Sermon for Fourth Sunday before Lent 2019
Revd Hugh Wright
10th February 2019
By the grace of God I am what I am. (1 Cor 15:10)
This week the actor Liam Neeson was caught up in a media storm entirely of his own making by giving an interview about his latest film which involved the subject of revenge. He said that, when he was a young man 40 years ago, he was so enraged on behalf of a female friend who was raped by a black man that he roamed the streets for a week afterwards armed with a cosh hoping to kill any man of colour who dared attack him. He wasn’t proud of these feelings but volunteered this information to show how violence and revenge lurks inside all of us. For this confession he has been publicly vilified, had his film Premiere cancelled and made to withdraw from a talk-show appearance. Others, including many prominent black entertainers, have applauded his honesty, as do I, though I do wonder why he put himself through such an ordeal.
Our readings feature 3 people who were ruthlessly honest about themselves. Our first reading features the prophet Isaiah who is worshipping in the Temple when he sees a vision of angels. Immediately he becomes aware of God’s holiness as the angels cry the words we say every Eucharist: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ After that he becomes aware of his own sin: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips….yet my eyes have seen the King. Then Isaiah sees a live coal taken from the ever-burning altar to those said lips and hears the words, ‘your sin is blotted out.’ Finally Isaiah senses the call of God in his life to which he answers: ‘Here I am. Send me.’ There began a prophetic ministry based in his time of the 8th C BC, yet continuing, through his successors, for the next 300 years, bringing light, hope and new life to his hearers: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…..Comfort, comfort ye my people….the spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…and proclaim the Kingdom of God.’ All this from a man who thought he was lost.
Then, in our second reading, we hear from St Paul. Paul was a great teacher and he starts this passage from 1 Corinthians in teaching mode. ‘I should remind you, brothers and sisters....that Christ died…and was raised on the third day and appeared to Cephas (or Peter), the 12 and 500 others.’ But then the truth of all this hits him, as he remembers his vision of holiness on the road to Damascus and what he was travelling to that city to do (persecute the church). He was (he says) like ‘someone untimely born, the least of the apostles’. Despite that, he was forgiven- ‘his grace to me has not been in vain…’ and he was called to preach: ‘so we proclaim and you have come to believe’. The scope of Paul’s ministry was truly extraordinary, travelling far and wide, mostly on foot, founding churches, teaching and writing letters which still inspire today. All this from the ‘least of the apostles.’
Our Gospel reading tells the story of the call of Simon who came to be called Peter, the Rock. For him, God’s holiness was seen in the miraculous catch following a fruitless night’s fishing, which he immediately saw as more than a catch. As so often, in the Bible as in life, this holiness repels him – ‘depart from me, for I am a sinful man’ words we know to be true from his denial of Jesus before his death. Jesus tells him however not to be afraid, forgiving him, and calling him to his service ‘from now on, you will be catching people.’
So we see the same fourfold pattern in these stories: experience of holiness, sense of unworthiness, offering forgiveness and call to God’s service, with the clear implication: you can’t serve God and follow Jesus without looking deep into your heart and your shortcomings. Indeed St Paul goes further: ‘your sins and God’s forgiveness makes you what you are. ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’.
Last Sunday saw the last episode of ‘Les Miserables’ a BBC TV adaptation of Victor Hugo’s towering 19th C French novel, popularised by the Musical of the same name. At the heart of this novel is the character Jean Valjean who, on his release from prison, sleeps overnight in the residence of the Bishop of Digne, from whom he steals valuable candlesticks. He is caught the following day and returned to the Bishop who forgives him and allows him to keep the candlesticks on condition that he makes an honest man of himself. This he does, transforming himself, becoming a pillar of the community. Also when he lapses, notably in his treatment of the poor abandoned mother Fantine, he redeems his sins by bringing up her daughter as his own. In all this, he is pursued by his nemesis Javert, an unforgiving and graceless man who knows about his past and is determined to finally bring him to justice, and yet to whom Valjean eventually shows mercy. At various points in the novel Valjean is ruthlessly honest about himself and his past, refusing to take the easy way. At the end he dies in peace with his family and God, having affected many people for good and lived out the Bishop’s challenge. It’s a wonderful story.
It is impossible to imagine Valjean without his past sins. By the grace of God, he was what he was. It’s the same with us. The way we deal with our sins and shortcomings defines our character. Yet you wouldn’t think so, to judge by reactions to public characters with flaws who are publicly vilified for admitting weakness. We know that, in theory, we’re all fallible but we’re very harsh on the particularities. Yet presumably it is important for an actor like Neeson whose films deal a lot with revenge, to understand those feelings from the inside.
We all tend to idealise people, including clergy. People often say nice things to me and about me (not always!) but they have no idea what I’m like inside. Just the other night at our Pints of View Pub group on the subject of forgiveness, I unwisely told people about a motoring conviction I had from the past. I wish I hadn’t! And you preaching at us! said one person. (If only you knew the rest, I thought to myself.) That’s why we keep silent. Yet if we can’t be honest about our own sins, how can we help others?
The great priest Paul Oestreicher wrote that ‘the church is meant to be the salt of the world, giving it new taste, but it’s usually been happier to be the world’s icing sugar, somewhat sweetening the intolerable but changing nothing.’ Is that what church is to you? Sugar-coating your life? Or is it about really changing us deep down?
So, finally, what makes me me and you you? Our upbringing, our skill, our flawless past, our charm, our hard work, our achievements? I pray that you and I would understand that it is by the grace of God and by that grace only, that we are what we are.