Even though Easter Day has been and gone, we are still in the season of Easter tide so Easter blessings to you all.
I don ’t know if you watched it, but for two Fridays leading up to Easter we saw 8 celebrities of differing faiths and no faith, don backpacks and walking boots to tackle part of an ancient pilgrimage to Rome, called the Via Francigena, which begins in Canterbury. It was an eclectic group; some famous and some not so well known; but they all had one thing in common, they were on a journey of discovery.
There was Dana, a devout practicing Catholic – remember her from the Eurovision Song contest, with her song “All kinds of everything remind me of you”? Who knew that she was just a schoolgirl of 18 years when she won it in 1970, nearly 50 years ago.
Also in the group was Lesley Joseph, who played Dorian in the situation comedy series Birds of a Feather. Lesley described herself as a lapsed Jew.
Then there was Greg Rutherford, the Olympian who was formerly a Jehovah’s Witness; Les Dennis the comedian, who told us how his mother turned her back on the church when she was refused baptism of her baby daughter, because she was born out of wedlock. Although at her death she wished to have a catholic funeral you could see how the pain of his mother had badly affected him.
Another of the group was a young lady named Mehreen Baig. “Never heard of her” I hear you say, and neither had I but that just shows our age, because she is a very successful T.V. presenter, who is also a devout Muslim.
There were also two comedians Stephen K. Amos and Katy Brand who openly stated that they didn’t follow any faith and, last but not least, strictly professional dancer and out and out atheist Brendan Cole.
The journey took them using transport and walking for fourteen days to make it to Rome and throughout we could see how their friendship and camaraderie grew in their united struggle and their ups and downs. Along the route they were offered kindness, compassion and much needed hospitality. But I think the most lingering memory will be their private audience with Pope Francis, who gave them such wise and compassionate words to ponder. He said “Life is a journey whether you walk with or without faith. It is a human pilgrimage and it is harder than walking the Via Francigena pilgrimage. The comedian Stephen K Amos wanted to ask the pope a question because, as a gay man, he had felt very rejected by the church and wondered that if God did not love him, well where does he belong? His friends advised him that it might be wiser to not be disrespectful to the Pope by asking embarrassing questions. But the opportunity came for him to ask his heartfelt question.
He said to Pope Francis “I lost my mother and three months ago I buried my twin sister, both were very religious and I was looking for answers and faith, but as a gay man I don’t feel accepted. The pope replied “Giving more importance to the adjective (describing word) rather than the noun, (person, thing) this is not good. We are all human beings and have dignity. It does not matter who you are or how you live your life, you do not lose you dignity. There are people who prefer to select or discard people because of the adjective. These people don’t have human hearts. As he looked around the group sitting around him He said “I feel myself among brothers and sisters and I have not asked any of you what your faith or belief is, because you have a basic faith in humanity. He then asked “For those of you who are believers’ please pray for me and for those who do not believe, could you wish me a good journey so I don’t let anybody down. Thank you. He then hugged them all.
As I reflected on what the Pope had said, I thought of all the adjectives that the world gives so much importance to: good, bad, rich, poor, old, disabled, young, male, female, black, white, immigrant asylum seeker, the list goes on.
The list goes on………….showing how unique we all are. In our Holy Week reflections we looked again at the washing of the disciples feet by Jesus and we sang a song called “Love each other”. The opening words are: ”All the room was hushed and still and when the bowl was filled. He stooped to wash their feet and when it was complete, he said This is what I’m asking you to do This is why I’m kneeling here beside you This is what I want my church to be This is what I want the world to see Who it is you follow.” When Jesus died on the cross, it was despite our having fallen and it was through His love for us. Just as it not about us, it is all about God, when we are in Christ Jesus it is all about who we follow rather than whom or what others decide to be or do. Against all the pomp of Rome, I believe this is what Pope Francis in his humility is leading the church to be.
Our own Arch Bishop, Justin Welby asked for our prayers at his own institution, because, just like the pope, he knew it is not an easy task to do what Jesus asks us to do. So as we continue our own pilgrim journey I wonder if you can pray, for yourself, the church and its leaders that we will not distinguish against people because of adjectives but accept them because of their humanness.
God bless you.