It has been a great relief to many of us that so many of the restrictions imposed during lockdown are finally being lifted, despite our continued need for care and caution. Here at St Bride’s we are dealing with a veritable deluge of requests for weddings, baptisms, and memorial services as we deal with the backlog of recent months. And of course we see the same phenomenon happening in other areas of the life of the city, as well.
One manifestation of this, which is proving a bit of a challenge, to say the least, relates to all those charity fun runs, half marathons, marathons, and sponsored cycling events which have been cancelled or postponed in recent months, which are now suddenly happening – all at once. Almost all of them require major road closures on our doorstep, and cause unimaginable problems to our congregation members – because (guess what) – they always happen on Sundays, because, as everybody knows, nothing really happens in the city on a Sunday, does it! Add to that the existing challenges of the extension of the congestion charge, the ULEZ charge, the dwindling availability of parking spaces in the area and the fact that there are often major disruptions to the public transport network on Sundays (which is when all the routine works and repairs take place) – and you will perhaps understand why our collective heart sinks every time that we are notified of yet another of these wonderful events, all but wiping out yet another Sunday for us.
Now I don’t want to come across as a grumpy old Rector – and I fully recognise and appreciate how incredibly important these charity events are – both for their participants and for the good causes that they support to great effect. We really do want to work with the organisers rather than against them. But it really is quite tough at times.
In my previous parish, a neighbouring church to ours was situated right in the middle of the route of a major annual Half-Marathon, which always took place on a Sunday morning, which made it extremely difficult for their congregation to get there.
So the vicar had the bright idea of asking a local school, which was just next door, if they could use their playground as a carpark on the morning of the marathon, since the school would be closed on a Sunday. The school was more than happy to oblige: the only difficulty was that the entrance to the school was just the wrong side of one of the road closures. The city council was consulted, and everyone was delighted when it came up trumps, issuing special permits for the day to enable the congregation members access to drive their cars onto the school site. It was a perfect solution.
The day of the marathon duly came, and the first of the congregation members drove to the barrier just outside the school entrance, where he encountered a marathon marshal clad in regulation hi-viz jacket. Beaming, the congregation member wound down his window and said confidently:
‘Good morning! Do you mind letting me through, please – I am from the church, and we are parking on the school playground this morning.’
The reply he received was not what he was expecting, and the following exchange ensued:
- ‘Sorry, sir – I can’t let you through – you see there’s a marathon taking place today.’
- ‘Yes, I know there is a marathon today – that is why our congregation have special permission to park in that school playground.’
- ‘Sorry, sir. This road is unfortunately closed.’
- ‘But I have a special permit from the city council!’
- ‘Our instructions are very clear, sir – no vehicles are permitted to go beyond this point.
- ‘But I’m not going anywhere near where the runners are passing through – I just need to drive through that school entrance over there.’
- ‘Sorry, sir – no can do!’
- ‘Look, I have this permit, issued by the city council, with today’s date on it, giving me permission to pass through this barrier and park on that school playground.’
- ‘I don’t know anything about any permits, sir – and our instructions are absolutely clear – no vehicles are to pass beyond this point.’
By this stage other congregation members’ cars had started arriving behind the first vehicle, and they got out and started joining in, with mounting irritation and incredulity:
- ‘Where’s your supervisor?’
- ‘I’m afraid he is not here at the moment, sir – he is a very busy man today – you see we’ve got this marathon to marshal’
- Well get him on the [I shall leave out the expletive] phone, then!’
It turned out that the supervisor didn’t know anything about any special permits either. By this stage, the mood of the growing number of congregation members was turning ugly, and the chap at the very front of the queue was positively foaming at the mouth. More on this later.
