Sermon at the Friary Eucharist, 18th June 2017. Matthew 9.36ff
One of the difficulties of liturgical worship, over against for example the worship of the Quakers, can be that there are just too many words. And so as we gallop along, gobbling up great chunks of scripture, readings, and prayers, the danger is that we miss some of the nuggets of meaning that are there, buried in the texts before us.
Take two words from this morning’s Gospel that may have particularly struck you, because they seem to resonate with where we all are now. “When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
“… harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
The word translated here as harassed, has, in the Greek, an interesting meaning. It literally means, flayed, or lacerated, or jaded; the meaning is: being assaulted by persistent troubles which are, as it were, beating you up.
The word ‘helpless’ is also a weak translation of the Greek word ‘errimenoi’ which comes from the verb ‘ripto’ which literally means ‘to hurl’ or ‘throw down’, or ‘toss repeatedly’, or ‘throw about’.
So the passage could read: “ he had compassion on the crowd because he could see they were ‘flayed’, ‘lacerated’ people, ‘thrown about’ – who couldn’t, as it were, get their footing, so chaotic and turbulent was the world in which they found themselves.”
This sounds very contemporary, does it not? Just at the immediate levels of the politics of the western world, and particularly our own politics in this country, we are in turmoil and chaos. There are profound conflicts about direction. And it may be impossible to go in any coherent direction, because there are just too many disagreements. We lack a unifying vision.
And these words resonate at the personal level. I wonder if any of you have been watching the BBC serial entitled ‘Broken’ being transmitted on Tuesday nights? It is about a Catholic priest in an area of multiple deprivation in a northern city – I think it is Liverpool – who is both struggling with his own chaos, and as a Catholic priest, faithfully seeking to struggle with the chaos of people in poverty all around him. Multiple issues of justice, of gross inequality, of corruption, of morality, of racism, of mental illness … are all thrown up in the all too real tangled way they work their poison in ordinary people’s lives. It makes for grim but compulsive watching because we know that for so many, it is true.
Harassed and helpless .. flayed and thrown about … the root meaning of these words has a very modern feel, resonating with the dominant social and psychological condition of our time … which is anxiety. If the world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was above all the age of guilt – and the language and theology of the prayer book reflects that – then the modern, and what we call the post-modern era, is above all the age of anxiety. For the social and psychological architecture of the world that we thought was so secure has been, is being, progressively dismantled. The frameworks of authority and meaning that at one time all took for granted, all subscribed and assented to … they have largely gone, disintegrated. That is what post-modernity is – I nearly said that is what post-modernity means – but that would be nonsense, for the whole point is: there is no meaning.
And even if people do not understand in any rational sense what is going on in the collective consciousness of us all, in the great shaping forces of our world, they experience the effects in the day to day interactions and connections of their lives, in the torn and tearing fabric of their families and relationships and work. In the sense that things that were once secure and coherent, are now coming apart. It is in the stressful day-to-dayness of the experience of disintegration and dislocation, that so many feel ‘lacerated’, ‘flayed’, ‘jaded’, ‘thrown about’.
But I wonder whether it is possible to be clearer as to why, in our time, these words have such resonance. What is it that has given rise to the particularly modern form of our harassment, our jadedness, our thrown-aboutness?
Well it would take a very long conversation amongst us all to explore this – the root and nature of anxiety in the modern world – and there are of course, many factors: You might say that the Enlightenment Project itself … up-ending the great myth of Christendom, has played its part; as has the coming of psychoanalysis and the unravelling of the nature of the mind at the beginning of the twentieth century. There is the sheer speed of change accelerating in the latter part of that century (you may remember Alvin Toffler’s important book in the 1970s ‘Future Shock’) and on into this century. Then there is the coming of a globalised world and the loss of a particular sense of place, (an interesting recent book by David Goodhart The Road to Somewhere focuses on this issue of place dividing us all into ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’). And now in our time, there is the threat of climate change, and then there is the internet itself … All these factors play their part, and you might well want to include others.
But as I think about this, I am taken back to a passage in a book by the writer Andrew Harvey in which he quotes the Monk, Fr Bede Griffiths, who I think puts his finger precisely on what may be the deepest cause of our crises … let me read you just a little bit of it:
It is early December 1992. I am sitting with the eighty-six year
old Catholic monk and mystic Father Bede Griffiths in his
hut in the South Indian morning … . For eight marvellous days, Bede
and I have been talking about God, the Church, the world’s
mystical traditions, and the various stages of that search for
truth that brought him to India forty years before.
In the middle of our conversation,
Bede paused suddenly … and then said, quietly and
insistently, ‘You know, of course, Andrew, that we are now in
the hour of God.’
Although it was a warm, fragrant morning, I shivered.
‘When you say “hour of God”, what do you mean?’
‘I mean that the whole human race has now come to the
moment when everything is at stake, when a vast shift of
consciousness will have to take place on a massive scale in all
societies and religions for the world to survive. Unless human
life becomes centred on the awareness of a transcendent
reality that embraces all humanity … and transcends our present level of life and consciousness, there is little hope for us.’
‘Unless human life becomes centred on the awareness of a transcendent reality that embraces all humanity … there is little hope for us.’
This is, I believe, the key issue: the widespread loss of belief – at least in the western world, and certainly in Britain – in any Transcendent Reality that can provide peoples and societies with ultimate meaning, and with anchors and reference points … with pathways to find that Meaning.
Though it is not often recognised, I wonder if this is not the key factor underlying the widespread contemporary sense of being ‘harassed’ and ‘helpless’ … flayed and thrown about ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ … for, of course, according to the wise men of our contemporary world, any idea of ‘a Shepherd’ is a huge delusion.
What to do? It is easy to despair. But we continue to hold to belief, and even if people in huge numbers across the western world have given up on organised religion and belief, (and the most recent figures reveal that those who say they have no religion now significantly outnumbers those who hold to faith) … even if people have abandoned belief … this Mystery of Life, this Mystery of the One whose image we all carry, continues to believe in, and seek us.
So – unsurprisingly if God is God – everywhere there are signs of hope! Signs of people being impelled by an inner longing to belong to one another, and to care for one another. We have seen it again over this terrible tower block disaster in London.
Another sign is that this very weekend, which is the anniversary of the death of the Labour MP, Jo Cox, thousands upon thousands of people are organising events across the UK in ‘The Great GetTogether’ under the banner ‘we have More in common than what divides us’ … words used by Jo Cox in her maiden speech in the House of Commons. It is a thoroughly secular initiative but it is as though people are feeling their way in the dark impelled towards a vision of a common humanity.
As we, with brothers and sisters from all religions and none, feel our way in the dark too, we know that human beings do need anchors and reference points, do need practices and rituals that give life meaning … i.e. we do need what religious faith at its best can offer … that is practices and rituals which can sustain us and hold us, and which can nurture within us a different kind of knowing, and which, above all, can offer hope.
This passage in the Gospel goes on to name the apostles and send them out, and he tells them to do quite a lot … heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons … and not say much …beyond the words “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, it is amongst you.”
Never be despairing! Alleluia, Christ is risen!