A question that I’ve often been asked this year, is ‘what has been the highlight so far?’ or ‘what have you most enjoyed?’. These are impossible questions to answer and if I were to attempt to answer them today, this pastoral address would resemble the sort of slide show my late father-in-law would put on after a holiday. All very nice, but a bit long and difficult to stay awake throughout.
Now you may well choose to fall asleep today but I want to explore a different question – I want to think about the themes that have emerged for me as I have listened to the voices of Methodist people and others in all sorts of situations. I’m going to share some of those voices today and share the common threads that I recognise within the stories. There will then be an opportunity for you to reflect and discuss together what themes emerge for you.
I have set this pastoral address within the context of our Eucharist because in the telling of these stories, we re-member Christ, we recall his life, his sacrifice, his brokenness and his rising to new life. We are called always to set our own stories and understand the stories of others in the context of the story of God’s love revealed through Jesus Christ.
Bala and I have met many people and seen many projects over the last few months and time and again similar themes emerge - whether in local or global contexts, themes of displacement and disconnection - I want to explore those with reference to our Old Testament text from Numbers 20.
A Wake for Miriam
From the Weaver, the Word and Wisdom, 2007, Epworth Press, Copyright: M.A.Youngson
Find water for drinking, water for washing, water for ritual cleansing. Find the water, Miriam; use your divining powers. Help your sisters to draw water, while your brothers pour out endless laws
and cleanse us with Yahweh’s word.
In the wilderness of Zin,
in the place called Kadesh,
you died, Miriam, and we grieved as we buried you.
Who will find the water to wash the grave soil from our hands?
Who will find the water to wash the pain from our hearts?
Who will find the water to keep us alive in this Godforsaken place?
Moses, with your laws and plans, what use are they if we die of thirst?
Moses, with your tablets of stone, will they feed us when our animals starve?
Moses, with your Yahweh yearning, take us back to the old familiar landscapes.
What kind of wake can we offer you, Miriam?
A funeral feast needs grain, figs, grapes and pomegranates.
In Egypt we would have said a proper prayer and sent you off in style.
Aaron, talk to Moses, get him to see sense.
Aaron, we are frightened, we are losing hope.
Aaron, stop hiding in your grief and rescue your people.
We watched you both go to the threshold of the holy tent.
We watched you fall on your knees, carry all our despair.
We watched you wrestling with faith and doubt.
You led us to the rock, unyielding granite, hard like Edom’s heart.
You led us to the glorious holiness of Yahweh, the one God.
You led us to living water, flowing over angry words, smoothing them to caresses.
We splashed in the spring, reveled in the ripples
and drank deeply of love.
We danced in the sparkling jewels that form of light glancing on water.
We remembered Miriam and, in our dancing, grief was cleansed of anger.
The Bible features many stories about God’s people being in a wilderness and, of course, Jesus himself is driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. A key event in the formation of the people of Israel is that of the Exodus, 40 years of dessert wandering before finding a new home. It strikes me that we often miss an important detail in our reading of Numbers 20 when we focus, as we often do, on Moses and Aaron’s struggles with the people. At the very beginning of the passage it is stated that Miriam died and was buried. This simple statement acts as a bridge between the preceding passage that describes many uses for water within the community, included ritual cleansing, and the following story of there being no water.
Throughout history women have been the carriers of water; their hard labour has kept communities alive. Even now women walk every day, sometimes many miles, to carry water for food and for cleansing. I wonder if Miriam was the water diviner for the children of Israel, able to find the sources of life-giving water? Her death marked the beginning of harsher times and a great deal of complaining. In their grief at her death, Miriam’s people stopped coping with even the basic needs of life, they despaired and began to look back to the ‘good old days’. The people of Israel demonstrated a natural grief reaction – depression, anger, nostalgia and so the people became thirsty. Dehydration does not make for good tempers and clear thinking.
Moses and Aaron have just lost their sister and would be, we imagine, as grief-stricken as the people. They must have been exhausted and very frustrated that the people were taking out their grief and anger on them and being thoroughly unreasonable. In their despair the brothers turned to God, who provided all that was needed for life. Yet we also detect a note of judgement. God declared that Moses and Aaron will lead the people to the Promised Land but not enter it because they did not have faith that God’s holiness would be shown.
The chapter began with Miriam’s death and ends with Aaron’s. It is as though a family is gathered, sharing the stories of their ancestors, marking their history and drawing the map of their identity.
Death, history and identity are important parts of the story of millions of refugees in our world today. The latest UNHCR figures tell us that in the world today there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people, of whom 25.4m are refugees (over half of whom are under 18 years), 3.1m are asylum seekers, and 40m are internally displaced people. In June last year, the Vice President and I travelled with All We Can, to see the work being done with our partners in Jordan supporting refugees from Syria. Bala will tell us something of that visit now.
