Your Neighbour is Yourself

Fr Hugh put together a Lenten Series this year: Friends and Companions - Books that have Shaped our Theology and asked four ordained and two lay leaders at St Peter's to preach each Sunday then lead a discussion group. This sermon I preached at the 9.30am Service on the First Sunday, 18th February.

Genesis: 9:8-15

1Peter: 3:18-22

Mark 1: 12-15

Theopemptus was a self-confident monk whose counsel, we are told, had depressed others. One day, Macarius, an elderly Desert Father, paid him a visit:

……. Macarius asked, ‘How are things going with you?’ Theopemptus replied, ‘Thanks to your prayers, all is well.’ The old man asked, ‘Do you not have to battle with your fantasies?’ He answered, ‘No, up to now all is well.’ He was afraid to admit anything. But the old man said to him, ‘I have lived for many years as an ascetic and everyone sings my praises, but despite my age, I still have trouble with sexual fantasies.’ Theopemptus said, ‘Well, it is the same with me, to tell the truth.’ And the old man went on admitting, one by one, all the other fantasies that caused him to struggle, until he had brought Theopemptus to admit all of them himself. Then he said, ‘What do you do about fasting?’ ‘Nothing till the ninth hour,’ Theopemptus replied. ‘Fast till evening and take some exercise,’ said Macarius. ‘Go over the words of the gospel and the rest of Scripture. And if an alien thought arises within you, don’t look down but up: the Lord will come to your help.’

This is one of a number of the stories coming out of the Desert Father and Mother tradition, that Rowan Williams relates in Silence and Honeycakes. The book itself is based on a series of addresses he gave for the John Main Seminar in 2001 about these early Christian hermits, men and women, who lived in the deserts of Egypt, mainly in the 4th and 5th centuries of the Common Era.

Rowan Williams writes: ‘Your life is with your neighbour and so you must withdraw from everything that helps to imprison the neighbour, which entails looking very hard at what you say to or about your neighbour. The vocation of each is personal and distinctive, so each must have room to grow as God, not you, would have them do.’

Some of you, if you grew up in like me, or lived through the 1970s, may remember that transition from black and white to colour TV. ‘March first into colour’ was the slogan in Australia, and for me that first lighting up of a TV screen into full colour is one of those remembered moments in my childhood. Imagine, after all the unending rainfall and sloppiness, the feeling Noah would have experienced, in our first reading today, at the sight of light suddenly pouring through a dispersion of water droplets high in the air and bending a vivid spectrum of colour over the earth. That rainbow celebrated life in a new way, a new beginning, linking heaven and earth, rekindling hope, a promise. The world before the flood was not forgotten; the humanity of Noah and his family not denied, but God’s first covenant with God’s people after flooding the earth with months of unending grey dullness, is a full colour extravaganza.

Rowan Williams helps me see that being alongside someone else, rubbing shoulders day to day, involves this constant movement from a black and white perception, to a spectrum filled coloured one. I see in black and white, Christ constantly calls me to re-see in colour. Theopemptus lurks in each one of us: his counsel depressed everyone because he was self-satisfied, judging, enchained by his own fantasies of himself and suspect to crippling analysis of other people’s failings. My own counsel, my self-satisfaction, my pre-managed image of who you are, shrinks and limits both of us. But how can I even begin to see with the subtlety of colour? How can I be with you as a person in relationship, rather than my fabricated fantasy of who you are?

In today’s Gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus was ‘driven’ into the desert by the Holy Spirit after he was baptised by John. Unlike the word ‘led’ used by Luke and Matthew, Mark chooses a NT Greek word that implies he goes ‘under a force he cannot resist.’ He had to go. And, strangely, this action happens right after his baptism by John and a voice from Heaven affirms the vocation of both these men: ‘You are my son and with you I am well pleased…’ You’d think that Jesus would want to get straight on with his mission in Gallilee rather than go tearing off into the desert. He certainly had nothing to prove to God by going out there away from everyone except wild beasts and ministering angels.

