A Sermon by Heston Groenewald
There have been horrific headlines from Palestine this week. And tomorrow marks 100 years exactly since Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. It’s easy to feel pretty helpless as we read about all this… So this morning I’d like us to think about VIOLENCE.
Violence is right at the heart of life on planet earth, and so it’s right and good that dealing with violence is something that’s at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. Our first reading is this ancient story about Jacob and the mysterious man that he wrestles with through the night. And as a result of the wrestling match, Jacob gets a new name- he is called Isra-El which means ‘wrestles with God’.
And that’s a name that we inherit from him. In the New Testament, St Paul writes about the church as ‘the Israel of God’ – the people who struggle with God. We inherit this name generally – as Christians who inherit much of Jewish life and tradition – but also specifically here at the Church of the Ascension, because we gather precisely to wrestle with God and with life, and to see what God and life might want for us and from us.
And that’s true isn’t it… If you’ve been a Christian- or a human being- for any length of time, you know that there’s always wrestling to be done: wrestling with faith, wrestling with doubt, wrestling with people, wrestling with life, the universe and everything.
And so to our wrestling match. Lining up in the blue corner, is me, and lining up in the red corner, is God and everyone else. That’s how the battle goes, isn’t it- it’s our egos against the world. We say me and God says your neighbour. We say self-interest and God says self-sacrifice. Round one, fight!
Now there are folks who aren’t wrestling at all- for some people, ego – I – has no competition. And that’s really dangerous- as soon as we let our egos or self-interest run riot, without any sense of social justice as a corrective, that’s when our interests marginalise our neighbours. So ACTUALLY in this fight, we want God to win.
But we’re all fighters, aren’t we?! Our egos don’t give in without a fight. Which means that we can talk about violence, knowing that all of us are violent. We all have this selfish instinct- call it sin, call it the human condition, call it whatever, but this is a battle for all of us, individually and collectively.
St Benedict said that any person who yearns to draw close to God – and so any person who yearns to lose this fight! – will act with justice. And one of the controlling symbols for justice in the Hebrew Scriptures is a meal. When God imagines justice, he imagines it as a banquet. From Isaiah 25 – YHWH Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet with the best of meats and the finest of wines. He will swallow up death forever… He will wipe away the tears from all faces…
It’s a banquet, but it’s about much more than food. God deals with peoples’ hunger, but the meal is a symbol for something much bigger- God promises to deal with all the things that get people down in life, all the things they wrestle with- even disease and grief and death.
And so it’s interesting that this morning’s gospel reading talks about Jesus putting on a big miraculous meal, AND curing sick people. He dealt with peoples’ hunger, and also dealt with the things that got them down- the things they wrestled with.
St Benedict said that any person who yearns to draw close to God will act with justice. And we SYMBOLISE justice every week – we’re about to have a meal that’s a symbol for justice. Everyone gets a piece of bread and a sip of wine, everyone is provided for and no one is turned away. But it’s a pity it’s such a tiny token- what we have is a symbol of a symbol. If we shared an actual meal, then it would be far easier to move from symbol to reality. Because THAT is what God asks of us in the wrestling match.
So we share this symbolic meal, where everyone is welcome at the table, and everyone gets something to eat and drink. We can’t be selfish and egotistical here- we have to welcome others and make sure that there’s enough for them too. Whether they’re from England or Germany or Palestine or Israel or Congo. Everyone gets something to eat, and no one gets turned away. Easy here in the church, but much harder out there in life.
Food is just the symbol of a bigger hope for justice, but even if we think no further than the symbol – food – itself, this wrestling match is going badly. Never mind any of the other things that get people down in life; there are people in our city and our world who are HUNGRY.
As we know, there are people who aren’t wrestling at all. Ego, self-interest has already won the day, and there’s no problem with people being hungry- it’s not MY problem if they can’t look after themselves.
But we’re here to be wrestlers. And here in the blue corner God is challenging us to offer more, to give up more, to sacrifice more, not to keep our food to ourselves. And in the red corner is our selfish instincts, that want to keep our time, our money, our food, for ourselves and say it’s not MY problem that the weak and helpless and hungry can’t look after themselves.
We think, I’m not so very greedy or selfish. And we say, at least I’m not like the people who are killing each other in Palestine, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in the DRC. But hear what one wise monk had to say: To make people live in a sub-human way against their will, in such a way that they have no hope of escaping their condition, is an unjust exercise of force. Those who in some way or other concur in the oppression- and perhaps profit by it- are exercising violence even though they may be preaching pacifism.
We are the people who benefit from the way our society is structured. We are the haves, and allowing the have-nots to remain hungry, is exercising violence on them. We can’t do much about Palestine or Syria, but here is a battle we CAN do something about. This is a violence that is happening right in our own streets, and we have it in our power to end it… Are we ready to get the gloves off and do something about it?
LEWCAS shopping list handout- will you bring some of these items to church next week and every week??
If you can and will, we can pull off a miracle like Jesus did in feeding 5000 on a Galilean hillside. But we first have to wrestle with God, and we have to let God win against our greed and selfishness.
If you’re up for a fight, pray with me:
“O God, to those who have hunger, give bread;
and to us who have bread, give hunger for justice… Amen.”