In Jordan, one of the women we met told us that she had travelled in a larger group from her Syrian village to Jordan. On the journey access to food and water was very limited causing the vulnerable to became frail and sadly, in her party a young child died.
The refugees chose the treacherous life-threatening journey over remaining in Syria. The sheer numbers that the authorities had to deal with meant that when they got to the Jordan, it took days and weeks before they could enter the camps.
Many of the women travel alone, either because their husbands had gone ahead, or because they have had to stay behind to look after frail family members. Women travelling on their own are vulnerable and don’t feel safe at all, even after arriving in the refugee camps.
All We Can’s partners provide a vital service. The partners work with the refugees bringing the women together, and giving them a sense of belonging, sense of community, a sense of strength in the collective.The partners also facilitate livelihood through economic activity such as food cooperatives, giving them dignity and income.
We also met with Syrian farmers who through the assistance of All We Can’s partners found jobs enabling them to make a living and to have their dignity restored.
The farmers told us that they left their promised land which was ‘heaven on earth’, Their farms in Syria gave them all they needed – water, vegetation, food. They looked back fondly on where they used to live, which added to the pain of their current situation. They were coming to terms with the knowledge that their hometown had been destroyed there was no possibility of returning.This was why making life work in Jordan is so important, and why All We Can’s support to help them find work on the farms and integrate into Jordan society is so vital.
Travelling through the wilderness is not for the faint-hearted. To journey in hope or in despair, in joy or in heartbreak can be an act of courage; often as with Syrian refugees, it is an act of necessity. The landscape is unfamiliar and the horizon keeps shifting and no-one is sure what the destination will be if it is ever reached at all.
The people of Israel spent forty years in their wilderness; it must have been agonisingly slow progress at times, moving at the speed of those who were least able to travel and it must have involved teamwork and leadership to move people, livestock and chattels from watering hole to shelter and to places of good grazing. The leadership that Moses, Miriam and Aaron offered depended entirely on the good will of the people - if the community dug in their heels and refused to move there would be devastating consequences for the whole nation.
Moses and Aaron responded to the demands of the people by consulting with God - they turned to their spiritual loadstone and were granted what their people needed. Water was brought forth from the rock and the place was named Meribah - a place of bitterness and a place of God’s providence. There was a cost to the leaders in this story, neither Moses nor Aaron made it to the Promised Land.
What wilderness are people travelling through today? For some it is the empty wasteland of being a refugee - seeking sanctuary, shelter, a modicum of friendship in a strange land. To enter the mind of someone who has left everything behind takes most of us a huge leap of the imagination. What would it mean to have no home, to have no church or other place of worship, to leave behind family and friends or to run from the horrors of conflict and war?
The poem in the film we have just watched uses the responses of refugees when asked what they had taken with them when they left their homes. Another question might be, ‘what did you find waiting for you at the end of the journey?’. Asylum seekers in the UK are put in an impossible position of not being allowed to earn a living whilst their cases are investigated.
The Joint Public Issues Team are helping us to campaign to lift the ban that prevents asylum seekers in the UK from being able to gain paid employment.
This is one example of how we can help people to navigate through the wildernesses of injustice and poverty. Please use the Lift the Ban postcards you’ve received today, to call on the Home Secretary to change this cruel and unfair law.
As a nation, we seem to be in our own wilderness -the empty wasteland of Brexit.
The people of Israel at least had a shared destination, the promised land. In the midst of all the unknowns, what seems certain is that there is no common understanding of what the promised land should look like, let alone how to get there. What is clear is that the old landmarks of politics and of governing by consent are shifting or entirely missing. Whilst this affects all ages and demographics, it is young people who feel most lost and without clear direction. Identities are challenged, freedoms and privileges that have been taken for granted for generations are under threat and the Promised Land seems to be a shapeless mirage built on shifting sand. It may be that there are lessons to be learned about leadership from the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of old.Politically there is a strong sense of displacement and Brexit is both a consequence and a cause of the disconnection many people have felt from national politics.
Visiting towns away from the financial centres, The Vice-President and I have seen the deterioration of the high street and the devastation of local services. Whilst the Nero of Brexit fiddles, no one is paying attention to the fact that councils will have lost almost 60% of their central government funding between 2010 and 2020, and there is as yet no certainty about local authority funding beyond next year.
Bala and I have met people who are displaced within this country - the number of people sleeping rough or being recognised as homeless in England has risen steadily over the last decade, this cannot be decoupled from the Government led system of austerity which has demanded much of those with little and little of those with much.
