Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 19th February 2017, 2nd Sunday before Lent, United Benefice of Holland Par

Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 19th February 2017, 2nd Sunday before Lent, United Benefice of Holland Park

It’s that time of year again when the world’s top fashion editors, stylists, photographers and bloggers descend upon London for a week-long celebration of British style – in short, its London Fashion Week. Pencil-thin girls, balancing on sur­realist constructions, otherwise known as shoes, convey a message of what attractive looks like in 2017. You can watch these shows live – streamed to your computer – models strutting down the catwalk with the most extraordinary outfits. One of the talking points is 5” ‘ice-pick’ shoes.
The fashion industry usually elicits strong emotional responses. There will be those who demonise the fashion industry and those who obsessively follow all of the latest trends. Reality is more complicated.
Of course, the fashion industry does has its dark side. The outward glitz often conceals inner anguish. Supermodels regularly become disillusion with the industry and described them­selves as feeling simply like a ‘commodity’. Presumably this is what Lady Gaga’s fashion designer had in mind when dressing her in slabs of meat – her dress was literally slabs of meat sewn together. It seems to me to have been a challenging critique of the way that we as a culture view models/ celebrities: as a slab of meat, a commodity to be consumed for financial gain.
Into this scene we hear the words from Matthew’s Gospel, our continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. They are words that from come from Jesus’ life experience. We can imagine Jesus sitting with large group of followers, looking around, and saying, ‘Don’t be anxious, don’t worry about life… worrying won’t add a single hour to your life’.
Of course, it’s much easier to read this in an affluent society where we don’t have to worry about food or essential clothing. But this is not the case for millions of people. Its not true for the people who visit foodbanks only a mile north of here. In fact, there have been and still are Christians (as well those from other religious traditions) that regularly die from lack of food, clothing and basic necessities. I wonder how they would make of these comments and not worrying.
Our dear Bishop of London, alas only our bishop for another month, emphasises the importance of the ‘symphony of Scripture’. In other words, you can’t build a whole theological edifice based on one verse or passage. The encouragement to not worry is thus balanced with the challenge care for and support the alien, the orphan, and the hungry. We’ll have a chance to support our local food bank in Lent and by supporting Christian Aid.
What about the original context? Who was Jesus speaking to in the Sermon on the Mount. The general consensus of Matthew chapter 5-7 is that it gives a picture of Jesus’ audience, and they were reasonably educated and well-off. Jesus says to them, don’t worry, don’t be anxious about what you eat or drink; don’t worry about your clothes or what sort of fashion label you can or can’t afford. Consider the birds of the air, consider the lily of the field. Solomon’s magnificent Temple couldn’t compete with their natural beauty. And where did the lily’s beauty come from. It didn’t come from spending hours in front of a mirror putting on make-up nor did it come from shopping for fine clothes. It was just itself: glorious in its God-given beauty.
Jesus says that, instead, focus on God’s kingdom. Because in God’s kingdom, God’s way of being, you are cherished, you are loved unconditionally. God doesn’t consider whether you have a waist line of 42 or 32; nor whether you’re a size 18 or 8. God loves you because you are you. No reason. No conditions. God just loves.
With that said, I believe that God also wants us flourish, he wants us to be healthy. So if we are regularly overeating or undereating, it’s worth asking ourselves what’s going on within us. Is there something within our lives that is such a source of pain that we need to be comforted by eating or drinking or by not eating?
There was the very sad story of one girl, [Claudia Adero­timi], aged 20, from Hackney. She flew to Philadelphia for a bargain-basement operation to enhance her bottom. She was an aspiring hip-hop dancer, and wanted to look curvier, like the singer Beyoncé. The procedure was carried out in a hotel near the airport. A few hours afterwards, she died.
I imagine that she did it because we live in a culture saturated with distorted ideals of body image. This girl’s death dramatises a feature of modern life that has become ubiquitous: that we can reshape our bodies according to whatever ideal we are being sold by the fashion and diet industries. Yet the photographs of models in magazines are digitally enhanced to make them fit with an ideal that even they cannot achieve, even with excessive dieting and daily trips to the gym.
The media fuelled fashion industry certainly does have a dark side. In God’s kingdom, it’s different. We may experience healing, and we can discover contentment with our natural body shape and size and that we don’t need to obsessively compare ourselves with zero size models.
And yet we may also find in the fashion industry an inspired artistry, real beauty, skilful crafting. It resonates with the creativity we find in our passage from Genesis. Out of the primal soup of chaos, God’s Spirit hovers and breathes energy, the ruach of God, bringing life. Creation is poetically described in a way that is multi-coloured, gloriously diverse, and if you’ve watched any of David Attenborough programmes, staggering creative.
God’s word over creation is that it is good. Again and again when new things are created – the stars, plants, birds, animals – God affirms, ‘It is good’. Those words may sound rather pedestrian – we may think that of course creation is good. But there have been many very influential philosophical systems, particularly Platonic thought, that have viewed the material, the physical, as something to be liberated from. In contrast, in Genesis, God affirms and re-affirms the point that the material is good. Fashion designers have God-given gifts of creativity and I think God delights when he sees them passionately participating in that creativity we see in Genesis. So the instruction not to worry about what you wear doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate nice clothes.
Our second reading from Romans injects a bit of realism. While God’s creation is good, it’s also broken. St Paul describes the whole creation as groaning. Yes, there is order and beauty, but there is also chaos.
Creation includes earthquakes that kill people. And our bodies are far from perfect – we get diseases, suffer illness. In my 11 years as a priest, I have buried a number of young people who have died from cancer or from other illnesses, and many others who have died far too young, and there always is this overwhelming sense that this just isn’t right.
I don’t think there is really an adequate answer to this problem of suffering. Nothing one can say can really make things alright. We do see, however, God’s response to suffering. The majority of Jesus’s ministry was about bringing wholeness and healing, he brought a re-ordering of a creation that is broken. The epistle to the Romans promises one day a new creation. It’s unclear what this might look like, but we are assured that God will be fully present. Until then, our priority is to seek and work for God’s Kingdom to be present.
Its why, once a month, we offer the sacrament of healing during our eucharist – prayers for ourselves and those whom we love – prayers of comfort and healing.
In sum, Matthew’s point is about priorities – it’s not about an obsession with clothes, or constantly fretting about our natural body size, or what food we will eat tomorrow. Instead we are encouraged to seek first God’s kingdom, to live God’s kingdom day by day, because this is the way in which we and our communities with flourish and be a source of hope and healing in our world.

Holland Park Benefice