Today is National Sorry Day.
I remember Maxine who was fostered out in our town. Maxine was always happy, it seemed, but she was a little aboriginal girl far from home... and I realise, now, that she just disappeared and I didn't notice. I wonder if the system decided to take her somewhere else. I have learned from friends that in state care you could be met at the door after school and not even get to go inside to collect what few clothes you have.
In high school, in the 1970's, I met Ros and Ellen, young aboriginal women also far from home, and fostered out. Years later I met Ellen in Alice Springs when we were 'all grown up'. She said "Andrew, I am so happy. I am home." Even then, it did not occur to me to ask how come she had been down south, in my high school, in foster care. We had no idea children were being taken from families where there was no trouble, and no strife. And there was Annette, a foster cousin, again far from her family. With older eyes I see the pain Annette carried, despite all the love her foster family sought to give her. I wonder if she ever recovered from the trauma of being taken away.
As a small child, I asked people where the aboriginal folk were. "They've all died out." My Nanna thought she had seen some when she was a little girl. Years later, I learned about the Nukunu people on whose land I grew up. They are still here. I've heard rumours about the massacres not too far from our home; how church members showed one of my colleagues "the gun Grandpa used for hunting aborigines..." And then I learned about the massacre near the town where I was born... I have a horrible suspicion it was just a little way down the creek from our farm.
We lied to ourselves.
We lied to our children.
We stole the land.
We stole the children.
I remember the grief of my colleague Pastor Mark, an Adnyamathanha man as he spoke about his visit to a massacre site. And the grief of the two old Scottish women who were listening to our conversation, and were still bearing the marks of English massacres long ago. These things stay alive until we choose to live another way.
We are going to hear about peace and love in this reading. A part of peace depends upon remembering the truth of the past. And it depends upon living as the Christ lived, which is to live in a way which loves all people just the same and makes recompense for those who still carry the trauma of past wrongs... but first, a story from Genesis 3.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ 2The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ 10He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ 11He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ 12The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’
23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
The words of this reading are true: God sends us the Spirit. God gives us peace. In the person of the Spirit, God is as present with us just as God was present with those who sat and ate with Jesus in the flesh.
The question is how much we can embrace what we are given, and how much we remain distant from God, and refuse to engage. We people are often like the little child who desperately wants to be hugged, who can see mum's outstretched arms, but hangs back because he is angry, or can't let go of something else. And so he stands there in tears, unable to be comforted, or find some peace, until he lets go of whatever is in the way. But Mum is there all the time!
When we unpack what it is about us people that gets us into so much trouble, what it is that leaves us with the horror of the ongoing war in the middle east, for example— it was warring when I was born, warring when Gwyn was there as a soldier, before that, and warring before that...
what leaves us with 'the troubles' in Ireland...
what leaves us with the horror of what we have done to aboriginal people in this land... and still do...
it all comes down to one thing. We people live by an ancient law. There is a way of living that begins— that people choose— in Genesis. It is the law of 'us and them.'
This law is the way we divide ourselves out of fear and envy. Eve was envious of God and ate the apple because she feared God had something she didn't. And she got that way because the serpent lied to her about 'us and them.' The serpent said, "you and me and Adam, we are... us. God is other. God is a... them. Always be careful of the others; be careful of them."
So she ate the thing that God was protecting her from! And Adam watched her eat. Adam let her eat. And when God questioned him, he said, "Not me, Lord. Not us— not you and me. It was them... that is, it was her. (Just like the misogynists of today still say: "It was her. She can't be ordained or in leadership." It's the same old blame game.
She took the apple, said Adam. And the rest is history. Eve blamed the serpent, and, as they say, the serpent didn't have a leg to stand on.
One way of looking at what happens next, is this. Adam gets put out of the garden, too. He tries to put himself on God's side, but God says, "There are no sides. There is only us. We are all in this together. So we all leave the garden... together."
