Sermon for Evensong – Sunday July 16th, 2017 – -through many persecutions . . .

Sermon for Evensong
Sunday July 16 2017

On Old things in the Modern World – Losing our way
Acts 14

‘Paul and Barnabas strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’

These words of Luke in describing the life of those early disciples sound strange to our ears – a world away from our own life and experience, indeed as we may have been taught about Christian faith – no one ever said to US that ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the Kingdom of God’ Yet, did not Jesus say ‘Make every effort to enter in through the narrow gate, for hard and narrow is the way to life and few they are that find it’ Does this resonate with the faith in which we were brought up?

Well let’s try an get a bit of perspective. Preachers of course preach from 6ft above contradiction 🙂 But what about the perspective from 40000 feet? (It sounds better in feet 🙂 )

Not given as I was to much intercontinental air travel, this perspective first came to me in 2010 – when the parish flew their prospective vicar, by Emirates of course, over to NZ – Over India. As I crossed that vast sub continent, I remember watching the great clouds rising up from the baking plains below – and it struck me for the first time of the great disconnection between my experience of life and that of those ‘who toiled below’ (to pick up on the words of a well known and not entirely inappropriate hymn, for who toils below??)
As I pondered it came to me that the annual income of one who lived below me would barely pay for my ticket. Our lives were disconnected by much more than 40000 feet. My life was insulated (after all it is more than 50 degrees below zero at that altitude and the plane is flying at 1000 km an hour, fast enough truly to take my breath away were I to experience it.) Instead I sat in ‘cattle class’; ‘another bottle of wine sir? I don’t mind if I do . . .’ the warmth, the air-conditioned comfort made for a lofty perch from which to ponder existence . . . to quote someone else ‘I continue[d my] midair philosophizing on our two-level world, where the global elite fly comfortably while children of the dust fight famine and fall asleep to the sound of gunfire.’

Sayers, Mark. Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval (p. 8). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

We used to call those who flew thus ‘the jet set’, lives unimaginably separated from ours, but how many of us know it now, are We not The Global Elite? Yes we may ‘look upwards the Trumps and the Gates’ etc, yet perhaps the comfort of our lives is closer to theirs, much closer than those 40000 feet below? This separation is I think an apt metaphor for Modern Life. We sit in unimaginable comfort – with a choice of wine and food, and experience the world out there, via a screen. We know at one level that in so many ways the world is a shocking place, but we do not experience it as such . . . and if we find it hard to relate to such a tragic world in our own experience, is it not reasonable to ask, ‘has our insulated experience shielded us from the very reality of God who is known in the very thick of existence and in its darkest places’, and has is suggested to us a more amenable faith than that of hard and narrow ways, or coming to the Kingdom of God ‘through many persecutions’? Surely – coming to the Kingdom of God is no more than seeing things differently . . . as if what was really at stake was no more than a set of ideas?? Insofar as we think ‘the jet set have little to teach us about real life’ perhaps also we ought to be wary of any writers and guides who enjoy such existence, myself included . . .
For as there is such a gulf between our lives and those 40000 feet below, but there is another ‘gulf fix-ed’ to use Luke’s words, between our culture and those of the past . . . and it is with regard to our understanding of ‘The Past’ I’d like to focus my comments, and especially with regard to books 🙂

Of course I always travel with books. My Son in law, rightly and gently mocked me for my ‘small library’ when I told him that ‘because it was mainly an opportunity for visiting people as opposed to study! I’d only brought ten books with me’ 🙂
But what we read, if we read, is not unimportant and that was brought home to me when I visited a friend who had had his curiosity piqued by a Modern writer on the spiritual life. He asked me what i thought of this individual and I said that I hadn’t read them closely, so he sent me away with a book for my comments – and opening it, I was reminded of CS Lewis’ rule – ‘always read ten old books for every new one you read.’ Well I had my ten books, but how many were old?
Of course its always easy to read new books, written in our culture in our time – and of course someone is always saying – ‘you really should read this or that or the other . . . one is reminded of the words of Jesus when he says ‘If they say to you Look He is Here, or Look He is there! do not believe them . . . ‘ Certainly this writer is considered something of a modern guru in ‘spiritual’ circles. So it is easy to read new books, but whatever happened to the test of time. Why should I bet remotely interested in a book written only last year??
Just as not so long ago you couldn’t go to church without singing Shine Jesus Shine, I can’t imagine it will find its way into tomorrows equivalent of Hymns Ancient and Modern, we are obsessed with things that pass away and do not last. Our obsession with the new, the up to date etc etc as if these things were automatically Better is troubling, as Lewis amongst others points out. And another voice to whom I will return shortly who warns sternly

‘If for the love of that which does not endure,
A man gives up that love which is eternal,
He well deserves to suffer without end’ Paradiso Canto XV 10-12

But Lewis had something more in mind than just the test of time,, for Lewis Diagnosed a fracture in History, readily discernible in our culture A vast shift in which to borrow LP Hartley’s phrase ‘the past [became] a foreign country’ Or to use my metaphor, we discovered the delights of the broad and easy way of mass intercontinental travel by jet.
As perhaps two of my daughters might ask – if you suddenly find yourself a long way away, who has moved?

