Sermon: Sunday 16 March 2014
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
John 3:1-17 Soul Food
Last week Bishop Tim reminded the clergy of the events which took place last year in Highfields when Antoin Akpom was killed. His killing led to a “tit-for-tat” further killing when the wrong house was set on fire, and Shenila Sattar with her 3 children died. There were 800 people packed into St Peter’s Highfields for Antoin’s funeral. Eventually the coffin made its way to the front of the church. Bishop Tim didn’t really know what was going to happen next but out from one of the front pews came a tall elegant woman. This was Cheryl, Antoin’s mother. She came to stand at the front and looked down at her son’s coffin. Without any accompaniment, the funeral began with her singing. Bishop Tim wondered if this was wise, but she sang:
‘The first time ever I saw your face, I thought the sun rose in your eyes and the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave to the night and the empty skies my love’.
There was love beyond all measure.
As a little boy I leant off by heart the bible verse John 3:16: ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life’. This extraordinary assertion about God’s love for his world even greater than Cheryl’s for Antoin but sadly it was often misused by the preachers of my youth. They did not instill grace or joy in me from such a verse but rather fear in case I didn’t really totally believe and so would perish. I am reminded of the way William Blake wrote about the church: ‘Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds and binding with briars my joys and desires’ (from The Garden of Love). This is a picture of the church as a repressive institution telling people what they must not do and telling them what they must do.
There has been so much harm done to people by the church, by unthinking words and actions which come out of places of fear or control rather than love. Even Nicodemus who is known as a theologian, as someone who wants to know more about God, even he comes to see Jesus by night. I warm to Nicodemus because he is unable to present himself by day. Maybe there is something modest and unspoken about him. Or maybe he is embarrassed to come in the daylight. Maybe the darkness allows him to get near to the real questions that worry him. Maybe it is in the dark that he can be more fully himself alive to his desires and needs and so unprotected by convention or the need to be clever or the one with the answers. He is met with a conversation about heavenly things. He learns that God so loved the world.
This Lent focuses on hunger and this gospel reading points me to think about the kind of hunger that I know most particularly at night, the kind of hunger which plays on my fears and which undermines my confidence, the kind of hunger which reveals a desire for something more and deeper and sustaining. There is something to do with unmet need which does not get met by any physical satisfaction – no food or drink or physical expression meets the earning for lasting love.
Philip Larkin, that most curmudgeonly of characters who does not have much time for religion, writes a poem entitled Church Going. He visits a church and begins to wonder when the day will come when there will no longer be a display of these kinds of signs of faith and spiritual longing. When with the ever growing sophistication of life and the capacity of technology answer such needs to do away with the church? But not even Larkin is convinced. He writes: ‘It pleases me to stand in silence here; a serious house on serious earth it is, in whose blent air all our compulsions meet, are recognised, and robed as destinies… someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious, and gravitating with it to this ground.’ (from The Less Deceived, 1955).
Secularisation theory, which was rife in our university sociology departments until fairly recently, did imagine that religious behaviour would disappear with modernisation, but in our post 9/11 world we see that religion is persistent. There is hunger in our souls which is really not met by most of the things we imagine might satisfy deep down.
Christianity addresses these most common of human instincts – a spiritual hunger – by focusing very particularly on Jesus of Nazareth as the one in whom we glimpse abundant life – a life characterised by generosity, service, sacrifice, healing and forgiveness. John says that it is through him that the world is saved. The very particular leads to a very big all encompassing vision of the world which seems to endlessly open up through the story of Jesus. I glimpse that I am loved beyond all the experiences and fears and anxieties which tell me otherwise. That loving does away with condemnation and instead reveals life. That loving erodes my hardness of heart and the competitiveness which seeks to exclude. The very particular opens me up to a universal vision so that I not only am able to see that I am loved but I am able to know that the whole world is loved.
When we think about hunger, it is very difficult not to also think about issues relating to self esteem. Very often for us this is worked out through issues to do with food and eating – maybe we have too much of it or maybe we have too little of it. We maybe have the wrong thing even though we know it to be such. Christian faith and church life of course can be used as a blunt instrument to undermine self esteem and through that to exasperate our sense of hunger and unmet need. But at best knowing we are loved builds up self-esteem that we might be sufficiently liberated to love others, to be undefended and unthreatened by another. True love does not seek to condemn but rather to be salvific. We can test the validity of the love we experience.
A Dominican monk called Mark Hederman puts it like this: ‘Love is the only impetus that is sufficiently overwhelming to force us to leave the comfortable shelter of our well armed individuality, shed the impregnable shell of self-sufficiency, and crawl out nakedly into the danger zone beyond, the melting pot where individuality is purified into personhood’ (Mad, crazy, love p66).
Time and time again love breaks in and meets the hungers of my heart. Time and time again I discover that I spend too much time being less than fully human with self-esteem in question. But time and time again like Nicodemus, I find a way back, often in the shadows, slightly embarrassed that I have misunderstood yet again, and like Nicodemus I encounter a new birth from above. I see afresh a world so loved by God that he gave his only Son. We sang in the gospel hymn this morning: ‘How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure that he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure’ (Stuart Townend). This indeed is soul food.
© The Very Revd David Monteith