That way of doing things: blaming, avoiding responsibility, making people like us into a 'them,' is what means we lose paradise. I wonder what would have happened if Eve had simply said, "I was jealous, I didn't trust your goodness to me. I am sorry." Or if Adam had said, "I was happy for her to eat, because I was jealous, too. I didn't trust your goodness to me." I wonder if it was not so much that God drove them out of the garden, as it was that they could not stand to be in the presence of God along with their lies. They had no peace.
In the biblical story, even though we have been unable to live with God, God has never abandoned us. God has remained faithful, constantly seeking to reengage. And God breaks through to prophets, even to some of the kings, and to ordinary people like Anna in the temple, and to Mary the mother of Jesus...
and to Jesus, who showed us the love of God in a new compelling way. Except... even though we are longing for God all the time... we still so often can't enter God's embrace.
It's because we are 'us and them.' Whenever there is trouble there is this old sinful law that underlies all our sin.
We all know how this works. Whenever there is a problem, you can usually find someone who is the real cause. It's them that's the problem; not us; not the circumstances. If we could only get rid of them, then it would all be good. And once they are gone, we— us— we feel good. Everything is right with the world and the church.... except...
the law of 'us and them' is insatiable. It owns us, and it is hungry. It always needs someone else to feed on. And so we find another problem and then blame another person... and then the whole cycle starts again, and there is no peace.
There's a little saying that comes for a man Welsh man, Robert Owen, who was born in 1771. He wrote to a friend
"All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer."
In the language of the day, it meant that only you and I— us— are normal... and then we see what 'us and them' does: When there is only you and me left... then even you... are not normal. The law of 'us and them' consumes us. [And of course, in the changes of language since then, the saying surely has a godly message for the UMC and the UCA which are tearing themselves apart over 'us and them.']
So there are two things to see in the readings from John.
Here is the first thing:
There will be no peace,
we will only dimly know the presence of God in our lives
until we seek to live Jesus' new commandment which is to love each other.
Not love each other as it suits us, but love each other as Jesus loved us. That means the kind of love where you would go to the wall for me, or I would go to the wall for you, in your distress— we know what's behind that expression, don't we? It means not to retreat. It means even to face execution by firing squad against the wall. It means I carry the cross and die for you.
We are not good at that! I find it terrifying! But if we will not even try then we will remain blind to the God who comes to us and has always been with us.
So Jesus says ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. It's not that God is not here already, but that we do not see because we love our law of 'us and them' more than Jesus. And it blinds us.
And there is the second thing. In the reading a disciple asks Jesus, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?" That sounds like 'us and them'— us and the world, those not so nice or good people who are not in church.
Here is the good news. God loves all people just the same. This means
that there is no 'us and them.' There never has been. We are all one. There is just 'us.'
'Us and them' is a human invention. It is a way to justify the massacring of some of us, the stealing of children, and the blaming of other folk for things about us which we won't admit.
'Us and them' blinds us to God, and it blinds us to the truth that there is only 'us.'
Here is what that word from our text, "How is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?" means: The world is a way of describing us. The world is us when we insist on the old human law— the old human lie— of' us and them.'
The world is a way of describing us when we insist
that we are better,
that we are different,
and that other people are less than us,
and deserve less than us,
and can be treated without the respect we demand for ourselves.
The world is a way of living.
It damages us and destroys us.
We Christians can be the world: we... can be those who no longer see Jesus, and who cannot feel the peace Jesus gives. It will be because we have not trusted him, and have only trusted the old deadly law and lie of 'us and them.'
There is no peace, then, and there cannot be,
until we solve our problem together
and in a way which honours and includes all people
and their pain.
Love all people just the same.
Love them and comfort them
and help them recover in just the same way
you would want someone to help you if you were in their shoes.
When we do this, it erodes the ancient poison of 'us and them' and begins the journey with Jesus back towards the garden. And we find it is true when Jesus says Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.
And indeed, we find that are hearts are less troubled and we are less afraid. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)