Grown men don’t cry – Revd Dr Ian McIntosh
Preacher: Revd Dr Ian McIntosh
Title of sermon: Grown men don’t cry
Date/time/service: Sunday 13 March, 11am, Choral Eucharist
“Grown men don’t cry”. This popular proverb has shaped many a male upbringing speaking as it does of an expectation of a masculinity which displays no emotion or weakness. When the Tsunami hit Indonesia on Boxing Day 2004, the BBC reporter, Ben Brown, broadcast a live interview with a lady who had lost everything. They stood amongst the rubble of a former home, surrounded by debris as she told the world of her pain. It was heart rending. And his response was to offer her an arm around the shoulder, with tears in his eyes. A rare public display of compassion seen on live TV.
“Grown men don’t cry”. Yes they do. And they do at the moment in the Ukraine where a broadcast last week showed a distraught man able to do nothing but weep uncontrollably as his home burnt. Tears stream down the faces of those husbands and fathers who have to say what they hope is a temporary farewell to their wives and children fleeing from railway stations in Kyiv to become refugees.
“Grown men don’t cry”. This one does when I see the suffering of others and can do little to help. When those I love are upset and I can do nothing about it. When I feel overwhelmed with expectations. And in a world where the rates of males taking their own lives is alarmingly high, it is important that we all debunk these popular myths which can be so damaging.
The shortest verse in the Bible is in John’s gospel – Jesus wept. Grown men do cry. Jesus cried. He cried at the tomb of his friend Lazarus who had died before Jesus could reach him. Jesus also cried as he approached Jerusalem in the days before he was crucified distressed at how that city would turn down the offer of peace and settle instead for an option of war and conflict. And in our gospel reading this morning we read of what is essentially part one of that visit to Jerusalem. Here Jesus laments over Jerusalem.
Lament is a very powerful expression of emotion. It is a deep being moved over the plight of others, in this case of Jesus knowing that his life, his values, his care and compassion of others will not be recognised in Jerusalem. In the very place where they most needed it, those who he loves will refuse it. At the very centre of the faith which nourished Jesus, his love would be spurned.
Jesus’ lament is also a raging. A raging at the despotic family of Herod whose forebears had already caused Jesus’ family to flee as refugees to Egypt when he was young. And now a new Herod who Jesus names openly as a fox seeks to do him more harm. And yet in the midst of rage, Jesus is determined that his mission of love to the world, to the Herod’s of this world, will not be curtailed, even if it will end up in his own death.
Jesus’ lament comes from the depths of his compassion – that deep place of being moved in the bowels that leads to wanting to gather up others into safety but can’t. That is where his compassion always comes from. It is expressed here by a Jesus who is deeply in touch with his femininity as he employs a beautiful image from wider creation of a mother hen gathering her chicks. Laments allow this man Jesus to describe his longing in an image drawn from the world of mothering and women.
Laments are part of a language of compassion. In the Bible and especially in the psalms, they allow impossible questions to be posed without answers. They are vehicles to express feelings that need to be expressed. They cry out to a God who often feels a long way off and who seems powerless. Laments enable a language of tears, a primal language without words, one that is greater than words.
So grow men do cry and they do rage. And today as we worship this morning in the midst of war in the Ukraine, we too cry and rage. We cry with the women, men and children of the Ukraine who are battered, scarred and so fearful. We long with the many people in Russia and around the world for an end to this outrageous war. We name that fox Putin and pray that he will have the decency to seek a withdrawal of his troops and to ensure ceasefires that truly allow people to be safe. We weep and God weeps too as God does in Jesus Christ. God weeps to show the depths of compassion and solidarity with a broken and fractured world. God rages against injustice and calls us to rage too – to be angry and to channel that into acts of mercy and compassion. God calls us to work for a healed world where such tyranny will no longer be.
It is very hard to be powerless, to have little to say in the face of such trauma. However, we have a God who is as God is in Jesus – a loving, merciful, compassionate God who weeps and rages and laments and loves. And if that is what God does when life gets unbearably tough, then that is what we are called to do this morning and this Lent – to weep, to rage, to lament and to love.
Returning to meet with Jesus – Revd Daniel Jones, Honorary Minor Canon
May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure. Luke 9.31
When living in exile just before the 1917 revolution, Lenin is said to have written that, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” What I think he was referring to, was the tendency for a society to remain apparently stable for long periods of time, during which time ideas and beliefs bubble under the surface and eventually, for good or ill, pour out in the events that we then read about and see in the news.
Both on a societal and on an individual level, what we see going on on the surface is an indication of what’s happening underneath. Our actions betray our thoughts. Every time I sit and listen to a sermon preached, every time I read a Christian book of any kind and, dare I say it,
every time I stand in a pulpit, I’m aware of how we are called to live out our beliefs. The whole point of preaching is that you and I are invited to read our lives and our Bibles together in the hope that each might help us to make sense of the other. And yet, there are weeks when so much darkness happens in our world that it feels difficult to see the promise of peace which is reflected in the pages of our Bibles being equally obvious in the text of our newspapers. That’s a rather longwinded way of saying, how might you and I hold onto the stories about Moses, Jesus and the transfiguration that we have heard this morning and use them to reflect on the unsettling realities of what’s happening in Ukraine.
To try to do so risks seeming to trivialise the current political situation and yet to shy away from doing so would be to fail in our responsibility as Christians to see the world and its history as belonging wholly to God. I don’t have any easy answers to that, actually I’m not sure I have any answers at all, and so, as much for my own benefit as for anyone else’s, and just in case you are feeling a little lost or sad or frightened by it all, I hope you’ll permit me to share some thoughts in the hope that God and the safety of all God’s people might be for a few moments in the meditations of all our hearts.
Writing about a hundred years before Jesus, Marcus Varro wrote “Antiquities of Human and Divine Things.” The work is long since lost but Augustine preserved Varro’s thinking for us in one of his books. Augustine seems to have liked Varro’s distinction between three different versions of theology: mythical; political and natural. Mythical theology is the accounts of the actions of God told by the storytellers and written in the pages of the Bible. Natural theology is the works of God glimpsed in the beauty and order of our world. And political theology is how human beings make their own, let’s be honest often faltering attempt, to reflect divine beauty and order in our own social structures – including this one. The distinction between these three things is, I think, a good one but only if you remember that they can’t actually be separated. The job of every human being, as God’s pilgrim people, is to live out the story of God: that means looking for God’s truth in our world and living out God’s values in our relationships.
And that’s why, even when the news is difficult, we begin by returning to the Galilean countryside to meet with Jesus. And this morning, you’ve just heard Jesus and his disciples having what can only be referred to as the greatest of all mountaintop experiences. Just for a moment, Jesus disciples are surrounded by “light inaccessible, hid from our eyes” as we will sing in a few minutes time. They are lost in very presence of God. Is it any wonder that they ask to make dwellings for Moses and Elijah and one for Jesus himself. In other words, let’s stay here forever. Let’s just get lost in our beliefs. Let’s just tell the stories of our faith. Let’s just look for God in God’s divine light. Let’s be mystical and natural theologians without having to do the uncomfortable job of being political ones too. You can’t do that, says Jesus, and he sends them back out again. What follows the transfiguration is a story of how they come down from the mountain, and into a crowd where Jesus heals a sick child. Is Jesus making the point, I wonder, that mountaintop experiences are great but the more open we are to the presence of God, the more willing we have to be to return to really engaging with the sufferings of our world.
