Toorak Uniting Church

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Standing in the Tragic Gap

1 Corinthians 1:18-24
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 17
15 September 2013

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I began to take church and religion seriously. That’s not to say that as a small child I wasn’t religious, I was. But it was a religion of experience and a beautiful feeling of what I would call "enchantment." This world was rich and full of the presence of something I would call divine or a mystery. Was it God, the sacred, or just life itself? I’m not sure, but there was nothing I had to do, it all came to me unbidden. Not perfect or complete or understandable, it was just there.

Then in my teenage years I was told, or perhaps I just realized for myself, that I had to think about this experience of the divine, or the sacred or God. So I took religion very seriously. I sought, as many gathered this morning would have done, to find the right answer to the questions that perplexed me. If I just studied the Bible more, then everything would become clearer and understandable. And many things did become clearer and understandable. I learned the history of the people of Israel; the words and teachings of Jesus. And I also discovered how the world would end, not with a "whimper but with a bang," to misquote T.S.Eliot.

But there remained many things that were mysteries and not easily accessible to the enquiring mind. Among these were the strange paradoxes; the seemingly irreconcilable tensions and distinctions between the notion that all of life is of grace and gift and yet those who prospered were the ones who worked the hardest. But then I saw the people who worked hard and failed or fell on hard times through no fault of their own. In our small church on the corner of Lumley Street and Logan Road, I heard the stories of compassionate and loving people. Bill Smith (name changed) whose wife died leaving him to care for four young children and who then lost his job some months later. And the falling into depression and despair which were not told. Bill was a man dedicated in his faith. Our prayers for him and his family were honest and passionate and yet I know he never recovered from those painful experiences.

That experience and several others showed me the truth that to be authentic and genuine one must live in what has come to be called the tragic gap between what is and what could be; between what we desire for ourselves and others and what life brings to our doorstep.

The Foolishness of God
There was a tradition in the church where I grew up that the last hymn on the Good Friday service was a rousing rendition of "Up from the Grave He Arose." I recall a conversation I overheard as a young man after a Good Friday service where a visitor to the church asked the Minister why the congregation sang an Easter Day hymn on Good Friday morning? From my recollection the minister said something like, "Well people can only take so much gloom and doom in one service. So it is good to give them a bit of hope at the end."

You know, I understand what he was saying and I also know that the liturgical purists would be horrified at such a blatant disregard for the celebration of suffering and despair. But for me it is a reminder that we all stand in the tragic gap between the bad news of death and the good news of resurrection; between the reality of human suffering and the hope of burgeoning new life; and between our "reality" that death is the end, and yet the unexpectedness and unpredictability of life emerging in the most remarkable places.

That’s the tension of life…. Will it work or will it not work out? Will there be something left after this disaster or will life as I have known it be washed away? I think the author of this letter to the Church at Corinth was on to something when he debunked the naïve notion that human thought and perfect reasoning will work it all out. I paraphrase:

the symbol of death on a cross as the possibility of new life is foolishness to those who can’t see it, but to those of us who are being redeemed by this message, it is all-powerful. You can have the wisdom of those who think they are wise any day. But I would rather take the foolishness of God!

Living in the Tragic Gap
I am sure that to live today with truth and authenticity we must stand between what we may see as opposites and hold them in tension and resist the temptation to collapse one into the other. And that is not an easy place to be. I put the picture of the cross on the cover of this order of service this morning because it is a reminder that the founder of our religion, the pioneer of our way of being in the world, had to stand and live within the tragic gap of what was and what could be.

The symbol of Jesus’ arms spread. In one hand he holds a world of pain and suffering; a world of violence and hate. But he does not abandon that world to its ultimate fate. In his other hand he holds the new world of forgiveness and compassion; of hope and wholeness. But neither does he collapse into that new world order, for if he did he would desert the world he lived in and was willing to die for. It does seem foolishness to hold on to both the good and the bad; the true and the false; the right and the wrong; the respectable and the unrespectable. And yet what has the wisdom of this world that tries to expunge the bad, eliminate the false, annihilate the wrong and crush the unrespectable brought us? Surely more violence, more pain and more unhappiness?

Ok, enough doom and gloom for a Sunday morning. I do want you to leave here feeling better than when you entered. But I also want each person, and myself included, to know that life is not easy. Perhaps you all know the famous quote attributed to the former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser? He was quoted as saying, "Life wasn’t meant to be easy!" This was used by the newspapers of the day to demonstrate that he was cold and uncaring. Some years later he told an interviewer that he was actually quoting George Bernard Shaw who said "Life is not meant to be easy, but my child take courage: it can be delightful."

I would love to sit with that for some time…. But my child, take courage: it can be delightful. The remarkable thing is that when we see life as it is; when we see all of life, not just half of it - life as both love and despair; joy and sadness; hope and fear - we actually see life, and we begin to live fully. There really is little point living half a life, that is, the good bits, the fun bits and the bits that keep us from embracing the tensions every life brings. The author and poet Stephen Levine brushes against this in his poem We Walk through Half our Life.

We walk through half our life
as if it were a fever dream
barely touching the ground
our eyes half open
our heart half closed.

Not half knowing who we are
we watch the ghost of us drift
from room to room
through friends and lovers
never quite as real as advertised.

Not saying half we mean
or meaning half we say
we dream ourselves
from birth to birth
seeking some true self.

Until the fever breaks
and the heart cannot abide
a moment longer
as the rest of us awakens,
summoned from the dream,
not half caring for anything but love.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

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