St Francis, Terriers - 3 before Lent (12.02.2017)

Tony Dickinson

It has been a grim week for news. Locally we share with the people of St Augustine’s in their shock and sorrow at the sudden death of Monsignor Paul Donovan on Wednesday. Nationally we observe the dangerous combination of a headstrong government and an inept and fragmented opposition. When was the last time that an Archbishop of Canterbury provided the most effective opposition to an overweening ruler over a major issue of public policy? My guess would be 1688, when Archbishop Sancroft and six other bishops faced down King James II. Internationally we watch developments in the USA, in the Middle East, the Far East and our own continent with mounting anxiety as “Government of the Twittersphere, by the Twittersphere, for the Twittersphere” seems to be replacing the normal checks and balances of American democracy, and as the rule of law is increasingly under attack.

Taken together, our three readings this morning and our Psalm offer a call to radical repentance, a change in the way we human beings look at our world, and at ourselves. In this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy, as the book draws to its climax, God sets before the people of Israel a dramatic choice: between “life and prosperity”, or “death and adversity”, between “loving the Lord [our] God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” and being “led astray to bow down to other gods”. In today’s Psalm we hear the prayer of a poet whose life is centred on joyful obedience to God’s law and who sees that as the truest praise and worship that he can offer. Saint Paul, writing to the Christian community in Corinth, rebukes its members for their misguided priorities, their need to elevate this or that Christian teacher against his fellow-workers, set against their failure to deepen their understanding of the faith which they profess.

To top it all, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, picks up where he left off at the end of last Sunday’s Gospel and explains what he means by the challenging words which closed that reading: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

For Jesus righteousness isn’t a question of a more scrupulous keeping of the law, but a deeper rooting of it in his disciples’ lives. In each case where he contrasts the words of the law and his own teaching, he contrasts outward behaviour with the disposition of the heart. It is those inner attitudes that need to be transformed. Jesus calls those who follow him to a serious reflection on the world in which we live and the way in which we live in it, a reflection that can be costly, demanding, and painful. But it is also liberating and life-giving.

Towards the end of the second section of his epic poem about the ascent of human beings to the vision of God, Dante Alighieri comes to a moment of crisis. He has survived the smoke, the fires, the noise, and the icy heart of hell, descending into the darkest depths of his own heart. He has clambered out of that frozen darkness and, with quite a bit of help, made the ascent to the top of the Mountain of Purification. He passes through the cleansing fire of love to find himself in the earthly paradise, the garden from which humankind’s first ancestors had been expelled because of their disobedience.

It is there that he encounters once more the woman who had been for him the God-bearer, his first and greatest love, Beatrice dei Portinari, who had married another man and died young. Does Dante make use of his poetic licence to find fulfilment? Not at all. When they meet Beatrice lets him have it with both barrels. She runs the rule over Dante’s life in the years since her dying and finds it falling a very long way short. So overwhelming are her reproaches that Dante collapses under their impact and loses consciousness. As he is coming round, he is somehow carried across Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, which wipes away his memories of past failure. Once on the other side he drinks from the waters of the spring, Eunoë – “good remembrance” – which enable him to see himself as he is, at one and the same time a sinner, and yet someone held in the infinite love and forgiveness of God. The reflection of himself in the water which he could not bear to look at when first he saw it on the other side of Lethe, he can now accept, and he can now move on into the heaven of God’s love.

And again, as he journeys, Dante springs a few surprises. His heaven is not angels sitting on clouds, strumming their harps. His heaven is full of light and movement, a great cosmic dance. Some of the dancers are heroes of faith. One or two have strong links with the English Church. Anselm of Canterbury appears, so does Bede of Jarrow – and our own St Francis. But heaven is also full of people who, like Dante himself, had played a significant part in political life, kings, national and civic leaders, military men. The heaven of God’s love is burning with a concern for God’s justice, full of reminders that, when we pray as our Saviour taught us, we pray that God’s kingdom may come on earth, as it is in heaven.

So, like Dante, like our readings this morning, we affirm God’s sovereignty over every part of life. We affirm that those in positions of responsibility and authority are accountable to God, whether or not they acknowledge a Supreme Being. We pray for the rule of God’s justice and God’s compassion, in the life of our nation – and in every land. We pray for all who are led astray to bow down to other gods, false gods made in their own image, the gods of wealth, of power, of national or racial superiority. We pray for men who treat women as disposable chattels. We pray for those who close their borders, and their hearts, against the fellow-human beings who are fleeing persecution and death – and especially for those who shut the doors of compassion against vulnerable children in desperate need.

And we give thanks for those who choose life, who bring hope and healing, for those whose joyful obedience to God’s law takes them deeper into God’s love. We give thanks for Archbishop Justin and all those others who have named our government’s policy for what it is. We give thanks for those who seek to put God first, and not “America first” (or, indeed, “Britain first”). And we give thanks for brothers and sisters across the world who, in an age when anger and division, jealousy and quarrelling, are rampant, refrain from insulting the people who vilify them as they continue to strive for peace and reconciliation in the name of God, to whom…