NT Wright puts it like this: we have to remember that “it was that the glory which they had glimpsed on the mountain, the glory of God’s chosen son, the Servant who was carrying in himself the promise of redemption, would finally be unveiled on a very different hill, an ugly little hill outside Jerusalem.” Jesus’ hope for a better future always means engaging with the lived reality of his world, even if it hurts to do so. I wonder whether that’s what he meant to teach those disciples that day: that it’s good to be lost in worship but it’s only truly worship if God’s redemption promises somehow play out in their lives, and ours. Being people who live out the story of crucifixion and resurrection means that we are at the same time willing to stand alongside others in the sufferings of our world and also alive to the hope that God will bring and end to suffering. We are called to be people who are changed by the divine promise of a future hope. This week, I wonder what that means for you? For me, it means that Jesus reminds me that violence is never an answer, that the suffering of the innocent is never right and that injustice has to be faced down even if to do so is costly. Our lives too must be transformed by our beliefs. It also means that, while the peoples of Russia and Ukraine may feel a long way away, you are I are called to somehow come down from the mountain, to somehow engage with issue, even in the midst of our confusion and sadness, even not knowing what we might actually do. If nothing else, we are called to pray for those who suffer and for those who work for their freedom, as we continue to tell the story of God’s future hope to a world that longs to hear it.
Accession Day 2022 – Rt Revd Richard Frith, former Bishop of Hereford.
Preacher: Rt Revd Richard Frith, former Bishop of Hereford.
Title of sermon: Accession Day 2022
Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, 1 Cor 15: 1-11, Luke 5: 1-11
Date/time/service: Sunday 6th January 2022 – 11am Choral Eucharist
There’s one word that kept coming back to me after I looked at today’s readings.
An OT reading with a vision of God.
An epistle reading with the basis of our Christian faith.
A Gospel reading with Jesus calling his disciples to follow him.
Readings set ages in advance, that come round every three years – but used today, two years on from the start of an extraordinary time for all of us.
That one word for today is Confidence. Confidence.
There are many signs of a lack of confidence, not least, as far as I can tell, in the Church. The disappointing reality is that we do tend to show just the same human weakness, insecurity, lack of confidence and consequent tendency to point our fingers at others as everyone else.
By confidence, I don’t mean wishful thinking or false bravado, where the more lacking in confidence we are, the less we listen and the more loudly we shout. Rather, taking a dictionary definition of it as “the belief that we can have faith in or rely on someone or something” – in Christian terms, confidence in our faith and how it can sustain and motivate us: that it is good news.
So, in our OT reading we have a confident vision of God. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple…”
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
That’s where we start. It is horribly easy to ignore God – for the Church to be just another organisation. Isaiah’s vision gives a sense of wonder, a vision of God present not only in heaven but also very much on earth; a vision of God leading to worship that can provide perspective and engender hope; and the ministry that flows from it.
It is that confident vision of God that enables Isaiah to hear the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” and to respond, “Here am I, send me!”
Then in our Epistle reading we have from St. Paul a confident statement of faith, thought to be the oldest of all testimonies to Jesus’ resurrection: St. Paul handing on the faith as he has received it.
Advent Sermon – Peter Collier QC, Vicar General of the Province of York and Cathedral Reader
Preacher: Peter Collier QC, Vicar General of the Province of York and Cathedral Reader
Title of sermon: Advent Sunday 2021
Date/time/service: Sunday 28th November 2021 – 1st Sunday of Advent
Passage of scripture: Luke 21.25-36
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
Well, Storm Arwen has swept through, the days are shortening, and last week my garden was covered with a glorious carpet of leaves. As I get up each morning and look out on the world I know that Christmas is getting closer.
Perhaps if Jesus had spoken to the disciples in November rather than the spring he would have talked about falling leaves rather than sprouting ones. But his point would have been the same – look around you, see what is happening, take notice of the signs.
He told them about the signs he particularly wanted them to look out for, not what was happening in the garden, but what was happening in the world around them.
He spoke about cosmic changes that would make people afraid, he spoke about the powers of heaven being shaken. These words could be taken literally, but they could equally be seen as referring to some convulsion shaking the world whether political or something else. And, he says, it will make everyone fearful and worried, and some will even pass out because they will be so affected by it.
Then, says Jesus, then, when all that is happening, people will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
Last Sunday, the Archbishop announced a royal visit which he said was going to take place. Perhaps like me it took you a little while before you realised what he was talking about. He told us that the royal visit was going to happen but in one sense had already happened. The kingdom of God which is going to come is already here among those of us who follow Jesus Christ and who are living his story.
Luke also has overlapping time frames in this chapter – some of the things Jesus speaks about he says will happen in the lifetime of those who are listening. He had spoken earlier in the chapter about the fall of Jerusalem, which some of his readers would witness. But some things will be at the end of time as we know it. Those first disciples would not see those things happen in their lifetimes. But we might, or we might not.
So Jesus said to them and this morning says to us – look around you – are there things that make you worried? – wars, famine, floods and other disasters? The pandemic which has had an unprecedented impact on the whole known world? And now there is the omicron variant. Will we ever see an end to it and to the huge impact it has had on the emotional and mental health and wellbeing of all of us. Anxiety and fear and that closely related emotion of anger have taken hold of us perhaps as never before. And we could add climate change into the mix with seemingly so little resolve on the part of key word leaders to do anything about it.
Jesus says that all these things that disturb us are signs – signs that he is coming soon.
So what? What response is he looking for?
Raise your heads! Be on guard! Be alert! Pray for strength! Is what he says
A few verses earlier Luke not only records Jesus talking about the fall of Jerusalem, but also saying that some of those listening to him will be persecuted, imprisoned, brought before kings and governors, betrayed by family and some will be put to death. In his follow up volume (Acts) Luke describes all those things happening to those who followed Jesus Christ.
And it was to prepare them for that that Jesus told them to Raise their heads! Be on guard! Be alert! Pray for strength!
And what of us at the start of this Advent season?
When Jesus spoke about the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory, those listening would have immediately thought of the prophet Daniel, and of Daniel’s vision of one like a son of man being given an everlasting kingship that would never be destroyed and of that time when all peoples, nations and languages would serve him.
Jesus is saying to his disciples that at the very end when God’s court of judgment is ready to proceed to final verdict and sentence, he will come with great power and glory and fully establish his kingdom, a kingdom for which there is real evidence and something of a foretaste now when we feed the poor, care for the sick, visit the prisoners and live Christ’s story.
So he says:
Raise your heads, lift them up, don’t be ashamed or afraid of being someone who is known as a follower of Jesus; Jesus the king, your king is coming and coming soon.
Be on guard, watch out, so that your hearts are not weighed down. When the anxiety or panic comes on us this week let us remember these words of Jesus.
Be alert, always be ready. It might be today; there might be no Advent Procession this year, because the King will have come. If I knew that that would be the case should I do anything different in the rest of today; no – In everything I do I am to live Christ’s story and that is all I need to do.
Pray for strength – we don’t know what lies ahead of us, but we do know that Jesus promised that he would be with us to the very end. Each day this week as each day every week he is with us alongside and by his spirit equipping and strengthening us to live for him. Prayer is simply us opening our lives to live in dialogue with him and draw on that strength.
So this week, we don’t know what the news will bring? But whatever may come our way, Jesus says to us – read the signs – because they will tell us that the King is coming, the royal visit is at hand – So – Raise your heads! Be on guard! Be alert! Pray for strength.
Peter Collier QC, Vicar General of the Province of York and Cathedral Reader
Sermon Preached for Evensong.
York Minster, Sunday 7 November 2021 by The Reverend Peter Collier.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you , O lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
I wonder if you picked up the thread running through the scriptures that we have heard read and sung this afternoon
The Psalmist speaks of the nations being in uproar and the kingdoms tottering, but he introduces us to a God who makes wars cease.
The prophet Isaiah speaks those well-known words about a time when the wolf and the lamb will live at peace with each other. A far cry from those Attenborough documentaries with their dramatic footage of nature red in tooth and claw. Just for a moment imagine them without the drama of the chase and the kill?
The Psalmist and the Prophet are looking at the big picture, and to the end times. The Christian gospel proclaims that that there will be an end time and it will be a time when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. It will be an age of peace and harmony and there will be an absence of so much that dominates our world – human conflict and natural disaster with their ensuing hunger, disease, and death.
