Stumbling through Waste and Void
A sermon at a time of catastrophic violence by Nathan Nettleton, 16 September 2001
Texts: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Destructive evil is all around us and within us, but God has not given up on us.


Chaos and destruction
carnage and terror
fear, uncertainty, shock
mostly just numbness, disbelief.

The prophet Jeremiah had a vision
He looked on the earth
Lo, it was waste and void
He looked to the skies
even the stars had gone dark
Mountains shook
hills quivered
there was no one to be seen
even the scavenger birds had taken flight
He looked at the farmlands
nothing but scorched earth
He looked at the great city
it lay in ruins.

It’s too horrifying to consider speaking of good coming from this
too unthinkable to speculate on strength coming through adversity
this is no purifying fire that sorts out the good from the bad
this just destroyed everything it touched
the innocent and the corrupt died together.

Jeremiah cried out in lament
the earth mourned
the heavens grew black
chaos and destruction had spoken
death and despair did not relent.

We had a vision too
we couldn’t bear to look
but we couldn’t bear to look away

A passenger plane slicing into a building
like a knife into butter
exploding like the fires of hell
chaos and destruction

Minutes later it happened again
we knew instantly
this was no accident
and then it happened again
chaos and destruction
still it wasn’t finished
another plane load of life became plane load of death
perhaps there were heroes aboard
laying down their lives for others
perhaps we’ll never know

Planes and buildings and fireballs
the stuff of movies
The real horror of the vision
- the stuff that wrenched our guts -
lay in the details
seen through the camera
or seen through the minds eye
real people like us
clinging to window frames hundreds of metres up
choosing between burning to death or falling to death
real people like us
sitting at desks in offices
with a 200 tonne airliner bursting through the window
real people like us
choosing between waiting for certain death
or hastening it by fighting back
all we could do was watch in horror
feeling sick
feeling numb
unsure what our fascination said about the kind of people we are

The big picture took over again
580,000 tonnes of concrete and steel
melted, crumbled, buckled
Lo, the earth shook
the sky turned black
the city lay in ruins

We stumble through the vision
lost and terrified
choking on the dust
desperate for the safety of home
but not sure if home is safe
and no way to find it
If only a saviour would come
to make everything better
to lift us to his shoulders
and carry us home to the place of innocence
but all that comes is
chaos and destruction

It’s a vision of horror
but it’s not new
there’s just a lot more cameras in New York
than in Baghdad
or the Balkans
or Sudan
or Rwanda
or Lebanon
or Cambodia
or Nagaland
or Afghanistan
and we identify ourselves more quickly
with those who look like us
and voice their outrage in our language

It is painful to confront my own racism and classism
to see how much more disturbed I am by the slaughter of New Yorkers
than by the slaughter of Rwandans
to see that I put a higher value
on the lives of those I can readily identify with
to see that when stripped of social niceties
I too am a blasphemer
I too am a persecutor
I too am a man of violence
“God may forgive you, but we won’t”
it almost sounds right and honourable
turning away from God
tossing aside the quest for god-like-ness
even if God can reconcile justice and mercy
we won’t

The Lord looks down to see if anyone seeks the way of the cross
but all have turned away
All are depraved
no one does good
not even me

Are these evil-doers mad?
Of course
Are they any madder than us?
Maybe not
Maybe they’ve just seen more visions of chaos and destruction
maybe they’ve been able to identify themselves with the victims more often
people who look like them
and express horror and despair in their language
whose children play in their streets
imprisoned by violence
driven insane by injustice
deprived of hope in this world
tormented by images of wealth and power
concentrated in the hands of a few
in the hands of those who don’t look like them
in the hands of the greedy
in the hands of the callous
in the hands of those who value their precious “interests”
more highly than the lives of the poor
in the hands of those who can call burning children
“collateral damage”
in the hands of those so easily demonised
in the hands of those whose obliteration would seem like blow for justice
an act of divine judgment worth dying for
a holy quest
rewarded in eternity

They demonise us and strike out in fear and rage
we demonise them and strike back in fear and rage
us and them
fear and rage
us and them
fear and rage
us and them
a lust for violence

They look on us and see unspeakable evil
we look on them and see unspeakable evil
both are horribly wrong
yet both are horribly right
all are depraved
no one does good
not even me

Christ Jesus came into the world to rescue sinners
us and them
them and us
blasphemers were shown mercy
persecutors received overflowing grace
men of violence became rich in faith and love
chaos and destruction struck back in fury unrestrained
they had no airliners or skyscrapers
perhaps a Stanley knife would have been enough
wood and nails were plenty
torn flesh
tortured cries
chaos and destruction

We stumble
lost and terrified
choking on the dust
desperate to escape the horror of it all
If only a saviour would come
to lift us to his shoulders
and carry us home to the place of innocence
but all that comes is
chaos and destruction

Or is it?

Or is the saviour stumbling through the choking dust calling our names?
Is he searching for the lost one
the terrified one
the angry one
the vengeful one
the blindly violent one
them and us
us and them
lost in the horror
buried under the rubble of hatred
trapped beneath a mountain of mercilessness
crushed and burned and dismembered
by the crumbling chaos
of the raging violence that we could no longer hold in?

Is he pulling us from the ruins
lifting us to his shoulders?
and we thought it was a cross
Are we seeing the rejoicing of heaven mirrored
whenever a survivor is pulled free?
The rejoicing that would erupt over the repentance
of even one enraged and violent war-monger?
Are we seeing the despair of heaven mirrored
in the anguished tears of those who wait?
The despair that mourns over the blindness
of the 99% who see no need for repentance
who deny their violence
and perpetuate it without ceasing?

The one who pioneered the path to resurrection
passed through valleys such as this
walks them still
The road to resurrection
is is the way of the cross
a road littered with ash and debris
soaked in tears
lined with the stark frames
of gutted facades
of twisted framework
of blood-stained crosses
The road to resurrection
leads frequently to chaos and destruction
to suffer it
never to create it
Vengeance and hatred and deadly rage
do have a place in the hearts of those on the road to resurrection
it is the place from which they commence their journey
the place the road leads ever away from
the place they have vowed never to return to
For all those lost in the lust for vengeance
and unable to find the road out
pray that the rescuer will find them in time
and carry them on his shoulders
and set them on the path for home
not the lost home of innocence
it is destroyed forever
but the new and lasting home
built with tears and love and mercy
from the rubble of chaos and destruction