Posted by: owizblog | March 13, 2016

“The Man Who Passed Through Fiumicino Airport And Thought He Had Visited Rome.” Sermon, UCB, 13 March 2016

Isaiah 43:16-21


Our holiday this year took us to many astonishing places, places in Moorish Spain we’d dreamed of for decades: the Great Mosque at Cordoba; Seville; Granada and the Alhambra – and to places in Italy I’d heard of more recently, but very much wanted to visit: Alberobello, in Puglia, with its amazing conical houses of stone, the trulli, and the Tomb of St Nicholas in the ancient port city of Bari. Yes, we visited Santa’s grave!

As far as I was concerned, there was only one disappointment, but it was a big one – Rome. I mean, it was OK; very swish and modern, with wonderful coffee, and excellent pizza, but really nothing special. All concrete and glass, and lots of people bustling around. I really don’t know what all the fuss is about. I’m saving up my other holiday snaps for the Afternoon Guild, tomorrow, but here, if you’re interested, are my photos of Rome. I just hope they don’t put you off going, if you’ve never been…



I’m toying with you, of course. I was in Rome – for all of three hours, on our way from Malaga to Bari – and never left Fiumicino airport. It was my first visit to Italy, the first place I’d ever been to in Italy. In a way my actual experience was the reverse of what I’ve just described.

Fiumicino Airport is very neatly laid out, stylish – and even in the airport coffee shop that we spent an hour in having lunch, the two Italian coffees I had were so Italian, and the slice of pizza sufficient to persuade me that I’d probably never really eaten anything the Italians would call pizza in my life (and to have me salivating at the prospect of the real pizzas yet to come, in real Italian pizzerias – and in that, I can assure you, I was not to be disappointed).

I was still raving about the experience when we got to Bari a few hours later, and even the following day. And perhaps it was the jet-lag, and the sheer excitement of being in Italy after immersion in Moorish Spain, but I found myself using the expression “When I was in Rome…” Our Italian friends smiled gently. In my brief experience of the Eternal City was no Colosseum, no Trevi Fountain, no Sistine Chapel, no Pantheon or Column of Trajan or anything other than Fiumicino Airport, with its excellent airport coffee and pizza. And here I was talking about “When I was in Rome…”

I smiled back, abashed, and suggested that if  I ever write an autobiography, I might call it “The Man Who Passed Through Fiumicino Airport And Thought He Had Visited Rome”…

We’re like that, aren’t we. Because we are such tiny beings, and the world is so huge, because our physical bodies confine us to here, and now, we are completely preoccupied with the here, and the now.

Yet not always.

There are moments…


You have already heard one of our three readings. For the tiny exilic community in Babylon in the 540s BC, being completely preoccupied with the here and the now meant being completely preoccupied with captivity.

It meant seeing nothing but Babylon. Not God, not hope, nothing but where we are right now. It meant sitting, and weeping, and having no song to sing, being filled with a frustrated, curdled, rage and despair, the kind of resentment that corrodes the soul and turns victims into furious people who think less than humanly.

Read Psalm 137, and get beyond the part that Boney M turned into one of the most engagingly annoying of 1970s disco earworms, By the waters of Babylon, and you will be horrified at what being stuck in the here and now does to the humanity and the souls of people for whom the here and now is a prison, the murderous hatred that is brewed up in the distorted, anger-filled despair of their situation.

Happy shall he be who requites you

with what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones

and dashes them against the rock!


These are horrible, horrible thoughts.

But then comes someone who is not immersed in the here and the now, who can not only look back and forwards and beyond, but can get this bogged-down little community to do that, too. He can access dimensions of being that put the here, and the now, into a context so vast that the Babylonian Empire itself, and the world it claims to rule, are only a tiny detail of it. Because he’s a prophet… and because he can speak of God…

And see how he does that.


‘Forget the former things;

do not dwell on the past.

See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?


All that dwelling on the past can do for you is remind you that the present is small, and confined, and frustrating, and opaque. You can’t see through it to anything better, you can’t see through it to new hope, new possibility, and dwelling on the past will only increase your pain and frustration.

The past can do only one thing for you.

It can set the scale of the surprises to come. It can remind you that bad things came upon you before, and you were brought through them.

But beyond what we can see from where we are, is what we can’t. We don’t see the whole picture. From where you are, looking every day at the Babylon that is your captivity, says the prophet, you can’t see what is happening beyond. That the world is changing. That the desert, that was a barrier, is being transformed.


I am making a way in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland.


If you are completely taken up with what you are looking at day by day, if that’s the extent of your life, the horizon of your living, you won’t be able to see the Big Picture.


The Big Picture. I wince as I say it! The Big Picture is a platitude, but a useful one. What we don’t see because we are looking at bits of the picture, and take them for the whole thing. Like the Jews in Babylon. Like me in Fiumicino Airport, I suppose.

And like Paul, so preoccupied with his own life, his own rectitude and holiness and righteousness, in the days when he was a Pharisee. Everything, for him, boiled down to being the best Pharisee he could, and sparing himself nothing. And listen, as Isabel reads this morning’s lection from Philippians, to how Paul makes no polite apology, exhibits no false modesty, about a period in his life when he thought that being the best Pharisee he could was what it was all about, was what pleased God the best, was the Big Picture. But it wasn’t. It was just the only picture he had, where he was. He couldn’t see the Big Picture – so he thought this was it.

He wanted God – but was stuck with himself.

