13 Feb Sermon for 2nd Sunday before Lent, Year A
Sunday 12th February, 2023
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and other, his mother called him ‘WILD THING’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything. That very night in Max’s room a forest grew, and grew, and grew, until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”
“And the walls became the world all around”. These words, from the opening of Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things are’, resounded in my head a few summers ago, when I was out for a walk on our estate. There’s a certain point on one of the paths where, when the grass is at its longest, you can’t see any buildings at all. For me in that moment it was as if the boundary between the monastery and the rest of the world had dissolved, and the walls had become ‘the world all around’.
I expect I’m not the only one to have had a moment of ‘connection’ like this, the awareness of not being an island unto myself, but rather a part of something much bigger, one part of the web, or tapestry, or network that is our earth – and indeed our cosmos. We are connected at a deep level: as Christians we are all part of one body, bound together in a way that defies tribalism, the lines we endlessly try and draw between us and them. And beyond our fellowship with humanity, we are part of God’s creation that we heard evoked so beautifully in Genesis today. From the beginning we were created in connection with all that is, and we see the tragic truth of this today as environmental degradation and the extremes of the climate crisis affect those who have done essentially nothing to cause them, while we by and large sit in comfort, looking on and shaking our heads. But that’s another sermon for another day.
The world seems to me to have been very full of pain lately, and hearing Jesus say, “do not worry about your life” can provoke a variety of reactions, as I imagine it did in his hearers. It’s possible to hear his words today, about God feeding the birds and clothing the lilies, and imagine that if we just sit in our rooms and think holy thoughts that some angelic version of Deliveroo will magically bring us all that we need. To be abundantly clear: this is nonsense, and not at all what Jesus was getting at, in my opinion. For starters, these words are not addressed to us as individuals, but as members of a group, of a community. Our Christian lives are fundamentally a communal affair, something that we here at Mucknell exemplify in a particular way. Because Alison is cooking lunch today, Adrian needn’t worry that he’ll go hungry. Because Philip is launderer, Stuart knows his shirts will get washed. Because Anthony is drying up, Thomas knows there’ll be a clean plate for his toast at breakfast. And then there is our dependence as a Community on those who come here, and also on those who grow our food, and deliver it. Et cetera. Life is something that we do together, linked as we are in all kinds of ways, seen and unseen.
Jesus’ words here in Matthew can make sense because as Teresa of Avila reminds us, Christ has no body on earth now but ours. We are the divine Deliveroo, called to care for one another, and also called to order our lives differently, as both a consequence and cause of this care. The passage we heard today sits as part of a section of Jesus’ teaching on money and possessions; the words immediately preceding today’s reading are “You cannot serve both God and wealth”. The choice put before us here is about the fundamental energy that animates our lives. Are we all about getting more and more, or are we all about becoming more and more like Christ? If it’s the former, then of course we will worry about food, clothing and other material goods. The more we have of them, the more secure we apparently are. But if our lives are centred on Christ, and on God’s priorities, then these things are not what matters most, as Jesus says: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Instead we are called to “strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness”. And if we’re not sure what God’s righteousness looks like on the ground, then might I suggest just one word: love.
It’s Valentine’s Day coming up, as endless marketing emails have been reminding me lately, that great festival of whatever the greetings card companies have decided love is. It seems to involve plenty of chocolate: this much I am fully on board with. What the world needs now is indeed love, but I’m thinking something more along the lines of 1 Corinthians 13 than “Roses are red, violets are blue”. This is love that costs, that continually pulls us out of and beyond ourselves.
Much has been written and said about this week’s General Synod; I found a thread on twitter by Ruth Harley, who was part of the chaplaincy team, particularly moving. She said, in part, “It is easier to keep one another at arm’s length. Admitting our belonging to one another opens us up to such heartache, pain, rejection, fear, anger. But it also opens us up to the depth and breadth of God’s love for us – all of us – which far surpasses our understanding…we need a far deeper and more radical theology of unity. One which doesn’t allow us to cast one another aside, as if loving our neighbour were an optional extra. One which doesn’t allow us to ignore God’s image in the ‘other’. Belonging to one another as part of the body of Christ is hard and costly and painful. But it is also absolutely transformational – not just for the church, but for the world into which we are called.”
Her words have an immense resonance, I think, for us in this place, this school of the Lord’s service, this school ultimately of love. As Ruth says, it’s hard. I’m quite sure that all of us here at Mucknell have at times wondered just how it is that this thing we are creating goes on functioning. But this, surely, is a key part of our gift to the Church and to the world: a lived example of love that will not let go. That this is not just about us we see in today’s excerpt from the letter to the Romans when Paul says, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves…groan inwardly while we wait for adoption.” Just as we know that there is so, so much more of God for us to live into and out of, the world around us too knows that there is more. Our continued existence here at Mucknell is a sign of the “hope [in which] we were saved” – notice again, we. Together we point towards God’s future, in the same way that someone standing at a bus stop points to the arrival, sooner or later, of the number 7.
A little further on in the section we heard today, Paul says that “all things work together for good”. The translation here is a bit tricky, as the notes in the NRSV offer a couple of alternatives: “God makes all things work together for good”, or “in all things God works for good”. Somewhere in the midst of these alternatives lies part of the substance of our hope: nothing is wasted. There is no circumstance that can ultimately thwart God and God’s purposes, God’s life, God’s love. Christ is risen, alleluia, and so the battle is won. The world just hasn’t quite got the memo yet. I’m put in mind of the first printers we had when I was a teenager, and watching the document or picture in question emerge line by slow line. Every step, however faltering, however bold, that we take towards God, towards the hope in which we were called and saved, is like another line being printed out. Our collect for today offers us a good, simple and challenging starting place. As we move through this week, may we indeed see see God’s likeness in all God’s children, and having seen it, may we be given grace to respond with God’s love, full of the hope for which and by which we have been saved. Amen.
Image: LeCompte, Rowan and Irene LeCompte. Beauty of Creation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57016 [retrieved February 13, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stained_glass_window_Washington_National_Cathedral_2012_06.JPG