The Chaplains’ Event taking place all this week, Exploring Faith, is an event that used to be called ‘The Chaplains’ Mission’. In essence, this week’s talks are also a mission in that the audience will consist of Christians and non-Christians, those looking for faith and those who are sceptical. The main headline speakers of any mission have always formed the backbone of the initiative, but there are also often fringe events that one can enjoy. A few years ago one such fringe offering was an exhibition in the Wesley Memorial Church. There was a single work in the exhibition, which was an amazing art installation by Paul Hobbs called ‘Holy Ground’. It consisted of a large, circular Hessian mat littered with stones. In the centre there was a beautiful sculpture of silver metal, which twisted and spiralled out into arms like a tree or bush. Lights were shone onto it so that it shimmered and flickered giving a representation of the burning bush. All around the edge of the mat were pairs of shoes, thirty in all and next to them was an A4 card that told you something about the owner and what it means for them to believe in Christ. Paul Hobbs had travelled around the world gathering their stories. Each one is unique, but as he writes, ‘all have encountered the living God, arriving at a place of holy ground, where, like Moses, they must, metaphorically at least, remove their shoes on acknowledgement of God’s holiness.’
One pair of shoes was that of an itinerant evangelist in Africa. His sandals were literally worn out from the many miles he had trekked to preach the gospel and escape persecution. Another were the high-heeled pink stilettos of a former prostitute who, through her faith, turned her life around and now walks the back streets of New York to care for vulnerable girls. Finally, and perhaps the most emotive of all are Rosemarie’s plain and unassuming shoes. Her father had been Hitler’s bodyguard for the 1936 Olympic Games and Hitler became her Godfather. Before war broke out, her Dad, a Christian, risked his life to help persecuted Jews escape from Germany. However, in 1938 he was forced to swallow a cyanide pill for his actions. It was a deeply moving artwork and in itself created an incredible holy space in our city and in the lives of those who entered into and encountered it.
In this evening’s reading from the thirteenth Canto of Dante’s Purgatory, the shoes of the poets Virgil tread from the first cornice of Pride and into the second Cornice, where the sin of Envy is purged. And here, the travellers hear the story of Sapia of Siena and they see the envious inhabitants, huddled with their backs against a wall and their eyes, gruesomely sown up with wire so that they cannot see. Like all the sins to be cleansed in Purgatory, or roots of sin as I mentioned in my introductory sermon two week ago, Envy is a sin of desire, a distorted kind of love: either too much, too little or perverted in some way. Envy is all about looking, and desiring to have what you do not have. This is why the envious in the story have their eyes sown up, because their envious looking was the root of all their sinful deeds: their resentment of others wealth, power, possessions or lifestyle, so that their existence was given over to the acquisition of more status and money and things, to keep up with the Joneses, whilst the virtuous and healthy path of being grateful for what one has, and helping others who are less fortunate, is lost in one selfish act after another. Envy is never satisfied, because there is always someone who appears to have just that bit more and every acquisition just leads to a greater desire for the next item.
Therefore, in a world dominated by media advertising that constantly tells us we don’t yet have what we need to by truly stylish, or happy, we are conditioned, if we are not careful, into thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side, or to use another metaphor, the journey we are travelling is not as good as the other persons. I don’t want to be in my shoes, I’d rather be in you shoes. It is very much a 21st century sin. Envy can also be that resentful spirit that says, ‘It’s all right for you, you don’t have to out up with the problems that I have to put up with. If I had a better set of circumstances, then I would be happy.’ Again the envious heart has a kind of blindness, because it fails to look properly at the world, it fails to acknowledge others’ harships whilst exaggerating its own.
The letter of James tells us that ‘where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness’, but there is an antidote to envy, which we can all self administer on a daily basis. It is gratitude. Gratitude for the shoes that we have walked in on our pilgrimage so far, and gratitude for the places those shoes have taken us, and the people we have known along the way. Gratitude too, that our shoes will eventually take us to the ends of our life, where our journey will end with love, the love of God. This gratitude is itself a gift from above and James calls it ‘Wisdom’ that is pure and peaceable, gentle and willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits and it leads to generosity, impartiality and an end to hypocrisy. Envy brings division, but a grateful and generous heart brings peace to all.
I wonder, if we were to leave our shoes in that art exhibit of Paul Hobbs, and leave the A4 card with our story on it, whether it would be a story of a life gratefully and generously lived. May God give us the strength to walk such a path, for it has been generously given to us to walk it, and cannot be trod by anybody else but ourselves.
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Arnold
30th January 2011