Sunday, 22 November 2015

Christ the King

“Are you the king of the Jews?” asks Pilate of Jesus. Jesus has been arrested, hauled up before the Jewish courts, beaten up, bound and then dragged to the Roman governor’s residence. He was an ordinary Galilean carpenter, probably not outwardly impressive to look at at the best of times, but he must have looked even less like a candidate for kingship after the rough treatment he’d had. I wonder what tone of voice Pilate uses for this opening question. Is it ridicule or sarcasm? “How can this dishevelled man think he is king of anything?” Or is it just weary impatience? “Let’s get him to condemn himself, kill him quickly – get him out of the way and get the Jewish leaders off my back.” Whatever Pilate thinks, though, Jesus isn’t fazed, and his answer catches Pilate on the back foot. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  Instead of trying to defend himself, Jesus seems to be trying to open up a dialogue with Pilate, to find out what is in his mind and his heart. It’s not what Pilate is expecting. Doesn’t Jesus know who holds the power here? But Pilate’s abrupt response shows that Jesus has got under his defences.  By the end of this conversation there is at least the start of a real exchange of ideas.

Pilate goes back out to the Jewish leaders and declares that as far as he is concerned there is no case to answer here. In the end Jesus’ accusers wear Pilate down and Jesus is crucified anyway, but we can tell that Pilate won’t forget this particular case in a hurry. He had tried to treat Jesus as a bureaucratic task, just another troublemaker in a long line of them. But Jesus treated him as a person, a human being, someone with thoughts and feelings worth exploring, even as he stood there bruised and beaten and at Pilate's mercy,just as he treated all those he had met during his ministry.Who is really in charge of this conversation? Who has the power that matters? Not Pilate, but Jesus, because while Pilate is terrified of getting it wrong, terrified of messing up, terrified of his bosses back in Rome, Jesus isn’t terrified of anything, not even death. This is true kingship. Jesus has power that even the might of Imperial Rome can’t destroy.

Today is the feast of Christ the King, a feast that is a fairly recent . It was first declared as a feast day in 1925, by the then Pope, Pius XI. In the wake of the First World War, he’d watched Fascism grew in Germany, Spain and Italy. He’d watched Communism sweep across Eastern Europe. Nationalism was on the rise everywhere. Boundaries were being drawn, positions were hardening. The Pope didn’t like what he saw. Nationalism had fuelled one war; he didn’t want to see it fuel another. 

His response might seem a rather inadequate one to such enormous challenges. Setting aside one Sunday a year to celebrate Christ’s kingship doesn’t seem likely to make much difference to the tide of world affairs. But it was meant to be a reminder to Christians that their allegiance to God should always come above their allegiance to their own tribe.  “My country, right or wrong,” just wouldn’t do. It was one thing to love and care about the nation they lived in, but it was quite another to think their nation had an absolute claim on them. The feast he inaugurated reminded Christians that they had king whose rule trumped that of earthly rulers. God’s call to serve others took priority over national interests.

As Jesus put it, “My kingdom is not from this world.” He didn’t mean that his kingdom was other-worldly, only existing in some heavenly realm, to be inhabited after we die. In fact he meant quite the opposite. It is a kingdom that is very much here and now, but which crosses the national boundaries and political rivalries of the world. It runs over and under and through all the other loyalties we might have, to family or workplace or friendship group or nation.

That’s the theory anyway, but living with that kind of dual nationality can be costly and complicated. In the early years of the Church, for example, Christians were almost always pacifists. How could they fight for the Roman Empire when it was the very force which had crucified Christ? For those already in the army when they became Christians the decision was agonising. One of the early soldier saints was a man called Martin. He’d become a Christian, but what should he do now? Eventually, on the eve of a particularly important battle, he laid down his arms and declared "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight."  You can imagine how well that went down. He was arrested and would have been executed, but he offered instead to go into the frontline of the battle unarmed. He was only saved because the enemy decided to sue for peace the next day instead of fighting. Martin was released from military service and eventually became Bishop of Tours in France. We know him as St Martin.

Civilians had to make tough choices too. The Roman Empire insisted that all its citizens offered incense to the Emperor, who they believed to be a living God. They didn’t mind who else they worshipped, but this was a test of loyalty to the Empire. Many Christians refused to do this, and paid for their principles with their lives.  

