19 February 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Second Sunday before Lent
Revd Jonathan Cain
Gen. 1:1 – 2:3; Mt. 6: 25-end
“Truth is tricky. We have to take more seriously how prone we are to deluding ourselves that we have the truth. Furthermore, the scope for delusion is greatest when we are powerful – and when we are anxious, and may God help us when the powerful are also anxious. Truth is relational, in other words our journey towards truth relies on encounter with others – especially an encounter with those who are different from us.”
… so says community theologian, fresh expressions pioneer and author Ann Morisy in this book ‘Journeying Out’. This statement about the nature ‘truth’ is one of ten propositions that Morisy offers at the beginning of the book, which outlines a new approach to Christian mission. When I re-read it recently, against a news background of ‘post-truth politics’ and ‘alternative facts’, it sounded prophetic.
The world is complex, and national governments, now as always, have to take the security of their citizens seriously – those in power are, perhaps understandably, prone to anxiety – but it strikes me that what lies behind the protests and petitions against the building of walls between peoples, physical or metaphorical, is not just liberal idealism. It is, in part at least, motivated by a concern about the denial of encounter with others. At a deep level, it is a concern about the denial of truth, however tricky.
I think it worth giving some context to the gospel passage that we heard this morning. Matthew provides these words of Jesus “do not worry” as a pastoral footnote to some passages that describe some of the demands of living out the gospel. The preceding verses contain well-known phrases about not storing up treasure and the impossibility of serving two masters. Earlier in the Gospel account Jesus sets out the manifesto for the Kingdom of God in the Sermon in the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, … those who mourn, … the meek, … those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, … the merciful, … the pure in heart, … the peacemakers, … the persecuted. These were, and remain, demanding and anxiety provoking concepts for those who have means, and here Jesus says “do not worry”, pointing to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field as signs of God’s good creation … the creation that God willed into existence with a word … “let” …
When Jesus says “do not worry” he encourages his hearers to lift their eyes above immediate concerns about their own power and possessions, and to consider their anxieties in the context of God’s good creation. Now looking at birds would not satisfy me if I really were hungry, any more than considering the lilies would satisfy me if I had no clothes, but that is not the point. Jesus’ words are not addressed to poor people. They are addressed to people for whom basic needs aren’t a real concern … people with means … people like you and I.
In September of last year Simon and I were privileged, along with 400 clergy colleagues to hear the physicist, Professor Brian Cox – yes the one off the TV – in conversation with the Revd Professor David Wilkinson – also a physicist, priest and theologian – although slightly less well-known. They both responded to a question posed by Bishop Nick Baines about life, the universe and human meaning. Their responses and conversation transported us back to the beginning of time and across the universe. It was awe inspiring. It was the creation story from the beginning of Genesis that is so familiar to us, but from the perspective of modern cosmology. It was an encounter between those who are, in some senses at least, ‘other’ – Brian Cox admitted to being anxious about the prospect of addressing 400 clergy, although I can’t think why. It was an encounter that demolished the walls that are so often unnecessarily erected between disciplines. It was an encounter where participants and hearers were open to having their delusions exposed, and challenged in a common quest for truth, however tricky.
The exchange between the two professors took place during the inaugural clergy conference for the Diocese of Leeds – a conference that bore the name ‘Hope’. The conversation, which brought to life the cutting-edge scientific origins of the universe, lifted the eyes of the clergy present above immediate concerns of raising the Parish Share and fixing leaky roofs, putting us in the context of God’s good creation.
The Prayer Book name for today is Sexagesima; the second of three Sundays in which we Christian disciples are invited to prepare our hearts for the spiritual disciplines of Lent. The Prayer Book Gospel for Sexagesima Sunday is the parable of the sower, a story that reminds of the difficulties of hearing and retaining the truth of the Word of God. Returning to Ann Morisy’s proposition …
“Truth is tricky. Truth is relational, … our journey towards truth relies on encounter with others – especially an encounter with those who are different from us.”
Lack of opportunity for encounter with people who are different from us is often circumstantial. But consumer societies confer power on those who have means, and increasingly that power is deployed to erect walls between people that are ‘other’. Much has been written about social media being an echo chamber, but the virtual world mimics the real world. We are susceptible to building walls that inhibit our journeying to truth … and perhaps the most inhibiting walls are those erected around our own hearts. Not walls erected by circumstance, or erected by the power of consumer choice, but walls erected by anxiety induced judgement.
Sisters and brothers as we journey together towards Lent, may our anxieties be salved by the grace of God, may our eyes be opened to the walls of judgement around our own hearts, and may our hearts be made ready to journey with others towards the truth revealed on the cross.
“Do not worry”, Jesus says, lift your eyes above immediate concerns. When God saw everything that he had made, it was very good.