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Borderland - sermon by the Rev'd Chris Collison

O Jerusalem! (Lent 2 Yr C) St Peter's, 13th March 2022

I wonder – what is your favourite psalm………of lament? A fortnight ago our daughter Sarah took us with her family to their new church in Selby. 45 mins of worship songs to begin with, I was told, but I was quite moved by the meditative and reflective songs we sang. Was it to do with the war beginning in Ukraine, and the difficulty of finding words to say? A favourite psalm of lament might be Psalm 137: ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.’ This is stark poetry, memories of the most dreadful devastation from a place of exile: ‘How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’

In our Gospel today, Jesus is moved at the thought of Jerusalem and its miseries, past, present and those to come. The word ‘Ukraine’ means ‘Borderland,’ and in her book of that name Anna Reid writes of Kyiv as ‘the new Jerusalem.’ The people of Ukraine have long memories. The golden onion-domes recall a glorious past, but it is more than a millennium since Volodomyr, prince of Kievan-Rus, chose the Orthodox faith for his nation. But they remember now, as if it was a few years ago. Those were her greatest days, shown in its glory in St Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv and its tender fresco of our Lady.

But even this is not as important to save as the freedom-loving people, a freedom that they have hardly known during the long centuries. It was only when the Soviet Union collapsed that they became free from their Russian, Polish and Lithuanian overlords.

The people of Ukraine have rarely known a homeland and, like the Palestinians and Kurds have been at the mercy of their neighbours and occupiers for generations. Under Josef Stalin, the Ukrainians were starved and almost 4 million died barely 90 years ago.

So as we see and hear from broadcasts every day, devastation, horror and exile are again coming to this borderland, with thousands fleeing and strong-willed men staying to fight and protect, in danger of losing everything – homes, schools, hospitals, the well-known streets and shops, neighbourhoods, communities, all that life has been in their homeland.

So what are we to do as Christians in the West? We can be helped by Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, who tell him to go away as Herod wants to kill him. He responds by calling Herod a fox and telling them that he is a mother hen, sheltering his chicks by getting on with his work of deliverance and healing, then accomplishing his task and staying in Jerusalem. That is exactly what we must continue to do: to be constant in prayer and in living out the gospel, to get on with our prayers – those thought, breathed, said alone, said with others, prayed in church. The Jesus prayer, so loved by Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, could be where we start: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner,’ or adapt it for the situation: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, take pity on Ukraine, your people.’

This war has come for all Christians, of East and West, in the season of Lent, when repentance is called for, a fresh turning towards the light of Christ, a new daily acknowledgement of our faults. ‘My sin is ever before me.’ We often live on a borderland, on the edge of our own destruction, so ‘One thing I ask of the Lord, this alone I seek, to dwell in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life.’ Lent calls us to a deeper repentance, a cry for mercy. For in that place we are in solidarity with those whose spirit, mind or body is broken. ‘A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’ For the sake of others, for the sake of our broken world – Afghanistan, Climate Change, Ukraine, Yemen, South Sudan, and much more – we seek to be restored and recognise our wholeness is in Christ, our true home.

With Bishop George Appleton, we pray: Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the deeps of my being. Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts. Take me down to the spring of my life, and tell me my nature and my name. Give me freedom to grow; so that I may become that self, the seed of which you planted in me at my making. Out of the deep I cry to you, O God. Amen.

Receiving forgiveness deep within our hurts and fears turns our hearts from stone to flesh, to live more deeply and honestly, more vulnerably with the world’s agonies. Our lives are not in an isolated bubble, for when we repent robustly and attentively our prayer and lament deepen, our sorrow grows but our hopes can reach further. It is the gift of our faithfulness that will help us move into honest lament for Ukraine this Lent.

‘Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord. Hear my voice. Be attentive to my prayers.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this poem whilst he was in Flossenburg Prison where he was killed by the Nazis, just months before Europe’s Second World War ended.

We turn to God when we are sorely pressed; we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread; we seek release from illness, guilt, and death: all people do, in faith or unbelief.

We turn to God when he is sorely pressed, and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread, bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death: faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

God turns to us when we are sorely pressed, and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread; for one and all Christ gives himself in death: through his forgiveness sin will find relief.

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