But that age is not now and the Christian gospel is not just about a distant hope, it is about hope for the here and now.
It is in the now that Jesus promises to those of us who love him that he and his father will come to us and make their home with us
As we begin to make plans for Christmas, I am already looking forward to hearing the ABY read the prologue to John’s gospel with those wonderful words – the word became flesh and lived among us – or as the Message translation says – The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood. The Revised English Version has it as – the word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
That is wonderful news – God, the Word – came and for a period lived here in the neighbourhood, pitched his tent among us. He became one of us, he experienced life on this earth with all its ups and downs, joys and heartaches. But that was then. And we know that he died, and as we said in the creed, on the third day he rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven.
So the prophets might have looked ahead to the future and the story of Jesus takes us back 2000 years. But reading what happened when he was here can emphasise our aloneness now. We can feel very much on our own in a world that is not only hostile to us but also where there is so much destructive hostility at work across the globe.
But what of now? Well Jesus says he will come with his father and make their home with us.
Make their home with us?
Can we try and visualise that for a moment or two.
Imagine someone else coming to make their home with you. It happens in some families – they take in another family member, perhaps a grandchild. Some go further and take in a stranger, perhaps a foster child or a refugee. In a moment of crisis we once took in my wife’s brother. What I thought might be 2 weeks turned into 2 years. Whoever you take in, the act of taking them in has a huge impact on your life – they are there, at all times of day and night; they take part in everything – we are talking not about a lodger with a key to their room but someone who has come to share your home in every sense.
The result is that we have to adapt; it is disruptive to the pattern of life we had grown used to. It will mean making changes.
There are theological and philosophical mysteries aplenty here as Jesus talks about himself, the father, and the holy spirit; but in fact, in our experience we discover these mysteries and so come to understand their meaning.
We have the experience of remembering what Jesus said. And the more we read what he said the more we will be reminded. That is what the Spirit does.
Jesus went on to say that it was good that he was going away because he was going to be reunited with the Father who is even greater than him. This is where my understanding and my ability to put it into words fails. But we are grasping after something on a bigger and different scale than just Jesus here on earth. When he was on the earth he could only be with those he was physically present with. But when he had gone and rejoined the father, they can send the spirit to each and every one of his disciples in the same way at the same time.
And so they will come to live with each one of us, sharing our homes, our lives, our work, our recreation, our joys and our sorrows.
And they will bring not only disruption but true peace. Not like the world’s peace which so often is just a truce, a halting of hostility for now, a patching up, but deep down the cause of the hostility continues.
The peace Jesus brings is peace within, peace with myself, peace with others.
In a few minutes we shall sing together:
Peace in our hearts our evil thoughts assuaging,
Peace in thy church where brothers are engaging;
Peace when the world its busy war is waging;
This week wherever we are and whatever we are doing we have that promise, that assurance – Jesus and the Father have moved in to live with us – and that will bring disruption and change in our lives as we adjust to their living with us, but also they will bring us peace.
It is a foretaste of what the prophets spoke about. They looked to the day when the earth would be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
This week, day by day we can each know that foretaste for ourselves.
The Widow’s Offering – The Reverend Dr Catherine Reid
Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday before Advent
York Minster, Sunday 7 November 2021 by Canon Victoria Johnson
The Widow’s Offering
Our Gospel passage begins with Jesus’ ultimate criticism of the religious leaders of the day – the Pharisees and Scribes – that they were hypocrites. That is, they said they followed the will of God but, in fact, did otherwise. Jesus uses the image of the actor to say they were not who they appeared to be. Yet, the Pharisees were serious about God and the Torah, enough to kill, but their hypocrisy was that even while they claimed to be experts of the Torah, they violated it. This matter of hypocrisy is significant, as we shall see. Something of this too connects with the reading from Hebrews; ‘For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.’ Jesus cuts through any pretence or play and goes to the real place as he truly is.
We are meant to notice that our Gospel passage begins with this criticism and then tells of a widow putting in all the money she has into the alms box at the Temple. Widows were supposed be given particular care in the Jewish community and yet are the victims of the hypocrisy in the religious leaders Jesus is so critical of; ‘they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.’ Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees and Scribes is serious indeed. It is no coincidence that our Gospel passage today begins with Jesus’ criticism and proclamation of judgement on these groups, as he then relates the action of a widow in sharp contrast to the actions of those who are said to prey upon her. Jesus’ telling of the widow’s offering is connected to his condemnation of the Pharisees and Scribes.
This hypocrisy in the religious leaders gets to a serious spiritual matter for all of us, for every Christian. There’s a reason why repentance, of turning back to God, is at the heart of our journey with God. We die to sin and rise to new life with Jesus. We can be very serious about God and believe we are doing his will, and yet, if we do not make a daily offering of our heart to God, we very easily devise rules of our own, and like the Pharisees, can actually go against the will the God. We can end up play-acting. Being a disciple of Jesus is tricky and not always straightforward, it involves all of us, and every bit of our lives. There has to be a continual openness to God and a desire for a deeper listening and noticing.
I wonder what you think being a Christian is all about… Do you think it’s about being a good person? Well, you might find yourself making more ethically-based decisions [of sorts] as you seek to live faithfully, but being of faith for the sake of being good is not what it’s all about. In fact, if we do think this, we’re likely to be rightly accused of living under a guise of hedonism.
We are, first and foremost, above and before all else, to love God. In the same chapter as our Gospel passage this morning, it’s significant that we hear the first commandment, ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And the second, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Mark 12.30) There is a hierarchy here. God first, and we see this in the widow’s offering. In loving God, she wants to give all she has. She is wholehearted in her response to the generosity of God.
We are to notice the contrast of amounts in the account of the widow in the Temple. Many rich people put in large sums and the widow two small copper coins. They give out of their wealth, out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, out of her need, out of her scarcity. When giving from poverty, you have to really think about it as you are personally on the line, your very security; but when giving from wealth, your very self and security are not in jeopardy or at any particular risk. Yet, in one way, all of this is not about amounts of money, it’s about making an unreserved response to God’s generosity, which also isn’t about amounts, but rather that he has made us a new creation in Christ and has set his seal upon us; that he has given us a new heart. God’s outflow is from his love, ours – an outflow of our worship. The words often used at the Offertory in the eucharistic liturgy, All things come from thee O Lord and of thine own do we give thee, have particular meaning here.
What we see in the widow’s offering is her wholehearted response to God’s faithfulness, to his generosity, and we can reflect on this ourselves in how we respond to God, in all areas of our lives. In the widow’s offering, we see an expression of the first commandment, to love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. We are to love God and in this we want to give everything we have. What does this look like? And who is this like? [Jesus]
As we are drawn daily to make this wholehearted response to God’s generosity in Christ, we can find our prayer to God each morning and throughout each day in the words of the psalmist,
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51.10)
Climate Sunday – The Reverend Johannes Nobel
Sermon Preached on Climate Sunday
York Minster, Sunday 3 October 2021 by Revd Johannes Nobel (Green Ambassador for the Diocese of York)
Readings: 2 Corinthians 9.6-15, Luke 12.16-30.
Our Gospel reading for today is a strong favourite of mine. ‘Consider the Ravens’, Jesus says. You see, I am keen birdwatcher. I promise you, there aren’t many ravens in Yorkshire, so this verse gives me ample excuse to spent long days in the field, searching for ravens. After all, that’s what Jesus told us to do: ‘Consider the Ravens.’
It’s easy to take Jesus’ words out of context and apply them in such a way that they suit our own desires.
Take, for instance, that other well-known phrase from today’s Gospel reading: ‘Do not worry.’
We have so many things to worry about. Some of us worry about running out of petrol. We worry about our job security or about our pension. We worry about our family. We worry about Covid – a lot. We worry about the future. And an increasing number of us worry about the fate of our planet. We worry about Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss. About rising sea levels, about air pollution, about climate refugees, about extinctions, about what may be to come.
