Posted by: owizblog | June 28, 2015

Unnoticed: Sermon, Greenock Wellpark Mid Kirk, 28 June 2015

Lamentations 3:22-33
Mark 5:21-43

I

Aren’t these screens useful?

When we installed our system in Bute, eighteen months ago, we went for what’s basically a sixty-five inch television. One of our local wags apparently asked whether using a big television in the services meant there’d be nothing but repeats.

What neither they nor I guessed was that if we veered off in any television-inspired direction, it would be BBC2, and that I would be in danger of turning into a Church of Scotland version of Sister Wendy.

Sister Wendy Art

Not that I have any of her expertise. But the power of fine art to illuminate Biblical meaning is something it’s been a joy to explore occasionally with the congregation. I’ve long been drawn strongly to the work of the sixteenth century Dutch or Flemish master Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

I’ve known Breughel’s The Death of Icarus for years, now, but never looked at it in this way before – so no, you’re not getting a repeat this morning!

Ic1

It’s not a Biblical theme, but a classical one. You’ll remember the story of Icarus. Daedalus, who invented the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete, is imprisoned with Icarus, his son. The great inventor invents wings, of feathers and wax, to help them escape.

“Don’t get carried away, son,” he says; “Don’t fly too close to the sun. The wax won’t take the heat…”

And as soon as he says that, we know what’s going to happen.

Icarus gets carried away. A sense of mastery, achievement, fills him. He is master of space, of the air, the world! Pride, hubris, in his new ability takes over, and he soars up to the sun.

Fame! I’m going to live forever! Everyone, remember my name…

And since, in the universe of Greek myth, temperature goes up, not down with altitude, his wings disintegrate, and down he falls.

Well, this is Brueghel’s The Death of Icarus.

You look at it, and you say “Eh…?”

“Where’s Icarus?”

(I often wonder if the “Where’s Wally” children’s books are somehow inspired by Brueghel…)

You can see a peasant, ploughing his field, oblivious to everything else. If this were a modern painting, he’d have headphones in his ears. There’s another chap staring into the sky the way I do when I hear the seaplane from Pacific Quay flying over Rothesay, but can’t quite work out where it is against the clouds. There are ships bobbing at anchor in the sweep of the bay.

And eventually, but suddenly, you spot a tiny leg, sticking out of a splash just this side of the nearest ship.

Ic3

Icarus, his overweening pride, his joy in his gifts suddenly turned from ecstasy to catastrophe, his all-consuming self-assertion suddenly turned to all-consuming emergency and disaster.

And nobody notices.

As his hubris, then his dire emergency fill his world, It barely registers in Breughel’s landscape. Icarus’s all-consuming pride, then the all-consuming terror of his fall, is reduced to a tiny, meaningless splash that nobody notices. The world goes on.

Sometimes, what terrifies us more than anything is to be unnoticed.

II

Last Christmas on Bute we looked at Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Flight into Egypt”

FltEgBruegh

– here it is, and doesn’t it look like the panorama of the Kyles of Bute from the viewpoint on the Tighnabruaich Road? The Flight to Egypt? You look, and look – and suddenly, you spot a small group in the middle distance. A man leading a donkey with another figure on its back – a woman? And you really have to peer to see a third human form, a tiny head poking out of the folds of the red robe…

We are so used to understanding the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing with the baby Jesus from Herod’s murderous wrath, from their perspective, that for us, their plight, their situation, their emergency fills the whole universe. It’s incredibly hard to see that all-consuming human emergency as a mere dot on a landscape, something barely noticeable, something that hardly registers.

A dot of precarious, embattled, desperate meaning, virtually lost in an unfeeling landscape…

II

That’s the key to our Old Testament reading this morning. It places us in a landscape. The Book of Lamentations comes from a particular point in the Biblical history. It’s the sixth century BC; the tiny little Kingdom of Judah has been crushed by the might of the Babylonian Empire. A large proportion of the intelligentsia has been marched into exile, and Psalm 137 is their hymn:

By the waters of Babylon,

there we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion…

How shall we sing the LORD’s song

in a foreign land?

This is light years, a different universe of human experience, from the bouncy 70s rhythms of Boney M…

But life went on in Judah, too, and in a landscape drained of meaning. If the Exiles sat by the Euphrates watching the pomp of the conquering gods of Babylon process by, those left behind sat in Jerusalem, in the shadow of the destroyed temple, and wondered where God was in this shattered landscape, that seemed to take no notice of their presence, that didn’t particularly seem to register their existence.

Godforsakenness. That’s what it must have felt like.

Understand God conventionally, as power, might and glory, and when you find yourself the plaything of greater power, when things batter you down, and events sweep you along – where’s God then?

When the settled patterns of your living, the routines, the expectable things, the conventions, the standards, when these break down, or are drained of their meaning – where’s God then?

When your sense of specialness, of your place at the centre of things, evaporates, when you suddenly realize that the picture isn’t about you, and your life and your concerns aren’t the meaning of the picture, when you suddenly find yourself standing outside yourself, and you see yourself as a dot lost in the landscape – where’s God then?

But here’s the strange thing. That’s exactly what the colossal events of the seventh and sixth centuries had done to the community of God’s people. They were a tiny patch on the map of Babylonian power, a dot on the landscape of the known world.

And as they wrestle with that – they find God. Because that’s where God finds them.

The Lord’s unfailing love and mercy still continue/Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise./The Lord is all I have, and so in him I put my hope.

There in the hard realities. There, with all their familiarity and all their usual comforts stripped away, there in their tininess, unnoticed in their little corner of the great landscape of the world. There they find God, because there God finds them.

III

There’s a pattern here, and it’s one that is very important to our understanding of what faith is. And it’s a pattern that’s explored in a fascinating way by our Gospel reading from Mark. It’s a story within a story.

