Preacher Revd Neil Summers
There is a fair bit of human feeling and emotion to be found in today’s readings. In the Gospel, ‘the Jews’ are in a complaining and incredulous mood. Jesus has become too big for his boots: we know exactly who he is, they say. Their tunnel vision allows them only to see Jesus as Joseph’s son, one of the locals, and therefore to be judged purely on his ancestry and where he comes from. They are unwilling to see the potential of what Joseph’s son can become: the wild claims he makes for himself can only be down to his own self-delusion. The unwillingness to give him a proper hearing and to dismiss what he says foreshadows what comes later, when more dangerous human emotions would surface, with tragic consequences.
Then in the Hebrew Scriptures, after his astonishing contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah is brought down to earth by Jezebel’s threats against him. As a result, he flees in terror, abandoning the land of Israel and apparently giving up the ministry to which God had called him, so depressed has he become. More than that, Elijah sees death as his only viable option. For those of us prone to psychological, emotional or spiritual depression, for those of us who recognise the profound depths where God seems at best remote or at worst absent, the knowledge that a great servant of God experienced this may perhaps be reassuring. None of us is immune from finding ourselves in the depths sometimes, whatever the reason may be. At such times, platitudes – religious or otherwise – falter, language stutters, death threatens our capacity to be expressive, to intone our lament, and our plea for the ear – for the presence – of God.
The psalmist, on the other hand, is in joyful voice this morning, exhorting praise for the Lord who has delivered him out of all his terror and saved him from all his troubles. Well, I’m very pleased for him. However, had we sung instead the alternative lectionary psalm set for today, we would have heard a very different voice of the psalmist calling out of the depths, ‘Lord, hear my voice, let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication’, most definitely the other side of the coin of human experience of life in the world.
Nearly two years ago, I attended the funeral service of the former Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, in the Cathedral. One of the most vivid memories came from the very end of the service. As the coffin was carried through the nave, a haunting voice began slowly, but rhythmically, to echo through the building. Now, in general, in our part of the world, we tend not to go in for extreme vocal lamentation, so this came as a surprise. I had never heard a sound quite like it before, and haven’t since. It was hard to tell at first precisely what the voice was saying, but it gradually became clear: it came from the Dean’s mother, in her nineties, following her son’s coffin, literally wailing, at regular intervals, ‘My Colin, my Colin’ – a deep, primordial call to God, to the ancients, to her child. She called literally from out of her depths.
It was an awesome auditory experience. To hear this mother’s wailing over her son’s lifeless body was to hear an ancient tongue speak the mysteries of life – out of the depths. It silenced us all, and I’ll never forget it. This sort of call comes from the deepest part of our being, a place shared universally in human experience. And it is Psalm 130 – today’s alternative – that offers us that mother’s lament. The psalmist gives us permission to be unafraid to wail out to God from our deepest places of grief, anger, fear and frustration. The spirit of the psalm articulates both the earthiness of our mortality and the poetic hope of divine presence – despite all evidence to the contrary, when all we seem to experience is the absence of God. Even Jesus felt it as he was dying: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ From such places, we stand in our depths and ask, wail, lament, complain, weep, hope: Is there anyone there? God, are you listening? I am calling out from the very depths.
But there is another side of the Christian coin. Although suffering, pain and death lie close to the heart of the Christian faith, it would be disingenuous of to leave it there, with only anger, weeping and wailing. For the depths hold all of our deepest truths and these are not limited to grief and longing, tragedy and travail. As much as we may acknowledge grief and tragedy to be universal human phenomena that provoke a guttural conversation with God from our depths, so too the psalmist’s voice holds up for us another element of the depths, this time provoking a conversation with God in the very midst of the sometimes painful realities of life, or when we feel life is little more than a banal existence punctuated by death.
Out of the depths, a holy imagination can dare to see what is unseen. Out of the depths, holy imagination makes extraordinary what is ordinary. Out of the depths Jesus feeds the multitudes, gives sight to the blind, sets the prisoner free. Out of his depths, the political prisoner Nelson Mandela walked to freedom and became an emblematic figure for peace and equality the world over. Out of her depths, the mother of Stephen Lawrence began a search for truth and justice that inspired millions. Many more could be named, but you get the idea. Out of the depths of Good Friday, we dare to proclaim, ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen’ on Easter morning, and at the burial of our beloved, we dare to recall Jesus’ words, ‘I am Resurrection and I am Life.’ Out of the depths the psalmists tell the sacred story of our human experience, and the emotions are very mixed, from mountain top to valley bottom and all places in between. We speak the holy language of grief and fear, but also the language of hope and promise. The lamentation may well be the place of our most sacred and honest conversation with God. From the depths, be angry, weep and wail in the face of depression and death. But both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Gospel insist things cannot be left there, that we are not simply abandoned to the forces of fate.
Elijah’s visitation by an angel with food and drink symbolises the sustaining reality of God’s presence, even in dark times when it is hard to distinguish it. The psalmist who calls from the depths, speaks, too, of eventual consolation, symbolised by God’s redemption. He finds a convergence with this morning’s psalmist, too, who advocates, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’. And finally, in the Gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as sustaining ‘bread’. This is one of many metaphors the Gospel writers use to point to the significance of Jesus. The bread of life symbolises nothing less than the life of Jesus himself. There are obviously very clear links with what we now do in this holy Eucharist, as we receive the bread of life himself. We receive it – him – to sustain us on our journey of life and of living. But we also receive it in order to ‘feed’ others, by doing our best to follow the example of Jesus’ life. And, following Jesus’ life to the end, it means also – even from the most profound depths – daring to hope that resurrection is always possible.