Look up! - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Look up!

Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16

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1 Let brotherly love continue.

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.

Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.

Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.

So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.

Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.

Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.

15 By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.

16 But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.

 

 

I have just returned from a week's holiday on the Gower peninsular in south Wales.  And on the Sunday morning that I was there, I went to the eucharist at the ancient and very beautiful church in the village where we were staying.

I had googled the church's website beforehand to find out what time the service was - assuming that it would be the usual, and rather predictable kind of small rural church: sedate and conservative and still inhabiting the 1950s.  So I was somewhat intrigued by the mugshots of the vicar, whose style I might caricature as 'New Age Traveller in Chasuble': he was shown sporting a full head of dreadlocks held back by a hairband; and one of the photos showed him out on a Gower hillside with his dog, playing a long wooden pipe, in the shadow of an ancient sacred rock.  'This will be interesting!', I thought to myself.

The church was surprisingly full that morning, due to the fact that there happened to be not one but two baptisms - and the whole thing was pretty ambling and chaotic: the priest had omitted to tell any of the home team about the baptism, so they had run out of everything, hymn books and orders of service.  And he hadn't actually prepared a sermon either - he just strung together a few random thoughts 'on the hoof'.

However, contrary to what you might be thinking, I am not telling you this in order to be critical of that priest.  Quite the opposite.  You see, for all that his style was about as far away from my own as it is possible to get, at the heart of that act of worship there were things that he got absolutely right - and all credit to him for that.

This was partly to do with the wonderful quality of his welcome, which was effortlessly unselfconscious, genuine, and unbounded: most of the people at that service were, I suspect, very unfamilar with churchy things; and yet every single one of them was made to feel entirely at ease and fully involved.  I had been doing my very best to be completely invisible and incognito, and so had tucked myself away at the far end of a pew by the wall, cunningly disguised in my walking boots, jeans and sweatshirt.  So I was somewhat taken aback when, during the offertory hymn, the priest suddenly appeared in front of me and said - 'Can you come and assist me at the altar?  In fact, you can concelebrate if you want to!'  At which point I realised that I must have been 'outed' by one of the churchwardens, whom I had bumped into accidentally the previous day.  So, rather unexpectedly, I ended up serving at the altar and administering the chalice.  And the way in which I, a total stranger, was warmly and effortlessly embraced by that little worshipping community was just wonderful.

But perhaps the most important thing that their priest got 'right', was that somehow, in the midst of that rather chaotic service, he made us all lift up our eyes to see what was around us: to feel the presence of God in our midst; to see the beauty of creation; to marvel at the amazing and astounding gift of new human life in those two tiny babies we were welcoming into the family of the Christ.  It was extraordinary.

A second, very different story.  Many years ago I heard a radio interview with one of the New York firefighters who had been on duty on 9/11, when the World Trade Center was destroyed.  After the first plane had struck the north tower, he was working his way systematically through the offices, ensuring that everyone was safely evacuated.  To his utter astonishment, when he entered one of the rooms he discovered a guy still sitting at his desk, working on his computer as if nothing was happening.  'What do you think you doing?  Get out!' he shouted to the man.  In response to which, the man didn't even look up - he just waved him away saying, 'This is important.'  So the firefighter simply picked him up bodily and basically threw him down the stairs.

Amazing isn't it?  How on earth could anyone be so staggeringly and unbelievably stupid as to be sitting at his computer, in a burning building, with debris falling past the windows, with people crying and screaming and throwing themselves out of the building on every side - but regarding whatever financial transaction he happened to be engaged in at that precise moment as being more important - to the point where he didn't even look up when ordered to leave.  How insane can you get? 

Except ... except ...  Let us now think ourselves in that very same scenario, but this time in a rather different setting.  Think about it in relation to climate change, for example.  As we all know, the news is constantly full of reports of the catastrophic impact that our lifestyles are having on our climate and our environment: we have just experienced the hottest Bank Holiday on record; the glaciers are dissolving at a frightening rate; sea levels are rising; the Great Barrier reef, the greatest living organism on the planet, is being bleached well beyond the point of recovery; species are dying out across the planet at a terrifying rate; eight million tons of plastic are finding their way into our oceans every single day, destroying marine life; and I haven't even mentioned the Amazonian rain forests yet.  We are currently on the very brink of the point of no return.  Right now.

And how have we allowed this to happen?  Most of us (myself included, by the way) have been so absorbed in our own little bit of life that we did not even look up.  We have been so absorbed in our own immediate concerns that we simply waved the news away saying, 'No - this is important'.  And in any case, with issues on this kind of global scale what possible difference could our individual actions make to anything?  Well, all that I can say to that is that it would be terribly ironic, and horribly appropriate, if the end of the world were to come about not as a result of a nuclear holocaust, but as a result of shopping.  And all because we didn't take the time to look up and to look around.  And the day will come when we need to be able to look Aurelia in the eye - to look our own children and grandchildren in the eye - and explain why it was that we allowed this to happen.

I do find it strange that non-Churchgoers frequently seem to regard the Christian faith as being essentially some kind of retreat from reality - a sort of psychological comfort blanket that enables us to convince ourselves that things are not as bad as they actually are.  Because my own experience has always been the exact opposite.  Far from being a withdrawal from the harsh nature of reality, Christian discipleship inevitably draws us into the very heart of that pain and that darkness. 

The Christian faith is a faith based on love; and love and suffering are profoundly and inextricably and inescapably linked.  Because learning to love - really love - makes us vulnerable.  It makes us vulnerable to the pain of hurt and rejection and loss; it makes us vulnerable to the pain of others; it makes us vulnerable to the pain of our world.  Because that is what compassion means: to suffer with.  The Christian faith does not bring ease and comfort - because it is about something far, far more important than that: it brings life in all its fullness: joy beyond our imagining; riches far beyond anything we could desire; but the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows.

Gus Speth is a world ranking environmentalist and lawyer, the former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and the founder and President of the World Resources Institute, and he wrote this:

I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change.  I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems.  But I was wrong.  The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy ... and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don't know how to do that.'

We need to look up.  We need to look around.  We need to open our eyes and our hearts to the wonder of God's presence in our midst; we need to open our eyes and our hearts to the true and devastating cost of the lifestyle that we have come to take for granted as part of our quest for ease and comfort; we need to open our eyes and our hearts to the wonderful gifts of God's creation that we squander without even realising it.  And we need to learn from the example of our crucified and risen Lord, what it really means to love and to be loved.

And thanks be to God for that. 

Amen.

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