Sermon for Mirepoix 21st February 2021

Sermon for Mirepoix

First Sunday of Lent, 21st February 2021

Readings:

Mark 1, vs 9-15

1 Peter, 3 vs 18-22

Where I have quoted from these passages, I have used The New Jerusalem Bible translation.

May these words and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.

“And the Spirit, like a dove, descended on him.”  

Way back in the Jews’ mythology, it was a dove that Noah released from the Ark to see if the waters of the flood had receded. He released it three times. On the first occasion it returned, having found nowhere that was not under water. On the second occasion, seven days later, it returned with a sprig of olive in its beak; the earth’s vegetation was now flourishing. When Noah released the dove for the third time, it never returned…or it only returned when God’s son emerged from the waters of the Jordan.

Those anonymous figures, responsible for collecting together stories of God’s interaction with humankind, knew how to use symbolism to effect.

Genesis opens with “darkness over the deep and a divine wind sweeping over the waters”; in the story of Noah, it is the Ark, oppressed by leaden skies, that floats on the flood-waters. In the same creation-myth, God prepares the world over seven days; Noah waits seven days for life to return to the surface of the earth. The culmination of God’s creation is the making of humankind in his own image; for Noah, after the flood, it is…an absence. The dove does not return. But, instead, God sets a rainbow in the sky to seal the covenant between himself and every living thing for all ages to come.

I have asked myself why whoever wrote ‘Mark’s’ gospel didn’t throw in a rainbow, spanning the valley of the Jordan, as well as a dove, when recounting Jesus’ baptism. It would have made the symbolism of redemption even sharper. The answer came to me the other day. The answer to the question, ‘Why isn’t there a rainbow?’ is simply, ‘Because there’s Jesus instead.’ Jesus replaces the rainbow because he seals a new, enduring covenant.

And to underline what this means, the gospel-writer has Jesus immediately retreating to the wilderness for that enigmatic forty days. He does battle with all sorts of temptations, emerging stronger with a clearer perspective, just as Noah and his family opened the hatches after forty days of catastrophic inundation, to let in the sun-light.

We are now at the start of another forty-day period. It is an opportunity, given us each year, to follow the example of Noah and his family, to heed the significance of the water of baptism and (in the words of the letter, traditionally ascribed to Peter) “pledge a good conscience” as a gift to God.

Conscience. It’s a fascinating phenomenon because it invites so many questions.

Are we born with some innate predisposition to do good? Or are we ‘blank canvasses’, whose moral code is etched into us during our impressionable early years?

To what extent is ‘goodness’ an extension of a primal self-interest that understands doing good to others will often lead others to do good to us?

However our consciences might be fashioned, are they then fixed or can they be warped or flexed, according to our experiences? Can an individual, re-shape his or her conscience and live by a new set of values?

To what extent is conscience a product of culture or is it common to all human beings?

Should we always obey our conscience or should we be prepared to question it or be justified in bending it, in certain circumstances?

What if my conscience tells me that something is wrong, while your conscience tells you that same ‘something’ is right? Does that invalidate the voice of conscience?

You see what I mean? It’s intriguing.

Christians reared in a Protestant tradition may be tempted to think of conscience as a faculty that links them directly to God. Certainly, in the past, many of those protesting against the authority of the Roman Church were driven by a conscientious objection to certain practices or rituals or dogma. They pitted their personal convictions against the institutionalized authority of the Church. Sixteenth century England was full of such people. Some like George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers, escaped from the clamour which this generated into the sanctity of silence. Others sought out a new Eden, away from it all, on the other side of the Atlantic. Now, one only has to walk through the suburbs of multi-cultural London to find evidence of hundreds of independent churches, founded by Christians who want their religion to be 100% congenial.

This splintering is partly the result of considered theological argument and opinion and, I have no doubt, the founder of any new sect is acting with ‘a clear conscience’. But, given just that handful of questions I posed a moment ago, that is rather disturbing. How reliable, as a foundation for moral and spiritual behaviour, is the individual conscience?

However the human conscience developed – whether it be the modification of some primal urge, a reflection of taught morality or some divine injection – this ‘behavioural steering mechanism’ needs to be tuned to something bigger than the individual. Otherwise, there is a huge risk it merely serves to justify selfish actions. As Christians, we want our conscience to help “lead us to God”. But this is not as simple as it may seem.

In this current, ego-centric era, where ‘the selfie’ is ubiquitous and social media platforms give unlimited opportunities for every kind of personal celebration and display, there is a real risk of creating God in our own image. There is a real danger that we talk our consciences into condoning any behaviours which we think are natural, or true to whom we believe we are. There is a real danger that we succeed in freeing ourselves from ever feeling shame.

And, whilst in olden ‘hair-shirt’ days, the Church did a lively trade in guilt, oppressing countless Christians under the burden of their own unworthiness, nowadays we are often told not to feel guilty. ‘Don’t beat yourself up about it,’ is not an uncommon piece of advice.

We, in the West, in recent years have been rather too focussed on blocking out anything which might disturb us, to give much space to shame or guilt.

