Notes from the sermon by the Rev Bob Brooke on Sunday 22nd October 2017
Many years ago, long before I got into any official kind of ministry among people with learning disabilities, my wife and I were friends of the then newly formed L’Arche community in South London. L’Arche is a Christian organisation that welcomes people with learning disabilities and others to live together in community. These days the L’Arche community in South London is quite a big organisation but then it was just one house where about eight people with learning disabilities lived together with some young people who assisted and supported them. One of the people who lived there was Little Brian – he was called that because there was another Brian living there – Big Brian. Little Brian was about 4ft 10ins tall. He had spent most of his life in a long stay hospital. He couldn’t see or hear very well and only spoke a few simple words. He enjoyed playing bongo drums. Meal times were always important in the house and Little Brian’s contribution to them was to ring a hand bell very enthusiastically with a great big smile across his face to announce to everyone that the meal was ready. One night, totally unexpectedly, Little Brian died peacefully in his sleep. The whole community gathered round his bed next morning with candles and flowers and prayed and sang for him and with him. It was a time of great anguish and great sorrow for everybody there. It was the first death that had occurred in that little community and they were going to miss Little Brian very much, and yet there wasn’t a feeling of gloom and despondency, but rather a sense of peace and contentment. John, another man with learning disabilities who lived with Brian, he tended to just sit quietly taking everything in and then occasionally would make some profound comment ….. as the hearse was taking Brian’s body away and everybody was waving goodbye, John said “Have a good time in heaven, Brian, see you there”. Despite their sense of loss and sadness there was peace and contentment in that community because it was all very natural – there was no fear. Brian’s death was sad, but his friends had a deep sense of faith and trust that whatever was happening to Brian and whatever was going to happen to the rest of them in this life and afterwards, they were all safe, secure in the hands of a loving caring God.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul invites us to make a choice between life and death. Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. When he says “the wages of sin is death” he’s not talking about some sort of punishment but observing that a life spent pursuing our own selfish desires and needs and neglecting other people inevitably leads to a kind of self destruction. Paul talks about sin as something which enslaves us, something that can take over people’s lives and control them. Paul says if we chose to sin, then what we have chosen starts to take control over us. He says we’re not free to choose this or that or the other for now and then tomorrow choose something different. What we have chosen has power over us. Every time we choose in favour of one thing we choose against another. What we choose today controls us and directs us and will make it hard to choose differently tomorrow. But Paul reminds us of the Good News that God chooses us and frees us from the power of our other choices and enables us to choose again, to choose God and turn our back on sin. He invites us to choose and to go on choosing God over sin, life over death.
I started by telling a story about a death. If we choose life, if we seek to live a fully authentic life, we have to take death seriously. Etty Hilesum was a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Many Dutch Jews were sent to the Westerbrook transit camp and many of them went from there to their death in the extermination camps. Etty was a member of the local Jewish Council and sought to care for those who had been sent to Westerbrook. By her vitality and warmth and compassion she became a source of life and hope to others. She was eventually put to death in Auschwitz in 1943 when she was just 29. For the last two years of her life she kept a diary and wrote many letters. I want to read you something she wrote about life and death.
“I have come to terms with life… By “coming to terms with life” I mean: the reality of death has become a definite part of my life; my life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as a part of life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or the refusal to acknowledge its inevitability. It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life, we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life, we can enlarge and enrich it.”
(Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life, the diaries and letters from Westerbrook)
So choosing life means taking death seriously.
I was a great fan of the long running BBC comedy programme “Last of the Summer Wine”. The actor Bill Owen who played Compo the scruffy little man who always wore wellies – Wellington Boots – Bill Owen died in the middle of the filming of a series. The producer and writer of the programme decided to incorporate the death of his character Compo in to the programme. They called the episode “Elegy for Fallen Wellies”. They managed to combine a sense of sadness and loss for the actor as well as the character with humour and some serious theological insights.
Truly and Clegg, Compo’s friends have not been able to sleep and have gone out for an early morning walk on the moors where they had often walked with Compo. They see the sun rise and Truly says “Do you think the dead ever see a sunrise?” Clegg says “Yes I do, actually” “Even those who don’t get up very early?” “Even them. Maybe that’s what Paradise is – a place where the sun doesn’t come up until you are ready.” “You think he was heavenly material do you?” “Certainly. To be as little children – that was him. Never lost it did he?”
Nora Battye, Compo’s next door neighbour and the love of his life was talking to Edie, played by Thora Hird. Edie asks “Did he go to church?” Nora replies “Well he used to go on Remembrance Sunday. He never missed a Remembrance Sunday.” “Well that’s not exactly a season ticket, but I expect there’s room for a few cheap day returns.”
I remember at the funeral of another man with learning disabilities, a man called Nick, the minister leading the service referred to the words of Jesus in John chapter 14 that we heard earlier “in my Father’s house there are many rooms”. The minister said “God has prepared a special room for Nick in heaven – a room with his name on it.
There’s a song we sing at some of the services with people with learning disabilities that goes: “There is room for all in my Father’s house, where there’s joy, joy, joy.
Later Jesus said “If you know me, you would know my Father also”.
The late David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham used to have a very simple kind of credal statement:
God is as he is
God is as he is in Jesus
Therefore we have hope.
Jesus shows us that love is at the centre of the universe – that the whole creation and everything in it including you and me was brought into being as an act of love. This means that the last word is not with corruption and death and nothingness but with love. I believe we can trust in God who having allowed us to find the meaning of life in his or her love and forgiveness and to be totally dependent on him or her for our very existence will not then at our death destroy that meaning or take away that existence