Last month, the University of Bath published research into climate anxiety among young people. They surveyed 10,000 young people aged 16-25 years in ten countries. They found that 84% of respondents were worried about climate change. Indeed, 59% of respondents indicated that they were very or extremely worried. Another finding of the report was that over 50% of young people felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.
‘Do not worry’, Jesus says.
What do those words mean in our context? Is this about ‘letting go of things we cannot change’? Is it about ‘hoping for the best’?
Neither of these. We can change, and in the words of Greta Thunberg: “Instead of looking for hope, look for action – then, and only then, hope will come.”
I have some issues with that statement, and if you want to know why, you need to come to my lecture at St Thomas church tomorrow at 7pm, about ‘How to talk to Greta Thunberg about God’. But let’s say she has a point. “Instead of looking for hope, look for action.”
Because action is what we need. When last month at the University of York, archbishop Stephen was asked why now is the time to take climate action, he responded with a story. He said: Imagine that a plane would crash, and all 150 passengers would be killed. It would be terrible news. Now imagine that the very next day it would happen again. And again. Two planes on one day. Over 300 casualties. And the next day it would happen again. And again. No doubt it would take less than a week for all air traffic to grind to a halt. All planes would be grounded. It would be the highest priority: People are dying. All else would have to wait.
The inconvenient truth is that the World Health Organisation estimates that in the next 30 years, on average, over 700 people will lose their lives due to climate change, each day. And that’s not counting the millions who die of air pollution each year. But 700 casualties is the equivalent of 4-5 planes, each day. And we know the cause. We even know the solution. Why are we so slow to act? It doesn’t make sense to Greta Thunberg and the young people who follow her.
‘Do not worry’, Jesus says.
Oh, really? How can you even say that, Lord?
In fact, Jesus says: ‘therefore, do not worry.’ His words are spoken in the context of that parable about the rich man, that wealthy fool, who thought he was safe and comfortable because he had ample goods stored up for years. Good management had brought him some great returns and a very nice pension. But his life was demanded of him. I imagine it happened in a flash flood, or freak storm, or a devastating wildfire. The man lost everything. And at that point he realised that he had not been rich toward God. He had not considered his Creator.
Don’t follow his example, Jesus says. Live simply, so that others may simply live.
‘Do not worry… For life is more than food.’ You don’t to eat meat every day. ‘Do not worry… for the body is more than clothing.’ You don’t need to buy new clothes every season. ‘Do not worry.’ You don’t need that foreign holiday. ‘Do not worry.’ You don’t need the latest gadget.
Don’t store up plastic treasures on earth. Learn to store up ‘enough’, and do not forget to be rich toward your Creator.
Being rich toward your Creator means this: Spend your resources, your time, your energy, your love, on caring for what God has made, be it human or non-human. This is how we praise and bless our Creator. This is how we are rich. Rich in thanks and rich in praise. Rich in faith, hope and love. Rich in action.
‘And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.’ (2 Cor 9.8)
Follow me – Sammi Tooze; Diocesan Generous Giving Adviser
Sunday 26 January 2020 – 10am Eucharist
1 Cor. 1. 10-18 Matt. 4. 12-23
In the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We all know that the moment Christmas really begins is when the John Lewis Christmas advert first appears on television. This year we were greeted by an excitable little dragon, who after causing disruption by setting things on fire is given the perfect gift of a Christmas pudding to set alight. My favourite advert, however, was in 2011, which featured a little boy desperately waiting for Christmas Day to arrive. After impatiently counting down the days and hours, he wakes up on Christmas Day – he gets out of bed, rushes past his stocking, into his parents’ bedroom and gives them their present. The slogan reads, ‘for gifts you can’t wait to give’.
Today marks the beginning of our annual period of reflection on Generous Giving in the Minster, where we are all invited to consider the resources and gifts God has given to us, and how we might respond to that through giving to our church. It is a subject that the Church of England has always found challenging, but one which enables us to sustain and grow the ministries in which we all share.
Perhaps we should begin by asking ourselves why giving is such a challenging subject. It’s a challenge because it forces us out of our comfort zone, and into a place where we must place ourselves and our resources at God’s disposal, before our own desires. It is particularly difficult if we’re part of a cathedral community, I think, where it’s so easy to look around at the many projects which sustain our day to day life and ask, ‘how could my giving ever make a difference?’ It also challenges our priorities, by asking, ‘do I give what I have to spare’, or, in the words of the post-communion prayer we say each week, do we ‘offer [ourselves] to be a living sacrifice’?
Giving is something that Jesus talked about on a par with prayer and love; it is rooted in our state of heart, and our calling as disciples. As we begin this period of reflection on Generous Giving as a community, I’d like to suggest three things to help frame our thinking:
- Response to God’s generosity
The first is that we are invited to give as a response to God’s generosity to us. God is, by nature, a God who gives – in fact, it is possible to read the whole Bible as a narrative of giving. In Genesis we see God gifting creation to humanity, and despite our continued failings God keeps on giving from the mundane to the miraculous, the pinnacle being the well-known words in John’s Gospel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
– John 3.16
Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford, summarises this notion beautifully. He says this:
“The generosity of God is proportionate to his radiant glory – which is unattainable, overwhelming abundance”.
As Christians, we are enriched by the gifts God has given to us, and are invited to respond. This brings us back to the John Lewis Christmas advert. ‘For gifts you can’t wait to give’ – the message here is that it is a joy to give to those who we love, motivated by love and grounded in grace and humility. What might it look like if we shaped our thinking in this way when giving to the church?
For gifts we can’t wait to give.
- Enables ministry and mission
Secondly, we can reflect on where that giving goes, and for what purpose. The end point of all our giving is that it enables ministry and mission in our church, and that in turn enables the church to grow, and to be Christ in the world.
Here in York Minster, that manifests itself in such a variety of ways – through our worship, the care of our building which speaks beyond itself, our music which underpins our personal and collective prayer, our outreach services such as Minster Mice and Threshold – all of which offer an opportunity for people to encounter God’s love. Of course, all this is God’s mission, and the best part of it is that he invites us to join in.
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the churches in Macedonia who gave financially to support sister churches. To describe this, Paul uses the word ‘grace’, gifts of grace from one church to another, ‘for the privilege of sharing in the ministry to the saints’. (2 Cor 8.4). This, I think, eloquently frames the lens through which we are invited to think of our giving – as gifts of, or expressions of, grace – which enable us to participate in God’s work.
For gifts we can’t wait to give.
- We grow as disciples
Thirdly, through giving, we grow as disciples. In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew, ‘Follow me’. Being a disciple means to follow Jesus: to go where he goes, to look on the world with his eyes, to love the world with his heart, and to give our lives, with his, for the sake of others. Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John all left their boats immediately, and followed him. Followed him as disciples, who learn by watching what their master is doing. Jesus lived a life of generosity. As we follow as his disciples, then we catch the vision of that generosity and become more like him.
To be a disciple is to follow, with courage and obedience, and live our lives with grace and generosity, which in turn reveals the generosity of God. And that includes the state of our heart when it comes to giving to our church: generous giving is a spiritual issue as well as a practical one. As baptised Christians, our identity lies not in ourselves but in God through Christ – as Paul says in our first reading, ‘I belong to Christ’. And so every bit of ourselves belongs to and is offered in the service of God – our work, our leisure, our gifts, our time, and our money. God chose to enter the material world and be born into it, so for us material things and spiritual things cannot be separated.
Giving is about our state of heart, our strength of faith, and our humility – putting God’s mission and the people around us ahead of ourselves and our own desires. Our commitment to being disciples is the tiniest part of a relationship in which God is committed to us – capturing all our offerings and making of them something beautiful and glorious.