The pressure to marry and have children was another common point of discord. It was the task of every good Roman woman to have children - the more the better. This wasn’t  just to provide heirs for her husband’s family. It was also to provide the workers and soldiers that the state needed. It was considered to be a patriotic duty. But what if you didn’t want to support this oppressive, freedom denying Empire? What if you’d discovered another calling – to pray, to serve, to spread the message of the Gospel? People often think that the early Christians were prudish about sex, but that’s not really true – they just felt that there other priorities which had a greater claim on them. For women, refusing to marry someone who didn’t share your faith, or wouldn’t allow you to practice it was one of the only ways they could take a stand. Most of the early Christian female martyrs were killed for this reason, women like St Cecilia, whose feast day is also today by coincidence.  Their refusal to become part of a system they disagreed with was an act of civil disobedience, and one which often cost them their lives. 

These were some of the dilemmas those first generations of Christians faced. They had stark and costly choices to make. But every generation has its own struggles, ways in which their allegiance to Christ the King cuts across their other allegiances to family or nation, and in some ways it became even more complicated when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Instead of being countercultural Christian faith became the route to secular power. This may have brought it into the mainstream, but it also multiplied the opportunities for it to be misused to manipulate and oppress. The list of ways that happened is too long to name, but here are a few; the Crusades, the conquistadors, the inquisition, the burning of witches, anti-semitism  homophobia…  Terrible things happen easily, and almost inevitably, when power and religion get tangled up together. It isn’t just a problem with Christianity, of course – any faith, or secular ideology can be used to oppress. The devastation ISIS are wreaking across the Middle East, the massacre in Paris last week is fuelled by a religious vision of world domination. That twisted vision wouldn’t matter so much if was just a privately held fantasy, but backed by arms and money, as we’ve seen over this last few weeks in Paris and in Mali, it is catastrophic. But as we condemn and lament this perversion of Islam, we also need to recognise that Christian history is just as bloodstained.  

With the dark shadow of those abuses of religious power looming over us, it is tempting to think it would be safer simply to keep our faith private, something to be discreetly dusted off on Sunday mornings, then put back in a box for the rest of the week, not allowed to affect the rest of our lives. There are many who would argue that is just what weshould do – keep our noses out of politics and education and science and ethics. But that isn’t possible or realistic. We all have to make decisions; how we spend our money, how we spend our time, how we vote, how we raise our children or treat our neighbours. Consciously or unconsciously, our beliefs will influence these decisions. We all have power; it can’t be otherwise. Our responsibility is to make sure we use it wisely.

That’s why it matters that we should keep this feast, however many questions it raises for us, because it is the questions which really matter.The time for easy triumphalism is long past – that idea that we are entitled somehow to throw our weight around because of the historical importance of Christian faith. We have grown wary, and weary of that. But that makes it all the more important that we should ask ourselves  what it means to call Christ king now.

That’s why it is good that the Gospel today pulls us back to the place where we ought to be; alongside a bruised and ragged man who showed us what real power looks like. The power we really need, the power that makes the difference doesn’t rely on wealth or force or political influence but on love. The kind of love that sees even your enemy as a human being, worth listening to, worth talking to. The kind of love that is not afraid of anything, because it is rooted in the love of God which is eternal and indestructible. That kind of power is the only power that, in the end, can conquer the world.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

2nd Sunday before Advent: Walls

“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” say Jesus’ disciples, in awe at the sheer scale of the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem.

This morning at our All Age Worship we thought about walls, and what they mean to us. I told some Biblical “wall” stories. There were stories about walls coming down – the walls of Jericho tumbling at the blast of the trumpets and the shouts of the Israelites. And there were stories of walls being built up – Nehemiah building the walls of Jerusalem after the exile, struggling for every cubit against those who didn’t want to see Jerusalem fortified again, eventually telling the people to build with one hand and hold a sword in the other to fight off their attackers. 

We also did some building up...

Walls can be wonderful,  protecting and sheltering, or they can be obstacles, things that cut us off from one another. The Temple walls were no different. There had been a Temple in Jerusalem from the time of King Solomon – before that they had worshipped God in a tent, and God had been quite happy with that. But that didn’t seem right to the great and good of Jerusalem, so  a Temple it had to be, built of stone and cedar wood, and a very fine Temple it was too.