People dependent on social housing or on housing benefit have been moved from expensive metropolitan areas to parts of the UK that are cheaper to live in. Schools, support networks and relationships are all left behind – this is the last thing a vulnerable person who is struggling to cope needs. We have seen churches responding to the disastrous roll-out of Universal Credit and we have heard the stories of people having to choose between paying rent or having food for themselves and their children. Bala is going to share a story of one church responding to food poverty in a way that uses God’s good resources in a sustainable and generous way.
If you are in Stamford on a Saturday, you must get lunch at the Methodist Church hall. It was a joy and privilege to join our friends for lunch at the Second Helpings project of the Stamford Methodist Church. All are welcome, no questions asked, and its pay as you feel and able.
The project’s strap line is; Feeding Bellies not Bins
Volunteers collect food from local supermarkets destined for landfill and turn it into nourishing meals for the community. It serves a dual purpose reducing food waste and helping to alleviate food poverty. In three years, 43,783 kilos of food has been liberated and 12,398 meals have been served.
We walked into noisy a room full of people, they were in conversation having a three-course meal. There were old people, like me, young families, single parents with their children. Children running around playing with each other. There was a buzz with lots of energy. The guests did not come just for the food they came for friendship and fellowship. There was a real community feel. It is indeed a community café transforming lives.
For example a woman suffering from drug addiction and anorexia now feels able to eat each week at the café. An alcoholic recluse who saw a friend given purpose in life, is now a volunteer at Second Helpings. And a woman who returned the tins she’d received from the food bank because the son now enjoys hot cooked meal at the café.
In addition to Saturday lunch they also have an accessible community fridge. Excess food is stored in the fridge and people are free to collect food from the fridge as they need it.
The project is an inspiring example of a church community living out our calling.
We have heard the voices of young people struggling to navigate the wilderness of mental health services, some having to travel massive distances to get the help they need and others unable to access mental health services at all. People who are already displaced from their families, their peers and from themselves, face further dislocation.
We have head the voices of isolation and loneliness in older people and we have seen how a myriad of church and community projects respond to those needs.
For some the wilderness experience is an increasing awareness of the damage that unfettered consumerism and the obsession with growth as an indicator of economic health are having on our precious planet. In fact, many of our ecosystem wildernesses are disappearing as new wildernesses of deforestation, floating islands of plastic and flood-leached agricultural land emerge, and vulnerable communities are moving further from the shoreline in a race against rising sea levels.
The landscape of our environmental wilderness is changing, not just metaphorically, but in reality. The horizons and landmarks of creation’s health are moving dangerously towards disaster and the poorest communities worldwide will suffer the severest consequences. We need a global leadership that is interested in working together and not easily distracted by short term politics and the shiny accessories of power.
For some the wilderness is having to respond to terror attacts such as in Christchurch, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. The devastating acts of terrorists upon peaceful people of faith and the wider community has changed lives and communities forever. Like many nations wounded deeply by acts of terror, the people of New Zealand could have chosen to enter the wilderness of hate, of false patriotism and savage revenge. It could have chosen to put up barriers, build walls, pull up the drawbridge and turn in on itself - but it has not. A leader has led her people with compassion, listened carefully to the pain and shown empathy. Jacinda Ardern avoided a jingoistic, populist response and chose instead to show vulnerability in strength. Bringing people together, delegating the strategic response to those with the skills needed and offering an example to the world of how to be a human being has brought the Prime Minister of New Zealand praise from around the world and has evoked a sense of hope and the first steps towards healing for those in grief.
Bala, can you share something of the story from Sri Lanka?
Easter Sunday will remain in Sri Lankan people’s memory for ever. Their peace and life were shattered. While Christians were celebrating the resurrection, the sign of new hope and new life suicide bombers struck. Three churches and three hotels were hit, killing some 250 and injuring 100s more.
The Christian response to this carnage was love and reaching out to the community and Sumandran MP former Vice President of the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka said in parliament,
“Jesus Christ, who came into this world, suffered as we do and took the worst of evil onto himself and was crucified unjustly. But he defeated all evil through self-sacrificial love, which is what we celebrate on Easter - Resurrection day. We are grieving – but yet we will not allow hate and revenge to overtake us.”
Rev Fr Jude Fernando, who was celebrating the Easter Mass at Kochchikade St Anthony’s Church where the explosion took place said,
“We love peace. We forgive. Our God is a God of peace, he is not a God of revenge. We love each other, we forgive.”
Alongside attitudes of forgiveness, there is challenge. People have begun to return to worship on Sundays but in fear of their lives, and suspicious of any stranger in their midst, no longer able to extend the hand of welcome.Muslim refugees from Pakistan are being shunned and extreme Buddhists have turned on the Muslim community looting and burning their shops and homes.