I’d like to conclude by offering some familiar but profound words of Christina Rossetti, who eloquently frames our reflections in this season of Epiphany:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
I recently had an experience… – Revd Jane Speck (Chaplain at York St John University)
10.00am Sunday 8 September
May I speak in the name of the Living God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I recently had an experience I’ve never had before: I bought a house. And in order to do this, I put myself at the mercy of numerous estate agents. What a charming bunch they are! I really appreciated the ones who use brutal honesty as a sales tactic, they were my favourites. But the ones who were capable of persuading us that a tiny box room could, with careful rearrangement of furniture, easily be used as a double bedroom – they took my breath away.
So now that we’ve moved into the house we eventually bought, and most of its ‘original features’ have turned out to be polystyrene – … – I have been reflecting on the tactics of sales people and how very skilled they are.
And it strikes me, on reading today’s Gospel passage, that Jesus was a terrible salesman. Truly, awful. For someone who was clearly gathering supporters to himself in their thousands, his sales pitch still needed work.
Take today’s Gospel passage. Three times Jesus suggests something that’s really hard to do, a hugely unattractive prospect, then tells the people that unless they do this thing, they cannot be his disciples.
So, what is Jesus’s three-point sermon on how to be his disciple? It’s quite simple really. Hate your family, prepare to die, and give up everything you own.
Remind me why we’re doing this again?!
Perhaps we’d better have a closer look. Hate your family, Jesus appears to say. Well, tragically some of us might find that rather easier than others… but I don’t think Jesus is really telling us to break the fifth commandment! Biblical scholars, commenting on this verse, assert that in Hebrew understanding the concept of hate was closer to a re-alignment of priorities: that which one loves comes first, with that which one hates coming second. The word ‘hate’ has become stronger in meaning over time. But does this different interpretation let us off the hook? Jesus is calling on the people – calling on us – to realign our priorities, to reorder our relationships, to give precedence to him. He’s asking us to rethink what ‘family’ and family relationships mean to us. We live in divided times. Times when we seem to be encouraged, by those in power, to give voice to our bias and feel justified in our prejudice. I wonder whether we are here being invited, by Jesus, to think again about what we mean by ‘family’. To cast the net wider than our little nuclear family and to start including our friends, our neighbours, and also – most challengingly – those we find difficult. Those we find threatening. Jesus was all about love, so perhaps when he says ‘hate your family’ what he means is change your priority, stop focussing exclusively on the people closest to you and start loving the people you find it most difficult to love.
It’s radical and challenging and uncomfortable. It’s counter-cultural and goes against instinct. Jesus is saying that in order to free ourselves to follow in his way; his way of love, we mustn’t let anything, even those people we love the most; even our love for ourselves and our lives, come between us and him.
I’m not sure what this looks like in our real lives. I’m not sure because the thought of putting anything before my family feels uncomfortable to me. But I also know that I’m a better, calmer mother when I pray more. I’m a better, kinder wife when I have God at the centre of my life. I’m a more open and generous neighbour when I put Jesus first. I know that if I try to practice what Jesus says it turns out to be better for my family and those around me, not worse.
Jesus didn’t come to make things easier for us. He came to make them better, in ways we can barely imagine.
The second of these hard sayings of Jesus tells us that unless we carry the cross we cannot be his disciples. I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown up singing Anglican hymns exhorting me to ‘Take up my cross and follow him’, and attending Faith Walks where a slightly smaller than average cross is handed round for participants to carry for a while. So there’s a bit of me that thinks I’ve got this bit covered. I’m good with this. For the people hearing Jesus say this ‘live’, it would have been horrifying because they saw, regularly, people put to death in this manner, and would do anything to avoid it. No one knew, at this point, that this was how Jesus would die. But crucifixion was used as a tool of terror to keep the people oppressed and compliant.
How can we understand this now? Perhaps it’s a bit like Jesus saying, ‘just stare down the barrel of this loaded gun, while you follow me.’ He is inviting us to let go of the desire to preserve our own life, to stay safe. He is inviting us to accept the inevitability of our death, in order that we might truly, richly live. You know how people who have had a brush with death often say that it has taught them to live more fully now? Perhaps this is your experience. Jesus wants it to be the attitude we all have: let go of fear, of procrastination, of waiting for life to start, and live it as if you are about to die.
So to the third of Jesus’ hard sayings. ‘You cannot become my disciples,’ he says, ‘if you do not give up all your possessions.’ Well, speaking as someone who recently moved house there is certainly some temptation here. We live in materialistic times, and we own a lot of stuff. Really a lot. It certainly focusses the mind to see how many boxes are needed to fit it all in once it’s off the shelves and out of the cupboards. Do we need it? Probably not. Are we attached to it? Yes. Whether because it has an emotional value, or it confers a certain status, or it’s just easier to keep stuff than go through the process of getting rid of it, we do become attached to our possessions. If we didn’t Maria Kondo wouldn’t be a best-selling author, and Ikea wouldn’t have a reputation for providing excellent storage solutions.
But at the end of the day it is just stuff, and as any refugee will tell us, when your lives are at stake you’ll be glad just to take your family and the means for survival with you. Stuff can be replaced.
As ever, I suspect that Jesus is aiming for something even harder here. What else do we possess that we might need to let go of? Perhaps you hang on to an image of yourself that’s hard to let go – seeing yourself as professionally successful, or physically attractive, or a really great Christian; perhaps conversely you see yourself as a failure, someone who can’t be trusted with anything, and derive a certain comfort from feeling useless – and this self-image, positive or negative, has become more important to you than Jesus himself. Perhaps you have a tendency to see your partner or children as possessions, and need to set them free to be themselves. What is it that you are clinging to, that’s getting in the way of making following Jesus your priority?
Jesus’ sales pitch might be brutal, but at least it’s honest. He recommends to his followers that they count the cost. After all, who starts to build a house without working out first whether they’ll have the money to finish it? Actually, if you watch Grand Designs you’ll know that a surprising number of people do just that! Don’t be like them.
Or who starts a war without working out whether they have a reasonable chance of winning? It really focusses the mind on peace. I probably don’t need to draw the comparison with our own nation, and our ability – or not – to take the consequences of our actions into consideration. I’ll leave that for you to ponder.
Jesus is not trying to hide the fact that following him is hard. He’s not trying to persuade anyone that polystyrene features are the real thing. Count the cost, he says, then make your choice. Jesus ‘calls people to a kind of discipleship that is not cheap (akin to Bonhoeffer’s aversion toward “cheap grace”), not easy, and not to be entered into without deep consideration of the consequences and costs.’ (Jeannine K. Brown Professor of New Testament Bethel Seminary St. Paul, MN)
But what would we be choosing? If we count the cost and pay the price, will it all be worth it? Yes. Yes, because what Jesus is offering is life, life in all its richness. His are words and questions that offer life. Isn’t that why we showed up here today? We want life. We want to be fully alive. We want to be real and authentic. We want to be like Jesus. Even with his terrible sales pitch, his brutal honesty, there’s something about Jesus that makes us trust him; that makes us believe: We can do this. He has made it possible. So let’s not lose the power and gift of his words. Let’s not lose this moment. Let’s not leave here the same person we were when we came in. What is one thing, just one thing, large or small, that you could do or give up that changes your priorities, that reorders your relationships, that gives precedence to Christ? Choose that and you leave here today a different person. Choose life.
(Last paragraph adapted from a sermon by Revd Michael K. Marsh, US Episcopal Church)
Tribute to Lord Habgood – Bishop David Wilbourne
Tribute at Lord Habgood’s Thanksgiving Service on 27 June in York Minister
by Bishop David Wilbourne, – Chaplain to the Archbishop of York 1991-1997
‘Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel.’
John lived those lines of St Paul.
No death has ever affected me as much as John’s.
Just one hour after he had died,
the Publisher from SPCK rang and said,
‘You’d better get on with his biography!’
