The Unbinder

Sermon preached from Datchworth Rectory during Lockdown April 2020

I’ve recently finished The Binding by Bridget Collins. It tells the story of a young man called Emmett who discovers he has a magical talent for a rather shady, but popular business, of book binding. We might think of book binding as a beautiful but benign art but in this novel it has a sinister edge. People visit bookbinders when they are living with a memory that they would rather lose, something painful or shameful. They sit with the binder and relive that memory for one final time, and the binder takes it, puts it into a book and binds it, so that in effect it disappears. For the person who visited the binder it will be as if that event never happened. They will recall nothing of that part of their own past. Literally a chapter of their life is taken, and sealed and stored in secret. They will never need to think of it, or its consequences, again. 

But there is a twist in the tale, and I can tell you this because it’s on the back cover so this is no great spoiler, Emmett, as the story unfolds, discovers the paradox that he as the binder has been bound. There is a book with his name on it and his secrets inside. 

And the other paradox within this story is that this act of binding, which is seen as an act of healing in some circles or removing past pain and hurt, tends to make people sick. The attempt to blot out the past rarely comes without cost to the future. And there, so not to spoil your read, I will say no more. 

Our gospel story today also contains many paradoxes, and a strange sense of how the past and future are inextricably linked to each other. 

Rembrandt’s ‘Christ with two disciples on the road to Emmaus’

This Sunday we have one of Luke’s resurrection accounts. It is the story of two disciples walking along the road from Jerusalem to a place called Emmaus. We don’t actually know where that original place was but they have witnessed the terrible events over the last few days in Jerusalem of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. They have heard the women’s account of the resurrection which has confused them and they are now headed away from that place, we can only assume, in bewilderment and despair. As they are walking, discussing the painful events of the past they are given company. And here is our first paradox: it is Christ who walks beside them, the one they grieve for and yet they don’t recognize him. He is both seen and concealed. They are on the way, and they meet the Way, as he starts to talk through not just the recent past but from the beginning of Scripture, helping them understand that past gives meaning to the present, and the present transforms their understanding of the past. So on this walk of despair they discover hope – and feeling their hearts burning within –  they invite this stranger to stay with them for the night. But while they are sitting to have supper together the guest turns into the host, as he breaks the bread – and at that moment, the final paradox: just as their eyes are opened to see him, he vanishes from their sight.  

We may find we live in a time of paradox right now. For a start we find our selves in an unfamiliar place of social isolation, and yet, in some ways we can see there is greater community and company than before. Out walking the dog people no longer just nod, as you pass, but it is a drawn out affair, as friend or stranger we are all have time to explore each others wellbeing, – and asking someone ‘how are you?’ is no longer a mere nicety. And then, just when the introverts among us think lock down might be quite nice, there is Whatsapp and Zoom and Facetime and Windows Team and all the other gadgets that are helping us keep in touch. If you’ve found that overwhelming, you’re not the only one. Then also one thing we’ve obviously been struck with is the value of certain roles in our society that are often undervalued. The paradox that the refuge collectors, carers, shop workers, nurses that we applaud each evening are some of the lowest paid employees in our country. And then there is the paradox of how the churches are closed, and yet that means in someways, for some people, they are more open than ever before – this need to get to grips with technology (and thank you for your forgiveness when we make mistakes) but this opening church services up over live streaming has meant that some of you, who would never normally come to church on a Sunday morning, are here with us now, and we are delighted you are – you are very, very welcome. But that opening has occurred because the door of our churches are now shut. And lastly perhaps the biggest paradox is that this virus, which is hideously destructive and a cause of great distress, has meant that we’ve needed to act in a way, to stop and stay at home, which has begun to bring healing to our earth. With the planes grounded, our cars in their driveways, much of industry closed, despite the worries of economy and livelihoods, the earth is reaping the benefit, the air cleaner, wildlife thriving, carborn emissions greatly reduced.

These are not easy things to hold together. It’s not as if we say, well this is all worth it because we have seen these benefits. I know, from speaking to some of you, and I know because it’s within myself, there have been all sorts of competing emotions that have arisen over these last few weeks – of fear and thankfulness, grief and joy. They are not always easy to hold together. 

This is the complex reality of life – that task of holding competing emotions, dimensions, realities of any situation. Our lives are held in constant paradox – we can be we know both victim and bully, friend and betrayer, it is the same heart within us that is open to great acts of love which is also capable of great hate or indifference. 

When Jesus walks with his disciples they find themselves bound up in grief and unsure whether they dare take the hope of the story of the women that the sorrow of the past is tied and transformed by a new reality in the resurrection. Jesus, however becomes the unbinder. He takes the book of Scriptures and opens up the meaning to them. He takes the story of their own grief and loss, perhaps within that also their own sense of shame and failure, and he unbinds them from that.  

Emmett’s trade is to close the story and hide it away. To take the parts of our lives that are complicated and don’t fit our idea of ourselves, or make no sense to the rest of our story and to bind them. But Christ here is the great unbinder, he takes out the story of human life, of my life and yours, line by line and brings it into the light – and gives it new meaning.

Caravaggio ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ National Gallery, London

When the disciples get to the meal in the evening and Jesus takes that bread – which for them was a reminder of their past, of the night he was arrested, of their own failure and hurt in that, of their confusion since, of his body broken on the cross, of his blood spilt – when he takes that bread and breaks it the story is finally unbound. It no longer is simply a story about a death, this side of the resurrection it is a story about unbinding; of grave clothes loosened, of death bringing life. That is the ultimate paradox and one we are invited to see, when bread, today is broken before us. Amen. 

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