Posted by: owizblog | August 9, 2015

Sitting In The Silence, Before Words Can Come: Sermon, UCB, 9 August 2015

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 David mourns Absalom


It’s been quite a week for thought-provoking headlines. Here’s one.

Jungle Church Calais

Calais Migrant Crisis: ‘Songs Of Praise’ Special Edition To Be Broadcast From ‘Jungle’ Camp.

I’ll come back to that at the end of the sermon.

Here’s another, of course.

Hiroshima Ruins

Japan marks 70th anniversary of Hiroshima atomic bombing

On the sixth of August 1945, an atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima On the ninth of August – seventy years today – another was dropped on Nagasaki, at just past eleven o’clock in the morning, seventy years ago, more or less to the minute, from the time the Bible came in this morning.

It exploded less than a third of a mile from the cathedral, where a service was unfolding; where people were gathered to do exactly what we are doing now.

But every individual who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a human being, just like us.

Anywhere between 129,000 and 246,000 people died. And every one of them was a human being, just like us.

When such unimaginable things are done by human beings, and human beings suffer in such unimaginable numbers, we scrabble desperately for some sort of hold on the sheer cliff-face of the enormity of the event. We scrabble for meaning – and because our minds are so small, and our imaginations, we simplify.

And one of the ways we do that is that we put ourselves in the position of people making decisions, and we try to imagine that we are them, and we try to imagine what all of this looks like from the position they occupy. And we ask why they decided as they did.

Harry S

Harry S. Truman had only been President, and only known about the existence of the atomic bomb, since April.

Not only was he a human being working with staggering new information, about the Bomb, but also about the details of the way the terrible end game of the Second World War was playing out, with the slow, bitterly-defended collapse of the Japanese empire.

He was also a prisoner of assumptions and expectations that he’d stepped into the hour Roosevelt died, not least the expectation of millions of people that he would do whatever he had to, to conclude the war as quickly as possible, and with the fewest Allied casualties possible. And, people might add as an afterthought – because war is not the best circumstance in which to grasp the full humanity of people who are on the other side of it to you – as many Japanese lives as possible, which probably meant avoiding by any means possible the nightmarish scenario of an invasion of Japan.

Did Truman bring the war to a rapid conclusion by dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Or was Japan on the verge of surrender anyway? Even if Hiroshima was necessary, was Nagasaki? How do we weigh the lives actually lost against the lives which might have been lost had the bombs not been used? Or was the calculation uppermost in Truman’s mind that Stalin, now the grand alliance against the Axis was coming to the end of the role it had played in history, needed to be shown that he would be curbed by a power to which he had no answer?

But these questions really don’t get us to a bottom line answer. They don’t get us to anything beyond either an endlessly complicated academic debate, or a sophisticated, and sometimes rather callous parlour game of “What I’d have done if I’d been Truman.”

There are tens, hundreds of thousands of people – maybe millions – still alive whose lives would have gone very differently had Japan had to have been invaded in 1945, and their interest in the question is of a very different, personal order.

But even this deeply morally charged consideration isn’t the bottom line.

The bottom line is that in two brilliant flashes, on two August mornings in Japan, neither much longer than a quarter of a second, anywhere up to two hundred and forty six thousand human beings died.

And if we can’t sit for a moment in the silence, and contemplate that, we have completely missed the bottom line.

No politics. No amateur-historian parlour games. No “If I’d been President, this is what I would have done…” Just a sitting in the silence and a contemplation of the awfulness of what happened.


There’s a “situation.”

An old, once-charismatic leader, still beloved, has been in power for a long time. From the potential pool of successors, a single, obvious successor has emerged. He’s bold, dynamic – and he is charismatic. And his ability, and drive, and ambition for the people are infectious, and they show up a stagnation, a frustration that’s building up. Things should be changing, but they aren’t. And the pent-up political forces build up, and polarize the politics and the people, between the beloved old, and the promise-filled, thwarted new.

And suddenly it begins to spiral out of control, when the promise-filled, thwarted new makes a grab for power, to wrest it from the hands of the tired, beloved old, whose time, it asserts, has come, been and gone.

There’s a rebellion; an attempted revolution. It’s a very close-run thing, enormously costly, because there’s tremendous energy and fanaticism surrounding the new guard, and cold, professional cynicism, schooled in the art of war in the old.

And the whole thing comes down to a single battle, a single afternoon, and it’s decided in a single action:

“Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in mid-air, while the mule he was riding kept on going. And ten of Joab’s armour-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him.”

The war is over. No more need for pain and sacrifice. No possibility that the fight can be continued. Relief; jubilation…

“Then the Cushite arrived and said, ‘My lord the king, hear the good news! The LORD has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.’ The king asked the Cushite, ‘Is the young man Absalom safe?’The Cushite replied, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man…’”

And suddenly, a new bottom line emerges.

David Mourns

What this is, beyond the crushing of a rebellion, the ending of a civil war, the termination of a mortal threat, the lifting of the threat of continuing suffering and loss, is something that you can’t reduce to the rationalizations of neat and argumentative minds.

