Epiphany 3 ~ Solving sin
Someone mentioned to me last Sunday that they had been enjoying the Father Brown mysteries that were being shown on daytime television a couple of weeks ago. Not being someone who knows what daytime television is, I do know about the BBC iplayer though, and so went sleuthing in search of Father Brown. And sure enough, there were 13 episodes to wade through, and as is the iPlayer norm, with only four days to watch them all. So during the week I decided to watch three a day and was delighted to see them all before they evaporated into the ether.
Father Brown, you may know, is a preposterously unrealistic, but rather endearing Roman Catholic priest created by G K Chesterton. In the TV adaptation he is the Parish Priest of a village called Kembleford in Gloucestershire. (In the books he is based in Essex.) You’ll be pleased to know that Kembleford does not exist – even though there is a place in Gloucestershire called Kemble. With a very short railway platform if I remember rightly. But it’s just as well, because the crime rate in Kembleford is huge, and makes Inspector Morse’s Oxford look decidedly safe. As well as being an incredibly murderous place, Kembleford also seems to be a Roman Catholic village with a setup that is basically Anglican. Father Brown cycles round his parish, where it seems everyone is Roman Catholic, goes to confession at least occasionally, and where all quaint English traditions are under the auspices of the Catholic Church, and he commands a respect and access – even to the police force, that would be the envy – or nightmare of any modern day Anglican Vicar. Indeed in one episode the Anglican Vicar is a character, who at a tea party murders his own brother. So, as we conclude this week of prayer for Christian unity, we have to conclude that GK Chesterton’s ecumenical credentials are not very strong! He was a Catholic convert after all.
That said, his Father Brown is invariably first at the scene of grisly event, and, of course he solves it, at the expense of the bumbling police. He is also seen, in almost every case, on his knees with the corpse, praying in Latin. He often gets to hear the confession of the murderer, and conducts the funeral of the victim. In fact he has it all pretty much sewn up – a little industry in his parish almost! And Father Brown is super-priest – caped in a cassock - The Church to the rescue, saving the day where all secular attempts fail.
Now then, I don’t usually watch crime dramas, not being a Miss Marple or Poirot enthusiast: my interest is purely ecclesiological let’s say. Because a priest who solves crimes does make for a very interesting metaphorical character. While most of his crimes involve a murder, his task is not always to find the bounder wot done it, but as often as not, to prove the innocence of someone else who has been assumed to be guilty, has been framed, or has even, in some cases, admitted the crime under duress or for strange reasons. In one episode a Doctor who has terminal cancer admits a murder in order to avoid either drawn-out illness, or the mortal sin of committing suicide. He is saved.
In another episode Father Brown saves a woman from the hangman’s noose seconds before the drop. And it’s all because things are not what they seem, and the answer isn’t obvious. For there is always a solution, there is always repentance, and there is always forgiveness, redemption and resolution in these stories. And these things are always present, even if someone is gorily done in, and their slaughterer ends up dangling from a noose.
Furthermore, underneath it all, there is his pastoral care of victims, onlookers, families and community. For whatever anyone has done, whatever their moral status, Father Brown embodies and demonstrates to them that they God’s children, loved by God, whose forgiveness is always available, and who seeks only that a sinner should turn to him in the face of pain or judgment. Poirot, Morse, Frost and Dixon of Dock Green were not priests, and so we are not used to hearing much about remorse, confession, absolution and redemption in the midst of Agatha Christian type plots. Only few others alongside GK Chesterton, such as Graeme Greene had theological or spiritual content – his novels often having deeply religious, but not so overtly religious content or meaning. Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is not a priest, nor is he explicitly religious except in the broadest sense, and PD James's Adam Dalgleish approach this dimension of spirituality, which gives the murder mystery genre a whole new depth.
Because murder, after all, is a sin. And this puts Father Brown – who simply by being written as a priest – is a Christ figure – it puts him in the world of sin. Which is of course exactly what God does with Christ – he enters this dark world of sin and offers forgiveness and redemption.
Murder, of course, is the archetypal sin. Coveting one’s neighbour’s ox does not generally make for a good Thriller. We can argue the ins and outs of whether it is ever acceptable to murder someone – or whether the taking of life is in fact not murder, and debates about this take root in many issues in contemporary life, personally and internationally - from birth to death – from conception to euthanasia, from warfare to regime change, from capital punishment to suicide bombing. We live in a world where we have developed the most amazing technologies and strategies for both creating and ending human life. And the moral, spiritual and theological mazes we can wander into can be disorientating indeed.
