Genesis 18 is one of the core Scriptural texts of my life.
The heart of what we have tried to do at Trinity over the last seven years.
In one of those little gifts from the Lord it is assigned as the first reading at Mass on this my final Sunday in Lewisham as Assistant Priest at St Mary’s.
It was also the subject of a lecture by Bishop Graham Kings at Lambeth Palace this week with a wonderful new picture by Silvia Dimitrova (shown here). See the text and picture here.
So here is my final sermon, all the same old themes for those who know me:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let me tell you about my friend Vera. She is dead now but she was born in 1928. Her home town was a small place on the border of what is now Slovakia and Hungary. Vera’s family were Jewish and there were just under a thousand Jews living in Sahy before the war and two synagogues.
Vera was a gifted child. Like everyone in Sahy she spoke several; languages, but she was also a gifted musician, a pianist and most important of all an artist.
In 1940, when she was 12 Vera was deported, along with most of the Jews to concentration camps.
As a young child, and as a girl vera could have expected to have been sent straight to her death. She could contribute little to the hard labour required of young men.
But as she had left her home Vera had grabbed a sketch pad and set of pencils.
On the train and at the arrival points Vera made sketches, mainly of the German guards and troops.
One of these noticed her ability and pulled her aside from the other girls and asked her to sketch him.
Vera’s artistic gift along with her three languages saved her life and she spent the next five years, among the horrors of the holocaust translating and sketching.
She spent time in the following camps:
Breslau I (Germany : Concentration Camp)
Gross Rosen (Germany : Concentration Camp)
Auschwitz II-Birkenau (Poland : Death Camp)
Bergen-Belsen (Germany : Concentration Camp)
Krakau-Plaszow (Poland : Concentration Camp)
She was finally liberated by British troops in 1945 from Bergen-Belsen and moved to England.
It is hard to imagine what it was like for this 17 year old arriving in the UK with no known living relatives and having experienced her adolescence in a real hell on earth.
She eventually settled outside Southampton and made a living by teaching piano in schools and privately. She also loved gardening and creating bright colours all around her in her garden and conservatory.
I met Vera in 1984 when I was beginning a degree in World religions and was required to get to know a faith community other than my own. The Reform Jewish community in South Hampshire was just getting started and Vera was a key part of it. Vera was a generous friend to me as a young man and always good company. I learnt much from her about music, Hebrew and the Jewish prayer book. At the end of my first year we moved on to other faith communities and I sent Vera a crd to thank her, the card was a print of the Christian icon known as the Trinity by the Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev, there should have been badges for you as you came into church this morning.
As soon as she received the card Vera rang me to ask me about it. I told her that it illustrated a section from the Torah, Genesis chapter 18 where Abraham and Sarah are visited by three angels. Christians have long interpreted that story as a symbol of the Trinity, God, who we believe is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Vera loved that picture and especially the heavenly blue colour that forms the background. She asked me to send her other icon which I did and she especially loved icons of the Transfiguration with the bursting of light.
A few months later Vera invited me to her home for our usual tea, conversation and music. When I arrived I could see that the little conservatory had been transformed into an artists studio. On a stand was a picture covered in newspaper. It was a gift she said for me and I unwrapped it to find Vera’s painting of the Hospitality of Abraham.
Vera went on to paint much more and even had exhibitions in Southampton and at the rabbinical seminary in north London. One of her paintings, After the Holocaust, hangs at the top of the main staircase even now. She even painted a stunning version of the Transfiguration but I haven’t been able to find out where that is now.
It is remarkable that this passage from Genesis 18 should be assigned as our first reading on this my final Sunday in lewisham and as an Assistant priest here at St Mary’s. It is this passage of Scripture and the painting by Rublev that have formed the heart and foundation of everything I have tried to do as Head at what was Northbrook now Trinity School. What is God like? I asked staff, pupils and Governors back in 2008. I then showed them this picture of the Trinity and said if God is like this what should our school be like?
