Monday, January 23, 2012

Sermon: Sherlock & Gift

I confess with some embarrassment that I am a late convert to Sherlock. For those of you even less with it that I am, Sherlock is the name for the recently revitalized Sherlock Holmes BBC series which reworks Conan Doyles's hero into a C21 London format.

One of the main engines of the series is the frisson of unrequited love: John Watson is struck with awe and wonder for his friend Sherlock (all first names here) and John is ever concerned for Sherlock’s welfare. Sherlock though continues to process case after case, with all the emotional intelligence of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, oblivious to John's affections or indeed the interest of Molly Hooper, a plain Jane forensic scientist.

Sherlock's intellectual powers place him far above other mortals enabling him to see through the schemes of his enemies, but this same gift unwittingly separates him from human company too.

(Spoiler alert) Last week's episode, the final in the series, saw Sherlock facing his nemesis Moriaty with Sherlock unwittingly falling into a trap of his own creation. Moriarty succeeds in making Sherlock alienate public opinion by his arrogance, and persuades the police that Sherlock himself has all along been the mastermind behind the crimes he has apparently so miraculously solved. Sherlock’s powers of deduction are shown to have taken him into a dead-end: he is stuck.

It is the plain Jane character, Molly, who notices Sherlock's hidden anguish. 'If there’s anything at all, anything you need, you can have me...’. Sherlock is baffled: 'what can I need from you?'.

But later in the story, when the web of his own arrogance has drawn tight around him, Sherlock finally realizes his need of friendship and recalls her offer:

‘If I wasn’t everything that you think I am - that I think I am - would you still want to help me?’ he asks her. ‘What do you need?’, Molly replies instantly. ‘You’ says Sherlock.

Here is a moment where the gracious offer of one person to another, where deep gift, breaks through an impasse to bring liberation. And in the rest of the episode Molly’s gift cascades on through Sherlock himself to the point where the detective gives himself, apparently dying so that John can be spared from the threat of death.

To reinforce the theological territory the series has strayed onto, the writers even furnish us with a final scene featuring John (Sherlock’s beloved disciple?) visiting a garden tomb.

Christians ought to recognize what’s being alluded to: Generous, unexpected, unmerited gifts by one person can bring transformation and liberation to others. This is how Christianity interprets Jesus and the way he did his living - and dying - for others.

My long digression into Sherlock is not entirely self-indulgent: for the theme of transforming gift is found in today’s readings.

First we have that peculiar passage about Abram: Abram has just returned from a battle having rescued his nephew Lot from captivity. The story is unique, for Abram is otherwise never described as being involved in warfare (good to know the ancestor of the world’s three great monotheistic faiths is not a war-monger).

Here the story seems to intimate that only reluctantly has Abram intervened into a squabble among local kings in order to extricate a family member, and in the process he has liberated stolen possessions and taken prisoners. One of the protagonists, the King of Sodom, gleeful at the result, offers to carve up the spoils of the recent war with him: ‘you keep the loot,’ the king offers, ‘I’ll have the slaves’. Abram though will have none of it, coldly refusing to become part of the economy of balance-sheet conquest.

It is the mysterious visitor Melchizedek’s easy-to-overlook gift of bread and wine to the (probably) exhausted Abram that captures the story-teller and Abram’s interest. An unexpected gift of thanks, a moment of generosity, engages Abram so much that in return he offers a tenth of all he has. It is a gift that brings his change of heart.

It’s no surprise that early Christians, like the author of the letter to the Hebrews, saw in Melchizedek a fore-taste of that other generous gift-giver who offers bread and wine: Jesus himself.

And so again in John’s symbolic Cana story we also find the theme of gift and transformation. Jesus’s rich and unexpected, overflowing gift of intoxicating, delicious wine, fills to the brim the cold, empty stone vessels, relieving the stuck awkwardness of life and bringing joyful release. This happens on the ‘Third Day’ hints John: this story is symbolic of all that Jesus is and does: his self-giving resurrects us, raises us up, liberates us from being stuck.
Gift transforms.

We glimpse this mystery in our ordinary lives: even at the smallest of levels. Haven’t we all had moments when we have felt lonely, useless or neglected: but then the gift of someone else’s attention, their interest in us and what we’re doing, can suddenly transform and revitalise us. I suppose the mystery is found at its most obvious in romantic love: we may roll our eyes at those who are ‘in love’, but what we’re seeing is how the gift of one person’s being to another can bring intoxicating transformation, and with it self-confidence, liberation and joy to the one who is loved.

The gift of self, transforms.

But - but as much as we know this can be true: it is not always so. I wish this mysterious transformation always happened, but it does not. Sometimes a gift of love is rejected; sometimes the gift is abused or taken advantage of; and sometimes the gift is withdrawn.

One of the hardest moments in my ministry so far, was in supporting a woman who was contemplating leaving her husband who was an abusive and violent heroin addict. Should she continue to offer the gift of her love in the hope of his transformation, despite the many times he had relapsed, or should she get out?

Yes, there are these difficult ethical questions about how we are to live our lives as gifts. They remind us that this power is ultimately God’s, while we are fallible humans with limited choices...

Nevertheless in the end the truth about the transforming power of gift remains. The call to follow Christ is the call to explore how we can live our lives as gift to others and be signs in the world of God’s glory.

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