A Sermon preached at All Saints’ Cuddesdon on Sunday 15th October 2023 and in the Edward King Chapel at Ripon College Cuddesdon on Tuesday 17th October 2023.
Matthew 22. 1-14
What an extraordinary Gospel reading that is! The juxtaposition of hospitality and generosity – invitations to a great wedding feast – with barbarity and ferocity: the city burnt of those who rejected the invitation, and the guest cast into outer darkness who came unprepared to the party.
The circumstances of these days – of this past week, of what we are seeing now and of what the coming days are set to bring – are such that dwelling on the barbarity and the ferocity seems to be inevitable, necessary indeed. Unpalatable, uncomfortable, downright horrible though it is to do so.
We have seen more than enough of barbarity and ferocity in Israel at the hands of Hamas, and we will see more – are already seeing more – through the actions of Israeli forces in Gaza, and resistance to them. More, much more, then enough, even to us who have been (or could have been) desensitised by what we have seen in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen or so many other places and conflicts, some more extensively reported than others, yet each with its own quotient of misery – of blood, smoke, dust, despair and death.
What are we to make of it? What are we to say?
What commentary or explanation will our faith, our hope, our proclamation of a loving, faithful, powerful, present God provide?
Indeed, will our faith come through – can our faith come through – these experiences unscathed or intact, even when (for us) they are vicarious experiences, mediated through TV footage and news reports?
Speaking for myself, and brutally honestly, I have to say that there have been moments and there corners of my heart now, when the best answer I can give to this question is, “I don’t quite know”. Indeed, I may at times find myself answering with more certainty, and yet more bleakly, that “yes, my faith has indeed been damaged and diminished – who knows? Perhaps beyond repair.”
For me – and, I suspect, for many of us – honest theological appraisal of what we are seeing must begin by acknowledging how deep and how dark is the abyss into which we are looking. A world in which carefree partygoers, holocaust survivors and babies are gunned down, cut to pieces and abducted as hostages – where people do these things – is a world in which questions about the goodness of creation and the redeemability of our race are challenging indeed. A word in which a powerful, well-armed, allegedly democratic nation can dispossess a whole people, kettling it up in a giant refugee camp and then cutting off water, food and medical supplies and watching the people die of hunger, thirst and the blood from their wounds is a world in which questions about humans’ being made in the image of God, and what that means, must be asked and struggled with – and certainly not easily or quickly or tritely answered.
Please note, I am trying not to offer political comment – comment on motivation for the acts we have seen, analysis of the history and the narratives through which it is told, matters of justice or claimed justification (or not) – the pulpit is not the place for this, nor this the moment. My purpose is to try to frame – to pose but certainly not to answer – the theological challenge to us and to all people of faith that these events presents. The question that can be rendered in just three words: Where is God?
What has God got to say?
And I haven’t got much of an answer. This a time for silence and incomprehension, for weeping and for lament and for rage – not for explanation or resolution.
Yet perhaps our silence and the tears and lament that might break into it and intensify it does have a precedent and a model in scripture. Not to give comfort – certainly not cheaply or easily – but to give a context and a suggestion of where we may begin to look as we struggle with that theological question, Where is God?
Here is the model, the precedent: a moment of unnatural darkness and eerie and portentous silence on a hillside, broken only by a young man’s despairing cry: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” .
Where is God? the young man cries, and as he does so he reveals the awful answer to his question: God – apparently withdrawn and absent, leaving only horror, barbarity and ferocity – is in fact there, nailed to the cross. There: at the heart of the desecrated party site, in the hospital on which the rockets have fallen, in the despair of the mothers and the grandfathers and the new-made orphans.
God nailed to the cross. God crucified again. Even as we worship here in peace.
On the night that he was betrayed – the night before he died – Jesus took bread and broke it…
Pause, for a moment, there. For this is our moment, the moment in which our world is currently sitting. Brokenness, the crack of Doom. And in the moment of breaking, of being broken, God is.
That, my friends, may be our only hope. Amen.