Not surprisingly this doctrine of the Trinity proved a rich mine for our work and we ended up with our Trinity values:
A place at the table:
to be seated
where all have equal value.
But this morning I want to concentrate on what the doctrine of the Trinity tells us about ourselves.
I believe that the Trinity teaches us to value difference and sameness equally.
In our fallen sinful nature we have a tendency to seek out those who are the same as us.
I will never forget the first staff Christmas meal at Trinity, as I walked into Cafe Rouge in Black heath I could see that all the black staff were sat together and all the white staff were sat together.
Now of course, we like to be with people who have had similar experiences as us, who have shared memories or culture; that is fine and good as long as it is balance with an equal love of difference.
There is a wonderful phrase in the Latin vulgate version of Psalm 44. Describing the wedding banquet of heaven it says that God is circumdata variegate – surrounded by variety.
And that is why I have been so immensely happy to be part of this congregation here at St Mary’s; it is, you are a foretaste of the heavenly banquet; of the royal wedding feast that is the kingdom of God and is God’s will for the world.
We are here, Sunday by Sunday, surrounded by variety.
We are here, Sunday by Sunday, male and female, black and white, gay and straight those with mental illness, physical illness, old and young.
Circumdata varietate: Surrounded by variety.
That is what Vera loved in her garden, to be surrounded by colour and life and vibrancy. She had spent her teenage years in the darkness of death and she as determined never to let the darkness win.
What the Nazis wanted to destroy was variety: they wanted the master race who would all be the same. They destroyed the handicapped,the Jews, the gays, the gypsies anyone who dared to be different.
There is something rather special about Vera’s version of the Trinity and all her other paintings.
Although she had survived the death camps because of her gift for drawing faces she never drew any again, I remember her telling me that her gift for drawing had been put at the service of evil and she never wanted to use it again.
For us as Christians the icons of Jesus, for example in our icon of Our Lady of Lewisham, show us that we can see God in the face of Jesus, we can see God in every human face.
God created us in the image and likeness of God and so if we want to know what God is like we can look into our own face and into other human faces.
But Vera knew that the human face can be used for evil as well as good.
This week I attended a lecture at Lambeth Palace by Bishop Graham Kings, he pointed out that Sarah, in our story from Genesis is the mother of mission: the first to be told that she would be the mother of my nations; and the first to be told despite how barren and old she was that ‘nothing is impossible to God’ just as the virgin, Mary of Nazareth was later told the same thing.
Our world can feel very barren at times, our mission to the nations, to Lewisham, to our families and friends can seem very barren but we must never forget that nothing is impossible to God.
Nor must we forget that small things can begin the defeat of evil. My friend Vera loved the colour blue because blue sky was the only colour she saw in the death camps. But she also loved to laugh, and if you look in your pew sheets you will see that I have included the verses that follow the passage from the first reading:
11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard[c] for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
There is much laughter here at St Mary’s, after Mass, at parish parties, in the pub. When we laugh we re deeply attractive and that is what will draw people to Jesus.
Bishop Richard Holloway writes:
“It is a harsh world, indescribably cruel. It is a gentle world, unbelievably beautiful. It is a world that can make us bitter, hateful, rabid, destroyers of joy. It is a world that can draw forth tenderness from us, as we lean towards one another over broken gates. It is a world of monsters and saints, a mutilated world, but it is the only one we have been given. We should let it shock us not into hatred or anxiety, but into unconditional love.”
It is our task to seek out variety, to cultivate and celebrate difference. To acknowledge our need for sameness but to be more than that. And then we have what St paul describes in our second reading:
The mystery of Christ among you,
your hope of glory:
this is the Christ we proclaim!
Then let us laugh with the laughter of heaven;
share your delight at the friendship you’ve won;
hoping, believing and trusting whatever,
laugh with a laughter that’s never undone!
John Carpenter, Hymns to Shake Us Up