Since then John has filled
my every waking and sleeping moment,
our home has been littered with towers of papers
bearing strange insignia such as
Westcott Compline 1957
– add milk and heat over stove;
House of Bishops Homosexuality, Adelphi Hotel, 1988
– that sounds like one great party;
and Cuddesdon Retreat 1966.
As well as being the year of that World Cup,
’66 was the year of theological college wars.
‘They think it’s all over, it is now!’
It wasn’t all over for Queen’s College, Birmingham:
ecumenical John created a veritable kingdom outpost there.
Before Queen’s, at Queen’s and after Queen’s
John had no truck whatsoever with bland bishops
who told him this couldn’t be done, that couldn’t be done:
John did it.
Our Lord’s Last Supper plea, ‘That they may be one,’
drove him, lock, stock and barrel.
The biography is complete, 75,000 words,
I guess too many for this morning.
Time fails me to tell of John phoning 10 Downing Street
brokering an offer from the Durham miners
which would have saved Ted Heath’s government
and spared us the Lib/Lab pact and Margaret Thatcher.
Time fails me to tell of John proposing to persuade
Saddam Hussein to draw back from the brink of war.
Hussein presumably got wind of John’s searing silences
and promptly invaded Kuwait instead.
Time fails me to tell of John secretly meeting
with both sides during the Troubles in Northern Ireland
persuading North and South to adopt
the European Convention on Human Rights
assuring fearful minorities
they had at least a basic respect and dignity.
This morning I want to dwell on just one thing.
Whilst Terry Waite languished in his Beirut cell,
for forty days each year for four years
I was incarcerated in a silent metal cage, six by eight feet
which I had to share with two other men,
one of them John, the other Gordon, our driver.
We travelled around twenty thousand miles each year,
silence in the car was the absolute rule,
which made for four hundred hours,
forty working days
if you work ten hours a day.
A Lent every year.
Forty days of fast since we never ate in the car.
I once came armed with a pack of bacon sandwiches
and offered one to the Boss.
‘No thank you,’ he replied,
giving me the withering look Saul must have given
David when he asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
‘I’ve put tomato ketchup in them,’ I reassured him.
‘That makes me even more determined to resist.’
We broke our fast only once,
at a Little Chef outside Wrexham en route for Oswestry,
where St Oswald, King of York, had died horribly in battle.
It was Sunday lunchtime, the place was packed,
but within one minute of me and John striding in
in his gorgeous purple cassock – Rosalie’s phrase –
the cafe emptied.
I guess the punters feared it was a Fresh Expression
and John had a tambourine
hidden in his cassock’s ample folds,
little knowing that John wasn’t a tambourine sort of guy.
I used to sit in the front of the car and watch him
in the rear view mirror.
We were jumpy about being ambushed,
the IRA were active at that time,
so I had to keep an eye out
for what was hurtling towards us.
Gordon, an ex sergeant major looking for a skirmish,
even used to poke a stick under the car
with a mirror on the end checking for bombs.
Never mind the IRA,
John had said some cutting things about Evangelicals
and you do not want to mess with those guys.
I watched him for four silent Lents.
Could you not watch with me for four Lents?
Often he was pouring over the Bible
thinking of something arresting,
which would refresh the Gospel and refresh his audience:
Tell the truth, but tell it slant…
On the way home he poured over the New Scientist,
hallowing it like Scripture:
‘I will consider the heavens, even the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained.’
Always he’d be either thinking or praying.
When he was fashioning the Act of Synod,
the trickiest of balancing acts between two integrities,
his eyes darted around, his eyebrows danced,
a veritable Einstein figuring out his theory of relativity.
In 1993 it was the Church of England’s version of Brexit,
and John fixed it.
If only you had been here, Lord (Habgood),
our nation would not have died.
When we returned from Wydale Hall
after giving his charge to York’s first 39 women priests,
– affectionately known as the 39 articles –
he had that look of an errant husband
concocting an excuse
to pull the wool over his wife’s eyes.
Wonderful Rosalie was fiercely against women priests:
‘This had better be good.’
At Eastertide 1989 Chris Armstrong was chaplain
for the heavy journey to Sheffield Cathedral
to mark the terrible Hillsborough Disaster.
They’d been held up by a major traffic jam on the A1,
and a voice came from the normally silent back seat,
commanding Gordon to break the speed limit.
God so loved Liverpool that gentle John did a ton.
Whenever we neared home, our journey almost complete,
John looked like a boy, anticipating Christmas day’s dawn.
All archbishops eventually have to return to base.
The 95th Archbishop of York coming home,
surrounded by his 94 predecessors,
portraits galore beaming down upon him.
Since we are surrounded
by so great a cloud of archbishops…
Late December 1953,
Cyril Garbett returns, looking piqued,
anticipating a ship’s biscuit with his acerbic sister,
the chaplain shivering, thinking,
‘Oh God, we’ve still got to say Evensong.’
Garbett piping up,
‘Thank God, we’ve still got to say Evensong!’
Donald Coggan once lectured his clergy:
‘When I return to a chilly Bishopthorpe,
there’s nothing I like better than rushing upstairs with Jean,
stripping off our outer garments
and having a stiff and vigorous game of table tennis.
That soon warms me up.’
How we laughed! How Donald sadly didn’t.
John looked like Odysseus
sighing with relief, another long epic journey over,
yearning for Rosalie, Laura, Francis, Ruth, Adrian,
hoping his lovely family would remember him.
Sometimes Rosalie lost track of where in the world
the love of her life had got to now.
The Border terriers,
probably mere pups when he had left,
yapping down the corridors at his return:
To the Bishop: Are you going out again tonight?
Can Laura and I watch Top of the Pops, please?
I hope you are well! See you soon!
All best wishes, Francis”
He’d briefly greet the family,
and then straight up to the office
to answer mail and write the latest talk.
‘Oh, A cup of tea would be nice, Mary.’
‘Hail Archbishop’s PA, so full of grace,
the cup that cheers is with thee,’
He always had that same look,
like when he celebrated communion or confirmed a child.
A happy-in-his-skin look, a look of wonder.
I once spotted him over our garden wall,
looking at his pet tortoise.
For fifteen minutes, just wondering at it.
Where are the bishops who will be silent like John,
silent like Mark’s women at the tomb
rendered mute by the sheer stupendity of the Easter God?
Where are the bishops
who will be silent like Christ on Trial:
For Rowan Williams,
Christ’s silence is eloquent because otherwise
‘What is said
will take on the colour of the world’s insanity.
It will be another bid for the world’s power,
another identification with the unaccountable tyrannies
that decide how things shall be.
Jesus described in the ways of this world
would be a competitor for a space in it, part of its untruth.’
Poor talkative little Christianity!
On his 65th birthday we were both travelling to London
and tried to get him a place in the driver’s cab.
British Rail declined.
I guess they didn’t think the driver could bear his silence
all the way down the East Coast.
Instead they treated us to a First Class breakfast
complete with a loquacious hostess called Karen
whom we’d picked up outside W H Smith’s kiosk
at seven in the morning.
Karen encouraged John to dunk his eggs
as we sped through Doncaster.
‘What’s that you’re reading, luv,’ she chirped.
‘Hansard,’ came the reply, like ice.
‘Not very chatty, your Boss, is he?’
she said when John had gone to the loo at Grantham.
He always went to the loo at Grantham.
I guess it was his way of paying the place back
for spawning Margaret Thatcher.
There was usually quite a queue.
It was a fearful and terrible thing
to fall into the hands of one of John’s silences.
You felt judged, you felt an idiot,
you filled the silence with babble.
But also you felt affirmed,
with a love beyond words.
The word became flesh and was stunned into silence.
If I had to sum him up,
it would be a picture of a visit to Whitehaven.
A Sri Lankan priest there
had had major brain surgery,
and hadn’t got long.
He was mute, in a wheelchair,
with his dear wife tending him, looking so very sad.