A second story: I can remember hearing a radio interview with one of the American firemen who had been involved in the 9/11 disaster, in which he described an extraordinary incident that took place when he was risking his own life evacuating people from one of the Twin Towers. The fireman was moving through the stricken building, room by room, fire and carnage all around him, in a desperate attempt to get everyone out. And much to his astonishment, he went into one office to discover a man there still sitting at his computer, deeply engrossed in a business transaction. ‘Get out, NOW!’ shouted the fireman, incredulous. Without even looking up, the man at the computer waved him away, saying ‘This is important!’ At which point, the fireman simply picked him and threw him out of the room, ripping his shirt in the process (for which he subsequently apologised on air). Extraordinary!
So, why am I telling you these two stories this morning? Because human beings have an extraordinary capacity to focus so narrowly on their own immediate concerns and priorities, that they lose the ability to see what is staring them in the face. Mr Hi-Viz-Jacket was completely incapable of recognising that, just possibly, he needed to listen to what he was being told, and to check his facts, rather than stick rigidly to the one big thing he thought he knew, regardless of anything or anyone else. And Computer-Man in the Twin Towers, was so engrossed in his Very Important Business Transaction that he was utterly oblivious of the fact that he was sitting right in the middle of the single most appalling terrorist atrocity the world has ever witnessed. Unbelievable! And yet, to a greater or lesser extent, I suspect that actually we are all capable of exactly the same kind of thing.
And, OK, to turn my argument against myself – perhaps I, too, need to set my own irritation and inconvenience about the impact of these wretched fun runs on our church life, to see the bigger picture.
We all exercise choices all the time – even when we are so immersed in our own little bit of world that we don’t even notice the fact. We don’t stop long enough to look up and see the bigger picture. In our Old Testament reading this morning, Joshua alerts the tribes of Israel that they have a choice. They can choose which God they worship: the God who has brought them out of slavery in Egypt – or the gods of the Amorites – in whose territory they were. Will they stick with what is easy and close at hand – or look around and see the bigger picture?
One of the biggest dangers in life for all of us, is that we can become so accustomed to the way we think things are (or should be), that we lose the capacity to think beyond that: we lose the vision and the ability and the inclination to set aside our assumptions in order to recognise the full truth of how things really are. And to look at our own role in sometimes making those situations worse rather than better.
Just in case you are interested to know the end of the Mr Hi-Viz-Jacket story with which I began: apparently the vicar turned up just as things were about to turn seriously nasty. And although nobody seems to know quite how he managed it, or what exactly he said to Mr Hi-Viz Jacket – he took him to one side, whispered something in his ear, and for some reason Mr Hi-Viz suddenly took on the appearance of a frightened rabbit, and had a sudden and unexpected change of heart. ‘Oh, right sir – very good sir – right away.’ The barrier came up and the congregation members were able to park their cars as arranged. All very intriguing.
But on to more serious matters. I am recording this sermon about ten days in advance, because I shall be away on holiday when this podcast is going to be edited together. So it was yesterday for me, that news broke about the truly catastrophic situation we are in, in relation to climate change and the consequences for our fragile planet. Time has just about run out for us, and the true consequences of this, if we do not act now, are unthinkable. There is no plan B. We have no other planet. Today, the day after that news broke, the headline news is … school exam results. Yes, of course these are matters of tremendous significance for our school leavers, whose individual lives will be profoundly affected by their results in the future. Except that, if we don’t look up and attend to the bigger picture, they won’t have a future at all.
We really do need to wake up, and we need to wake up now. The human temptation is always to give a shrug of resignation, assume that it must be someone else’s responsibility, and get on with cooking dinner. Or manning the road closure. Or, in relation to global warming, to regard the prospect as so terrifying that you just don’t want to think about it: so you switch off the television news, turn away from the images of the devastating fires destroying Greece, and Russia, and huge areas of the USA, and the catastrophic floods in Europe.
But this is precisely where we need to be bold and to step up, and to take encouragement from our reading from Ephesians:
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might […] We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness […] Pray at all times […] Keep alert with all perseverance.
The Ephesians had every reason to be afraid, and to retreat, and to focus solely on their own individual fears and concerns in the most challenging of circumstances, which it was imperative that they did not do.
And in the face of the current unprecedented global challenge, neither must we.