St Margaret’s Church, Binsey Eucharist on Sunday 24th February 2019 [2nd Sunday before Lent]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Genesis 2:4-9, 15-25; Psalm 65; Revelation 4; Luke 8:22-25.
They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water and they obey him? [Luke 8:25]
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
At one time or another most of us will have had to produce a ‘curriculum vitae’ a brief account of what we have done with our life, perhaps for admission to a university or college, for a job, for a grant or some other purpose. The implication of such a document is that one is valued for what one has done in the past, in part as an indicator of what one might do in the future. At one level there is nothing unbiblical about this; at another, there is a profound disparity between what God demands of us and what the world wants, and more importantly between our duty to God and our desire for our own enrichment.
When we account for ourselves in a worldly context ( and that, incidentally would include clergy anxious for ecclesiastical preferment), we are inevitably saying that we are better than others, wiser, better skilled, and that we have achieved more. In the political sphere we seek power; in the economic sphere, wealth and in the intellectual, influence. And we claim that our capacity is entirely due to our own brilliance. Scripture suggests quite a different scale of values, starting with the omnipotence of God expressed in our psalm and also elsewhere for instance in the Wisdom of Solomon:
How could anything have continued in existence, had it not been thy will? How could it have endured unless called into being by thee? (Wisdom of Solomon 11:25).
You spare all things for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living, For your immortal spirit is in all things [Wisdom 11:25-6;12:1]
We are valued for doing God’s will ‘by acting justly and mercifully and walking humbly with God ‘(Micah 6:8) . In St Matthew’s Gospel people are judged by Christ according to whether they have fed the hungry, nurtured the destitute, comforted the sick or visited those in prison (Matthew 25:31-46).. Earlier in that Gospel Jesus, in the wilderness had famously resisted magic or divine powers which would have made him omnipotent on earth (Matthew 4:1-11). Human power is inevitably finite, as text after text in the Bible and in other ancient and more recent literatures reminds us. None of our achievements mean anything unless we leave behind us something intangible that belongs to the divine realm.
It might be helpful to compile a CV for Jesus, as the world would have seen it. The first part is almost, but not quite, innocuous. He was born of a father Joseph, a carpenter and his young wife Mary in Nazareth in Galilee. Local tittle-tattle doubtless speculated on whether he was really legitimate, whether his mother from whom in Jewish law he inherited his own faith had been loyal to a (possibly gullible) husband. Nevertheless, he came from good, artisan stock, though not of a priestly caste, not from a family of power and influence. He grew up according to one account with a precocious interest in and understanding of Jewish Law, though this would require further training, and though the later Gospels are shot through with Biblical quotation, we do not have evidence of exceptional scholarship. He emerges from obscurity as a young man in his thirties with some connection with an itinerant preacher John, who practised the rite of Baptism in the River Jordan, and assumed his mantle as an itinerant preacher and healer. He drew considerable crowds and a band of devoted disciples, his ministry dovetailing in to contemporary Messianic fervour. However this dismayed the authorities when he brought his movement to Jerusalem and he was put to death by the Roman procurator of Judaea.
Throughout his ministry he had no settled home, unlike foxes who had holes and birds who had nests. He left some sayings, and memorable parables, but wrote no book and never achieved any sort of power. At one level many of you could do better: at another, he completely turns the whole project of judgement by humans on its head with the reminder that all things come from God. He exposes the vanity and frailty of wealth and possessions. God looks after the birds and the flowers surpass the jewels of Solomon’s court. Through his wisdom our own attempts to impress others appear a little shabby.
Furthermore, even if we acquire great wealth and great power death will come to us. Of course it came to Jesus; his low rank in society meant he was killed as a trouble-maker by crucifixion, the cruellest means possible…but then, beyond earthly reach, his tomb was empty, he was resurrected and no longer dead, but revealed as part of the divine mystery that had created all things, able to control the elements as our Gospel reading affirms. In his teaching and in his life Jesus sets before us a new, more humble, more holy way to live life. So, after all, perhaps we should tear up that long-considered CV. As Thomas Gray mused in 1750 is his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Instead, should we not try to live more lightly on God’s earth? That of course has been the way of the early monks who have sought the solitude of the desert or remote islands in order to encounter God. As a Third Order Franciscan, my thoughts instinctively turn to Francis of Assisi, his father, far from being a poor carpenter, was a rich cloth merchant and a member of the ruling class of 14th-century Assisi, of Francis pampered youth, troubadour and soldier, of Francis who gave up everything to follow Christ, if necessary living under God’s stars. Like Christ he was wedded to holy poverty, to the care of the poor, and to hunted and abused animals. He possessed an openness to the beauties of creation, which we see manifested in his lovely Canticle of the Creatures best known in the version by William Draper, the hymn, ‘All creatures of our God and King’..
How might we respond to such a life entirely devoted to imitating Christ? First. I suggest our priority needs to be shifted from living for ourselves to living for others, not only other human beings but also the rest of creation, all the animals as well as the plants which inhabit our planet. We need to ask ourselves whether we are living sustainably, without damaging the delicate ecosystems which sustain life. Does what we eat, what we wear, and how we travel cause pain, impoverish other lives, damage the planet? Trying to enrich ourselves at the expense of others, through excessive growth, excessive greed is not only arrogant and sinful but stupid, like that man intent on building ever larger barns (Luke 12:16-21) for his produce when that very night God demanded of him his life. That passage may have been in the mind of the writer of the great Middle English morality play, ‘Everyman’ who faced with death has to compile what is, in effect, a spiritual C.V. where none of the blandishments of the world will help. For us humility which implies living sustainably with the environment is not a lifestyle choice; it is a moral imperative. The only people truly deserving of admiration are not the rich and powerful but those who live a life of love for all living beings, and they are not the proud, they are not powerful, they are not the intellectually clever. They may well be little children, as Jesus himself suggested.
Just over a week ago, students and schoolchildren from all over the country went on strike from their lectures and lessons in an attempt to alert the government to the perils of climate change and environmental degradation, Now, it is probably true that Britain does a little more than some other advanced countries but even so that is not enough. Politicians are ever intoning the mantra of ‘growing the economy’ which is ultimately an invitation to greed, ultimately only achievable at the expense of others [the poorest in the world], some of whose land will shortly be swamped by rising oceans. At the same time our own poorest people, sleep in the street, die in the street or in one case in one of our churchyards. If enough members of the next generation care, there is still hope; if not we will languish under the heavy judgement of God who has told us in scripture in no uncertain terms to care for the environment.
As it happens the readings at Evening Prayer in the week of the student strike were from Leviticus. On Monday Chapter 19 was read telling us not to reap the corners of the field and on Friday, the day of the strike, it was Leviticus 25 which tells the Children of Israel to keep a Sabbatical year every seventh year, so that the land can be allowed to rest. Every 50th year would be especially holy, a Jubilee year of freedom and release for all Creation. The whole tenor of these passages is that everything belongs to God, not just the land, but every plant, and every living creature including us benighted, arrogant and above all over-confident human beings.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.