In my opinion, shame and guilt both play a useful part in keeping us on the strait and narrow path which leads to God. But I was struck, the other day, by a phrase used by Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in a recent lecture. He wanted human beings to be “delivered from the anxiety of trying to keep God happy.”

For that to work, we have to take to heart God’s saving love, epitomised by Christ’s willing embrace of the cross. “Christ himself died once and for all for sins, the upright for the sake of the guilty, to lead us to God.” There is nothing we can do to escape that legacy: we are loved. We do not have to earn it. We need not test it. We may choose to ignore it but that does not diminish it. We should accept it and work from it.

It seems to me, therefore, that God may want us to focus less on him and more on each other. Over the centuries, the Church has wasted a huge amount of effort and spilled countless vats of blood squabbling over ritual and dogma, as if getting that right is all God cares about. Even today, enormous amounts of energy are expended by church men and women in the internal wranglings of their own institutions. I do not think God is kept happy by particular patterns of worship, by statuary or candles. His focus is on people, the pinnacle of his creation.

The human imagination struggles to see beyond a human perspective. It is why from the beginnings of recorded time and across most of the world’s religions, we have conceived the divine in anthropomorphic form. We have struggled to separate a true image of God from the tangle of human history. We tell stories about a merciful God, saving a single family from a devastating flood but we tie that up with a perception of him as a fickle tyrant, perfectly prepared to drown countless men, woman and children. Indeed, the Old Testament is full of accounts where the Jewish people claim God has sanctioned their genocidal behaviour. Such stories, of course, help to quieten the collective conscience. Human beings have a terrible tendency to create God in their own image as the rampages of fundamentalist terrorists have shown us.

It is, in recognition of this human failing, that God became incarnate, showing us what a human being created in his image really does look like.

That means it is incumbent upon us to grow closer to that pattern for humanity set by Jesus. We must identify what, in our own nature, is ‘of God’ and cultivate it. Not only that, we must engage with the extraordinarily diverse nature of humankind to see how that ‘of God’ can be reflected in others, different from ourselves. t

There is a huge mural (I think it is at Heathrow airport) which is a mosaic of thousands of other faces. From a distance it seems like a giant portrait of the Queen but when you get close to it, you can see all the detailed images, each one complete in itself. It’s a great visual metaphor. Connect the whole spread of humankind and God is revealed.

The pandemic has underlined the extent that we are mutually dependent upon one another, not only within local communities but also across borders. Those responsible for curbing the spread of infection, frequently remind us that none of us is safe until the world is safe. Nations left without vaccines will harbour mutant strains of the virus and these will spread. We have a pan-global crisis which demands a pan-global response. None of us can isolate ourselves from this scourge.

Many have shaken their heads, despairing over these ‘unprecedented’ times. But, extraordinarily, with the exception of a few spats about which nation is where in the queue for a vaccine, the whole world seems to be coming together to beat the virus. So, whilst not wanting to minimise the terrible toll this pandemic has inflicted, it is also possible to rejoice over the beginnings of ‘unprecedented’ co-operation. This may take root just in time for the nations of the world, the global industries, the multi-nationals and the masses of ordinary people to stave off that other looming crisis: the one that threatens the environment.

We shall see God more clearly, the more we care for each other and the planet that sustains us. It is wrong (as that cohort of ‘preppers’ in the United States does, hunkering down as they see a world spiralling into chaos, thinking only of Number One) to cast ourselves as 21st century Noahs reconciled to leaving others behind to drown. And it has been uplifting to see that every vaccination programme, the world over (as far as I am aware) has focussed first on protecting the most vulnerable even when the economic cost is enormous.

This Lent, therefore, I feel moved to spend less time focussing on my own failings, agonising over those occasions where, in thought or deed, I have strayed off course. To do so would be an indulgence. Instead, there is a new imperative. I have drawn up a list of Lenten resolutions, which I hope will become habit. Each of them is designed to make me more outward looking, nudging me to ensure that my impact, while I live, is positive.

Here it is:

  • To give time to supporting the vulnerable and the isolated in my community.
  • In conversation, to seek and advocate compromise and understanding, to do my best to see things from another’s perspective.
  • To buy Fair-Trade, organic and local produce where I can.
  • To reduce my meat consumption so that animal welfare is not compromised.
  • To source my energy from renewables.
  • To avoid waste, to re-cycle and re-use as much as possible, turning my back on a throwaway culture.
  • To look for that of God in everyone I meet and reflect, as best I can, whatever light of Christ shines in me.

By drawing up such a list for Lent – whatever it looks like – we re-align our consciences. We are not creating God in our own image but striving to reveal God to the world.

There is not a moment to waste. There are grim, leaden clouds overhead and the rain has been pretty relentless over the past twelve months. Darker clouds are massing on the horizon. The meteorological forecast is that the prevailing wind may shift, gradually clearing the skies, but it’s a bit too early to tell. There is, however, every chance that there are sunny days ahead with just wisps of white cirrus cloud, spread across the blue.

Perfect, spring weather, in fact, to tempt a dove to settle, nest and raise its brood.