EASTER 5: Acts 7:55-60; John 14:1-14
2014 is the first year that May 18 has fallen on a Sunday when I’m preaching. It is always a reflective day for me. I may have talked to you about this before and I may not have anything new to add but I find that this year on this Sunday there is nothing else I can preach about.
On 18 May 1980, Ian Curtis, a twenty-three year old singer-songwriter in a moderately obscure Mancunian band hung himself in his own home on the eve of the band’s first tour of the USA. There were many reasons why he might have done this: married at eighteen but estranged from his wife and daughter; working full time for the DHSS but also travelling all over the country with the band; diagnosed with epilepsy which was made worse by the rock lifestyle – late nights, drink, drugs and the strobe lighting in clubs – but crudely and possibly inappropriately medicated; with the make or break pressure of the US tour ahead of him. Considering all these stresses in his life it doesn’t take much imagination to construct a scenario where mental exhaustion and desolation close down all hope and death seems to be the only release. But one of the great scars that suicide inflicts is that those left behind can never truly know the real reasons why.
On 18 May 1989, twenty-five years ago today, Father Leonard Douglas Peter Boyd, parish priest for St Agatha’s, Sparkbrook and St Barnabas, Balsall Heath, died by his own hand. Father Boyd had been our priest for many years. He was still young, good-looking, full of passion and with a fierce love for his faith. Priesthood was his life. His standards were so high – the liturgy was sacred, always to be celebrated as perfectly as possible to allow the sublimity of the Divine to break through the mundane. If our singing wasn’t up to scratch he would clap his hands, quell the organ and we would start all over again. He was a caring priest, but his congregation weren’t his friends. His view of priesthood was that the priest was the representative of Christ. Therefore his lifestyle and behaviour had to be exemplary. He died because he believed he had let those standards down.
One day, two deaths. The death of a singer who I had never met, but whose words articulated much of the frustration, disconnection and alienation I was experiencing in growing up, was bound to affect me on different levels and in different ways from the death of someone who I had known closely for many years, who had been an inspirational leader, a second father, an exemplar of what we as a congregation thought our priest should be.
But for me the two are bound very closely together and at times it is hard to separate out my feelings and thoughts for each one. And both deaths continue to raise questions for me, especially at this time of year. There are the ‘what ifs…?’
– What if they had got his medication right?
– What if the band members had understood what he was singing about?
– What if he hadn’t been alone that night?
– What if he had been able to express his true feelings better?
– What if we, as a congregation had been able to tell him how much we loved him?
There are also the hard questions about suicide and faith –
suicide which has traditionally been seen as a sin, as both an abnegation of personal responsibility and as a usurping of what we tend to see as the divine responsibility for our lives.
Here I’m not with my literary hero, Dante, who automatically throws suicides into a particularly nasty circle of hell where they are endlessly punished for the violence they did to themselves. Rather I see many mitigating factors which contribute to a person reaching the stage where they take that ultimate decision – there can be a great deal of mental and physical illness, and immense external and internal pressures which might bring someone to that place. And I believe in a God of compassion, who binds up the broken and makes space for them in his kingdom.
The Gospel reading for today is John 14:1-14, which I have found to be a most popular reading at funerals, offering both comfort and challenge. Jesus says: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’ Is it as simple as that?
I don’t think Fr Boyd’s faith in God deserted him. When the Presbytery was opened up there were his office books stacked up neatly on the hall table, as if he had said the morning office then gone out to do what he had to do. However, perhaps his faith in his own self did sink away. Perhaps also his knowledge of his own congregation was incomplete and he underestimated the deep care they had for him.
Even so, those words of Jesus do have the potential to be profoundly consoling. They are not a negation of the seriousness of the troubles and the grief which might engulf us. Instead they offer a hope we can reach out to. Believing in a God who suffers as we do is believing in a God who also understands the depths of pain we might sink into, who offers the tenderness of simply being with us in times of crisis, and who is ultimately the Divine Judge, but who is never judgemental.
‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.’ In these words I find Jesus acknowledging individuality and difference – of each of us being in different places on the journey of knowing God. It is also an acknowledgement that each of us has different pressures, different DNA, different nurturing and that these leave their marks on us in different ways, equipping some to see faith clearly while others move towards it elliptically; making some robust and able to take life’s knocks in their stride, while others struggle and flounder.
Jesus continues to make strong statements about belief: belief turned into action. He says: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ I not an exclusivist, I don’t believe that God condemns the vast majority of the world for not being Christian. I do believe that God can reach out to us in many different ways, experiences, relationships, mysteries. And yet every time I hear those words of Jesus, ‘I am the way…’, I feel something in my bones, something I can’t communicate explicitly, something that indicates to me that he is telling us a deep, deep truth.
Perhaps I should read this in the light of ‘many dwelling places’. Many dwelling places have many doorways – some tall, some narrow, some locked and requiring a key, some standing wide open, some hung with a veil, some found at the front, others hidden round the back. So how do we get to them? Well, look at the diversity of the Christian faith,
let alone other religions. If there is only one route there are many different means of locomotion.
Jesus says: ‘Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.’ Our belief comes out in how we behave. It shows itself in the way we respond to situations. Death is perhaps the most significant situation we can respond to. Earlier we heard Luke’s account in Acts of the death of Stephen. Martyrdom. Willingly going to face his death for the sake of his faith. Martyrdom which is in the news again this week with the case of Mariam Yahya Ibrahim
the pregnant Sudanese woman condemned to death for ‘leaving Islam’ and becoming a Christian.
Saul witnesses Stephen’s execution. His immediate response is to re-double his efforts to crush this new faith with its challenges to the old certainties of Judaism. But inside him something about Stephen’s death must surely have affected him, shaken him up, sowed some seeds of change within him. Change that comes to the surface possibly on the Damascus road, or possibly during those three days when Saul is without his sight and forced to confront all that is bubbling away inside him.
We all have to acknowledge that profound events change us profoundly. And the sudden and perhaps violent death of someone we know is one of the most profound and far-reaching events that can happen in our lives. We have to allow ourselves to change. Our response matters.
Prior to the singer’s death that obscure little Mancunian (Salford, really) band had recorded two albums which have gone on to be immensely influential and which regularly find a place in lists of the top 100 albums of all time. In the fall out from his death the rest of the band regrouped, renamed, changed direction, changed their style, becoming pioneering innovators in a different genre.
Following the death of Father Boyd I – and this is a connection I only made later, it wasn’t consciously related to his death at the time – changed jobs, left Birmingham, moved to Salisbury and consequently dropped out of the selection process for ordination. Immersing myself in Cathedral life gave a different perspective of ministry – but one filled with such talented, intelligent and politically savvy folk that I couldn’t ever see myself as making the grade. It was nearly ten years later, when working for SPCK, and serving priests of all shapes and sizes – physically, theologically, spiritually, creatively, professionally – that I began to understand that there were other models of priesthood, ones which worked with, not denying, the humanity of the minister.
Our response matters. And perhaps today I am wondering what is our response to the threat of death for Mariam Yahya Ibrahim? Is it something we should accept as inevitable? Part of the cultural system of the country she lives in? Or should we be crying out with whatever voice we have to encourage her government to have a change of heart?
In the end I can see that this is might be a sermon with no real or definitive answers. It is simply one more attempt to unravel why these two deaths have continued to have a deep effect on my life and to bring out into the open some of the tensions I have struggled with.
And perhaps the only conclusion I can give you today is that in the words: ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’ Christ acknowledges the complexity, the diversity and the individuality of each one of us. And still, with wounded hands, he reaches out to bring us home to him. Amen.