The Revd Brutus Green
There is a story told about a convent in which there was a woman who dressed in rags and lived off crumbs while helping with work in the kitchen. All the nuns was disgusted by her and ignored her, refusing her company and taking swipes at her when she was in the way. In the meantime an angel appeared to a holy monk Piteroum who lived in a nearby monastery. “Why do you have a good opinion of yourself?”, asked the angel (as angels do), “because of your religion and where you live? Go to the convent and you will find a woman in rags. She is better than you. While contending with the crowd she has never turned her heart from God, whereas you, staying here, stray widely in your thoughts.”
The old man who had never left the monastery went to the convent and being old and famous they let him in and they all gathered to meet him. But he said to them “one of you is missing.” They told him that they had an idiot in the kitchen and he asked them to bring her over. The woman refused but they forced her because Father Piteroum was of such great renown. When he saw her he fell to his knees and said, “Bless me Mother”. She likewise dropped at his feet and said, “You bless me, Lord.” The nuns tried to intervene telling him not to be offended because she was an idiot. Piteroum replied “You are the idiots for she is for me and for you our Mother - our spiritual guide; and I pray that I may be found worthy of her on the day of judgement.” At this the nuns all wept and confessed how they had abused her, beating her, throwing dish water on her, insulting her. The monk prayed for them and left. Overwhelmed by the new esteem and affection and demands for pardon, the so-called idiot fled the nunnery and was never seen again.
This story tells us that wisdom is hidden. It is surprising. It is an interruption.
The place where we normally expect wisdom is in the old man, the Father, the famous monk. He, though, is just a supporting character. Having had a democratically engaging week you might alternatively think that wisdom is to be found in crowds - though some of you will equally be cursing their folly! - but again the crowd here is shown to be most foolish. Greatness, instead, is found in the weak, poor nun - she surpasses them all, in her life of patient suffering. The wisdom, however, is found in the crowd realising their own poverty, their cruelty - they see in her a mirror of their own wicked souls. The lesson having been learned, the figure of wisdom disappears, and it is a mark of wisdom that you cannot hang on to it; it needs to be learned again and again. Familiarity breeds contempt. Complacency makes idiots of us all.
It’s a good story for this Easter season because Easter tells the same sort of story. The resurrection - regardless of what we tell children - is not like Spring, like flowers appearing every April. The story of the resurrection overturns our usual expectations: death really isn’t the end. Being celebrated, with the in crowd, pious or powerful is not what God looks for; God is not shown in majesty and triumph; and God is not some bully standing at the end of the line with a cane ready to put us over his knee. Christ is like the nun living among us, mocked and beaten but not judging. He is hidden. He is surprising. He is an interruption. The resurrection overturns our expectations because the world suddenly sees that God lives in poverty and suffering, patiently loving to the end. To experience God in this way is to be surprised - it is to accept that God’s values are not what we expect.
Not long ago the vicar was travelling off on holiday - much like this weekend - when the plane ran into some trouble and seemed like coming down. Someone yelled out, “For God’s sake someone do something religious!” Quick as a flash Steve leapt up and began taking a collection.
Whatever you may think Steve was steadfastly demonstrating the Christian virtue of hope. In spite of all odds he assumed that taking a collection would still be worthwhile.
Our long Old Testament reading shows the same sort of thing. It is a story full of enigmas. Immediately we are plunged into the story: ‘God tested Abraham’. But how little detail - where does this conversation take place? Is he praying? How is the command given? What does Abraham feel? The story is absolutely bare; we just have facts. Then there is the three days journey - of which we are told nothing - of Abraham’s fear, uncertainty, dread, conflict at this command to kill his own beloved son. The characters are almost featureless as the story unfolds and finally the angel stays Abraham’s hand. It’s like watching a film on mute.
Behind the story though is a terrible tension between Abraham believing God’s promise that he will be a father to many nations and God’s command to kill his only son. The story carries this tension fraught with emotion but told in the barest most minimalist fashion. There is no doubt that the writer believed this story to be true. It is one of the most fundamental stories for Jews and Christians. But he also intends the story to be lived in - for his contemporaries to live in the relationship between Abraham and God; to, like Abraham, trust in the promise of God through any crisis. Whatever feeling is aroused in imagining that 3 day journey to Moriah - whether anger, bitterness, fear, insecurity, grief - that finds equal footing in our own present journey as we deal with the absurdities and grievances of day to day life. It is permitted by the story. The story is open enough to accept our own details. We walk with Abraham this difficult three day road - torn between the problems of our worlds and our trust in God. The promise of God is that God will not leave us and that the angel of the Lord stands by. In the light of the resurrection, the promise is that nothing can separate us from the love of God, in whom we have eternal life.
But this is surprising. We often don’t really believe it. Our hearts are usually more expectant of tragedy than comedy. They tell us that really the dagger fell and the angel was a myth. It takes hope to believe in the promise of God; to believe that in poverty and suffering, God is there. That he is hidden. That he is surprising. That he is an interruption.
I was in the Picasso museum in Malaga last week. There was an observation that Picasso painted like a child sees the world. He said himself that ‘All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.’ You can see this in some of the cartoonish figures with enormous faces, hands, and breasts, distortions that reflect the short-sighted brand new vision and hungry desires of a small child. But this is also true of adults. We see in movement - more impressionistically than realistically, more like Picasso’s distorted figures than quick firing camera stills - driven by our own multi-faceted needs and desires. Here too then is something hidden. Something that our own expectations, egocentricity and longings stampede over. What are we seeing when we meet someone? Someone who we can serve or someone who can serve us? Are we arrested by a beautifully made-up face and a low-cut top, or do we notice the shaking hand, the bruises on the arm? As Picasso also said: “To see, that is what is difficult, we see at times rarely. We look without seeing.” God is hidden. God is surprising. God is an interruption.
The Iona community in the North of England had two chalices made. It was given to an agnostic to decide upon the inscription made on one of the chalices. He settled for “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” - Friend, why have you come - the final words of Jesus to Judas as he is betrayed - as a reminder for all whose lips kiss the cup at communion to look again and see our own swipes and insults at the hidden God; an interruption at the very moment of sacrifice.
But the story of Abraham and Isaac goes beyond this. Noah and the ark is a story about Noah’s fidelity but it is also an unassailable assurance that even if the world is entirely consumed by water or fire, it is not because of God’s anger. God cannot contravene his own promise. Similarly our story today is an injunction against child sacrifice, and a reminder that at every moment we must be alive to the surprising work of God, and an openness to the call of God for mercy. Idiots that we are, our lives depend upon it.
So we come now to Pearl’s baptism - a little moment of interruption in her life and her family’s - like the Eunuch leaping out of the carriage for his baptism we may hope that you may later go on your way rejoicing. And abiding in the true vine, we hope your family enjoys its fruit! Baptism is a reminder that we have passed through the waters of death into life. It is a reminder of that interruption hidden in the midst of life, the surprise of God’s unalterable redeeming love for each of us. And Pearl is a sign of this for us - like the parable, a pearl of great price for which the merchant sold all that he had to purchase it. The inestimable gift of life. A fresh way of seeing the world that might remind us of some of the wonder and fun that is around us, and an interruption - perhaps sometimes quite a frequent one - but an interruption which is a source and response of love. Amen.