Accepting challenges is part of a preacher’s task. Most often of course those challenges are posed by the complexities of Scripture or the ambiguities of a contemporary situation, or the expectations of a congregation. The annual preaching task set by Richard Johnson is a particular one, to preach on the text vita humana bulla est: Life is but a bubble: will have challenged preachers and flummoxed many.
Perhaps originally intended to help the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers and their guests reflect on the wisdom or folly of investment speculations that can quickly and easily go wrong, such as the South Sea Bubble of 1720, I imagine that many preachers have reached for countless metaphors, interpretations and readings over the years that will have stretched their imaginations and led some to wonder why they agreed to preach in the first place. We stand on their shoulders.
But in the 226 years since Richard Johnson’s death, rarely can there have been a year when bubbles have been more in the public conversation, the news, the family and friends conversations that have got us through the last 18 months of global pandemic.
And for this, we have to thank an epidemiologist researcher from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. A wheelchair user himself, Dr Tristam Ingham came up with the concept back in March 2020 as a way of describing how to organise social contact for people with disabilities. Realising that public health messaging was alarming, for everyone, but especially for those with disabilities, who relied on carers, he came up with this idea and has been astonished to see it used first by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Adern on 21st March and then for the idea to spread around the world, including the adoption of it by the UK government over the summer of last year.
Dr Ingham wanted to give people with disabilities some agency in a situation that felt very much out of everyone’s control. When carers were cancelled and a period of isolation seemed inevitable, the public health messaging was that You build your bubble, you decide who is in it, and “you could pop the bubble if you didn’t look after it”.
Ingham has said, “you didn’t have to wait for the tidal wave to come, you could do something,” “Effectively it was a social contract with people, a set of rules you negotiated with family members or housemates.”
Dr Ingham wanted to find an image that was simple, easy to understand but crucially would help people understand what they could do and what they had to do. The image of a bubble was he said ‘inherently beautiful but fragile’.
And so many – perhaps you – have been at one time or another in a bubble this past year. At the centre of a social contract, a set of rules negotiated with particular family members or members of your household.
We are still in this pandemic, and while we are now at the stage of saying that we must find ways to live with this and other viruses that will inevitably come, the possibility of social bubbles being a sort of infrastructure that can organise society is still quite new, but has been a lifeline against isolation for many. A social contract that doesn’t depend on family ties, although family may be part of it, but depends rather on physical proximity often – dare I say it – relies more often on the idea familiar from Scripture – that of our neighbour.
The two Scriptural readings we heard today are reaching in more profound language and in different ways for a similar way of addressing the danger, both physical, mental and spiritual, of such isolation as we have experienced in the past year.
Both of our readings teach a sort of interdependence that, like the social bubble, doesn’t take away our own agency or autonomy; we negotiate with our neighbours, family, friends. But acknowledges that we are not able to flourish, indeed in a pandemic, we may not be able to survive at all, without them. Interdependence with all that lives is Job’s theme in the first lesson. Not just human interaction but an interdependence with our environment.
But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.
One of the reflections most often repeated in this pandemic has been that even in the most severe of lockdown rules, when one walk a day was permitted but only alone or with member of your household, connecting with the natural world has been a lifeline for many. If we have been lucky enough to have a garden or some outdoor space nearby, the healing presence of plants, creatures, with their own rhythms of living and ignorance of the fractiousness of pandemic human life, has been a balm and a comfort for a hurting society. Early on, pictures of lockdown city streets being taken over by the wildlife was both cheering and incredibly moving. Penguins took over the streets of Cape Town in South Africa, coyotes in San Francisco, kangaroos hopped down the streets of Adelaide, wild boar took over a suburb of Haifa in Israel and here in London, herds of deer appeared on housing estates and near to where I live, pelicans took over the Mall.
In the face of climate change and the huge challenges posed by the necessity to move to a carbon neutral economy, Job’s wisdom from Scripture is timely and a little surprising in that it places humans not in control but asking the questions, being willing to learn from the natural world. Ask the animals and they will teach you.
The words of John of Patmos, writing on his Greek island from two millennia ago will have been on the lips of many who have grieved the loss of someone they loved this past year.
The sheer grief of not being able to attend a funeral or say goodbye to someone surrounded by plastic in intensive care has been hard to bear witness to in a city and society that prides itself on its sophistication and advanced health care. John of Patmos puts into the mouth of God a solemn promise that accompanies us through the uncertainty and grief of these days;
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
For many of course this is not yet true. But the promise that the home of God is with mortals reinforces the Christian assurance that God is at home in the contingent and messy human life that we make our way through as the years go by.
God is with us, is embodied in the presence and message of Jesus Christ. Whatever else we believe about the suffering of the past year, for Christians it is that God is present somehow in the fear and distress that COVID-19 has brought to our society. And that the natural world that God made is not simply a set of resources for human beings to use, but once we retreat a little, the animals and the plants find their way even in to the centres of the city. Our place at the centre of things is not maintained all the time, and we take up the role of questioner rather than the supplier of all the answers.
If the original intention of the text Life is a bubble was to remind all of us of the hubris and over-reach to which all human beings are susceptible, if it was to help us counsel each other against greed and remind us that success, however unassailable it seems at the time is in fact fleeting in the context of eternity, then we can save that for another year and another preacher. Because in the words of the inventor of the social bubble that has been a lifeline for so many in the isolation and distress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bubble is an image that paints human life as essentially together not alone. The bubble acknowledges our need of one another, and gives us a way of describing human life that is as Dr Ingham said ‘inherently beautiful but fragile’.
May the souls of the departed through the mercy of God rest in peace and may those of us who are left living know deep within our souls that we are one with all that lives and has lived, interdependent with the planet in which we live and in which we have heard, God, too is at home. Amen.
Preached at the Worshipful Company of Stationers’ annual Richard Johnson ‘Bubble’ Service in 2021.