Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Way of Weeping

Watching those aspiring Dorothy’s, anticipating Andrew Lloyd Webber additional songs, brought it all back to me … the very first time I saw the Wizard of Ox, in the 1000 seater Picture House on Leicester’s Granby Street. It’s funny how you associate certain films with certain cinemas – Jason and the Argonauts with the Saturday morning cinema club at the Cameo in Leicester, not that my parents would allow me to go very often, The Planet of the Apes at another flea pit, the City Cinema in Bangor – complete with a patch on the screen, Ben Hur at the 2000 seater Odeon Cinema, can’t remember the film but do remember the double seats at the other cinema in Bangor, and then there was my first visit to what was a brand new idea – multi-screen cinema – the intimacy of a small cinema, large screen … and at Leicester’s CineCentre Franco Zeferrelli’s Romeo and Juliet. I was I think in the sixth form and I went with my cousin John.

That particular occasion sticks in my mind and has become for me a bit of a benchmark. As the film came to its dramatic climax I vividly remember how there were audible sobs first from one person, then another. It seemed half the cinema were in tears. I guess it was the intimacy of the small cinema – it was almost catching. Almost, but not quite. Then someone called out from the other side of the cinema in an inimitable Leicester accent, ‘will someone pass a bucket’.

At that while half the cinema were in floods of tears, I joined my cousin and the other half of the cinema in fits of laughter.

I think over the years I have changed sides. I have become more emotional. When Felicity and I went to see My Name is Khan a film exploring autism and the meeting of Hindu and Muslim post 9/11, a film in which Bollywood meets Hollywood in Hindi with English sub-titles, I found tears coming to my eyes.

I felt quite emotional at the last day of the Day Centre on Friday – it was good to have a good number of folk from Highbury there at the last of a series of services that began 19 years ago at our first Christmas here, that I have shared with very few exceptions with Frank Guppy on the organ. I do hope a good number of people can come to the celebration on Saturday, 17th April when we will say a big thank you to the staff who have worked there.

Though I get emotional, there is still something inside me that feels uncomfortable about those tears.

It is significant for me that tears are at the heart of Holy Week. During our pilgrimage we walked the Via Dolorosa, following in the footsteps of Jesus as it were through the streets of Jerusalem from the place, there or thereabouts, where he was condemned to death, to the place, there or thereabouts, where he was crucified and buried. We are going to create a set of stations of the cross around the church and open the church from 10 to 11 and from 6 to 7 each evening through to Good Friday. I think of it as the Way of the Cross. But the Via Dolorosa is the Way of Weeping.

The women of Jerusalem weep. There are women at the foot of the cross who weep. But it is not only women who weep.

Peter vows to follow Jesus to the bitter end if needs be. He follows as far as the courtyard of the High Priest’s house and there he denies Jesus three times. The cock crows and he breaks down and weeps bitter tears.

He is not the only man we see weeping.

There are two occasions when Jesus also weeps.

He weeps at the death of a friend.

And he weeps at the plight of a city.

Jesus journeys to Jerusalem down the Jordan valley through Jericho, at 1500 feet below sea level the world’s lowest and most ancient city and up to a small village on the heights of the mount of Olives, called Bethany. That was the village of Mary and her sister Martha. There is a wonderful, homely painting by an older contemporary of Vermeer, Hendrik Martensz Sorgh, that is said to have been the inspiration behind Vermeer’s only remaining religious painting. Christ at the home of Martha and Mary. It captures that moment when Martha, busy in the kitchen, loses her patience with her sister Mary who is sitting at the feet of Jesus. The moment when Jesus commends Mary’s prayerfulness. It is a wonderful picture, not at the moment on display in the Art Gallery. The friends of the Museum and Art Gallery have arranged to have the picture brought out of the store and have invited me to do a talk on Wednesday, 12th May. It captures a moment of happiness and joy and maybe a moment of tension in that home.

Drawing near to Jerusalem, Jesus arrives in Bethany, and makes once again for the home of Mary and Martha. There they and their brother Lazarus prepare a meal for Jesus. As you might expect, Martha served and Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and anointed Jesus’ feet, wiped them with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of perfume.

Not long before, however, the house had been filled with the stench of death.

Lazarus had been severely ill. Martha and Mary had summoned Jesus. But he delayed. And Lazarus died. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming she went and met him and she said to Jesus in an almost accusing tone, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” A conversation ensues. And it is to Mary that Jesus says words that have become wonderful words, treasured by those who have followed in the footsteps of Jesus ever since.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then Jesus looks Martha in the eye and asks her, “Do you believe this?” It is Martha, the doer, who is the one who makes that wonderful profession of faith. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

So, what of Mary.