...and some knocking down

Solomon’s Temple stood until the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC, but after the exile a new Temple was built. It wasn’t as  splendid as the old one, though. There weren’t the resources to rebuild as Solomon had done, so around the time of Jesus’ birth, plans were afoot to extend it and beautify it. Those plans were the brainchild of King Herod the Great – the same man who ordered the massacre of the children of Bethlehem – and frankly it was more of a vanity project than a genuine spiritual enterprise. He was a paranoid megalomaniac, who had murdered some of his own family to prevent them dethroning him, and he wasn’t even considered properly Jewish – he came from a neighbouring tribe which had converted to Judaism out of convenience, and he’d been put on the throne by the Romans. So he needed to curry all the favour he could, and what better way than by starting a great big, glitzy building project. Unfortunately the building works over ran by several decades, and it was only just finished by the time Jesus spoke these words to his disciples.

As you can imagine then, the idea that this grand new building was going to be thrown down, didn’t exactly go down well with those who overheard him saying it. In fact it was one of the things that got him crucified.

He was quite right though. Herod’s Temple was reduced to rubble by the Romans in AD 70 – only part of the Western Wall remains, a place of prayer for Jewish people to this day. But Jesus wasn’t really just talking about the physical building when he said these words. It was the whole system of Temple worship which he could see coming to an end.

The thing about the Temple was that it walls had become a bit of an obsession among those who built in and ran it, in a way that wasn’t always helpful at all. As I said earlier walls can make a home, providing shelter and protection. Or they can be obstacles across our way. The Temple was constructed as a series of courtyards, one inside the others. At the very centre was the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest could go and then only once a year, screened off behind a curtain. Beyond that was the court of the priests, then one for Jewish men, then one for women, then one for Gentiles. Some people – those who were ritually unclean – couldn’t enter it at all. That included people with disabilities and diseases. The Temple was the place where you went to encounter God, so the walls which kept people in their place – or excluded them completely – also cut them off from God. Gentiles were forbidden, on pain of death, from going any further in than their own court, and stones etched with the warning have been found by Archaeologists in Jerusalem.

It may have been an impressive building, but for many people – especially those who were already marginalised – it’s walls were more of an obstacle than a home.

Jesus’ words here, though, pointed forward to something the early Christians were keen to bear witness to. They had found a new Temple, a new way of encountering God. They had found it in Jesus himself, and they found it in one another as they gathered together in the Christian community. They were living stones in a new Temple, one in which there were no dividing walls. The walls of hostility between Jews and Gentiles, men and women had been broken down. The sick, the poor, the sinners – those who had been excluded from the old Temple – were explicitly included here. All could have “confidence to enter the sanctuary by …the new and living way that he opened”. All could find within the walls of God’s love the safety and warmth they needed, a home in God’s heart.

Tonight in the silence let’s think about the walls in our lives; the walls that are obstacles to us and to others, blocking the way, cutting us off from one another, and the walls we long for, welcoming, protecting walls that give us the shelter we all need. Let’s pray for all who need strong walls around them at this time – those who are homeless or refugees, those in Paris who are feeling terrified and unprotected at the moment, and those in the Middle East who live with that vulnerability all the time. And let’s pray that those of us who call ourselves Christian, part of God’s living temple, would always build walls which make homes, not barriers to others.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Remembrance Sunday: Visions of Peace

Seventy years ago this year, the Second World War came to an end and those on the winning side at least rejoiced. We’re probably familiar with images like the one I’ve printed on the service sheet of people celebrating first VE and then VJ day. These images can be a bit misleading, though, because it seems that not everyone felt like partying.  The Mass Observation project , which collected diary entries from volunteers all over the country, records a wide range of reactions to the end of the war. Celebrations were often far less exuberant than the famous scenes in the centre of London might suggest. One man said this “‘There were awful thoughts and anxieties in the air – the breaking of something – the splitting apart of an atmosphere that had surrounded us for six years.’” There had been a common aim holding people together through the war, but what would happen now? Another recorder described an exhausted crowd, silently watching a bonfire they’d built, seemingly with no energy to do more than that. A young woman commented ‘I felt most depressed which I felt was very naughty considering how long we have worked and fought for this’*

If you’d lost a loved one, of course, victory couldn’t bring them back, but even for those who hadn’t there were many hardships in the days which followed, as some of you will no doubt recall first hand. Rationing was worse after the war than it had been during it. Vast numbers of houses had been destroyed. Lives and families had been disrupted. And this was in the country that had won the war. For those on the losing side there was guilt and shame to deal with too.

“There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover”  sang Vera Lynn in the depths of the conflict, but for many it must have seemed as if those blue birds had hardly got airborne before they came crashing to earth again. Visions of peace are all very well. Translating them into reality is another matter.