Recently, I’ve been watching on Netflix with Bridie, my 15 year old daughter, a series called Stranger Things - some of you may know it. A young teenage girl named Eleven escapes from a secret National Laboratory in Hawkins, a fictional country town in the United States. As an infant she had been abducted and experimented upon in this laboratory. Set in the early 1980s, it’s a Stephen King nightmarish world with some very Steven Speilberg moments. The Gate from the Upside Down, an alternate parallel world, a kind of foggy colourless hell littered with dead biological matter, has been opened. Now dark destructive evil in the form of primal canine-triffid headed predators called Demagorgons, are threatening to devour all life on Earth. The girl Eleven, upon escaping, is alone, incredibly vulnerable, barely articulate, deeply harmed and carries a huge amount of pain. She also has psychokenitic, or supernatural powers: a force inside her can, under certain states of intense emotion, bend and shape the material world to her will - people can be flung against walls, or rooms smashed apart. Her will is shown to be something she cannot always control. And, whenever Eleven does exercise this power, a drop of blood seeps out of her nose.

The series explores the experience of extreme pain and loss, and how that can be redeemed in a young adult’s world. Three High School ‘nerds’, not so cool but brainy boys, shelter Eleven when she first escapes from Hawkins Laboratory. But it’s in Illinois city that she comes to learn there is something much more valid in life than supernatural power; it’s the act of mercy. When confronted by the choice to kill a man who harmed her long ago, she remembered those small but powerful acts of love that had been shown to her by her nerdy friends, and she suddenly and unexpectedly experiences compassion. She is able to step outside her own situation and see life in a new way. And most importantly, she experiences compassion for herself; this changes everything. She becomes empowered and breaks free of the cycle of victimhood. Even with superhuman powers you can remain trapped in a black and white vision of the world, a shrunken world captive to violence, charmed by power. But with the recognition of mercy in truth your eyes can open to frequencies never even glimpsed before.

Why Jesus goes to the desert and what happens there is the subject of much theology, with much better thinking than mine. But the desert is given to us as the only place where Jesus, as Incarnation, can encounter within himself those very characteristics that that try to block him from being human, the offering of supernatural powers; yet actually paradoxically also make him very human - given our own temptations at times to want to be superhuman.

I wonder if the temptations aren’t so much about Jesus and Satan, but about Jesus’ relationship with us. What Satan offers Jesus is a false version of what’s real. As Rowan Williams puts it: ‘all the temptations of Jesus seem to be about resorting to magic instead of working with the fabric of the real world…..Satan wants Jesus to join him in a world where cause and effect don’t matter; a world of magic; Jesus refuses, determined to stay in the desert with its hunger and boredom, to stay in the human world with its conflict and risk.’ He pledges himself there. The subsequent miracles of Jesus amongst the community when he leaves the wilderness, whatever we make of them are - as Fr Hugh and Fr Philip have pointed out these last two Sundays - never acts of magic substituting the ‘bodily cost of love.’ They are manifestations of God’s self-emptying into the world unique to Jesus. Jesus pledges himself to us. Satan’s temptations are designed to tear Jesus apart from Love, separate him from humanity and his own humanity. But by experiencing these temptations and saying ‘no’ to them, Jesus exercises his own full uniqueness. Again, paradoxically it’s only by going into the desert, seemingly being driven away from people, that he can then enter into the fullness of his ministry to be close to each person he encounters when he moves into his mission around Gallilee.

To be close to your neighbour then, the desert mothers and fathers recognised this need for withdrawal. This isn’t a turning away from, but towards. It sounds glib to say, ‘turning towards God’ but the full cost of doing this, TS Eliot inimitably put in a bracketed aside in his poem, Little Gidding: ‘costing not less than everything.’ The desert fathers and mothers called this continual practice of turning towards God, ‘dying to the neighbour.’ So when Fr Marcarius talks to Br Theopemptus, he does so with the full recognition that those very failings other people have been so exasperated with in Theopemptus are failings also within himself. Seeing through his own disguise, Marcarius chooses the path of dispossession and defencelessness; he lets down his barriers, like Christ makes himself totally vulnerable. Dying to the flesh to live in the spirit as St Peter talks about in the Second Lesson today, is this continued practice of self-awareness and giving-for the relationship.

As Eleven, in Stranger Things realised, it’s not a dying to the neighbour in order to perpetuate victimhood or stand there as a passive bystander. But the recognition that there is a well that is more life giving than the exercise of supernatural powers. A well that energises the spirit, gives room to grow in personhood as God would have each of us do. And as Macarius reminds us, which is also good advice for all us as we go about our own Lenten practices these next few weeks, don’t look down, but up, and something is given; we are set free and the heart expands.