Trinity 20 - Life in Death

A sermon preached by Fr Robert Thompson in the United Benefice on 13 October 2013

2 Kings 5.1–3, 7–15; 2 Timothy 2.8–15; Luke 17.11–19

2 Timothy 2.8 "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David — that is my gospel. The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him."

To get us thinking and feeling about our readings this morning a poem and a movie. So first to the poem.

Fall Song
by Mary Oliver (In American Primitive 1984)

 Another year gone, leaving everywhere
its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,

the uneaten fruits crumbling damply
in the shadows, unmattering back

from the particular island
of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere

except underfoot, moldering
in that black subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries — roots and sealed seeds
and the wanderings of water. This

I try to remember when time's measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
to stay — how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures.

Oliver's poem is a wonderful evocation of autumn, depicted as the summer falling to the ground and being trampled under our feet back into the earth. Now we are in the time of the rotting and decaying, of matter that is mulched back into the earth. The now of the summer, of flowering, of ripeness, is nowhere to be seen, but simply to be felt beneath us.

But in what seems like only ending, death and decay, there is already the germination of life. Oliver calls it the "subterranean castle /of unobservable mysteries — roots /and sealed seeds/and the wanderings of water." Here life is dormant, ready to break forth again. 

The poet says she tries to remember this fact, that in the midst of death there is life, most keenly, when the seeming deathliness of autumn reaches it's peak. She brings to mind the moment at which the colours become really rich, dull-ly vibrant in their shades of orange, brown and red. It's a time that seems as if the plants and trees are shouting that they want to stay and not to rot. A sentiment that the poet observes is a human one too.

This sense of life being within death, Oliver sets within the context of natural processes- the turning of the seasons, or the reality that all life has a span, a beginning, a middle and an end. She expresses it saying "how everything lives, shifting/from one bright vision to another,/ forever in these momentary pastures." For the poet we live in the moment. One moment turns into the next. We are constantly on the move. But each moment may be the occasion of what she calls a bright vision. Those of us who are Christian, with a more theological bent, might call it glory, or the reality of the presence of God infusing all life.

And so we move from the poem to the film.

This week I watched the film adaptation of the life of Mo Mowlam. Mo Mowlam was the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in Tony Blair's first administration. The securing of what became popularly known as the Good Friday peace agreement was in large part due to her real hard push to bring both sides in the Irish divide around the negotiating table in order to bring about a better future for the province. Much of her success at progressing this peace agreement was attributed to the warmth of her personality; her astute forthrightness in the use of language; and also her propensity both to think and act outside the box, doing and saying things that surprised and also shocked others into reaction.

At the same time as these talks where taking place Mo Mowlam was undergoing treatment for a brain tumour. It's a fact of which all the participants in the talks were very much aware. Near the start of the entire process she decided to no longer wear her wig but to let others see her physical vulnerability, in her loss of hair and encroaching baldness, the side effects of her chemo and radiotherapy. I was left wondering if it was an act deliberately designed to let Republicans and Unionists alike see that it was possible to retain your own precious identity even when you let down your own tight defences.

But the moment of the film that I want to share with you today comes later in the story of Mo Mowlam's life. After she has left office, her illness, which was kept in abeyance and slowed down by her treatment, nevertheless still progressed. We see her physically and psychologically change as her health deteriorates and her tumour expands. There's a point  in the movie when she is depicted as dancing in her front room in her night dress, when her consultant, Mark, who has also become a personal friend, comes to visit her.

Mo and Mark have a conversation about the effects of the growth of the tumour on her personality. Mark says that as it expands and effects her brain that, along with other symptoms, she is very likely to become increasingly disinhibited in her behaviour. She then asks him how long the tumour may have been there before it was diagnosed. Mark says that he can't be certain. She presses him. Could it have been there for a year before it was detected? Yes he says. Three years? Yes possibly he replies. Five years? Or seven? Again he says yes, even that length of time with a slow growing tumour is very possible. She then continues "so the Mo, the me, that everyone liked, the warm hearted me, the idiosyncratic me, the disinhibited and outrageous me, that could all simply have been as a result of the growth of my tumour?" Mark tells her that that indeed could very well be the case.

2 Timothy 2.8 "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel,  The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him."

Today's biblical readings give us two accounts of the curing of leprosy. In our Hebrew bible reading Naaman the commander of the king Aram's army, after bathing 7 times in the river Jordan, is said to regain the flesh of a young boy. Our gospel reading multiplies the miracle, now not just one leper but ten are healed by Jesus. Though only one of them returns to give thanks to him, and that leper was also, Luke tells us, a Samaritan.