A parent has lost a son. That it’s this father, and this son, that there’s this history behind them, that they stand in the roles they do, is beside the point. For a searing moment, everything else recedes, history, interpretation, the cynical power-politics of the way the world works. There is only a grieving father, and a dead son.

‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son, my son!’


If there isn’t this point beyond all our talk, and theorizing, all our pretence of knowing what we’d have done if we’d been Harry S. Truman, or David, or God, and how it would all have been different, if there’s not this moment when we just stand before the truth of something that has happened, that won’t fit into words, then we have nothing but talk. We do not have the truth of it.

And so with this…

Isenheim Altarpiece by Grunewald

Christian faith begins at the foot of the cross. It begins with a dead man, and it begins in that awful silence where all words have ceased, all interpretation, all the asking of who this is, what his impact amounts to, what it means, has come to an end. Not even questions. Just this.

And this…

Michaelangelos Pieta

And faith and theology both start in the appalling silence, where this has brought to an end everything that we thought we understood, and where we have nowhere to go, yet with our thoughts, our questions, our horror, that this is what everything has come to with this Jesus of Nazareth.

And it’s so easy to try to flee from this silence. So easy to do what we so often do with silences – to fill it with words, to babble about it until we think we’ve started to make sense of it.

But we daren’t do that. We must sit, until we have no option but to start talking.

A dead son in a mother’s arms. It’s in this reality that we have to find God.

And slowly, slowly, the Christian tradition dwelt on the bottom-line truth that is in Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, and Michaelangelo’s Pietá. A brutally-killed human being. A grieving parent. And slowly, drawing lovingly and creatively on scraps that were to hand, the Christian tradition came to understand that God is in this, and that the grieving parent, and the dead child, is an image of God. That you can’t separate the two components into two images, and say “This is God, or “That is God…” The Christian tradition came to understand that both the grieving parent and the dead child are images of God, and that you can only understand them that way, if you hold them together.

And you look around at a world that kills people, and causes such grief, and you find that you can only truly understand God, can only really speak of God at all, if you find God among the victims – the dead and the grieving. The old temptation to think of God in human terms, so that the power of God can only be more and greater and more terrifying power than anything we can think of is constantly trying to drag us away from this insight, an insight that isn’t just hard-won but won at the cost of God’s death on the cross.


But we don’t begin to understand what talk about the power of God means, unless we can glimpse it in the most profound and utter weakness of a man dead on a cross, a son dead in the arms of a parent. Unless we can say “God’s there… “That’s God…”

Paul got it.

[B]ut we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God….For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men…

And this is what he was talking about. See God as powerful, as more powerful than anything we could imagine, and there’s always something more powerful than that we could imagine. Understand the power of God in terms of the laying-aside of everything, absolutely everything – and this is the power of God, and it redefines what our lives mean, and it turns the universe upside down.

But we can only know that, if we are willing to sit in that awful bottom-line silence, and, before we say anything, allow ourselves to be confronted by it, and the truth of it.

We’re not Harry Truman. Neither is God anything like a souped-up President of the United States. There probably wasn’t much power or freedom to decide differently in the Oval Office of the White House in the summer of 1945, and in some ways, if we think of power as the capacity to make events go the way we want, there probably weren’t many people less powerful than Truman.


But the powerlessness of the victims of Hiroshima, crushed innocently by events that were utterly beyond their control, is of a different order.

Isenheim Altarpiece by Grunewald

Look again at the Isenheim Altarpiece. This is powerlessness.

Absalom had seized power, great power, very nearly enough to topple David and destroy his followers. And David had pretty much the same power, just slightly more, and their great forces clashed.

But the meaning of this story is only revealed when all of that is stripped away, and the father* [the naming of the male parent was deliberately juxtaposed with the showing to the congregation of Michaelangelo’s representation of the dead son in the embrace of the mother] laments the dead son, and all words fail, except the primal words of lament.

Michaelangelos Pieta

But when the story of Jesus of Nazareth brings us to the same point, it confronts us with one other element, and this is what changes everything.

If you want an image of the God of love, this is it.

If you want to understand what happens when the love of God intersects with a world like ours, this is it.


And that’s the only way we have of approaching the truth of the Resurrection. Through the reality of the world, and the vulnerability and suffering of its victims.

Here’s a staggering passage from one of the theologians who’s influenced me most from my late teens, the Australian Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe.

To say that Jesus rose from the dead is, among other things, to say that in spite of the fact that his love for us in obedience to his mission led to his death — or in fact because his love led to his death — he is still present to us, really present to us and loving us in his full bodily reality. It is not just that we remember him or imitate him, or that he lives on in a religious tradition. The good news is that he rose from the dead, that he went through real death to a new kind of bodily life with us. So that when we encounter someone who needs us, when we find the hungry and the imprisoned and the homeless, we can really say that here we encounter Christ, not in some metaphorical way, but literally.

I’ll repeat that last sentence, because it’s so important. It says something I hope they manage to bring out in the Songs of Praise from the migrant camp in Calais.

“[W]hen we encounter someone who needs us, when we find the hungry and the imprisoned and the homeless, we can really say that here we encounter Christ, not in some metaphorical way, but literally.”

That’s the bottom line. And it’s not a statement. It’s a question.

What are we going to do about it?

That’s when the silence has to end…

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