Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 6th May 2012
6 May 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
In his novel The Arrow of Time Martin Amis plays time backwards. Ordinary events are described in reverse sequence. It’s an ironic device to shed light and judgement on what’s really going on through life. For example: someone shopping for food then eating a meal, when described in reverse, is depicted as a large amount of food vomited out of the mouth back on to the plate, then replaced on a supermarket shelf in return for large amounts of money - which helps us see more clearly the huge even obscene levels of consumption on which developed societies depend. A broken relationship, when played backwards, is depicted as harsh, dogmatic, irrevocable words, fading back into, tenderness, tentativeness, the lightest touch on the hand - which helps us see more clearly how we often use our greatest energy for destroying people, rather than building them up. But above all what this device helps show is that the meaning of our life needs us to see the whole sequence of events. Whichever we play it, backwards or forwards, its truest meaning will not be found just in one moment, one snapshot: just one trip to the supermarket, one kiss, one angry word, isolated from the wider narrative, does not reveal enough. You and I are not just a series of disconnected moments of feeling or action, we are characters in a connected story - and it is only by seeing this connected whole that we really see what’s going on, find its meaning, see what really matters in life…
When we do this, when we see life as a connected whole, and above all if we can see it through as a whole (rather than just taking bits we want in isolation) then, I believe, we are in touch with a uniquely human capacity. It is also, potentially, a profoundly good one, because it is here we also see one of the key ingredients of real love. Agape love, after all, requires a commitment to someone, not just in disconnected moments, but through time. Love, as Paul said, is that which believes and endures through all things.
So this is what I want to say more about as the first in a series of Matins sermons in May on the great virtues of christian faith. I shall look at faith, hope, humility, and love. But beginning today with love. In particular, this love which is not just a temporary desire or erotic attraction - good and God-given as that is - but love as ‘commitment through time’: love as fidelity.
Such fidelity is not easy in our fragmented culture which values the gratification of the moment, runs scared of long stories, prefers to move quickly to new things, new relationships. But it is central to Christian faith. Its origin is in God Himself. The story of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel is the story of His fidelity: how He accompanies them through all their narrative, their slavery and release, exile and return, diaspora and reunion. The story of Jesus Christ and His Spirit then shows how this faithfulness of God is not just with Israel but with all humankind in all human experience: God shows Himself in Christ to be ‘Emmanuel’, God with us and staying with us from birth through life and death and beyond, forgiving our failure, suffering with us, picking us up again through all the changes and chances of our life. By this faithfulness God defines his own identity, and He gives meaning, and identity to us - to the whole of our lives, not just the occasional best moments. And if we too live in this image of God; if we live faithfully, stick with people, projects, institutions; if we inhabit not just the moments with them which suit us, but stay to actively work with and for them: that is how we too help create identity and meaning - both for them and for ourselves.
Such fidelity is, I believe, a critical lost icon of life: icon in the sense that Rowan Williams has used the term - that is, a basic condition for truthful, satisfying, human living, in any culture. The lost icons he pinpoints are childhood, charity, and remorse. I would add fidelity to that list. It is clearly something being lost in our pluralist, restless, consumer-driven, society. And where we can recover it - in our friendships, partnerships, our allegiances of work, church, neighbourhood - it is clearly something of extraordinary healing power. It will help heal both ourselves and society as a whole, where so many are stressed and broken by these pressures to live only for disconnected, momentary, experiences and relationships.
Of course, some might say this is just a typically reactionary christian call to turn a tide: not only unrealistic but wrongheaded. And it could be. A call to faithfulness understood as blind loyalty can be just a strategy to serve only those who benefit from the status quo. It can be abused as moral blackmail to lock someone in a destructive relationship which serves only one party. Women especially have suffered from this. It can be misused to fossilize an institution in misplaced loyalties to outmoded practices: a dead weight to stop all change. Both employers and employees have suffered from this. Some relationships do have to end. But they are not the kind of faithfulness I’m talking of. This divine model, God’s faithfulness, is not blind loyalty, passive fidelity: it is active fidelity, staying with people by responding and changing with them, it is a long-term relationship which is liberating, not imprisoning. Creative fidelity, as French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel describes it, is not just doggedly ‘being there’ but staying to share growth and change together - yet always with a core commitment to stay, not to cut and run.
It is certainly at the heart of love. Yes of course sometimes we shall fail in it, but God will not. And it is precisely His fidelity which always pick us up to try again. So it is always worth trying. And when judgement comes, when God runs our lives through in their entirety, backwards or forwards, to show clearly their full meaning, how much richer and more satisfying they will be if they have incorporated some threads of fidelity. As we have been told elsewhere: ‘Well done thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the kingdom’.