And yet, into the midst of a world of sin, steps Father Brown, offering solace, comfort, affirmation, welcome, forgiveness, understanding and redemption. In the stories, it is interesting to note that he never judges – although he does sometimes confront people with the truth. He doesn’t force anyone to do anything – such as confess – but helps them find their own way through to light and life – in the next world if not this one. In this way he is a Christ figure – never throwing the first stone, but rather, writing in the sand, as Jesus did when confronted by the woman caught in adultery.
Our readings today talk about the people walking in darkness seeing a great light. Maybe you can hear Handel’s Messiah in the background – it is a famous text – and today we have heard it from Isaiah and then quoted by St Matthew who relates it directly to Jesus. Jesus is the great light – the revelation of God’s light – the light coming into the world, as St John put it. As we are still in the Christmas and Epiphany season, we are reminded that this idea of Christ revealed as light to the world is a great Epiphany theme. Epiphany is all about revealings – the revealings of Christ to the world. We see that as he is revealed to the Magi, revealed at the baptism in the Jordan, and revealed as the water is turned into wine at Cana. And here revealed as light to a world darkened by ignorance and sin.
But, as our gospel reading reminds us, it is not simply about recognizing the revealing – for the revelation leads to action. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, but Jesus immediately begins to call them to repentance and then calls disciples to follow him and to fish for people. Faith and action are combined in an inseparable way.
It is only since the time of Christ – indeed it might even be argued that it is only in the last couple of centuries – that the idea of what you believe and what you do, have been separated. In the past – in Jewish and early Christian history, anyone who said one thing and did another, was deemed a hypocrite – literally an actor with two faces. Whereas nowadays, it is common to hear folk say things like, ‘I’m a Christian but I don’t force it on anyone else’. Or, ‘Faith is personal, what people do is up to them’. Or ‘Faith is important – everyone should choose their faith and try to live by it’. Or, commoner still – ‘what I believe and what I do is my business – it is between me and God’.
These are the standards we now live by and the mantras we so often hear. Any concept of anything being right or wrong is pushed into the background – a no-go area to which anything too complex to be resolved amicably is relegated.
That’s not what today’s gospel says though – nor the rest of the Bible in fact. Put simply, we hear how Jesus is revealed as light to the dark world of sin and ignorance, and his immediate first actions as he sets out his stall of love, is to call people to repentance and send his followers to tell everyone about the good news of forgiveness of sins and healing of body and mind.
And what this boils down to, is that whatever any of us have done, thought or said, if only we can step forward from the dim and dingy world of relativism and self-justification, we can be illuminated, forgiven and freed. Christ is our light, and this is what he shows us, and calls us to believe and to do. For belief and action are one and the same – always have been – and actually, always will be. The ancient word ‘hypocrite’, strangely enough, hasn’t died out! It’s a word still often used - but do be careful using it, and be aware that probably, at root, it applies to all of us. It is, in fact hypocritical to call someone a hypocrite…
It applies to all of us when we don’t act according to our faith. When we gloss over the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. When we fail to follow Christ or neglect to encourage others to do so. We’ve all done that.
Its what we are called to, but the marginalization of Christianity and the worldly view that everyone can sort out their own inner lives so long as they don’t impinge upon or challenge anyone else’s has led us into a dark, dingy dead end of fear and self-loathing. Fortunately it’s not a one-way street, because there is always the option to turn around and face the other way, to travel towards the light at the end of the tunnel –and that light, of course, is Christ. So many today are walking away from him, when what is needed is a turn around – a conversion – to walk the other way, towards rather than away from that light.
And this, after all, is what Father Brown models in all his encounters with perpetrators and victims of crimes. Guilty or not, he invites them to see and follow the light of God, revealed in the loving mercy of Christ, who has the power to transform even the most wicked deed into something acceptable to himself. I wonder if the reason we tend to like murder mysteries, is because we are all, on some level, murderers. We are all sinners for sure. But we are also all victims, and so we empathise with the victims, and we want to see good triumph and justice prevail in the neat resolutions of a crime solved.
We are all sinners but we are all victims. Only the light of Christ can illuminate that fact, and only his loving mercy can heal us and carry us forward in the light of that fact. And that is why he calls us to be his disciples, to bring that good news to all the world.
Good old Father Brown – he knew what he was doing.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 26/01/14