A while back I experienced one of the most restful weeks of my life. We spent a few peaceful days by the shores of Loch Ness. The area is very isolated with slow, windy, single track roads. Not a problem because we saw very few cars. The house used to be hotel and I can see why it ceased trading. It was two miles off the single track B road that runs along the shore between Inverness and Fort Augustus. Nestled by a small loch and surrounded by hills, there was no TV reception and my mobile phone didn’t work either. We saw very few people but lots of sheep and goats. The nearest shops were miles away and going to buy a newspaper or supplies was a treat. It felt very isolated.
Time seemed to slow down. Everything revolved around day light, eating, sleeping, feeding the animals and the weather, and there was a lot of that. I am sure I could have got used to it with more time – it was tempting – but every time I opened my mouth, it was obvious that I wasn’t a local. Rich in history, the road and forts along the geological fault line that created Loch Ness – Fort William, Fort Augustus, Fort Urquhart, Fort Gorge, remind us of the attempts by the English to tame the wild Celts. On the 16th April 1746, the last battle on British soil took place nearby at Culloden Moor.
The song popularized by Louis Armstrong ‘What a Wonderful World’is a beautiful song that celebrates nature: Trees of green, red roses too, they bloom for me and you; Skies of blue, clouds of white, bright blessed day and dark sacred nights. Nature is marveled at and I’m sure you have experienced that and felt the same wonder. It’s a song that also celebrates friendship, and above all it celebrates falling in love: Friends shake hands saying, ‘How do you do?’ What they are really saying is, ‘I love you.’ It’s a great song about the fantastic gifts of life: creation; friendship; falling in love. But as we saw from the pictures, there is something wrong with our world.
But in Mitch Markowitz’s film Good Morning Vietnam while the song says one thing the pictures say another. As we are told ‘the roses bloom for me and for you’, we see a bomb going off. As we hear the words ‘the colours of the rainbow so pretty in the sky’, we see protesters being beaten. And, most poignant of all, the chorus of ‘I say to myself, what a wonderful world’ is accompanied by images of the little child’s sandal. That’s the world we live in. It should be so good and yet there is something desperately wrong. The film’s artistry is very clever because it shows us that the world is not the place it ought to be. It should be a wonderful world, but all too often it is spoilt by people. The film is summed up by the Vietnamese girl with whom Robin Williams has fallen in love.
“What have you achieved? What have you achieved? You lost your chance, me old son. You contributed absolutely nothing to this life. A waste of time you being here at all. No place for you in Westminster Abbey. The best you can expect is a few daffodils in a jam jar, a rough-hewn stone bearing the legend ‘He came and he went’ and in between – nothing! Nobody will even notice you’re not here. After about a year afterwards somebody might say down the pub ‘Where’s old Hancock? I haven’t seen him around lately.’ ‘Oh, he’s dead y’know.’ ‘Oh, is he?’ A right raison d’etre that is. Nobody will ever know I existed. Nothing to leave behind. Nothing to pass on. Nobody to mourn me. That’s the bitterest blow of all.” That is how Tony Hancock ended his last TV monologue appearance in 1964. When he died four years later from an overdose few people realized it wasn’t an act or a script, but how he actually felt.
2000 years ago Jerusalem was under a siege. One man set out on a lonely road to do something about it. Only 14 miles long. A day’s journey, up-hill, Jericho to Jerusalem. A one-way ticket. Jesus is out in front leading the way, setting the pace. Here is Mark’s eyewitness account:
“They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mark 10:32-34)
They say you never get a second chance at a first impression. But first impressions can sometimes be rather superficial. And that is also true when people think of Jesus. What were your first impressions of Jesus?
My first memory of Jesus was around the age of six when I first attended Sunday School. I remember two things: Singing the chorus, “Jesus loves me this I know…” and a large painting of Jesus on the wall. Jesus was holding a lamb in his arms surrounded by lots of little children my age – except strangely unlike my Sunday school class, they were all different colours. There was an African child, a Chinese child, an Indian child, a Native American child and many others that were different to me. But I do remember, reassuringly that Jesus had long golden hair and a blond European complexion. My first memories were of a white Jesus and for many of us that is our unconscious default view we carry we carry with us through life. Comforting it may be until we encounter someone with a different religious heritage. William Blake described the dilemma we face.
What is it that makes you angry? At a trivial level, I get angry when I see someone drop litter or see a dog owner allow their pet to soil the path. More seriously I get angry when I see graffiti sprayed on a wall, or a tree sapling vandalised. I get angry when I hear climate change deniers, or when companies discharge waste into rivers. I get more angry when I see someone being bullied or harassed, especially if it’s a child, a woman, someone with a disability or person of colour. I get even more angry still over child abuse, sexual harassment or physical violence. I feel very angry with holocaust denial, Antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of racism. Above that, those who justify apartheid, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide. That’s me. What about you? What about Jesus? What did Jesus get angry with in the gospels? Surprisingly it was none of the above. What was it? Religious hypocrisy. Worth reflecting on that isn’t it?
In our gospel reading today Jesus’ instructs us on dealing with anger and with conflict resolution. Here are three headings: Unjustified anger is always destructive (Matthew 5:21-22) Unsettled disputes are invariably costly (Matthew 5:25-26) Pursue reconciliation to resolve conflict (Matthew 5:23-24)
“I was sitting in a barber chair when I became aware that a powerful personality had entered the room. A man had come quietly in upon the same errand as myself to have his hair cut and sat in the chair next to me. Every word the man uttered, though it was not in the least didactic, showed a personal interest in the man who was serving him. And before I got through with what was being done to me I was aware I had attended an evangelistic service, because Mr, D. L. Moody was in that chair. I purposely lingered in the room after he had left and noted the singular affect that his visit had brought upon the barber shop. They talked in undertones. They did not know his name, but they knew something had elevated their thoughts, and I felt that I left that place as I should have left a place of worship.” Who said that? Woodrow Wilson, the former President of the United States.
This is a poignant week for me. The 31st January is the 70th anniversary of the 1953 floods that devastated the coastal communities of East Anglia. A confluence of two weather systems – one in the English Channel and the other in the North Sea, caused a a storm surge. The abnormal rise in sea levels brought death and destruction all along the East coast, the worst floods in living memory. During that raging storm out to sea, the Lowestoft trawler Guava sunk without trace. My uncle Edward Sizer was one of the eleven crew who never returned home.
Where do you find your security in the storms of life? Where do you find peace of mind in an uncertain world? How can you experience joy in a scary world?