There’s another vision of peace in the first reading we heard today.  The Old Testament prophet  Isaiah’s vision of peace is a famous one, the image of the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf all lying down together. It’s sometimes called the the Peaceable Kingdom, and it has often been celebrated in art. I’ve included one post war engraving of it on the notice sheet for you to look at.

Isaiah was writing during a period when his homeland of Judah was being destroyed by waves of invading armies. It was a terrifying time. But despite that, he believed that God hadn’t abandoned his people, and that he could bring peace out of the chaos and carnage.

And what a peace it would be! It wouldn’t just be the absence of war. It would be a time of complete wholeness, when everything that was wrong would be set to rights. Even the animals would live in harmony. That might seem far-fetched, but I’m sure we get his point, because this vision isn’t really about the animals at all; it’s about us. It’s about the lions and wolves in our own hearts, those deeply rooted instincts which drive us to bite and tear and grasp when we’re threatened or hungry. It’s about the temptation to treat others like prey, something to be consumed to meet our own needs.  The lambs are within each of us too. We are all vulnerable like them. We know it and we often don’t like it. All it takes is for something to go wrong in our lives – the loss of a job, mental or physical health problems – and we can find ourselves suddenly defenceless in a hostile world.  For some that vulnerability is a permanent state; poverty ,disability or oppression puts them at the mercy of others throughout their lives.

But Isaiah dreamed of a time when the vulnerable “lambs” of our world could live without worry, without looking over their shoulders to see who was creeping up on them. And he dreamed of time when “wolves” would no longer feel the need to dominate and terrorise them.   

It is a grand and beautiful dream, but can it ever become a reality, and if so, how? I’d like to pick just two things out of our readings today that might help.

The first comes at the end of the second reading.
Jesus’ disciples sit at his feet, looking up at him as he teaches them. They are hanging on his words. As far as they are concerned he has all the answers. He opens his mouth and miracles happen. Yet he turns to them and tells them,
 You are the salt of the earth, You are the light of the world”.

If we wonder why the visions of peace we dream of don’t ever quite materialise perhaps we should look in the mirror. Jesus tells us that it all starts with us, that each of us has power beyond our imagination, power to change the world, but we often find that very hard to believe and to act on.  Most of us think deep down that peacemaking is for UN negotiators and politicians, not for the likes of us. But we’re wrong. Wars build up from small resentments, tensions between neighbours, prejudices that go unchallenged. And if the conflict in the world comes from small beginnings then the peace of the world must start there too, in the things we do in our own lives and neighbourhoods. We are the ones who are there in those places.  If we don’t build peace in our own backyards, peace in our own families, peace in our own hearts, no one else can do it for us, and then how can peace ever take root in the wider world?

So that’s the first thing; if we want to see Isaiah’s vision of peace become a reality, we have to do something about it ourselves.  

But I don’t think it’s enough to say that on its own. In fact, it can leave us feeling so overwhelmed by the challenges,  that we are even less likely to act. The second point I want to draw from our readings might help to balance that out.  

In Isaiah’s prophecy, the wolves and the lambs don’t just suddenly decide to lie down together out of the blue. That passage follows on from the one before it, in which God promises to send a new kind of leader to help his people build peace.  
The leader God promised wouldn’t be a military commander. He would be someone steeped in the Spirit of God, someone with a special care for the poor, someone who would “judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”.
It’s no surprise that Christians have traditionally seen this as a prophecy about Jesus. Whether Isaiah intended that is another matter- he was writing 600 years before Jesus was born - but it’s easy to see why the first Christians made that leap, because they found in Jesus so many echoes of Isaiah’s words that they couldn’t help applying them to him. Jesus too had led not with military power, but with the power of love. And he had turned the established order upside down, just as Isaiah said God’s new leader would do.

In the famous words of the Beatitudes which we heard today he declared that those who were poor, mourning, hungry for righteousness were blessed by God, held close to God’s heart, not cursed and marginalised, as many at the time thought.  Throughout his ministry he lived out that message, and his commitment didn’t waver even when it led him to the cross. But even then death couldn’t silence him. The fact that we are still here 2000 years later, drawing inspiration from him shows that.

