9th July, 2017
We have been hosting members of the youth group at the vicarage this weekend as an end of term camp. Always a pleasure having our young people around, even when it is detrimental to a good night’s sleep.
There is a funny thing that has happened to me many times in the different youth groups I have run over the last 15 years. It typically occurs when a member of the youth group has brought someone along for the first time. Normally the new person has been given a change to settle in before one of the group members says to the newcomer, “You’ll never guess what Richard does.” And sure enough the newcomer has no idea what I do. Then there is always a degree of mirth as they tell the new person that I am a priest. Time and again the newcomer is surprised and not sure how to make sense of this new information. It’s at this point that one of the young people pipes up and says something like, “It’s ok he’s not a real priest!”
I don’t entirely like being described in this way, because yes I am a real priest. However, I know what these young people are actually trying to communicate. The fun they are having is to hold up a stereotype and then to see what happens when they introduce a conflicting piece of information. In this case the stereotype is that of an idea of some kind of old fashioned priest, and the conflicting information is me. So when they say, Richard isn’t a real priest, what they are actually saying is that Richard doesn’t fit the stereotype. In a strange way it is a compliment, it’s just not a well communicated one.
What does holiness look like? While we might find it hard to articulate and answer to that question, deep down we do hold certain ideas about what holiness is. My thesaurus gives and extremely long list of synonyms for holiness that includes sanctity, divinity, godliness, saintliness, sacredness, faith, devotion, devoutness, piety, righteousness, goodness, perfection, virtue, purity, sinlessness. While a synonym is a word of similar meaning and doesn’t necessarily define the word in question, this list gives us an idea of the characteristics that we would assign to a truly holy person.
There is a great scene in what is arguably the greatest science fiction movie ever made. I am speaking of the second star wars film ever made, The Empire Strikes Back. In the scene I am thinking of, the protagonist Luke Skywalker has crash landed on a horrible swampy planet and is having a pretty bad time. To make matters worse an annoying little creature has decided to befriend him, offer all sorts of unwanted help. Luke has come to this planet in response to a dream in which a former mentor told him to seek out a great spiritual master called Yoda.
What Luke fails to realise is that this great master he is seeking is actually the annoying creature he met when he first landed on the planet. Luke’s idea of what a great teacher would be like clouds his ability to recognise that he is already in the presence of greatness.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus is complaining about the inability of some to realise when they are in the presence of holiness. First he cites the way people responded to John the Baptist. The description we have of John the Baptist earlier in the Gospel of Matthew speaks of him as wearing animal skins and living on locusts and wild honey. Jesus talks of how John didn’t eat or drink. Both descriptions point towards John being a type of ascetic, meaning that John renounced certain comforts.
Asceticism is found in many religions, because self-denial is often linked with the idea of holiness. Many different holy people have been identified as such because they have demonstrated a high degree of self-discipline in some respect. For example the Buddha is famed for having reduced his meals to a single grain of rice each day, and was so thin he could feel his back bone when placing his hand on his stomach. Even when he rejected this extreme practice his more moderate approach to enlightenment still required him to meditate for weeks at a time. In a world where many people reject the idea of being religious, self-denial in the form of dieting fads is still promoted as a virtuous type of behaviour.
To return to the gospel narrative Jesus points out that even when John lived the life of an ascetic he was not accepted as a holy person. Jesus then goes on to refer to himself. Jesus is not an ascetic, in fact he is just the opposite. Whereas John denied himself regular meals, Jesus embraced them. In fact Jesus made the sharing of a meal a central aspect of his ministry. Each meal that Jesus shared was a metaphor for the way the world should be. Jesus ate and drank with anyone and everyone, and clearly enjoyed doing so, which is why people failed to recognise his ministry as holy. Eating and drinking with outcasts…it doesn’t sound like the behaviour of a saintly, pious, righteous Godly person does it?
Last weekend we concluded our winter study series looking at the history of Jerusalem. It’s a challenging topic, because when history is told it typically draws our attention to all the worst aspects of human behaviour. Jerusalem has been the site of many barbarous acts ranging from human sacrifice to numerous acts of genocide. To sift through that history can lead us to a place of utterly despairing at so much human made misery.
And yet, Jerusalem has been and is still affirmed as a place of great holiness. I know that for all the challenges I encountered when visiting that place a year ago, I still had the experience of growing closer to God by simply being there. What this tells us is that holiness is not a pure state that exists beyond the difficulties of life, rather it is bound up with all that we might experience and is there to be discovered in the nitty gritty of real life.
At Easter last year I told a version of a Jewish wisdom story that I discovered under the title of Gathering Sparks. It’s worth touching on that story again, because it helps us to understand the place of holiness in our everyday lives.
Essentially the story is that at the beginning of time God sent forth a great vessel of light. The vessel was destined for earth and had it reached us all would have been perfect. But the vessel was fragile and shattered into a billion sparks of light before it reach us. Some of that sparks formed the stars and the sun. But some of them fell to earth and we can find them. Each time you do something kind or love another person or care for our planet, another spark is found and is restored to that great vessel of light. If we find enough of these sparks one day that great ship of light will be restored and there will be peace on earth.
This is a story for children, but a story that seeks to express an ancient part of the Jewish Tradition. Tikkun Olam is a centuries old Jewish concept that suggests that each person has a part to play in improving our world. To put that another way, the story suggests that by seeking to touch holiness in our everyday lives, holiness will not remain hidden, rather it will transform all of our lives for the better.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant