Legacy and Loss
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
26 August 2012, 10:30 (THE TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY)
Legacy and Loss
If a tragedy struck your home and it caught fire, what five objects would you rescue from the burning house?
It’s a question worth thinking about and one that I used to ask confirmation groups.
It’s an interesting question because it makes us choose what we think is of true value in the face of crisis and loss.
And why should we want to be thinking about crisis and loss on an August Bank Holiday weekend?
Because crisis and loss know no holidays or days off.
In sunshine and rain, we are surrounded by joy and pain, life and death and sometimes it claims us and overwhelms us.
This week has seen our news stories include the inevitable discussion about the legacy of the Olympic Games as the Olympic Park lies still and empty now awaiting the start of the Paralympic Games this week.
We have also been thinking of the big ethical decisions that need to be addressed following Tony Nicklinson’s death six days after the High Court ruled that doctors could not hasten his death as he so dearly wished.
Locked-in syndrome must be terrifying and excruciating; the condition is a kind of tortured sentence and we have to consider how it might be treated medically so as to alleviate as much suffering as possible. I know the law is blunt and inadequate but compassion cries out for action: here is a crisis that won’t go away.
On the other hand the Olympics have already ‘gone away’ and soon the Paralympics will as well.
Last Friday saw the Opening Ceremony of the British Transplant Games here in the cathedral – an extraordinary and moving experience in which hundreds of transplant athletes ranging from children to mature adults have come this year to Medway celebrating their new life and the generosity of the donors and their families.
Legacy means something quite different for these competitors and spectators: every life for them is a remarkable gift and an unexpected joy.
Giles Coren, the journalist and food critic, discovered something of this in the Olympic Games. He wrote an article last week entitled: All the rules of life were suspended, and magic ruled the Earth – a modern Shakespeare drama set in Stratford East.
In it he sees the Olympic Games like the Shakespearean Arcadias – a world set apart in which normal hierarchies are overturned, where nobody has to work for a living and where there is no crime (and in the Olympic Park very little rubbish!).
So perhaps that is some significant part of the much sought legacy.
All of us still ask the questions about what we leave behind in this life and what we are prepared to lose, give up and sacrifice as we live in this world.
In the end, in one sense, we have no choice – everything as we know it, will go.
So what’s the point? Shouldn’t we just grab what we can in this life and enjoy it?
Yet God gives us a choice and an opportunity because we are made in his image.
This choice, which our readings set before us today, shows us that with God there is a different way of living.
And the point that God in Jesus distinctly makes is that we read the world the wrong way round!
Life is not about the money we make, nor the name and fame we achieve – it is not about my legacy or yours.
Indeed, salvation is not individual survival: in fact it is not survival at all.
Eternal life is utterly different; it is a gift of otherness.
And it may well feel like loss, sometimes sacrificial, and at other times like the total absorption or ecstasy that we experience in art, nature or music.
Yes, our lives have these epiphanies: we can lose our sense of time and self when reading a book, listening to a piece of music or watching a play or a film.
This other world of the spirit breaks into our lives.
We have to give ourselves and let go in order for all this to happen.
As we learnt in last week’s sermon, St Augustine tells us that we have to place ourselves on the altar.
When we do this, the world does not change but it does take on a completely different meaning.
Today’s Gospel passage confronts us with this transformation.
And transformation, transfiguration, is what it is. This is not a materially verifiable change as literalism demands but the spirit possessing us so as to change us from the mortal and the subjective into that fullness and abundance that is eternal life.
Jesus says to the crowd who filled the synagogue in Capernaum:
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
And the disciples react to this teaching by saying how difficult it is, and so who can accept it?
Jesus replies: Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit who gives life; the flesh is useless.
So what is this seeing?
It is indeed the life of God that we call ‘spirit’ and it is that covenant, that relationship between God and humanity given in Jesus which is filled with power and grace: the spiritual energy that changes us and gives us life.
And it is here, at the Eucharist, around the altar of God, that it is focussed and given week by week through word and sacrament.
The Gospel passage from John is written within this context of the Eucharistic sacrifice and meal – that is why Jesus speaks of bread and wine as his flesh and blood.
But we have allowed the Eucharist to become separated from our homes and tables, from our eating habits and hospitality.
The flesh alone is useless – and our material daily lives need to be opened to the spirit. Just as we lock our homes and live defensively, so our lives also cut off the risk and vulnerability that allows God to change us and empower us.
This is why Jesus’ teaching is hard and offensive: because it has to breach our defences, to penetrate our armour and reach into the very depths of our humanity and human personality.
Only then can God change us.
Our first reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we have to live in God’s strength and power – and St Paul uses the imagery of the whole armour of God.
It links with the Eucharist and our sacramental life – because in the Roman army, a soldier took an oath to the emperor, the ‘sacramentum’, and in return received his kit, his food and protection.
This swearing of the sacramentum changed the status of a man entirely. He was now utterly subject to his general's authority, and had thereby laid down any restraints of his former civilian life.
He would bear no responsibility for the actions he would commit for the general and if ordered to do so, he would kill anything in sight, be it an animal, a barbarian, or even a Roman.
The Christian sacraments are similarly life-changing. God gives himself to us if we will but let down our defences, and put on the armour that comes from truth and peace, righteousness and faith. God also feeds us, cares for us and protects us.
Here in the Eucharist, where word and sacrament are one, God in Jesus initiates the change that culminates in the messianic banquet with which all time will end.
And giving ourselves, laying our lives on the altar, is how we are changed.
And by faith everything else is changed in ultimate terms: even the unevenness and injustice and randomness of life: all those lives that are barely lived –
the unborn, the still born, the cot deaths;
the tragically disabled;
the untimely dead
like the young soldiers in Afghanistan,
the little boy swept away at Burnham on Sea;
the little girl and her grandfather swept away on a Portuguese beach;
and all the unreported deaths from poverty, famine, disease and war that
grips millions of the human family.
Yes, because the values of life itself are transformed, all the lost and broken and forgotten can and shall live – and all will have ultimate value, life and meaning. That is the promise of Jesus.
Even five things grabbed from a burning home however carefully chosen are as nothing.
Yet all that is of God can never be truly lost but shall last forever.
That is God’s legacy in Jesus; let us dare to face the crisis, the decision of faith, and abandon ourselves to God and his love.
R.S. Thomas, the Welsh priest and poet, put it so powerfully in these spare and testing words:
He is that great void
we must enter, calling
to one another on our way
in the direction from which
he blows. What matter
if we should never arrive
to breed or to winter
in the climate of our conception?
Enough we have been given wings
and a needle in the mind
to respond to his bleak north.
There are times even at the Pole
when he, too, pauses in his withdrawal,
so that it is light there all night long.
Migrants ~ R.S. Thomas