Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
31 July 2011, 10:30 (Trinity 6)
Last weekend the world was stunned by the events in Norway and that tragedy unfolded at the end of days of news drama involving press phone hacking, millions dying in the Horn of Africa, the bloodshed and frustration of the Arab Spring and the relentless despair in Afghanistan.
And what has the Church to say? Did people turn to shrines and communities such as this for comfort, guidance, perhaps some kind of protection and sanctuary from this darkness?
I am not sure that they did – only in Oslo cathedral.
And there seems something bizarre that oh so quickly cricket and formula one generate as much if not more interest plus a minor royal wedding and goodness what else fills the pages of tabloid newspapers.
We seem to live in a world today where we can be aware of almost anything and everything that takes place on this planet but unless it affects me, my pocket and my nerve endings, I don't really care.
What is happening to us as human beings? Are we suffering from compassion fatigue? Have we regressed once more into tribal units of self interest?
Even the European nations have lost the vision of living beyond national boundaries in a bigger and transformed relationship from that of patriotism, localism and tribalism.
And as for the United States, not only is Congress seemingly incapable of acting in the national interest this weekend over its budget deficit but foreign 'world' news is more or less non-existent in the leading nation of the free world!!
What do the scriptures have to teach us this morning?
Let's start with Jacob and this extraordinary story from Genesis.
In simple terms, Jacob is a cheat and a deceiver. His mother's favourite, he was encouraged by her to disinherit his elder brother Esau and gain the blind and aging father's all-important patriarchal blessing using props and dissimulation.
And now his brother, defrauded of his birthright, has at last caught up with him and he knows that there a fight is at hand.
So he moves his wives, children, servants and goods to the other side of the river and waits for daybreak and the ensuing fight.
But the duel comes from another quarter.
The story tells us that suddenly a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
And this man's identity is never revealed – we learn nothing about him or how the fight started.
However, Jacob never gives in and is not overcome.
He does however sustain an injury, a permanent one, because his mysterious opponent is obviously stronger. He strikes Jacob's sciatic nerve and dislocates his hip socket.
The angel, for that is what tradition identifies him as, leaves his mark. But Jacob hasn't let go and realizes that he needs this superior man's blessing before he meets his brother.
And the blessing comes in the form of a question, they often do.
What is your name? And Jacob tells him.
And there and then he is given a new name, Israel, 'Prince-with-God, he has 'struggled with God and prevailed'.
The cheat is a new man.
Now God does not reveal his presence and tell him who he is outright, but the struggle and the new name lets Jacob know that it is God who has taken him on.
Jacob, now Israel, walks away from this unique struggle, limping into the future with a new promise and God's blessing.
Perhaps we can all learn that it is our weakness that lets God in – and not our strength, our achievements and our ego.
And so to the Gospel passage in Matthew.
We are so familiar with this story – and probably ever sceptical about the miracle. Surely, it's just a question of everyone being shamed and encouraged into sharing what they had already brought?
But this isn't a story about satisfying our rational curiosity. This is a story about our weakness, our limitations and the possibilities that God in his love can truly transform them.
It is the same Israel as in Genesis that Jesus is confronting: limping, doubting and now hungry.
He takes the little that is there and ensures that everyone is satisfied – and there is plenty left over – twelve baskets, a number by no means accidental but the symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel.
This story is not merely an episode in the story of Jesus but an adventure of faith, about daring to risk and become courageous in the heart of our weakness.
As the world of today in its strength, terrors, beauties, comforts, explanations and certainties drugs us into living on the surface of life in the hope that darkness, disease, tragedy and death itself will avoid us, we know deep down, if we dare to stop, that we are all weak, flawed and mortal.
And that is the starting point for Jacob, for Israel, for the Church and the whole world.
In one of last Sunday's newspapers, the journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote an article entitled: Oh, Britannia, how you have changed.
When he left Britain for America 26 years ago it was he says a dreary, divided land of racism and elitism. On his return he finds political turmoil, chavs, burqas – yet a nation at peace with itself.
So far, so good: but just before the end of the article, He writes this:
What's gone, of course, is the C of E. Religion itself appears to have been wiped from the cultural map in Britain in ways unimaginable in faithful America.
This, to my mind, is a tragedy, for a society without some relationship to the transcendent can become simply boorish and myopic.
He thinks though that secularism is preferable to American fundamentalism, and cynically sees the moderation and compromise that is laid at Anglicanism's door as the blurring of doctrinal difference, the aversion to looking into others' souls and the modesty of a limited spiritual imagination epitomized by the Book of Common Prayer.
I want to take issue him on with some of these points but rather than diverge in that way here, I want to hold on to the questions and challenges that we cannot afford to evade.
The Church is weak today.
It isn't irrelevant but it is ignored and side-stepped by a society that is unaware of what we are, what we stand for and what the meaning of our land and our civilization is.
It is here that we need to be fed by Jesus.
And then we have to use our wills, our imaginations and our courage to venture out and engage in vigorous, spirited dialogue with our neighbours.
Already as part of the malaise of novelty, celebrity and sensation, the news is now leaving Norway behind, just as it has New Zealand, Pakistan, Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe and so on.
So I want to end these words with another reference to a newspaper article.
This time it was written last Tuesday by Ben Macintyre.
The article bore the title: A mass murderer is no match for a paperclip.
Macintyre is certain that Anders Behring Breivik's rant and unspeakable atrocities will not destabilize Norway today. The bomb attack and the island massacre do indeed represent the worst collective trauma since the Second World War but in their nationhood there is a quiet grit and social solidarity that will not bend in the face of brutality.
When Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist leader, seized power in a Nazi-backed coup as the Germans invaded Norway in 1940, the majority did something truly extraordinary – they just turned their backs on the occupiers and refused to converse with them – they sent them to Coventry.
But the most potent symbol of Norway's refusal to knuckle under was the paperclip.
A Norwegian, Johan Vaaler, had invented this humble, simple and everyday office tool in 1901.
When the occupying Germans banned the wearing of national or royal insignia, students at Oslo University began attaching paperclips to their lapels or buttonholes.
The prosaic paperclip became a powerfully simple symbol of national unity and consequently anyone found wearing one was liable to immediate arrest.
Similarly, Jesus took those meagre five loaves and two fishes and fed five thousand people and more with plenty to spare.
As the Church we must remember our weakness and our need to live simply.
This allows God to transform what we truly are and so give us the real strength to resist the overwhelming arrogance of materialism and selfishness in our culture.
The glass doors of our cathedral remind us where the Eucharist sends us – out into the world to live and work to God's praise and glory.
Limping but renewed, let's put on our metaphorical paperclips, so that one in God and the power of his Spirit, we can go out to where we need to go for him.
If we will but go out to the world, God will speak through us.
A 20th century poet, D.M. Lewis, wrote these challenging, spare and testing lines in a poem entitled:
The Harrowing of Hell
Love asks to penetrate
The hot dark place,
The place of pain,
From which the sons of light
Hide their modest faces.
Love is allowed.
And oh! What gnashing of teeth
Among the demons
Who thought it was their own!
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