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Wednesday 20 March 2024

‘Hold not thy peace at my tears’

Texts: Psalm 39; Isaiah 2.2-4; Acts 10.34-43

If you’re anything at all like me, you may wonder at God’s apparent inaction in the face of genocidal mania. When one group of people decides, whether out of trauma from their own histories or because of sheer racism, that entire populations of other people deserve little else but starvation and death, what, exactly, is God up to? Why, as the Psalmist intimates in verse 13 of tonight’s lection, does God hold God’s 'peace' whilst suffering is rampant?

The Psalmist’s phrase, ‘hold not thy peace at my tears’, brings our study of peace to a rather more uncomfortable place than we have been before, in this series. For here we are encouraged to consider the ways in which the word ‘peace’ may come to signify, in certain settings, a fundamental indifference to the suffering of others. 

broken building and people, Palestine
Take, for example, the experience of the Palestinian peoples at this moment. They suffer, they cry out in pain at the wholesale destruction of their society and the death of their children. They cry out even in the streets of Melbourne. But the reaction of the global north is largely one of indifference. In the face of starvation, our governments cut off aid. In the face of infanticide, our governments cancel visas. In the face of genocide, our political leaders keep their ‘peace’. 

Not that indifference is out of character for the nations of the global north. For the wealth and power of these nations is largely founded on the subjugation and subsequent exploitation of the global south.  You cannot unleash suffering on that kind of scale unless you have a particular talent for indifference.

The theological question remains, though. For those of us who would like to believe in a better power, a divine power, a power more loving and caring than most of our governors, what are we to make of God’s apparent inactivity in the face of all this pain? Does the indifference of our governments actually mimic an indifference from God?

The Christian answer is ‘no’, absolutely not. God is not at all indifferent to our suffering. God does not, in fact, hold God’s ‘peace’ whilst the whole world is burning.  Here I would like to draw your attention to the preaching of St Peter in the Acts of the Apostles:

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the holy spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him . . . they put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day. (Acts 10.38-40)

The God you meet here is not one who is ‘at peace’ with suffering, but one who acts to do something about suffering. God chooses a human being, one Jesus of Nazareth, to be the sign or icon in the world of what God is doing. Jesus goes about doing God’s work, making God’s compassion real and practical. He does good. He heals the sick, he welcomes the outcasts and the victims of powerful but indifferent men, he strengthens the weak and all who live in fear. He casts out the various traumas that bind and hold them in chains. 

By doing so, Jesus of course attracts the ire and then, finally, the murderous intent of those who own his society, those who benefit the most from the status quo.  He is captured, tortured, and put to death for treason.  But that is not the end. At just the point at which Jesus’ divine mission appears to have been put down for good, God vindicates his cause and raises both it and him from the dead. His disciples then carry his mission forward. His spirit so animates what they are doing that the divine mission can ever after be located not only with Jesus, but also with all who seek to follow him, to imitate his ways.

The point here, if you didn’t catch it, is that God acts, that God unfolds a compassionate influence in the world on behalf of the poor, the broken and the marginalised. Not by magic, the waving of a divine wand. And not, indeed, through the application of a naked and irresistible power, such as that attached to empire. If the divine acted like that, then God would be little more than a bully, another instance of the global north's exercise of power, which so regularly kills and maims and destroys. To be different to that, God must exercise God’s power not by edict, but by persuasion. Not by force, but by love. Not by legislation, but by parable. To be God, as the theologian Karl Barth famously argued, God must act like Jesus.

So what does that look like in our world, the world that we much live in? How does God turn ‘swords into ploughshares’ and ‘spears into pruning hooks’, as the oracle from Isaiah puts it (2.4)? Like this. God invites human being like you and I to place the story of Jesus at the centre of both our social and ecological imaginations, thus giving us the opportunity to act as Jesus would act and to speak as Jesus would speak. For the gospel of Jesus is as a stranger and a sojourner in the world. Without our bodies, it can never gain traction or weight in the world. It can never become real. Without our assent, it can never leave its mark. God therefore needs us to be vessels of the gospel. Such is God’s lowliness. Such is God’s love. 

The gospel leaves it mark at precisely the point at which we need it. And our needs can be vastly different. If we are beneficiaries of all that the global north has accumulated from the poor of the world, placing Jesus at the centre calls us to live simply and to share what has come to us with those who have nothing. To crucify ourselves for the sake of the downtrodden. If, on the other hand, we are poor or ill or broken inside by all that has befallen us in life, then making Jesus central calls us to embrace the power of the resurrection to be all that we can be, to stand up and take pride in who we are and claim both the respect and the justice that God desires for all creatures.

So, whomever you are, and no matter how you think about the ways of the divine, hear this, please: God is not indifferent. In Jesus we learn that God is irrevocably for us and for the world. So don’t you be indifferent either. Do something. Act. Out of love for both yourself and others, do something good. And keep doing it. For the way to a real and genuine peace goes not by the way of indifference, but by an active participation in both the cross and resurrection of Jesus. This is the way. The way of Christ.

Garry Deverell

Evensong, St Paul’s Cathedral
Lent 5, 2024

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