire place where war has “eliminated everything called life”, they might wonder if help will come. But their cry continues.

Mothers cry out, don’t they, don’t we? Mothers and fathers and all who long for life and health for the ones, the communities, the planet, they love … cry out.

This evening we welcome to St Peter’s Cathedral members of the Mothers’ Union, a group of mothers, and those who affirm their vocation, mothers, fathers and all of us who love and care for families. While most of gathered here have not encountered suffering like that of Fatemah and her family, almost all of us have, at one time or another, cried out for our children. Almost all of us have cried out to God for our children when they are struggling, when they are ill, when they are lost, when we have to let them go, when they make mistakes from which we know they may never recover. Many of us cry out to God when the relationships within the families that had seemed to be the ground of our lives break down. Part of the vocation of mother, father, is the prayer of anguished cry.

A theologian who visited Adelaide recently, spoke about the cry of one who is suffering. A cry like Fatemah’s cry. He said that one of the key patterns in the bible is one of people in trouble, those people crying out and God hearing that cry and bringing healing. The exodus story is the first great biblical story that has that pattern. The Israelite slaves in Egypt cry out, God hears the people’s cry and God sends Moses to lead the people into the Promised Land. Trouble, cry, healing. The great biblical pattern. The way in which God and God’s people relate when things are wrong. We are not passive you notice. Our cry matters. In Aleppo in Syria, Fatemah’s cry for herself and her family matters.

The voice of the psalmist who prays for help from God seems so confident, though. And we might wonder about that. Where is this God who defends us from evil, who will keep guard over our life? Where is the God of the exodus when in our lives, and the lives of those in war torn countries, there seems the threat that life will be eliminated?

As we have journeyed through this liturgical year, a year in which we have spent time reading Luke’s gospel, we have heard many of the stories of Jesus’ healings. Last week we heard the story of the healing of the ten lepers, one of whom, a Samaritan, returned to give thanks for what God had done. The story opened with those lepers, seeing Jesus, sensing something in him that gave them hope and calling out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ Each story of Jesus’ healing involves a cry. And every healing is in response to a cry. Somehow what God needs to heal is an expression of the truth. The truth of the pain of the illness whatever it may be. The truth of the pain of blindness, the pain of the exclusion from community that leprosy brings, the truth of the pain of possession by the demon voices of negativity.

It is in Mark’s Gospel, though, in the Passion narrative, that we hear the account of Jesus’ cry. Jesus’ cry of lament. The first lament that we find in the Passion narrative takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus enters this garden with Peter, James and John and asks them to keep watch while he prays. Very soon he is ‘greatly distressed and troubled’ (Mark 14:33). He pours out his distress, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death,’ he says.(14:34) Jesus is in anguish at what he know lies ahead and he clings to the one thing that has always upheld him – his faith in and deep closeness to the God he knows as father. He falls on the ground and cries out ‘Abba, father, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.’

It is when Jesus is dying on the cross that this sense of God’s closeness is gone. As he is dying, Jesus cries out. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) Jesus cries out, again, in lament. The sense of this cry, though, is different. No longer is God named ‘Abba’. God, it seems, is no longer close, as in Psalm 121, this evening’s psalm. God is distant. At the very moment in his earthly life when Jesus needs God most, Jesus feels alone. But he enacts the relationship that has sustained him none the less. He continues to pray even when God seems absent and all hope is gone.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote about the power of utterance – he was speaking about the voice of the poet but I think what he said applies no less to the voice of the one who prays:

“The poet – [or the one who prays] – in vivid imagination can create …”[2]

This is indeed a word from the outside … a word that comes in the way of poetry [- or prayer], that offers no explanation, no certainty, …It is a moment of utterance! ….everything has now been changed by the poetic – [or prayerful] utterance, because the poetry –[or prayer]cannot be unsaid …The word has been uttered and the juices of alternative possibility have begun to flow.”[3]

The utterance of prayer gives hope. Hope that there is one who hears our prayer. Hope that there is one who will answer our prayer.

And so that is what we do when one we love is suffering or we remember the sufferings of the world, the suffering of mothers like Fatemah in Aleppo in Syria. We keep praying, keep crying out, knowing that Jesus accompanies us, even when God seems absent. We lift our eyes to the hills. And the very voicing of our prayer enacts our hope. “Where shall we find help? Our help comes from the Lord who has made heaven and earth.”

[2] Ibid, p7.

[3] Ibid, p8.