A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Good Friday 2 April by Revd Jonathan Evens.
The academic and artist Ashon T. Crawley wrote his book ‘Blackpentecostal Breath’ as a love letter to his people; African Americans with a history of enslavement and therefore of having been treated by others as objects to be bought, sold, abused and killed, rather than valued as people.
‘Having been said to be nothing, this is a love letter written to we who have been, and are today still, said to have nothing. And to a tradition of such nothingness. This is a love letter to a love tradition, a tradition which emerges from within, carries and promises nothingness as the centrifugal, centripetal, centrifugitive force released against, and thus is a critical intervention into, the known world, the perniciously fictive worlds of our making.’[i]
That ‘fictive world’ is ‘the project of western civilization, complete with its brutally violent capacity for rapacious captivity.’
Mohammed Umer Rana is someone who has experienced the rapacious captivity of western civilisation. He is a Muslim from Pakistan who became a Christian after attending a Roman Catholic church in Glasgow while on holiday with friends. Experiencing hostility from his friends as a result of his conversion he left Glasgow for London and, now known as Paul Rana, he eventually found a home at my parish of St John’s Seven Kings where he was baptised and later confirmed. Having overstayed his visa to remain in the UK, he applied for asylum on the grounds of his conversion but his claim was rejected despite evidence of faith provided by the church. Various appeals and periods in detention centres followed. On bail, while awaiting a Judicial Review, he lodged with my family at our Vicarage in Seven Kings. When the Judicial Review was unsuccessful, in fear of an imminent return to Pakistan and likely persecution, he absconded from the Vicarage and lived ‘under the radar’ for two and a half years. Now living in Camberley, he began attending St Paul’s church, where he became a valued member of the congregation. Through their support and evidence, combined with my own continuing support, Paul’s asylum claim was reviewed, with the court allowing him leave to remain as a genuine convert to Christianity.
Paul’s experience was one of forsakenness, from his rejection by his friends in Glasgow because of his conversion, which included being physically attacked, through the various rejections of his asylum claims, usually on the grounds of that he was not a genuine convert to Christianity, to the point where he was living ‘under the radar’ with no recourse to public funds and no legal right to remain in the UK. In this period he had nothing, had no legal rights to anything and was only of interest to the authorities as someone to deport.
But Paul’s experience was also of Jesus being with him. He had two visions or dreams of Christ that were foundational to his conversion and experienced the support of Christians in Seven Kings and Camberley that was maintained even when he absconded. He knew Jesus with him in and through that support and at his successful court hearing we were able to testify that his faith in Christ – his awareness of Jesus with him – had remained strong throughout.
In one email written after he absconded from the Vicarage, he said: “I have prayed to Lord Jesus our redeemer and told him about my problems and he understand everything thats why i am still a free bird i will never lose my trust in God because he is the one who showed me the right path. Whatever he decide for me will be in my favor i know there are dark nights but one day i will see the bright day again.”
Ashon Crawley writes ‘a love letter to a tradition of the ever overflowing, excessive nothingness that protects itself, that with the breaking of families, of flesh, makes known and felt, the refusal of being destroyed.’ He says that, ‘There is something in such nothingness that is not, but still ever excessively was, is and is yet to come.’[ii]
At his crucifixion Jesus was drawn into just such an experience of being made nothing:
“From Jesus’ anointing to his death he is left, as former archbishop Rowan Williams puts it, ‘more and more visibly alone, repudiated by more and more persons and groups. The [male] disciples run away from him, Peter denies that he knows him, the High Priestly council condemns him, the Roman Governor and the soldiers reject and abuse him, and he ends on the cross crying out that God too has abandoned him. The paradox, the mystery, of the crucifixion is that, in Jesus’ godforsaken cry, Mark means us to hear the very voice of God. In this Jesus, here – pushed out to the very edges of human society, condemned, isolated, dying, godforsaken – Mark wants us to see God – ‘the crucified God’.”[iii]
Why? Because this is God’s love song to all who experience rejection, who are forsaken and made nothing in this world. The incarnation is God’s love letter to all those like Paul Rana whose experience is of nothingness and forsakenness. God’s experience of being with us – moving into our neighbourhood and experiencing all human existence – culminates in this moment on the cross when Jesus not only experiences betrayal, desertion, denial and scapegoating from other human beings but also experiences separation from God. On the cross Jesus experiences the isolation that is at the heart of the human condition because our relationships with others and with God are so consistently broken. He then takes that experience into the very heart of the Godhead, into the DNA of God.
Jesus was with Paul Rana in his experience of forsakenness because he had been through his own experience of forsakenness. That was why Paul’s sense of Jesus with him was so strong and sustaining. Then, because that experience of human scarcity has been joined to the abundance of God there is within it the overflow and excess of which Ashon Crawley writes that is both a refusal of being destroyed and a ‘still ever was, is and is yet to come’. ‘There is something that endures. Something that defies despair, and the dispersal orders of the powerful. Something that gives hope … that we have barely been able to imagine … Something that goes by the name of resurrection.’[iv]
God of the forsaken, who, in Jesus, experienced the isolation that is at the heart of the human condition and took that experience into the very heart of the Godhead, may all who feel abandoned and alone today receive the love letter of your forsakenness making known the refusal of being destroyed and the something in such nothingness that ever excessively was, is and is yet to come in the name of God the parent, child, and Spirit, forever one and forever love. Amen.