A well-known man, a prominent community leader, is this Jairus, and his world has been turned upside down. He’s the kind of person you notice when he walks into a room, the kind of man people arrange themselves around when he is in a gathering. He never usually has to ask himself where he fits in, how he belongs.

And now, something so huge has descended on him that he doesn’t know where he is. The landscape is utterly unfamiliar, and he’s lost in it. His daughter is desperately ill. But it isn’t cool, unfeeling hills, rivers, nature in which he’s lost, but a sea of people, as he and Jesus are swept along towards his house, hustled and bustled along. And in the middle of all this, something else happens.

IV

And it’s like the story of Jairus turned inside-out. A wee woman, utterly unknown, used to the world not noticing her, utterly self-effacing, and doesn’t need to be, because she would hardly attract attention anyway.

Churchill is once said to have said, regarding the monumentally self-effacing Clement Attlee “I was standing outside Parliament when an empty taxi drew up – and Mr. Attlee got out…” That’s grossly unfair on Attlee, for whom Churchill actually had enormous respect – but Mark’s brief account, which barely describes her, suggests that this wee soul, with her own burden to bear, was used to being not-noticed, and was very good at it.

She has an affliction that mortifies her and cuts her off from the society of her day. A haemorrhage. And she draws close to Jesus, in the flux, the crush, the anonymity of the crowd – and she touches him. That’s all she wants to do. Anonymous as she is, she seeks something tiny and anonymous, lost in this vast picture, that will heal her, that will solve the tiny, barely noticeable dot of a situation of suffering that fills her whole life from end to end.

And she touches him.

And instantly, he knows. She registers. To her horror, and against all her expectation, she registers, and he knows.

“Who touched me?”

“Oh, come on!” say the disciples. “Look at the crowd! Who hasn’t bumped into you!”

But he knows. And she knows. She registers.

And she’s horrified. And she knows it won’t go away. So she ‘fesses up.

Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth…

Sometimes, we said, what terrifies us more than anything is to be unnoticed.

Sometimes, though, what terrifies us more than anything is to be noticed.

That’s the thing about this woman. She thought she didn’t register. She thought she was no more than a dot in the landscape of the world. She thought that, because she didn’t matter, the intensely private suffering that consumed her world, that she knew the big, real world didn’t notice – she thought that all that would need was the tiniest, most unnoticeable touch of power and healing.

He would never know. And why should he? What was she to him, this famous Jesus, whom even influential community and religious leaders like Jairus crowded to, in supplication?

But he asks for her. And he speaks to her. And she becomes a “you” to him, and he becomes a “you” to her. And he says to her:

“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

Faith, you see, is more than we think it is. Faith is trust, and she trusted, at least enough to think “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” And in the act of trusting, she ceased to be nothing, ceased to be invisible, unnoticeable.

And he noticed.

Faith is always trust, and faith is always a relationship, and in a relationship, both ends matter. I matter, and you matter. Faith in God is trust that, however small and unnoticeable I think myself to be, however insignificant, I do actually matter. My existence registers. However tiny a dot I am on the landscape, I register.

“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” It’s a huge thing, after years of believing that you don’t matter, that you don’t register, to realize that in the profoundest way of all, you do. That’s what people encountered in Jesus. They encountered the ultimacy of God, and they realized that they registered. They mattered. That here was the meaning of their being. And that’s what we encounter, too.

V

But what about Jairus? He has gone from a life of meaning, and significance, and standing, and respect, to an existence of terrifying flux. All the landmarks have disappeared. All but one. There’s this Jesus. Perhaps Jairus can orient himself to this Jesus. And he sets off in the throng.

And in the crush, the barely noticeable incident with the wee woman unfolds, and there’s barely a pause as they press on to Jairus’s house. Jairus must be frantic – but at least this Jesus is going along there with him, and surely, surely

[S]ome people came from the house of Jairus… “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”

Jairus’s journey is in completely the opposite direction to that of the insignificant wee woman. From a life that made complete, confident sense, he has had all of this progressively stripped away. From a life that filled the world with meaning for him, he has shrunk to a tiny figure in a landscape. The kindly finality of the words of the people from his own house seem to spell that out. “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the teacher anymore?” It’s time to let go of that last shard of meaning, the trust he placed in Jesus. Let him move on.

But Jesus won’t let go, and won’t move on. Precisely here, says Mark’s Gospel, where all hope, all meaning should vanish, and we become tiny meaningless figures lost in the vast landscape that is the real world, precisely here, is God.

The Lord’s unfailing love and mercy still continue/Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise./The Lord is all I have, and so in him I put my hope.

And that’s where we find God.

VI

I remember, years ago, hearing a recording of a report submitted by one of the greats of BBC broadcasting, from early in his career, in 1940, with the German army advancing into France. He was in Strasbourg; the city was deserted, its population fled. He had just been in the great cathedral, as utterly deserted as the city – or even more so, it seemed.

In the appalling silence in the great church, the young French captain who was with him gasped

“Dieu est parti…!” God has gone…

But on the high altar of the cathedral was the great Cross.

StrasbAlt

The sign, the pledge, the mode, of God’s presence with us.

God sharing with us the disintegration of meaning, our lostness in the landscape of the world. That’s how, and where, God is with us, even when we think he has gone.

As George MacLeod was wont to remind us, the cross of Christ isn’t a gold ornament lost in the glitter of altar candles, but a barely-noticed event on a town rubbish dump. A dot in a landscape.

Godforsaken God… said Karl Barth. God at the furthest point of remove from God.

But we know that that’s the measure of God’s loving identification with his world. With us…

Just when we think we are furthest from God, that’s when God is closest to us. Just when we think we are furthest from God, that’s when we are closest.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: