Sermon on 3 Before Lent: 17th February 2019
The Revd Canon Prof John Rodwell, Hon. Associate Priest. Lancaster Priory
We could see San Gimignano long before we arrived, its clustered hill-top towers coming and going on the horizon ahead as our bus wound its way up the twisting valley among the leafing oakwoods. Rosemary and I had caught an early service, just a few of us tourists among the locals from Siena off to work, in the hope of beating the crowds but, as we got off below the massive walls of the town, the tours were already gathering, groups clustered around the beribboned sticks of their guides. Up the narrow street, the throng surged, eyes greedy, fingers pointing, cameras ready to capture another digital experience, mobiles all a-twitter. Every few steps, from some shop-front, tumbling displays of souvenir ceramics, scarves and cards slowed the progress of the crowd. At a table outside a caffé, a couple, tired already, looked peevishly at their coffees, clearly disappointed that they were not the double-handled buckets of cappuccino they enjoyed at home.
But, ahead, just a little off the main track, the Piazza del Duomo was still quiet and we had the place to ourselves for ten minutes or so. The austere façade of the cathedral of San Gimigniano is no preparation for what’s inside because, beyond its blank wooden doors, this is one of the most exuberantly frescoed churches in Tuscany. Beneath star-spangled azure vaults, on the walls either side of the nave, are painted great tableaux of what’s in store for you and me when we come face to face with the challenging generosity of God, depending how we have ordered our own lives in this life.
To the right, there is the picture of the reward awaiting those who have met God’s love with a sacrifice of their own, living good lives, the righteous now disporting in celebration, a Paradise of feasting beneath a swirl of musical angels trumpeting welcome. To the left, are the gruesome tortures of Hell that await our human failings, when we fall short of God’s expectations: a table where the greedy are forced endlessly to feast; a plague of treacherous scorpions tormenting the deceitful; a gleeful devil from whose backside a diarrhoea of small change forces itself down the throat of a banker who has charged too much interest – especially satisfying if you’ve seen your pension evaporate into the fat bonus of some executive.
Hell is out of fashion these days, of course, among mainstream believers like us, but they were often in times past more imaginative about sin and its punishment than about virtue and its reward – indeed, I have on my shelves a Theological Dictionary of the New Testament which under the entry ‘Heaven’ says ‘see Hell’. But what can we ourselves say about the consequences of what we do in this life of ours, when it comes to God’s own reckoning of things? How is the behaviour of men and women towards one another in this everyday world, for right or wrong, to be counted for or against us in the light of God’s love? And when?
The Old Testament prophets are clear. They see beyond the everyday, they tell us how far the ways of the world can fall short of God’s desire for how things should be – and they warn us of the consequences, the upshot for you and me. Listen to Jeremiah in this morning’s Old Testament reading (Jer 17, 5-10). If we order our lives according to the rules that the world wants to sell us, then surely we shall wither in a parched and salty place: that’s what’s in store, and it starts to happen here and now. If we trust that the world we see, the ways it works, is not everything; that there may be other ways of doing things which are divine: then we shall flourish like a tree by the waterside, and we shall feel that vigour, that fruitfulness, even in this world, though things may get tough for us.
The human heart can be devious, Jeremiah reminds us, though in all honesty we know that already, don’t you think? But what we also claim – it’s why we’re gathered here this morning – is that God searches the human heart and opens it; he calls it to be his own and he guides it through change and chance, we sang when we began our worship. He tests the human mind and enlightens it, and we are blessed then in this world with a glimpse of how things might be. ‘Blest are the pure in heart … the secret of the Lord is theirs’, as we sang just now.
This secret we wish to share and put to work without waiting for the fullness of an afterlife. And, in Jesus, God comes down and stands among us in a level place, as it says in this morning’s Gospel (Luke 6, 17-26), showing us where our allegiances ought to lie, should we wish to build the Kingdom of Heaven. Ask yourself: are you with the poor for they are the ones whose kingdom this is? Are you with the hungry for theirs is the appetite for heaven? Are you with those who are hated and reviled and excluded, for they too stand already in a place where the Lord may be found?
For this message, that heaven may be glimpsed here and now, a whole world waits. We see that among people waiting to be led, not led along like tourists behind some bauble on a stick, but under a sign that promises them freedom from tyranny in a cruel dictatorship; liberty from bitchy factions in a business; from bullying by some partner or a child; freedom from some demagogue within their own warped soul. Will you now proclaim the liberty of the kingdom of heaven to these, whom God also desires, and help them somehow walk free?
The world waits, with its lonesome and disappointed people, people who sit silently alone at tables not because they are peeved about the quality of their coffee, but because they have been abandoned through some broken promises of love; because they have been thwarted after many years of unemployment and are simply still unable to get a job; or who walk right by the coffee bar because they do not have the wherewithal to go there. Will you sit down with these people, for whom God also came in Jesus Christ, to be known among them, on their ground?
Why should you do that? For fear of eternal damnation should you not meet God’s demands? I should say not. Fear of punishment is never a good reason for obedience and I personally find it difficult to believe in a God who spends eternity dreaming up tortures. To gain a reward then, in the hereafter? Not that either, I think, since our God is not one who dispenses rewards. He is a God who bestows gifts, out of a generosity which costs him something, a price we see marked upon his body in Jesus Christ, wounds which in the end could not do to death his bounteousness (I Cor 15, 12-20).
‘And can it be that you should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood’ spilt there, as we shall ask in the hymn at the close of our eucharist this morning. Yes, yes, that can be, and sharing God’s sacrifice in the service of others is to taste his gift of risen life, to be clothed in righteousness divine. God yearns for us, each one of you and me, yearns with a desire for us that will outlast our own years, our own death not putting an end to his longing that each of us should know him. To know that desire which God has here and now, to feel that desire, this is already to be part of a future life bigger than we know here. To lose that gift is hell enough.