Sunday 19 February - Epiphany 7 - Evensong - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN, 7 after Epiphany EP: Song of Solomon 5.2-16; Luke 7.36-50

‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: … a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; … a time to break down, and a time to build up…’ In the aftermath of the American Presidential election and the Brexit referendum, many people fear that what has been precariously planted in terms of environmental protection is now being plucked up, and what has been cautiously built up in terms of international cooperation is now being broken down. But plucking up and breaking down are not new. This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, ignited in Germany by Martin Luther. Luther was no less a rude shock to the political establishment then, than President Trump is today; and he was followed in England and Scotland by the equally rude and disruptive Henry VIII and John Knox. Today, all that is visible of the world and way of life they broke down and plucked up, are the ‘bare ruined choirs’ of deserted abbeys peacefully nestling amid our fields and hills: but in the aftermath of the Reformation, the wars of religion destroyed peace for generations and divided Europe, enriching the few, but doing little for the welfare of the poor. To say this is not to deny the corruption against which Luther protested, nor the positive achievements of the Reformers, education in Scotland for example: but historically the picture is very mixed: much that was valuable in the old religion was lost and only today perhaps are many Protestants and Catholics coming to recognise that they have much more in common than divides them.   

Now all of this perhaps, is water under the bridge: the Reformation was 500 years ago and in the 21st century we are confronted by a whole new set of social, moral and political issues which we need to try to understand and come to terms with. But before we leave the Reformation it might be worth asking what underlies such great historical upheavals which turn a familiar world upside down – upheavals including those surrounding the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in 1917, when millions died in the carnage of the First World War. Clearly no single theory can explain why great world-historical upheavals happen, but a helpful clue to the present upheavals has been suggested by the author Pankaj Mishra.

Writing about what he calls ‘The Age of Anger’ in the world today, Mishra attributes this anger to the inability of the modern developed Western world ‘to fulfil its promises – freedom, stability and prosperity… to the ‘many who came late to this new world or were left – or pushed – behind’: such ‘left-behind’ people are reacting with anger and even destructive violence against the established modern societies from which they feel excluded.  Mishra sees this sense of being excluded in a variety of anarchist and revolutionary movements from 19th century Russia to ISIS today, and also in some of those who, feeling left behind, supported President Trump. He gives words to their frustrations in a quotation from the sociologist Karl Mannheim.

Everywhere, people are awaiting a messiah, and the air is laden with the promises of large and small prophets… we all share the same fate: we carry within us more love, and above all more longing than today’s society is able to satisfy. We have all ripened for something, and there is no one to harvest the fruit.

These words were written in 1922, in Germany, when the Nazi messiah was already waiting in the wings to harvest the fruit, with fateful consequences: but the words, Mishra suggests, apply no less to countless ‘left-behind’ people world-wide today; ‘we carry within us more love, and above all more longing  than today’s society is able to satisfy’.

‘We carry within us more love, and above all more longing than today’s society is able to satisfy.’ Hearing those words and the mention of a messiah, tonight in church, one is tempted to reply “But of course”, and to point to the countless Christians over time and world-wide today, including many especially of the ‘left-behind’, whose love and longing have found their home in a messiah who came long ago and in whom their restless hearts find rest.   Yet however tempting and indeed true that may be, we need also to acknowledge that many others, especially in our own country and the rest of Europe, fail today to find this rest for their love and longing.

There may be no simple explanation for this failure. The Reformation itself may have contributed to Europe’s apparent loss of faith, by unweaving faith from the fabric of everyday life and patching it into the habits and dogmas of divergent nations and denominations, not all of whom could be right, so that what you believed eventually came to be seen as a matter of private opinion. But no less important perhaps has been the repeated tendency of Christians and churches to fall back into precisely what Christ himself criticised in our Gospel reading tonight, the desire to be right and respectable that blinds us to our own and others’ deeper love and longing.

To carry within us more love, and more longing than any society is able to satisfy, in truth, is a definition of what it is to be human. We humans are essentially needy creatures, as the lover seeking her beloved in our first reading has the outrageous honesty to admit. But in the end our need is greater than need for the closeness of another human being. What is it a need for? In tonight’s Gospel reading the woman ‘stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment’.  And at the end of the story Jesus tells the woman that her sins are forgiven and says “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”. But what was that faith? What did the woman think she was doing? Was she in fact doing anything more than the lover in our first reading might have done when she found her beloved? The intriguing thing about this story is that the faith Jesus sees in the woman is not expressed by her in words, confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, for example, or the Son of God, or the second person of the Trinity. It is simply that her love and longing have found what they are searching for – or perhaps been found by what they were searching for.

And that wordless finding or being found is what is at the heart of faith. Different Christians have tried to put it into words in many different ways, but at the heart of faith is a deep awareness of the unseen Other who meets all our love and longing and holds us, even if we are aware of this only for fleeting moments.  It is not surprising that the human love and longing of the Song of Solomon has sometimes been interpreted in terms of the soul’s love for Christ, because while the two loves and longings are different, they are not essentially different. Faith is in the end most truly expressed, not in what we say we believe about God, or Jesus, or the Church, but in how we welcome one another and welcome the unseen presence within and among us, who meets all our love and longing and holds us. It is in that sense of being held in love that we gain, with all who also sense that love, the encouragement to do our human best for peace and justice, in a world that is unpredictable and often angry; and we gain that encouragement, because the love that meets our love and longing and holds us, is in the end, the love moves the sun and the other stars.

Reference

Pankaj Mishra Age of Anger: A History of the Present Allen Lane 2017:1