Sermon 7th September 2008

Posted on: Sunday 7th September 2008

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, 7th September, 2008

Fr Richard Coles, Curate

(Matthew 18: 15-20)

Having grown up in the analogue age I was a bit bewildered when I found that my new digital television had Freeview built in: press the menu button and you suddenly feel like you’re standing in front of the departures board at Heathrow on a busy Bank Holiday weekend. But in spite of having dozens and dozens of channels to choose from, what kind of choice is it when there’s nothing you want to watch on any of them?

So I thought, until I discovered endlessly looped repeats of The World At War. That familiar title sequence, to theme music by Carl Davis, with Laurence Olivier’s voiceover and Jeremy Isaacs’ producer credit, heralds one of the most ambitious television projects ever undertaken, and it as fascinating now – if not more fascinating – as it was when it first aired thirty years ago.

It is big – twenty-six hour-long episodes, from Hitler’s rise to Hirohito’s fall; it takes its audience seriously – detailed, unsparing, not afraid to be difficult; it is properly funded – with a then-unequalled million pound budget. For me, watching now, two things really stand out.

First, the footage; the programme makers, mindful of the first rule of television – show don’t tell – let the pictures do the talking; and how eloquent they are. Not so much the official images, edited for newsreels, rousing scenes from the great battles at El Alamein and Monte Cassino and the Medway. It is the material not intended for release, the off-duty moments, filmed in the gaps between the great set-pieces that lodges in the memory. Courtesies observed among the ruins of a bombed city, Italian POWs literally crestfallen in daft dressy uniforms, children at a train station innocently playing with their gas masks.

Second, the interviews; not so much the retired statesmen and generals, but the tail end Charlies, the secretaries, the stokers, who never thought themselves worth interviewing, and whose witness is all the more interesting for it.

One interviewee in particular was fascinating. He was a merchant seaman who had served on the North Atlantic convoys. Speaking thirty years or so after the event, he was matter of fact as he described a fortnight’s voyage from Iceland to Russia on a converted trawler, accompanying a convoy that was constantly under attack, from German warships, from U Boats, from the Luftwaffe, from drift ice, from storms. Out of thirty-six ships that left harbour eleven made it to Murmansk, and he described how his shipmates were shot, blown up, drowned, frostbitten, burned alive.

His thoughtfulness and clarity about terrible circumstances was very impressive, but even more impressive was his recollection of coming home. The war was won; he was demobbed, and returned to wife and children in a town much like any town. Bunting, kisses, lock-in down the pub; and he stood there, surrounded by family and friends, in a warm snug, feeling completely and irrevocably alone. At that moment, and for a long time afterwards, he was unable to communicate with anyone, as if he’d returned to home and hearth and found it occupied by strangers with whom he shared no language.

You don’t have to have survived a war to know something of what that feels like. It’s commonly experienced by people caught up in all kinds of conflicts – in political disagreements, in office politics, in church life, and simply, and most frequently, when they fall out.

When I was at theological college we were visited by clergy on retreat and I was surprised by the amount of time and effort they put into dealing with people who had fallen out. Everyone finds this demanding, but for clergy it can be especially so, because people at odds with each other so frequently come our way, because of the nature of the job, because of the obligations of priesthood, because of the unrestricted welcome we are expected to offer. And so slots are found in timetables to train ordinands in conflict resolution, in facilitating dialogue, in finding and opening up space in deadlocked situations, the kinds of techniques that other professionals involved in the care of people employ. This morning’s gospel shows that this is no recent innovation. Two thousand years ago the first Christian communities were developing guidelines. If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church… You wonder what Parish Lunch debacle or Flower Rota catastrophe lay behind it. These techniques, to be sure, have proved to be immensely useful and, in skilled hands, extremely effective.

Except when they haven’t: in those situations when in spite of our best intentions, full disclosure, due process, things have just ineluctably fallen apart. An Austrian archduke is shot, clumsily, by an anarchist in a Balkan backwater – unfortunate, but not the first time that had happened – and yet, after an almost casual diplomatic row, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and within a week, Germany, France, Russia, Britain and their Empires had toppled into war. Four years and twenty million deaths later those left standing looked back and thought, how did that happen?

Haven’t we all, in incomprehensibly lesser ways, looked back over the warzones of our own lives and thought, how did that happen? How did we let things slip away from us, lose our restraint and poise, and find ourselves, like that merchant seaman in The World At War a stranger in a once familiar world, suddenly and unexpectedly no longer able to communicate? I’m sure we all know that sinking feeling when you say your carefully rehearsed set piece to the person who has caused you offence only for it to be met with utter incomprehension, an incomprehension doubled when they come back at you with an equally well-rehearsed set piece that might as well be Martian for all the sense it makes. How can they have got it so wrong? How can they not see what is plain for everyone else to see, we think (even as everyone else makes a bee-line for the door)?

Sometimes these failures to understand one another are obvious: the arguments in the Anglican Communion about sexuality and gender are so intractable and potentially destructive not because the issues themselves are too difficult to resolve but because they express fundamentally different experiences of the world. How can we understand what it is like to lead an African church out of an era of subservience to our colonial enterprise into an era of political independence, a process which necessarily involves the reckoning of a century of domination and submission? How, in turn, can our efforts to locate ourselves within the fast-changing configurations of post-modernity be understood by cultures in which the fast-changing configurations of post-modernity look like facile indulgence? At the level of our personal lives that incomprehensibility can be more obscure if only because our expectation is of greater transparency. But there is nothing more mysterious than another person: how can we have got them so wrong?

And right in the middle of this unpredictable, disorienting, volatile mess stands Jesus Christ: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Not to facilitate discussion, nor test arguments, nor negotiate agreements, but simply to be in our midst. God is with us, in his unfathomable grace and unlimited power, in flesh and blood like ours, caught up in our dramas and confusions, but God.

There he is in our midst: I’ve sometimes thought of Jesus as a kind of friendly ghost, intervening mysteriously in our lives to turn the steering wheel away from disaster, to nudge us along the right path instead of the wrong, to speak to us in accents clear and still. But I find the Jesus in the midst of us is nothing like that, not the servant of our anxieties and passions, to be press-ganged into our strategies for self-promotion and prestige – he’s just there, and all our expectations break around him like waves around rocks. For me, this is not the Jesus of extravagant Victorian piety, but the Jesus we see looking out at us from a blistered, scarred panel discovered by accident near Zvenigorod in 1918, reproduced on the cover of the service booklet this morning. It was painted by Andrei Rublev in the 1420s and lost for five hundred years until it turned up in an old woodshed in the aftermath of war and revolution; not a familiar Jesus, lamp in hand, knocking at the door, but a Jesus who can return the gaze of the victims of war and revolution for he is himself the victim of war and revolution.

An icon is not a likeness; it is a window, not a picture, inviting us into the reality it sets before us. The Jesus who stands in our midst today, in the midst of our own confusions and arguments, and failure to understand or to make ourselves understood, invites us into his reality.

Sometimes we’re asked why we place so much emphasis on the Eucharist here at St Paul’s. What about prayer, bible study, pastoral care, parish events, and all the other things that make up the life of St Paul’s Knightsbridge? They’re all important; and they’re important because they flow out from the Eucharistic life at our centre -Christ in our midst – his body and his blood given for us in broken bread and outpoured wine, healing our wounds, restoring sight to the blind and speech to the incomprehensible, restoring each one of us to his likeness.