For as Lewis pointed out in ‘the past’ people if puzzled by various aspects of one another writings understood each other. As he said Dante knew Virgil (1300 years before) – and I’ll return to Dante in a moment. But there is a great dislocation – and Lewis locates this at the turn of the C19. Although philosophically the roots of Modern life can be traced back several hundred years earlier – Lewis locates his change there in terms of shared understanding of the world at least in the West. And speaks of the coming of the age of the machine . . . it is perhaps no surprise therefore that the person who best expressed this change is perhaps Henry Ford, the man who turned men into machines in order that men might be ruled by machines. ‘History is bunk’. We may pay lip service to The Past and ‘learning from the past, but our lessons tend to be those which reinforce our idea of the superiority of the present – as Lewis puts it, we add a negative value to words which formerly were positive, for example ‘Primitive’ – which once meant merely Radical, of the Root, the fundamental – now of course its meaning has become negative – ‘we have moved on’ (and how glibly we say this)

Now what it seems to me happens in this regard is the beginning of the decline of History as the tool which teaches us who we are, to one which ‘scientifically’ teaches us who we were and thus, vaingloriously, who we are becoming – so ‘civilization [is] converg[ing] upon a new evolutionary leap?’ according to the writer my friend was anxious to commend to me

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Kindle Location 172). Shambhala. Kindle Edition. . . .

It is as if there is a discontinuation in the story of the human. If human existence can be considered as a tree, then the Modern age saw the arrival of the conceit that leaves could live without a trunk. and of course that great machine the modern airliner reinforces our sense of separation.
‘Paul and Barnabas strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’

In these Modern days, the Scriptures seem to us the stories of ‘a foreign country’ another planet even. Just this week I was at a preaching seminar where the leader asked ‘how can we relate to these words from two thousand years ago?’ as if he thought that the human was a different species then as if indeed we had evolved. Yet the question ‘what planet are you on?’ is a good one I think – in a month when 12% of the Larsen C iceshelf has collapsed, Scientists who are careful with their words tell us we are in the middle of biological annihilation of other species, we learn that if we eat fish we will incur lifetime ingest 11000 pieces of plastic in a world which makes one million plastic bottles a minute, and rumbling along, climate scientists are finally saying that a 6C temperature change is ‘within the reasonable margin for error’ . . . If we believe as modern people that we are on the cusp of a great evolutionary leap forward – all I can say is that evolution requires numberless dead ends for one advance and that humankind is looking as if it falls in the statistically highly probable category at present – Somewhere along the road we have lost the plot . . . but lets pick up with an old writer for a moment, one who doesn’t say ‘well how can I relate to Scriptures which are 1300 years old . . . Someone who realises he has lost the plot and become disconnected from reality from whom I quoted earlier

Half way along the journey we [all] have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way

This is the opening of an Old book – the basic message of which would have been as clear to those first disciples as it was to the author, both living on the far side of the great Chasm which separates us from most of History. It is known by some as the opening of the world’s greatest poem – the Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri.
Dante lived between the C13 and C14. The first part of his life was in some regards a life from 40000 feet. He was born into a noble family and rose to high estate in his native Florence, but there, he took decisions bold and difficult decisions – including exiling one of his own good friends, which made him the enemy of the Pope and led to his being sent into exile, stripped of all he possessed and the citizens of Florence being given the right to execute him on sight. So, halfway through his Life – the journey we all have to go – he finds himself lost.

And yet, and yet . . . it is from This perspective the he finds discovers himself found. In the midst of an incredibly difficult life, he finds Life, or rather Life finds him. It is in this context that Dante is shown all that it is that has separated him from God as his guide, the poet Virgil (from 1300 years earlier) takes him on a tour, first of the Inferno – or Hell, although like the outside of the airliner it is so cold that Satan who lies at the very centre is frozen in ice up to his waist.
Dante is then led up in the second part of the poem climbing the slopes of Mount purgatory, as he begins to take responsibility for his plight and undergoes the difficult healing necessary for those who would know the Divine Light of the the Kingdom of God, finally to ascend to Paradise then and only then where he need no longer the guidance of Virgil.

At the outset of the poem, discerning the Light of Paradise her tries over and again to climb to it, but his wise guide knows better, The Way Up is the Way Down – it is only through entering the turbulence and difficulty, the ambiguity and mystery, the many many things that seem to make no sense to us, that we come to realise. And here and there from time to time, others make the same discovery.

The insulation which life at 40000 feet offers, is only at great cost – it requires great energy to maintain this, like the energy needed for air conditioning – and as the literal burning of that energy comes to an end, so too here and there by God’s grace we run out of energy, we fall to earth. Dantë, like others here and there even today discovers life amongst the ruins of his self created existence. He had had it all, and he lost it, and in losing it, found it. Jesus warns us about a life we make for ourselves, the 40000 foot life, that ‘it profiteth a man nothing that he gain the whole world . . .’ for as surely as the false gains accrue, so the loss becomes eternal . . . Oscar Wilde in a fairly old book, if not old by Lewis’ standards spoke about Dorian Grey, a metaphor I think for life at 40000 feet, where all in lovely whilst the picture in the attic decays. Our Modern disconnected life requires so much energy it is costing the literal lives of so many many others – spiritual writers who glibly assert ‘civilization converges upon a new evolutionary leap’ – miss this entirely – the state of Creation is the ruined picture in our collective attic, but here and there people fall off the plane – the plane goes down – lives seemingly fall apart, and then and there in the ruins we discover the True Life

 

Jesus calls us to follow him, into the centre of existence – the Cross, the place of apparent ruin which has become for us Wisdom from God – where all thing are reconciled to God – it is a call into Life in its fullest expression and that cannot but for now encompass darkness as well as light. Put another way, suffering is part of what it is to be fully human. Whilst we cannot go seek it – some in the early church had to be dissuaded from seeking martyrdom – we do need to wake up to how our contemporary culture has disconnected us from our essential human experience, and in humility acknowledge the profound lostness of the Modern condition.
Yet it is not a journey which we are called to undertake alone – it is one in companionship with one another and our Lord as we encourage and strengthen one another. Before we can begin the journey home, the plane must land – we all need to come down to earth – and follow Christ Jesus who shows us in Truth that Life is found on the ground.

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