You can't stop at evil... (Eucharist)

9 May 2004 at :00 am

You can’t stop at evil...
for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
A Sermon preached by The Reverend Chris Chivers, Minor Canon and Precentor,
at the Sung Eucharist on 9 May 2004, Fifth Sunday of Easter, Westminster Abbey

It is the evening of 28th April 1990. And two friends, Andrew and Michael, are sitting in their house in Harare, Zimbabwe, talking as they prepare to listen to the 8 o’clock news. They reflect on the events of another day as Michael, who is an Anglican priest, sorts through his post. After a few minutes he breaks off the conversation, remembering that he must make a phone-call before the news starts. So he fetches the cordless phone from his study and returns to the living room. Sitting down on the sofa, he dials the number and listens for the connecting tone, whilst unwrapping a parcel containing two books, one of which he opens.

Of the next few moments, all that Andrew remembers is a deafening blast, the sound and sight of falling ceilings, crashing debris, and billowing clouds of dust, whilst Michael’s memories are of being thrown from the sofa, and of a piercing physical sensation, convulsing his whole body with pain, the like of which he has never experienced before or since.

Later, trawling the debris, the police piece together evidence of the enormous explosive devise triggered by Michael as he opened the pages of that book. But for now, Andrew is desperately trying to reach his friend. The cloud of dust means that he can barely see him. But, as it begins to clear, he finds him collapsed on the floor. Michael is still alive, so Andrew rushes through the house to unlock the security gates, and to fetch help.

Other friends have heard the blast and are already on the scene. Despite their fear of further explosions, several of them rush in to be with Michael and discover him lying amid the wrecked furniture and scattered papers, slumped against a wall. His face blackened and bleeding, he is in agonising pain. Horrified, his friends see that both his hands have been blown off in the blast. He is losing so much blood that they know they must get him to hospital immediately. Realising that it will take too long for an ambulance to arrive, they manoeuvre him carefully into the back of a car, and speed to the hospital which they reach within a few minutes. There, Michael is lifted onto a stretcher and within seconds is whisked into the building. Will he live, his friends wonder, as they follow the stretcher? Michael is, by now, desperate for pain killers, but despite his insistent demands the doctors cannot yet give them to him. They must keep him conscious until he is sedated for surgery. So his friends surround him in a valiant attempt to offer some support. They have to shout, because both his eardrums have been shattered in the explosion, but Michael clearly knows who they are, since he begins to cry out to one of them:

“Pray with me Phyllis”
“I don’t know how”, she says.
“Pray the Lord’s Prayer.”
She battles to remember “...and deliver us from evil. Amen.”
“Go on.”
“That’s where it ends.”
“You can’t stop there. You can’t stop at ‘evil’ ”
“For thine is the kingdom, the power and...the glory.”

You can’t stop at evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.

Today, in our journey through the Easter season, the lectionary returns us to a place much earlier in the Gospel narrative. It takes us, in fact, to the point at which the dark clouds of suffering, death, and evil are beginning to engulf the story. We hear a snatch from the beginning of what is known as the ‘farewell discourse’ of John’s Gospel [John 13: 31-35]. Judas has left the Passover Supper Jesus is sharing with his disciples. And his departure signals a turning point in the narrative. He begins to walk a road of betrayal and rejection, which, for Jesus, means a road that will lead to the Cross.

The scene is clearly hedged about with increasing tension, confusion and anxiety. And the words that are spoken reflect this. Judas rushes out. And as Jesus looks around the table he knows that even Peter, the rock on whom he has depended, will deny all knowledge of him, as also his other friends will avert their gaze and flee when officials arrest Jesus and put him on trial. Jesus will thus feel increasingly isolated. Seemingly, he will lose all support as he trudges his lonely road to Calvary. And there will of course be loss for others too. He tells his friends of this. He will only be with them a little longer. Where he is going, they cannot come. So they will be bereft of his presence. But if there is to be suffering and loss, grief and isolation, if night is indeed now falling, the hour of darkness is also, paradoxically, the hour of glorification. And perhaps the most telling sentence in this regard is the first: ‘When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘ Nowthe Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’. A decision has been made. A road has been taken, which will lead all of them deeper into the murky realities of evil, but this is also, so Jesus asserts, the road to glory.

Which is why I began with a contemporary snatch of another man’s narrative, with something of the remarkable story of Fr Michael Lapsley, cruelly maimed by a letter-bomb for his vehement and vocal opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa, but triumphantly certain nonetheless of God’s glory, even amidst his own experience of crucifixion. A man who has moved, in his words, from ‘victim to survivor to victor’ – who lost both hands and one of his eyes as a result of the bomb, but who has learnt to live with what happened to him, to cope with his prosthetic limbs – to use them, in fact, with extraordinary dexterity and skill – and who has, since that fateful night in April 1990, dedicated his whole life to assisting others traumatised by the worst human evils, on his own continent of Africa and elsewhere, to overcome them so that they might also be not simply survivors but victors.

For, as we are reminded by the placement of today’s Gospel passage within the context of the Easter season, we can’t stop with evil, we can’t get stuck with suffering, despair, fear, denial, and the like. The story doesn’t end there. Since here and now – all around us, if we did but reclaim it – the power and the glory of God’s kingdom has already broken into our world. That is the message of Easter. And if Michael Lapsley discovered this truth in his own agonising night of trial and suffering we can and must do the same. For deep clouds of darkness are similarly engulfing us at this time. Clouds surrounding, for instance, our continuing and morally ambiguous actions as a contributing nation to the coalition forces in Iraq. Clouds of sadistic abuse, gross human rights violations, and utter depravity overhanging the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and those detained there. And clouds even closer to home, overhanging migrant workers from the ten countries who have newly joined the European Union, many of whom, in the recent past have walked their own terrible roads to Calvary, and somehow emerged triumphant on the other side, but who now find some of their fellow Europeans not waiting to celebrate and welcome them as closer colleagues and friends, but seemingly determined to make them subject to a xenophobic fear, which slams potential doors of friendship and opportunity in their faces, with the ridiculous claim that we might somehow become over-run by them.

But God forbid that we stop, that we get stuck with abuse, with xenophobia, and the like. For, as the shameful events of these last few days and weeks have reminded us, the story mustn’t be allowed to end there. That way lies the Judas road to self-destruction. Rather, what we must do, is somehow to recover, to learn again, what it means to walk the Christ-like path to glory. Since though we cannot undo the past – even the horror of the immediate past – we can and must transcend it. Which is why the lines with which today’s Gospel passage ends are so timely, tellingly simple, yet demanding. For if glory is, seemingly against all probability, to be discerned amidst the evil we experience, if victims are indeed to become not just survivors but victors, then as human beings we must actually relearn what it means to be human. And when we see representatives of so-called western civilisation treating their fellow human beings in a degrading and dehumanising way, when we see a soldier tugging a prisoner along the ground by a dog leash about his neck, and reflect on the culture of humiliation that underpins this, then we know that the moral fabric of our world is being pulled apart, and that the time has come for us to reclaim again the truth of the resurrection by reasserting some basic and absolute human values of respect, tolerance and compassion. For it is only when we accord others the dignity due to them that we in fact discover our own humanity, as we uncover the truth that our at times dismal world may yet gloriously be transformed through mutual love. ‘By this,’ Jesus says, ‘everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,’ an invitation and challenge in respect of which each one of us dare not fail Christ. Amen.

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