Passion Sunday – 2016
St Frideswide’s , Osney
Eucharist on Sunday 13th March 2016 [Passion Sunday]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3: 4-14; John 12: 1-8
The wild animals will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert [Isaiah 43:20]
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
For my Lent address in St Margaret’s a couple of weeks ago I preached a Vegetable Sermon in which I reflected on the utility and beauty of plants which sustain the life of our vulnerable planet. Plants depend on water and on the nutrients in the soil, and we humans have too often assaulted the ecosystem through our relentless greed, by cutting down forests both tropical and temperate, and thus facilitating irreversible erosion and desertification and catastrophic climate change which can only intensify over time. This has already had a calamitous effect on the Natural World, increasing the rate of extinction to alarming levels and has also had an impact on human populations forced from a ravaged countryside into the man-made deserts we call cities, especially their slums, where unrest and civil strife are ever present threats to civil society. We humans were called by God to be his stewards and we have at the very best neglected that charge and at worst been culpably disobedient.
Today is Passion Sunday when our thoughts turn more and more to the climactic events which provided the climax to Our Lord’s earthly life. For all that, our readings today are upbeat, and even at one level apparently comforting, nevertheless they remind us of difficult truths, and challenges which face us all. Isaiah’s outpouring of passion for an Eden restored, echoed by psalm 126, reminds us of how far away we are from that ideal. How many wild animals are left to honour God in our world? Amongst the large animals, rhinos are nearing extinction through poaching for their horns, elephants are depleted for their ivory tusks, and lions and tigers are victims of trophy hunters. Antelopes and other herbivores are hunted for ‘bush meat’. There are precious few jackals, and one is more likely to see an ostrich in a zoo or being farmed for its meat than roaming the wilderness, where the species is extinct over much of its former range (in western Asia and North Africa for example) just as human-kind in New Zealand hunted its large relative the Moa to extinction.. Monkeys and even our near relatives the Great Apes suffer from poaching, from hunting for bush-meat or imprisonment in zoos and laboratories, as well as from loss of habitat through logging. Make no mistake, these are terrible offenses against God, the creator, for which as a species we will surely be made to answer.
And think of our domestic animals, farmed in ever more intensive conditions to assuage the lust for meat. So much of the earth’s land surface is taken up with growing crops to feed animals bred for meat, animals which produce directly or indirectly many of the gasses (perhaps eighteen per cent) that feed global warming. Apart from obvious cruelty to animals, it is the poor people of the earth who especially suffer.
Our gospel today is revealing as are many of the episodes of Jesus’ friendship with women or even casual encounters with women. In St John’s gospel it is Mary of the family of Martha and Lazarus who pours ointment over his feet. In Matthew and Mark’s Gospels it is an unknown woman who performs this service while Luke calls her a sinner, meaning here no doubt a prostitute. Yet this action has a powerful symbolic function, in connection with the Christian story to which this woman whoever she was has performed a real mitzvah. Tertullian and later tradition attributes this intimate gesture by an unknown woman to Mary Magdalene, thus helping to denigrate her as merely a reformed sinner though we see her through St John’s gospel as a true disciple of Jesus, the first to see him after the Resurrection. Mary, the sister of Martha, was likewise a disciple of Jesus who listened to his instruction. Jesus is portrayed as again and again encountering women on their own terms as people, whether or not they were ‘good’, whether or not they were Jews or foreigners- recall the woman taken in adultery, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the Samaritan woman at the well. That is refreshing for women in the Bible from Eve onwards are too often depicted as weak and, thus, somehow inferior to men . We sense the prevalence of such attitudes in our Lord’s contemporaries; nor was such an attitude confined to scripture in the Ancient World and beyond even in our own time.
Indeed, one only has to read or see depressing stories in the newspapers about the treatment of women in varied circumstances to know the prevalence of insidious bullying and worse by powerful men. The list of charges is long and very horrible, including rape, enslavement, female genital mutilation, denial of civil rights and extends to domestic abuse and discrimination in the workplace. Many of the people abused in these revolting ways are children: we are becoming inured to hearing of children enslaved by the sex industry, working in dangerous sweat-shops or used as child soldiers. The charge against men, or at least some men, can be summarised as one of the powerful misusing, terrifying, and abusing the vulnerable. Of course bullying and discrimination is by no means confined to the treatment of women in this world of ours. Men can also be victims, on account of ethnicity or sexual orientation (an area where even our church or some parts of it remains to a degree culpably indifferent).
The mistreatment of women and children and the mistreatment of animals are, of course, very much related. Our Lord’s ministry was posited on the belief that the powerful had no right to dominate the weak. The whole creation is under the judgment of God. As we approach the drama of Passion Week and Easter perhaps we should remember a sermon preached by John Henry Newman, then still an Anglican, on Good Friday 1842 at the University Church here in Oxford. In that sermon he compared the suffering of a vivisected animal with that of Christ himself. In the same spirit, on the programme A Point of View a couple of weeks ago the New York writer and columnist Adam Gopnik, discussing changing moral attitudes, suggested that in time the killing of animals and the eating of meat would be as offensive to liberal-minded people as slavery and colonialism. Indeed, by abusing the innocence of animals as we do, we are also distancing ourselves from the supreme value of our faith which is love, the negation of all suffering. St Paul tells us in our second reading today that he ‘regards everything as loss, because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord’. Knowing Christ has startling moral implications which, too often, the Church and Church people have failed to grasp.
Jesus was himself a victim of unmerited violence, and yet through his suffering became the victor. In my mind the life of Our Lord and his refusal to participate in a system which depended on bullying and suppression relates to the ancient Sanskrit doctrine of Ahimsa meaning both compassion to all living beings and nonviolence; Amhisa , so important in Hinduism, Buddhism and especially Jainism, was central to the thought of some of the most saintly figures of modern times, amongst them Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Schweizer. It is very readily translatable into our faith in a loving creator whose creation-all of it- in the words of the morning canticle, the Benedicite was made simply to praise him.
And of course it goes without saying that far from being victims, women from the Blessed Mother of God, to the countless artists and poets, thinkers and doers , sustainers of body and sustainers of soul are far more powerful in the eye of the divine than their brutish persecutors; so are those who stood or stand for racial justice with Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela; and those who stand for against any form of sexual discrimination. And of course the songs of the birds and the rejoicing of all the animals, living their own lives, leaping at sunbeams (as I saw baby monkeys doing in a temple at Hampi in India) and singing praises so refined that perhaps only the Almighty can hear them, have absolutely the same legitimacy and integrity that each and every one of us hope we have, in this world and for ever.
One day, we can only hope and pray, the rivers will overflow in the desert and all creation will rejoice in an Eden perfectly restored. In that day truly:
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen