174a Hoylake Road
"The road less travelled by"
Luke 17 vv 11-19
Yesterday in the first of these Holy Week sermons, we took our theme from the title of a Sylvia Plath poem, Black Rook in Rainy Weather. The Jesus who entered Jerusalem yesterday was not the Jesus whose voice echoed down the hillside as he preached to thousands. This Jesus is footsore and weary, surrendering himself to the Father. On the back of the donkey on that steep, steep climb to the centre of Jerusalem, every bone in his body hurt and every muscle cried out for rest. Are you weighed down by lockdown? Are you footsore from your long journey to Easter? This was your day. This is Jesus. Are you no longer strong enough, certain enough to cry Hosanna? This was your day. This is Jesus. Do you sometimes in the night cry ‘Would God it were morning!’ and in the morning cry ‘Would God it were night!’? Are you bereft of the familiar scenes where happiness once reigned? This is your unholy week. This is your suffering God.
Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the age of 30 after a life marred by illness and depression. Like Plath, who almost fifty years after her death remains one of the most celebrated post-war poets writing in English, we are not birds of paradise strutting and boasting God’s glory. We are black rooks of death, too tired in this season of fatigue, and as our lockdown continues and coronavirus spreads, no longer expecting a miracle. But we will, in Plath’s words, patch together a content of sorts. We are in short human. And here’s the thing: God made us this way. In Karl Barth’s words, Christ died not that we might become angels but that we might for the first time become fully human.
And part of that humanity is to have choice. It is a theme that runs throughout Holy Week and may explain why you are reading this now and not doing any one of a thousand other (more productive?) things. In the words of another poem, this time by Robert Frost, two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference. From the crowd who cheered Jesus one day and called for his blood less than a week later, to the words of the thief on the cross, there are choices to be made. Do you go the popular route or the one less travelled and more difficult? Right now, we have had some of our choices taken from us (more of this later). We cannot choose to go to church. What, I wonder, will happen when all this is over and that choice becomes ours again, and we have grown used to Sundays without going to church? How many will not return? It is their choice. It is your choice. To be sure, in Jerusalem this unholy week was not played out on autocue for the cameras. If Jesus was a willing sacrifice, it was by definition his choice.
I was once asked by an independent cinema to do an illustrated talk on Jesus in the cinema to preface their showing of Mel Gibson’s misguided film project, The Passion of the Christ. I was like the proverbial kid in the sweetie shop, told I could choose any film clip to make my points. I introduced the audience to a clip from the film The Last Temptation of Christ and suggested that the allegedly heretical and much-publicised scene where Jesus is shown as stepping down from the cross and living with Mary Magdalene was not heretical at all. It showed the choice that Jesus did not make. It was a vision that he could well have had, but he chose not to grasp it and that made his sacrifice the more real. His will be the road less travelled by this week. Scorsese knew what he was doing – showing the error of those who play down the mental agony of Jesus on the cross. Just to reinforce my point, I then played a clip from my favourite film, It’s A Wonderful Life, at the point at which an apprentice angel, Clarence, tells the disbelieving James Stewart that he has been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the world as it might have been had he not lived. It is in making choices, the right choices, that we become not apprentice angels but fully human.
This Easter thousands of people will be hospitalised with Covid-19. I used to teach student nurses the principles of spiritual care, and the most important lesson for them to grasp was this: to understand that when you are admitted into hospital your choices are removed, one by one with your clothes. Talk to any patient about what they dislike most about being in hospital and one themes crops up again and again: the lack of choice. You want to eat at a certain time? Sorry, dinner is served now. You want to go back to sleep? Sorry, the doctors are coming for the ward round. It can happen too in home care. Our dear departed friend, Ruth Wynn, relied on home carers to tend to her most basic needs after she became wheelchair bound. I know the one thing that irritated her were the times when the carer would come to put her to bed at 6.30pm because the carers had a long list of evening visits to make. So, whether you are relying on home care or in hospital, bit by bit your humanity is eroded, not by drugs, not by medical procedures, but by the choices of everyday life being taken from you. Nurses and carers, pay heed – every little choice you give to the patient, every decision you leave to them, is an acknowledgement of their God-given humanity.
I have referred in my foreword to these sermons to Pearl Holdsworth, who studied as a lay reader and had the misfortune of having me as her tutor. In her final year of study, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. But she said she wanted to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition and go to India to minister there. I had a good friend in the chaplaincy at CMC Vellore who would arrange things. But first, we had to persuade Pearl’s doctors to give her the choice of whether to go or not. That little game of “what if…” was played out not by friendly apprentice angels like Clarence in a Hollywood movie but by a real person listening to clinicians who, however well-meaning, reckoned they knew best. Eventually “Mrs Pearl” as she became known at CMC Vellore, and a suitcase of medication flew to India. Her ministry at CMC touched the lives and hearts of many nurses and patients, especially those caring for or dealing with their own cancer. She wasn’t ill once whilst in CMC, but three days after she returned home she caught a Scottish virus!
