Sermon for Trinity 1, 18.06.17
I was on holiday for much of the past fortnight, and on Wednesday I was driving between Chartwell and Great Dixter, showing my relatives the beauties of English gardens in June. The World at One came on the radio, and the eyewitness accounts of the events at Grenfell Tower poured out. Like many of you, I am sure, I found listening to these stories almost unendurable. A verse from St Matthew’s gospel ran through my head repeatedly: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
Never, as far as I know, has a high-rise block of luxury flats in London experienced a fatal fire. But in north Kensington the death toll rises inexorably, and it is only one in a sorry litany of tower block fires that were lethal for residents. In nearby streets live the celebrities whose comfortable lives have felt no pinch in this long recession, but at Grenfell Tower the cost-cutting has proved literally deadly. Residents who were lucky enough to escape with their lives have lost absolutely everything – pets, clothing, furniture, computers, documents, items of sentimental value. From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
I couldn’t help dwelling on the first named victim, a Syrian refugee named Mohammed Alhajali, younger than my youngest child. He escaped from the city of Daraa three years ago and was granted asylum in the UK. He studied engineering and worked for the Syria Solidarity Campaign. The campaign’s co-founder said, “Mohammed undertook a dangerous journey to flee war and death in Syria, only to meet it here in the UK, in his own home. Mohammed came to this country for safety and the UK failed to protect him.”
As I looked through the photos published on Friday of the faces of those known to have died, I saw people from every national background. Two weeks ago I spoke of heaven being a place of the utmost diversity. I am sure Grenfell Tower was far from paradise in many ways, but it was home to a rich variety of human beings who lived peaceful and neighbourly lives. And the aftermath of the disaster brought forth truly amazing responses from people all over London. Among the first to notice the fire were Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast, who then risked their lives to wake their neighbours and alert them to the danger. As the fire spread and the luckiest people escaped in nothing but their nightclothes, churches and mosques and community centres opened their doors and donations poured in from all across the city. The same response that occurred after the terrorist attack at London Bridge was repeated in Kensington. London rose to the occasion.
What was called forth from Londoners has been described often enough as the Blitz spirit. It would also be possible to describe it in St Paul’s terms in today’s reading: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
It might seem too soon after such a terrible tragedy to speak of hope, but as Christians it is never too soon. That’s because the verse goes on: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
The outcome of unimaginable suffering isn’t just gritty determination or justified anger or profound grief, though all of those are appropriate responses. The difference that faith makes is the understanding the God is present in the midst of the suffering, bearing it with us, carrying us through, transforming the worst evil into new life. God’s love is not just present above or near us, but is poured deep into our own hearts by the Holy Spirit. Remember how Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that she would become a fountain of living water. That is what the gift of the Holy Spirit does in us.
God’s action in and through us takes us into places we would never imagine choosing to go. That might mean catching a baby thrown from the ninth floor of a burning building. It might mean, as it did for a couple of our youthworkers a few weeks ago, breaking up a knife fight without a thought for their own safety. It might mean nothing as heroic as that, but simply letting the divine love shape our lives without regard to our own choices and comfort.
Today’s gospel tells the story of Jesus commissioning his first disciples to do things I daresay they weren’t keen to attempt. He told them to proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. We can’t let ourselves off with the excuse that demons and lepers are scarce in Primrose Hill. When we read this list of tasks, we need to translate it to our own context. Lepers are those who are socially excluded, like the homeless or addicted people who sit on the benches outside our church or beg for money as we walk to the tube. Demons may be a first-century way of talking about the mental health issues that blight so many lives both young and old. Raising the dead may be about restoring hope to people who are sunk in despair, whether that is a young man just out of prison or an elderly person who has lost a life companion.
We try to help in these situations, however ineptly or ungraciously, because Jesus calls us to do what he does. He reminds us that we have received without payment; now we must give without payment. As a cheesy American film put it some years ago, our task is to pay it forward.
And the amazing thing is that it seems to come naturally to do so. In a disaster we rally round and make sacrificial offerings of time, goods and money. Even here, in peaceful Primrose Hill, we have helped collect and deliver clothing for refugees in Calais, demonstrated against payday lenders, and offered hospitality to the cold weather shelter guests. We do these things because the kingdom of God has come near, and that is how citizens of the kingdom live. We live in love because God is love and God lives in us.
Several years ago, I attended emergency planning training for Camden faith leaders, and I got my hi-vis jacket and learned how I should pack a rucksack with water, snacks and a notebook, and wait to be telephoned with instructions in case of a major incident. God forbid that a disaster like Westminster or London Bridge or Grenfell Tower should befall us here, but if it did I know that this community would rise to the occasion. I know that we would open our pockets, our homes and our hearts.
But it’s not just the call from the Borough Emergency Control Centre that should stir us into action. On Thursday evening Bishop Rob came to St Mary’s to license Clem and nine other candidates for lay ministry across the diocese. He, and the preacher from St Mellitus College where Clem trained, reminded us that the call to service comes from God, and it may take us by surprise. It may upset our plans and unsettle our lives. Ministry is not a chosen career plan for a few pious oddballs. It is the obedient engagement of every Christian in the mission of God. We have received, without payment, the countless good things in our lives. Our grateful response is to offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice, as our post-Communion prayer reminds us every week.
We can’t leave it to others to change the world while we escape into an other-worldly fantasy of holy thoughts and pious emotions. This is the world God has made. It is full of joys and sorrows, natural disasters and human sin, challenges and unexpected blessings.
This is the world God entered, in solidarity with us, in the person of Jesus Christ. When his time on earth was done, the Holy Spirit was poured out on everyone who was willing to receive it, and all of those people began to live as kingdom citizens.
None of us who have been created, redeemed, sustained and loved by God is a bystander in this world. It is not someone else’s business to tend to the sick and sad, the poor and powerless. We have been called and given authority through baptism and the Eucharist to be God’s hands and feet, driven by the Spirit into the wild places.
Each of us must discern in our own prayer what kind of service God is calling us to right now. Of course for many people it will be a ministry of daily life. As we live out our particular calling to be a teacher, carer, engineer, brewer, banker, youthworker, lawyer, taxi driver or whatever, we also live as witnesses to God’s love. For some it will mean licensed or ordained ministry. But each of us has a vocation, just another word for calling, and each of us is given authority to proclaim the good news, as Jesus told his disciples.
We pray daily not to be brought to the time of trial, but if we are tested in such a way, then the love that sustains us will carry us through, and the vocation to share the good news will enable us to name hope in the darkest circumstances.