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Around the Bend

Around the Bend

Glynn Cardy 17th October 2021

This Sunday, the closest to St Luke’s Day (18th October), we usually come together to celebrate the
life of our community. We usually gather with great music, communion, and a BBQ afterwards. Like
many things at this time, there is a sadness in not being able to do what we usually do. And not even
being able to encourage and support one another in this ‘unusual’. The pandemic journey we are on
seems to involve leaving the old usuals behind, back around the bend as we go around the bend, and
finding new usuals to encourage and sustain us.
The metaphor of journey is well-known in our scriptures and traditions. It is usually given a God hue,
inferring there is a good in both the destination and the journey itself. So, the old is pitched as
something worth leaving, and the new is pitched as something worth arriving at. And on this road
from the old to the new, God is travelling along with you. A positive spin.
Like the Emmaus Road story in Luke’s gospel, the positive spin says there will be divine
accompaniment (even if unrecognizable), taking our questions and answering them. Then in the
ambience of an inn we arrive at our spiritual destination. However, our destination is that what we
feared to have happened has not happened (Jesus kind of is/isn’t gone), but what has happened is so
extraordinary it is to be feared (Jesus kind of is/isn’t gone). The Emmaus inn leaves us with a stack of
new questions and a heap of uncertainty.
Two paradigmatic journeys in Hebrew Scripture are Abraham leaving Ur (southern Iraq) and travelling
circuitously to an unpromising land (Canaan), and Moses and company (some centuries later) leaving
Egypt and also travelling circuitously to that same land.
While the Moses journey is pitched as one from slavery to freedom, the ‘freedom’ is often not that
great. Read between the lines. Deserts are hard places to live. There was good reason for the
Israelites to grumble. And do the maths – they averaged 4 kilometres a week! Hard not to imagine
they got lost in every sense of the word.
Likewise, the Abraham saga isn’t a journey from bad to good, or rags to riches, or meaningless to
meaningful. At his death the only land Abe owned in the so-promised land was a grave. His journey
was similarly one from certainty to uncertainty. That’s what he came to discover faith was. Living with
uncertainty. Leaving the known routes behind.
So, biblical journeys are not necessary about travelling from hardship to happiness. Hardship and
happiness are like the red and black cards in a pack all shuffled together, and we’re never quite sure
which one is about to be dealt. And rather than thinking of God as the dealer, we need to think of
G/god as that ability to integrate both hardship and happiness into a spiritual way of living marked by
gratitude and generosity. Whether times are happy or hard, the spiritual life is one continually
grounding itself in gratitude and generosity rather than in regrets, grizzles, ‘if onlys’, and expectations
of rescue.
The spirituality needed for, and developed, in times of certainty and security is often just that: secure
and safe. The spirituality needed for, and developed, in times of uncertainty and insecurity is also just
that: uncertain and risky. God, contra to the writer of the 2nd century Letter to the Hebrews, is not the
same yesterday, today, and forever. God is round the bend, going round the bend, with us, within us,
in the air we breathe, in the breath of air, in the love and loving we hold to and that holds us. The
poet R.S. Thomas talks about this God of the road. He writes, “…God is that great absence in our
lives, the empty silence within, the place where we go seeking, not in hope to arrive or find…”
There are many biblical journeys. Unlike the two just mentioned most are not self-initiated (or if you
like, God ‘speaking’ to a Abraham or a Moses). Think of the journey of the people of Israel, and later
Judah, into exile. Think too of the journey out of exile. Those journeys were initiated by foreign
rulers. As was the journeys of Mary and Joseph in the Matthean birth saga. (And as an aside, I think
it is very ethically fraught to go down the rabbit hole of thinking that God is using these foreign rulers
for God’s own ends).
Think too of our reading today, the journey of Jonah. This story is a parable, with a good dollop of
humour in the mix. But it is dealing with a serious subject. Racism. Jonah was a true-blue Israelite
and there was no way his true-blue God was going to extend the boundaries of God’s salvation to
include those foreign-speaking, foreign-looking, heathen Ninevites. So, when God told Jonah to go
preach to the Ninevites, Jonah tried to save God from embarrassing God’s self by first ignoring God,
and then running in the opposite direction. On a ship. Into a storm. Into the deep. Into the mouth of
a great fish.
As therapists will tell us, all these metaphors – ‘storm’, ‘deep’, ‘great fish’ – are pointers to fear.
These were things to be afraid of. But the irony of this story is that the thing that Jonah feared most
was giving up his own prejudice, his own racism. The limits of God’s love needed to match the limits
of Jonah’s love. And loving Ninevites was definitely beyond the limit.
The parable is couched in terms of a journey Jonah went on that he didn’t want to go on. But the real
journey was one of faith – a bit like his ancestor Abraham – from the certainty of your existing
understandings to the uncertainty of changing understandings. And living with change is scary.
When it comes to God and life you don’t know just what’s around the bend.
One last thought about the Jonah parable. It doesn’t, as parables don’t, tell us what comes next. It
doesn’t tell us how this anti-racist text was heard and applied in Hebrew society. Working out what
‘furniture’ needs to be moved or removed or made from scratch to create the new inclusive
community is our job. Dismantling the old and rebuilding the new is our task.
Our New Testament text today is about James and John (aka ‘the sons of thunder’), and it’s also
about scary change. Not just for the two Js, but for all this discipling gang. For they thought that
leadership was something to aspire to, a career with status, a place close to Jesus their master and
mentor, a ‘glory’. Instead, Jesus upends their aspirations. ‘Leadership,’ he says, ‘is not about telling
others what to do, and expecting respect. Rather leadership is like being a slave, cleaning up after
others and expecting no respect.’
The trouble with this text is the oxymoron. ‘Leader’ and ‘slave’ don’t go together. One is the opposite
of the other. A leader is given or earns authority or status. A slave has no authority over a freeborn,
or status. This was a problem for James and John and the others. It’s a problem too for interpreters.
A leader today is never sociologically a first century slave or servant. I would call leaders today who
don’t think menial tasks are beneath them, or don’t think of themselves better than anyone else, as
simply good people. Not slaves. Nobody, then or now, leader or not, wants to be a slave.
Instead, I would frame the text as about travelling a road. I suspect the Js thought they were on a
road from simple fisherfolk, in the family boat, to loyal handy lieutenants to the new Messiah. A rags
to recognition route. And Jesus kind of messes that ideal up. The road might head back to the boat,
but it might head somewhere else. It might be easy, with fringe benefits. But it might be hard, with no
benefits. There might be leadership required, but it won’t be what you think. In the Jesus kingdom its
messy. Downs and ups, slaves and masters, clarity and fogginess, certainty and uncertainty – all are
mixed up, bending on this discombobulating journey.
I wrote this poem which summarises this sermon. I titled it On Towards the Next Bend.
Blessed the winding road,
away nowhere somewhere on,
away from sureties trusted,
away from pleasantries past,
we go meandering, muddied,
on towards the next bend.
Blessed the windswept road,
from what was to what will be,
from who was me to who will be,
from the presence of certainty,
to the presents of maybes,
on towards the next bend.
Blessed be the wrong road,
this way taken back at the fork,
this choice taken by weary feet,
this route unfamiliar yet the beat
of my heart guided girded me,
on towards the next bend.
Blessed be these roads we go,
what steers us who really knows,
what sustains us as we stride,
what sure friend will walk beside
all iffy unknowns as we wend,
on towards the next bend.