No Liberation

Tuesday 21st April 2020
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
The Stations of the Resurrection
Matthew 28.1-4

I have always preferred Matthew's solution to the problem of the tomb's stone to that of the other Evangelists. Angels are all very well in their way but they are entirely heaven-bound whereas Matthew's Earthquake speaks of a grand gesture, harnessing earthly forces for a spiritual purpose. Although he somewhat messes up the logistics, as he is apt to do, by having an earthquake followed by an angel rolling away the stone, Matthew, more deeply indebted to the Book of Exodus than the other Evangelists, revels in the imagery of mountains and the encounters between YHWH and Moses which took place on them. Exodus is a book of rock and water, of cloud and storm, of drama and passion, of God both terrible and intimate. It is also the Book of the Eucharist.

Matthew is also the Evangelist who marks the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the point of the death of Jesus, signifying the end of the old religious order, and he subsequently describes the dead emerging from their tombs as yet another sign of the shift in the balance of power from the old to the new. All in all, these manifestations underline that not only is the Eucharist a new Exodus, a mark of liberation from the tyranny of death, they also say that the Resurrection is the crowning Exodus event; for just as the Children of Israel, not without a struggle, finally reached their promised land, so we are assured by the Resurrection, of a safe passage over Jordan to our promised homeland in unity with Christ, sustained by the Eucharist as the Chosen people were sustained by Manna. To think of the earthquake as disconnected from Exodus robs the story of its foundational drama.

And, in normal circumstances, that might be it, the celebration of two massive divine interventions in history, the first by God out of time and the second by Jesus, God in time, two linked stories of liberation, the second ceremonially leaning heavily on the ritual of the first; but as we worship in front of our computer screens or hold our mobile phones affectionately in our hands, we wonder how we are to be liberated; and perhaps we wonder whether there will be another divine intervention.

I think not; not because it is not possible but because we are not suffering a God-created catastrophe but one of our own making: depending on the story, either the Chinese refused to regulate wild animal markets or they allowed the virus to escape from a faulty laboratory and then tried to hide the truth of the virus; our own Government, warned graphically by Bill Gates in 2015 of the dangers of a pandemic, chose to ignore him and also an internal report from 2016 which it refused to publish; when the danger of the pandemic became clear, our Government wasted more than a month before taking appropriate action; and now, as we are in the midst of it, we suffer bravely, though not so bravely as vital workers in the NHS and elsewhere, in the face of official untruth which no amount of clapping by Ministers can conceal. And, at a deeper level, we have found out that Governments, businesses and households have, over the past two decades, preferred borrowing and spending to saving; the greatest shock has been the financial fragility of all of our institutions, with very little in reserve for a crisis.

Now some people will object that this is a litany of politically motivated comment far from the rarified realm of the sermon, but politics, in democracies at least, show what we are and what we value; and in this pandemic we have seen ourselves to have been mean with the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable, the shop workers, the bin men, the care workers and the nurses; and we tell ourselves that it can never be the same again as we contemplate the further, much worse, ravages of the pandemic among poor communities and poor countries. Have we noticed the disproportionate number of deaths among BAME doctors and health workers, and will this stop us being inhospitable if not downright nasty to immigrants and their descendants? Have we noticed how many of those who are keeping society together are on the minimum wage, or even lower pay rates? This isn't politics at all, it's a straight failure of Christianity to assert the value of Jesus above private political preference.

And because the pandemic is entirely the result of a chain of human decisions, we cannot expect God to dig us out of the hole we put ourselves into. We, the most highly educated community that has ever lived, cannot wish away the history books, the official reports, the avalanche of data, the homeless sleeping in the streets, the rise in the use of food banks, the rise in violence against foreigners or people thought to be foreigners because of the colour of their skin; and we cannot wish away our indifference, our mental laziness, our thought that these are problems for others; and if we, the educated and the clever, have erred so badly, what can we expect of those who have had fewer life  chances.

For our stone of indifference to be rolled away we shall not have the services of an angel to command, we will have to generate our own socio-economic earthquake, we will need to generate our own liberation movement to free the poor and the oppressed, those we have taken for granted in our hospitals, fields and factories and, even more, those without any jobs at all.

How many liberations do we think we are entitled to? I would have thought that two was quite enough. The third will be when the realms of God and our realm unite at the end of time; in the meantime, we will be quite properly left to our own devices and desires where the desires exercise too strong a rule over our devices.

History tells us that charmed lives are always fragile. We are learning the hard way. This is not a matter of divine retribution but of thoughtless self-harm.