Sermon for Sunday August 19th – Evensong
Exodus 2:23 – 3:10
‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.’
Standing on Holy Ground and, like Moses, we do not know it. Yet Unlike Moses, there is no fear of God before our eyes.
A good friend of mine some years ago took her family to see the USA. Amongst other things they visited Las Vegas, just to look. My friend’s eldest son, a young man of a sensitive disposition, walked into one of the Mega casinos, blindingly lit by a million 100 watt bulbs, turned to his mother and said, ‘It’s true, we’re doomed’. He was of course referring to the obscene use of electrical energy when understood against a background of rapid climate change, but he could have been talking about the debauched human behaviour he saw presented there – they are not disconnected.
Amongst my interests, I have for the last 25 or so years had a keen interest in Climate Science. I was teaching on it in High School long before most people had heard of the Greenhouse effect – and I am a sceptic. Not a sceptic about the science which is not only compelling, but whose predictions are coming true at an accelerating rate. No, rather as an observer of human nature, I am sceptical of those who suggest that ‘humanity’ for want of a better word, is in any sense capable of doing anything to change the course of events. Of course such scepticism is academic now as the total collapse of the planet’s complex systems of which we are the beneficiaries is already well underway. But how have we come to such a dreadful place?
Thinking upon this this week, I was reminded of a Victorian tale – the only novel written by Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Grey. In it Wilde depicts a young aesthete who has his portrait painted and muses that he would sell his soul if he might retain his youthful beauty and the painting age in his place. Well that of course is what happens. Grey hides the painting in his attic and embarks on an increasingly debauched hedonistic life, not denying himself any of life’s ‘pleasures’ – a life without boundaries, which leads him finally to committing murder. In the final scenes he comes face to face with the painting, it is utterly scarred and disfigured beyond imagining. Trying vainly to redeem himself, Grey attacks the painting with a knife and is found the next morning by his servants – dead, with a knife through his own heart, so hideously disfigured that he is unrecognisable except for his jewelry, and the painting, never seen previously by anyone except Grey – restored to its original beauty.
And I couldn’t help reflect, that the creation is our painting in the attic. That in our desire to satiate our desires – something understood as a universal human right in what passes for contemporary ethical discourse – we have as Grey did, destroyed our own souls and that this is rapidly confronting us in the environmental devastation for which we are responsible. But of course we do not live in an age that believes in the Soul in any meaningful sense. We have no sense that Christ by his sacrificial death, by the shedding of his blood, has created within us something that is, to use an unfashionable word, Holy. Something which must be treated with reverence and awe. We do not think that most of what we do can in any sense harm us, unless we are talking about abusing our bodies, in the crudest of senses through bad diet or drug abuse of one kind or other. We have no sense that everything we do with our bodies is of Great Significance. We have little sense of what Jesus is saying when he says that the eye is the lamp of the body. THat, as we have destroyed the creation, we also have souls which we can all too easily destroy
Just this week, I marked my first anniversary as Vicar here. On that rather chilly evening of my installation, there was a moment that had a profound echo in this last verse of our reading from the letter to the Hebrews. I knelt before the bishop who handed me his license, passing on his legal authority to me, with these words ‘Receive this cure of souls, which is both yours and mine’. And as I read the passage set for this evening I couldn’t help think of that phrase ‘cure of souls’ in the light of the exhortation to all Christians to Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. It was that bit that was addressed to me – that I am to watch over souls and will have to give an account of my work to God.
It reminded me of something my first Spiritual Director told me – she was a very wise and skilled Priest, but she herself had found herself given a sharp reminder of the significance of her work once with her own Spiritual Director. Christine had been having a particularly rough time with her congregation and casually said ‘Well, at least I’m not responsible for the salvation of their souls’ – and her director came back to her as quick as a flash – ‘whatever gave you that idea – of course you are!’
But really?? Salvation of Souls? Isn’t that just a bit old hat? How many of us would respond with any degree of seriousness to the counsel I was given by a friend just over a week ago. I had been considering going to what promised to be a rather tetchy and rancourous public debate on one of the ‘issues of the day’, and my friend said – ‘Don’t go – you need to guard your soul’’ In our world it is hard to take the idea of guarding our soul with much degree of seriousness I mean, seriously – could exposing oneself to such an event as a public debate have a deleterious impact on one’s soul? Why, it has a quaint almost Victorian ring to it – it seems like an idea that we have pretty much discarded – but is that because we have sold our souls and have little idea of what we have lost? That we have lost any sensitivity of the soul, that our souls are dead or at the very least barely clinging on to life.
Thinking of the soul of the modern world, not only Dorian Grey, but of course the tale of Dr Faust comes to mind. Someone who to all external appearances has much, just like us, yet is dissatisfied with life – so he does a deal with the devil – the devil can have his soul if he can have limitless knowledge and worldly pleasures. The Prince of this world is always ready to cut such a deal. And we may well say that we live in a Faustian age, where the pursuit of knowledge and sensual pleasure has led to the destruction of the soul. ‘We must have all we desire – we must cast off all restraint. The strictures and Wisdom of Scripture are but infantile attempts to stop us enjoying ourselves.’ We say, until at the last we discern that it has all turned to dust in our hands
I am reminded of the words of the sage from the book of Ecclesiates Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; . . .Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Whatever my eyes desired. It is perhaps no surprise that an age which has lost touch with any sense of the soul is an age increasingly dominated by spectacle – by the visual – the image is Everything – the Image is God – our eyes are entranced and we do not heed the words of Jesus, that the eye is the light of the soul. That that which we feast our eyes upon can harm us. We think we know better. Not believing in the soul we think that sensuality and reason are all we need – but our reason is like that of Faust and Grey, making foolish bargains, not realising what horrors are happening within. We look outwards – we never visit the portrait in the attic. We do not look at our souls. So entranced are we by what we see – we have no sense that we are being constantly degraded by that which we see – we have no Inner sensitivity
This is revealed for example in the continuing increase in violence in the movies. Whilst it is not possible in simple terms to make the connection between violence in the world and upon the screen – there was a terrifyingly clear note about this in the latest mass killing in the United States at the screening of the Dark Night Rises. When the gunman started his spree – people thought it was part of the movie – the movie was so violent that the external violence was normalised. The level of violence on the screen merely being mimicked by the young man with a gun in the theatre. It was Orson Wells who said of movie violence ‘We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.’ The respect for human life seems to be eroding.” And that was 40 years ago. We are careless with our souls.
