A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 10 May 2020 by the Revd Richard Carter.
Reading for this address: John 14.1-14.
The worst thing about depression is the thought that it will never end and the darkness you are experiencing will last forever. The worst thing about a broken heart is the realisation that it will never be unbroken. The worst thing about doing something wrong is the fear within that you can never really be forgiven. The worst thing about trauma is the thought that it will go on and on repeating like a video on an endless loop. The worst thing about being rejected is the thought that you will never be worthy of acceptance. The worst thing about losing someone you love is the thought anguish that you will never love again. The worst thing about grief is the realisation that there can be no return because nothing can undo the death and bring them back. The worst thing about a war is the uncertainty that there will ever be a VE day. 75 years on this is a day we can give thanks for. Remember that from 1939-45 that VE seemed far from certain. The worse thing about our present epidemic is the not knowing how or if it will end.
These are the fears that can haunt us all. That can keep us locked in the past or longing for a future that can never be. Jesus tells his disciples “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Do not let your hearts be troubled? Easier said than done. If the disciples had really seen what was going to happen to them in the next two months I wonder how many of them would have turned up for the last supper. As TS Eliot wrote “Humankind cannot face too much reality.” So within the boundaries of our fear we try to construct safe environments and by implementing processes of control we try to protect ourselves from the unknown. Jesus does warn them, but they are still full of the adrenaline of their popularity and success of their mission and they do not really hear. True, opposition has been mounting, but have they really taken on board what is going to begin that very night. Of course not, nor can Jesus words bring any immediate relief from the profound shock and suffering they are about to go through. Do not let your hearts be troubled- how in all the world can they prevent their hearts being troubled when Jesus that very night is ripped away from them and then publicly executed in the most violent way possible? ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled? What? Troubled? Their hearts will be torn apart. Believe in me. What the one humiliated, mocked and crucified? These words will make no sense at all in the immediate violence of events. Yet it is as though Jesus is planting these words like dormant seeds and it is only later that they will begin to realise that in this place of total abandonment, in this place of utter despair the seed which died in them has broken open and begun to grow.
Is that not true of all of us? We like to count our successes and achievements as the turning points of our lives. The moment when I took control. The moment I seized the day, the moment I proved my courage. Really? I wonder what the turning points of your life really were. We like to think these were the moments of our victory- and yet all too often they are the moments of seeming fear and defeat. The time you wanted to run away, or did, the time you did not stand up for what was right but were complicit in a wounding or betrayal of another, when you lost the person you loved most and heard your heart snap, the time you lost out so badly that all your securities crumbled, the time you heard the diagnosis, the time you lost the job you thought your life depended on, the time you prayed and prayed for the miracle to happen and it did not. The time of sickness, the time of suffering, the time of death. It is here in the midst of these painful wounded places, these wilderness places- that Christ plants his words. “Do not let your hearts be troubled Believe in God, believe also in me.” Believe. Believing begins in the storm of uncertainty. Believing begins as you reach out for the life raft in the storm, believing begins in the abject failure of your own plans to save yourself. We often think of conversion like St Paul as being a one-off event. Far from it. It is often more truly a constant turning and turning to Christ in the very moment of our greatest doubt. When everything else is finished that will be our beginning. Pain makes theologians of us all, forces us to confront who and what we ultimately are and what we long for. Again and again we realise we are not saved by our own self-righteousness: in the wasteland of our plans we cry out to God. As one of the text messages, last week, on our Nazareth Community WhatsApp Group simply read: “Help me! Help! I can’t get through this! I need help”.
In my own life I have a very specific memory of that broken place. I am standing in the vestry of St Mark’s Chapel, in the motherhouse of the Melanesian Brotherhood in the Solomon Islands. It is 2003. We have just heard from the police commissioner that 7 of members of my community, who were taken hostage, who we night and day have been praying for have in fact been tortured and murdered and all 7 are dead. And In the vestry of this church I say to Brother Caulton, the senior brother, “I am sorry I don’t think I can go on being chaplain anymore. I feel I have failed. Our prayer has failed.” To be honest more than that I feel God has failed. I remember to this day this feeling of total powerlessness. My inability to save those I loved, and the crushing grief and sense that I should somehow prevented this tragedy. I cannot remember the exact words of Brother Caulton’s reply but it was something like: “It’s now that God needs you”- the realisation I remember was that it was not actually about me- I had vacated . It was about God- and here, in this utterly broken place, the place where I ended, in this place faith began. Had I been with Jesus all this time and still I did not know him? Lord show us the way? And Jesus’ answer “I am the Way the Truth and the Life. And it is here in this pain, among a suffering community, in the exposed weakness of our humanity, here is where in my memory I say: “I believe.” I believe. I believe in the one who is my way my truth my life. And if only I have the courage I want to stand with you And here, in this broken place, is where Christ takes over. This is my body broken for you. FOR YOU. In my empty space, my derelict space, the place I had vacated, I see now God moved in to dwell.
It is now today May 2020 and more than ever we realise that Christ is a frontline service and a front-line worker. Its about something infinitely more important than self-preservation- But how do we know the way- well look for those who show us the way the truth the life. Why is that we are clapping the NHS? Because they are the ones who are embodying- unconditional sacrificial service. Loving their neighbour as themselves- Sound familiar.. greater love hath no one than to offer one’s life…. Why do we celebrate the neighbour who goes beyond the call of duty? Or the carer who on minimum pay still turns up to care for the elderly, the Punjabi restaurant preparing 500 meals for homeless and destitute people each day, or Captain Tom Moore aged 100 walking 100 times round his house to raise money for others? What did we learn from 6 years of brutal war and the ultimate sacrifice of those who died- we learnt to celebrate the gift of peace and the hope of a greater unity. We learnt never again to let prejudice and hatred divide and rule and oppress. We learnt blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Are we still listening? What will we learn from COVID 19? Well we could learn to return to business as usual, or an even a greater inequality or survival of the fittest. Will we continue to spoil our planet, exploit the earth, poison the air and disregard the consequences of our food chains and trade deals. Or could this be the beginning of a new way of living and a new way of caring? How will we know the way?
Jesus answers us. “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me?” I am the way the truth and the life. But how can Jesus – a man from Nazareth answer anything for today- How naïve, how fanciful. But hold on a moment. Have we not all in these last two months learnt to live with less, have we not all at least glimpsed a way a truth a life, seen that a better way forward is possible? In struggle, and uncertainty we are given the chance to rediscover that Way that Truth the Life which holds our lives together and remakes us. The real church is not an events organisation or a building- it is the living stones- each one of us built up upon one another, built upon the one who is the corner stone. The stone which the builders rejected and yet the one who can become the foundation of our lives and the life of our nation. It’s when our human possibilities end that the possibilities of God can be realised. Jesus says “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and will indeed do greater works than these.”
I wonder if now, in our need, we can allow Christ in to do his work in us, and become the advocate, the comforter, the one who brings resurrection and new life. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God- help!