A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury, on Sunday 12 January 2020, at 10.30am Eucharist
Isaiah 42 1-9
Matthew 3: 13-end
A Decade of Solidarity
Last week Jonathan Coe’s Middle England won the Costa award for the best novel of 2019. It was described by the judges as perfect fiction for our times. Spoiler alert: the book’s plot opens in 2010 and concludes in 2018. I’ve only got as far as 2016. So: when we meet over coffee, please don’t reveal what happens in the course of the next two years.
Coe’s loyal readers have met the central characters in two of his previous novels. In Middle England one of them, Benjamin Trotter, presents his ageing father with a DVD collection of Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials. As Benjamin does so he thinks back to Christmas Day 1977 when, Coe writes, “…[Benjamin] and his family had sat down to watch these two comedians’ final show for the BBC. His grandparents had been there too, and, in laughing along with them he could remember feeling this incredible sense of oneness, a sense that the entire nation was being briefly, fugitively drawn together in the divine act of laughter. ‘Twenty-seven million people used to watch this, you know,’ he reminded his father.”
Benjamin’s longing for the lost harmony of his youth contrasts sharply with the growing public acrimony that he notes as the last decade advances, acrimony that Coe sketches with great skill. Benjamin’s recollections of the 1970s are rose-tinted nostalgia, of course. In the very next sentence of the novel his sister Lois retorts that twenty-seven million people watched Morecambe and Wise in 1977 because there were only three channels and there was nothing else to do.
The beginning of this new decade inevitably prompts reflection on the decade that has ended, the decade in which Middle England is set. We might all recognize his account of a society which has been increasingly ill-at-ease with itself. Morecambe and Wise moments have certainly been few and far between. But even in the discordant atmosphere of the last few years there have been occasions when it has been possible to discern a common popular response to a single event. One such followed the wanton destruction by the so-called Islamic State group of the ancient city of Palmyra and of the collection in the museum at Mosul. In both, ancient and priceless architecture and artefacts were blown up or hacked to pieces, first in 2015 and then in 2017. And the response in the West was of profound shock. There was a sense that what was being attacked was not in a country far away from us, of which we knew little; instead, what was being attacked was part of humanity’s common heritage, part of humanity’s common story.
Rather bizarrely, perhaps, I hold onto that sense. For that instinctive attachment to history and that visceral revulsion at its destruction are signs of hope. I visited the superb exhibition Troy: Myth and Reality at the British Museum over Christmas. It was packed to the rafters, so busy that it was tricky to navigate the route around the galleries and almost impossible to read the captions on the exhibits. I looked at objects of enormous antiquity and staggering beauty and recalled through them a narrative that somehow belongs to us all. As did visitors to Palmyra and Mosul in former days. And that’s what I’m trying to put my finger on. I suspect that that sense of belonging is a lingering trace of one of the most neglected and overlooked virtues of our faith. It’s called solidarity; it’s a refusal to understand the other or behave towards the other as though it were other.
The Baptism of Christ, recorded by all four Evangelists, really put the wind up the early Church. St Matthew is very clear that John offers baptism for the forgiveness of sins. So what in heaven’s name, asked our forebears, was Jesus doing, submitting to such a baptism? In scratching their heads and asking that question they asked the same question that, in Matthew’s account, John the Baptist asks: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
But Jesus answers the question head-on. His baptism at John’s hands will “…fulfil all righteousness”. His baptism will accord with God’s will for him, God’s will as articulated by the prophets of ancient Israel. We’ve heard read this morning Isaiah speaking of God’s chosen one. One in whom God’s soul delights, one upon whom God’s spirit will be put. In submitting to John’s baptism God’s choice is made plain, God’s delight is expressed, and God’s spirit is seen to descend. The Son is baptized because the Father wills that he should be baptized, and in the Son’s baptism the Father declares his solidarity with his creation. God throws in his lot with the world that he has made and the people whom he loves. He is one of them; he is one with them; their baptism is his baptism; he holds nothing back.
This is the season of The Epiphany, or, The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, as the Book of Common Prayer expresses it. And the Christ who is made manifest at his baptism is the scandalous Christ of solidarity: a Christ who chooses to belong among us, whatever the cost. We are at the beginning of a new decade. We have renewed threats to humanity’s historic culture ringing in our ears. The call to you and me is surely to rediscover the same solidarity with one another that God has demonstrated with us.
Twenty-seven million people will never watch Morecambe & Wise on Christmas Day ever again; in 2019 Gavin & Stacey could not muster half that figure. Lois Trotter is right: there are more channels and there are more things to do. But there is still only one planet, beautiful, and vulnerable; there is still only one human race, brilliant, and fragile. We breathe the same air, we gaze at the same sky, we fear and laugh and love and die beneath it. And there is still only one God, constant and unchanging. In him are all our origins, in him are all our destinies.
If the last decade was about our proving to one another just how wonderfully diverse we are, perhaps the next one needs to be about remembering how very similar we are. Ultimately there is no them and us. There is only us. At the River Jordan God immerses himself in the deep water of the human experience. God has kept faith with us: black, white, rich, poor, young, old, remainer, leaver, straight, gay, northerner, southerner, American, Iranian, Briton. What can we do but keep faith with one another? To paraphrase Jonathan Coe, it’s time to draw together in the divine cause of solidarity. Amen.