I’ve been reading I, Daniel Blake. It is a true story, though not real. The contents of the story are happening all around us, though this particular telling has not actually taken place. It is in some sense a wilderness book. It leads us to a place from where there can be no escape if we are unfortunate enough to get within its grasp. Reading the script you are caught up almost with the protagonists between living and existing. Wilderness, so we understand it: A place of nothing. Or a place undiscovered. Or a place wild and untamed. In reality wilderness is in direct relation to the human perceiving it. For no place is truly wild to itself, it is what it is. A rainforest is a rainforest. Human perception calls it inhospitable. The desert is sand. That humans find it hard to traverse was useful in fact for the early desert fathers, St. Anthony and his band of followers who went out into the desert to escape the business of modern life. There were no distractions out there in the desert, but then into that silence comes all our issues. What the desert fathers would have called demons. And so we begin forty days of wrestling with our demons as we attempt to give up chocolate or take on some other ascetic challenge. But note the text from Matthew’s Gospel if that is your perception of Lent. It is only after the forty days of fasting in the desert that the devil comes to Jesus. Temptation waits with eager longing for the moment when we are most at risk and vulnerable and then leads us to the high mountain, to the pinnacle of the temple or to the bread basket. These temptations are ours too. We just don’t see them the same. For who has not been tempted by cheap and easy food? Who has not been tempted by destructive living? Who has not been tempted by the glory that power might bring? Not Jesus, he overcomes the temptations and escapes from the wilderness. Certainly he is not unscathed. Wilderness is all around us. It is just that they don’t look the same as they used to. For wilderness can be the pages of social media of apparently happy lives broadcast continually to the device in our pocket when all we want to do is scream that all is not well. It is sitting on a a street corner watching the world pass you by as invisible as the air. Wilderness can be the world of must have when all you can manage is the day to day of getting by. When you’re expected to understand a conversation but were lost after the first hello. Or when the only sound you can make out is the background noise and the voices around you fade into the general hubbub. Wilderness is a million jobs you cannot apply for and a million more you are overqualified for and the one you can do is taken by the kid who doesn’t care and wastes the weekend pay check against the wall of a pub. Wilderness is when the skills you do have are deemed no longer important. When your outward appearance says your doing fine, but inwardly you are crying out for help. When you try to help those around you make a better life for themselves than you have and all you do is make the situation worse. Wilderness is slowly pushing those whom you love away because you have forgotten how to say I love you. Wilderness is not absence, but presence. The worst wilderness is the one in the mind where internally everything makes complete sense, but none of those around you seem to understand any more. Wilderness is feeling that you are on your own with no-one who can understand or help. And at the end of the line come the temptations to take it all away with an easy fix, too good to be true offers and a loan that will never be repaid. I, Daniel Blake is a wilderness book for it rescues us from our illusions. If you’ve not read it or seen the film, then I recommend you do. And I might just, wilderness allowing, revisit it by the time we get to Easter.
Passion Sunday for me is about being uncomfortable in a comfortable place. A bolt hole, a place of refuge, a place to go before a difficult encounter. A favourite cafe. A bench on a hill. A place with friends where one can be natural, uninhibited, perhaps. A place to relax and let the hair down. A place of calm before the storm. A place to go running. A favourite film perhaps that takes us away from reality for a while. Something to watch and indulge in before returning to important tasks. During Lent I’ve been reflecting each week on the film One Day. The film has taken us on a journey with two friends whose lives we visit once each year on St. Swithin’s day. From terrible London flats smelling of onions to awful post university jobs in restaurants and television. From meetings in France to returning to the family home. From difficult conversations with parents to distant answer phone messages. Missed calls and missed opportunities. From new jobs, to new boyfriends. From bad jobs to car crash employment. Terrible live television to all star school plays. Rows in restaurants to dead end relationships. Break downs and making up to put downs and pick me ups. By the end we are left with two people who we know so very well and who ought to be so very right for one another. They are comfortable with each other, though not always comforting to each other. Comfortable like an old sofa which has learnt our body shape. By the end it is being in the sort of place that you might think ought never to come to an end. Like a favourite book which we put down just before the final chapter because we would rather not finish it off. But come to an end the story must. Passion Sunday. The moment before the final moment. The calm before the storm. Gathered with friends in a house sharing a meal together. We are told that at least Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Judas and Jesus were there. The comfortable moment is broken as Mary anoints Jesus with nard and Judas complains about the cost of it. One Day only gives us a day a year, but it is enough to become close. At the end it leaves us wondering about the missed moments and that we really need to make the most of each moment that we do see. The Gospel readings are the same in that we only hear a little of the story. Six days before the passover, we see them gathered together. A place of preparation. A time to reflect with friends over a meal, have you ever noticed the meal mentioned before? Before make their way into Jerusalem. What else went on at that gathering? It seems to me that Mary and Martha’s house was a place to gather and plan their strategy. We hear that Jesus visits this home on at least three occasions. A friends house would be the ideal place to plan the next move. To plan the events we are about to remember from Palm Sunday to Easter. It seems a deliberate attempt was being made to provoke the authorities. For such an encounter, preparation is perhaps the most important. Not the twenty years as we see in One Day. But the point of a comfortable place of refuge is for that space of preparation and if preparation is required, then there ought to be some form of confrontation. Was that the point of meeting at the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. We hear none of that sat around the meal table with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Judas and Jesus. The conversation turns sour as Judas remarks on the perfume and Jesus retorts about his future. As we prepare to enter into that story at the passover festival, are we left in anticipation of the final moment? Or is the story a little too familiar. One that perhaps we think we know very well and so read it through quickly. So this Passion Sunday, I’d like to invite you to dwell with this image of Jesus sat around the table with his friends. What would we like to know? What questions would we ask at that table? Would we be the one to break open the jar of ointment? What was the smell like? Was it this event that prompted the writing down of this event, turned into a prophetic moment of Jesus’ final days as he remarks that he will not always be with them. The moment is gone as quickly as it came, the story moves on to the next moment. For us, for a while, it is good to be left around that table with the remains of the meal and to consider where we might go after such an encounter. Do we choose to walk onwards with Jesus to Jerusalem, or choose to remain in the place of safety and comfort?
