Lent 4 – Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 14th March 2021

Numbers 21.4-9; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21

This coming week sees the anniversary of the first Coronavirus lockdown – that moment when the full seriousness and far-reaching effect of the pandemic burst upon our consciousness, and we were plunged into a new unpredictability. No doubt there will be much written to help us reflect and assess where this year has left us, individually and collectively. It’s been a year where much has been stripped away: a process that has often exposed previous vulnerabilities and fault lines. That stripping away has left many anxious and facing huge challenges. For others, aspects of that stripping away have been strangely welcome: revealing in fresh ways what is essential and necessary to life. We have discovered the value of public service and the caring professions; the previously overlooked have found themselves, at times, clapped as heroes. And none of us has been left un-marked, un-touched by the isolation from others, and the fragmentation of our previous life.

Many years ago, as I tried to prepare myself to become a parent, I read a book by Melissa Benn about motherhood. She reflected on the strange paradoxes involved in leaving behind the world of work and being plunged into the new topsy-turvy world of looking after a child; how that was incredibly hard, not least in undermining self-confidence and a previous sense of identity given by work or achievements. As a society – certainly politicians, and in the church – we talk a lot about family and its importance; but that talk often doesn’t recognise the experience, in this new role, of suddenly becoming invisible, undervalued and unappreciated, whilst drowning under the weight of the repetitive, mind-draining cycle of caring. That loss of a previous identity is true of motherhood (and can be, though less often I think, of fatherhood) but is also true of those who suddenly have to drop everything and care for other relatives. Melissa Benn beautifully captured that move into a much less clear world, where our sense of self feels much less secure. She writes: “All that we held solidly dear from the old life melts into air; the ever-renewable sentence that begins with ‘I want’, ‘I plan’, ‘I intend’ now becomes hopelessly entangled with, lost within, the compass of this creature whose tiny hand opens and closes with all the slow definite beauty of a flower.”

I was reminded of that quote as I reflected on this past year, when all that we held solidly dear has melted into air; when the ever-renewable sentence that begins with ‘I want’ or ‘I plan’, or ‘I intend’ is no longer straightforward. Now of course, in the case of motherhood, the slow definite beauty of the tiny hand that Melissa Benn also talks about, provides some compensations: motherhood is not just about the loss of identity previously provided by work and the relationships and networks and sense of self found there. But that gift of the slow definite beauty of a child, needs nurturing, needs a community in which it can gain wider recognition and flower. The isolation of motherhood is often acute – the sense that others don’t understand that strange mixture of loss and gain. And the same is true for many of us in the journey we have taken in this past year – into an isolation where it is difficult to articulate the strange mixture of loss and gain we feel.

Losing one’s identity and finding it rebuilt, lies at the heart of the Christian journey. In today’s reading from John we were given the image of Moses setting up the serpent in the wilderness for the healing of the people bitten by snakes – they are healed by staring at that which threatens them. John suggests that Christ becomes the serpent upon whom we gaze for our healing. For John Christ is lifted up on the cross in glorification. It is from there – that place of crucifixion – that, paradoxically, the light shines. The cross is our salvation, the moment of revelation. In John’s Gospel the resurrection narratives aren’t the moment when all is revealed as being sorted; the focus of the resurrection narratives isn’t actually on Christ per se, on the surprising coming to life of the one who had been killed. The focus is on the giving of a new identity to the disciples who had been scattered and brought low by the events of the crucifixion. And so Mary is re-named in the garden; the frightened disciples cowering behind locked doors are given the gift of peace; Thomas is lifted out of doubt into faith; Peter by the seashore finds himself forgiven and given a new identity and calling. The disciples are undone by the cross, and remade in the grace of the resurrection.

The paradox at the heart of John’s gospel, at the heart of Christianity, is that when God comes, God does not come in displays of majesty and glory, but supremely in the ignominy, the isolation, the degradation of the cross. And in making that journey to the cross, like the first disciples we are judged: ‘This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,’ says our Gospel. In our desire for security, for power, or even for a quiet life, this is what we do to love: we crucify it. And yet, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ For John, salvation is about accepting that judgement, finding our sense of self undone so that it might be rebuilt on God’s grace, God’s desire to save. To journey to the cross means beginning no longer to rely on the habitual props our ego demands – the props of prestige or achievement, of being someone; but living from grace – from the sense that all life is gift, that the most basic reality that there is, is that God so loves the world, that God loves us and names each one of us. That is our security and our wellspring, what frees us from the drive simply for financial reward, or the adulation of others: that all of life, in all its tragedy and glory, can be received and lived as God-given, can be the place of grace, the meeting place of our God of love. And the church is a community of the re-named, those who celebrate their new identity, given to us in grace – celebrate each other, not because of what we do, or where we live, but because of our God-given life, the breath of God within each, and what each is then capable of.

So if you are, like me, celebrating mothers today, either your own experience of mothering, or that of the mother who bore you, I hope that isn’t just a simple eulogising of motherhood that leaves the difficult reality of it untouched. Motherhood often does mean a letting go, or more accurately a discovery that we are undone, our sense of self undermined. Motherhood, in Melissa Benn’s phrase, is about becoming hopelessly entangled with another, with others. That becoming hopelessly entangled undermines our sense of self, it is about our interdependency with others, rather than a cherished sense of independence. That is one of the most difficult aspects of the past year: that the language of freedom in responding to the pandemic has often been about reasserting our independence, our right to do whatever we like. And not only has that proved inadequate to the challenge of the pandemic, it misunderstands what it is to be human. In our most profound experiences we discover we are hopelessly entangled with one another. The church exists as the community who are learning to receive that entanglement as grace – as the meeting place with God, the place where we are re-named and given a new identity. We belong together, called to share the burdens and the joys of that entanglement. For that building of community, not a community of the like-minded, not a community of the successful and achieving, but a community of the faithful, even in the fragmentation of this past year, thanks be to God. Amen.

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