Waiting for a Way Out

A sermon on Exodus 14:19-31 & Matthew 18:21-35 by Nathan Nettleton, 11 September 2005
at the Campbell-Stone United Church, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Message

God will open the way through the world’s chaos, and it will be grounded on extravagant mercy.

Sermon

In one of the readings I could have preached from today, Paul speaks to the Christians in Rome about their dispute over whether some days should be celebrated as sacred, or whether all days should be regarded as the same. This debate occasionally continues in disputes between Christians over whether or not we should observe the feasts and festivals of the liturgical year. It is something of an irony now that every few years this reading will come up on or around the eleventh of September. I’d be willing to bet that many of the churches who quote this passage against the observing of the liturgical year will nevertheless be making a special observation of this day. 9/11 is now etched deeply into the psyche of the western world, and it is almost impossible to let it pass without some reflection and taking stock. I would have liked to have let it pass without a sermon, because for most of my trip around Canada and the US over the next three months, I will avoid writing new sermons and instead plagiarise my own back-catalogue, but I haven’t previously had the opportunity to preach on these particular texts on September eleven, and it seems impossible to just ignore it, so you are about to be blessed or cursed with an untested one.

One of the unpleasant but unavoidable truths about life in the West since the September eleven terrorist attack on the USA is that, to the extent that the terrorist agenda is to sow the seeds of widespread terror among our populations, they have been astonishingly successful. So successful that you might even be tempted to think that they have won. After the more recent attacks in England, British police shot a young man because he was running and they thought they had reason to think he might be a suicide bomber. He wasn’t, and sorry is not going to resuscitate him. And when our society has been brought to such a state of distrust and terror that we start killing each other, then the terrorists have been so successful that we have started doing their terrorising for them. Our own security alerts, warnings and over-reactions can now be relied on to keep us living in fear and on the edge of self-destruction.

We are not the first people to live in a time gripped by fear and uncertainty. Those who have been to war in times past, or those who have lived in places that were under threat of attack during war know something of the feeling. A few weeks ago I was in Dresden, Germany. Dresden was bombed to rubble at the end of the second world war. More than 40,000 people died there in a few days, most of them non-combatants. The scars are still apparent, not only in the buildings, still being rebuilt, but in the psyche of the population.

A few thousand years ago, a whole population group of our forebears in the faith were gripped by fear and uncertainty, trapped between the violent rage of a pursuing militia and the violent rage of an apparently impassible ocean. The pursuing militia had held them enslaved in the grip of fear and oppression for a couple of generations. To surrender and go back meant living hell. To plunge into the sea meant hellish death. It was crisis time in a big big way.

In a number of ways, the predicament we face in these days is not altogether dissimilar. All we can see in front of us is an angry ocean of chaos and terror. We are afraid of being engulfed in the torrent, but we can’t calm it. I come from a nation of beach lovers, but to the ancient Israelites, the sea always meant chaos and danger. It was wild and unpredictable. Terror lurked there; monsters, real and imagined . The sea could blow up without warning and swallow up anyone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We, like them, are fearful of the murky chaos that lies ahead of us. The cycle of violence and vengeance spins out of control, escalating hatreds and conflicts and threatening to destroy more and more innocent people. The dark unknown monsters of the deep lie before us, but where can we go?

Behind us, we are pursued by our own past, our own history of violence. For generations, for centuries, we have operated with a system of institutionalised  vengeance, where we have controlled and contained violence by the application of state-sanctioned force. When an individual breeches the codes by which our society orders itself, we look to the courts to administer controlled vengeance on behalf of the community. When a nation breeches the codes by which the world orders itself, we have military forces to employ even greater violence in an effort to restore international order. If we were to poll the congregation here this morning, we would probably find ourselves scattered on a spectrum from those who strongly support such forms of state sanctioned violence and those who have grave misgivings about it, but wherever we fall, we would probably all be able to agree on two things. Firstly, the system has, for the most part, succeeded in providing some measure of order and stability to human societies; and secondly, that the system seems to be breaking down, especially at the international level, and failing to control the chaos as well as it sometimes has in the past. The way violence and conflict seem to break out now doesn’t even seem to fit the old categories any more. When foreign operatives crash planes into skyscrapers, we find it hard to decide whether we should think of it the same as the Oklahoma bombing, as an act of criminal violence and therefore employ the police and judiciary, or like Pearl Harbour, as an act of international aggression and therefore employ the military and the means of war. The chaos has mutated, and the the angry sea of chaos before us looks murkier and more threatening than ever, but behind us lies our own history which we not only don’t know how to break free from, but which now seems to be threatening to turn us into the very things we most fear. At every turn, our attempts to deal with terrorism seem to produce more anger, more bitterness, and more terrorists. The only tools we’ve known, all our tried and trusted mechanisms for containing the angry chaos now seem to do the opposite, to inflame it and enrage it. Our own history pursues us, and we are trapped with nowhere to go.

