Sermon for Trinity 1 (St Boniface Patronal) 6.6.21.

The Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ (Gen 3:9)

Where have you been?

Do you remember being asked this question as a child? Asked by parents and others who were sometimes curious, worried, suspicious, or angry? It was asked in many circumstances, but most often from a desire to keep one from harm. Where have you been, my son, my daughter?

In today’s readings we see parents keen to keep their charges safe, and sad when their children don’t listen to them. Our first reading starts in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, when God calls to Adam ‘where are you?’. He calls because He knows something is wrong. His children, Adam and Eve (mean ‘child of earth’, Mother of all living) have done what they ought not to have done- eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – and are guilty as hell for it. I often tell this story to primary school children and they know absolutely what is going on here. ‘What is this that you have done?’- another question taking us right back to our childhood. Also familiar is their blaming of each other. ‘Wasn’t me, sir, it was her;’ Wasn’t me miss, it was the snake’ . As old as the hills and completely avoiding the questions ‘Where are you?’ and ‘What have you done?’

In the Gospel reading the parent in question- mother Mary and Jesus’ brothers – try to get in before rather than after the event. Mary possibly remembers the ‘where have you been’ question she put to Jesus when he was 12 on a visit to the Temple and she got the answer ‘did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?’  She sees the crowd and her son’s desperate need for space and food and hears the gossip that he’s going mad and tries to stop him out of a desire to protect. It’s hardly surprising: he’s getting into disputes about sin and blasphemy with powerful people- which parent wouldn’t try to stop that? Then , when that fails, she and her other children try to get a quiet word afterwards, but they succeed only in getting these hurtful words, ‘who is my mother, who are my brothers?’ By now, as she learned in Jerusalem and at Cana, her son is beyond her command, as he would remain for the rest of his short life. She learned, as all parents do, though not all of us have our souls pierced as she did, that we can’t ultimately keep our children from harm. Gradually she was learning the meaning of those words she said to the Angel Gabriel, who announced his birth, ‘let it be to me according to your word.’

We don’t know what the mother of St Boniface, or Winfrith as he was baptised, thought about his choices, though his father, who was a landowner, disapproved of his decision to be a monk. However in the England of the 7th C the monastic calling was a respected one, opening the door to a reasonably comfortable life for an educated person like he was so, as he moved up the ranks in the monasteries at Exeter and Nursling (near So’ton) to become the Abbot, they probably thought that ‘the boy done good.’ They might have more concerned when he felt called to take the Gospel to the wilds of Frisia (land bordering N Holland and Germany). However, if they’d been able to keep in touch with him (unlikely), they would have seen him do very well, becoming a bishop, then Archbishop in Germany, whose Catholic believers regard him as their national saint. Not one for the quiet life, however, he got caught up in battles with German pagans, which led to him cutting down the revered oak tree at Geismar, leaving him a marked man. When he returned to Frisia as an old man of 79, he was waiting early on a Sunday by the river Boorne to baptise and confirm new Christians, when suddenly armed assailants jumped out of their boats. An account writes: ‘A tall man, he gathered his fellow priests around him and urged them to be thankful for the hour of their release. So violently did the blows rain down that twice a book held in his hands was hacked through. Found long after at the scene of his murder, it would be treasured for ever as a witness to his martyrdom.’

So the families of our Lord and St Boniface were not successful keeping them from harm, yet by their lives and by their deaths, they have inspired many and given strength to those who have called upon them. The Scottish hymn writer John Bell called our Lord, ‘a Saviour without safety’and his life has been a pattern followed by many saints throughout history, such as B. They were resolute in the face of danger partly because they knew that death was not the end, a faith so wonderfully vindicated when our Lord was raised to life  at Easter

In the last 14 months we have all been through the greatest period of public danger since the Second World War, a danger which has not yet gone away, though most of us now are better protected than back then. We have learned over that time to praise those people who put themselves in the line of danger by doing their daily work: healthcare workers, yes, but also supermarket shelf-stackers and other key workers. I found it frustrating however, especially during the first lockdown, that the church and its ministers were not numbered among those key workers, encouraging us to be out there, in the community and in our buildings for the mental and spiritual wellbeing of individuals who found the experience so very hard, instead of insisting only that we ‘stayed home’ and kept safe.  Whilst rejoicing in what we did manage to do, I will forever regret that missed opportunity.

The second thing that puzzled me greatly about pronouncements and edicts issued by Archbishops and Bishops was how little reference there was, at a time when death was all around us, to the hope of eternal life. St Paul writes, in our 2nd reading that ‘our outer nature is wasting away. The image is of a caterpillar and butterfly for he completes the sentence by writing that ‘our inner nature is being renewed day by day.’ In a time of pandemic, it surely falls to the church and people of faith to stress that death is not the end, but a gateway, that ‘this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.’ It was this faith that sustained Boniface and made him urge his fellow priests, at the hour of their death, to be thankful for their release. Yet his successors as Bishops in 2020-21 were strangely silent on the matter, leaving me to ask the question, ‘do they believe it?’

So, to return to the original question, put to A&E: ‘Where are you? Where have you been? What is it you have done?  How would you answer in your life now? With a load of excuses and buck-passing, like A & E? Would you tell him what a success you’ve made of your life and how you’ve pleased your parents? Or would you humbly bow the knee before him and say, like mother Mary, ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’