Engraved on the headstone of the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown are the words:
‘Carve the runes then be content with silence’.
It’s fitting epitaph for a poet who spent his life struggling with the mystical, magical and ritual quality of words and who memorably referred to the task of the poet as ‘the interrogation of silence’.
The 20th century Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed we talked all too glibly of redemption and regeneration when the life of the Christian community seems to manifest a radical unawareness of what such words actually mean.
Certainly today’s Gospel seems to suggest that there is more to the Christian life than being good and getting on with people. Its rather a cluster of hard sayings – ‘I come to bring fire, Do you think I have come to bring peace – no I tell you but rather division’
Both George Mackay Brown and Bonhoeffer seem to suggest that we need to be careful about rushing into definitions and easy answers. That we need to take a step back. We can’t grasp everything about the Christian life immediately. Division and discord is part of life.
Christ’s teaching will inevitably provoke dissension – and this passage from Luke reflects the often bitter divisions between people that Jesus’ teaching created. Families really were divided by their acceptance or rejection of Jesus.
We too struggle to understand the message of this passionate prophet, we struggle to read the signs of God’s Kingdom in our own world.
Living the Christian life is often confusing and we sometimes wonder why we carry on when it can seem divisive or just not relevant to many people anymore. But the Christian life invites us to carry on with the business of interpretation, of trying to see the path that God is leading us on.
This Gospel passage is a difficult one and we struggle to interpret it. And looking round at our world – at the aftermath of war in the Middle East and new international tensions and here in Oxford those relying on foodbanks or sleeping in shelters, how can we, to borrow a phrase from another writer– turn ‘tragedy into pregnancy’? How can we give voice to hope in the midst of so much despair? Christian life is maybe about the task of teaching each other to be still, to be attentive, to learn to acquire the courage to be quiet’.
This isn’t an invitation to stay out of politics or to hideaway – far from it – but it is about being still in order that we can better open our eyes and see the tragedy of the world around us. How can we make ourselves sufficiently still, sufficiently quiet to see and hear the suffering of refugees, of immigrants, of the bereaved and the sick?
In a famous summary of his teachings the Buddha once said:
‘Nothing is to be clung to as I, me or mine’.
It’s a line that bears much reflection and for me its one that is lived out in the life of Christ, who comes to earth as a tiny child and lives a life of self giving which results in his death on the cross. It’s a death Jesus refers to in this passage when he talks about the baptism which he is to undergo in Jerusalem.
To explore the possibility of living beyond ego is surely to begin to explore something of the vastness of the Cosmic Christ, a Christ consciousness which gives voice to a reality beyond our ego.
Gorge Mackay Brown whose headstone inscription we began with once wrote:
I have a deep-rooted belief that what has once existed can never die: not even the frailest things, spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone. All is gathered into the web of creation…’
Lord help us to glimpse the inter-connectedness of all things, the active power of compassionate love and the possibility of our own transformation in the midst of so much division and pain. But to discover it we must go on a journey into darkness, stillness and silence – and have the courage to keep our eyes open. Amen.