All we can do is fall to our knees and cry out to the God who has, time and again, responded to the cries of terrified people in times like these, and parted the deep waters of chaos and provided a way through to a promised land of peace and new life. God is the one who hears our cries. God is the one who knows our fears. God is the one knows where the dry path to the promised land lies. And God is the one who longs to set our feet on that path and lead us into new life. And while I don’t want to unpack the arguments for this today, I am convinced that we will not even notice God opening up the path through the waves so long as we are still locked into trying to solve it all ourselves by meeting violence with institutionalised vengeance. The Hebrew slaves would have never seen the water open if they had been busy trying to fight back against their pursuers.

And, in fact, I think this is exactly what is happening. For God has already opened up the path before us, but for the most part we are not recognising it, and the few who are saying “look, the waves are parting” are being dismissed as cranks and naive dreamers, or worse, as misfits and traitors and terrorist sympathisers.

We who are Christian have trouble seeing it too, because it is so strange and contrary to all we have been taught to expect, but we ought to be the ones who can recognise it. Just as Moses stretched out his hands over the sea of chaos, so now one like Moses has come and stretched out his arms over the chaos of violence and hatred and destructiveness. Matthew the gospel writer  repeatedly portrays Jesus as “the one like Moses” who was to come and lead the people from slavery to the promised land of salvation. But even for us Christians it is difficult to recognise the path Jesus opens up, because it is just so unfamiliar and even scandalous to us. It offends our sense of right and wrong. It seems almost blasphemous. When we see it, we instinctively react against it. We desperately look for another way. But the one with arms outstretched offers us no other way. It is follow him in his way, or allow the angry waves of chaos to close over us and destroy us.

If we are going to even begin to get our heads around this way through the chaos which God in Christ opens up for us, we are going to have to try to look at it from God’s perspective, and to see how God has experienced it and continues to experience it. And fortunately, in Jesus we can see what God’s experience might look like when lived as a human, so in Jesus, God’s experience and our experience come close enough to be one.

If we begin to look at what God experiences, we see that we are not alone in facing violence and chaos and terror. God has come to us embodied in the land and in the first nations peoples of the land, come to us whispering harmony and respect, and we have plundered the land and killed its custodians and unleashed biological and chemical warfare against the planet itself, pumping its veins full of poisons and clogging its lungs with vile pollutants. And God has come to us again, with arms outstretched, offering us generous mercy and tender forgiveness and calling us to change our ways. But we have tried to grasp the mercy without becoming merciful, and have continued our sabotage, and, just as Jesus said, we have been cast out into a hell of our own making, where now we have heated the oceans and paved over the wetlands and destroyed the mechanisms by which nature regulates its own chaos, and the chaos rises up and tears down our puny levies and pours its fury over us until we repay the debt we can never repay.

