Sunday, 20 November 2016

Cryogenics and the Feast of Christ the King

Homily at this morning's Eucharist 

One of the saddest news stories of the last week must surely be the one about the 14 year old girl who knew she was dying of a rare form of cancer - with no hope of any cure. She wanted to live, and she wanted to live so much that she asked if her body could be cryogenically frozen in the hope that some time in the future -  perhaps hundreds of years in the future - a cure for her condition might be found and somehow the doctors might restore her to life. She isn’t the first to have made that request. But because of her age she was too young to make a will and too young to determine what should be done with her body when she died. So she asked her mother, who agreed. Her grandparents came up with the £37,000 it would cost to dehydrate her cells so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by ice crystals and to drain her body of blood which would be replaced by a sort of anti-freeze, to pack her in dry ice and send her to a storage facility in America where her remains would be stored in a canister of liquid nitrogen. But her father objected - which is why her request became a news story. It required a High Court judge to determine what should happen - and he ruled that the girl’s mother should have the right to decide. So the mother set in motion the process for freezing and storing the girl’s body. The girl died within 10 days of the court ruling. The girl and her mother spent her last hours together - the girl apparently was comforted by having her request granted, though reports are that the mother was distracted by knowing just what would have to be done immediately following her daughter’s death.

The story of a young person’s death is tragic in itself. This story is so much more tragic again. So much more life that could have been lived - the girl, her family and the judge knew that; we know that. The desperate clinging to life - that is human in itself. But the still further element of tragedy is that the whole process of letting go in the face of death is denied - this cannot be a good death - in a sense because death is denied: the hospital could not do its work properly; the father was denied access to his daughter; the mother herself seems not to have been able to be attentive in a time when every moment of the present is so precious; the girl herself clung to a hope - but we are left asking if she was sold only an empty hope. And no one seemed prepared to explore the aftermath. How can loved ones grieve for someone who has died but then been left in a state where there’s that most remote possibility of some sort of resuscitation? No grave to visit or place to lay flowers, but the knowledge of a large aluminium canister in which bodies are hung upside down for centuries or until the money runs out or there’s a power failure or leakage in the coolant system. And to what state could life be restored? Would anyone have the will to bring the girl back to life even if it should be possible? What sort of life after the damage of disease and the complications of the preserving process? And with whom would that life be shared? Our living is made worthwhile because of the context and relationships in which we live. Who would be this girl’s loved ones for her?

It’s a sad story for our secular age, where God doesn’t get a look in. Actually I think there are plenty of ethical issues even for the most hardened secularists - at least if they approach them from a properly humanist perspective. What is it truly to be human? That’s the question we need always to ask. It doesn’t seem to have entered the equation in this tragic case. And there’s no sense at all that to be human is to be made in the image of God. We are made in God’s image, even with all the flaws we possess of human character, frailty and disease. We are God’s creation, not lightly to be handled, even if we might be aware most acutely of its imperfections as we perceive them. And because we are made in God’s image, we have a hope - even in the face of death - of redemption. Our bodies and our minds, even our abilities and our relationships, are less than perfect - but we are loved. That’s the affirmation we can hold to as Christians, even in the darkest of circumstances, even when we can’t make that affirmation ourselves. If only there could have been someone there for that family to affirm it for them as that poor girl faced death. If only they could commend her to God’s care and protection - to know that he holds her in his heart; to say in the words of that simplest of prayers, May she rest in peace.

That needs to be our prayer for them now. I’ve thought about their plight as I’ve pondered today’s readings for the Eucharist. The plea of one of the thieves crucified with Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus’ response from his own cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Is this a real promise? There’s no theological underpinning: Christians and others continue to argue over the nature of life after death. There’s the other thief who simply mocks from his own cross - hard words denying hope in the imminence of death from one who is paying the penalty for his own failures in life. But that is not to say that he himself is without hope. Jesus promises hope to the one we call “the repentant thief” / “the penitent thief.” But he doesn’t himself speak words of condemnation against the thief who derides him. And Jesus’ words of hope in Paradise are not an anodyne response. We look at Jesus on the Cross and see one who will himself cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Forsakenness is a natural emotion in the face of death. And it’s one that Jesus himself feels. He shares it as he dies on a Cross under the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.” This is our King, Christ the King. But a King with a difference. Without special protection, without bodyguards. Whose throne in this world turns out to be a Cross - but who can because of that all the better reach out to us from it. Vulnerable - as any of us. God’s Son - and affirming our call to be his children. Let’s remember that for all who face their own Calvary - and for ourselves.

