I wonder if you know Peter Sartsedt’s song ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely?’ Written and released in 1969, it is about a fictional girl called Marie-Claire who becomes a member of the ‘jet set’, the fashionable celebrities of the late 1960s. Her life is full of show and excitement. Underneath however there is another reality. For her story is told from the point of view of a childhood friend who, after recounting all the amazing places Marie-Claire goes to, asks: ‘but where do you go to my lovely, when you’re asleep in your bed? Tell me the thoughts that surround you.’ Then, in the last verse of the song, the secret is revealed. Marie-Claire comes from poverty, ‘from the backstreets of Naples’ and her current life is both a welcome release and a desperate escape from that reality, full of continued scars and regret. For what we are, as people, is shaped by the realities of the places in which we are formed and raised. Only when we come to terms with those realities, their promise and their pain, are we truly set free. This is at the heart of today’s readings as we reflect upon God in the Land. For where do you go to, where do I go to, where do we go to, when we are asleep in our beds? What has our experience of land, of particular places, done for, and to, us? How does land and place shape our lives today?...
Not surprisingly, our holy scriptures are full of references and theological understandings concerning land. Sometimes Christians have come to forget this. Some have so stressed an idea of heaven as beyond, and different, to this world that they have lost sight of biblical reality. For the great biblical vision is of a ‘new heaven and a new earth’. Resurrection in that sense is not a completely new thing but a radical transformation of what we are here and now. That is why we speak, in the Apostles Creed, of the resurrection of the body, not just the resurrection of the soul. God is concerned with the redeeming of all things, material and spiritual. Salvation is not ‘out of this world’ but in, and through the things of this world: in and through the earth, the land, and all that is in it. For, as we hear in our Gospel passage today, ‘just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.’ Jesus Christ - as a contemporary theologian (Norm Habel) puts it - Jesus Christ was made a ‘piece of earth’, a piece of the land. God comes among us in the land, suffers with us in the land, and is raised into glory for us out of the land.
The whole history of the people of Israel is a history of people wrestling with their experience of God in the context of the land. That is one reason holy scriptures remain so powerful in political conflicts over land. They can be used, as we see in the Holy Land today, to justify the possession of land by some and the exclusion of others. Or they can be used to find God’s love, generosity and mercy for all. That is the pressing challenge facing Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. Can we, together, look at our holy scriptures and discover God’s loving intention for our shared land and world? Can we rediscover God’s reality: the biblical reality that all land is God’s gift, not our human possession, never mind our particular group’s, possession; God’s reality that all land is given to us to build us up in mutual love, justice and peace, not for the good of one group over all?
Today’s first reading, from the book of Genesis (3.14-19, 4.8-16), reflects other hard realities of the land. Like last week’s second Genesis story of Creation, it was never meant to be read primarily as a scientific, or an historical, account of our human beginnings. Rather, like other great sections of the book of Genesis, it is again trying to help us name our reality rather than explain it away. As a powerful poetic and symbolic story, today’s Genesis reading expresses the pain and suffering which comes from living on this Earth: not least the pain and suffering which accompanies childbirth and living together on the land. For ancient people, everything that happens was directly related to their idea of an all-controlling God. So, if there was conflict between humans and certain animals, or if childhood was painful, or if eking out a living on some parts of the Earth was tough, then these were perhaps direct punishments of God. Today we would not approach such sufferings in that way. Our Christian experience of God shows us that God doesn’t work that way. For God is Love and God does not control all things in that way. Rather God gives us freedom to share in creation, to help heal and help redeem the sufferings of all creation. God suffers with us rather than punishes.
Today’s first reading is therefore a fine complement to our Genesis reading last week. For it lays out for us some of the great challenges of our world: the challenges of finding ways to live in harmony with other animals and the rest of Creation; the challenges of finding ways to live with each other in peace, overcoming our tendencies to violence; and the challenges of bringing new life out of the struggles of human and earthly existence. How we are to do so is indicated in our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans (5.12-17). This is in heavily theological language and it is not easy for modern minds to grasp. Yet is is profound. For it picks up the contrast we spoke about last week between the ‘old’ humanity, which the Bible refers to as Adam, and the ‘new’ humanity which we experience in Christ. If we live only on the merely human, ‘Adam and Eve’, level, then all we tend to see in our lives and world is pain and brokenness: the pain and brokenness of our own lives; the pain and brokenness of our human relationships with others; and the pain and brokenness of Creation itself. Yet, if we live in Christ, as the ‘new’ Adam and Eve’, then we can experience the ‘free gift’ of God‘s grace. This does not take away human pain and brokenness. That is simply part of our human condition. What it does do however is to transform them. For at the heart of the Christian Gospel is the continual hope of the Resurrection: that we can, and will, emerge from the belly of the sea monster, and from even the greatest terrors at the heart of the earth. This is just as true for our political and ecological struggles over land as it is for our personal and community struggles. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, the pain of life is not the end: even a woman in terrible childbirth can forget her sufferings when the joy has begun to be revealed.
Where do you go to my lovely? It is possible for us to go to places of fear and pain and to live there inside ourselves, even when our outer lives are full of surface satisfaction. To live in Christ, to find resurrection, is therefore to acknowledge the brokenness of our lives and world and open ourselves to God’s grace, healing the hurts of our inner and outer landscapes. For it is also possible to live outwardly in places of great fear and pain and yet know peace and strength inside ourselves: peace and God’s grace which can transform the brokenness outside. As we celebrate the good things of God’s gift of land to us, may we therefore know that peace and grace for ourselves, and may that peace and grace flow through us for the healing of all our human conflicts, and the good of all Creation.
In the name of the One who became a piece of earth, shared the sufferings of earth, and was raised from the heart of the earth: in Jesus’ name, Amen.