Advent Sunday

A sermon preached by the Revd. James Heard on 30th November 2014.
 ‘Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light.
 Looking back to my sermon last year, on Advent Sunday, I then reflected upon the disgraced COE of the Co-operative Bank, Paul Flowers. It was a particularly salacious story, one involving sex, drugs and well, if not quite rollin’ roll, a banking Methodist minister. Over the last few weeks, we have had another media frenzy over another disgraced person. This time it has been about a professional footballer, Ched Evans. For those who have somehow missed this story, in April 2012 he was convicted of rape and sentenced to five years in prison, a conviction which was upheld by the Court of Appeal in November 2012. He was released from prison a few weeks ago and has returned to training with Sheffield United. That is, until the football club gave way to pressure and decided that he now can’t train with the club.
The question has been whether, given his terrible crime, he should be given a second chance. Of course, it’s easy to parade one’s belief in second chances when it comes to shoplifters and tax evaders. But what about drug dealers and murderers? What about rapists? The more heinous the crime, the more tempting to fudge the idea of rehabilitation. Which is what has happened with Ched Evans. That rape is a despicable crime is universally agreed upon. The victim will pay the price for years to come. But still, the question remains: do we believe in second chances or don’t we? If plumbers and landscape gardeners deserve second chances, shouldn’t footballers too. 
Its been really sad to hear of accusations of misogyny levelled at those who argue that Evans should be given a chance to play football, pay taxes and reintegrate into society. The idea seems to be that we show our concern for the victim by denying lawful opportunities to the perpetrator. This is both wrong and dangerous. It seems as though we’re witnessing what mob justice looks like in the media age, which one imagines it might have been like in the middle ages.
A convict’s employment prospects as a footballer are being determined not by agreed procedures, but by social hysteria, media frenzy, online petitions, and the actions of celebrities. Of course, everyone has a right to express an opinion. But this process is dangerously arbitrary. Is this how we are going to determine employment prospects for all released criminals, or only for those considered newsworthy by the media?
The Evans case is important in its own right, but it has come to symbolise much more than the future of the 25-year-old. Ultimately, it is about our capacity to separate our abhorrence at the nature of a crime from our commitment to second chances. Whenever I hear such moral indignation surrounding people like Paul Flowers or Ched Evans, the issue that comes to mind is one that has been previously raised by Rene Girard, the French historian and philosopher of social science. He calls this sort of thing scapegoating. It’s when an individual or group are singled out for unmerited negative treatment or blame.
So, what was the cause of the problems in society in Germany in 1930s-40s – it was perceived that the Jews were the problem. And we know what violence ensued. Closer to home, what is the cause of the ills in our society particularly since the financial crisis – one answer was (and is) that it was the fault of all of those horrible corrupt bankers. They’ve created this mess and now the ordinary person has to pay for it. Another answer by the English Defense League is that our financial predicament is because of all these foreigners coming in to our country and taking our jobs. The problem is not ours – we deceive ourselves that it has nothing to do with our consumptive debt-fueled lifestyles – the problem is out there.

Girard goes on to describe how Jesus was the one who faced mob justice. He writes that the myths of ancient cultures invariably show themselves to be based on sacrificial violence against a scapegoat. In this myth the victim is always wrong and the persecutors always right. Yet on the cross we witness the opposite. Here the only violence is human violence – the violence of the mob, transferring its anxieties onto Jesus as the ultimate scapegoat.

The main point Girard was highlighting was that to avoid looking at ourselves, the darkness within our own lives, we scapegoat. We love scapegoats because it pushes problems away from ourselves, to someone else, a group, or to an impersonal institution. Scapegoating a way for us to avoid owning the problem and being challenged or confronted. Which is what we are invited to do in this season of Advent.
The theme that’s expressed throughout the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany is the use of darkness and light. As today’s collect, written by Thomas Cranmer, describes - ‘Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light. The theological thinking here is that light seeps through into the world and explodes into the night’s darkest moments. Darkness can be very soothing, and romantic as well, one thinks of candle-lit dinners or a candle-lit scented bath! However, darkness can also be very frightening. We lose our way in the dark; we bump into things; we cannot perceive what or who might threaten our safety. In our vulnerability, we instinctively reach for the light switch. With light we are able to find our way; we can perceive rightly; we feel more secure.
The trouble is that we tend to prefer darkness rather than light.
We heard in our God Enquiry course last year, from Brendan McCarthy, the sad story of a lady who had mental health issues and who kept her dog in a shed, with no windows. The dog was never let out. Was rarely feed. It was in a rather bad way when Brenden’s father started to help the lady with a bit of gardening – and he soon discovered the dog. So he got some food for the door, opened the shed door and offered the food to the dog. What happen? The dog didn’t want to leave the shed – it had become so used to the dark, leaving it must have been too frightening. Over the next few months, Brendan’s father gently coaxed the dog out from the shed and it wasn’t long before it was running around the garden in this whole new bright and beautiful world.
We, too, can become so used to the darkness that we don’t notice it. But instead of scapegoating, we must be willing to face unwelcome truths about ourselves. Looking within ourselves is frightening, we might find things – attitudes, thoughts, feelings – that we didn’t expect, things that might be rather shocking. We are invited in Advent to open the door to the light of Christ. And if we dare open ourselves to God’s healing love, we will discover that it brings about a process of transformation. Words from Isaiah provide hope: ‘O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.’
It’s a wonderful few verses that emphasizes that God as our loving father remains constant, even when we, God's creatures, do not. The potter will not disown the clay he has moulded, and may even be prepared to start again, re-moulding it in a purer and more beautiful form.

‘Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light.
Ref: Matthew Syed, 16 November 2014
Holland Park Benefice