Judith Walker-Hutchinson Sermon - 19th August 2018

So it’s August, it’s holiday time, the organist is away and the vicar is away and before he left he asked us to do something a bit different for this week which ironically when we have spent the last few weeks hearing readings that have a distinctly Eucharistic message he also decided should be a service of the Word -  so we thought we’d introduce some elements of Taize worship. Some of you may know what Taize is and some of you may not, or at least think you do not. You will almost certainly have come across one of the most familiar aspects of Taize - its music. Chants - simple repeating refrains featuring words and phrases from the Psalms and Gospels like ‘Oh Lord hear my prayer’ have become staples in most Church of England churches and indeed around the world.

But Taize is more than its music. 

Taize is a village in the Burgundy region of France and it is home to an ecumenical Christian monastic community. The original house was bought in 1940 by a reformed Protestant Swiss national named Roger Schutz. Brother Roger as he later became known began offering hospitality to refugees and many who were seeking to flee across the border to neutral Switzerland. It wasn’t long of course before his work came to the attention of the Gestapo who occupied the house forcing Roger to flee. He later returned to establish a small, initially Protestant monastic group of friends. So far so largely unremarkable but in the years that followed the Taize community grew -  phenomenally.  The church at the heart of Taize is called the Church of Reconciliation but the growth of the community as a place of pilgrimage was down to much more than the evident need for reconciliation after WWII. Refusing to define themselves by established church categories or to in any sense be classed as a new church, Taize grew into a manifestation of Bro. Roger’s vision of an undivided church and what started as a Protestant community quickly became completely ecumenical including Roman Catholic, Lutheran and nonconformist brethren of many different nationalities speaking and worshipping in many different languages, living and working under simple rule...

What we’re having today isn’t a Taize service as such, there would be subdued lighting, only lots of small candles around and icons - lots of icons. Taize is very visual as well as musical reflecting the idea that we worship with our whole being. Also you wouldn’t have the relative comfort of the pew, there are a few benches at Taize but mostly people sit on the floor or even lie down.  

Pilgrimage to Taize isn’t exactly a comfortable luxury hotel break either. Pilgrims join the community for a week or so at a time committing to prayer, meetings, meals, silence and tasks that begin early and end late. The accommodation is basic, very basic, and so is the food and people are discouraged from leaving the community in order to enjoy the finer aspects of French hospitality. It is a is not a place to which you turn up and take away, you turn up and become part.

So it may therefore surprise many of you that apart from the ecumenism and internationalism of Taize a defining feature is its appeal to the young. At Taize itself well over 100,000 under 30s attend retreat every year. When I was in ministerial training a Taize brother came to England and the turnout amongst the undergraduate student population in Durham was astonishing.

But before we run away with the idea that Taize is some kind of spiritual utopian hippy commune version of Glastonbury that has nothing to do with everyday living, let me bring you back down to earth. The Taize community see themselves as a pivotal part of both church and society today and hence their concern with the young, whom Roger believed we should not simply look upon as the church of tomorrow because they are here right now, part of the ‘real’ world in which we all live. 

Being part of the so-called real world was shockingly brought home to the heart of Taize in 2005 with the news that the then 90-year-old brother Roger had been murdered, stabbed to death during evening worship. Of course parallels were immediately drawn with Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and other martyred Christian leaders the murder of whom is seen even for many Christians as an unforgivable act… crime of the worst possible kind.

Today’s Gospel reading presaged the worst crime possible, the murder of the Son of God.

However you look at it this passage makes uncomfortable reading. Jesus speaks 4 times in rapid succession of the necessity of eating his flesh,  if taken literally, a highly offensive notion then and now, but rather than explaining it away he tells us we must drink his blood too. 