We need to continue to hold all involved in our prayers and let them know that we are in solidarity with them, as the President and I did along with other faith leaders at Hinde Street Methodist Church,a week after the bombing.
Being in solidarity, not just locally but across the world is in the heart of our calling.
Perhaps the wilderness that we are travelling is the one which Jesus himself travelled? The wrestling with our own sense of identity and purpose, our own temptations - whatever they may be for us. To become the person he was called to be Jesus had to be shaped by the wilderness, to be challenged by it, to find its places of shelter and oasis, to fight with those forces that would divert him from his purpose. Jesus also travelled the wilderness of Holy Week, experiencing the vacuous praise of a crowd that turned to a baying mob. He stood in his Father’s house of prayer and challenged those who had turned it into a wilderness of unfair trade and idolatry. He washed the wilderness dirt from his friends’ feet and experienced the pleasure and pain of being anointed in a foretaste of his own burial. Jesus travelled the wilderness of betrayal, unjust arrest, cruel trial and the ultimate degradation of the cross and the anguish of abandonment and finality of death.
The joy of Easter Day is the joy of one who has crawled through the wilderness on their hands and knees, longing for one single drop of soothing water and who finds themselves in a new verdant paradise watered by a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
We have heard the voices of some for whom the Church is a place of wilderness where people find themselves displaced. Church may have been the only stable, unchanging element in their lives, when everything else is leaving them bewildered, bereaved or beleaguered.
Churches are changing, some will close, others will only continue by changing radically and wholeheartedly and, for some people, this is a devastating loss. We have listened to people who no longer understand their identity and role within the life of the church and this goes much deeper than what kind of music is being played. We see the kind of emotional reactions that the people of Israel show in our text from Numbers – looking back with romantic eyes to a time and place that we have left behind, anger at a lack of control, despair because we can’t find the resources to do the things we feel are essential. Miriam has died and we are lost in our grief.
Among the voices we have heard this year are those who feel displaced from churches because their sexuality or gender identity is not fully welcomed. Those who have experienced homophobia have felt that the church has not been able to support them and challenge unacceptable behavior. We have heard from others that the church is not yet free of racism and misogyny and sexual harassment.
We have listened to many voices, some bewildered, some angry, others hurt and others we have not heard because they can only whisper or remain silent. Yet, in all this is hope. We have heard other voices - voices of courage, of faith, of confidence and grace.
In so many of the stories shared we have been encouraged to find hope, despite people’s worlds being turned upside down. In the midst of what might seem hopeless, our churches, projects and agencies continue to make a contribution that leads to hope and transformation.
Questions for discussion:
1.What wilderness stories can you share that are challenging and/or joyful?
2.What experiences do you have of the Church helping people to navigate through their own wilderness?
3.What gifts has God given the Church to help us navigate our calling to serve the present age?
Of the many stories of hope in wilderness places I have heard this year, one stands out – it’s a story I’ve told often because it speaks to me of God’s gift of empathy, which is at the heart of building communities – in places of hardship and places of plenty.
In the rainforest of Brazil communities have been devastated because of the construction of hydro-electric dams. People have had to move from their homes because of the huge lakes created, and they have been badly compensated if at all. Others have stayed in homes that are now crumbling because the water table has risen beneath their feet – they are having to move out and are also fighting for compensation. A third group are those whose homes are just beyond the boundaries of such devastation, because an arbitrary line drawn on a map fall means they fall outside the chance of any restitution. Their homes are still standing but their whole community around them has disappeared. There is no school left for their children, no church left to attend, no market in which to sell their goods – a physical place to live does not fulfil all of what a home should be and they too are fighting for compensation.
Christian Aid is working with groups in Brazil that are advocating for the rights of those displaced by the construction. Whilst visiting their work in Rondonia I met a man who had lost everything – he spent some time sharing his story and telling me all he had lost. Then he paused and looked across to me and said, ‘I’ve lost a lot, but I’m not as badly off as the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea because your governments won’t help them.’
I was stunned – here, in Brazil, in the Amazon rainforest, a world away from Europe – a man felt empathy for people he would never meet. He recognised the humanity in each person and because of his faith, he saw Christ in people he would never meet. Despite all he had lost and the journey through his own wilderness, he could put himself in the shoes of another. In this lies hope – that love and empathy can thrive in the most unlikely of places and situations.
The wilderness in which many of us find ourselves is a difficult and challenging place but it can shape us and help us discern who we are called to be, as Christians, as churches, as nations, even as a global community. I pray that we will be formed of love and empathy. We will need to rest from time to time in the oases, to catch our breath, to restore our strength and in the end, God willing, we will find our way out of the wilderness. From death will come new life, hope will rise and conquer despair, from grief will come joy and God will be praised. Amen!