Creating peace, peace that lasts, peace that reaches right down to the roots of what is wrong is a job we are all called to do. But to do it needs power beyond our power, a vision that’s bigger than ourselves. Whether we are trying to sort out a family problem, to find ways of resolving disputes with our neighbours, or to work out how to live alongside people of different cultures and backgrounds, it can be very hard work. We can’t do it in our own strength. We need to be open to wisdom that transcends our own if we are going to find the courage to put  down our prejudices and listen to one another. Where do we find that power and wisdom and strength? Christians would call it the gift of God, given to us in Christ who shares our lives and our struggles.  He has inspired peacemakers from St Francis to Desmond Tutu, restoring their hope when it threatened to run dry.

It shouldn’t surprise us that seventy years after the second world war the peace we crave often still eludes us, because in every generation we will have to make that peace anew.  There’s no magic wand, no once for all solution that will wipe war from the world. Human beings will always be half wolf, half lamb, an uneasy mix of the fears and hungers and vulnerabilities which bring us into conflict with one another and into conflict within ourselves too.

But the good news which Christian faith proclaims is that the Prince of Peace walks alongside us as we work to help those wolves and lambs live together, however warily they do so. We are called to act, but we are not called to act alone. As we face the challenges of our age; the threats of terrorism, the mass movement of refugees and the fears that mass migration provokes, as our faith and our hope are tested, just as that of our parents and grandparents were, perhaps that is what we most need to hear and to cling to. Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, for they shall be called the children of God. May we walk forward confidently in the knowledge that our Father will never forsake us.
Thanks to Peter Bloxham for the photo

* Quotes from David Kynaston, “Austerity Britain” 
More information about Mass Observation here

Monday, 2 November 2015

All Souls: The journey

1 Corinthians 13.8-13

One of the challenges of preaching at this service is that I know that everyone here has a different experience of bereavement. That’s why, when I try to choose readings and poems for this service, I know I am likely to get it wrong for as many people as I get it right.

Many people love the *poem I read just now, (below) for example, with its calm and untroubled assurance that the person who seems to us to have gone is perfectly, safely present on another shore. These are great words, reminding us that our perspective is only one perspective. They encourage us to lift our eyes, to trust that those we love are held in the hands of God.

But the assurance it brings might not work for you at all at this moment. You might more easily identify with another poem I came across recently by the Victorian poet James Russell Lowell. Three of his four children died in infancy, and then he lost his beloved wife. After the death of one of his daughters, he put his anger into words in a poem called “After the Burial”. It’s too long to read in full, but here are a few verses from it. Someone has evidently tried to console him by reminding him that his daughter is now immortal in heaven.

All Souls' candles
Immortal? I feel it and know it,
  Who doubts it of such as she?
But that is the pang’s very secret,—
  Immortal away from me.

There’s a narrow ridge in the graveyard
  Would scarce stay a child in his race,
But to me and my thought it is wider
  Than the star-sown vague of Space.

Console if you will, I can bear it;
  ’T is a well-meant alms of breath;
But not all the preaching since Adam
  Has made Death other than Death.

Everyone here is in a different place, experiencing grief differently. Some may have lost a loved one just weeks ago, some months ago, some decades ago. Maybe you think you ought to be over it, but it’s not like that.

And grief is different depending on who it is that has died. The loss of a parent in old age is different from the loss of a child, or a spouse or a friend – no less of a loss, but a different one. The individual relationship we had with them affects our grieving too.  The death of someone we loved and trusted in an uncomplicated way brings one sort of pain, the death of someone we were at odds with, where there were unresolved, and now unresolvable, difficulties brings quite another. 

What we believe about death affects our grieving too. We may have a deeply rooted belief that those we love are safe in God’s hands, that we will see them again one day, or we may believe death is the end, or not know what we think at all.

We will probably feel very different at different moments too. I don’t entirely buy into the idea of grieving as a process which moves predictably through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and on into acceptance. My observation of the many hundreds of people I’ve seen grieving, as well as my own experiences, tell me that it’s perfectly normal to hurtle backwards and forwards through those feelings – and many more – from day to day. It’s a bit like the English weather – you can have all four seasons in one day. Often with grief, just when you think you’re getting over it, something rises up to push you right back to square one.

There are no rights and wrongs, no rules about grief. It is what it is. We are where we are. It isn’t uncharted territory; many people have been where we are when we grieve, but there’s no neat, way-marked path through this land.

