Sermon by Fr James Heard, Easter 5, Sunday 29 April 2018, United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Easter 5, Sunday 29 April 2018, United Benefice of Holland Park

It really is lovely to be back home and at church. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the last two months and moving every few days gets rather tiring. In a nutshell, the first month I travelled with my brother Paul and we visited a charity called Compassion Service Society of India – a small charity working in villages three hours north of Kolkata and doing amazing work. We visited the new school which is being built, met the teachers and children, and were very impressed with how things were run. We’ve been supporting this charity as a family for 20 years and also do so as a church. Whilst in Kolkata we visited the Mother Theresa centre, where there was a training facility for new sisters as well as a shrine and museum. As you know, the work involves caring for the homeless who are dying, helping the poor die with dignity and respect. I was struck by one quote from homeless man just before he died: ‘I have lived all my life like an animal on the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for.’ 

We then left Kolkata to do a six day hike up to the Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal, which was just stunning. Then a four day yoga retreat near Pokhara, Nepal. Next came a long journey down to the South of India where I had a six day retreat at a RC Benedictine Ashram in Trichy, Tamil Nadu; and then my family joined me in Kerala, then Sydney, Australia and finally Bangkok. It’s been a hugely refreshing and stimulating time. And I would like to thank my colleagues, particularly Peter and Neil, who have been so supportive in making this trip possible. 

It’s been over 20 years since I was last in South Asia and so, particularly returning to India and Nepal, I wanted to look at its traditions, culture and religions with fresh eyes. Fresh eyes, but not with rose tinted spectacles. As many of you will have picked up in previous sermons or conversations, my previous perspective on other religions was that it’s adherents were deluded or, more probably, influenced by demonic forces. In my view, there was little if any good in other religions (and into this I lumped the Anglican and RC church which I thought were deeply compromised and not proper Christians!) 

Well, if that’s your view on other traditions, it radically affects everythingyou see and hear. I previously went out to India as a cocky 21-year-old to proclaim the gospel. I had an attitude in which there was very little listening or humility. I had the truth; I had the light. And those in India were pagan worshippers of idols who were living in darkness. It was a very stark, black and white way of thinking. 

So, what changed my thinking? On my previous trip to India, in 1998, I had an epiphany. As I look around standing on a street corner in Kolkata, I thought to myself, ‘I’m supposed to believe that all of these thousands of people rushing past me are going to an eternal hell.’ And I thought, ‘If this is true, I can’t be a Christian any more, or there is a different way of being Christian.’

Since then I have spent a number of years studying theology. And I discovered the more generous approach following the Second Vatican Council in the RC church in the late 1960s. The council made some very important statements including this: “…the church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” and it encouraged Christians to “recognise, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral values as well as social and cultural values to be found among them.” The All India Seminar in 1969 also spoke of the “wealth of truth, goodness and beauty in India’s religious tradition” as “God’s gift to our nation from ancient times.”

What radical shift in perspective, and it seems to me entirely right. This doesn’t mean ignoring differences, nor does it mean saying anything goes, it doesn’t matter what you believe. The approach involves being rooted in one’s tradition, being an unembarrassed Christian, but with an open and more generous heart to learn. It was with this attitude that I was looking forward to returning to the Indian subcontinent. 

I was very much taken by the way the spirituality of Eastern traditions – in particular Hinduism and Buddhism – connect and engage the body. Meditating, spending four days on a yoga retreat, spending time at the ashram, one is encouraged to become aware of one’s body, of one’s breathing. This is particularly helpful in focusing the mind, to stop thinking about what happened yesterday or will happen tomorrow, or what you’ve forgot to do, or must do, and so on. One becomes present… present to oneself, one’s emotions, one’s body. You become aware of stresses, anxiety or whatever. The practice of meditation and yoga creates a stillness… even with the body movements of yogic practice. 

Of course, it’s what we do at St George’s on Monday evenings at 6pm. And it's a counter cultural challenge to our frenetically paced lives. To stop and to be still, to become and live in the present.

One quote really struck me. Buddha was asked, ‘What have you gained from meditation?’  He replied, ‘Nothing’. ‘However’, Buddha said, ‘Let me tell you what I have lost: Anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity, fear of old age and death.’ 

What a wonderful reflection on the importance of meditation. I have gained nothing from meditation…. But I have lost anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity, fear of old age and death.’ 

Rowans Williams also writes about the importance of meditation:
‘… contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.  To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.  It is a deeply revolutionary matter.’

So, I recommend to you the practice of meditation and/or yoga. Stopping every day – ideally for 20 minutes morning and evening. But perhaps start with just 10 minutes in the morning. It’s not easy and it can take many months of intentional practice for it become a habit. But it’s what we all desperately need.

What was inspiring for both my brother and I was a visit to the two Buddha stupas in Kathmandu, Nepal. It was a very peaceful and tangibly spiritual place. At one there were 100 or so pilgrims who after visiting the shrine sat down and was served supper. As another Buddhist shrine (away from the tourists, so it wasn’t for showing off!) we witnessed a feeding program where 200-300 Tibetan refugees queued up for lunch. We found both of the shrines to be welcoming and inclusive places.

The ashram I visited in South India was an extraordinary attempt to engage with Indian culture and religion. It couldn’t have been more different from the eucharist we went to at St Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata, which was almost exactly like our service here today – the only difference being sharing the peace you use the hands together India greeting. It was an Englishman, Father Bede Griffiths, who lived at the ashram for over 30 years who had carefully thought through what the Christian faith might look like when it takes root in Indian soil. Fr Bede died in 1993 but the Indian priests and brothers have continue this ethos and it attracts hundreds of visitors every year, mostly Christian, but also from other religions traditions, and those who are simply exploring the Eastern faiths, all are welcome. 

It was a very impressive place – beautifully kept gardens, electric generating solar panelling, their own cows where the milk is given to children in the school they run; the use of cow dung which is processed and used again as manure and sold in bags.

It’s a Christian ashram but the design of its place of worship was very much like a Hindu temple. Like many Hindu temples, where the lotus symbol features, it had a prominent place on the roof of the shrine. And it has a fascinating explanation: the lotus flower sits on top but not touching the water. In other words, it is detached from the world. The monk in the Hindu tradition is called the Sannyasi – the renunciate. And of all that is renounced, the most essential is the self. Detachment is not a way of escape from the world but rather of a freedom from self-interest. So while the lotus doesn’t touch the water, it’s connected through its tendrils which go down into the water beneath where it draws its nourishment. And at the same time, the Lotus flower moves during the day focused on the sun. 

Mystical union with the divine is something that is fundamental to the Eastern religious traditions. And it’s something we need to discover here in the West where we tend to be preoccupied with analysing and dissecting faith, and where we remain transfixed in the mind.

Of course, John’s Gospel is known for being the most mystical. Today’s passage describes the idea of abiding in the vine, of being rooted in the divine. Being rooted, abiding, means receiving nourishment from the roots that we put down together as a community. It is to experience in our soul the love that flows from the source of all life and being. And it is a living encounter that can transform our lives and communities, if we can dare to open our hearts and minds and if we can create the space in our busy lives.

Revd Dr James Heard

Holland Park Benefice