Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
Words from the letter of James: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress’
We can’t help but despair at the distress that is in our world at the moment, at the increasing number of people being made widows and orphans, bereaved parents and distressed friends; observing people’s helplessness as their former colleagues and neighbours are left with little reason for hope. It’s very hard to watch people’s pain unfolding in front of us, hard to imagine what people are going through – and yet at the same time we can’t quite turn away because there is enough resonance with our own humanity for us to feel something from deep within our beings. The tragedy that is happening in Afghanistan is happening in a place that most of us will never visit; it’s happening to people that most of us will never meet – but that doesn’t make it something that is nothing to do with us. Orphans and widows and deeply traumatised people will emerge from this conflict, and its impact will be felt for many, many years.
We’re beginning to understand that the impact of trauma is passed on through the generations. There’s very interesting research at the moment into epigenetics which is an area of study into the way that our genes respond to situations without fundamental change being made to our DNA. For instance, there has been a study into the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors which suggests that there are distinctive responses to traumatic events that aren’t learned, but are inherited.
The newly traumatised people of Afghanistan are, sadly, the latest in a long list of peoples who have experienced significant trauma and who have been forced to become refugees in other places. Our Scottish communities are made up of people who have fled Bosnia and Syria; Rwanda and Sri Lanka – and many other places. They include the children of slaves; the descendants of those who were cleared off the land in the Scottish highlands, the Irish who crossed the water during the potato famine. And there are many more. Perhaps your family history tells a story of escape from oppression or changed circumstances or some other kind of trauma.
Whatever our heritage and the intergenerational baggage that we carry, this morning we find ourselves, either physically or online, gathering to pray together, to sing together (despite the masks) and to share with one another, in order to form something that is greater than any one or two of us alone. What does it mean to gather as one body – both in this place and online? None of us changes physically but our experience tells us that something profound happens. Being online doesn’t give us the same experience as being in the building, and yet, we know that when joining virtually is what’s available to us, many of us manage to imagine ourselves into the space, to feel that we have for this short time become a part of something that defies description and is very much more than the sum of its parts.
I don’t really understand what happens when some people are engaging in a way that might have been seen as passive observation, but I know from my own experience, and from feedback, that something more profound is going on. One way to name it might be to say that the Holy Spirit catches our prayers and our intentions and holds them in a kind of web.
I think this is perhaps well illustrated by the Last Supper busts that are on our High Altar. Each bust is constructed from broken pieces – no china was deliberately broken to make this art, they were all pieces that had already been damaged. Those pieces of china were gifted and gathered and then lovingly pieced together. The technique is called Kintsugi – a Japanese technique that mixes gold powder with lacquer to create a material that bonds, whilst having its own beauty and integrity. If you look at the pieces – and there is one on your order of service (and hopefully on your screen) you’ll see that the gold creates a kind of web. It’s holding together the eclectic mix of pieces which suddenly no longer seem to be random, but are a part of something much more significant than themselves.
We can perhaps imagine that each of us is represented by one of the fragments of china – and we are held by that gold mesh, held in a way that is hard to understand and that allows us to become something that none of us could achieve alone. The form of the china hasn’t changed, but it has become something other than itself.
Those broken pieces represent, for me, our broken selves. We come into God’s presence just as we are. We bring our own stories and our histories, our concerns and our thanksgivings. Some of our edges are perhaps a bit sharp and others have been smoothed over; some of our glaze may be a bit faded, some may be as new. None of that is the important thing – what’s important is that the pieces are held by that golden thread, held in what I am suggesting is the love and grace of God.
Held in the love and grace of God. Look again at the china heads and think for a moment about what is on the inside of those busts. The outside of one of them is white – the patterned china is on the inside, so what we see is a more uniform piece, but we know it has hidden depths. The other pieces may be plain on the inside but they will include all sorts of makers’ marks, perhaps little stains that didn’t wash off; maybe some of them have tiny shards of gold leaf that fell off during the making process. What you see is some of what you get, but it’s not the entire story.
As we prepare, within our communities, to welcome and integrate new refugees, it will be important that we see them as more than their brokenness. Those shards of china were worthless and not particularly beautiful when they were stored in boxes. But thanks to the gifts of the artist, they have become something that has value – for what they are, for what they say, for how they engage with us. That broken china has become priceless. That didn’t happen immediately, and it didn’t happen without considerable input – of time and love and effort and expertise. Our new neighbours will need similar attention if they are to flourish.
And it’s important for us, as well as for them, that they flourish. Their culture isn’t ours. Their religion may not be ours. Their customs may seem strange to us. But these are people who are formed in the image of God. We can’t change their history, or ours; we can’t fix their country, but we can hold them in that golden thread of love and grace – and trust that God will do the rest.
As we become more aware of that love and grace, perhaps we can call on it to resource us to actively practice a religion that is undefiled: that cares for orphans and widows, cares for dispossessed people and their loved ones, truly engages with those who are distressed and shares, with them, the message of hope that underpins all that we are and all that we become.