Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after Easter

Daniel 6:1-23 – in the Lion Pit; Mark 15:46-16:8

I went to London Zoo last week, for the first time since I was a teenager. With my elder daughter Emma, I was taking my five-month-old grandson James. The Zoo had a special exhibition to celebrate that lovely children’s book ‘Dear Zoo’, by Rod Campbell. 

Emma told me that James, or Jim, as I call him, was specially keen to see the tigers and lions. We managed to arrive at the tiger enclosure just at feeding time, and we saw Mum and Dad tiger, Jae Jae and Melati by name, with their two rather large cubs, Achilles and Karis, enjoying some large steaks. On the way out of Tiger Territory we saw a sign with a picture indeed showing a nice steak, with a caption which said, ‘This is what you look like to a tiger’: that is, lunch.

Then we entered a splendid replica of the Gir Forest, in Gujarat, India, complete with a ruined Hindu temple, a garishly-painted lorry and a tuk-tuk, and a railway halt with a fine upper-quadrant home signal from Indian Railways. A sign said, ‘Detrain here for Gir Forest – Famous for its Lions’. You can tell it was really Indian because they said you should ‘detrain’ rather than ‘alight’. It’s wonderful that Railway English comes in regional dialects!

The lorry was the real thing. I could tell that because Indian lorries always have a large message on their rear ends, inviting you to hoot at them – ‘Horn please!’ or, as this one said, ‘Horn okay please’. I suppose that this conforms with the rules of Railway English too. In the proper old days of steam, certain carriages were designated as ‘Smoking’ – not ‘No smoking’. The default was ‘no smoking’. It was like what someone once said about the rule of law in Switzerland: things are normally prohibited, unless there is a notice which gives you permission to do them.

The Gir Forest in Regent’s Park was home to some rather sleepy lions, who had obviously eaten well. I knew that they too saw us humans as walking steaks.

I can’t imagine – well, perhaps I can imagine it, but I would rather not – what the lion pit which King Darius had must have seemed like, when Daniel was thrown into it. Our lesson, from the Book of Daniel, ends at verse 23, with Daniel having spent the night among the lions, without having come to grief. However, the chapter has a final line, verse 24, which says, 

‘By order of the king, Daniel’s accusers were brought and thrown into the lions’ pit with their wives and children, and before they reached the floor of the pit the lions were upon them and crunched them up, bones and all.’ 

Crunched them up, bones and all. That’s what big cats do. Although we like to anthropomorphise our cats, make little people out of them – you know, on Twitter you can follow all the various cats in Downing Street as well as Larry the No 10 cat – certainly when you get to lions, their usual mode of interaction with the human race doesn’t usually end well: at least not well for the humans.

There was of course the shining exception of the lion who rejoiced in the name of Christian, who was bought as a cub from the pet department of Harrod’s in the late Sixties by two trendy Chelsea types called Ace Bourke and John Rendall, and who was kept in a flat in the King’s Road and taken for walks on a lead – until he got rather big and showed signs of being tempted to bite people. His owners then took him to Africa, to Kenya, and with the help of Joy Adamson’s Born Free Foundation, prepared him for his eventual release back into the wild. 

There was a wonderful sequel. Several years later, Christian’s erstwhile owners decided to visit Kenya and see if they could find out how Christian was getting on. They met up – and there is an extraordinary film of this massive male lion bounding out of the bush and charging towards John Rendall. Was he going to be lunch? But no – mirabile dictu – marvellous to relate – Christian the lion jumped up, put his massive paws on Rendall’s shoulders and embraced him. There is a wonderful film about it, called A Lion called Christian. [See http://www.alioncalledchristian.com.au%5D

Perhaps Daniel had, unknown to his fellow satraps, (provincial governors), made friends with King Darius’ lions, at some time before he was thrown into their den, and so they left him unmolested. Somehow I think it’s not very likely. It was a proper miracle that he wasn’t devoured in the usual lion way.

Talking of being devoured in the ‘usual lion way’, I’m glad that my grandson Jim is only five months old, so when he went to the Zoo he hadn’t read Hilaire Belloc’s poem about his namesake and a lion. But do you remember it?

There was a Boy whose name was Jim; 

His friends were very good to him. 

They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam, 

And slices of delicious Ham,

And Chocolate with pink inside, 

And little Tricycles to ride,

And read him stories through and through, 

And even took him to the zoo-

But there it was the dreadful Fate 

Befell him, which I now relate.

