A sermon delivered by Revd Jonathan Evens at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 17 May 2020, the Sixth Sunday of Easter.
Readings for this Service: Acts 17.22-31 and John 14.15-21.
The closest I have come to my 15 minutes of fame or infamy was when I attracted the criticism of Archbishop Cranmer – the contemporary blogger, not the 16th century Reformer – by exhibiting a crucified stormtrooper in a church as part of a contemporary exhibition of Stations of the Cross. The blogging Archbishop assumed and asserted that I could not have pondered the question of what that artwork was actually saying about God’s unique sacrifice and the ultimate source of salvation and thereby he contributed to a 5 minute flurry of controversy.
In the Star Wars films, stormtroopers are the main ground force of the Galactic Empire and are on the dark side in that conflict. The imagery of the dark side in the Star Wars films can be seen as equating to the idea that we are all sinners. In our alienation from God we need God to come to us, becoming one with us, living and dying for us. Being on the dark side, stormtroopers would also have that same need. The ‘Crucified Stormtrooper’ therefore provides us with the possibility of experiencing something of the original sense of scandal that Christ’s crucifixion generated. Both in terms of being controversial and also by revealing the dark side of our human nature, something we prefer to keep well hidden.
Some Christians, like the blogging Archbishop, either failed to see or, perhaps, did not want to confront that aspect of sin in themselves. However, many others who saw the exhibition were able to see the opportunity for reflection and dialogue afforded by the images included. Many of those who saw the exhibition described it as ‘striking’, ‘intriguing’, ‘uplifting’ and ‘interesting.’ It was commended as an extraordinarily broad-minded, human and thought-provoking exhibition in an extraordinary place with others asking that the church reach out to current artists more often. As a result of the controversy, the curator of the exhibition wrote publicly about his own faith while, in a perceptive meditation, a parishioner asked whether the crucified stormtrooper was us, and suggested that the piece created a dialogue about our own mortality.
The exhibition created a conversation about the crucifixion, human nature, mortality and faith in a way that was similar to the discussion St Paul began when he stood before the Areopagus and spoke about an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ The Areopagus was the rock of Ares in Athens, a centre of temples, cultural facilities and high court, and also the name of the council that originally served as the central governing body of Athens, but came to be the court with jurisdiction over cases of homicide and other serious crimes. In speaking to the Areopagus Paul was giving a guest lecture, whilst also being, in some senses, on trial.
Pope John Paul II likened the modern media to the New Areopagus, where Christian ideas needed to be explained and defended anew, against disbelief and the gold and silver idols of consumerism. Understanding how St Paul did so in the original Areopagus can assist in understanding how we might initiate or contribute to debate and dialogue in our own day and time, whether virtually or in person.
Paul began where people were by referring to the altar to an unknown god which was to be found amongst the cluster of temples around him. He didn’t criticize those to whom he was speaking. Instead, he commended the breadth of their engagement with religion. He didn’t tell them they were wrong by suggesting they were pagans worshipping the wrong god or gods. Instead, he overaccepted their religious story fitting it into the larger story of what he believed God was doing with the world. Nor did he dismiss their culture. Instead, he made it clear that he had heard and appreciated their poets by making connections between those poets and the message he had come to share. In these ways, he began a dialogue with them about the nature of faith and its engagement with their lives and culture. We read that some scoffed but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’, and some joined him and became believers.
Paul was able to be in Athens because he had a trade – tentmaking – which enabled him to be supported financially as he travelled and which opened doors and provided contacts that might not otherwise have been open to him. In each place to which he travelled he formed new congregations led by those who came to faith. In each place that he visited he went to the synagogue and sought to speak with those at the heart of the Jewish community, but also welcomed those who were on the edge, often Gentiles, slaves and servants.
St Martin’s has a similar pattern for its ministry. We call it the 4 Cs – compassion, culture, commerce and congregation. It is a pattern for ministry that we share with other churches throughout the UK, and the world, through a movement to renew the church that we call HeartEdge. HeartEdge is about churches developing these 4 Cs. Generating finance and impacting communities via social enterprise and commerce. Culture, in the form of art, music, performance, that re-imagines the Christian narrative for the present. Congregations that develop welcoming liturgies, worship, and day-to-day communal life while also addressing social need and community cohesion. We think nurturing each of these is essential for renewal of the church.
At a time such as this HeartEdge churches, like St Martin’s, are seeking to begin and develop a conversation with our communities and nations, as Paul sought to do in Athens and as I sought to do with the Stations of the Cross exhibition. St Mark’s Church in Pennington, within the Diocese of Winchester, have used their churchyard hedge as a site for yarnbombing utilising the knitting and crochet skills of many in their community to create scenes and messages in yarn that enable Pennington to stand together at this time. The yarnbombs have focused the attention of the community on Holocaust Memorial Day, Holy Week and Easter, and, most recently, the VE Day anniversary. Organising online community events and services combined with the organisation of knitting and crochet work has placed St Mark’s at the heart of their community while connecting many who are isolated because of lockdown. St Mark’s has demonstrated that the boundaries of ‘church’ should be much more porous than we had previously imagined and so Rachel Noel, the Vicar of St Mark’s, hopes that in this season we will all get so used to worshipping with, and being led by, a variety of people, that we will, in future, always seek to find ways to include and value diversity and richness.
St Mark’s Pennington has begun a conversation with their community and the wider Church. It is similar here. When we talk about the work that The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields is doing to support those who are homeless in hotel or hostel accommodation at this time, we are sharing our belief in the value and significance of every human being as a child of God. When our Choral Scholars record music to share with other churches in their online services without breaking copyright regulations, we are sharing our belief in the innate creativity of human beings created in the image of a creative God and demonstrating the overflowing generosity of that same God. When the board of our business seek ways to enable that business to survive lockdown and its subsequent impact, we are sharing in the pain and challenges faced currently by all businesspeople while making clear our belief in the value, dignity and ethics of work and working people. When we develop new ways to support congregations and share services in the changed circumstances of lockdown, we are sharing our belief that faith sustains life in each and every season of existence enabling us to live God’s future now.
We seek imperfectly to model these beliefs in our mission and ministry here at St Martin’s, as do all churches in the HeartEdge movement. By doing so, we seek to initiate conversations about what it means to live God’s future now and how we can enjoy a future that is bigger than our past. As with Paul in Athens and the art exhibition in the City of London, so, in our current circumstances, we are seeking to connect compassion, culture, commerce and congregation to draw all engaged in those forms of community into a conversation that explores how we shall now live and who it is that is our neighbour.
When the ‘Crucified Stormtrooper’ was exhibited in the City of London, it seemed that those conversations could only begin on the basis of scandal or sensation. The mainstream media then didn’t seem interested in the ‘good news’ stories of compassionate community engagement that many churches are able to tell. At that time, it seemed as those their interest was only piqued when something controversial was underway.
Now we are in a different season where the ‘good news’ of community compassion and culture, with church at the heart and on the margins, can be heard and is being valued. So, we invite you to join the conversation, to have your say, so that the margins can speak to the centre that we might encounter God in everyone. As we do so, we will together find a story which connects a series of otherwise inexplicable circumstances, begin to live in that story and then act our part within it. In this way, like those who joined Paul in Athens, we, too, may discover it is the story of what God is doing with the world that reveals where we are and what we are to do.