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Learning not to be in control – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: Learning not to be in control… 

Date/time/service: Sunday 30th August 2020 Trinity 12 11am Eucharist

Passage of scripture: Matthew 16.21-end

In the gospel last week we saw Peter at his very best. He responds to Jesus’ challenging question, ‘who do you say that I am?’ with the clear, confident answer, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’

In the gospel today Peter is not so impressive! Jesus warns him and his fellow disciples that he is to go to Jerusalem and that he will suffer, die and be raised again. Peter’s response seems instinctive and panicky, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ This provokes Jesus to respond by saying ‘Get behind me Satan’ he reprimands Peter further by telling him is thinking in human ways and not divine ways.

It’s very easy to be critical of Peter here but if someone we loved told us they were going to die we probably wouldn’t respond by simply accepting what they said and trusting in God. More likely, we would question them and look for ways to help and protect them, and that is all that Peter is doing. Looking at it like this, Jesus seems to be a little harsh on Peter, to say the least! But maybe there is quite a lot we can learn from this encounter as we deal with the pressures and fears of this wretched pandemic.

Over the last generation or two we, in the west, seem to have pretty much convinced ourselves that if we are sensible and careful and eat our ‘five a day’ we should be healthy. In addition, the way that we can access and manipulate information through computers and phones has made us believe we are in are in control of our own lives and our own destinies. We have come to believe that we can make ourselves safe from harm, and more importantly, we have come to believe that we have a right to be safe from harm.

For many of us, it is only when a massive storm strikes, a cancer grows, a tree falls as a car approaches or a virus spreads, that we suddenly have to face the reality that we are not, ultimately, in control of our destiny, or of the destiny of the people we love most in the world. We can do everything we can to care for our planet, to live healthy lives, to avoid danger, to avoid spreading disease, to care for each other – but in the end we have to live with the fact that from our first breath to our last, life is risky and however careful we are, there are things in the world we cannot control.

This belief that we have a right to be safe and well and this sense that we are in control is very modern. For all of history, and for billions in the world today, life threatening illness, famine, or other natural disasters were and are a daily reality to be lived with.

In addition to coming to believe that we have a right to be safe we have also made dying and death a taboo subject. It is rare to hear the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’ spoken anymore, now it seems, people ‘pass away’ or simply ‘pass’. Not only do we rarely talk about death we tend to treat it as a failure. We talk about people ‘losing their battle with ….’ If someone dies unexpectedly we tend to always want to find someone to blame. The truth is, of course, that death is inevitable for all of us. Death is actually just a part of life.

I read a fascinating article this week by Rowan Williams, the last Archbishop of Canterbury. In it he explores our attitude to death. He begins by responding to a claim by some extreme Christian group that as Christians they have no fear of death so they see no need to comply with all the rules and regulations surrounding Covid 19. Rowan Williams begins by saying that risking ones own life by not complying with the rules and regulations is one thing, but that not complying actually means that you are risking other people’s lives, and that is wrong.

Rowan Williams agrees that we, as Christians, should not be overly fearful of death. He says that if we are constantly recognising and rejoicing in those we love and acknowledging what we truly value and learn to accept that these people and things are not dependant on me and will not be destroyed by my death – then we can face death with greater equanimity. Take the masons who built this Cathedral for example. The ones who laid the foundation stones at the bottom of these pillars knew they would be dead by the time the last pinnacle was put in place on the tower. But, they must have loved and valued their work, and this place, so much that the fact that they would not see it finished, didn’t matter. And the fact that they probably trained up their sons and daughters in their craft meant that they knew that though they wouldn’t see the building finished their grandchildren would ….. and that was fine. I don’t want to pretend that this made life and death idyllic and easy for our forebears, simply that they must have been much more accepting of the risks involved in living and much more accepting that there comes a time when we all have to move over so that the next generation can take over.

Certainly Jesus’ reprimand to Peter in the gospel today has particular resonance because Jesus knew, and we now know, that his great work meant going to Jerusalem, suffering and dying, so that he could rise again so that we could all become an Easter people, a people of resurrection, afterwards. Of course we want to live, and, like Peter, we want the people we love to live as well. We should do everything we can to care for ourselves and each other, we should do all that we can to preserve life and the quality of life, but I think this story and the gospel in general, calls us never to deny or ignore death, not to see it always as a defeat or a failure or an offence against our human right to well-being and life.

I heard a radio programme this week in which two women from Ireland were talking about the interesting, funny and quirky nature of the culture from which they came. They spoke about the unusual way that some from the Irish culture frame a proposal of marriage. ‘Will you marry me?’ is considered way too banal and simplistic, the question asked, when you want to share the rest of your life with someone else, is ‘Will you be buried with my people?’ Not terribly romantic, but actually really helpful – the question is not just about living together, it is acknowledging at the outset, that living together will inevitably mean dying together. I thought this was rather beautiful and actually is an expression of the profoundly Christian belief, so beautifully and simply articulated by Paul in the middle of his beautiful passage in 1 Corinthians 13, ‘Love never ends’.

Rowan Williams concludes his article about death with these words which emphasise that we should be realistic and honest about death and, if faced in the context of love, value and relationships, and the belief that ‘Love never ends’, dying is not the end of the world!

‘A summons to faith, courage and energy in the face of death isn’t a call to heroics for the ego. It is an invitation to attend, to be absorbed in value, depth and beauty not our own. It is to recognise the gentle insistent pressure of a shared reality which tells us to make room for one another.’

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