God has come to us embodied in the stranger and the refugee, and invited us into pathways of hospitality and compassion and solidarity, but we have closed our hearts and patrolled our borders and demanded some God-given right to be safer and more prosperous than those who were born on the wrong side of the lines we drew on our maps. We have shunned the Christ in the asylum seeker, and defined him as a threat to our rights and our securities. We have forced him back and left him to the mercy of the seas or the violent regimes from which he fled. And the Christ has come back to us with nail scarred hands and not even a hint of resentment, and offered us the forgiveness that only the victim of our callousness can offer us, and called us to follow him on the pathway through the chaos to the promised land of life, but for the most part we humans have tried to grasp the mercy without becoming merciful. Refusing his invitation to sit in solidarity with those we have previously cast out, we have squandered the offer of forgiveness, and now we humans are reaping the hell of own making as the cycle of violence and vengeance works itself up into a force five frenzy, hurling rocks and petrol bombs, bombing subways, blowing up night clubs, and slamming planes into buildings.

And yet, ... God continues to come to us. For in the extravagant love and mercy of God, even our refusal to accept the way of forgiveness and our inflaming of our man-made hells cannot quench God’s passionate desire for us. Despite all the pain and betrayal and violence, God continues to refuse to bear resentment, and continues to refrain from striking back at us, and continues to absorb all our hatred and hostility and callousness, seeking always to draw the sting out of them and offer back only love and compassion and tender mercy. God continues to forgive, seventy times seven, and to grieve over our refusal to be transformed by that forgiveness into a people who participate in living out that forgiveness in an angry violent world.

Sisters and brothers, Jesus the Christ has stretched out his arms and parted the sea of chaos before us, inviting us to follow him into the promised land of reconciling love. But that opportunity cannot be grasped by anyone who is not willing to share it equally with all who Jesus has called. For most of humanity, the call is too much of a scandal, too much of stumbling block, and again and again we have refused it. We want God’s love and mercy for ourselves, but as soon as we see that Christ is also offering love and mercy to the people we fear and despise, we pull up short and start denouncing this love and mercy as naive and dangerous and perhaps even traitorous. We want to accept seats at God’s table for ourselves and our loved ones, but as soon as we see that God is also busily offering seats to people who crash planes into office towers and people who send troops to Iraq and people who have hated us and been hated by us, we are not so sure. If this is the company Jesus is willing to keep, we baulk at being in his company at all. We demand to see justice before there is mercy, all the while forgetting what that might mean if justice comes to call us to account. We would rather see security based on fear, than reconciliation based on radical vulnerability and grace.

But Jesus offers us only one way out when we find ourselves trapped between the sea of chaos and the violent past that pursues us. Only one way - his way - the way that renounces all resentment, and exposes evil by outrageously offering to forgive it. And Jesus knows only too well that this is not a simple cure for the world’s ills, that it is not a quick solution that will end all fear. Jesus knows only too well that this pathway to the promised land still involves a plunge into the terrifying sea of chaos. He knows only too well that both those who try to fight violence with violence and those who try to confront violence with radical grace will fall victim to the violence. He never promised us that following him will keep us safe from violence. On the contrary, he promises us that following him leads to the cross. In a world of violence, not following him leads to a cross too, but the difference is that the path opened up by Christ’s radical mercy doesn’t end at the cross.

Sisters and brothers, we have baptised with Christ in the deep waters of chaos and death. Like Moses, Christ has stretched out his arms and opened up the path, but just as on that day at the Red Sea, some will emerge in the promised land, and some will go in with war horses and chariots and get bogged down and the waters will close over them and wash them up dead on the shore. But we who are being saved in Christ will be saved if we can get over the scandal of having to share that gracious salvation with prostitutes and tax collectors, and liberals and fundamentalists, and subway bombers and war-mongers, and all manner of people who are every bit as desperately in need of grace as we are.

In a few moments we will hear again Christ’s gracious invitation to his table. And although our queuing up one at a time might make it look as though you can come and make a private encounter with your saviour, the truth is that you are being asked one at a time whether you are ready and willing to take your place at the table alongside anyone and everyone who Christ offers a seat to. And it is no easy feat, but if we can all begin to bring ourselves to say yes, even when it means being seated at the table with people who have inflicted terror and death on us and our communities, then the dry land pathway to the promised land will open a little wider and the light of hope for the earth will shine a little brighter.

And while I have no idea exactly how God’s way can open such a furious sea, I do know that the way out is not in our hands, but in the nail scarred outstretched hands of the one who’s forgiveness reaches out to us, and would take root in us, for the healing of the world.