A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields by Revd Richard Carter
Reading for address: Luke 12: 16-30
Last month I led a retreat about the fourth century desert fathers and mothers of Egypt, Palestine and Arabia, who abandoned the cities of that time to seek God in the desert. Their wisdom and teaching has been handed down to us in short sentences of wisdom, or short stories which later can be unravelled in the heart. And since Wednesday one sentence has been constantly in my mind-in this process of unravelling. It is this word from St Anthony the father of the desert: “Our life and death is with our neighbour”
Outside my flat, as I try to write to you there is a man on a megaphone. In fact he has been on it for the last hour shouting at passers-by. He is a so-called “street evangelist” and outside my window seems to be their pitch every Saturday. Basically over and over again they are shouting through the megaphone: “God loves you with an everlasting love Jesus died for your sins. (Repeat) Jesus loves you with an everlasting love. Repent of your sins, or God will judge you and you will burn in an unquenchable fire.” We have all heard such evangelists and I am sure they think they may be saving souls but I wonder how many souls they drive away from God. They certainly are doing my head in tonight. Tonight the illogicality of what they are shouting into the megaphone seems more absurd than ever. This evangelist is not preaching Good News at all in fact quite the opposite. His message is very threatening. How could Jesus who loves you with an everlasting love then proceed if you fail to repent burn you in an unquenchable fire? We have heard some terrible stories of torture but no torturer, however sadistic, has been able to master the art of torturing someone forever. I wish I could turn off his megaphone forever. And yet the Gospel does contain stories of division and judgment- think of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man being tortured and tormented in Hades who longs to cool his tongue from the agony of the flames because he failed to help poor Lazarus at his door.
The words I return to are these: “Our life and death is with our neighbour” Each one of us has the choice either to live that sentence or to reject it. And to reject one’s brother and sister, indeed not only reject them but to totally ignore their plight, suffering and pain- is not about what God will do to us, but about what we will do to ourselves. If our life is with our neighbour then to turn your back on our brother or sister, or indeed to make war on our neighbour, is the negation of life. It is the turning away from all God intended. We’ve all seen what that negation or destruction of life looks like in its extreme form. This week on our TV screens we saw a steely Putin, his face rigid with hatred threatening the western world with weapons of destruction: “ I am not bluffing” he says staring coldly into the camera. To make war on an innocent country is to sell one’s soul to the devil Make no mistake. This is hell- this all
consuming violence- this negation of life where even the innocent children are the targets of bombs and shells.
But there is of course a different way. So like the desert father’s let me tell some stories. Our life and death is with our neighbour. His name s Lorenzo. Every day he sits on my steps. He has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. And everyday his movement becomes more difficult. I have never met a young man with such courage. After many years of homelessness the Connection found him a place to live. But now he’s finding it more and more impossible to climb the stairs. Each week he has been the most brilliant volunteer at the International Group managing the showers which allows refugees and asylum seekers who have been sleeping on the streets- get washed and clean again. But now Lorenzo is finding it hard to hold anything in his hands and so just comes as a guest. He has travelled home to Europe to make his peace with his family. Now each day he sits on my steps and we chat. He knows all those who are homeless round here. They respect him. Know him to be without guile. When we had our Refugee group day trip to Worthing- he gave me a role of notes. It was £100. I would like to help pay for the day he says. Its money my friends gave to me.”
“Keep it for yourself “ I try to persuade him. It’s for you to enjoy” “Yes” he says, “but this is my joy to help all of you” He was on my steps today. In so many ways the poorest and most unlucky- in many ways the richest young man I have ever met-facing his illness at peace with himself. At peace with the world and with his knowledge of mortality. No bitterness only good will. I have been a priest for thirty years but I long for his faith- his lightness of being.