But there are greater choices too. Recently in Moreton we welcomed three friends into adult membership. In my sermon that Sunday, I gave them five reasons why they should not join a church. (You can find that sermon on our church website by following the “magazines” link.) Quite apart from the fact that membership gives you precious little benefit, I pointed out that they may be backing the wrong horse. We do not know for certain that God exists. There is no absolute and incontrovertible proof of God. We are all playing Pascal’s wager, named after the French philosopher who first dared to point out the obvious: either God exists, or he does not. Heads or tails. (If you really want to impress your friends, tell them your belief in God has eschatological verification.) We will find out whether we have backed the right horse, won or lost, when we die and not before. To take the road less travelled by, to follow Jesus in Holy Week, is to take a gamble. Except Pascal says you can’t really lose for if you behave as if God really does exist even though you sometimes doubt it, you will be infected with the joy and the conviction of the believer. If you lose, you have lost nothing, there is just non-existence - though as Woody Allen says, I don’t want to be around when it happens!
Mrs Pearl played Pascal’s wager. When she died less than a year after her ministry at CMC Vellore, one of the doctors who tried to dissuade her from going to India said that it was making that choice that kept her going. Mrs Pearl, from where you are now, you have the answers.
And during Holy Week, if we take the road less travelled by and follow this unpopular, unholy Jesus we should remember those who are not with us this Easter to share the journey: those whom we have loved and for the briefest moment lost in death. “If it be your holy will, dear God, tell them how we love them and how we miss them and how we long for the day when we shall meet with them again.” They journey with us this week. You are not alone in your lockdown. They are with you.
So too those in other faiths are with us on our journey. The nun and interfaith worker, Karen Armstrong, uses the metaphor from T S Eliot of a spiral staircase to describe the way that Hindu and Muslim, Jew and Christian, Buddhist and Sikh are all travelling towards the divine light that we call God – but as in a spiral staircase, we journey towards the light when we seem to be going away from it. The road less travelled by is not easily discerned in the undergrowth of siren calls from our postmodern world. And we travel too with those who for all kinds of reasons have chosen not to take part in Holy Week: the bitter widow whose faith has been destroyed by her husband’s untimely death; the scientist whose work on viruses has caused him to doubt a benevolent God; those who no longer have the strength to pray and those who simply can’t be bothered.
But perhaps the greatest choice has already been made – by God your Creator and Redeemer. Those in Moreton will know that baptisms in our church are something of a cottage industry (I prefer to call it mission); we carry about between 20 and 30 each year and the temporary closure of our church has already caused disruption to many families’ plans for their child’s baptism. When normal service is resumed, as it will be, the occasional criticism of our liberal practice and welcome to all families will return: is it worth it, when so few families of baptised babies return? (Especially when, winter or summer, the dresses – or rather lack of them – worn by some women means I do not know where to look.) In reply, I point to Jesus healing the ten lepers in Luke 17. Only one healed leper returned to give thanks. But did that stop Jesus healing them? Did he set down conditions? Did he un-heal the other nine? There’s a thing called grace, you see, which is probably the most misunderstood word in our church language. It is all about God.
As we say in our baptism booklet, given out to all parents, “you child may grow up to come into adult membership of the Church – or they may not. They may rebel against the church (as most youngsters do!). When they grow up, they may deny the existence of God. But that does not matter. For the fact is, as baptism shows, God loves us before we love him.” God has chosen us to share fellowship with him from the beginning of time (think about that). But we can, if we so choose, be like the nine lepers who chose not to repay that love. The choice is ours. Easter is not a date in the calendar; it is something that all of us can choose to come to, respecting and waiting for those who have chosen not to come. Who knows when that baptised child or their parents will return? Tomorrow, next year, ten years hence…? Never? By our choice, we have all been prodigal sons and daughters in our past. By choice, we have decided to come home.
To be human is to respect the other, the God that is within each of us, as we will see on Wednesday. To be fully human for the first time is to allow each of us to take Pascal’s wager. But never write off those who have taken a different road. In Japan archaeologists unearthed a 5,000-year-old pot. It contained magnolia seeds. Fascinated with piecing together the pot, the archaeologists almost forgot the blackened seeds. But they took a chance and planted them. After 5,000 years one magnolia blossomed into glorious flower. Easter can take a long time in coming.