Sermon, Rt. Rev'd Timothy Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, 20 October 2013

Worcester College, Oxford: 20 October, 2013


“Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts” John 166



Woody Allen’s most recent film “Blue Jasmine” is not one to see when life is getting you down.  It’s a story of a Manhattan socialite whose world has fallen apart when her former husband is jailed for running a crooked financial scheme.  She arrives in San Francisco, broke but still flying first class, and is forced in desperation to turn for help to her estranged sister Ginger.  In the film Jasmine can’t control her snobbery and pretentiousness which contrasts with her sister’s earthy, shambolic but essentially contented life.  Reaching frequently for the vodka bottle, the fear, the panic and the emptiness just below the lacquered surface becomes ever more obvious, and in the end Jasmine is all alone, muttering to herself of a park bench.


Well, it’s probably dangerous for a preacher to theologise too much about a Woody Allen film.  But it’s worth pausing to ask – “What is Jasmine really afraid of?”  What is so scary about her loss of an artificially comfortable life that it drives her to drink and to madness?  And what if her fear is deeply uncomfortable for us because it is the fear which is endemic in our society?  That is to say that it is fear of mortality, of which every small loss, every cumulative limitation on her former life is an unwanted reminder.


Well, let’s test this a bit more, and suggest that our culture’s basic assumption is that our greatest problem is that we are going to die.  Therefore human flourishing is most likely to be achieved by putting energy and endeavour into all those projects which reduce risk to human life – ill health, poverty, malnutrition, limited natural resources, adverse weather and so on.  And mortality is best resisted by celebrating youth and vigour: making an immense global festival of the Olympics as a universal metaphor of triumph over limitation: which increasingly marginalising and neglecting the elderly who act as an uncomfortable reminder of our key problem.


And we could argue that the limitations which the human race was used to living with (until 100 years or so ago) are now seen as challenges to overcome and transcend.  Human vulnerability is not something we now learn to live with; it’s something we expect to conquer.  And doing so is part of our self-assertion, our identity: it is what defines us as human beings in contrast to the animals.  Words often read at funeral services, pointing not to death as a final destination but to the relationships beyond it.  The key project then of our species could now (in the light of all the technologies we’ve developed in the last century) be described as the alleviation, avoidance or even transcendence of mortality.  Look carefully at how some cars, exotic holidays or even perfumes are advertised, and you’ll see that they appear to be offering something very much like eternal life.


But it may not be loading too much on to one film to suggest that it asks us a question about all that.  What if the fundamental human problem is not mortality but isolation?  Endlessly extended life, if we’re alone, is not what we want or need.  So Jasmine ends the film in hell, speaking to herself, irreversibly isolated.  While Ginger muddles happily along with her mates and her unpredictable romances.


To put this into theological language would be to say that salvation comes not through overcoming limitation but through relationships – what Christians call communion – with each other and with God.  That is what lies at the heart of the Gospel, and what is affirmed week by week in services of Holy Communion in this Chapel.


Yet St John’s Gospel, read to us this evening, suggests that this is a hard message to hear and really internalise.  And it goes even further than that to show us in chapter 15 and 16 that the disciples didn’t get it either.  Jesus gently rebukes them for anticipating his death with so much despair “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts”.  And he shows them the purpose of his life when he says: “In my father’s house are many dwelling places, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will com again and take you to myself”


Last week during a debate on the Social Care Bill in Parliament, I couldn’t help feeling that the starkest example of this is the marketisation of care of the elderly to the point where carers have to restrict visits to fifteen minutes and reduce patients to choosing between having a drink or going to the loo.  Fixating on scarcity by increasing isolation seems to be the consequence of a culture which is deeply uncomfortable with death.


This life then from a Christian perspective is primarily about opening people’s hearts to each other and the prospect of hearts opened externally to God.  And pause for a moment to think about how radically that challenges our social and political culture.


Sitting as I do from time to time in the House of Lords, I see how much of our political discourse is framed by a desire to overcome limitation: it is a discourse about scarcity, about not having enough; about our overriding need to subordinate everything to the elimination of that scarcity and its consequent limitations.  And the assumption is that isolation, the collapse of relationships, the withering of the social bonds and networks that sustain healthy living is a price we must at the moment all pay to overcome scarcity.  Yet Jasmine, in her anguish, if she was sober enough to speak, might tell us that while doing that we are really missing the point.


So, one more film to finish the point.  Those of you who remember “The English Patient” from fifteen years ago will recall the agonising decision Count Laszlo has to make, when his lover Katherine is lying grievously injured in a plane crash in a cave in the desert.  Should he walk three days to Cairo to get help, leaving her all alone or should he stay with her in her desperate need?  He goes off of course to get help and returns to find her dead.  As with our culture, so with Count Laszlo, avoiding death is the overwhelming priority – but the price Katherine pays is that she dies alone at the moment of greatest vulnerability.


Mortality or isolation?  Which is the real problem?  This Chapel and its worship offers us an answer.


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