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notre dame montreal

Lent 6  The Reverend Dr Joan


This week I sneaked off on my way to a meeting, in London, to look at a fascinating exhibition at the British Museum. It was all about the first expeditions to American and specifically the drawings of a gentleman artist, called John White who made the journey five times. He was employed by the expedition organiser, Sir Walter Raleigh, to make pictures of the unfamiliar birds, flora and wild life in and around the coasts of this new world. They renamed the area Virginia, in order to suck up to Elizabeth I the Virgin Queen.

White’s drawings are bright and beautiful even after 400 years and show his great excitement in recording new and previously unseen creatures. There was a picture of an “allegatoor”, in fact a fresh water crocodile.. What the visitors to this New World found was a richness and diversity, the bays teeming with fish, oysters, crabs, scores of edible birds and animals, and wild and wonderful plants including potatoes, tomatoes and a plant smoked by the natives called tobacco. And they met the people, who have to be called now, First Nation, not Red Indians. They found the resident Americans to have a rich and strange pagan culture, in which dead ancestors were carefully skinned and preserved in a temple, where there were ritual dances, gatherings round fires. For the most part the English visitors were entranced. They thought they had found Man in his natural state, with simplicity and dignity, living easily off the richness of the land God had created. They duly sailed back to England declaring that they had found a New Eden. In Eden, you remember, Adam wasn’t required to farm or toil to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, all that he needed was there for the taking.
White carefully coloured with his images with paint, put them into a huge album and passed them round the folks back in London. Raleigh’s plan was to try and persuade investors to fund settlers in this brave new world where the land could easily be farmed and money would be easy to make. And so a party set off, one hundred and nineteen souls in a tiny ship, about ten years before the more famous Mayflower. They started off being helped by the kindly residents and ended up killing them. Paradise turned to starvation, and while White was back in England getting more food (because they didn’t know how to gather up the fruits of Paradise they found) all the settlers in Roanoake disappeared, without trace and were never heard of again.
 
Now this sad, vivid story has many morals to it but I want to stay with the idea of the perfect society. The dreamers who settled America in the seventeenth century were inspired by the desire to make an easy living but also by the dream that they could establish in this empty land, a perfect new society. Waves of brave or tortured souls set off to the distant shoes of America determined to build the ideal society based on their brand of Christianity: the famous Puritan settlers, the Royalists who fled from Cromwell, the Quakers who set up Pennsylvania in order to live and worship in freedom.
 
The early history of America is full of dreamers who believed in Utopia. Humans at their best are ambitious for themselves and often believe that if they could only start society all over again, then they could be the moral beings God intended. Well you don’t need me to tell you that for the most part, the dreams unravelled and these idealists began to reveal the worst as well as the best aspects of human nature.
 
In the passage from the Gospel according to John we read today, we hear Jesus’ dreams for humanity. The extract is part of the long series of instructions that Jesus gave his disciples when he knew he was to part with them forever. The speech has all the power and urgency of a last will and testament. I want to point up the hope for humanity which underpins all Jesus’ teachings. He did not feel that humanity was beyond redemption, doomed to sin. He knew that through grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, humanity could do better, bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. Jesus didn’t say that the building of the Kingdom would be easy. He knew that it is hard for us to keep the Great Commandment to love God and love one another. Jesus believed that we could do it and sent the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor, to inspire and empower us. We need not be cast down by our weakness, sinfulness and the evils of humanity because we can be redeemed through God’s love. The mistake made by the Utopian dreamers was that their conviction that they could a perfect society from the outside, by bringing in new laws, engineering the social order, enforcing a new way of life. Into this new order they placed flawed humanity and the result was inevitable. It is only God who can change men’s hearts and minds, and he is eager to do so. God believes in us, is optimistic about us and so we must continue to dream dreams and have visions of making this world a better place. Not by going to another place, setting up a colony in America or on the moon but by getting stuck in here and now. Drawing upon the power of the Holy Spirit, the teaching of Jesus and the Bible we can constantly strive to build a better world starting not from the external but from within ourselves. If we all strive to improve the relationships that God has given us, in the place that God had placed us, then the Kingdom will become nearer. And when we fail to find the perfection we seek, in relationships or at work, or at church, we should not run away and start again but stay and try to rebuild, brick by brick. If Jesus was optimistic about humanity then we must not be fatalistic and feel we are hopeless and doomed: we must draw upon him for courage and inspiration and keep working for a better world. Amen