John commissioned him for a ministry of prayer,
and then knelt down before him almost in homage,
held his hands in his and looked into his eyes,
beautiful dark pools of black,
The silent before the silenced.
And that a higher gift than grace
should flesh and blood refine,
God’s presence and his very self
and essence all divine.
Praise to the holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise,
in all his works most wonderful,
most sure in all his ways.
Good Friday Three Hours at the Cross
Good Friday addresses from Bishop Frank White
READINGS IN EACH HALF HOUR
- Mathew 27 verses 1 – 10 – Accusers’ Story
- Matthew 27 verses 11 – 23 – Pilate’s Story
- Matthew 27 verses 24 – 26 – People’s Story
- Matthew 27 verses 27 – 37 – Soldiers’ Story
- Matthew 27 verses 38 – 44 – Observers’ Story
- Matthew 27 verses 45 – 56 – JESUS’ STORY
Today we are looking at one big story, told here by Matthew; it is a story which, like a Russian doll, contains other stories, one of which will occupy us in each half hour. The stories may be uncomfortable for us as we pay attention to their wider application, yet in each there is also a golden thread of hope, twisted together with the threads of human failure so evident in the people who meet at the Cross, the People of the Passion.
- The Accusers’ Story
Matthew has been unflinching in documenting the decaying relations between the religious authorities and Jesus. The accusations they make against Him now are the last throw of the dice; their best chance to rid themselves of the disruptive influence He is having on their settled pattern. Minds closed to One lead to hardness of heart towards others. Consider their treatment of Judas for whom Matthew has some compassion. Those charged with helping the sinner to find relief and to restore the broken have no time for this lost soul. They drive him away despite his terrible admission “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood”. Their adamant self-righteousness is a warning to all of us who are called to interpreting and communicating the work of God.
Their actions in “conferring together against Jesus in order to bring about His death” indicate not only how cheaply they viewed human life but how cavalier they were with the truth. And surely this is the alarm bell we are to hear in this first of the Good Friday stories. Truth is the great casualty here.
And yet, buried deep within this sordid opportunism there is a sign that even they discern a glimpse of the future. They make provision for the outsider, the Gentile, the foreigner who has come to the Temple in search of the Truth. They buy the Potters’ Field; yes as a burial ground and outside the Temple Precincts. The One they accuse would also end up outside the City of Peace where in His death He would take all our shame and transform it into beauty.
Matthew has set the scene with his characteristic clarity and we all know what the consequences of the actions of the accusers will be; or do we?
In this, “the greatest story ever told” the ending is still beyond our imagining.
- Pilate’s Story
There are reckless people about in the world and Pilate is one of the most notorious examples. While he is clearly discomforted by Jesus he doesn’t seem to stop to think what this might signify nor what his actions might be leading to. He begins his interrogation with what he may have thought was a clever question “Are you the King of the Jews?” but Jesus saw immediately that this was a way of putting Him down and He makes no further reply to Pilate’s probing. But Pilate’s question betrays an attitude to authority and the wielding of power which his wife knew would lead him disastrously down a blind alley. She may have had a dream on this occasion but how many times before will she have seen her Pontius make the wrong call?
Pilate was the only person who could have saved Jesus, the One who his wife described as “that innocent man”. Incredibly, one might even say, predictably, he chooses to incite the crowd so that they are invited to become Jesus’ judge and executioner. His disdain for the people he governed threads its way through the whole of his story; his artful connecting of the first names of Barabbas and Jesus has him playing with the emotions of the crowd and his cynical hand-washing pushes the responsibility for his reckless actions on to the very people he is meant to govern and protect. Pilate may serve as a reminder that people in power have choices to make about the way they govern and above all they need our prayers that they may govern wisely. But in this desperately sad scenario there are some things to treasure. The important place of the family even in the lives of those in prestigious places may be one to ponder but for me the treasure here is Jesus’ silence. Not simply as a way – a well used technique -of exposing injustice. Silence as a way of self-composure in the face of overwhelming adversity. Commentators noted on Monday that the crowds who watched the horror unfolding in Paris were silent. In our days what a gift – a spiritual gift – is to be found in silence. And here it is, right in the heart of the Passion.
- The People’s Story
I want to start this reflection with the golden thread which runs through it; it may seem to be tarnished here but it is an utterly vital feature for the wellbeing of any society. Jesus’ story is largely played out in public, among the people, in the sight of those who are not the powerful or influential. It had been this way from the beginning on that in-vitero journey to the crowded Bethlehem and even in the stable, with the shepherds – the common people visiting and witnessing. It was the chosen context for Jesus’ ministry; He was a Man for the People. But …and there is a big but…Jesus knew how to treat a crowd but the people on this Good Friday were shamelessly and scandalously exploited.
Pilate (the Governor, we remember) saw that a riot was beginning; so Matthew observes. Into this unstable situation he releases a bloodthirsty villain. Hardly a way to reduce tension. The people have been wound up to such a frenzy by both civil and religious authorities that their terrible utterances can be seen as the over-reactions of people who are out of control. We don’t need to go back 2000 years to see this – the angry mob seeking death for Asia Bibi in Pakistan is a chilling recent example. The terrible words the people uttered, “His blood be on us and on our children” may be tragically prophetic but does the blame for them really rest on that pumped-up and manipulated crowd?
The fact that this great story was played out in public provides us with another assurance; no-one could then say that it didn’t happen. And for Matthew the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection would be meaningless without a welter of corroborating evidence.
- The Soldiers’ Story
It is not just in our own time that soldiers have been held to account for their actions but here it is no public inquiry or media exposure that has done it. As with any good story a thread has been woven in without the hearers being fully aware of its significance, and that is very much the case here. The facts of the story are plain; the soldiers treated Jesus badly. They used the tools of humiliation and mockery as well as the violence and coercion which are part and parcel of this story. Ask Simon of Cyrene about that…and yet here too there is a seam of hope wending its way through the passion. Last weekend I had the privilege of seeing a passion play acted out on the streets of two towns in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Withernsea and Hedon. The story was aptly told and the scene was profoundly moving. I noticed the narrator walking casually into the assembled crowd as the trial and sentence scenes drew to a close. He lighted upon a bystander – a large youth who had no part in the play – and asked him to carry the cross to the place of crucifixion. I spoke to the young man afterwards and he was clearly moved by the experience. All along the way in this story are quiet moments of redemption, other stories where connections are made and hope instilled.
The soldiers have mocked and derided Jesus, they have used Pilate’s sloppy pantomime description, “The King of the Jews” to taunt Jesus and to wind up the crowd. These “soldiers of the governor” – what we might call today the “Presidential Guard” are thoroughly compromised. But fast forward for a moment and feel the redemptive wind that unexpectedly blows across their hardened faces. They perhaps wonder at Jesus’ dignity in the face of their provocations but their defences are breached as Jesus dies on the cross and the order which they are commanded to keep is rocked violently. Their response is to utter the truth that no-one else in this story has acknowledged “truly this man was God’s Son”. Truth alights on them, and on us, unexpectedly and perhaps inconveniently but ultimately, gloriously.
- The Observers’ Story
This short passage of scripture offers us the observations of people who watch what is going on; there are the criminals who share the execution site with Jesus, there are passers by who are not identified but who clearly have opinions. Then the accusers who we encountered in the first reflection reappear and later the soldiers who watched will make their important contribution. In their different ways they are fitting what they observe into their own frames of reference; whether they are serious observers or casual commentators their role is crucial to Matthew’s telling of the big story.
They are watching and not seeing; a spectacle is being played out before them but its deeper meaning remains obscure. On Monday night I was struck how quickly the media reporters began to criticise the firefighters who were tackling the inferno at Notre Dame in Paris. Why aren’t they using helicopters to dump water on the flames; why are there so few big hoses being deployed and so on. The dawning of the day on Tuesday revealed the tactics of the Paris Fire Department – that if they had simply flooded the church much more would have been lost, even the possibility of the building itself. Their strategy as well as their undoubted heroism had been crucial as the drama unfolded.
