Preached at All Saints’, Cuddesdon and St giles Horspath by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on Sunday 28th June 2015.
Readings: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Mark 5:21-43
In 1937 Frank Capra produced his famous film version of James Hilton’s book Lost Horizon. This classic story tells of a group of Westerner’s whose plane crashes in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, where they are rescued by the ancient and enigmatic residents of Shangri-La, a place of beauty and peace protected from the outside world by the ring of treacherous mountains that encircle the Valley of the blue Moon. There they find the residents live to an ancient age, all the comforts of modern facilities, healing and a peace of mind they had only ever dreamed of. The story may now no longer be a classic but the idea of Shangri-La has passed into our popular culture. Reaching beyond the notion of a place, it continues to hold the dream of peace and longevity within a world where violence and death is the norm for so many.
Perhaps sensing the impending doom of the Second World War, Capra makes a few telling alterations to Hilton’s book in his film of the same name. The most obvious is the ending which he makes much more hopeful and positive. In the book Conway finds Shangri-La once again having left it, whereas in the book it is lost forever, as is the fleeting and transient dream of all that is beautiful and lovely. But perhaps a more significant change is the Christian language and ethos Capra introduces to the original vision of the residents of the Valley of the Blue Moon. This is most apparent in the scene where the High Lama, a 200 year Jesuit priest, Father Perrault, explains to Conway the purpose and meaning of Shangri-La. In a stirring speech he describes how a storm is coming when greed and brutality will surge over the earth and men will rage hotly against everything that is good. For this time, Shangri-La gathers all that is beautiful and good, to hold it in safe keeping, hidden away until the storm has abated. Then, when the end has come, new life and hope will be found in Shangri-La. Until that day they will preserve all books and art and music and a way of life which is based on one simple rule – be kind. In the ashes of destruction the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread out across the world and the Christian ethic at last will be fulfilled and the meek will inherit the earth.
It is this simple yet profound rule that we find being enacted by both David and Jesus in our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning. David’s song or elegy to Jonathan and Saul is a stirring piece of poetry which expresses his great grief but also fittingly elevates the death of the king and his son into a cosmic catastrophe which will stop the rains on Gilboa and dry up all the crops. Much like W H Auden’s famous Funeral Blues where all the clocks are commanded to stop and the dog denied his juicy bone because of the death of a loved one, so David tells all the daughters of Israel to weep at the fact that Jonathan lays slain upon the high places. This is a tragedy and a terrible loss for in their deaths ‘the mighty have fallen’, they who were swifter than eagles and stronger than lions are no more. Like many laments that followed David exalts both Saul and Jonathan, they are presented in mythic and heroic terms where maybe the truth is not so auspicious.
If we look back in the Book of Samuel we find Saul’s reign being a less than perfect one. It started with so much promise from the Lord that he would give them a good and wise king but despite his outer beauty, his heart was less than wise. David’s relationship with Saul has been a tempestuous series of falling outs, so much so that Saul even threatens to kill him. It’s not very surprising when you consider that in the battles with the Philistines, David has been like a thorn in Saul’s side and reputation as the street song caricatures: ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’. Now in this the culminating battle Saul and his son have lost their lives and David is given the political opportunity to grasp power and become the new king. But this is not what he does, instead David publicly leads the mourning, painting a picture of the king and his relationship with his son in terms that can only be described as kind and magnanimous in relation to the truth. He does not take advantage of the situation to bolster his own power and reputation but kindly honours this flawed man whom the Lord had chosen to be king.
It is this same characteristic of compassionate kindness that underpins Jesus’ encounters with both the young girl and the old woman of our gospel reading. Both are very ill and in need of healing. In their own way it is the action of both Jairus and the old woman who instigate a response of compassionate kindness from Jesus. Jarius falls on his knees to beg the young rabbi to come and see his sick daughter, whilst it is out of fear of the embarrassment and humiliation, as well as faith, that the old woman surreptitiously attempts to be healed literally behind Jesus’ back without being noticed. In each case their plea and faith in him inspires a response of kindness and compassion from Jesus which leads to healing.
In our self-sufficient world, where there is a reluctance to need anybody let alone rely on them for our well-being, kindness is so often an underrated virtue. Seen too often as a euphemism for weakness or compliance, kindness has no place in a world of brutal greed and violence. Yet what a difference a simple act of kindness can make. The other day we were driving home up the Iffley road as we so often do these days and the tyre blew on the car. I stopped just by Rose hill Methodist church, without a mobile or AA cover and wondered what to do. I was just thinking of getting out the jack and spare wheel when a cyclist stopped and asked if he could help. I had never been more relieved. He suggested we first moved the car off the hill, as it would probably wasn’t a good idea to change a tyre where we were. So I gingerly drove to a side street and we got the jack out. It soon became apparent though that this kind young man had about as much knowledge and experience of changing tyres as I did. Even Thomas thought he might be able help as we struggled to work the jack. Then suddenly another cyclist appeared, a Polish guy, who deftly showed us in only a few brief words what we were doing wrong and changed the tyre in five minutes whilst the rest of us looked on with admiration. We drove off with many words of thanks and blessing for their acts of kindness.
For Frank Capra Shangri-La was not so much a lost horizon which is unknown and unattainable but it is and ethos realised every day in the small and large acts of kindness that people do for others. We can all be kind to each other, there is no monopoly on kindness. But what our gospel shows us is that kindness is an attribute, a characteristic of God. It is how he responds to us and to his world. When we at times are wounded by the storms of this life and unable to be kind to ourselves let alone to others, it is then that we can cry out to our Lord and receive from his compassionate kindness the healing and peace of Shangri-La and fulfil once again our simple Christian rule of life – be kind. Amen.