Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 15 January 2017, Epiphany 2, United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 15 January 2017, Epiphany 2, United Benefice of Holland Park

The c.17 mathematician, physicist, inventor, and Christian writer, Blaise Pascal died in 1662. Upon his death, his servant found a small piece of parchment sewn into his coat. At the top of the paper Pascal had drawn a cross. Underneath the cross were these words.

In the year of the Lord 1654, Monday, November 23
From about half-past ten in the evening
until half-past twelve.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob
Not of philosophers nor of the scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy, Peace.
God of Jesus Christ,
My God and thy God…
…Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

That was Pascal’s record of an intense two hour religious experience that he kept secret until his death. It was an experience of God that gripped his soul and changed the course of his life. He stored his record of it in the lining of his coat, close to his heart. For eight years he took care to sew and unsew it every time he changed his coat.  It was a clearly a treasured experience, something he could return to again and again.

We also may have moments where we experience God’s presence – perhaps over Christmas during one of the candlelit carol services, or perhaps out on a walk. I know people who testify to the sort of powerful encounter Pascal had. These experiences of God that we have – transforming moments – we can hang onto as gifts from God to energise and motivate our faith. It gives a strong sense of God’s presence, the burning fire of God’s love, the certainty and passion it evokes. It certainly resonates with this season of Epiphany – the immediacy of God’s presence or a vivid encounter with God.

Now let’s turn to a film that has recently been released called Silence, based on a novel by Shūsaku Endō.  For Martin Scorsese, the director most known for the iconic films Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, this is the film he had wanted to make for several decades, but not dared risk the £millions necessary. This is his Magnus Opus.

The story is set in c.17 Japan, about the same time Pascal had his religious experience. Two young Jesuits go in search of their former teacher, a missionary priest. He had become caught up in the savage persecution of the 300,000 strong Japanese Christian community and who, it is rumoured, had apostatised. To save some of his flock from dreadful torture, the rumour is that he had stepped upon an image of Christ and (it is assumed) left his Christian faith.

One of the Jesuit priests eventually finds him but in the process get caught up in the persecution – scaldings, drownings, burnings, beheadings, public torture. The film is certainly not for the fainthearted.

The priests in the film find themselves on a challenging spiritual journey, where it isn’t always easy to hear God, where there isn’t a clear epiphany, where there is no certainty. They are taken to a place where they have to grapple with what they’ve been taught about Jesus. But in the face of the most awful persecution, God is silent. They cry out to God to reveal himself: why doesn’t God intervene to stop the persecution. Or even just show in a tangible way that he is with them. What they get is a deafening silence.

Holding on to his incarnational faith – and the belief that God is with us – Father Rodrigues says in prayer: “Christ is here. I just can’t hear him.” But then he has doubts, asking, “Am I just praying to nothing?”… but he keeps seeking God. Then he watches the martyrs die and believes God heard their prayers, “But did he hear their screams?”

Let us now hold on to that thought – of God’s silence – and return again to the theme of Epiphany. In Epiphany we hear stories of shimmering revelation. We hear about Magi and stars. Jesus’s baptism includes doves and a clear voice from the heavens.  We marvel at the story of water turning to wine, of transfiguration. Epiphany calls us to look beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and discover the extraordinary.

What I find challenging about these dramatic accounts is that I’ve never seen a portentous star in the East.  I’ve never seen the Spirit descend like a dove, or heard a divine voice in the clouds.  I've never watched water become wine, or seen Jesus’s clothes blaze white on a mountaintop. I haven’t experienced him in any of the ways the Epiphany stories describe. And I don’t think my experience is unique. All of which leave me wondering, if God spoke audibly in the past, why doesn't he do so now?  If he does, why haven't I heard him? Has he retreated?  Changed?  Left?

In short, why does God so often appear to be silent? I don't know many Christians who complain that God talks too much. However, I know plenty of believers who experience God as hidden or silent.  God’s silence tormented the Jesuit priests in the film. It’s something that Mother Theresa struggled with most of her life. Perhaps you too have experienced this hiddenness of God and long for some kind of response or revelation, for epiphany.

I’ve presented two very different perspectives today – powerful epiphanies of God along with the profound, life changing experience of Pascal. And the experience of many people of silence, even a sense of the absence of God. I would like to suggest that our pilgrimage of faith may take us down a particular path, one or other of these dimensions, or it might incorporate both.

These different dimensions are all held together in the person of Jesus. His life included extraordinary epiphanies, powerful signs of God acting through him; times when he was famous, popular, when thousands of his followers wanted to take him by force and make him king. His life also included times of solitude, of prayer, as well as the garden of Gethsemane when he questioned his vocation, of feeling alone in that garden even amongst his closest friends, who would soon betray and desert him. And finally, crying out to God in agony on the tree at Calvary – my God, my God, why have you forsaken me. My God, where are you? Silence.

Throughout the film Silence, the screen is often consumed by a portrait of Christ by El Greco, staring right at us, into our doubts and loneliness and hopes and fears. Scorsese said he picked the El Greco image because it seemed to communicate to the viewer the message: “I will not abandon you.”

How do we hold together the tension between the silence of God, and the good news that Jesus brings, Emmanuel, God with us? RS Thomas, the rather grumpy Welsh priest and poet, put it like this:
‘who is it who ever saw God? Whoever heard him speak? We have to live virtually the whole of our lives in the presence of an invisible and mute God. But that was never a bar to anyone seeking to come into contact with Him. That is what prayer is all about…’

Silence, says RS Thomas, is God’s chosen medium of communication. The silent God evokes our silence in his presence, but the paradox is that in and through that silence, an encounter can occur. This is not a passive waiting in silence but an alert kind of attention of God’s presence. Its attempting to be still in the presence of God, and it requires a lot of hard work. Because in our frenetically paced lives, we’re not used to stopping and being still. Perhaps we’re frightened to do so.

Thomas put it like this:
‘Moments of great calm before an altar of wood/ in a stone church in summer/ waiting for the God to speak/ the air a staircase for silence.’

RS Thomas reminds us that our relationship with God requires time, effort, patience, perseverance. It takes a lifetime and more, and this relationship is not a relationship of equals. God is elusive, silent, indefinable – because He is God. It is a timely reminder to our age when the impression is sometimes given that God is easily understood, his mind easy to read, and can be evoked at will.

Today, in this season of Epiphany, we acknowledge the absence we often experience, but we also remember that God is there in the silence as well as the noise, and we follow Jesus’s example in continuing to seek him through prayer, in the hope that one day we will see clearly, and know a little better the one who knows us and loves us.

Reference: Rowan Williams on RS Thomas

Holland Park Benefice