Saturday, March 05, 2011

World Day of Prayer service, Friday 4 March

Last year, we were all stunned to witness the dramatic rescue over 69 days of 33 miners trapped almost a kilometre underground in the San Jose copper and gold mine in the Atacama Desert near Copiapo in Chile. On display was not only the spirit of the Chilean people, and the resilience of the 33 miners themselves, but the resourcefulness, unity and technical ability of this South American nation. The eventual rescue, in technical terms alone, was nothing short of miraculous-with a 66 cm diameter shaft being drilled vertically into the ground with pinpoint accuracy, and the miners hoisted up one at a time to the relief of their families and the excitement of waiting media.  It is estimated that as the first miner, Florencia Avalos, was winched from his underground prison he had  a television audience of more than 1 billion people, one–sixth of the world’s entire population.

It was not only a feel-good moment, but one that spoke volumes about how much Chile has developed as a modern, open and resourceful nation since the dark days of political repression during the military dictatorship under General Pinochet that lasted between 1973 and 1990, and focussed world attention on the political instability and institutionalised violence that continues in Chile to this day. It was Pinochet who is largely credited with the modernisation of the Chilean economy – also Pinochet of whom the International Human Rights Foundation records: “He shut down parliament, suffocated political life, banned trade unions, and made Chile his sultanate. His government disappeared 3,000 opponents, arrested 30,000 (torturing thousands of them) ... Pinochet's name will forever be linked to the Desaparecidos, the Caravan of Death”.  One enduring and troubling legacy of the years of military dictatorship is seen in the massive gulf that divides rich and poor in Chile– with 34% of Chileans living in poverty and the top 20% of Chileans controlling over 80% of the nation’s wealth.

This evening, we are privileged to take part in a liturgy that has been prepared for us by the women of the World Day of Prayer committee in Chile, who invite us to reflect with them on the blessings, opportunities and challenges that have characterised Chile in the past and lie before it in the future.  No doubt the longest, skinniest country in the world - the map of Chile resembles nothing so much as a long backbone. And that of course is precisely what it is, being defined by the ocean on one side and the long spine of the Andes ranges on the other. Chile includes a bewildering variety of natural habitats, from fertile grazing lands to deserts and inhospitable mountain terrain. 

Our first reading from the book of Deuteronomy, just a couple of short verses, remind us of the pride Chilean people take in their country, their awareness of the blessings they have received through its unrivalled natural beauty and resources.  It seems to me, that in choosing these verses, the women of the world Day of Prayer committee in Chile are reflecting that the blessings of God are always sufficient - that no matter the problems their country faces, no matter the legacy of political repression or the massive divide that still exists between rich and poor in their country, as a people they have been blessed not only with sufficient resources for their own needs but that their nation may be a blessing to others around them.

The theme of this evening service – “how many loaves have you?” - first emerges in the reading from one Kings, in which the prophet Elijah, a political refugee on the run from the religious persecution and genocidal ambitions of King Ahab, seeks refuge in the Canaanite occupied territory which we today know as Gaza.  Roaming in the desert, Elijah is famished, and following God’s instructions asks for hospitality from the least likely person imaginable-a widow with a young son who has literally nothing apart from a single handful of flour. Conventional wisdom that you seek hospitality from the person who at least has enough to spare is here turned on its head-in fact it is generally those who have nothing that are the most generous, generally those for whom it is a daily struggle to put bread on the table who are most willing to share the little they have with strangers. The woman of course explains to Elijah the difficulty and the fact that she and her son are facing starvation, but he invites her to trust God's promise that they will have a future. The reading reminds us that God's promises and our willingness to put God's priorities of compassion and mercy into practice go hand-in-hand.  For those of us who - unlike the woman of Zarephath - do have enough for our daily needs, it seems to me the challenge is even sharper-how have we responded to those who throw themselves on the mercy of our hospitality?-how have we responded to refugees who arrive on our shores with literally nothing, asking that we share with them out all the blessings God has given us?  Do we as a nation stand for generosity and justice in recognising the claim that others have on the blessings God has given us, or are we to be known instead for responding in ways that are limited by our fear of losing the abundance of what we already have? Recognising the generosity of the very poor, the Chilean women suggest that a country characterised by extreme inequality between rich and poor has much to learn from the widow of Zarephath.

The same theme runs through the reading from St Mark's Gospel, the wonderful story of the feeding of the 5000.   The miraculous picnic in Mark’s Gospel makes the same hard-edged point as the Old Testament story of the widow of Zarephath –that God’s gracious provision for all God's people goes hand in glove with the willingness of God's people to recognise the claim that others have on our compassion and mercy.

It is important to notice the circumstances of this miracle-there would have been no need for a whip-around at all if it hadn't been that the people were hungry in the first place for the good news of God's love and forgiveness. St Mark tells us that the people follow Jesus into the desert even though he would really rather have given them the slip.  But Jesus message is infectious and attractive-he is showing God’s priorities by healing the sick, by preaching a simple message of God's love and forgiveness that is capable of transforming the lives of men and women in the here and now. And the people follow Jesus because they recognise that he has the words that bring life. I don't actually think it is any different today. We sometimes make religion too complicated, too inaccessible - Jesus doesn't - he speaks simply and directly the words that are capable of transforming men and women’s lives.

And yet, as the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out, there is such a thing as a hierarchy of needs. People can't hear the transforming message of grace and forgiveness with empty bellies. We who don’t have empty bellies can't hear Jesus transforming message of grace and forgiveness if we haven't learned to reach out in simple acts of compassion and the recognition of shared humanity. And so when Jesus’ disciples come to him and complain to him that the people are getting hungry and restless, Jesus turns to them – to us! - and says: “you feed them”. Well, the disciples don't seem to have been spectacularly rich, and not only that, they don't seem to have been very well prepared, being able to produce nothing more than one little boy’s play-lunch. The ridiculousness of this situation, it seems to me, is intended to remind us of Elijah's insistence that the widow of Zarephath takes him in as a houseguest when she and her son are sitting down to eat their last piece of bread. What is being asked is simply over-the-top - way in excess of the resources that are available.

This, of course, is where the biblical writers, and the women of Chile see the miracle and the everyday reality of God's providence. History tells us that God does not prevent famines, that men and women and children do routinely starve during the great climatic cycles of the Earth in which the rain stubbornly refuses to fall for months and years on end. But both stories make a connection between God’s priority that all human beings should have enough to their needs, and our own willingness to be agents of God’s mercy, our willingness to put God’s priorities into practice.

In the end, this evening’s readings and the liturgy so generously prepared for us by the women of Chile are about justice, about the difference between the world as we know it to be and the world as God imagines it, and about our own response.  And so we pray with the women of Chile that their nation and ours may be transformed by the mercy and justice of God.