Beneath Calm Waters

Sunday 22nd February 2015
Year B, The First Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Genesis 9.8-17
1 Peter 3.18-22
Mark 1.9-15

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, 

There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.

Forgive me for not singing but I'm no Judy Garland!

This famous song from The Wizard of Oz, contains words of more longing than hope, a wish that all horrible earthly complications might be suddenly swept aside by a Deus ex Machina so that, to cite TS Eliot's famous lines lifted from Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

I must confess that I never liked the film - nor Judy, nor her song for that matter - because it exemplifies adult crassness in believing that children are sentimental when, by their very nature, they can't be because they have nothing of permanent emotional construction to look back on; children, faced by adversity are, to raddled adults, incommensurably hopeful. And it is that hope, marred by boredom and cynicism, which I want to discuss today on this First Sunday of Lent when hope should be yoked with penitence to put us in the proper condition to prepare for the celebration of Easter.

Our starting point is God's promise to Noah, unusual because this is not a bilateral deal like those between God and Moses or God and Abraham; God, who sees the damage to creation he has wrought in anger, leaving only eight human beings alive, promises, in the icon of the rainbow, that it won't happen again. In our Second Reading, the author of the First Letter of Peter, links the Covenant of Noah with Baptism and, in our Gospel Reading, Jesus submits to the Baptism of John.

What strikes me about creation, about the world we live in and about our own behaviour in it, is how repetitive it is, which perhaps accounts for the frenetic attempt of journalists to make it seem different, to tickle our horror buds; but even the atrocities of Islamic State are not new; and perhaps their importance is to shake us out of our totally childish belief that, over time, things have got better, that we live in an age of progress. Who could witness the babies tossed into the flames of Auschwitz, in the name of a warped, secular 'enlightenment' and think we have made any progress since we good Christian folk burned supposed heretics in the 16th Century?

The dynamics of repetition are so settled that we often overlook them, even though they permeate our Bible from the beginning in Genesis to the culmination in Revelation: we are blessed by God with the gift of creation and our creaturely part in it is to be faithful in worship and honest in stewardship; we become proud in our own place and powers; we are brought low; we see our wickedness or, more often, foolishness; and we turn back to God.

Oh that we could extend our faithfulness just a moment longer, that we could recognise our foolishness before retribution, that we could learn from our previous mistakes and not repeat them. The world is repetitive - or, if you like, cyclical - because we seem not to be able to harness God's grace to make our life a progression, an elevation from the warp of pride and the weft of sorrow.

The place to begin is with the Baptism of Jesus which says that he will undergo not what is necessary to himself but what is necessary to us in our humanity; he has no "original sin" as Saint Augustine would describe our birth condition for which Baptism is a necessary restorative, indeed he has no sins at all of which to be washed clean but he is a Baptised human to show that we must be baptised humans. Later he is a hurt and disappointed person showing that we must be hurt and disappointed; and then, the critical, for Him unnecessary, acts of suffering and death which show that we, too, must suffer and die though not so grievously as him. The life of Jesus is a life of solidary with our condition, our necessarily flawed condition. Some people say that Jesus died to appease God's anger, to give his blood as a bargain for the remission of humanity's sins; I would rather say that Jesus died to show his solidarity with our imperfection.

But however you come to grips with the mechanics of the events of Good Friday it is certain that our broken promises and God's kept promises are at the bottom of it.

And yes, the kept and the broken promises are repetitive as must our repentance be. It need not be dramatic; we should recall Jesus' plea that we should not show our repentance by external forms, boasting at what we are giving up for Lent or undertaking as an extra offering but the world we live in calls for deep, penitential reflection.

One of the terrible consequences of the European Reformation of Christianity was that it shifted the balance from communal to individual observance, from the salvation of all of us to the salvation of ourself. If we take the view that to be a Christian, to follow Jesus, is purely a matter of personal salvation, we will necessarily exalt our own faithfulness because, no doubt, as individuals, we try pretty hard to obey God's calling; but when we look at the world we live in, at collective indifference, callousness, cruelty, injustice, degradation, neglect, the stunting of God's plenitude, we cannot, like Stephen Fry, lay this at the foot of our Creator; we must lay it at our own feet.

It is I, the human race, who despoil and spoil; it is I, the human race, who abandon stewardship to become strong-armed; it is I, the human race, who deny God's image in all humanity; it is I who rank one person above another because of race, Creed or class, intellect or beauty; it is I, above all, who have put liking ahead of loving.

However tranquil the emotional waters of Hurstpierpoint may appear to be, visited or not by the rainbow, there is doubtless more than enough below the surface of which we should repent; and a good starting point would be for us to read the Letter from the House of Bishops on the forthcoming General Election.