A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 25 June 2017
There were two items in the news this week that particularly grieved me – there was plenty to choose from as always, but these two stood out for me! The second news item was slightly different from the first in that while I found myself grieving when I listened to both of them, something quite unexpected happened in the second, which completely transformed my tears into ones of deep compassion and hope.
The first story was about the fight for Mosul that is going on, and in particular the central mosque with it’s famous leaning tower that is such a characteristic feature of that city. Inevitably what made me prick up my ears were my own personal connections. The mosque is a C12th building, this is a C12th church.
But there were also my own personal memories from when I was a teenager and visited the city of Mosul with my family – I recalled the long hot car journey from Baghdad and staying in the Railway Hotel at the central station. There was just one other table occupied in the restaurant that evening and the man sitting at the table was sick into his bowl of soup – it didn’t seem a very good recommendation for the meal we’d just ordered! It’s funny the things that you remember! That and my visit to the central mosque have always been things that have stayed with me about my visit to Mosul all those years ago.
The mosque and its leaning tower no longer exist. They were blown up this week by IS. It was from the pulpit there that the leader of IS had proclaimed the caliphate when the city was first captured, and it’s presumed that it has been blown up because IS do not want anyone else to stand in that pulpit and declare their defeat. And so to ensure that if they cannot enjoy the wonders of that building no one else can, the mosque is now a pile of rubble.
The depth of negativity in that action, took my breath away. It’s a deeply troubling aspect of being human, that so often we seem to have a pact with death. I don’t mean death in terms of physical death, but death in terms of a deadly negativity that is a sort of nihilism.
And I think this is what Saint Paul is trying to put into words in our reading from the letter to the Romans – he’s not easy to understand, and he’s trying to talk about things that are not easy to understand, and so that makes him doubly difficult to understand! But the words death and sin are woven together in that reading to talk about just this – our pact with death.
Most of the time, when we talk about life and it’s opposite death, we refer to the things that we know about – this life that we’re living with death as the conclusion of it. But the New Testament, and Paul in particular, reverses this, to talk about our way of living now as a pact with death, and that what Christ has done by his death, is to break the power of this pact to bring us a new sort of life!
Two ways of thinking that have been and still are very common in the life of the Church, and may help show just how often we simplify these difficult and complex ideas; but by simplifying them we loose a great deal of the profound things Saint Paul is attempting to say.
The first and easiest way of simplifying Saint Paul is to stick with our normal way of thinking that life is the stuff that we are on about now, death brings this all to an end, and it’s then followed by a different sort of life which we call ‘eternal life’. That’s a nice sequential pattern that we can follow. But it’s rarely what Saint Paul has in mind! The thing that excites him is the possibility of being alive to God now, here, always, not just after death – and our pact with death is also now, here, always, and it is, to use Saint Paul’s word, sin. That’s what the last verse of our reading this morning said:
‘So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and
alive to God in Christ Jesus.’
Which introduces us to the second way of simplifying Saint Paul and that is to use the word ‘sins’ in the plural when Saint Paul almost always uses the word ‘sin’ in the singular. We tend to use the word ‘sins’ in the plural because it’s easier to understand – it’s the things we do wrong – they’re what we say sorry for, our sins. We reflect on the last week or month or whatever and say what these sins are – the petty irritations, the one-drink-too-many, the times we’ve been economical with the truth, you name it we’ve done it!
At the beginning of the Eucharist/Evensong each week we say sorry to God for them. And that’s right and good.
But it’s not quite what Saint Paul is trying to say. He never uses the word ‘sin’ in the plural in this passage – every time he uses it, it is ‘sin’ in the singular: ‘…continue in sin…died to sin…enslaved to sin…freed from sin…dead to sin’.
Another way of describing Saint Paul’s use of the word ‘sin’ is what I’ve referred to as our pact with death; David Barton when he preached on this passage from the letter to the Romans last Lent referred to it as a contract with death. Sin is bigger than just you and me and our modest misdemeanours.
Our pact with death, or ‘sin’ if you prefer Saint Paul’s word, is this: that someone I know has decided to get rid of their ipad and smart phone because there’s so much pornography on the internet and it’s just too easy to access, they struggle to resist its allure; it’s the murder of Jo Cox and shouting that it’s somehow for Britain; it’s what we’ve seen on the streets of Manchester and London; it’s the way environmental concerns have simply dropped of our political agenda ever since the financial crisis of 2008 hit us; and it’s the deathly negativity of blowing up that C12th mosque in Mosul.
This is how we are as human beings, this is the world that we’ve created and we’re all part of it – it’s absolutely not ‘them who have done it to us’, but us!
Saint Paul sees this coming into sharp focus in the crucifixion. He sees there that our pact with death crucifies the Source of Life. But the Source of Life is so utterly inexhaustible, that death itself is spent, exhausted of its power, lies empty.
You could say that Death itself dies, and Life lives!
The second news item I think says something along these lines in a little incident that might easily not have been noticed, except that a reporter happened to be there and witness it. And I want to leave you with this story.
Apparently there are a lot of conspiracy theories swirling around on the internet about the horrendous fire at Grenfell Tower, in particular that the authorities are covering up the number who have died and in some way the Fire Service and it’s officers are believed by some to be part of this conspiracy. That grieved me.
The reporter happened to be present at an incident between a tenant or relative and some firemen. The tenant or relative was aggressive, shouting and haranguing the firemen, angry at what they had done, blaming them for his loss.
The firemen didn’t try to defend themselves, or shout back. Eventually the distraught man’s anger turned into sobbing, saying over and over again how sorry he was, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry’. The firemen could have just walked away, but instead one of them came and hugged that man.
Our response to the deep negative aspect of our humanity is too often one of anger and blame. A truer response is penitence and tears. In our sorrow God comes to give us new life with a hug!