So if the wilderness doesn’t get you, perhaps that fox in the city will. In the reading from Luke today Jesus compares Herod to a fox and the people of Jerusalem as a hen’s brood – Jesus of course is the would be mother hen, protecting the people, but they reject him! I’ve been slowly preparing a hen coop in the vicarage garden, the fence was already there, the cŵt came from a friend who was downsizing his operation. I’ve yet to make the gate and install the electric fence. It seems a lot of effort to protect a few chickens from a fox, who, to be honest is just doing what comes naturally. Taking the easy prey. Our desires for fresh garden eggs mean the fox’s lunch may be chicken in a basket. Though we hope not! Jesus compares Herod to the fox and the people are at the mercy of the one who preys on the weak and the vulnerable. So Jesus overcame the wilderness and now he turns his attention to the city. So soon into lent? To be looking towards the city and the cry of our Sanctus and the Palm Sunday processions ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – Hosannah’ No wonder Jesus weeps over the city. At the mercy of the Fox and his government the people are unwilling to stand against the flow and be the nation that Abram was promised. History repeating itself, but of course, as usual, a few key verses are left out of that Genesis reading this morning, verses which mention the slavery of the people in a foreign land. Nothing much has changed, they are now slaves to the Roman rulers – they just don’t see it. Jesus offers them freedom, but they reject him and I also hesitate to say this but, the slavery continues now as then. Will we ever learn to, in the biblical language, ‘return to the land’.
There are many a tangent one could be tempted to veer off into at that point. However, I’ll stay with the city and reflect for a moment with Emma and Dexter, characters in my choice of film this Lent to help us through the wilderness. One Day. In the city of blinding lights Bono sings “The more you see the less you know The less you find out as you go I knew much more then than I do now” It ends: The city of blinding lights The more you know, the less you feel Some pray for what others steal Blessing’s not just for the ones who kneel, luckily. Though not a song from the film, (the timeline doesn’t fit its inclusion) it is a fitting representation of the disappointment found by Emma and Dexter in the city. Each in their own way the Fox of the city devours them. They each could do with a blessing. For Emma, the blessing of a break in her writing career. For Dexter, someone to tell him he’s being, well, a bit of a jerk. Emma and others tell Dexter, though he, like the people of Jerusalem, is not ready to listen. And so the career in television that promised so much and delivered exactly what it promised. Dexter became a slave to the city, to the critics, the reviews to the next big show, to being Mr popular. We hate that word, he says, ‘famous.’ But he doesn’t, he craves it, the attention. He is not famous of course, infamous perhaps. He is like so many others, just the latest fit for a channel that uses his youthful optimism to sell their image. Though it is fiction, and centuries from the Jerusalem of Herod, it reflects the city that Jesus weeps for. The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.
Emma ends up in a dead end job serving terrible Tex-Mex food. To begin with she is able to laugh it off. What’s your stroke? She asks new employee Ian. Waiter / actress, Waiter / writer, Waiter / singer? He is a Waiter / comedian. Emma says she has no stroke, optimistically she claims this job is not forever. Well, a year later we see her offered the job of manager, they want someone who is not going anywhere. And the city claims another victim. Are we captivated by the city of blinding lights? Our citizenship is of heaven suggests Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Christ will be our transformation. We will have to wait to see if Emma and Dexter find their transformation. Lent is our time of preparation and by Easter, as we return to the city, Jesus is prepared to take down the walls and break open the stronghold that the rulers have put in place. Jesus can only do this because he is not tempted by the offerings of the city. Jesus keeps his eyes fixed on the heavenly. As we journey through lent, our feet ought to be following in his ways lest we find ourselves at the mercy of the foxes.