What we often do as modern readers is overly easily categorise such stories as yet another example of a larger genre that we detect in the gospels, what we label 'the healing miracles.' When we label these stories as such we do so from the reality that all of us live with illness or disability at some point, and to varying degrees in our lives, or we know others who do. To see the stories as miraculous healing then is a way of expressing our own hopes for better health outcomes for ourselves, as well as for others. All of us at some point in our lives are looking for, or praying for a miracle, for ourselves or for others. That's what it is to be a human being, with empathy, compassion and concern, and to believe in the utter goodness and faithfulness of God.

There are however some major drawbacks in this quick labelling of biblical stories.

The first major drawback we can clearly see in today's readings. If we only view these stories as healing miracles then we miss what the main and indeed more spiritually and socially challenging point of them may be about. Both our Hebrew and Gospel readings should prompt us to ask hard questions about the construction of national identity, patriotism and the ways in which we perceive, and therefore also treat 'foreigners', those whom we consider different for ourselves.

Naaman is from Aram, he is received by the King of Israel, and healed by the Prophet Elisha. By the end of our text today Naaman comes to believe in the God of Israel saying "now I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel." In near eastern societies of this period religions were constructed along geographic and national boundaries. There were different gods for different nations. Even early Hebrew thought presents a conception of God as being only the god of the Hebrew people and portrays a world in which other gods are said to exist. But today's reading ends with a clear assertion of the universality of God as Naaman expresses his belief in the uniqueness of the God of Israel. The explicit message of the text is that there is one God. But the implicit message of the text is that God's favour does not only rest with his chosen people, rather God also chooses, and God also heals, whomever God pleases. Not just Israel, but all peoples are God's.

The Gospel reading continues the work of the deconstruction of national boundaries and extends it to racial stereotyping. Of the 10 lepers whom Jesus heals only one returns to give thanks. And that one returnee was as Samaritan. The Samaritans of Jesus' time were treated by many Jewish people as both ethnically and religiously different and inferior to them. The Samaritans themselves traced their own ancestry back through the Hebrew tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, two of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus, however, tells a story in which it is one off those deemed to be inferior  who is shown as the person of exceptional spiritual depth. Jesus in effect is saying don't think that you are any holier, more moral or any better than others.

2 Timothy 2.8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel,  The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

Remember Jesus Christ. Much of what we often believe about healing amounts to a failure to adequately remember Jesus Christ. Often we want a God who is a fixer, a magician, a fairy god mother. We want a God who waves a wand and makes everything alright, restores everything to some pristine state or factory setting, who makes everything perfect. We want God and Christianity to be about us as individuals, our families, our nation, our religion, our welfare. But the writer of the first letter to Timothy expresses these words in the midst of his own suffering at the hands of others. The writer says that he suffers hardship for the sake of the gospel. But that he copes with this suffering because although he is chained the word of God is not chained, for the Christ who died is raised from the dead. The author of 2 Timothy endures, not because of a belief in some distant, immutable what be call 'perfect' God, but because he calls to mind Christ, the one whom we believe to be God in the flesh with us. The one born like us; living like us; suffering like us and dying like us. The one in whom we too rise from death.

The American spiritual writer Richard Rohr believes that it is "darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness" which constitute our spiritual tutors. He believes that we all mature spiritually more through our brokenness, our illnesses and our mistakes than we do it some elusive, perfect physical or moral state. He writes: "If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it!  A “perfect” person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection." Or as he puts it more strongly and succinctly "the demand for the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good."

There is no perfect, no pure life. Oliver's poem reminds us that the cycle of life is one of being born, of living and dying and each fleeting moment is a charged with Gods presence.

There is no perfect, no pristine human body. Mo Mowlam's story incredibly teaches us that it is the the individual's tumour itself that can be the medicine that leads to a whole society's peace.

There is no perfect, no pure construction of ethnic or national identity. Our readings today show just how fluid such identities are and that any borders that we build God calls us to dismantle.

All of us live in this 'imperfect' process of human life, in all its fluidity and in its flux. As Christians we believe that God in Jesus Christ shares in this process, fluidity and flux too. And like Oliver and the write if 2 Timothy we, who believe in Christ raised from the dead, remember that in the midst of death there can be found the fullness of new life, like the autumn seeds that we crush beneath our feet, for "everything lives, shifting/from one bright vision to another, forever/ in these momentary pastures."
Holland Park Benefice