‘I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see; I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother, and I found all three.’
The Reverend Dr Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar
Sunday, 19th August 2018 at 6:30 PM
Last Sunday, people gathered in Bunhill Fields, a burial site in North London, for the unveiling of a gravestone that marks the resting place of William Blake, poet and illustrator, anarchist and dissenter. His poem, Jerusalem, which many regard as the unofficial national anthem of the English, speaks of ‘dark satanic mills’, a reference to the early Industrial Revolution and its destruction of nature and human relationships. Or was it? There are others who suggest that Blake used this sinister image to satirise the established Church which he believed was complicit in its maintenance of an unjust social order and iniquitous class system. If that is correct, it is strange irony that in Poets’ Corner of this Church of England Abbey, there is a life-size bust of the man himself inscribed ‘William Blake 1757-1827’.
Although Blake’s radical, some might say heretical, re-interpretation of Christianity shocked many of his day, his was a faith which affirmed the importance of everyone in society in the struggle for community and human progress: a faith encapsulated in some verse he allegedly wrote: ‘I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see; I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother, and I found all three.’ Surrounded by the poverty and oppression of this capital city where he spent most of his life, Blake wrote poems of protest, resistance and empowerment. In one, entitled London, Blake imagines himself, like the biblical prophet Ezekiel, walking the streets of Jerusalem spying people disfigured with ‘marks of weakness and marks of woe’, caused by poverty, injustice, hypocritical social convention and the stranglehold of emerging capitalism. This was what he called the ‘mind forg'd manacles’ of cultural conformity which prevented people achieving their potential. Blake was a visionary but no campaigner; a critical observer but not an activist.
Tomorrow, in its liturgical calendar, the Church of England recalls the life of another maverick, born after Blake, but who, like Blake, drew attention to the deprivation suffered by those living in urban poverty. The difference was that this other maverick actively sought ways to bring change to those lives. He, too, has a place in this Abbey, in St George’s Chapel, where the inscription beneath his sculptured bust reads: William Booth, Founder and First General of the Salvation Army 1829-1912.
Being the maverick he was, Booth fell out with several churches preferring the unfettered life of a travelling preacher evangelising wherever it took him: Wales, Cornwall and the Midlands. Accompanied by his wife Catherine, herself an accomplished preacher, it was an invitation to Catherine to preach at an event in London that brought them to the city where, in time, they launched the East London Christian Mission. Progress was slow. The Mission lacked sufficient funds, a clear statement of doctrine and organisation, so William Booth did what today might be called ‘product rebranding’: he established the Salvation Army with himself as the General. It was not intended to be an instrument for social change, only evangelism, but a growing awareness that extreme poverty was an obstacle to evangelism led to an expansion of its pioneering social initiatives. During the 1880s The Salvation Army established drop-in centres, food banks and a women’s refuge in Whitechapel. For Booth, ‘While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight; while little children go hungry, I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight.’
His words resonate with the parable we heard a moment ago: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Words spoken by a King, our King, Christ the King for Jesus knew hunger, thirst, exclusion, nakedness, sickness and imprisonment: hunger when in the wilderness he was offered a stone to turn into bread: thirst on the cross when a sponge soaked in vinegar was put to his mouth; excluded when returning home to Nazareth the villagers throw him out; sick in Gethsemane when his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground; and imprisoned while the religious and civil authorities questioned him before his execution. What Jesus is saying by way of this parable is simple: if you know anyone sick or hungry or homeless or in prison, that is where you will find me. God comes to us naked in the guise of one who is hungry, sick, homeless and a prisoner and yet we do little.
Perhaps it is the enormity of the task. Which one of us has the influence of someone like Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General who died yesterday and was instrumental in formulating the Millennium Development Goals: to eradicate extreme poverty; to achieve universal primary education; to promote gender equality and empower women; to reduce child mortality; to improve maternal health; to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; to ensure environmental sustainability; to develop a global partnership for development. Despite his influence, eighteen years on the results are at best mixed. Where, then, does that leave us?
Undoubtedly still washing feet, for no matter how small an act of loving kindness may be, it is the proper response of God’s people. However, the theologian, Sam Wells, draws us in another direction. He suggests that although dressing up our response to human distress in the clothing of review committees, strategy teams, research projects, and professional roles – even Millennium Development Goals – does have its place, the danger is that we are concealing our own nakedness which we fear might be revealed when we encounter the raw distress of the other person. We want to come before the judgement seat clothed in our achievements, our professionalism, our possessions, our discrete distance. Yet Jesus sees through all that clothing, and sees us naked as the day on which we were born. ‘When did we see you naked?’ we might ask. His reply? ‘That moment when you stood before or beside the least of my brothers and sisters, and realized, however painfully, that you were just as naked before me as they are.’ As the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us: ‘all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.’ (Hebrews 4:13) Should our nakedness leave us fearful?