Remembrance Sunday 8.11.2015

Sermon at the Friary November 8th 2015

Mark 12. 38 – 44


With every sermon, there is the context and there is the text.

The context is Remembrance Sunday when thousands gather at war memorials all over the country, and in Whitehall at the Cenotaph … to remember, and the red poppy reminds us that the root of this annual remembering goes back to the mud and the trenches and the barbed wire of Flanders, now a whole century ago.

There is debate still as to whether it was a just war … and books continue to be written. One book which sits on my shelves, mostly unread simply because it is so dauntingly large, is called ‘The Sleepwalkers’. It tells of how the great powers, through a whole complex series of small gestures, minor events, small acts of coercion, blundered blindly into a situation where they could not back down, and the cataclysm of the First World War resulted, which – due to some degree to the humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression, led to the disaster of the Second World War.

But as they stand in the cold winds of Whitehall remembering, both the politicians and all of us are thinking of what is happening in southern Europe and the Middle East now. More than 60 million people in the world are now ‘displaced’, a word that hardly captures the shattered homes and lives, the violent up-rooting and the terrified fleeing. As we sit in this chapel, 5000 people by the day are landing on the little island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean, then walking … trudging … struggling with babies and old people up through the mud of the Balkans and southern Europe, as fences are put up, and reels of razor wire are put in place, and winter begins to close in. And the previously welcoming governments of Germany and Sweden are beginning to say there have to be limits, while the British government remains committed to 4000 a year, and 85 of our bishops say in a letter to the Prime Minister that it is shameful, and an argument rages in Parliament about another gesture – yet more bombing in Syria, as though there had not been enough.

As we read the text of the Gospel, this is something of our context. It is bleak. But what is our text?   Where is the good news of hope? Recently I was reminded by the chaplain of the Bishop of Salisbury that as the Bishop visits the parishes in this diocese he asks three questions: what do you pray for, whom do you serve, and what gives you hope? And he begins his staff meetings by asking everyone around the table to say, what in this week gave you cause for hope? So in the text we are given today, where can we find hope?

I wonder if we can glimpse it through the very small gesture that is recorded here, and nowhere else in the Gospels.

Sitting in my hut the other day, by the miracle of modern technology I listened to Brother Sam in St Paul’s Cathedral discussing with Stanley Hauerwas, the way of peace.   In his talk, Sam reminded his audience of the importance of the small gesture, what it can reveal, and how peace, like conflict, has small beginnings. It grows, or its opposite violence and war grows … through small gestures, seemingly insignificant acts of either respect and understanding and careful regard that lead towards integration and celebration and peace, or small acts of arrogance and disrespect and violence, that lead in the end towards razor wire and bombs and bitter hatred.

‘Blessed are those who sow the seeds of peace’. This, Sam told his audience, is how the Syrian Orthodox community in the Middle East, translates the seventh beatitude.

This Gospel reading is a study in small gestures, in apparently insignificant acts, above all, a study in sharply contrasting demeanours.

First, there are the scribes. They incarnate a demeanour of pride. They love to go around in long robes uttering long prayers, they love the chief seats at feasts. Underneath all this empty display is a religious system that oppresses the poor, drives out the needy and to maintain its position, will deny even its own creed … ‘we have no king but Caesar’ they roared back to Pilate, denying their own faith when he asks ‘do you wish me to crucify your king?’ Anything to get this man killed, to rid ourselves of him. Violence is intrinsically part of the show.

Then there are the ostentatiously rich who parade past the treasury and make their ample donations with extravagant gestures … so that it is not just the left hand that knows what the right hand is doing, but everybody in sight knowing … how big the sum is that is given, how worthy and righteous, the giver. But try suggesting to them, as he did, that their devotion to God was empty. See what that led to. Violence is intrinsically part of the show.

And then as the parade of the great and good past the place of giving continues, up shuffles a little old woman, dressed, we can imagine, entirely in black, for she is a widow. The demeanour could not be more different. No display. No long robes.  No ostentatious flourish as the gift is given. She is not caught up in their fantasies of grandeur, their illusions of self-importance which conceal violence … what does the gospel say? … they devour widows …

Quietly … unobtrusively, (only he notices) she makes her donation, her small utterly faithful gesture.   Two coins. All that she has. As one translation has it – ‘it is her whole living’, her whole life. ‘Truly I tell you’, he says as he gathers his disciples round him, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the rest … for they gave out of their abundance, she – out of her poverty – has acted, has put in all that she has.

‘She, out of her poverty …’ Here may be the key to peace.

In his book ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’, the monk Thomas Merton reflects on what this word ‘poverty’ can mean in terms of the human heart:

‘At the centre of our being’, he writes, ‘is a point of nothingness which is untouched by illusion … a point of pure truth which belongs entirely to God and which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the glory of God in us.’

And, we might add, it is the pathway to peace.

‘This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the glory of God in us’ … it is the pathway to peace.

Part of the purpose of the penitential seasons – Advent is fast approaching – is to discover again this ‘poverty’. To strip away again, everything that gets in the way of its realisation. It is of course a lifetime’s work … dissolving, getting rid of, chipping away at … the ever-persistent tendencies to illusion and arrogance and the brutalities of a self-centred life, that, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, ‘cling so closely’. It is like chipping encrusted barnacles off the bottom of an old boat in order that the simple shape and beauty of the original can be revealed.

The task is, to re-discover again our need, our own ‘absolute poverty.’

So we say, again and again, ‘Lord have mercy’.

I was struck recently by hearing the theologian Mary Grey whose work centres around peace, talking about the Advent Liturgy in the Armenian Orthodox Church. It begins with saying the Kyrie eleison not just three times as we do, but 400 times – one hundred for each of the four directions of the compass as the worshippers turn north, south, east and west. ‘Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy … on and on it goes imploring God’s mercy both on those who pray the Kyries, and on all God’s devastated earth, praying for the dissolving of the power fantasies of the mind, the brutalities of the will that are in that part of the world particularly, wreaking such horror. Armenia is after all, not far from Syria

This point of absolute poverty, writes Merton, is the glory of God in us. It is the pathway to peace.

Francis of Assisi totally comprehended this truth. He really got it … grasped immediately that this was the gospel, and so he embraced poverty not just in terms of owning nothing, but in terms of the poverty of his own heart, calling her his ‘lady poverty’, – and so this little poor man shone with the divine light, a light unobscured by the illusions of self that can lead so easily to violence

It is the great challenge: always to remain poor before God, and so let our lives speak of peace.


Patrick Woodhouse.