The metaphor for eating flesh and drinking blood was used in the old Testament for slaughter and utter desolation (see Ezekiel chapter 39 and Isaiah chapter 49), so it’s clear that taken as a metaphor it presupposes Jesus’ violent death, his sacrificial giving of his life, his very flesh, for the sake of the world, for our sake.  Jesus himself says earlier in chapter 4 v 34 “my food… is to do the will of him who sent me.” And today’s reading verse 57 says “the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” So the soft interpretation was and often still is, that as long as we believe, we will gain everlasting life,  So faith is a no-brainer really, we might as well take Pascal’s Wager, we might as well believe, purely as a bet you’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.

But how deep does our Christianity run?  Do we really just want to cherry pick the bits that make us feel comfortable? 

Re-reading those 2 verses again together ch 4 v34 and today’s verse 57 Jesus says “my food… is to do the will of him who sent me”… “I live because of the father – so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.”

Whatever else it might be about it is clearly also about our relationship to Jesus corresponding to Jesus’s own relationship to God. Just as it is Jesus’ food to do the divine will of the Father, our divine work is to do Jesus’ will. Faith involves discipleship and just like a pilgrimage to Taize, that is not about turning up and taking, but about turning up and becoming part - not an isolated and isolationist project - come here, receive communion, accept Jesus death for us  - “very nice of you Lord, thanks very much I’ll take that”- and then go on our way. Our task as disciples is to be prepared to follow His way. Not necessarily to become martyrs for him  - realistically it is unlikely we would be called upon to test our faith to that degree, and a good thing too, but what isn’t so good is that we have become so cosy in our Christianity in 21st-century Britain that we don’t even like to be discomfited for God, even if it means just sitting on a cushion or singing a different song.

In John’s gospel it is the prospect of actual death that brings deep meaning to the words “I will raise him up on the last day” so perhaps the prospect of discomfort might just raise our lives up from a kind of boring Anglican mediocrity.

Do we truly believe the Word - are all things possible with God - even forgiveness of the worst imaginable crime?

You may be aware that the Pope recently ruled on a change to the catechism which means that to be Roman Catholic is to believe that the death penalty is not acceptable anywhere under any circumstances. I heard Sister Helen Prejean speaking about what this would mean in America where she has long campaigned against capital punishment (it was she whom the female lead in the film ‘Dead Man Walking’ was based upon) and what she said was really insightful of the way we live our Christian lives in the West today, she said - “Christians are good at compartmentalising - so state governors will have no problems disengaging from Pope Francis’ ruling and simply ignoring it in everyday life, nothing will change until we all change.” 

And here is my link to what I think is the deep meaning of Jesus’ words in the gospel today - to eat his flesh and drink his blood, ingesting the very presence of Jesus into our very being, so that we live not just turn up, as Christians, is how the light of God will burn bright in the world today.

Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and Roger Schutz may be beacons of faith, by comparison we may just be tiny tea lights - candles of faith - but not only do lots and lots of tea lights together create a really bright light, unless we do that, normal everyday people like you and me trying our best to be good in the ‘real’ world, then the message that the young in our country will continue to hear about the church is just that of the controversies that hit the media - the abuse, the prejudice, bigotry even, of a minority and that means to many who do not yet know Jesus that we might as well be as alien as flesh eating monsters.  And if we are alien how can Jesus be familiar and then where is hope in the face of despair?

In a letter he wrote in 1993, Brother Roger said

“However murky and opaque you’re being, the humble, the quite humble trusting of faith wafts through you like a breath of life. When darkness and doubts challenge you, keep them at arms length. Often they are only gaps of unbelief, nothing more… The holy spirit prepares in you reorientation of mind and heart… conversion.” ...he goes on …“What does that mean? What God asks of you above all is to surrender yourself to Christ and to welcome his love. All God can give is his love. And what discoveries! His love becomes tangible. Burning in the soul it sets you on fire, even to the point of forgetting yourself. It animates the inexhaustible goodness of the human heart.”

It seems to me that never since brother Roger first bought that house in Taize in 1940 has there been a greater need to animate that inexhaustible goodness that is Jesus within each and everyone of us. Come holy spirit, come. Amen

Revd Judith Walker-Hutchinson