Our life and death is with our neighbour. Last night I walked to Tesco and to get there I had to walk past three people lying on the street. One woman, very thin, has been lying outside Pret a Mange in the foetal position her pale skin on raw pavement. Last night at the supermarket I met one of the young shop assistants- he was the only assistant on the assisted cash till all the others tills were self-service. I have seen this shop assistant every time I have been into Tesco. He didn’t miss during lock-down. When the churches closed and the homeless centres and night shelters were all shut because of COVID. He was there everyday helping customers get their shopping so that they could eat. With his own money he often buys a bag of groceries that he gives to me because he says he knows I run a group that helps people who are homeless- indeed he has visited our Sunday International Group bringing contributions to our meal. No one clapped him during COVID but his went on serving in the store. Last night he told me they are going to close all the tills at Tesco and make it totally self-service to save money. “Shame he said because many of our customers are elderly and need a conversation or a bit of help from us” Why are they doing that I asked. “Profit” he said “But the people who make the decision are on large salaries in big offices- they don’t know the people who come into this store- they have never been with us here on the shop floor.
What will it profit us if we gain the whole world but lose our immortal souls.
How can we say we love God ? How can we say we love our neighbour as ourselves? If I love, really love how can I tolerate the fact that so much of our world is threatened with loneliness, fear, poverty, war, climate catastrophe. Sometimes there are no answers. “Our life and death is with our neighbour” acknowledges the struggle. And sometimes it is only when you know the bottom of things that you glimpse heaven.
Last week we saw a mini budget that all the expert analysis says will make the gap between the rich and the poor of our nation even greater. We were told that the people who will profit from this budget are those who are earning more than £150, 000 a year. Most of the poorest paid given inflation will be poorer These tax cuts and bonuses we are told will help grow the economy- it’s a big gamble, the stock market is in a nose dive, – and in the meantime what about Lazarus at the gate? What about those who already can’t make ends meet, what about those who can’t afford heating and lighting, what about those already overwhelmed by their rents, household bills and rising food prices, what about those waiting for critical operations in our hospitals? And what about those who can afford but can’t find how to find meaning.
Our lives are with our brothers and sisters- again and again we learn this truth and then abandon it at such cost. Last week our nation stopped, took stock and recognised this truth. Our newspapers proclaimed the virtues of service, of kindness, or compassion and humility. We talked of a Queen who dedicated her life to the service of others. And people- from all walks of life, rich and poor, old and young, of every colour and culture came together to remember and become the diverse prayer of our nation- a prayer that celebrated unity. In the streets and in the queues to see the Queen lying in state or to see the procession, we discovered again the truth that our lives are with our one another, our brothers and sisters, our neighbours. We turned Westminster into a neighbourhood. What about now? Will we return to business as usual and allow the gulfs and divisions in our society to increase -leaving the beggar at our door?.
We know in this church that you don’t need material wealth or limitless funds as marks of achievement or success. We are a community that celebrate the gifts and diversity of one another. We have tasted the meaning and real beauty of empathy, understanding, listening, sharing, including. Many of the stewards who welcomed people into our church last week were brimming over with enthusiasm for with what it means to be with our neighbours to those who came in grief and thanksgiving. “It has been so wonderful to welcome people in this church today” Said Beverly overflowing with joy. It is what Ruth Hutchinson at the Archers supper calls “A hearty welcome” . Around us we have seen the chasms that divide our society and divide our nations from others. And at St Martin’s we have found that it is often the so called poorest that have the richest gifts to share. Ultimately it is Jesus who has shown us the way to cross the divide and speak the radical truth of love. And it is his way we must embody. “If we decide that our life and death is with our neighbour…if we decide to embark on a style of life that gives life to others…we are recognising and acting out the truth that is deepest in us. We are becoming and offering others the chance to become who we fully are”.
Our lives are with our neighbours. We were not created in competition with God or one another. We were created for heaven, for relationship for blessing. But just as each one of us has the opportunity to be at the side of Lazarus so each one also has the opportunity to reject Lazarus and find ourselves on the other side of the divide- among those who have rejected their brother and sister and in so doing have rejected God. It’s a big choice, the biggest of your life.
Wonderings from the Desert.
If your life is with your neighbour I wonder who your neighbours are? I wonder how you show your love, I wonder how you receiving life through them.
One of the desert father’s John the Dwarf said this:
You don’t build a house by starting with the roof and working down. You start with the foundation.” They said, “What does that mean?” He said, “The foundation is our neighbour whom we must win. The neighbour is where we start. Every commandment of Christ depends on this… Our life and death is with our neighbour”.