Sermon for Eve of the Assumption – Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 August 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
In 2010 so-called super-model Naomi Campbell gave testimony at the Hague in the trial of the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, for war-crimes. Naomi Campbell is famous in the modern style, famous for being famous; famous for what she looks like. More media time was devoted to her presence at the trial than was given to the trial itself in its three years’ duration. Ms Campbell expressed irritation at the inconvenience to which she had been put: she’d tried refusing to come and had to be subpoenaed. The ‘inconvenience’ was an interruption to her holiday in Dubai with her boyfriend. The most striking thing about Campbell’s astonishingly unhelpful testimony was her description of some ‘blood diamonds’.
As you probably know, blood diamonds are stones mined in a war zone and sold to finance illegal and mercenary military activity, usually in Africa; they are so-called because people die as a result of their mining and trade; Liberia is a place where this happens a lot. Ms Campbell, who claimed she hadn’t known where Liberia was when she met Mr Taylor in 1997, declined decisively to link him with the stones she received. Given that she had previously denied receiving any diamonds at all, the next part of her account was especially interesting. She claimed that, having been woken in the night by some strange men knocking on her door (apparently not remarkable), she was given a pouch in which she ‘…saw a few dirty-looking stones’. She said that these didn’t look like diamonds to her; the sort of diamonds she was used to seeing were ‘bright and shiny’.
Mitigating her previous assertion that she had not received any diamonds, she now recalled being given something that didn’t look like diamonds to her. So she hadn’t lied, exactly. These, she explained, she had quickly passed them to a charity organiser, alleging that ‘some good might be done’ with the money they’d fetch: so she obviously knew they were both valuable and ‘tainted’ goods.
This is a fascinating story of appearances and realities. Everyone involved was carefully watching their own back, including the man to whom she gave the stones. He also at first denied having received them; then he admitted to having and keeping them. Even though he knew their provenance, he didn’t just throw them down the nearest drain. He kept them: he too knew they were worth a lot of money.
None of this would be news, sadly, if Ms Campbell weren’t involved. The real story is those few dirty-looking stones and what they mean. Taylor thought they’d get Naomi Campbell’s attention; Ms Campbell didn’t refuse them, nor did she throw them away, even though she understood their significance; their final recipient held on to them in the hope of a useful non-contributory pension-scheme for himself.
These stones have a superficial resemblance to something of which Jesus often speaks in parables: that true value that is only found in our relationship with God, the Kingdom, as he calls it, real treasure, the ‘pearl of great price’. We Christians, Paul says have this treasure, in ‘earthen vessels’, in ourselves, not in shiny and perfect celebrity packages, in the people we are, each one unique and loved by God as his children.
The diamonds didn’t look like the real thing, but all the people involved in this sorry tale knew very well that there was more to them than how they looked. That is true in two senses. They could be cut and polished and made to look like the ‘proper’ diamonds that Campbell was used to seeing. But they also had blood on them, because of how they were mined and traded. So, while they look like a few dirty pebbles, they mean quite a lot more: a lot of money, and a lot of human suffering. In themselves they remain neutral things which can be put to good or bad use. The raw material requires intentional work to make something of them, good or bad.
Jesus, the letter to the Hebrews says, is a self-portrait of God. But the raw material of his humanity, intrinsically valuable beyond anything we can dig out of the ground, also needed human work if we were to understand the value of the picture. Mary did the first of that work; it was through Mary that he came to birth as one of us, so that we could make sense of God. Mary cared for him during all the years he remained unknown and unrecognized, just another scruffy child or rather intense young man. When at last he emerged into public view, he did not meet with universal acclaim. The religious establishment refused to believe in him: he didn’t look like a proper Messiah to them. Mary continued to believe in him and stood by him to the end.
God raised him from the dead, vindicating him and putting his stamp of approval on all he proclaimed and lived for. And Mary later shared in his victory, which is why we keep this feast of the Assumption, honouring the humble and faithful woman, obscure and yet glorified with her son, who demonstrates the way of cheerful perseverance in faith and obedience which begins with humility and love. Each of us is made in the image of God. That doesn’t mean that we look like God; it means that we have within us the divine spark of life.
Mary gave us a human relationship with God by bringing Jesus to birth; and Mary saw, saw not just the surface, but the true value in her child; she kept that treasure safe and helped it to grow to full potential. Mary, first to share in the resurrection which is promised to us all, continues to intercede with her son for our needs. With her help, and by the grace of God, we may hope to share in her glory and the glory of her Son in heaven. She is the first Christian and a sign of where our Christian journey can take us: maybe through doubt and sorrow, but always looking upwards to that glory, bright beyond any diamond, which lies ahead if we follow him, as she did.