A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Lamentations 1:1-6

Lamentations 3:19-26

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:1-10

There are two defining moments or events in the history of ancient Israel, also known as the Hebrew people. Both begin with the letter ‘E’. One is the Exodus – that group of stories around Moses and the dramatic escape of a slave people into the wilderness. We read about that principally in the book known as Exodus. The word means ‘the going out’, the escape, the way out, the release. It’s a great story full of nuance and magical events such as conjuring up gnats and flies. It’s a great story pitting a renegade Israelite, Moses, who claims to speak for his god and be the rescuer of his people, against the mighty Egyptian empire, focused on Pharaoh. It’s the sort of story that lends itself to blockbuster movie making and comes up for remakes every so often.

The Exodus is more than simply the story of the escape from slavery. It is a story of a disparate rabble of escaped slaves being formed into a people – bound to a particular god by particular ethical and moral behaviours. It is a story of promise – the promise of a new land, one dripping with opportunity. It is a story of formation handed on from one generation to the next. It is the story that is told and retold each year at Passover time, and one we know well for our Eucharistic teaching resonates with the same story. As bread and wine were taken each year at Passover the Exodus story was told. In much the same way, as we take bread and wine today, the story of our salvation in and through the cross of Jesus Christ is told and retold. Perhaps above all the Exodus story is one of God’s active and loving presence in the lives of people. There are failings certainly, but the god of Exodus is always willing to overlook failings, to forgive wrong-doing, to allow a fresh start.

And there is the Exile – the second ‘E’ word that defines ancient Israel. Without the Exodus it is hard to make sense of Exile – it’s hard enough to make sense of it anyway! Where Exodus lead to the situation of the Israelites having their own land, special city, temple and king – proof that God loved them and that they were God’s special people – the Chosen People; in the Exile story all that is stripped away. Land, city, temple, king – all is gone. There is nothing left.

The people who clung to the belief that they were God’s Chosen are left with nothing – everything that defined them is gone! As if losing land, city and king was not bad enough, it appeared they had even been wrong about their god.

Unlike the Exodus, which has, at best, dubious historical roots, the Exile is well documented and can be precisely dated to 587 BC. It was that year that the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, finally tired of the recalcitrant people who lived in the hill country known as Judea, and their king who was forever trying to make favourable alliances with now this, now that, super power. Nebuchadnezzar and his armies swept through the land and utterly razed Jerusalem to the ground. With one fell swoop the four things that defined God’s Chosen People were taken away – land, city, temple, king. Those who were not immediately killed were carted off to Babylon, into exile – hence the name of this catastrophe. There they languished, licking their wounds and wondering what could possibly have gone wrong.

We have some writings from that period – one of which continues to be sung albeit as a pop song with many different iterations. It is Psalm 137 made popular by groups such as Boney-M in their version of “By the rivers of Babylon.” It is not a pleasant psalm to read. The bewilderment and utter anguish of the singers is palpable, as is the desire for vengeance found in the last few verses and seldom, if ever, read in public worship.

Today’s first two readings – both from the book known as Lamentations – speak into this situation of devastation, bewilderment and anguished questioning. It’s worth reading through Lamentations – it’s only five chapters long – to sense something of the despair of the people. The opening words speak eloquently of the lonely city – once so full of people, a widow left with nothing and no one. Once so proud, a beacon to the world, she has lost everything. The metaphors flow thickly and richly.

My only experience of this sort of utter devastation happened in a city I once lived in – Christchurch New Zealand. On 22 September 2011 people woke in the very early hours as the earth moved and liquid came bubbling up from below. A few months later another earthquake struck, this time in the middle of the lunch hour, killing 182 people and flattening much of the city.

You will, I am sure, have your own examples of this sort of devastation. It’s the aftermath of an Ash Wednesday or Good Friday bushfire, a Boxing Day Tsunami, a Chernobyl nuclear reaction gone wrong, a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, the morning after the Allied bombing raids on Dresden. It’s the Syria’s and Yemen’s, the Killing Fields, the ethnic cleansing we see so often in our up to the minute news flashes from across the world.

But equally the Exile experience could be much more individual – a car accident wiping out a family, a medical diagnosis which moves with lightning speed, the terrible crunch that comes when a car reverses down a driveway before checking for little people in its path, the message that a plane has disappeared.

For people of faith even much less traumatic experiences can cause us to seriously question our belief and trust in God. After all, if I have prayed by prayers, behaved as best I can, looked out for others less fortunate than myself – doesn’t God ‘owe’ me something? And yet, as we all know, this is not always the case. There are times when, it seems, the Exile has come in all its catastrophic proportions.

‘How lonely sits the city that once was full of people.’ (Lamentations 1: 1)

It’s in and during our ‘exile’ experiences that we need the wisdom of others, the words of others to help us through, to enable us to make some sense of it all. Buried in the middle of chapter 3 of Lamentations are a few verses of hope in the devastation. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3: 22 – 23)

Reading through Lamentations those words leap out at you. How is it possible that such faith can be expressed in the midst of such despair? And yet, there they are. Time and again we find this sort of thing in the words and utterances of religious people. It’s not a blind faith – but one that is logically and carefully thought through. If God is God – the Creator of all that is, both seen and unseen – as we profess in our Creeds, then the steadfast love of the Lord may well endure forever.

Some people are better than others at capturing these thoughts and offering them to those of us who struggle. The Northumbria Community is a community of Christians shaped around some of the questions asked so long ago during the Exile. ‘Who is it that you seek?’, ‘How then shall we live?’ and ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’

One of the prayers coming out of the Northumbria Community and the up-swell of commitment to God and eagerness for shared prayer is entitled “Today I believe.” It’s a prayer that seeks to be honest with one’s own doubts and struggles in life. It’s a prayer that offers hope as, one day at a time, we strive to live as God’s people in the world – even a world of Exile.

Today I believe

Lord, You have always given
bread for the coming day;
and though I am poor,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
strength for the coming day;
and though I am weak,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
peace for the coming day;
and though of anxious heart,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always kept
me safe in trials;
and now, tried as I am,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always marked
the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always lightened
this darkness of mine;
and though the night is here,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always spoken
when time was ripe;
and though you be silent now,
today I believe.

A prayer from the Northumbria Community