Encountering that which we do not own

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this service: Mark 9.10-37; James 3.13-4.8a

In the first of our Autumn Lecture Series last Monday Rowan Williams spoke about what it means to encounter the other. He spoke with a simplicity that made one feel that he was articulating a truth you had always known, but I am still unpacking some of the things he said for like all real wisdom what seems at first simple has a huge resonance and depth of truth for the whole of one’s life. Rowan talked about encountering the other- as encountering that which we do not own. When we really encounter someone fully we are actually invited into an unknown- into territory that we do not control or possess. It is a relationship without ownership. It is the space before God where we do not claim to know all the answers, where we recognise we cannot fix everyone’s problems and that our lives are more than what we know. And this discovery though perhaps terrifying is also exciting and liberating because it is the place of real meeting- of seeing and being seen, the discovery of the other and also discovery of the unknown self. At the end of his talk he gave the example of a meeting between two Rwandans who has been on either side of the genocide- a Tutsi and a Hutu. He said how tense they all realised the encounter would be and how impossible to arrive at a superficial reconciliation that would deny the enormity of the suffering. The only way to cross the divide was “to create space that belongs to neither of them but makes space for both.” Encountering the other means encountering the one you do not own in the place you do not own. To create a space for the other that belongs to no one but makes space for all.

I come away with this idea, carrying it with me, pondering it opening up. Encountering that which I do not own. I think of the steps of St Martin’s a place where many people come to sit and rest or meet and wait. Because we feel we are part of St Martin’s it is tempting to feel that they are our steps. To a certain extent I who have the key to the gates have internalised that sense of ownership- like the host opening up the place for others to come in. But in a recent survey done by our church a lot of those who come and sit on our steps feel that ownership too, a sense of link or belonging to those steps- it could be because of faith, or music, or a memory from the past, or a pattern or a tradition that have made that connection and those steps the place of belonging and yet at the same those who sit there do not own the steps and once one person tried to that they would in fact cease to be the place for encounter. The place of encounter is not always harmonious because of that very reason that everyone feels it is there right to be there. Try and move people on from the steps of St Martin’s and you’ll quickly be involved in some very heated arguments:
“What call this a church why can’t I stand here!”
“Why can’t I sleep on these steps I have always slept here?”
“Why can’t I demonstrate here I thought you are meant to believe in social justice?”
“Why can’t I busk here it’s a free country?”
Or as one homeless member of our church who always occupied the back pew once said to me “I hope the development of this church is not going to be like one of those pub make overs- because it’s our church too and actually I spend longer in it than you do.” He was probably right.
I just give you this by way of example. How difficult it is to encounter the other we do not own in a space we do not own. For the next Encounter lecture we were being hosted by the Ahmadiyyia Muslim Community in Morden and this week I have fielded I number of telephone calls anxious about registering for this lecture:
“Why can’t I use Eventbrite to register?” they ask.
“Because the mosque uses a different registration website.” I try to explain. “The details are all there in the flyer.”
“I don’t understand it,” the person replies. “They ask me if I have any dietary requirements- why do they want to know that?”
“Perhaps because they want to feed you?”
“Because that’s part of their hospitality. That’s the meaning of encounter- we are encountering that which we do not know.”
“Oh” says the surprised caller “Well I’m not sure if I’ll be hungry!”
Sometimes you can’t win. That’s the nature of encounter. No right way no wrong way just different. And when we actually visited the mosque these doubts and differences are blown away by the kindness, generosity of the hospitality we receive. Face to face we see not the fears but the person reaching out in generous welcome and prejudices dissolve.

Up the road from the steps of St Martin’s Lane Ian McKellen is playing King Lear with such raw and recognisably flawed humanity, it makes you weep. At the beginning of the play full of his own self-importance and largess and drunk by the power he has always enjoyed for so long, he conceives a plan of huge vanity dividing up his kingdom publically between his three daughters to show his munificent generosity. It is probably one of the worst retirement plans ever conceived. His first two opportunistic daughters Goneril and Regan launch into lavish expressions of filial affection. “Sir, I love thee more than word can wield the matter, dearer than eyesight, space and liberty etc. It is only Cordelia, the third daughter, who refuses to act out this charade: “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” she says. For her love is a gift, a sacrifice not a commodity to be bargained with. When Cordelia fails to respond as he expects, Lear is distraught and furious renouncing all his paternal care for her, and tells her that she will be a stranger to his heart forever. “Therefore begone! Without our grace, our love, our benison.” We become acutely aware that this division of the kingdom is not really a gift at all. Lear has given in order to possess and in this he fails spectacularly and in fact never recovers. How many of us have been guilty- giving in order to possess, influence or control?

It’s a family argument, but Shakespeare’s genius is to show an intimate, family division magnified onto a national, cosmic, timeless canvass. A fault line, a rift, opens up visibly in front of us; there is no going back. Shakespeare is showing that the movement of nations, the redrawing of empires, wars, the deaths of thousands of people are balanced on tiny decisions, moments of blindness and pride, Moments of envy and possessiveness where a flaw is revealed in a leader, and from that moment this enormous fissure emerges which goes on getting wider and deeper until there is no going back. If you think I am exaggerating just think about the politicians of our time- think of the Iraq war, think about Brexit. Think of Tony Blair, think of Boris Johnson,
Our Gospel passage shows that Jesus’ own disciples were not free from such faults of pride. They too wanted to own their Messiah and their Saviour. They of course don’t like the idea of a future that will involve suffering and betrayal and even death. Who does want a future like that? No the disciples have not listened to Christ or seen the writing on the wall or really known that they too are capable of betrayal. Despite all they have already seen how far they have got it wrong. Jesus has just predicted his death and yet they are arguing about which of them is going to be the greatest. And then he astonishingly turns everything on its head and says this. “Whoever wants to be the first, must be the last of all and servant of all.” It’s the opposite of our power or pride games- it’s not about possessing at all it’s about as Rowan Williams put it an encounter without ownership. It’s coming with hands and heart not seeking to grasp but seeking to serve. I know we have heard it many times before but it’s still astonishing. It’s the kingdom which belongs to the meek, to the child, to the one without pretence or pride. It’s the kingdom not of the possessed but of the dispossessed. And these disciples are going to learn how to live that kingdom not through pride but actually outside a city wall, where like King Lear and in the company of the wounded and the broken they will learn the meaning of love and truth. Beneath our own royal robes as Lear says we discover the same bare forked animal. Unaccommodated we are all subject to the storm. Storms are no respecters of rank or position. Our shared humanity, vulnerability, and mortality, makes a mockery of the hierarchies of power but at the same time point towards the love and the truths that are immortal.
Its always sobering to listen to a bit of the Epistle of James to admonish us and advise us. We heard today from this letter that gentleness is born of wisdom. He does not pull his punches:
“If you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful of false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual devilish…. But the wisdom from above is first pure and peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

Doesn’t that sound like a breath of fresh air, a breath of the Spirit at this period of such national division and political divisiveness? Is it not the church that is called not to the same hierarchies of ambition, pride or hypocrisy but to be the place of the disposed- the place of encounter- where all who enter, in all our unique diversity, can find the place to question and to encounter that which we do not own or possess? Is not that the vision of St Martin-in-the-Fields that has always sustained this church on the edge and in the heart- To discover in the place of dispossession the meaning of our lives- seeking not an over-lordship but a bold humility, a humble boldness. You see we know only in part, but all of us have at moments glimpsed this truth- the truth of the one who has called us not to be judges but witnesses of mercy, not to be the greatest, but to be in fellowship with the least, not be controllers or invaders but messengers of peace- in truth to be the servants of our servant king.