Thursday, 17 January 2013

An Eighth Circle of Hell?

I've wondered for some time whether the little bit of lead we had on our church roof might prove too enticing to opportunistic perpetrators of metal theft. And so it has been. Now it's gone and won't be replaced.

Here are some of my thoughts seen through the prism of what I put together for last Sunday's Feast of the Baptism of Christ:

“In the wilderness John proclaimed a baptism of repentance.” I was going to say that’s how St. Luke begins the section of his Gospel which we read today - the lead-in to the Baptism of Jesus himself. But in fact it’s not! I only realised this when I looked away from the reading as we have it in our pewsheets to check in my Bible just what has been happening up to this point. The words as we have them have been inserted by the compilers of the lectionary as a summary of what John the Baptist was doing out in the desert by the River Jordan. They’re not the actual words of Luke - but they do give the context. “In the wilderness John proclaimed a baptism of repentance.”

Words like “repentance” ring different bells with different people. John the Baptist does use the word himself. Earlier in his Gospel, St. Luke tells us that John had warned the people who came to him for baptism to make sure they bear fruits worthy of repentance. Bishop Tom Wright translates his words: “You’d better prove your repentance by bearing the proper fruit!” Repentance is what is required by John of people who seek baptism. It’s still asked for in the course of Christian Baptism. The candidate for Baptism - or their godparents - is asked “Do you repent of your sins?” And they’re expected to answer, “I repent of my sins.”

So it’s not surprising that since I returned from holiday late on Friday to find that someone had removed the lead from the vestry roof at St. Cuthbert’s, people have been expressing to me something of what they feel. Do the criminals who cause so much trouble, loss and expense deserve a special sort of punishment for what they have done? How can people do this to a church? - a sacred place? Should we pray for their forgiveness? Should we forgive them ourselves? The Church of England is the main target of lead thieves - and if Dante came up with Seven Circles of Hell for his various classes of sinner, the C of E would really like to add another one for the perpetrators of metal theft.

Crime like this raises all sorts of questions for Christian people. About wrong-doing itself - and finding ourselves on the receiving end. About the punishment of those who might get caught (our lead has a special watermark on it that a scrap dealer or the police could detect). About the sheer pointlessness of it - the thieves will get so little from the dealer they sell the metal to, and it’s going to cost us (at St. Cuthbert’s) a lot to get it fixed. About forgiveness - do you withhold forgiveness until you’re really sure that someone is truly sorry for what they’ve done? About security - when we find ourselves targeted by wrong-doers it shakes our confidence and feeling of safety.

Perhaps that’s when we realise that God’s promise is not that he will provide us with a trouble-free life. But he does promise us the grace to endure. This is a prayer for use with one of the Psalms at Evening Prayer yesterday:

How generous is your goodness, O God,
how great is your salvation,
how faithful is your love;
help us to trust you in trial
and praise you in deliverance;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Trust comes in the time of trial. And the promise starts with Baptism - even a Baptism of Repentance. “Repentance” is not just a matter of saying you are sorry - it’s not something only required of people who are obviously wrong-doers. “Repentance” in the Gospels is metanoia, literally changing your mind. It’s something for us all to do.

Do we pray for the people who have done this damage to our church? Or for anyone who has caused us pain in any part of our lives? There’s an answer in the Intercession for today’s Feast of the Baptism of Christ: 

Lord Jesus, bringing forgiveness to all who repent,
teach your Church dependence on your grace … 

Forgiveness is a reality for those who repent - who are sorry for past wrong-doing and want to make a new start. It can be difficult for the person who has been hurt in the process to share that forgiveness themselves. I understand when someone who has been really wounded by wrong-doing - still more when they have seen a loved one hurt - when they say, “I can’t forgive them for that.” One of the hard things about being a Christian might be to accept that God can and does forgive people for wrong-doing - even when it’s done against us. Because if he didn’t, then where would we be when we come to him in need of forgiveness? The Christian needs to learn that part of the prayer: “teach your Church dependence on your grace…”

There’s a hymn written specially for today’s Feast of the Baptism of Christ:

When Jesus comes to be baptised,
He leaves the hidden years behind,
The years of safety and of peace,
To bear the sins of all mankind.

Jesus could have simply remained in Nazareth. He could have had the security of employment, a happy family life, neighbours who respected him, friends who would always be there for him.

Or could he? On the way to the airport on Friday morning I talked with our driver - who happened to own the flat where we stayed - about perceptions of what makes a good or bad neighbourhood. Rather ironically, I now realise, I’d said to him, “I live in a rather low-crime area.” The fact is that I do - Benfieldside Ward a couple of years ago had the lowest rate of reported crime in County Durham. But things happen - wherever we are - which challenge our security. The hymn tells us Jesus left the years of “safety and of peace.” It was a conscious action, part of his calling. And he does it in part to challenge those of us who have grown too comfortable, who simply want to be left in peace, who say that leading a good life is just a matter of not doing anyone any harm. But this is not a perfect world. As I discover as a hopeless housekeeper, we can’t keep everything right and clean simply by not getting it dirty. We need something more.

And that something - in a world as troubled as ours - is the need for hope. For Peace - not merely as the absence of war, but something which may require of us cost and sacrifice. Grace - which sustains when we fall short. Forgiveness - because we all get it wrong. Repentance - because Christ is waiting for us to change our minds, so that we can be conformed to his.

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