So if grieving feels like a mess, or takes a long time, that’s not a sign that we are doing it wrong. It may just be a complicated journey for us. We all like to know where we are and what is what, but as our Bible reading reminded us, that’s not always possible. “Now we see in a mirror, dimly,” says St Paul. Our vision of God, of life, of ourselves is blurred and  indistinct. Or to go back to Bishop Brent’s image, what we long to see may be over the horizon, tantalisingly out of view.

So how can we deal with the confusion of grief?

The **song the choir are going to sing in a minute might help (below). It is a song from the Christian community based on the island of Iona, and it’s set to a tune which it is said to have been played as the ancient kings of Scotland were rowed from the mainland to their traditional burial ground on Iona. It’s called the Last Journey, and it’s obviously influenced by that image of the boat slipping gently across the water.

The journey through death, and through grief, is in one sense, as John Bell says, a “journey we make on our own”. It is individual, different from anyone else’s. But in another sense, the song says, we are not alone at all. Our way is woven by God. We are accompanied by Jesus, who has been through the darkness of death. The Spirit surrounds us as we travel. And in the last verse we are reminded that “Angels walk in our dreams”.  

Angels in the Bible are sometimes supernatural winged creatures – and many people during bereavement do have strange experiences which comfort them.  But the word “angel” simply means messenger, and often in the Bible angels come alongside people in human form. They don’t realise they’ve met one till afterwards. The angels who help us when we’re grieving, who bring us the message that we are loved, might be the friends who turn up with a meal they’ve made for us, or listen to us while we cry. They might be members of this Christian community here at Seal too. This is a place where you are welcome to grieve for as long as you need, in whatever way you need. We are here for the long haul.

“Now I know only in part,” says St Paul, “but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known”. Grief is a mystery to us, unpredictable and strange – we may feel that we don’t really know what is going on at all. But the good news which Christian faith proclaims is that God knows us perfectly, and knows those we love who have died too. And knowing us, he loves us, just as we are, with a love that never ends.

* THE SHIP, by Bishop Charles Henry Brent

What is dying?
I am standing on the seashore.
A ship sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object and I stand watching her
Till at last she fades from the horizon,
And someone at my side says,
“She is gone!”
Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all;
She is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her,

And just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her;
And just at the moment when someone at my side says, "She is gone",
There are others who are watching her coming,
And other voices take up a glad shout,
"There she comes" – and that is dying.


From the falter of breath,
through the silence of death,
to the wonder that’s breaking beyond;
God has woven a way,
unapparent by day,
for all those of whom heaven is fond.

From frustration and pain,
through hope hard to sustain,
to the wholeness here promised,
there known;
Christ has gone where we fear
and has vowed to be near
on the journey we make on our own.

From the dimming of light,
through the darkness of night,
to the glory of goodness above;
God the Spirit is sent
to ensure heaven’s intent
is embraced and completed in love.

From today till we die,
through all questioning why,
to the place from which time and tide flow;
angels walk in our dreams,
and magnificent themes
of heaven’s promise are echoed below.

@ John Bell, the Iona Community

Sunday, 1 November 2015

All Saints Day: Seeds of life

Philip and I went to see the film “Suffragette” earlier this week. It was a powerful film which followed the lives of some of those who fought for equal rights for women in the early part of the 20th century.  They endured imprisonment and force-feeding, but perhaps worse than that many of them found themselves cut off by family and friends.  The central character in the film faces losing her marriage and her child because of her involvement in the struggle for the vote – her story was fictional, but based on fact.  As the story unfolds we watch her wrestling with herself. Is it right to pay this price?

We might like to think that those who struggle heroically for what is right never have doubts about what they are doing, but that isn’t the case. Physical pain is bad enough, but  perhaps it is worse to lie awake in the dark hours of a sleepless night, wondering whether it is worth it, whether it will make any difference.

That dilemma isn’t a new one. The writer of our first reading, from the book of Wisdom, knew it very well. He was writing sometime in the century before Jesus was born. Israel was under foreign occupation for much of this time, and there were civil wars and rebellions. Many Jewish people had been executed for fighting for freedom. Yet nothing seemed to change. They would have recognised the words of the torturer in George Orwell’s novel, 1984 who said, “ If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”  That was how it felt to them too. There seemed to be no hope.

What made it even worse was that many people at the time assumed that suffering was a sign God had rejected you. What did that say about those who had died in the struggle for freedom? Were they cursed by God? Had they sinned in some way?  

