These are words that come out of suffering – exile, imprisonment, exclusion, slavery. They are words spoken to and by those who know the harsh brutalities of life; its injustices and its seemingly random experiences of horror and pain, and yet choose a path of faith...
In more recent times so called process theologians have come to a view that in order to assert the goodness of God, we have to sacrifice God’s omnipotence. God is not in fact all powerful in all circumstances – but God is with us and the supreme icon of that is the crucified body of Jesus on the cross; this offers the comfort that comes from knowing that there is no human suffering that God does not understand and participate in. This is clearly a better answer, and I leave to you whether you consider it sufficient.
Within our readings today we hear the story of the desolation of Jerusalem after the Jewish leaders were taken into exile by the Babylonians. In their pain longing for revenge arises – dash their babies heads against the stones, because that is what they did to us! And our minds might be drawn to the devastation of Syria, or of Iraq, or of Sudan or of Yemen to name but four recent conflicts in which lives, homes, cultures and entire countries have been laid waste. And those whose lives have been spared, may then endure the horrors of life as a refugee and at best we ask them, here in Australia on Harmony Day for example– to do the equivalent of ‘singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land’. That is not a bad thing necessarily – but we need to acknowledge what it is we are asking.
Our scriptures today also remind us of those imprisoned for their faith and of those who find themselves at the mercy of secular and indeed church authorities for various reasons. And Jesus words also offer discomfort – ‘occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come. It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
So discomforting are these words that the compiler of the lectionary places them in brackets, so that the reader can choose to omit them. But how can we possibly omit them, in the face of the findings of the Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse? And how can we possibly omit them in the face of the church’s current mis -handling of LGBTIA+ people, and most especially the ‘little ones’ of that acronym, our bi-sexual, transgender, inter-sex and asexual/aromantic brothers and sisters who are part of the body of Christ too? For they are among the most vulnerable of all in our society, for whom Jesus asks our most particular care and yet we so frequently as churches fail to give them even a voice let alone a full place at the table.
As if all this were not enough, Jesus’s parable appears to describe slavery as an acceptable practice and to present God as a slave owner with ourselves as slaves to be mistreated and asked to work on when already tired, as the thing expected of us. Now if I was the compiler of the lectionary, I would have put my square brackets around that section! It does not promote a healthy view of God or a healthy spiritual response.
So, what are we to make of it all? Is there comfort to be found here? For in many ways what we have here is a photobook of snapshots of suffering – and we recognize ourselves within it because we too have known suffering in some form.
Within this teaching of Jesus two words of hope are embedded. The first has to do with forgiveness. Where there is repentance (and only where there is repentance) Jesus instructs his disciples to forgive infinitely. This means that we and all others can find forgiveness and therefore hope.
The second is the mustard seed. Now if we hear the tone of Jesus’s response as one of exasperation – ‘if you only had a mustard seed’s worth of faith you could do miracles’ – then this is not hopeful. Clearly my faith is nothing like enough. But I think the tone is different – not scolding but rather encouraging. He is saying in effect – look you don’t need a lot; you can do an enormous amount with the smallest of resources. So, trust.
Tiny things are powerful – both for good and ill. Today and at every eucharist we take some tiny things – a little bit of bread, a small drop of wine – and we remember that God loves us infinitely; we remember that in all our suffering God is with us and alongside us; and we take the courage to keep on loving and to keep on forgiving ourselves and others. And when we do that, we increase the love and the joy and the peace and the courage in the world just a little bit – enough taken together to move mountains. A little hope in a world of despair, goes a very long way. So may our faith and hope increase and may we know the love of God, even in the midst of pain. Amen.
Penny Jones, for Milton Anglicans, 6 October 2019