Saturday, 18 June 2016

Breaking Point: A Sermon After a Truly Terrible Week

As you know, I’ve been unwell for the last few weeks, with a very nasty chest infection. Two weeks ago today, I was in Barnet Hospital having intravenous antibiotics and rehydration. This came entirely out of the blue; if you’d asked me three weeks ago how I was, I would have almost certainly said that I was fine, maybe a little tired and run-down. Serious chest infections don’t develop overnight though, and looking back, I can see that I have been more than a little tired and run-down for some time now. Some of the factors leading to my breaking point two weeks ago I can identify – a cold I hadn’t properly recovered from, not enough rest, and soon - and others, I can’t. It’s impossible to predict, beforehand, what will lead to our breaking points. If we could predict these breaking points in advance, one hopes that we’d have the common sense to avoid them altogether. For me, the only thing for it was to cancel everything in my diary for a week, and simply rest.

 Now I’m not someone who’s naturally given to much lounging around, so I found this quite a bit harder than you might imagine. I was painfully aware of everything I was missing, especially of John’s licensing as our Reader and the celebrations that followed it. But rest I must, and rest I did, and not moving from the sofa for a week meant that I spent a lot more time than normal reading the news, and hearing about some heartbreakingly sad breaking points.

 I read that just over a week ago, an American pop singer, Christina Grimmie, was shot dead by a young man who was obsessed with her and convinced himself that he would marry her, his delusional obsession reaching breaking point as he shot both her and himself. Shortly after that terrible event, a young man reached his own breaking point, went into a gay bar in Florida, killed forty-nine people and badly hurt fifty-three others before turning his gun on himself. It was the largest scale attack on American soil since 9/11, and the largest scale attack on LGBT+ people since the Holocaust. What had led to this young man’s breaking point? What toxicities had he imbibed, what inherent vulnerabilities had combined to such devastating effect? It seems that having become accustomed to violence, having a warped and distorted view of his religion and an internalised hatred of his own sexuality may have played their part.  

Just as we were starting to tell ourselves that America’s gun crimes are a tragic problem which could never happen over here, we heard of another young man who reached his breaking point on Thursday, who stabbed and shot Jo Cox MP, a prominent activist for Syrian refugees and an outspoken pro-Remain supporter as well as a wife and mother of two young children, as she visited her constituency surgery in Yorkshire. In court yesterday he refused to give his name, saying instead ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’

Awfully, too awfully for words, these last days have borne sombre witness to breaking points. It’s ironic, then, the latest of the Brexit slogans should be those exact words; you may have seen a large billboard poster with a photo of a snaking queue of people crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border with ‘Breaking Point’ in large letters. This poster has given rise to an outcry, with all but a few distancing themselves from its implication and its eerie reminiscences of Nazi propaganda. However, this poster has articulated something of the Zeitgeist; after this week’s terrible news, we know that there among us who are at breaking point, and maybe many more who are dangerously close to breaking.

It’s comforting, then, that the lectionary gives us two readings today in which we encounter people who are at their own breaking points. In our Old Testament reading, Elijah is exhausted and disillusioned, having given his all to his God and depleted himself to the point at which death seems the only viable option. In our Gospel reading, we meet a man way past breaking point, who is assailed by so many demons that living a fear-stricken, isolated life of pain and torment is the only possibility.  

Now that, in and of itself, is not very comforting. But the good news is that it is to these two men – Elijah and the unnamed demoniac – in their moment of greatest need, at their own particular breaking points – that God draws close, and the hope of a new start becomes reality.

For Elijah, the drama of the earthquake, wind and fire, the awesome, utter otherness of the sheer silence, the divine voice speaking directly to him, all lead up to what may be thought of as a somewhat disappointingly pragmatic conclusion; our reading stops before we hear the end of the story, but God tells Elijah that he cannot continue as he has been, the superstar one-man prophet. He needs help, and he needs companions. Elijah’s life-changing mountaintop experience changes him from the sole saviour of Israel to one among a band of friends who together will bear witness to God’s presence.

For the man in the Gospel, his breaking point, the legion of demons that torment him, leads him back to his community. Where he has been naked, he is re-clothed, where he has been driven to the edge of sanity, he is able think clearly, and where he has been outcast, he is welcomed home. God is with us, our readings today assure us, in our desperate moments of breaking point. In fact, these breaking points might be the very moments at which we allow God to draw close to us, healing and helping us.  
The American sociologist Brene Brown has become well known for her insistence that those among us who are honest about our vulnerabilities are, in fact, those least likely to reach breaking point, and those among us who take pride in telling ourselves and the world how fine we are, are, in ironic fact, the most likely to break. This makes perfect sense; those of us who go to the doctor when we start to feel ill are much less likely to end up in A&E, and those who soldier on are the ones who will end up with serious chest infections. I am, of course, preaching to myself this morning! But so many of us fall into this trap, and it’s not just ourselves we end up hurting. Brene Brown says, ‘There are too many people today who instead of feeling hurt are acting out their hurt; instead of acknowledging pain, they’re inflicting pain on others. Rather than risking feeling disappointed, they’re choosing to live disappointed.’

The only way to break this cycle of hurt is to allow ourselves to feel it, to acknowledge it and to start to heal from it. This is true of us as individuals at times, and it is true of us as a society, beset as we are with so many pains. That’s why the vigils that have been held for the victims of the massacre in Orlando, for Christina Grimmie and for Jo Cox, have been so heartening to see – these shared acknowledgements of the deep pain of violent murder are the start of healing, of the possibility that love really does win.  I think about Jesus’ searching question in the Gospel: ‘do you want to be made well?’ It’s a harder question than it sounds, because in order to answer yes, one has to admit that one is unwell.  

If we can’t acknowledge, and be honest about our pains and vulnerabilities – the demons that assail and torment us – that doesn’t make them go away. It just drives us further away from those around us who might be able to help.  This leads me to wonder: what if the delusional, obsessed pop star fan could have admitted the extent of his craze? What if the young man in the Orlando nightclub could have got help for his violence and self-hatred? What if the killer of Jo Cox could have channelled his idealism into positive good for others?

It sounds so easy, so trite to ask these things – but the hard reality is that admitting our unwellness – being honest about our vulnerabilities – is demanding, both for us and for those around us. Our own breaking points might be very different to those that have played out in our newspapers over the last week, but they are also real.

 I believe that church should, and must, be the place in which we can give full voice to our brokenness and to our breaking points. Church should, and must, be the place in which like Elijah and the man in the Gospels, we can cry out to God to heal and help us at our point of greatest need. Church should, and must, be the place in which we allow ourselves to feel our pains so that we don’t simply act them out. 

This can only happen if church is a place of absolute honesty and acceptance, a place in which we recognise each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God, a place in which we are judged not by our status, age, gender, income, sexuality, nationality or anything other than the sheer gift of the love of God that we find in Jesus.  If we can be a church which is safe enough to hold the dangerous work of learning to love each other as God loves us, we will, I believe, become a place of healing in a hurting world. As the family of God, the love which we are commanded to share is not just for our own sake, or for our own healing; rather, it is for the sake of a world that is at breaking point. May we, with all God’s children, find within ourselves the courage to allow Him to heal us, and may we become signs of his healing presence in this hurting world. Amen.  

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