Those of you with good memories may recall that – almost exactly twelve months ago – I stood on this spot and told you that I have only one September sermon. It’s that story that those of us who are no longer at school used to write at this time of year when we were at school, and that those of us who are still at school are perhaps having to write this very weekend. “What I Did On My Summer Holiday”.
It’s September, and I’m a man of my word. Here’s the 2019 version: no elaborate sandcastles, no egregious quantities of ice-cream, not even five lengths of the pool underwater without coming up for breath. Instead I offer you three reflections: on the film of the summer that I most enjoyed; on the place that I visited in the summer that made the greatest impression; and on the book of the summer I read that I loved the most.
So. The film was ‘Yesterday’. It tells the story of Jack Malik, a failing singer-songwriter, who through freakish circumstance finds he’s the only living human being who knows of the Beatles and their music. The minds and memories of the remainder of humanity have been wiped clean of any vestigial trace of history’s greatest band (I’m disclosing some prejudices but I don’t mind). In the world of ‘Yesterday’ collective amnesia has our race in its grip and, Heaven help us, the Rolling Stones reign supreme. But while forgetting John, Paul, George and Ringo would be utterly calamitous I suspect that, after the week we’ve all lived through, a mild dose of mass forgetfulness would suit many of us rather well. If only we could close our eyes and forget…forget the rancour and bitterness, forget the scheming and plotting, forget the bizarre abnormality and total unpredictability. If only we could close our eyes and wake up in an era when referenda, deselections, and the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act were unheard of. 1969, perhaps, when men were walking on the moon, the Beatles were recording Here Comes The Sun, and most members of today’s House of Commons were crayoning garish pictures of their summer months at the seaside.
But we can’t – of course. We may believe in yesterday, we may long for yesterday, but we can only live today. Paul knows this (that’s Saint Paul the Apostle – not Sir Paul McCartney). It’s the essence of what he writes from his prison cell. Philemon has sent his slave, Onesimus, to care for his friend Paul during his captivity. But the person Paul is sending back to Philemon is no longer that same slave. Something has happened in the interim, presumably the flourishing of Onesimus’s faith in Jesus. In baptism Onesimus has become Paul’s beloved brother. Everything has changed. Philemon can no longer treat him as he used to. “Welcome him as you would welcome me” writes Paul: live in this moment, not in yesterday’s, and not in some imagined version of yesterday’s.
You and I cannot avoid or ignore these extraordinary times. We belong to them; we have played some part in creating them. We cannot just turn off our televisions, put down our newspapers, unplug our Internet connections and dream ourselves into some alternate reality. We have to live in this moment. Some call it ‘mindfulness’ although it’s the message of every mystical tradition worth its salt.
But how? How are we to live in these times? The question brings me to my book of the summer. It’s ‘Dictator’, the third instalment in Robert Harris’s wonderful Cicero trilogy. Harris attributes these words to the great orator as Julius Caesar begins his assault on the Roman Republic and its constitution. “We must be careful” Cicero tells the Senate “not to do our enemies’ work for them. To argue that to preserve our freedoms we must suspend our freedoms, that to safeguard elections we must cancel elections, that to defend ourselves from dictatorship we must appoint a dictator – what logic is this? The best way for us to show confidence in our institutions is to allow them to function normally”. When I read that last week, with every member of the family glued to the news from home despite the lure of the beach, it had (shall we say) a certain resonance. These extraordinary times do not require us to live extraordinarily. They require us to live well. That is, to live according to the values of the Kingdom of God, values that are not of our own choosing or our own devising. So Paul urges Philemon to deal generously and hospitably with the returning Onesimus; he in turn promises to deal generously and hospitably with Philemon. This is not the stuff of rocket science. “The best way for us to show confidence in our institutions is to allow them to function normally”. Normally. It’s vital. Dealing generously and hospitably, remembering that we live not among collaborators, enemies of the people, and advocates of surrender, but among our colleagues, neighbours, friends and fellow citizens. And among them we are called to live generously and hospitably, and we are called to pray for one another.
Is that all? No. The memorable place of my summer was the Mesquita in Cordoba, Spain. Built as a mosque in the eighth century and consecrated as a Christian cathedral in the twelfth it is one of the most mesmerizing buildings I have ever entered. Cloister-like aisles of double arches seem to stretch to the horizon and are an irresistible invitation to contemplation. I was particularly struck by the mihrab, which points the faithful in the direction of Mecca. It was added to the building in the late tenth century by the Caliph of Al-Andalus, Al-Hakam II. He wanted his mihrab to be decorated in the mosaic that was the particular skill of the Eastern Christian Empire of Byzantium. So he wrote to the Emperor Nikephorus Phokas and asked for his help. Nikephorus sent him not only mosaic artists but also a quantity of gold for the decorative work. What an extraordinary thing: the Christian East lending its artistic gifts to the Muslim West. Two mighty powers; two impregnable global edifices; two entirely vanished worlds.
And that’s the point: these times change. They change not only at the breakneck speed to which we have all become giddily accustomed – I fully expect that by the time I sit down Cornwall will have voted in favour of union with New Zealand and our cat will have a job in the Cabinet – but slowly and deeply and profoundly. Those things that dominate today with such scale and such force will not dominate tomorrow. Of that we can be certain.
Jesus tells the crowds that those who follow him must carry the cross. There is no other way. The crowds will have heard those words as an invitation to a certainty even greater than the mighty Roman Empire, an invitation to the most unmoveable certainty of all; as an invitation to suffering, pain and death. But we know that the way of the cross is the way of life, for beyond it lies an empty tomb. We live in these times and we must live in them well. But these times will change; and because we live in them with faith in Jesus we live in them with hope. Amen.