Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I always say this – it begs the question as to what the purpose of a sermon is that I should ask of my words and of our collective meditations that they be worthy in God’s sight.
Normally it is to exposit Scripture. But sometimes it is to help us all, as a community of believers, plumb the depths of dark places where we might suddenly find ourselves.
In the wake of Nice, we have found ourselves in just such a dark place. our minds are particularly focussed on the tragedy of that dreadful event. This Wednesday at 5.30pm we will have a special time of prayers for the 84 who died in Nice and for all who have died as a result of terrorism.
As Dean Frank said this morning, it is actually important to remember that there are so many whom we should hold in remembrance who are victims of terrorism. He mentioned for example, Baghdad a couple of weeks ago, where two coordinated bombings killed 300 people and injured 221 others
Just to give you some idea of just how dark a place where we now find ourselves, Colin James, writing in the Advertiser yesterday, mentioned that there have been 91 terrorist attacks since August last year – some widely reported, some barely at all – but all horrific.
I don’t know if you are, but I am struggling to know how to respond in ways that are worthy in the sight of God and not just cheap platitudes. Ways that can be useful in an increasingly divided world – a piecemeal World War III as Pope Francis has described it.
As we seek to understand what is going on, it is normal that we use the lens of our own experience to interpret complex events.
In his article, Colin James wrote:
There is no room in Australia for complacency about the threat of terrorism. It is real. It exists. … We can’t just plug our ears, shrug our shoulders and bury our heads in the sand, hoping it will all just go away. Neither can we become so desensitised we don’t even pay attention anymore, opting instead to ignore news coverage because what is happening has become just so awful. If that happens, we have given up caring what happens beyond our shores. And that would be appalling.
I can’t disagree with anything he says there, but it didn’t help me – for he gave no suggestions about what could be done. Not that there aren’t plenty of supposed solutions flying around. In hearing some of the easy solutions that have been proffered I have been reminded of what I heard once about there being two truisms in terms of handling complex problems.
I heard once that there are two truisms about trying to resolve complex problems. Truism Number One: to every complex problem there is a simple solution. And this is indeed absolutely true – there is always a simple solution to a complex problem. But Truism Number Two states that that simple solution is always wrong.
In this context, and taking Colin James’ starting date for his count – August of last year. I am wondering if he was motivated by the fact that it was August 21 2015, when Angela Merkel said that the migration crisis would define this decade. You will recall that her comments, made on the back of a sudden increase in the number of refugees seeking enter Europe, resulted in an even greater number wanting to join the queues.
Things rapidly escalated out of control. The complex problem generated simple solutions. But they weren’t all the same – simple solutions can come in many different forms, for all their beguiling simplicity. The complex question of compassion was given radically different simple solutions:
On the one hand Nigel Farage said the images of Kurdish toddler Aylan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean had made him “feel horrible” but he insisted that the UK could not afford to show too much compassion. The EU’s compassion… “could be a very real threat to our safety,”
While on the other hand, there were those who would simply remove all barriers, believing that could done without significant social impact on the receiving communities.
Lock the doors on the one hand, open them wide on the other. In terms of locking the doors the photos in the media of the blocked bridges crossing the Bosporus seemed to bookend with Angel Markel’s open the bridges call just under a year earlier. There seemed a heavy symbolism in those images.
As I have been reflecting on the “lock the doors” call, I have been reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Masque of the Red Death”. You might know the story – a town, surrounded by plague, sees its ruler and elite wall themselves off from the infected populace. And while all around them are dying; the select few party on in revelries such as feasts, dances and a Masque Ball. It is at the height of festivities at the Masque, on the very stroke of midnight that Poe writes:
And thus … it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumour of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise–then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust … The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood–and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.
The moral of the story is that discord was already inside amongst them, not that it was simply too late and that they had let the enemy of disease in. They had feared a physical plague but, by their inhumanity, they could not stop a plague of the spirit.
And so this brings the question, as simplistic, sometimes hatefully so, solutions are thrown up to respond the piecemeal World War III, how should Christians respond?
In considering this question, I have been struck by this verse from our Gospel reading tonight:
Father … you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.
And the reference in the psalm to the “innocent”. In this context, I have taken the word “infants” from the gospel not to refer literally to babes but to those whose outlook on the world has the innocence of babes.
That then led me to ponder the difference between naiveté and innocence. What is the difference? One definition I have come across put it this way:
As adjectives the difference between innocent and naive is that innocent is free from guilt, sin, or immorality while naive is lacking worldly experience, wisdom, or judgement; unsophisticated.
If this explanation of difference is reasonable, how, in the context of the problems we now face should we be innocent rather than naïve?
Can I suggest some possible differences? The naïve fails to comprehend the enormity of a problem; and so makes incomplete deductions in order to define the problem seeking a solution. And so finally offers a solution that may, in addressing a flawed understanding of the problem, result in even more serious consequences.
So, in the context of the migration crisis that has faced Europe over the past year, a naïve solution would be to simply open all gates wide, just as much as it might be to slam all gates totally shut.
How would an innocent approach differ? Ideally, it would seek to comprehend how God would see the situation; and seek in prayer to hear the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
That can be really difficult for us as Christians. Last night I happened to watch part of a 2011 movie – Holy Family Circus – that was a comic, pseudo-documentary about the controversy caused by the Life of Brian when it was made in the 1970s. At one point in the movie, when the problem seemed all too difficult, too complex, one of the characters said:
“We could ask God to sort it out.” –To which another responded: “Yes, we could do that – but let’s not rely on that.”
What would then be the outcome; how would we be better prepared as Christians? Our gospel reading tonight gave the story of the sending out of the seventy. By the way these seventy were the “infants” about which Jesus spoke. And what separated them from the wise and intelligent, from all the worldly wisdom? It was where their focus was:
Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it.
These seventy unnamed followers of Jesus in their anonymity potentially become us – they had been sent out to tackle the ailing spirit of the broken world. Our world groans now. In this month of the centenary of Frommelles and Pozieres, let me read from a poem by WB Yeats written in 1919, as he described the troubled world of that time of a wholesale WWI:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
the best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
May these words speak to us as we fear a piecemeal WW III. But if they are to speak to us, as we seek to tackle “the worst (that) are full of passionate intensity” with a spirit that does not “lack all conviction”, we can only do so by resuscitating the innocence that the world seeks to drown.
Resuscitate – in other words breathe life back into. The Hebrew word for the Holy Spirit is Ruah – the breath of God. This is the breath that innocent appeal to in confronting a complex world.
I started with “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer”, I now want to finish with “may the listening of our ears and hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer” for we have no choice but to listen, through prayer, for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And so may we now sit in silent, listening prayer for a few moments; seeking to receive the breath of God as we seek to know how we should respond to the dark places in which the world finds itself.