The writer of the book of Wisdom was having none of it. “In the eyes of the foolish,” he says, “they seemed to have died, and their departure from us was thought to be a disaster”  but it wasn’t so. He didn’t know why bad things happened to good people, any more than we do, but he believed that these painful deaths were not the end of the story.  He believed in God, a God who was bigger than the forces of evil, who would not reject those who were faithful to him. “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,” he said, “and no torment will ever touch them.” Eventually that would be obvious to everyone. “In the time of their visitation” – on the day of judgement, he means – “they will run like sparks through the stubble,” . They would light up the world one day.

As Martin Luther King once said,  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  He didn’t live to see that justice, but his work was part of that arc, and it changed the world. 

The message of the book of Wisdom is that what  we see is not necessarily all there is to see. We are stuck in the middle of our stories – it can’t be any other way. We may not be able to imagine how the problems that beset the world can be resolved, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be.  Our calling is to do the right thing anyway, to work for justice anyway, and leave the rest to God.  

The book of Wisdom was very popular in the early Church, and it’s easy to see why. Many of the first Christians also suffered and died for their faith. Was that a sign that they’d got it wrong? No, they said. Jesus himself had been crucified. He’d died a shameful death – but God had raised him up, and he would do the same for those who followed him. God was in the business of bringing life out of death.

The Gospel reading today gives us the same message. Lazarus has died, Lazarus whom Jesus loved. Couldn’t Jesus have saved him?  If so, why didn’t he? Why did he wait to turn up until it was too late? Why let Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, go through the experience of losing him? Why didn’t God stop him dying in the first place? But the raising of Lazarus is a foretaste of Jesus’ own resurrection, a reminder that resurrection is in God’s nature. It’s the way he works. When all we can see are barriers, stones rolled across tombs, God sees a gateway to new life. God’s voice rings out in the silence of death to call us out of our graves.  Life-giving is his stock in trade.

We may not face the kind of persecution and martyrdom that the first followers of Jesus faced, though plenty  of Christians around the world do, but this message is still just as vital for us to hear.  We are all called to work to set right what is wrong in the world. However great or small the challenges there are things that we need to do, tasks that are ours alone. Perhaps we know we should blow the whistle on some injustice at work. Perhaps we need to stand alongside someone who is being victimised or bullied. Perhaps we need to stand up and be counted in some campaign for justice. Perhaps we need to tackle some family problem. We know what we should do, we know what’s right; we are just scared to do it. It’s going to cost us. It will make us unpopular. It will bring trouble down on our heads. We fear for our job prospects or our friendships or the image people have of us.

At that point , the deciding factor – to act or not – will be whether we believe in resurrection. If what we most fear happens – as it might – do we believe that will that be the end of the road for us, or  can we trust that God will still be holding us in his hands when the world crashes down around us, ready to lead us into new life?

Jesus speaks often in the Gospels about seeds, tiny, apparently dead things which are buried in the ground. When you look at them it seems impossible that anything can come of them, but they sprout and grow and bear a rich harvest. The Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alves said “We must live by the love of what we will never see… Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.” (Rubem Alves quoted in There Is A Season by Joan Chittister).

His words reminded me of a poem by the early 20th century poet, Muriel Stuart. It’s called The Seed Shop, and to understand it you need to imagine yourself holding in your hand a handful of seeds – all different. There are tree seeds and flower seeds. They look dead, like dust and rubbish, but the reality is quite different. This is what she wrote.

Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,        
Faded as crumbled stone and shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry—         
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.    

Dead that shall quicken at the voice of spring,                 
Sleepers to wake beneath June’s tempest kiss;      
Though birds pass over, unremembering,    
And no bee find here roses that were his.     

In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams;        
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust           
That shall drink deeply at a century’s streams;        
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.

Here in their safe and simple house of death,           
Sealed in their shells, a million roses leap;    
Here I can stir a garden with my breath,               
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.

Today we celebrate All Saints. We thank God for all those who held in their hands the seeds of a future world and had the courage to believe that God could bring life out of what looked like death to them and those around them. We thank God for the fruits of justice that were born through their courage and faith.

But we also pray for ourselves that we would learn to trust in resurrection too, in the life that comes out of death. Because today each of us holds seeds in our hands just as they did, the things that might happen if we have the courage to do what we are called to. There might be things that feel like death along the way, challenges we don’t want to meet, things we have to let go of, sacrifices we have to make. But beneath our hands are the hands of God, and those hands will never let us go, no matter what happens.  They will hold us through life and through death, and on into resurrection too.