Ordinary Sunday 6 Year B
St Mary, Lewisham
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Psalms 32:1-2, 5, 11
First Corinthians 10:31–11:1
St. Paul, at the end of today’s second reading:
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Or, as the translation (Jerusalem Bible) we have just heard puts it “Take me for your model, as I take Christ”.
To imitate Christ.
It’s one of the most famous and popular spiritual books of all time. The Imitation of Christ. Written by Thomas a Kempis is in the fifteenth century, it is well worth reading.
But do we really want to imitate Christ?
Aren’t imitations fakes that we would reject?
Who wants imitation jewellery? Or paintings that are copies?
In our culture we are taught to believe that we have have to have the real thing, that we shouldn’t imitate anybody, that we should seek self-fulfilment. That I should become the best possible Richard Peers, not try to be someone else.
To imitate Christ.
But I wonder if that is really possible. We all imitate people all the time. Teenagers hate uniforms but then wear exactly the same clothes as every one of their friends. They want to rebel but do so by buying the same music as everyone else their age.
Two years ago the most popular colour of car was white, everyone was imitating everyone else. This year its blue.
We are all imitating other people all the time.
If you had met me as a child you would have heard my Derbyshire accent. Then I moved south and imitated everyone else. Now, in Liverpool, they think think I’m one of you southerners!
Mimetai moi: says St Paul, imitate me. Mimetai. Like mimic, mimesis. To imitate, to copy. To re-present, make real again.
As we prepare for Lent which begins on Wednesday I want to suggest a spiritual practice for you to try that is about imitating Christ. This Lent, here at St Mary’s you are thinking about the Foolishness of Love with Lent beginning on Valentine’s Day and ending on All Fool’s Day, April 1st.
We have all, I suppose, been foolish in love at some time in our lives.This practice might seem foolish to you at first. But please try it and see the effect it has on you and those around you.
First of all, I think, we have to get over the idea that imagination, imitation, is something unreal, fake, untrue.
Imagination is what the mind does. When you see a picture of a person you love, you imagine them, memory is a process of imagination in which you assemble a mental picture of them. As you do so you will feel a warm feeling inside, your love for them, your affection is real. Every time you have any thought, you are imagining it. If I ask you to think about your favourite food you would be imagining it.
You cannot pray without imagination. But it does not mean it is not true, not real. That is how our brains work. It is how God allows us the freedom we need to choose to be with him in prayer and not to force us.
So the spiritual practice I am proposing for you this Lent is an exercise of imagination. Imagination and imitation. To imitate Christ.
To start with look at that first reading from Leviticus. It’s pretty harsh. This is the natural human reaction to a disease which you don’t understand and which repels and terrifies you: Push these people away. Exclude them. Make them live outside the community.
Then look at Jesus.
The leper comes to him and Jesus doesn’t send him away. ‘Of course I want to.’ Is his reaction. He doesn’t just want to heal him, he is interacting with him, treating him with dignity. And then, more than that, he touches him. Imagine the reactions of anybody seeing this. They would be horrified, aghast, angry. They would refuse to have anything to do with Jesus. He too would be Unclean! By touching the man, Jesus makes himself unclean.
To imitate Jesus.
And this making himself like the unclean man. This taking on himself of the uncleanness is what Jesus does in his whole life and ministry, culminating in his crucifixion, which we will celebrate in just over forty days time. But which we re-present, celebrate every day at Mass.
Now, we too can reach out to those who seem ‘unclean’, the homeless, the mentally ill, those on the edge. And I think you are very good at doing that here at St Mary’s. Some people have more time or capacity for that than others.
But, I think, there is something all of us can do, and that Jesus is acting out so that we can imitate him.
Rather than push suffering away, reject it, pretend it doesn’t exist we can embrace it; take it into ourselves; absorb it; as Jesus did on the cross, and by doing that absorb it.
We would all like a world in which there was no suffering. But there is no such life. Every life involves suffering. Sometimes it is just the unsatisfactoriness of not getting our way, not being wealthy, or not having the food we want or the latest gadget. Sometimes, in every life, it is deep suffering, death, bereavement, serious illness, addiction, loss of a job or failure to get a promotion.
And we are all surrounded by the suffering of others. You can barely walk to Lewisham station without seeing the homeless, the ill arriving at the hospital next door, the dead buried in the churchyard.
This Lent in your prayer time spend a few moments doing something that feels quite counter intuitive. Breathe in the suffering.
Start with yourself. What is the suffering in your life? What are the parts of you that you reject as if they were lepers?
Breathe it in. Breathe it in deeply with every in breath and take it to the deepest place within you, the place where you will find God. Deep calls to deep, says the psalmist. Abyss, speaks to abyss. Heart speaks to heart.The deepest place of your heart calls to the depth of God’s being – and he is there!
Then breathe in the sufferings of others. The victims of war, of disease and poverty. When you watch the news don’t snap it off, switch channel or leave the room, live with it, breathe it in, absorb it.
But don’t just absorb it. Let God transform it and as you breathe out, breathe love, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance to yourself; breathe love, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance to all who are suffering.
I promise you that this will not be depressing or distressing. It is liberating and powerful. It will make you feel more compassionate when you meet people and and when you hear about suffering. It is not repressing suffering, it is acknowledging the realty of it and transforming our reaction to it.
Be imitators of Christ.
Christ who on the cross absorbed all the suffering of the world, all the evil, all the evil and from whose side on the cross flowed blood and water. Water to baptise and renew us. Blood as the gift of his very self to us in the Eucharist so that we can become Christ. His body in the world absorbing and transforming all suffering.
As the minister says to you this morning ‘The Body of Christ’ ‘The Blood of Christ’ and as you say ‘Amen’, as you eat and drink, as you absorb Christ into you, be, truly imitators of Jesus.
If we don’t imitate Jesus who are we imitating?