The observers at the crucifixion help us to recognise how hard it is to see, so hard in fact that the real purpose in what is going on is hidden from nearly all those who were involved or who happened upon the scene; those whose stories we have reflected on this afternoon. The Accusers, Pilate, The People, The Soldiers.
Surprisingly there is reassurance for us in this; most of us, (perhaps all) find it difficult to see clearly and assess accurately what is happening on the cross and the story will only begin to reveal its deeper meaning when we come to our consideration of the key player Himself, Jesus the Crucified.
But a final reflection from the scene at Notre Dame. It came at first light on Tuesday and the opening of the west doors to reveal the blackened and burned interior. As the camera explored further into the gloom there appeared in shining golden glory a simple large cross standing sentinel over the chaos. In the light of what was there for me a stunning parable we can move on to the final, the great all encompassing story in a few moments time.
- Jesus’ Story
All the stories we have been considering in these Good Friday reflections find their meaning and their resolution in this final, great story. Here we see Jesus venturing unflinchingly and unerringly into the most difficult experience that can befall people of faith and perhaps too those with no faith. Abandonment. The feeling of unimaginable loneliness;
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is the agonising cry uttered from the cross. Jesus had searched out and found our darkest place and had occupied it as His own. This was the place in which His loving Father could not look and turns His face away. In this ultimate story all the darkness and bitterness of the other stories is soaked up and given to Jesus to drink. The bible has a simple word for it, but one which we find hard to understand – Sin. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their instinct after eating the forbidden fruit was to hide when God came looking for them because they could not bear to look at Him; little did they know that God could barely look at them either.
Jesus drank this poisonous cup to the dregs so that the darkness could never again separate us from the God who comes to us in love. Matthew hardly dwells on the agony of the cross because his instinct is that what really dealt the death blow to Jesus was the abandonment; He could not live without God’s seeing of Him.
“Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and breathed His last”. A great bellowing cry is followed by the quietist sound in the universe, Jesus’ final breath.
In that spine-tingling moment a new story begins; it is the story of our liberation and of our union with God as His new creation. Consider Matthew’s words – “Jesus breathed His last” – the literal translation is “Jesus released the spirit”. On Sunday morning we will celebrate that the darkness has been vanquished and the light and energy of life has been released into our humanity. “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.”
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ – The Revd Professor Oliver O’Donovan
Sunday 7 April 2019 – 10.00
The Revd Professor Oliver O’Donovan, Canon Provincial of York
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:7)
As we begin to read Paul’s memorable description of the total change of values that he underwent, it may seem to us that we can anticipate where it is going to end up. Paul learned not to value external ritual, conformity, rigour, zealotry, a package of ideas which he wraps up in the name, “the flesh”, and he came to value something else. That new thing he calls the knowledge of Christ, the power of Christ’s resurrection, the righteousness which God confers on faith. Obviously enough, this change goes back to his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road, and we hear it as a before-and-after story: Paul proving himself by the standards of the Jewish law in which he had been trained; Paul delivered from the need to prove himself, embracing an objective goal of life which set him free. When we get to the words, “to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings”, we reckon we have reached the end.
But then he goes on, “Not as though I have already obtained this…but I am still in pursuit of it.” All the time his goal was bring that transformation of twenty years before right up to the present day. So on top of a Paul who arrived, back then, at his true spiritual orientation, we have to see a Paul who has not arrived, a Paul who is still not “mature”, not perfected in his Christian faith. Both these Pauls are shown us, so that we can see the same Paul in both of them. It is not, of course, that Paul could ever turn his back on what happened on the Damascus Road, as once he turned his back on his early training as a Pharisee. He had been taken hold of by Jesus Christ, and that was a fait accompli. But it still left him with the infinite task of taking hold of that for which he had been taken hold, the task he has pursued ever since.
Perhaps we have here a key to celebrating Holy Week and Easter. The event that changed everything once and for all has to go on changing everything. We shall recall the deeds that shaped the history of the world more than two thousand years ago, but each year we must come back to them, we must live through them again. It is not something we can recall, and then put behind us. Each year finds us needing to be “conformed to his death, that we may come to the resurrection of the dead”, and that experience takes on a new dimension each year and presents us with a new challenge.
And so Paul declares that he keeps looking forward. If we take that idea seriously, and not as a familiar commonplace, it will present us with some difficult questions. Is there no place for the moral virtues of consistency and stability of purpose? Is there no place for memory in a life that “forgets what is behind and strains forward to what lies ahead?”
Consistency must be consistency with something. The question Paul asks is, with what? For himself, he does not want the consistency that would come from measuring himself by his own idealised version of himself. He wants to measure himself against the “upward call” he has received. And the question about memory is not whether to remember, but how to remember well. Paul, who never stopped remembering, did not want to dwell in the past, but to look on the past as a window through which to see the working of God, so that he could dwell confidently in the present. That is why he so often tells us to give thanks, for thankfulness is the memory that sets past experience in its proper frame, makes it a foundation on which we can build.
So we are to go on living in transition, crossing over from what the past has given to what the future will demand. But if we need to have the right frame for viewing the past, we need a frame for viewing the future, too. “Not as though I have already obtained…” The future cannot be “obtained”. We cannot grasp hold of it. It is undetermined, unknown, unrealised, wholly God’s. We have glimpses of it from time to time, through anticipations, projections, promises, hopes and fears, but they are always tentative, given at moments of heightened awareness and then left for us to wonder about. The danger of trying to grasp the future is that the future we grasp will be imagined. Imaginary futures are available in every different shape and size to suit our changing moods: a future of cherished plans and ambitions, a future of speculation governed by a big idea, a future of extrapolated trends, safely predictable, a nightmare future that embodies our worst fears. All of them are easier to grasp than the future God has planned, because for that we have to wait and watch out.
The strangest feature of the story told in this morning’s Gospel is that Mary was said to have exercised a kind of anticipation of the future in anointing Jesus “for his burial”. She did not do this consciously. It was left to Jesus to point out that the ointment she poured over him was used for anointing the dead. But simply by attending to Jesus in his great crisis Mary rose to the challenge of the moment. And to rise to the moment was to move forward into the future, for the only way we can confront the future effectively is on the horizon of the present moment, where the future is taking form as it approaches us. If we are wholly intent on what lies before our face, we can receive the future as it is given. From the ring of a doorbell to the latest headline in an impenetrable political chaos, we can pray each day to recognise, not to overlook, the point at which God is calling us – upwards, and therefore also forwards.
Paul closes with a word for those who, like myself, have the longer part of their lives behind them, whose broad lines of personality, habit and achievement are fixed. To us he spells out the great paradox of maturity: “It is not as though I had attained, or were mature….As many of you as are mature, have this in your mind.” Real maturity inovlves a sense of continuing incompleteness. Whatever stocks of memory, principle, accomplishment our memory holds, we shall have to add this further discovery: we are incomplete as human beings, still attending to new tasks, still looking for the way God will lead.
When we were younger, our minds were set on getting there, on the next big opportunity. Those opportunities are now past; but we have still to reap the fruit of them, to make sure that they will add up to a life of service fit to offer God. When we were younger, we had lots of ideas which we wore like new clothes, strutting around. As the challenges of life took hold of us, some of them were put away, others became part of our familiar way of functioning. Now we may think we are all of a piece with our ideas; we are what we have become. But not at all! Paul tells us. Crucial decisions that will make us what we are still lie before us. We have to reach forward in response to God, for whom anything is possible. We may never settle back.
O God and Father, who hast set our face toward the future, to weigh its opportunities and its uncertainties, grant that our hope may so reach out to the promise of thy Kingdom, and our purpose so bent to the task lying near at hand, that at thy Son’s coming we may be found upon his service. For his name’ sake.
Lent 5, 7 April 2019