Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Remove the Scaffolding

Sunday 6 March 2022
First Sunday in Lent

Sung Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

As some of you will know, I attended the Oxford Ministry Course at Cuddesdon Theological College
It was a part time course allowing those with families to study alongside their work
But as well as teaching us theology,
I was intrigued by what else the College were trying to achieve in the training
What else were they trying to do to us whilst we were in their charge?
One such insight came in a lecture we received on the Bible
The lecture was scholarly, but hard hitting, particularly if you were from an Evangelical background
One student was visibly upset and went to see the tutor at the end of the lecture
The student made it clear that they did not want to attend such a lecture again
The tutor was unmoved –
“We are here to remove the scaffolding” she remarked

I was intrigued by this response and have thought about it great deal since
The response from the tutor was extremely profound
First and foremost, it was trying to prepare us for ministry where there will be uncomfortable truths
And where our faith will be continually challenged
The College was simply seeking to ensure that students had the maturity to deal with such challenges in ministry
And were then able to deal with them

But I think that the College were also saying something about organised religion itself
Because the truth is that we all have placed scaffolding around our religious lives
Most of us choose a Church which suits us and we then cleave to a particular tradition
Treading a circular path each year
God is a way we order our lives and in a way which we all, generally, find congenial
The only danger however, is that such ritual is always in danger of coming crashing down
And where will God then be found?
One of my most uplifting chapters in my short ministry to date was as a prison chaplain at Guy’s Marsh prison in Dorset
I was standing in during an interregnum
And even though it was a category C prison, I still had some serious offenders among my congregation
I naturally approached my initial visits to celebrate Holy Communion with some trepidation
But to my surprise I encountered a spiritual vitality and energy which I had not expected
The prisoners loved the service and some were deeply immersed in the Scriptures
My two readers used their own very well thumbed Bibles each week – one of them was serving life for murder and the other, five years for armed robbery
And to my delight, I would also get interrupted during the sermon by some wanting me to question me
And at coffee after the service would find ourselves immersed in some very profound conversations
I had expected to find a place of spiritual darkness but found it one of radiant light
But all the prisoners had one thing in common
The scaffolding from around their lives had been removed and they were richer for it

At the same time as standing in at Guy’s Marsh prison, I was introduced to a book written by Jonathan Aitken
The books was called “Prayers for People under Pressure”
Many of you here are old enough to remember this former member of John Major’s Cabinet
He found himself in the midst of a libel trial and committed perjury by lying to the court about the payment of a hotel bill
As a result, he was sentenced to eighteen months and his life lay in tatters
He described his first night in prison as follows
“On the first morning of my prison sentence…I awoke at 5.30am and wondered how I would survive the coming day. Occupying the cells immediately to the left and right of me were a couple of prisoners who…would shout a question such as “What shall we do with Aitken”? From the other side came a thunder of unprintable responses”
But despite the horrendous conditions, the impact on his faith was remarkable
As Aitken himself said
“The journey in prison was a journey of change. It was spiritual life in the raw, stripping away much of my own protective defences…I am not the best judge of how it changed me. All I can say for sure is that I came to love God and to love my neighbour far more than I have ever done before. The gain as a convict now seems far more fulfilling than the prizes of public life as a Cabinet Minister. I can now say from the heart “Thank you God for sending me to prison””
It is perhaps Aitkens remarks about the “stripping away of my own protective defences” that is the most telling phrase for me
For the journey into prison was the taking away of the scaffolding that had held his faith together
And now everything lay in ruins before his feet –
He was staring into the abyss
Put another way, he was now in the wilderness
Just as our Lord was in the wilderness himself for forty days and forty night as we heard this morning

There is always a temptation in Lent of falling back on comfortable religious practises
We go to Ash Wednesday to have the sign of the cross marked on our heads
And we might even give something up
But as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said
“To “deny oneself” is a radical matter- not a question of mortifications or self-denial (games again) but a loosening of the terrified grip on what we know and are comfortable with. “Denying oneself” amounts to the decision that I am not going to try and shape the truth to my wants and needs, but am determined to accept the truth as it is, not as I want it to be”
He went on
“It is the risk of saying “no” to religion in order to come to the truth of God, even if it breaks and kills everything I am familiar and happy with”

It is, of course, very difficult to remove the scaffolding
We are all like the student at Theological College
But the stark reality is that we will all have the scaffolding removed at some point in our lives
A personal crisis
The loss of all that one knows and loves – such as a war
It will come to us all – even if it is in our final hours on this earth – as there is nothing more we can do
But it is at this point, and possibly only at this point, that God breaks through this terrible darkness
When he begins to destroy the dominating and manipulating self
And then sets us free to be loved and to give ourselves unconditionally to him

In the name etc