To be trafficked, and forced to live and work where you have not chosen; this is hell. Your captor counts your value in dollars, not in your humanity, and so treats you with the indifference a bad tradie treats his tools.
To be in pain, constantly without end; this is hell. Pain holds your body prisoner and you are unable to live as you wish because of the pain.
To be abused, and to live with memories of abuse; this is hell. Someone you trusted violated you and treated you just like a willful child stomping on a toy.
In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the descent through the circles of Hell (L’Inferno). In a region called Ptolomea are those who have been thrown deep into Hell for treachery to their guests. These are people who insinuate themselves in a position of trust and use that power to take advantage of their victims. Significantly, Dante believes that these people die at the moment of their crime; their body may live on, but their soul is thrown immediately to this bottom part of hell.
In the world of Dante’s poem, there’s justice in this punishment. The Australian churches now must allow justice to be dealt both to the perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also to those who, by action or inaction, covered up those crimes.
I want to give little oxygen here to perpetrators, however.
Rather, consider the hell of being a victim of abuse: the inability to trust; the devaluing of the self; the trauma of being violated, and the secondary, and sometimes worse, trauma of remembering it. There is a shocking trauma for those who recover a memory long repressed. There’s the ongoing trauma of flashbacks and dreams. Relationships take on extra challenges. Some victims become hypervigilant, expecting at every moment something bad to overtake them. Taken together, this is hell lived out in daily experience, like a young woman trafficked, or the person experiencing high levels of pain every day.
Is ‘victim’ the right word? Many prefer ‘survivor’. While a person remains without hope, then they are in hell: they are a victim of the violence done to them.
Being destroyed by abuse, or corroded by pain, or forcibly held become hell when the victim can see no way out. This person understands that their situation will go on unchanged for ever. It is hell, and one of the four last things: an ultimate reality.
Christian faith reveals God who can undo the final reality of death. Death, the end, is no longer the end. The God who has power to raise Jesus from the dead has power to release victims from hell. The person who believes there is a future becomes a survivor, literally, one who lives beyond.
Christian faith bears witness, in the hells which people experience, to the reality of hope. This is the key which unlocks the door of hell. Hope is the secret ingredient which explodes the murderous captors of this world.
We must believe in hell because it is part of people’s lived experience. We are invited, however, to grasp hope, because hope turns victims into survivors, and eventually into joyful survivors; hope destroys hell.
In the name of + the living God, Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
You are very welcome to this service. Thanks for bringing your owners with you. I hope you enjoy being here with other animals, and you don’t find that Labrador too big, or that cat too smelly!
There’s a wild story about Saint Francis of Assisi, preaching and birds. Today we mark St Francis’ day, technically on October 4, and this saint, who lived 800 years ago, has a large part in our hearts. We like him partly because he seemed to have a special rapport with you animals.
The story starts with Saint Francis preaching. Saint Francis had a beautiful voice. In fact, one of the brothers, who used to be known for his elegant, resonant beautiful speaking voice, thought he was the best speaker in Italy, until he heard Saint Francis and was so spell-bound he joined the Brothers.
But on this occasion Francis was having trouble. A group a swallows was making a racket. ‘Little Sisters,’ St Francis said, ‘no-one can hear the words of the Gospel because of your noise. Please be quiet until I have finished my sermon.’ And they were. And so were the people. They were so moved that they wanted to follow him, leave their town, and become wandering preachers like him.
‘Don’t be in a hurry,’ St Francis, ‘and don’t leave, and I’ll arrange everything for your life with God.’ So St Francis set up the Third Order, which consists of Christians who want St Francis as their guide in Christian living, but who, unlike the Brothers, live in their own homes and get married. This Third Order still exists. My wife Rae and I are members of it.
But after this sermon, St Francis set out on the road again. He saw ahead of him a vast throng of birds. There were thousands of birds, maybe tens of thousands, more than you could count, maybe more that you could make with computer graphics. In any case Francis was impressed with such a mob of birds.
He told his companions to stop while he went ahead to preach, this time to the birds. He told this huge crowd of birds how much God loved them, because God had created them. He told them how thankful they should be for being able to fly and for being well insulated with two or three layers of feathers. They also should thank God for the air to fly in, and for the fact that they didn’t need crops to live. ‘You don’t sow or reap, and God feeds you and gives you the rivers and springs to drink, and trees and high mountains to make safe nests.’
The birds then opened their beaks and stretched their necks and reverently bent their heads to the ground. Their singing and movement showed St Francis how much they’d understood.
St Francis then made the sign of the Cross and let them leave. They followed the Cross Francis had signed. Some went to the north, some to the south, others to the west, the rest to the east. They sang magnificent songs, marvellous songs, as they flew off.
The birds set an example to us, to live according to the Cross of Christ, and to go in every direction, thanking God that we depend only on him, like the birds, trusting God to provide enough for each day, and singing our beautiful song, the song that tells the story of Jesus.
Our beautiful song is our song, our own song. There’s a legend about an African tribe that says a pregnant woman listens to the child in the womb and learns a song that is unique to that child. She teaches the father-to-be the song, then she teaches the midwives who sing it as the child is born. As the child grows up, each time the child falls and hurts herself, the village gathers around and sings her song. When she does something wrong as an adult, she is brought face to face with those she has wronged, the villagers form a circle around her and sing her song. The song is sung at the person’s funeral, and then is never heard again.
Our own song: one that our loved ones sing when we need healing or restoring. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?
The song each bird sang as it flew in one of the directions of the Cross was its own individual song. At the same time, each song fitted in with the songs of all the other birds. It was in close harmony with the song of the community.
In the same way, our own song with its individual story of God with us, with each of us, harmonises with the song of the community with its story of Jesus who came among us to share love.
So when we sing ‘All Creatures of our God and King’, we are singing the song that was originally St Francis’ own song. It’s now the community’s song, and we sing it along with the whole community. But we also make it our song. We remember the times we have been awed by the night sky and we sing,
‘Thou silver moon with softer gleam, O praise him. …
Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice,
Ye lights of evening, find a voice. O praise him.’
When we get to,
‘And all those of tender heart,
Forgiving others, take your part, O sing ye Alleluia’,
we can remember a time in particular when we forgave another, or when we were forgiven even though we were filled with shame and remorse.
I’m now going to make the sign of the Cross over you, and your owners can watch. When you leave, at the end of the service, you can go in the direction of the Cross that is your path, thanking God for God’s provision for you, and continue loving and forgiving your humans. As you go, go singing your wonderful song.
+ As you go to the north, or to the south, or to the west, or to the east, do not be guilty of the sin of ingratitude, but travel with God’s love and with your song. Amen.
Poem by Symeon the New Theologian(949-1022), Hymn 15 in his Hymns of Divine Love
We awaken in Christ’s body,
As Christ awakens our bodies
There I look down and my poor hand is Christ,
He enters my foot and is infinitely me.
I move my hand and wonderfully
My hand becomes Christ,
Becomes all of Him
I move my foot and at once
He appears in a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous to you?
Then open your heart to him.
And let yourself receive the one
Who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
We wake up inside Christ’s body
Where all our body all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized in joy as Him,
And He makes us utterly real.
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged
Is in Him transformed.
And in Him, recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in His light,
We awaken as the beloved
In every last part of our body.
Quoted by Richard Rohr, pp. 219-20 in Things Hidden