And one is thought a spoilsport to suggest this – must I be denied pleasure – that which was once seen rightly as infantile petitioning is in our age understood as the height of rational discourse, encased in the slippery language of rights. Thus when the writer to the Hebrews writes – Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Well such an idea is scoffed at. Indeed even Christians have pretty much given up on the idea of God judging anything or anybody.
Much as we scoff at the idea that watching violence on the big screen in any sense damages us – we similarly think that there is no great harm in having multiple sexual partners in and through life. Violence? Watching people being shot? Oh it’s just Entertainment. Sex? It’s fun, it’s an expression of our sensual nature, but in reality no more than a physical transaction between two consenting adults, in a sense nothing more than shaking hands. As long as both people freely want to, where’s the harm in that? There is no sense of something Other about our lives, about the Holy – something that says, when you live out your life, every action has a profound Spiritual dimension.
It is horribly ironic that in an age where we are increasingly told we must be careful about physical touch – where in England at least teachers are forbidden from giving a crying child a hug, where on the one hand we treat touch as highly dangerous, we seem to imagine that the most profound human contact in being rendered meaningless is ‘harmless’. There is no sense of the Spiritual – there is no sense of the soul. There is little or no sense that sexual intimacy outside of the Given bounds of marriage might in some sense be ‘harmful’, in and of itself. That watching violent movies might harm us. That that which we look upon has the capacity to destroy something which is infinitely precious.
It strikes me that current debates about marriage even within the church completely lack this dimension. Both conservatives with their ‘the bible says’ rhetoric, and liberals with their ‘rights’ rhetoric all singularly fail to acknowledge that sexual union is a profound mystery. That there is more going on than we can see. That it is Holy – that we were Given sexual boundaries – that they were Good and Grace, for we were blind to the Spiritual reality. So we had the Law – thou shalt, thou shalt not – not in a sense of denying pleasure, as this is popularly parodied, but in the sense that here we are touching on the Holy, playing with Fire. We needed to Know where the boundary lay for e could not see it. But to be a Christian is to be anointed by the Holy Spirit – to See that deeper reality – to know what we are doing to our souls. It is to be freely responsible before God, Knowing the nature of reality – Seeing that adultery and fornication, that violence, that deceit, that many many other things trash our souls, spreading chaos, undoing the very fabric of the created order
To be a Christian in this age is to find oneself sometimes the object of scorn – as if it is to be a flat earther – ‘Ah we know so much more nowadays’. Yet rather to be a follower of Christ, to have the merest sense of the Holy, of the Sacred, of the Beauty and fragility of the human soul, makes us Deep Magic people in an age stripped of the deep sensitivity which signals we are spiritually alive – a sense of the Holy. The irony is that those who call Christians flat earthers are engaged in an act of Projection, for all depth has been stripped out of our common approach to this matter of Life. And so such texts as we have heard tonight can seem to us utterly alien.
The Gift of Scripture – the Gift of sitting underneath such ‘Other worldly’ texts as we have heard this evening is that it reminds us that the Life of the World is not as flat and devoid of Ultimate meaning as we have been taught – that when we show hospitality to a stranger, we may well be entertaining angels – that ‘love of money’, or ‘sound financial management’ as we have disingenuously renamed it – harms us. That the ground we are standing upon might in some sense be Holy to the Lord. That we have souls that are so important that we are all to put ourselves into the hands of others, to keep watch over them. That we have been redeemed and sanctified, made Holy that is by one who suffered outside the city gate, for the sake of our souls, the one who is as St Peter reminds us ‘the shepherd and guardian of our souls.
This morning we heard in our Epistle, these words – Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Week after week it seems news comes to us of one Christian leader or another who has fallen. We do a terrible thing when we say, ‘ah but they are just human’ – for that is not human. Such talk reveals that we have become far too comfortable with the painting in the attic, a ghastly parody of the human. I am thankful to GOd for my friend who counseled me to guard my soul, I had not received such counsel for many years. When we hear of those who fall from grace, we should not say ‘Ah but they are just human’ – rather we should ask, ‘Given that the days are evil, who was looking over this man’s soul, who said, for the sake of your eternal Soul do not take this path for what can you give for your soul?’
Dorian Grey realised at the last the horror of what he had done. The coming environmental collapse will horrify the world. We are facing times of deadly seriousness, yet still the sensual spectacle goes on. As the Olympics, our fascination with movies and good food, and the brutal sexualisation of our culture reveals, we are like the Romans at the last, still consumed with bread and circuses. The times have always been deadly serious, but for most of history we have understood the significance of the soul and guarding it – let us strengthen that which remains.