Sermon for Mirepoix
Sunday 6th September 2020
Readings: Genesis 28. 10-22; John 14.15-27, omitting verse 22
May these words of mine and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.
We all need ladders. Without ladders and stairs, escalators and elevators, we’d still be snuffling around, limited to a ground-level perspective. Ladders enable us to climb and climbing, of course, is a well-worn metaphor for aspiration and ambition.
I find it interesting that Jacob had his dream of a ladder, enabling him to access Yahweh, at that moment in his life when he had just left home and was striking out on his own, seeking a wife and a fortune. His aspirations are considerable. And, whilst Jacob is certainly stirred by his dream, he is not so bowled over as to miss this opportunity to make a deal with God: you look after me and I’ll worship you. Having a ladder to heaven placed before him is great but there’s got to be an incentive to climb it.
This summarises for me one of the fundamental tensions within the Christian life. Struggling up a ladder in an attempt to get closer to God doesn’t always seem to be a worthwhile activity. After all, closeness to God can often seem to run counter to or have no connection to our physical and emotional well-being. Whatever deal Jacob thought he was striking certainly did not bring him unalleviated happiness.
And our own experience tells us that there is no obvious correlation between faithfulness to God and conventional happiness. I am sure we can all cite examples of really good people who have had hard lives or fallen prey to tragedy absolutely through no fault of their own. And the opposite applies too. A selfish, amoral attitude doesn’t always bring punishment; there are innumerable lives proving that.
I imagine the concept of Heaven and Hell exists partly to even-out this perceived unfairness. Our human sense of justice seeks some sort of reckoning in an after-life, given that a fair come-uppance is far from being guaranteed in this one.
Of course, these days, when the majority of Westerners do not believe in an after-life, ensuring that fairness and equality of opportunity exists during one’s life-time arguably becomes much more important. Most people subscribe, at least in theory, to fairness. So, as schools across Britain re-open, debate as to how to reverse the growing discrepancy, between the life-chances of disadvantaged children and those born into more affluent families in stable communities, is growing increasingly urgent. And across the USA, there is increasing pressure for something to be done to reverse the violence that disproportionately characterises the lives of Black Americans, compared to their White compatriots.
It’s a struggle.
So, when concern about the world, or personal anxieties, or just (in my case!) temperamental gloom closes in on us, we look about for a ladder to lift our spirits. The Arts often help. Music, in particular, has the power to pull us up. It’s why one of the saddest aspects of the Covid-19 crisis has been the banning of communal singing. The Anglican Church knew that worship without singing can be a monochrome affair and, over the centuries, it acquired a well-deserved reputation for inspiring some of the most wonderful hymns, sung to some exquisite tunes.
Keeping those hymns alive is one way, for Christians, of maintaining a good, well-polished ladder. I still have the little ‘Songs of Praise’ hymn-book I was issued at secondary school for daily assemblies. Most days, I dip into it, sometimes at random, and find one or two, either to read as poems or hum.
My road to Mirepoix takes a sharp bend just as it crosses from Aude to Ariège. At that same point, on a clear day, the Pyrenees suddenly come into view. Provided I am on my own in the car, I will burst into song at that moment and give voice to a simple hymn that dates back to my primary school days. You don’t hear it so often now, fifty-five years on.
“Glad that I live am I / That the sky is blue. / Glad for the country lanes / And the fall of dew./ After the sun the rain, / After the rain the sun, / This is the way of life / Till the work be done. / All that we need to do / Be we low or high / Is to see that we grow / Nearer the sky.”
There’s a ladder motif in the lyrics, of course. And though some may criticise the words for being cheesy or irrelevant for town and city-dwellers, the direct statement that life is essentially about climbing the ladder to God, for me, cuts through so much doctrinal or theological argument. What I also like is the way that work – human labour in all its manifestations – is set alongside the unalterable rhythm of the natural world. There’s a recognition here that life has its mundane side but is no less wonderful for that and sits alongside something enduring.
I said that this simple hymn cuts through doctrine and theology. It also gives clarity, complementing those more complex and dense passages from the Gospels.