You know – at least you ought to know, 

For I have often told you so-

That Children never are allowed

To leave their Nurses in a Crowd; 

Now this was Jim’s especial Foible, 

He ran away when he was able, 

And on this inauspicious day

He slipped his hand and ran away! 

He hadn’t gone a yard when – Bang! 

With open jaws a Lion sprang, 

And hungrily began to eat

The Boy: beginning at his feet.

Now just imagine how it feels 

When first your toes and then your heels, 

And then by gradual degrees, 

Your shins and ankles, calves and knees, 

Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.

No wonder Jim detested it!

No wonder that he shouted “Hi!”

The honest keeper heard his cry, 

Though very fat he almost ran

To help the little gentleman. 

“Ponto!” he ordered as he came

(For Ponto was the Lion‟s name), 

“Ponto!” he cried, with angry Frown. 

“Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!”

The Lion made a sudden Stop, 

He let the Dainty Morsel drop, 

And slunk reluctant to his cage, 

Snarling with Disappointed Rage. 

But when he bent him over Jim 

The Honest Keeper’s Eyes were dim. 

The Lion having reached his head, 

The Miserable Boy was dead.

  

When Nurse informed his parents, they 

Were more Concerned than I can say:- 

His Mother, as she dried her eyes, 

Said, “Well – it gives me no surprise, 

He would not do as he was told!” 

His Father, who was self-controlled, 

Bade all the children round attend 

To James’ miserable end,

And always keep a hold of Nurse 

For fear of finding something worse.

[Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales]

Without miracles, that’s what lions do, I’m afraid. Well, this morning I talked about the Easter miracle, that this evening we heard about as it’s told in St Mark’s Gospel, with its ‘shorter ending’, ‘for they were afraid’, which in the Greek looks like it stopped in mid-sentence. The Easter miracle was that God raised Jesus up: here God saved Daniel from the lions. 

What I have in mind tonight stays with the catty, albeit big-catty, theme of my words earlier tonight. It came to me when I thought of Larry, the No 10 Downing St cat. Incidentally, Larry is reputed not to be very fierce – indeed, he’s not supposed to be any good at catching mice. Also, allegedly, Mrs May, the Prime Minister, doesn’t get on with Larry as well as her predecessor did. I nearly said, ‘Mrs May, our unelected Prime Minister’: but of course this week she has set about trying to change that.

Are there any miracles around to help today? Mrs May said that she is trying to get the country to unite in supporting her. She said that she thought that people outside Parliament were all supporting her, but unfortunately those pesky opposition parties and the strangely unbiddable House of Lords hadn’t got the message yet. So she thinks that a quick general election will sweep her to an overwhelming majority so that the doubters and nay-sayers can be swept aside by the ‘will of the people’.

We know that Mrs May and Mr Farron go to church; we think that Mr Corbyn is rather more private in his religious observance. I suspect that he goes to the chapel rather than the parish church on the hill. But May and Corbyn both mentioned, and emphasised, the Christian Easter message in their broadcasts last Sunday. 

Some of you will now be getting a bit worried that I might start to say something political from the pulpit. Surely not! That’s not to say that ministers can’t say what they honestly believe to be right, in any given situation. The guiding principle is, ‘What would Jesus do?’

I do think that it will be a very good idea, in the weeks leading up to the election, for all of us to look at each of the parties’ manifestoes, and try to measure each party’s proposals against Jesus’ teaching. Don’t just follow your tribe: try to follow Jesus. I doubt whether we could necessarily always agree what the conclusions would be, but I think it will help us to judge whether one or other of the parties will govern in a more of less Christian way. 

So some of the questions might be: Brexit, or remain? Austerity, cuts, or more money for the NHS, schools and the welfare state? Lower taxes, or the ‘triple lock’ on old-age pensions? Overseas aid or more defence spending? Portuguese nurses and Egyptian surgeons – remember our most distinguished heart surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub, came from Egypt, and his successor at the Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals, André Simon, who saved my brother’s life, came from Germany – German surgeons, Polish plumbers and Transylvanian care home workers – or would you rather have immigration limited, limited to tens of thousands only? 

What would Jesus say? Pontius Pilate asked, ‘What is truth?’ Well, we have to try to find out. Our children’s future, and the peace of the world, depend on it. 

 

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