SERMON BY THE VICAR
SUNDAY BEFORE LENT 2015 – Readings, 2 Cor 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
We all learn new things in different ways. My sister recently told a story against me from when I was a child and had learnt about the Great Fire of London at school. Apparently I came home full of enthusiasm, reciting lots of facts about the Great Fire. My family’s reaction was quietly to hide all the matches in the house from a child with known pyromaniac tendencies. I hope all of us are learning new things all the time – it is certainly a requirement of anyone in ordained ministry that they see themselves and encourage in others the culture of learning as a lifelong process. In relation to our Christian faith, it would be nothing short of a tragedy if we stopped learning at any one point so that our theological education remains at the level of Pooh Bear and the Velveteen Rabbit. Over the past week to 10 days, I have found myself in scenarios where my internal and external learning curve has been not steep but vertical, and on this Sunday before Lent, I’d like to share three aspects of this recent learning as I believe they may help prepare all of us for Lent, which begins (in our Gregorian calendar) on Wednesday.
First is that none of us has any permanent home here on earth. We find temporary shelter in different places at different times, and sometimes the shelter can be so comfortable that we trick ourselves into believing that we do have a permanent home here on earth. After all, one of the three cardinal virtues of the Benedictine life is stability of place. Benedict himself reserved his harshest criticisms for the monks he called gyrovagues – wandering, peripatetic monks, who had no fixed abode and who lived by begging. But physical stability, which we might have, is different from the ultimate theological truth that here we have no abiding city and the earthly end of all us is dust. This knowledge can actually be a comfort – I know already onto which shelf my remains will be put, and I find this helpful. For most of us, the need to cling on to our surroundings at all costs is very strong – witness the first reaction of the three disciples on the holy mountain with Jesus, where they wish to build a shelter to stay there. He doesn’t allow them and they go down the mountain. More of this anon. So if we have no abiding home and we are all pilgrims together, then that gives a context for the very strong learning experience Father Larry and I had in Manila last week, in three days of presentations from human rights, migrants, and seafarers organisations on the levels of abuse of migrant workers, especially Filipinos, across the world. Some of the images of violence and abuse which we were forced to look at and listen to seared themselves at least for me, into my consciousness and I had to do some vigorous spiritual exercises in order to get these images out of my head and be able to sleep. Globalisation has its sacrificial victims, and here we heard and met them full on. These stories were a dramatic illustration of the fact that none of us has an abiding home here on earth. For this reason, the earliest credal affirmation we have in Holy Scripture is that of the self-identity of the Hebrew people “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We have here no abiding home.
Second is that we are all created in the image of God. This may seem like a self-evident truth, but there are times when human behaviour seems to negate this basic theological truth. If every man woman and child is created in the image of God and bears the indelible divine stamp, then anything which diminishes humanity in terms of violence and abuse cannot be tolerated or accepted. Two items from the news in the past 10 days have also made their indelible mark on me, as I know both people. The first is the horrific burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al Kasasbeh, whose family I have known since my posting in Jordan in the 90’s. They sent to me, as they did to all the grieving friends and relatives the full unedited horrific recording, as they wished to share their pain. This barbaric act, carried out, using King Abdallah’s words, by deviants is something we were doing in this country in relative terms not all that long ago (witness Guy Fawkes) but the negation of anything human or divine was total. Humanity and divinity were both totally denied by the perpetrators. As for Moaz and all victims of human brutality, he is beyond any place of pain, and held in the hearts of those who care for and love him. This too required prayer to put it out of the images in the head. Lest we become too smug about brutality and barbarism which happens elsewhere a second searing image for me was the conviction in Preston Crown Court of the carer convicted of the abuse of the bishop in his eighties with dementia – the recorded and convicted abuse involved slapping, kicking, biting, and being forced to cold shower. This Bishop had been a mentor to me when I was in the early stages of vocation as he had a vision of ministry which was beyond the parochial. No part of the world was strange to him, and the fact that this was his end – he has since died – was another searing image of what we do to each other as human beings. As he was relatively high profile, his case made the news but we know this is the tip of the iceberg, and leads, at least, to my daily prayer that I never end up in a care home in the United Kingdom. Of course, many carers and many care homes do wonderful dedicated work, but as a society we have many unanswered questions about the dignity of older people as made in the image of God. I use these images to remind us of the fact that we are all Imago Dei, as shown ultimately by Jesus on the mountain top, shining with the transfigured light of God.
Third and finally, when we share in the Eucharist, as we do today, we are committed to the radical sharing of ourselves in our world. As the bread is broken and the wine shared, so they are at the same time symbols of the fact that we are broken and shared in service to our world. That this sharing can be, and is, costly, which was my steep learning point in the Philippines where the church of the twenty first century is rapidly becoming a martyr church – those priests, nuns, Bishops and dedicated lay people who stand up for the poor against the interests of big business – mining companies and corporate multinationals - are simply taken out, or to use the euphemistic phrase which describes this phenomenon, “extra judicial killings.” Those involved in justice for the poor do not know when the assassin’s bullet will strike and the perpetrators are rarely, if ever, brought to justice. This is what being a Eucharistic community means in the concrete daily reality of life.
Now why speak about these things today on the Sunday before Lent and a day on which we offer healing with anointing with oil and the laying on of hands? It’s simple really. Lent is a time when we are reminded of our own mortality and the fact that we have no abiding city. We will say on Wednesday “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time when we are reminded of the fact that all of us are in the image of God, and we are able to do things to remind ourselves of this, especially in Lent. If I am diminished as a human being by an unhealthy attitude to food or drink, it’s a time to do something about it and remind ourselves that we can do something about our bodies to show ourselves that we are not passive victims of our cravings and addictions. This is what the discipline of fasting is all about. Thirdly, Lent is a time when we recall that in our pilgrimage we are nourished and sustained by sharing in this communal meal of the Eucharist, as we commit ourselves to service in our world. To conclude, these words are used at the ordination of a deacon or a priest, but they apply to everyone” Because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your won strength, pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this Eucharist today, we show our dependence on God for the next stage of our pilgrimage, as we anoint and lay hands on each other to bring about that healing for which we all long. This is Jesus on the mountain top as he and we are transfigured into God’s likeness from glory to glory, as we follow in his footsteps this Lent to the glory of Easter.