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, exactly the same question Martha had posed. The haunting question … if only …’ “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping and the Judaeans who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him? They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

Then comes in the AV the shortest verse in the whole Bible.

Jesus wept.

If Jesus wept at the death of a friend, we should not be surprised if in such circumstances we find ourselves weeping. Tears are not to be bottled up. Tears are to be shed. More than that tears are to be shared. Jesus came alongside Mary and those many others who had come alongside Mary and Martha and he shared their tears.

Holy Week is important to me at the most personal level. At the heart of my faith is the conviction is that this wonderful world being explored so marvellously by the youthful, David Waters lookalike, Professor in his series on the solar system, is the creation of God. I passionately believe that there is something more beyond the world we can see, that helps me to make sense of life in the world that I do see.

My Christian faith, however, takes that world with all its pain and its suffering seriously. And it says that we must come alongside one another in those times of suffering and share the weeping, share the concern. The reality is we cannot escape the tears. Holy Week is the time to remember the tears, and come alongside the suffering. We can only reach the joy of resurrection victory, the life that is beyond, by going through the valley of the shadow, by going through the tears, by travelling the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Weeping.

That’s the personal dimension to my faith. It is something for each one of us. For each of us there is a wonderful hope beyond of resurrection.

But faith cannot be individualistic.

There is a bigger dimension too.

And that also becomes apparent through Holy Week.

Jesus weeps at the death of a friend.

He also weeps at the plight of a city.

There in Bethany Jesus is very aware that the authorities, the powers that be, those who are colluding with the conquereing Romans who have built up a power base by ‘devouring widows’ houses, are out to kill Lazarus and to kill him.

So it is that he sets off to make his entry into Jerusalem. It was Passover time. That meant that the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, would have come up from the Roman seaside capital of this unruly province in Caesarea Maritima and taken up residence in the Herodion palace to keep law and order in the city. He would have ridden on horse back, accompanied by cavalry. There is a description of the kind of sight that would be later in Acts as 200 horsemen make that journey. Pomp and ceremony were the mark of Roman power in collaboration with the Herodian dynasty and the powers of Jerusalem.

And Jesus chose to ride in on a donkey. It was a massive prophetic statement. That he was coming not as a warrior king, but in peace … humble and mounted on a donkey, as Zechariah had said, ‘he will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off and he shall command peace to the nations …”

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

It really is so. Coming down the Mount of Olives there is a spot where the ancient city of Jerusalem suddenly appears … coming down a little further there is a church – built in the shape of a teardrop. And on the terrace in front of that church, overlooking the temple mount, is the church of Dominus Flevit. The Lord wept.

Video clip

Bethany is now separated from Jerusalem by the wall.

The East Jerusalem where so many settlements are proposed not for Israeli citizens but exclusively for Jewish people is the part of Jerusalem where Christian as well as Muslim Palestinians live and where we attended the East Jerusalem Baptist Church.

Those Christian people in East Jerusalem through the Kairos Palestine document ask us as fellow Christians to support them in the condemnation of those settlements on Palestinian land, to support them and their church communities where, in their words, ‘most of their young people are active apostles for justice and peace … where their ‘various Christian institutions make their faith active and present in service, love’, where they are engaging in dialogue between the three relilgions and actively working for reconciliation once justice has been restored.”

Through the tears and the pain they look to signs of hope.

As Jesus did then, we too weep, If you even you had only recognised the things that make for peace.

Our commitment must be to stand with those who work for peace.

Jesus wept.

He weeps at the death of a friend.

He weeps at the plight of a city.

And not just that particular city.

I got hold of David Baldwin’s little book, The Holy Land, A Pilgrim’s Companion. It has a photo of that view of the old city taken from inside the Dominus Flevit church.

Opposite that photo is a prayer written by a URC minister, who has often contributed to our prayer handbook, Donald Hilton.

We finish with the words of that prayer …

Lord Jesus Christ,

Today we share your tears for the cities of the world;

-still we have not loved the things that make for peace.

We weep for the divided cities:

Where brother fights with brother,

Where anger feeds on hatred,

Where prejudice blinds the eyes of compassion,

And even religion divides,

Where children are taught to hate

And old men relish ancient wrongs.

We weep for the cities of oppression

Where iron law imprisons freedom,

Where thought is curbed and conscience stifled,

Where the questioning spirit is called a traitor,

Where art and civilising truth grow barren

And each must think in manner as his neighbour.

We weep for the cities of poverty:

Where children live, but die too soon,

Where eager hands can find no work,

Where hunger rules and aid is short,

Where mothers clutch uncomprehending young,

And where the little we do, we fail to do.

We weep for our cities, for our town, and for ourselves;

We have not learned the things that make for peace.

Lord, turn tears to love,

And love to work,

Turn work to justice,

And all that makes for peace.


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