(Readings at the Eucharist: Jeremiah 23.1-6; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43)

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Remembrance and the need for new vision

Homily at the Sung Eucharist - 13 November 2016

(Isaiah 65.17-25; Luke 21.5-19)

Words we hear in today’s Gospel:

9 When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

Listening to these words today they may seem to indicate a certain inevitability about the state of the world as it is. “There will be great earthquakes…” - and thousands are living in temporary accommodation only a fortnight or so after the most recent earthquakes to have afflicted Central Italy. The world is still not immune to famines and plagues. But most of all we know the continuing persistence of war which blights the lives of millions in Iraq, Syria and so many other lands - with a fall-out into other nations through the fear generated by the tacticians of terror. What can we do to turn back the tide of war? And there is a temptation to say, “We must be strong, and show our strength.” It goes along with the rhetoric we have been hearing all too much in these last weeks of making America “great” again. There’s no denying the reality of that rhetoric when it is employed by a Russian leader. And what about our own nation? - perhaps we might be on dangerous ground if we too readily succumb to the aspiration of putting the “Great” back into “Great Britain.” We truly should be “Great Britain…” but as the name is intended and in contrast to the “Little Britain” which empty patriotism might so easily conjure.

The war dead we honour today died not to make our country great but to secure freedom and justice not only for our own land but for others. As the epitaph in the war cemetery at Kohima says,

When you go home, tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow, we gave our today.

There’s another sort of epitaph in this poem - and it’s possibly due to its popularity that the poppy has come to be so potent a symbol for us today.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poem itself is the epitaph, composed by the Canadian doctor and artillery commander John McCrae when he was called on to take the funeral of another officer. In the midst of the Battle of Ypres in May 1915 there was no chaplain available and McCrae stepped in to officiate. “We are the Dead…” - and he means those buried beneath the crosses and poppies. But we feel it ourselves - our place alongside those who had so recently lived and loved in the flush of youth, felt the warmth of the sun but now know the coldness of death and the clay in which they are laid. Do not “break faith with us who die…” That must be the challenge to us now. But there is that other line that might give us cause to ponder: “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Does that mean, keep fighting on regardless? Or might it make us question, how do we pursue our differences and quarrels? - how do we look at people we might consider the enemy, who we write off as alien to ourselves, beyond a common understanding?  

The poet and soldier Roland Leighton found himself challenged by an experience he recorded in Ploegsteert Wood in April 1915:

"...there was a grave in the wood with a carefully made wooden cross inscribed with the words: 'Here lie two gallant German Officers.'

“The men who put up the cross congratulated themselves a little on their British magnanimity, but when, later, they pushed the enemy out of the trenches in front of the wood, they found another grave as carefully tended and inscribed: ‘Here lie five brave English officers.’”

Leighton himself would be killed in battle before that year ended. But before his death he had realised that humanity and compassion are not the sole possession of those we consider friends and allies. What should bind us together should be far stronger than anything that might divide us. It’s there in Wilfred Owen’s poem, Strange Meeting, where two soldiers emerge from battle on the other side of death to tell of all that is dear but now lost - and to speak finally the devastating words of recognition: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend…”

In this week’s Church Times, the Anglican Priest, Paul Oestreicher, writes of the time his father took him - as a young man - to visit the fields where the Battle of the Somme had been fought a century ago. It was a sunny day as they walked through cornflowers and poppies. His father, born in Germany, had volunteered to fight with patriotic fervour - and he survived the carnage of war to be promoted from Private to Lieutenant in the 11th Bavarian Artillery. At the end of the war he found himself in a field hospital in Alsace, bitter in defeat but still with his pride in the Fatherland intact. But not for long. In 1918 he found himself having to escape the French before they could take him prisoner as they re-occupied Alsace. In 1938 - having Jewish parents - he had to flee for his life from Germany.

Most people in this country have been mystified or more likely uncomprehending at the refusal of FIFA, the world governing body in football, to agree to the wearing of poppies by the England and Scotland teams in their match on Armistice Day. Their reasoning is that the poppy is a political symbol - an argument which would barely enter into the minds of the vast majority of us who simply wear them. As I’ve been talking with children in schools I hear what is surely much nearer to the point - the poppy which bloomed in those fields of battle, its colour the red of blood shed by those who died, a beautiful flower which might speak of lives so cruelly cut short, and its fragility which speaks of our own precious, human vulnerability.

The poppy stands against the callousness of the hard-hearted, against the rhetoric of politicians who set national strength in opposition to the requirements of justice and provision for the needy, against anyone who would diminish the human dignity of our neighbour in a world which is God’s creation.

A friend of mine wrote on Facebook the other day: “Well, there you go. I was just spat at.” One man had blocked her path as she walked down the street in Sheffield, another spat at her. She is a priest like me. Unlike me, she is black. After so much blood has been spilled and so many lives given in the cause of freedom and justice, there are still those who confuse patriotic service of their country with hatred of those they feel do not conform to their national ideal. A misguided nationalism which thinks it knows what is against but has no right sense of what it is for so easily writes off anything and anyone perceived to be different as simply alien - and you might be written off as alien because of your religion, race, sexuality, colour, the way you dress or your economic status.

As we lament the wars of the last century we need again to ask, why were they fought? - to what end were so many lives given? As we despair at the millions whose lives are still destroyed by wars being fought now in other lands, we need to ask what is required of us that peace with justice be built here in our own land today? Let not the sacrifice of others have been in vain.

The vision which Isaiah is given for his people is a vision towards which we should all work:

19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat…
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox…
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
says the LORD.