The ostrich, the smartphone and the crucified
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
31 August 2014, 10:30 (The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity)During this past week I learnt in the newspaper that ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand.
I was surprised because I really think that they did.
Evidently Pliny the Elder is the culprit of this misinformation since he recorded that these birds hid their heads in a bush when threatened!! Since then each generation has repeated and elaborated on it!!!
So ostriches run, they don’t plunge their heads into the sand.
Not so with us ...metaphorically !
One woman this week said on the radio that whenever the vivid orange jumpsuit that James Foley and other prisoners held by Isis appear on a screen she shuts her eyes and leaves the room.
And I am not surprised at that. In our digitally networked world, the images of obscene beheadings – the most recent being a Kurdish fighter only 3 days ago – are sickening and difficult to erase from our memories and our subconscious.
How do we cope but by shutting our eyes or running away into our materially abundant world of consumer consolation?
At the same time the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has advised the government to upgrade the UK’s security threat level to severe because of the ever growing threat of Islamist extremism.
This not is not only frightening but likely to harden people’s attitudes to Moslems and Islam.
And this leads me on to another recent salutary news report that
children may be becoming more socially inept because they are spending too much time on smartphones and computers.
Evidently screen life even including television diminishes our ability to read the emotions of others. Yes, even our compassion can be blunted by the ‘virtual world’ in which our responses lack the integrity, risk and commitment of direct encounter.
So not only is the world beautiful and dangerous but our contemporary technology can degrade our ability to live it in it fully and effectively as loving human beings.
Our readings this Sunday take up this challenge: St Paul exhorts us to be genuine and loving, living in harmony with one another and leaving vengeance to God alone. He ends the passage:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
It is easier to say than to live. It is even harder to walk the way of the cross.
Peter in the Gospel reading cannot understand how Jesus can contemplate suffering and sacrifice as the purpose and path of his ministry.
And Jesus rejects Peter’s protestations as the temptation of Satan himself.
You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
Here we are in this beautiful cathedral church two thousand years later but are we any further on in taking up our cross and following Jesus?
We spare him an hour or so on a Sunday morning and perhaps some more time and prayer in the rest of each week.
But how can we be changed from setting our minds on the wrong things, the things of this world in which our compassion is blunted and our fears lure us into denial and flight?
Fortunately, Jesus has not left us comfortless.
In the gift and power of the Holy Spirit we can live in a different strength and see beyond the horizons of our human sight.
Back in 1080 by some kind of inspiration, the stones of this Norman cathedral were constructed to contain the light and space that speak of God and his kingdom and lead us beyond our everyday and personal preoccupations.
Here, God promises in Jesus Christ to meet us as his gathered people, to speak to us, feed us and transform us.
This is what this building is for and this is how we are called to live.
Very little here resembles the world outside except for our humanity, our fears and joys, our gifts and our failings.
This space is not a sitting room, stadium, public space or auditorium.
It is where we gather to become what Christ would have us be.
We hear the story of our deliverance from our mortal selves and preoccupations in the scriptures, and in the Gospel we hear Jesus speaking to us this very day.
His words are not contained in yesterday, in the annals of history, but they are rather the living word of God.
These are the words of life that search us out, question us and ask us to make the love of Jesus the centre and purpose of our lives before all else.
They are words filled with the Spirit which combines reason and imagination so that time is opened up into eternity.
And just as Jesus speaks to us now, so he commands us to take the bread and wine of his people’s salvation meal and to eat and drink with him broken and dying on the cross.
Yes, this, the Holy Eucharist, is Jesus’, the crucified one’s, body and blood.
Look at the altar in our midst. It is a table laid out for our common meal just like that in the Upper Room.
But look again. It is also an altar, the place of sacrifice.
In Israel’s history, the altars were drenched in the blood of bulls, oxen, sheep and goats to atone for sins and failings and to make peace and communion with Yahweh, the Lord God.
Our altar is not a domestic piece of furniture but a cosmic place of death and life. It too is drenched with blood; the blood that flows from the wounds of Jesus Christ, wounds that include James Foley’s severed throat and all the atrocities and sufferings down the ages.
Nothing and no one is excluded from the loving and sacred heart of God in Jesus.
He knows where we are and how we feel but we have to overcome the stumbling block of our blindness and selfishness and arrogance in thinking that we can manage without him.
We have to love God with all that we are, and we also have to love our neighbour as much as ourselves.
That is the challenge of faith; can we see and can we change?
Wouldn’t it be better to leave it to the government, to other people who are stronger and holier than us, or at least leave it until tomorrow?
We do not own time. We have only the present moment but it is full of promise.
If we can dare to look at God here amongst us and to recognise his power and presence in the holy food of the Eucharist then we can become, in the power of the Spirit, the Easter people, the risen body of Jesus Christ today.
That is what this holy Mass is about. It makes the Church so that we can live and be the resurrection life of Jesus.
We hear the term ‘radicalisation’ with fear in the context of jihad and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.
But here, we too, are radicalised. We are transformed from being our self-centred selves into being the holy people of God, empowered and commanded to go out into the world to be the new life of God who forgives, and who has died for every human soul.
‘If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
Or what will they give in return for their life?
We could though just bury our head in the sand or go on Facebook, buy an online consolation, have a drink or a lovely lunch and just forget the whole thing. Let’s just see this worship merely as a personal interest and hobby.
Yes, it is just so easy to shut our eyes and hope the whole thing will go away.
T.S. Eliot wrote of this challenge in these lines from ‘The Rock’ back in 1934:
Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O God, help us.
(Chorus V111 from ‘The Rock’)