Sermon given at Matins on the Fifth Sunday of Lent 2015
Start Date: 22nd Mar 2015
Start Time: 10:00

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The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

You may have read recently in the national press about the extraordinary escape from armed guards in China made by the human rights lawyer, Chen GuangCheng. Now living in Washington DC he recalls, in a book published this week, his escape from the village of Dongshigu in Shandong Province on the night of 20 April 2012.

Aided by his wife, Weijing, the 43-year-old lawyer waited for nearly 12 hours after first climbing on to the roof of his house, crossing a neighbour's yard and crawling through three goat pens before – finally – reaching the edge of the heavily guarded village.

After breaking three bones in his foot when he landed badly from dropping over a wall, Mr Chen describes his painful and painstaking journey to the neighbouring village of Xishigu, over a mile away, walking and crawling through the wet undergrowth until his knees were bloodied and burning with pain.

Eventually, just as dawn breaks, Mr Chen is taken in by a friend and, after word is passed to Beijing is driven to the capital where he manages to negotiate safe passage into the US Embassy.

What makes this story most extraordinary is that Mr Chen was left almost completely blind by a fever when he was five months old. He describes the hyper-sensitised sensory world of smell, sounds and touch that enabled him to feel his way to safety and anticipate dangers ahead.

"I could recognise all the roosters in the village by their cries," he writes, as he waited for the rooster from his own house to call, a sign that it was "around one-thirty in the morning" and it was time to make his final break.

"I explored every inch of that part of the wall, memorising the exact location of each hold – where the first step would be, then the second, then the third. Once I reached the top, I would be completely exposed, so I could make no mistakes while climbing," he writes.

The Bible has a long history of using sight – or more accurately, the lack of it – as a metaphor for a spiritual state. The prophet Isaiah talks about the Lord's desire 'to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness'. Not only are the lame, the maimed, the blind brought to Jesus, but he brings condemnation on the 'blind guides, who say, "Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath."' And this is a rich seam for this Lenten season we are in, acknowledging that even for those who enjoy the benefits of 20/20 vision – perhaps, especially for us – not only do we have blind-spots, areas of our lives to which we are unsighted, but we may in reality be living in a spiritual fantasy-land, so dazzled by the bright lights that we fail to perceive the underlying fragility of our condition.

This is the image being portrayed in the hand-out you should have received as you came into the Abbey this morning, to which I now invite you to turn.

It is the fifth in a series of 7 paintings by the British artist, Adam Boulter, who is working as the Missions to Seafarers Chaplain in the Port of Aqaba in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Adam's work draws heavily on the natural environment around him where, located at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea, he spends much time painting the deserts which surrounds him.

This picture follows on from ones depicting Abraham and Sarah at Mamre; Jacob wrestling with the Angel; the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and Jesus' Temptation in the Wilderness. The series, together with the accompanying sonnets by the Cambridge poet Malcolm Guite, can be found next door in St Margaret's Church, Parliament Square.

The story of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus is well known: his presence at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr; his angry condemnation of Christians; his desire to travel to Damascus to seek the persecution of the Church; the blinding light in the sky, the voice of the Lord he was seeking to destroy, the scales falling from his eyes as he met Ananias.

By setting the scene at night, Adam Boulter has immediately introduced an unexpected element. We expect broad daylight, we expect the bright and blinding light. In fact, this is an ancient artistic device used by others to illustrate the blindness of Saul. Carravaggio and Giordano both darken the scene around Saul, so that the light falls more strongly in contrast.

But Adam is doing something more: this isn't about the dazzling shaft of light which overcomes and overwhelms. This image is about the spiritual darkness which Saul's blindness reveals. What's left after the glare of brilliance is the imprint of loss: the loss of one's way, the loss of direction; the loss of perception. As if, by analogy, Saul had looked too closely to the sun in eclipse and his retina was damaged.

>Not only does he lose his way, but he loses his power to lead the way. Saul – who using his Roman name, Paul – would lead the church from the confines of an obscure province, to the very heart of the empire, at this stage is diminished, eclipsed himself, left needing to be guided every step of the way.

But in his blindness, like the Chinese Chen GuangCheng, he has to switch on this spiritual antennae. To attend to God and truly to work out his salvation in his encounter with the Living Christ and the help of Ananias.

If ever there were a story of pride, hubris, downfall, salvation and restoration, it is Saul's. It is perhaps also ours for Lent.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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