The passage from St John’s Gospel which we read is sublime but I certainly can’t say that I understand it on an intellectual level. I wish I did because here we have Jesus speaking directly to his apostles at the critical point in his ministry, hours before his arrest and crucifixion. But it’s as if his words will only make complete sense when we have the key, when we’ve climbed a little higher.
There can be no doubt that Jesus is establishing himself here as The Ladder for which there can be no substitution. Jacob’s ladder, we can now see, was a metaphor for Jesus. It is Jesus who provides access to God and the route to God is fuelled by love.
Sometimes, I think it is a shame that this four-letter word, LOVE, is so over-used in our culture. Wouldn’t we be better off never uttering the word, in the same way that the Children of Israel, after their return from captivity in Babylon, thought speaking the name of God was blasphemy? In that way, we’d avoid confusing the fuel that lifts us towards God with the feeling we have when tucking into our favourite dessert or dreaming about the object of an adolescent crush.
But at other times, I’m glad that ‘Love’ and ‘Luv’ (its vulgar cousin) occur all over the place. This ubiquity is an indication that human beings crave love; we seek to distil it from as many experiences as we can. And so (even if we frequently mistake fondness and appreciation and desire for Love), whenever we brush against the real thing, it helps secure our footing on The Ladder. We’re taken that little bit further out of ourselves and, if we look up, we might catch a glimpse of God or even see a hand extended towards us.
So, when we are tempted to say we love something that appeals to our senses, let’s ask ourselves how that helps us climb The Ladder. In this complex world, where so many things compete for our attention, I think holding onto that simple act of reflection will help to stabilise us. It will make us more aware of the rungs pressing into our in-step and the way our fingers curl around the side-rails. It will steady us as we climb and we may come to understand the depth of meaning behind Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel.
I should like to finish by introducing you to or reacquainting you with another hymn which I love. It’s definitely one of the rungs on the ladder for me. The words were written by G.K. Chesterton and first published in 1906. It is best sung to a tune composed by Vaughan Williams. Here it is.
O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!
Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.
It’s hard to think of a hymn where the words are more pertinent to 2020.
The first verse sums up the current state of the West at the beginning of the 21st century. No doubt, Chesterton also believed they were an apt description of how things were at the start of the 20th century. Disease, a focus on wealth-creation, and the tensions within national and international politics are all vying for centre-stage. Meanwhile, humankind has lost its humility and seeks that solutions can only be found through human endeavour.
The second verse focusses on what we need to be saved from. Terror, fake news, spin, lies and misinformation are all around us. Honour seems to be a concept that has disappeared completely. The belief, that fighting should only ever be to defend what is good, is still routinely compromised. Topically, this is profoundly illustrated by the recent incident in Wisconsin when a man was shot seven times, at point-blank range in his back when ordered not to get into his car by the police. With all that is going on in our world, apathy as well as conscious malevolence are both dangerous. We need deliverance.
The third verse speaks powerfully to me. To be reminded that we’re all in this together, whatever our position in society, is key. Chesterton does not ask that only some should be saved. No-one (to use another topical image) should be left floating in stormy waters in a fragile inflatable and substandard life-jacket. Chesterton stand up for all humankind. To be saved at another’s expense is no salvation. He prays that God will unite us all: unite us in a shared anger at injustice and iniquity, and unite us in celebrating all that is good. On fire with faith and therefore free, we can all be truly, fully alive.
The final image is genius: “…lift up a living nation, a single sword to thee.”
The single sword shows us that there are no longer other weapons drawn in challenge; righteousness is, at last, victorious.
The single sword symbolises one nation; no longer is there conflict over territory and ethnic boundaries.
I am sure Chesterton imagined the sword held aloft by the blade.
Lifting up a sword up by its blade means that you have no more use for it as a weapon.
Hold a sword by the blade and the hilt and cross-guards form the shape of the cross. This is the emblem that leads the one nation forwards.
As hymn, as prayer, as battle-song, Chesterton’s verses are powerful rungs on The Ladder. I love them.