Bridges Over Troubled Water
You probably know by know that I bloomin’ love a good list. Work to do lists; top 3s; top 10s, top 8 tracks, a luxury and a book…whatever form they take, I’m in. Love them. So when I found myself on a 17 hour overnight coach journey between Iguazu and Sao Paulo in Brazil – a trip which might have been relaxing had it not been for a crying child – I found myself enjoyably passing the time by writing out a few top 10 lists…top 10 tv shows, theatre visits, books, films, sports events and many more, including the ones below.
[And yes, you can see obvious omissions, concealed names, bad handwriting and poor spelling here!]
Now, you might well be thinking that wildlife encounters, bad travel experiences are architectural wonders might make for interesting, if very pretentious, top 10 categories…but not so much bridges. Well, if so, we shall have to agree to disagree for as well as loving lists, I love bridges. I mean, the engineering genius behind them alone blows my mind but then there’s the beauty they often have, the journeys they allow, the metaphors they provide…LOVE THEM! And I’m not just saying this for effect…I counted up how many of my photographs/paintings in the manse contain bridges…and got to six!
So two years ago…yes, it’s really two years…when we were celebrating the 70th Birthday of the NHS (which is 72 today!) I was chuffed to enjoy a few phenomenal bridges on the journey between Rhyl and Cardiff:
Do you recognise the last one? It’s the stunning Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen – one of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Wales. Well, in today’s Bible reading, the action takes place at another aqueduct, this one in Jerusalem, so strap yourselves in for this is a long and rather bizarre passage from 2 Kings, chapter 18…
Reading: 2 Kings 18
[Using ‘The Message’ translation on the video].
Okay, okay…I know. Long passage, tough names and confusing action…but stay with it a little longer and you get some really juicy stuff. So…what is happening?! Well, we join the action when Israel has split into two kingdoms – the kingdom of Israel, with Samaria as the capital, in the north and the kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as capital, in the south. We hear that the great empire of Assyria has captured Samaria and taken Israel into exile and now they have their sights on Judah because the Judean King – Hezekiah, good guy – was faithful to God and refused to serve Assyria. So the King of Assyria starts attacking towns on the outskirts of Judah, Hezekiah gets a bit concerned and seeks a compromise – stop attacking us and I’ll give you loads of money. Which the Assyrian king accepts before then sending his 3 top men to Jerusalem along with a big old threatening army. Hezekiah sends 3 of his top men to do a deal with the others and they meet by the aqueduct. I’m imagining that it was this beautiful, elegantly designed, glistening water-bridge…but that’s not important. So…3 men from mighty Assyria and 3 from lowly Judah meet. The Assyrians taunt the Judean men by saying that the Assyrian King is more powerful than the Judean God…they throw in some weird threats about eating faeces and drinking urine and the three Judeans get upset and go home in despair. End of chapter. For those of you on the edge of your seats (!) it turns out okay for Judah. The prophet Isaiah advises, King Hezekiah prays, God kills 185000 Assyrian soldiers (awkward!), the Assyrian King runs home and gets murdered by his own sons in his Temple. Proper Game of Thrones stuff!
So as I say…there’s a lot going on here…slavery and dehumanization of the other that we talked about last week; the issue of Empire and oppression of foreigners; real questions about God’s love of smiting in the Hebrew Testament…so much…but today, I just want us to talk about language, for which we concentrate on just one, seemingly innocuous verse;
Eliakim son of Hilkiah and Shebna and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Please, speak to us in the Aramaic language. We understand Aramaic. Don’t speak in Hebrew—everyone crowded on the city wall can hear you.”
I’m guessing it wasn’t the verse which stood out most to you in that passage and yet I’ve read more theological articles on this verse than I have any other part of the story (truth be told, I had to remind myself what was going on in the wider story!). You see, American reformed theologian Walter Brueggemann played with this verse in a way that has inspired many other commentators and which I think is relevant for us today. Brueggemann points out that there are two types of conversation going on in the passage. First, there is the conversation at the city wall – in Aramaic – where the representative of the Assyrian Empire talks with the agents of King Hezekiah. Then there is the conversation behind the wall – in Hebrew – where the faith community take the power of Yahweh seriously. Brueggemann extrapolates this to suggest that Christians need to be bilingual – to know how to speak the language of the Empire in the public square and also how to speak the language of faith behind the wall where a different set of assumptions and a different perception of the world are at work. He argues that both conversations are necessary for Christians for, if we stop the conversation at the wall, we’ll simply become a sectarian and inward-looking group whilst if we stop the conversation behind the wall, the language and assumptions of the Empire will dominate our faith.
Am I explaining this clearly enough? Probably not. Okay…let me try putting it this way. The Christian faith can seem very bizarre, foreign even, to many of our friends in the wider community. Even in a country like ours, in which the Christian language was forced upon most people, today our beliefs, stories, language can seem archaic, irrelevant and alien to most people. I’m guessing that some of you didn’t look up today’s reading, skipped a few verses or maybe groaned when you saw how long today’s video would be…and you’re the ones who speak the language behind the wall…just imagine what reaction you’d get if you spoke to a non-Christian friend about Hezekiah, Sennacherib and the Rabshakeh!?! And yet, Brueggemann, and I, would argue that these stories and language help us to frame, understand and practice our faith. I’m not one for the whole Church vs the World way of thinking – the evidence of God’s presence outside the Church and sometime absence within it is enough to put that to bed. But I am one who believes that the Jesus story must be shared in a way that it can be heard for it truly is good news for individuals, communities and all creation! From the climate crisis to Black Lives Matter; individual struggles to global pandemics, I believe that authentic dialogue – and by that I mean speaking and listening – between those within the Church (‘behind the wall’) and those outside the Church (‘at the wall’) could transform all participants. Whilst our conservative sisters and brothers will stick to their street preaching and world-judging and our more liberal siblings might baulk at the speaking part of the conversations, I believe we are called to be bilingual and to engage with both.
All of which brings us back to bridges for they are the natural place where people of different worldviews, languages and stories might cross over any boundaries and encounter one another – just as happened in our Bible passage – for bridges are built for bilinguality:
This week, when I engaged on my first weekly Wednesday prayer walk around the community, I was between two funerals at Glyntaff and so I walked around Treforest and came across this sight –
The Castle Inn footbridge, (just a few steps away from our Castle Square chapel) on one side, and on the other, Cardiff Road, where homes, including some of those within our church community, are still being refurbished post-flood. As you can see, the bridge is still closed and will need to be knocked down and replaced because of the damage done to it by Storm Dennis in February.
On my way home from Treforest, I walked through the park, and passed by both the soon to be opened new bridge and the trusty, iconic Old Bridge, which, of course, was initially called the New Bridge!
Three footbridges…one not fit for purpose and at risk of collapse. One built for the future and which will open up access for many. One sturdy, beautiful and built to last.
Now it might be a somewhat stark contrast but which bridge do you think best represents our churches? In terms of enabling meaningful encounters between the community and the church; of enabling bilingual conversations and story-telling…which bridge could stand as a pictorial parable of our churches?
Perhaps, of course, our churches contain elements of all three. Perhaps the changing waters of today have made parts of our church life unfit for purpose; at risk of collapse. Perhaps some of what we do was good and right for one time but the cultural climate has changed, the waters have risen, and now might be the right time to say that their time of service has come to an end.
Perhaps some of our church life is like the Old Bridge – it’s been around for years and will continue to do so. It’s beautiful and solid and might need the odd bit of upkeep but otherwise, it’s pretty sound and will serve travellers for years to come, albeit perhaps fewer of them (when was the last time you walked over it?).
And perhaps some of our church life will have to be like the new bridge in the park. Costly, disruptive, a cause for grumbling for some and excitement for others but ultimately a walkway that opens up accessibility and the opportunity for more journeys and conversation for years to come.
As some churches in England return to severely amended services of worship and churches in Wales are soon likely to follow suit, now is an opportune time to assess our ecclesial engineering. Not to simply rush back to our previous structures, nor to necessarily ditch them, but instead to reflect on what is good and solid and beautiful; what might need to be pulled down; and what might need to be newly built. If you think about it, during this time of lock-down, we have been a church – we have been a bridge – without traditional worship, meetings, even buildings. How much of this has been necessary, temporary, debilitating and how much has been liberating, has reached more people, and could be more permanent?
For most church communities across the world, the pandemic has brought questions of identity, language, purpose and survival into sharper focus and many tough conversations will need to be had. But, as we saw in today’s reading, communities of faith have always faced change – they have always been in flux. What saved Hezekiah and the kingdom of Judah – albeit temporarily it has to be said – was that, with the help of the prophet Isaiah, they listened to God. The God who leads us by still waters and is with us in turbulent seas. The God who bridged any gap between the human and divine by becoming one of us; who shared the wonder of God’s love in a language that ordinary people could understand. The God who moved as a rushing wind, enabling Jesus’ friends to speak multilingually and who calls us to do the same today.
I’ve never been great at linguistics. I’ve got no skills in engineering. But if, together, we listen faithfully and act courageously, we might rebuild a beautiful bridge where all languages might be spoken, all stories heard, and all people might experience the glory of God – a bridge truly worthy of any top ten. Amen.
Let Us Pray
Clear our hearts, O God, that we may see you.
Clear our hearts, O God, that we may truly see ourselves.
Clear our hearts, O God, so that in every moment, we may seek you, serve you and love you as the Living God.
We bring before you today, all those who need your help.
We bring before you the sick, the infirm and the bereaved.
We think of those who care for them, and those whose hearts are breaking
– their families, doctors, nurses, carers, and all who are involved in the care and welfare of us all.
We pray for those whose lives have been impacted by coronavirus and its fallout, not only in this country, but throughout the whole world – the homeless, those who have lost jobs and income, those who are suffering, mentally and physically, from the effects of isolation, and those living in poverty,
We think of schoolchildren, who are confused and troubled, by the changes that have entered their lives – and those whose exams and futures have been affected. We pray for their parents, guardians and teachers, who have the task of bringing them through this difficult time.
We thank you for those agencies which are offering help – homeless shelters, Food Banks, charitable organisations, caring communities and friends.
We pray for our suffering world, which has been ravaged by war, famine and disease, and we pray that the hearts of the Rulers, and those in authority, may be turned from war and greed, towards justice and compassion.
We thank you, that as churches, we have been blessed in our continuing fellowship, one with another, and we are grateful for all those who have worked so hard to enable this. We pray that as churches, which have been so blessed, that we may reach out to others, who may need our help, in the coming days.
We pray that you will open our eyes, so that we may see the needs of others; open our ears, so that we may hear their cries, and, open our hearts, so that they need not be without support.
We end with a prayer from The Corrymeela Community
God of caught breath,
God of welcomed pause:
so much has happened so quickly,
that we can lose a sense of time.
As we continue to pace
and prepare ourselves
for more unknown to come,
we are grateful
for the faithfulness you promise:
the ‘strength for today and
bright hope for tomorrow’
that we find morning by morning.
Give us that song.
Have us hum it by heart.
May we share the new mercies we see.