Sit. Eat. Love.
Rev Dr Phil Wall’s Sermon on the 50th anniversary of Aberfan
Readings: Ruth 1:1-9, 16-22, Luke 22:14-19
I walked a bit of a rocky road when studying for my A-levels. For the first five years of my secondary education, I was the perfect little student – attentive, inquisitive, obedient…but something changed between the summer of my GCSEs and the start of my A-levels. I’d had enough of feeling like a battery hen, sitting around with little room to breathe, pumped full of facts and figures, ready for the exam factory, and so I became a bit more discerning in my learning. If I felt the teaching was good – that I was actually learning, being inspired even – I’d turn up to class. And if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t. Please don’t apply such criteria to Sunday mornings as it might prove quite hurtful! But in my A-levels, in English I had nearly a 100% attendance; in geography, somewhat less so.
That’s not to say that the geography A-level was a complete waste of time, after all, it brought me across the Severn for the first time in my life, when we studied coastal succession in the golden sands of the Gower. But I didn’t gain a lot from the subject’s classtime and so I would often skip classes and teach myself the curriculum. This included memorizing a number of case studies – drawing a diagram, memorizing what happened, why it happened and what could be learnt from it. I could still draw you a pretty accurate illustration of the tectonic activity that occurs when the Juan de Fuca plate meets North America. I could still reel off the names of the places that illustrated everything from alluvial erosion to zones of ablation. I could still tell you about the slope failure, reduced cohesion and human mismanagement which caused the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults on 21st October 1966.
Perhaps that sounds offensive to you – that the tragedy of Aberfan was used to illustrate one geographical process amongst many others. It certainly sounds offensive to me. The fact that as a student, I was encouraged to recite what happened, why it happened and what could be learnt from it, getting top marks for my knowledge whilst knowing nothing of the truth, the tragedy of Aberfan, is damning…and might cause us to reflect on how we can sometimes be detached when hearing about disasters in faraway places today.
I also know that such ignorance in the face of tragedy is not confined to arrogant teenagers seeking top grades, for many of us here will have heard such reductive and insensitive explanations for the tragedies in our lives. ‘They’re better off now’, ‘I know exactly what you’re going through’, or ‘God called home an angel’ are all phrases that I’ve heard offered to those in the midst of grief and which, though well-meaning as they might be, fall so offensively short.
And if anyone had uttered such words to Naomi – she who had lost her husband and two sons through famine – I think they would have received short shrift for Naomi was not looking for shallow solace or easy explanations:
“Call me Naomi no more,” she commands the women from Bethlehem when she returns home, “Instead know me as Mara. Call me ‘Bitter’ for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
It’s hard not to be moved by the depth of Naomi’s despair. And perhaps you can empathise with Naomi. Perhaps you can relate to her questioning of God, of her naming herself Bitter, of the grief which has engulfed her to the point of a denial of her former identity,. I’m sure there are Mums and Dads up the valley who can.
And how might we respond to them? What should we say, what should we do to those who are being tossed around in a torrent of grief? If we are people of the gospel, what good news could we possibly offer the families of those who lost their children on that fateful day in 1966 that wouldn’t sound trite or simplistic, even 50 years on? Where might we even begin?
There’s a film called ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ which is, amongst other things, the story of how the community in a small town respond to the grief of one of their own. Near the end of the film, Lars’ fiancé, now terminally ill, lies in a bedroom upstairs whilst the downstairs of their house is covered in carnations, cards and casserole dishes. A number of the elderly ladies from church sit in the lounge with Lars, reading or knitting silently.
“Is there something I’m supposed to do?” Lars asks the women.
“No dear,” one replies. “You eat. We came over to sit. That’s what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over and sit.”
Sitting and eating. Can the Christian response to tragedy really be so simple?
Well, let’s take the former. ‘That’s what people do when tragedy strikes, they come over and sit’. That’s what the wise ladies from the church do in the film and that is, more or less, what Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law does in their story. For Naomi, as so many of us do when bereaved, tries to push everyone away. She plans to leave the place where she has buried her husband and sons and tells her remaining kin to go away. But Ruth refuses. Instead, she vows to stay with Naomi:
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!” Ruth says. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; where you sit, I will sit.”
Ruth promises to be with Naomi whatever happens. Even if it means travelling to a strange place to live with foreign people, she promises to be by her side. And for this Ruth gets the silent treatment, at least at first anyway. For as the story unfolds, we see glimpses of hope and new life, we see the famine turn into a harvest, we hear Naomi called not bitter but blessed and all this unfolds after Ruth’s decision to simply be with Naomi. We hear of no words of explanation or defence of God’s actions; no ‘God needed an angel’ or ‘time will heal’; instead Ruth offered Naomi her presence.
Perhaps then in the act of sitting with those grieving, we offer a means through which God’s grace might be felt; perhaps through simply being with those in need we demonstrate what it is to be people of the Word rather than people of many words. For it wasn’t through propositions to accept or explanations to understand that God demonstrated God’s love for all creation. Instead, in the life of Jesus, we see that God’s way of showing us just how much we’re loved was to come over and sit. In Jesus, God came to be with us in our messiness, in our beauty, in our brokenness. He came to sit and listen to those who were despairing; to sit and laugh with those who were celebrating; to sit and weep with those who were grieving. The love of God was seen in the very presence of Christ and might be glimpsed again today when we follow his example of being, of sitting with those in need, of offering to strangers and friends nothing more, nothing less, than our very presence.
So, sitting and also eating. Sharing food together – in times of celebration and suffering, on days of rest and of remembrance – is a sacred act for it speaks of community, of bodily needs fulfilled, of a sharing of resources and time and love. Sharing food with the despairing, the outcast, the widow and orphan can say more than a thousand clever words ever could. American preacher Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way;
“Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to…share supper? With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.”
In offering food and drink to one another we offer nourishment, companionship, love and nowhere is this better exemplified than in the meal we share today. For though we might only eat a pinch of the loaf` and drink a dribble of grape juice, in the sharing of bread and wine we share again the story of God’s love. We share the story of the God who heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt and who freed them. We share the story of the God who sat and ate with his friends in an upper room on the night before he died and who sat and ate breakfast with them by the shore after he had risen. We share the story of the God who weeps with us in our grieving, who comforts us and embraces us with the promise of extravagant love and eternal life.
When faced with the tragedy of Aberfan…or of the tragedies of today in which children continue to suffer and parents continue to grieve…our words can fall so embarrassingly short. So may we seek to share God’s radical love through our actions, not just our words. There is much that must be done but perhaps we can begin by simply sitting and eating. Amen.
[Time of silence]
Dim ond un llais sydd yn y cwm
a’r llais hwnnw
yw llais y glaw
yn curo’n drwm.
Dim ond un llaw sydd yn y cwm
a’r llaw honno
yw llaw’r mynydd
yn gwasgu’n drwm.
Dim ond un lliw sydd yn y cwm
a’r lliw hwnnw
lliw tristwch, lliw llwm.
Dim ond un cwestiwn sydd yn y cwm
a’r cwestiwn hwnnw
Ac mae’n gwestiwn rhy drwm.
A literal translation is:
There is only one voice in the valley
and that voice
is the voice of the rain
beating down hard.
There is only one hand in the valley
and that hand
is the hand of the mountain
pressing down hard.
There is only one colour in the valley
and that colour
the colour of sadness, the colour of barrenness.
There is only one question in the valley
and that question
And the question is too heavy.