Sermon: Sunday 1 November 2015
All Saints’ Day
The Reverend Dr Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
A few years ago I was involved in planning an intervention for somebody. An intervention is a strategy developed in circles around Alcoholics Anonymous and it is everybody’s worst nightmare, it is literally Room 101.
For example, somebody comes home from work and everybody who means most to that person sits in his living room: wife, daughter, close friends, boss from work and a professional who can hold this thing together.
People will try to bring across during an intervention how much the person means to them as a friend, employee, father or husband, but that they are aware of his drinking problem and that others are aware and they will give examples how this affects them, like:
“You are one of my most valued employees, but I know you have a bottle in the basement and usually start drinking at 10am. A number of people have seen you drinking alcohol out of a tea mug in the staff room.”
“Daddy I am really scared of you when you are drunk and I don’t dare to sleep when mummy and you have an argument.”
“You are my best friend, but I am so embarrassed to be with you because you mess up at every party or social occasion. You are terrible when you are drunk.”
So something which was hoped to be secret or unknown is exposed and there is often going to be a lot of denial, anger and shouting happening.
The next bit of the intervention is what requires exact planning, as the person is presented with a choice to make – and it is made clear that this is his choice to make, but he needs to make it within the next 30 minutes otherwise people will make their choices.
“There is a taxi waiting downstairs which will take you to a clinic for the next 6 weeks. Your bag is packed, your work appointments are cancelled and all your commitments are covered. You need to decide now – you cannot decide next week.”
And then everybody in the room spells out the consequences of this decision for themselves – and these consequences need to be absolutely truthful as they need to happen in case they become necessary:
So the wife says: “If you don’t go tonight, your daughter and I will sleep somewhere else tonight and we need to think whether we can live with you. We take your taxi and arrangements have been made.“
The boss says: “if you don’t go tonight I need to start HR procedures tomorrow.”
And so on.
Interventions are terrible. They only work if the person has enough to loose. If somebody has already lost their job or family and friends interventions are pointless – they don’t generate enough force. The people involved need to be genuine about their love and concern and they need to be absolutely clear about the consequences for them – not as a punishment, but how are they going to protect themselves from somebody’s destructive behaviour if the intervention is unsuccessful. Interventions therefore need careful planning, they create excruciating pressure from people to look at a dark area within oneself. For the person concerned it is literally purgatory.
I do anything not to look at a dark and shameful area within myself. Imagine the following conversation: you come to me this morning at coffee and tell me: Johannes, I am aware you have become a bit chubby, are you overeating for genuine pleasure or is it for emotional numbing?
Well, we would of course never have that conversation.
There are very few people who could have that kind of personal conversation with me, because in order to look at somewhere dark, dangerous and frightening I need to feel loved. I can only allow people who really love me to really see me – gradually. To slip between the gaps of my armour it needs love and I need to let you slip. And you better be very tender and careful.
It also needs to happen at the right time – I need to be ready to look at a particular shameful area within myself. Otherwise it goes straight over my head or rather heart.
My point is that human beings do anything and everything to avoid looking at something painful within themselves. We do literally anything to avoid having our shame exposed. We lie, we cheat, we deny, we hurt, we numb, we rage and we murder. Nothing on earth is more frightening than truly looking inside.
Today in baptism God tells Oskar and all of us: you are not perfect, but I wash you and give you life, I know you by name and care for you, you are a citizen of heaven and worthy of love and belonging. Feel it, believe it and dare to live, because I am the God of Love and you are mine, you belong to me.
The saints we celebrate today have all been on difficult and extraordinary painful journeys to face what is inside them whilst they felt held by the love of God and thus enabled to do so. Saints are people who dare to look and know who they really are. They can stand before God without having to pretend to be perfect, without numbing themselves from recognising themselves, without having to pretend to be certain about what cannot be certain.
Today is a wonderful day because it shows us that the church is really big: there are lots of saintly people who live in the love of God we don’t know about and we will be very surprised who is in the kingdom of heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners and less than perfect people, his standards are quite low. The church is a lot wider and broader than we think.
Also the church is not only the church of today. It’s the church of yesterday and tomorrow – the church of those who have died and gone before us and the church of Oskar. Here we stand on literally hundreds of graves of those who worshipped God before us as we baptise Oskar. The church is huge, it’s horizontal and vertical, it’s cruciform.
Tomorrow we pray for those who have gone before us but are also on the journey. Please join me if you can. Today we celebrate that our home is in heaven, we are worthy of love and belonging and our names are written in God’s hand. Happy All Saints Day.