Sunday, 9 July 2023
John Conway, Provost
Holiness is not found in keeping ourselves pure; or necessarily doing the right thing, but in having the strength and imagination and empathy to establish and maintain relationship where there was previously none
Zechariah 9.9-12; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
In the darkest days of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the composer Shostakovitch came close to despair. Shunned by the musical establishment, who took their queue from Stalin, he lived in fear of his life, having to file away his most heartfelt music for more conducive times, forced to churn out relentlessly upbeat music in praise of a revolution and a leader that had betrayed the hopes of his generation and murdered or exiled large numbers of his friends. When his more serious music was performed it is said that the audience would often be reduced to tears: in a society where criticism was outlawed, where the rule of fear prevented you from confiding sometimes even in your closest friends, his music provided a space and an occasion for implicit criticism, an articulation of grief and futility and rage and a refusal to despair, emotions shared by many. For those with ears to hear let them hear. But such coded living took its toll; such treading of the fine line between outright criticism which would lead to death at the hands of Stalin’s secret police, and the quietism which would lead to the death of his soul, was costly. And by the 1950s Shostakovitch was close to being a broken man. The famous cellist, Rostropovitch tells of how late at night he would receive a telephone call from Shostakovitch: “Slava, Slava,” the composer would plead, using Rostropovitch’s familiar name, “immediately, you have to come to see me. Immediately, I need you to come.”
“I think to myself,” said Rostropovitch as he recalled these summons, “maybe he wants to speak about some concert coming up - because at that time we went on some small tours together. He would play the piano, and I the cello in performance of his music. So I would go to him. And he would move a chair over to his desk, and say, ‘Sit, Slava, sit.’ And then he would say, ‘Slava, now let’s just be quiet.’
“And we’d sit there not looking at each other. It was like an eternity. First of all I was still young. Can you imagine? To go without a single word for the span of 15 minutes? And then he would get up and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, Slava, for coming to see me.’ And I would go.”
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
Those words are at the heart of Jesus’ criticism of his peers, reflecting on how they have reacted to both John the Baptist, and now him. That criticism takes us to the heart of his ongoing dispute with the Pharisees, They are, after all those, who like him, seek the reform of the corrupt, tired, temple based Judaism of the time. He and the Pharisees share much, but their differences are revealed in their reaction to both John the Baptist and him: Jesus said, ‘To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
The failure of the Pharisees, of his generation, is a failure of imagination and empathy. John and Jesus are very different – it’s not that people should have chosen one over the other; it is the refusal to recognise, to get alongside, participate in the gift of each, that Jesus criticises. The religious people of Jesus’ day refused to either mourn with those who are weeping, or dance with the joyful. It is a failure of imagination – to imagine the world that John and Jesus open up for them – and of empathy – to dance and to mourn alongside the joyful and the broken-hearted.
At the heart of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees are very different conceptions of holiness. The Pharisees, in response to a dying Temple-based religion, are concerned to take faith out into people’s ordinary lives – so that it’s no longer about what you do when you go up to the Temple, up to Jerusalem, but about following God where you are, in the everyday. There is much commendable about that, but in Jesus’ eyes, their articulation of what that following of God looks like, is not radical enough. It is based on a conception of holiness as separation; we come closer to God by maintaining our purity; doing the right things where we are; keeping ourselves clean. Jesus’ whole ministry – from touching lepers, to feasting with tax collectors, to playing fast and loose with Sabbath regulations – is an insistence that holiness is found not in separation and keeping ourselves right, but in relationship and in creating community where there was previously separation. Holiness is not found in keeping ourselves pure; or necessarily doing the right thing, but in having the strength and imagination and empathy to establish and maintain relationship where there was previously none. To find God’s fellowship and communion with those previously seen as beyond it.
That dispute about holiness is not confined to an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees. Much less does it define the difference between Christianity and Judaism. The desire to find holiness, to feel that we are in the right, by defining ourselves over against others, that is a human trait found in every religion, and way of organising ourselves, and Christianity is no exception. We need constantly to hear Jesus call to holiness: a call to exercise our imagination and empathy; to establish relationship where there has been separation; to reconcile where there is division; to have the strength to overcome fear and get alongside those with whom we profoundly disagree; for then the liberating work of the transforming Spirit can be seen.
Our Gospel reading concluded with Jesus great invitation to come to him, and find in him one who will empathise with all our pain, and weariness and sorrow. And in that empathy, find our rest. That is a source of great comfort. But it is also the model of what, in the Spirit of Jesus, we are called to do; to be that empathetic presence that recognises, articulates, enters in to the world’s sorrowing and its rejoicing.
We will shortly baptise Eva into that Spirit. The promises, parents and godparent, that you will make on her behalf as part of that baptism, are not promises simply to bring her up to do the right thing, behave in particular ways, hold the right opinion; they are promises that seek to nurture the work of the transforming, relational Spirit in her. In his criticism of the Pharisees, Jesus says that it is children who call out and ask why they have failed to mourn and rejoice; and it is the wisdom given to infants, that is withheld from those who think they are wise and intelligent. Perhaps that is because many children have an active imagination, and a natural empathy – both of which tend to get driven out of them by harsh life lessons, by the process of so-called growing up. The work of the Spirit, into which we are all baptised, is to nurture, or perhaps re-discover that child-like ability to imagine what it is like to stand in the shoes of another; to recognise our common humanity as above that which divides us; to know when it is time to mourn, and when it is time to rejoice. Amen.