A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 7 March 2021, The Third Sunday of Lent, Choral Evensong, 4:30pm
Exodus 5:1-6:1 and Philippians 3:4b-14
Please scroll down to watch the video recording of this sermon.
Last week, I received a Christmas present. Like many families in these Covid times, my sister and I didn’t end up seeing each other before Christmas to exchange presents as planned, and it’s only these last couple of weeks that we finally got round to posting them to each other. My sister knows me well, and she knew that I would be very excited to receive a new memoir written by the popular children’s TV presenter and entertainer, Timmy Mallett. She was right! For some reason, stashed away with old school certificates, I still have a signed photo of Timmy Mallett that we both queued up together to get in our local shopping centre, when I was 10 and my sister was 8, in 1987. The book, which is called Utterly Brilliant, one of Mallett’s catchphrases from his hit TV programme Wacaday from the 80s and 90s, has been a perfect blend of nostalgia and comfort reading for this point in lockdown. I remember watching Wacaday with my siblings in the holidays at my grandparents’ house- and the book was just like I remember the programme being- full of innocent child-friendly gags and fizzing with energy. And of course, like the programme, it features appearances from Timmy’s infamous stuffed pink and yellow toy mallet that he used to bop people on the head with in the game Mallett’s mallet.
Interwoven with all the humour and reminiscences, the book does also have a serious point to it. Mallet is a painter as well as DJ and entertainer, and a keen cyclist. He decided to cycle the whole way from home to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, taking all his art equipment with him to paint what he saw along the way. His inspiration was his older brother Martin. Martin had Down’s syndrome and sadly died shortly before Mallet set off on his journey, seeking a blessing from local priest as he did so. The journey was often arduous- such as the 28 kilometre stretch cycling up the Pyrenees, or facing torrential rains and winds on the forbidding mountain after the Spanish city of Pamplona known as the Alto del Perdon- the Hill
of Forgiveness. But he feels Martin close by him in his heart as he heads further into the gale. He keeps stating throughout that, despite all the broken chains, punctures, getting drenched and exhaustion, his goal is to “reach his potential” just as Martin did in his life. Getting through to the end gives him a feeling of satisfaction and achievement.
“What is the point of being out in these conditions?” he asks at the Hill of Forgiveness, “I suppose,” he answers himself, “so that I can appreciate the blue-sky days that will come. Light and shade, summer and winter, sunshine and gales. Got to have one to appreciate the other.” In many ways, the book is a journey through grief. There are spiritual highs and lows, glimpses of the infinite and moments of being utterly despondent and completely exhausted. “The Camino gets into you,” he writes, “It’s like a metaphor for your life” (p.149).
Reaching our potential- spiritually speaking- is very much the theme of our second reading this evening from Philippians this evening. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” We don’t know exactly where Paul was when he wrote these words- he might have been in Rome, or maybe Ephesus. And he might have been in prison. We don’t know much either about the people he was writing to- no more, really, than we can gather from the letter itself. But what does seem clear is that they were enduring some form of persecution because of their faith. Paul writes to them to encourage them to keep going and to persevere. Christ Jesus has made you his own: these are words that are spoken over each of us at the moment of baptism and confirmation. In response to this heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus, Paul urges the Philippian Christians, at this point where they feel dejected and discouraged, to keep pressing on towards the goal and to make it their own. Paul explains, through his own personal experience, how he has come to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, through sharing his sufferings and becoming like him in his death. Paul wants only to be conformed to Christ. He hasn’t reached the goal yet, but he sets his mind on this prize, urging others to do the same.
We may not be facing persecution. But it does feel like we are in an extended endurance test just now. Lockdown, we are discovering this time round, “is not a sprint”. Despite the millions of vaccinations, and the roadmap, this pandemic is feeling increasingly, as an article I read recently put it, like “a marathon, followed by another marathon, followed by another. Or trudging for miles and miles across the desert for day after day. Or sailing alone around the world, battling storms and loneliness.” In such a situation, “how do [we] keep going?”
One answer lies in keeping our motivation. Motivation is important, whether it’s planning something for the end of the pandemic; or just talking with family and friends- reminding ourselves of that everyday interaction that we miss, and that one day will surely return. Clearly for Timmy Mallett, it was the memory of his brother that gave him strength and stopped him giving up in the tough moments of his cycling challenge, as well as the blessings and prayers of others along the way. That motivation kept moving him forwards, driving himself to fulfil his potential. If Martin reached his potential in life, so could he.
“There is always going to be something to learn, something I can do better in every walk of my life,” writes solo round-the-world sailor, Pip Hare: “That’s what drives me on, understanding not who you are but who you want to be.” Going outside every day, getting some natural light, “do[ing] something positive for yourself…that you can feel proud of”: these, for her, are the lockdown equivalents. “Keep in contact with people, not just for you but for them” she says.
For Paul, too, it’s the wider community who keep our spirits up, other Christian believers in the body of Christ, the Church, who- though they can’t believe for us- do help stop our faith being a lonely struggle in barren times. The company of others, “the great cloud of witnesses,” as another New Testament writer puts it, continues to support and sustain us, even if they are not physically present with us, as Paul was not present with the Philippians and writing to them from jail. “Join in imitating me,” he writes in the passage immediately after this one, “and observe those who live according to the example you have in us….and the God of peace will be with you.”
Reaching our potential during lockdown sounds like a tall order. Yet we can still keep on learning, and we can still keep on giving, and planning. When the pandemic
is over, we won’t be the same person as we are now; we will have been changed by the experience, just like any person who runs a marathon or cycles across a continent or sails solo around the world learns something from enduring the seemingly unendurable. For Paul, endurance comes ultimately not from our own efforts, but from faith in the grace and heavenly call of Jesus Christ that we have received, and that spurs us on and gives us the strength we need: so, in the words of Paul, “Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.”