The Big Picture has turned his Small Picture inside out. What he thought WAS the big picture is now clearly not just a sideshow, a detail in the corner; it’s actually completely misleading. The Big Picture isn’t about how successfully his piety, and righteousness, and zeal for the faith get him closer to God. The Big Picture is about the love and grace of Christ, and how the demands that that makes of him – and of us – are completely different.

In some ways, Paul’s experience is the opposite of the Babylonian exiles. All he could see was his anxiety about how well he was meeting God’s demands, how well he was measuring up. All they could see was their powerlessness and frustration and smallness. They could only see Babylon as huge and God as hidden and invisible behind the world as they saw it. They couldn’t see the Big Picture. Saul, as you will now hear, could only see himself, anxious, struggling to live up to what was in his own head, his picture of God, his understanding of God’s demands.

[Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14]

[Hymn: 87 Be thou my vision]

[Reading: John 12:1-8]


The Babylonian Exiles; all they know is what they can see from where they are. They have no idea of a “beyond” to any of this that they can’t see, but which will let them make a different sense of what they can see. And that’s what their anonymous prophet offers them. In a word – God.

Paul, when he was Saul, the proud Pharisee, with every reason, if being a Pharisee is your only frame of reference, to be proud of what he is. He isn’t just a fine Pharisee; he’s the best. Yet it doesn’t take him anywhere. He’s as much a prisoner of his present and his past as are the Babylonian Exiles. He frames his understanding of his existence in terms of what he’s known, and what he can see from where he is. Just like them. And just like “The Man Who Passed Through Fiumicino Airport And Thought He Had Visited Rome”…

And his experience of Christ is that his whole being is reframed in terms of what he can’t possibly know from where he is now, and what he can see from there. In terms of faith, and hope – and, indeed, love. Those things that go beyond what we can see and know from where we are now.


And then, we heard Isabel read the story of that wonderful evening – the sort of evening we, nowadays, would probably call “magical” –  when Jesus and the disciples are just sitting over a leisurely dinner in the house of old friends, an evening special because it’s so familiar, so comfortable, nothing beyond what’s before our eyes, and the memories that connects with.

We all remember evenings like this. No strain, no putting on airs, nothing forced… The sort of evening you look forward to because you know exactly how it will be, and that’s how it is.

And they all sit in the room, and something unusual happens, but not so unusual as to spoil the mood or the feel. It’s a bit out of the ordinary, yes; Mary does something unusual, extravagant, something that makes them think how special this Jesus is to her. And Judas says something a bit crass, a bit mood-spoiling, but that’s just Judas being exceptionally “Judassy,” and Jesus says something that they don’t quite get, but which shows his appreciation, anyway, of what Mary just did, with that expensive box of ointment, and restores the mood. Maybe they feel, as it all comes to an end that this was exceptionally special, just as we sometimes only sense as it’s coming to an end that a day has been really special, and will live in our memories, as we look back on it.

But there’s more to this.

Mary has grasped what Jesus already knew, that this is the last of these evenings. Mary had intuited that Jesus was on his way to something that would change everything. Mary understood that there was far more to this wonderfully convivial evening than to all the others they could all look back on.

And what Mary did, only she and Jesus “got”, there and then. Beyond this little bubble of comfort and familiarity which is all the others can see, is everything that terrifies them – and us. All the uncertainty, and complexity of real life in the world. All those things that can strike in from outside and change our lives forever, all those things we live in fear of. All


Today is, traditionally, “Passion Sunday.” It represents a special point in our experience of Easter. A pause. A vantage point to take in the Big Picture, the landscape of faith, and the Passion Story.

Beyond this point, we’re into the events.

“Events, dear boy, events…” said Harold Macmillan, of those things that break over us like waves, and disrupt our thinking, and stop us from looking at anything but what’s in front of us, or standing back and understanding anything in new ways.

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and beyond that point, we are plunged into events, things happening. We move from the rapturous welcome to the challenge of the Cleansing of the Temple (in the Synoptic Gospels, at least) to the conspiracies and the gathering opposition and Judas’ arrangement to betray, and the Last Supper, and the kangaroo trials of late night and early morning, and the horror of the walk to Calvary and the Crucifixion and the burial…

But it touches our real lives in the twenty-first century, too, Passion Sunday is traditionally the Sunday on which, before we’re plunged into “Events, dear boy, events…” when we can step back and understand, or at least glimpse, that our tiny living in the world, coping with what today has brought, what was left over from yesterday, and what we’re afraid tomorrow might bring, and see how faith sets all of that in a huge new context, a Big Picture, that changes all the details we think we can make sense of, and then realize we can’t.

And we don’t have to know or understand the Big Picture. In fact, how can we, from where we are? How can we, any more than I could form an impression of the glories of Rome, the Eternal City, from the concrete and glass and excellent coffee and pizza of Fiumicino Airport?

We are stuck, for now, where we are. And sometimes that’s bearable, or even very pleasant, and sometimes it’s crushing, and depressing, and feels like an exile from everything that used to make sense of life, so that nothing does make sense any more.

All of us here today have to live where we are. The perspective we have is the view from here. And on a fraught Monday morning, or a weary Thursday evening, or a night that offers no sleep, or a day that brought things we didn’t expect, that’s a very restricted view.

But hope says that there is a beyond, and faith names that beyond “God”, and we understand all this in the love that grasps us in Christ, and that evokes, brings out, that same love in our living. And that changes everything.

Christ in our lives, in the preaching of the Church, is our glimpse of the Big Picture.

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