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The Easter Hymn – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title: The Easter Hymn

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Date: 31 March 2024, Easter Sunday

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Luke 24:13-35

 

The Easter Hymn

They say you’re not meant to clap in church!

But today, of all days, I’m doing what I like! This simple expression of joy, gladness and thanksgiving is surely allowed? Who made that rule anyway? Telling the us that we cannot express joy and delight in Church!

Who said that joy- like perhaps opera music, was only allowed outside of the church, and within the church we would remain glum and straight-faced. O Clap your hands, all ye peoples, the psalmist writes, O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands.

The piece we have just enjoyed was not written directly as a piece of sacred music to be sung in church even though it expresses the joy of the resurrection. It was written as a vignette, a little sacred anthem within a secular opera- it’s meant to represent the sound of a rural village erupting in joy on Easter Morning: Rejoice for the Lord has arisen! Alleluia!

It appears in the midst of a plot-line which would not be out of place on Coronation Street or Eastenders, including jealousy, betrayal, murder. But human drama wherever it is, is always punctuated with a divine song. God’s grace transforms even the worst of us and brings us to praise and thanksgiving. God’s love reaches into the forgotten and forsaken places of this world and wrings from them hope and possibility. We are all called to sing an Easter Hymn.

The bleeding of the sacred into the secular and the secular into the sacred is an appropriate theme on this Easter Day- because if we think that the resurrection does not affect our day to day lives beyond the walls of the church, we are not really appreciating the reality of what God has done in Jesus Christ, or what God can do in Jesus Christ. If we think we can’t bring all that we are into this place, and offer ourselves to the God who loves us, then we are also not really appreciating the reality of what God has done in Jesus Christ and what good God can work within us.

If we do not think that God can find a way into opera houses, pubs, museums, laboratories, hospitals, schools, universities, suburbs, cities, villages, farms, prisons, high-rise flats, foodbanks, the houses of parliament- then we are not appreciating the reality of what God can do.

The deepest kind of divine joy- is always in the midst of our dramas, our reality, whether we acknowledge it or not. Bidden or not bidden, God is present. God,who is not put off by our disobedience, nor confined by our walls, our conventions.

God in Christ is not even confined by a tomb with a heavy stone rolled across the door. Christ will bring joy out of all that seemed lost, he will bring life from all that seemed to be without hope, he will bring life, where all seemed dead and bare. Wherever we go, wherever we are, Christ is there going ahead of us.  Where there are endings, the risen Christ shows us the way to a new beginning, even weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia.

The joy of the resurrection, has the power to permeate every aspect of our lives, it can navigate the sadnesses, the disappointments, and the sorrows of this world with a love which bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, believes all things, for the Risen Christ is over all, and through all, and in all.

The story we celebrate and the song we sing today emerge from the events of holy week, bursting from an empty tomb, emerging from betrayal, loss, darkness and death and exploding into every corner of our lives, rippling out into the farthest corners of the universe, whispering life into the forgotten corners of our world, reaching down into the depths of hell and waking up the dead from their long sleep, breathing new life into dry bones, reaching into the places of war and conflict and demanding peace. The joy of the resurrection causes us to relinquish anger and embrace compassion, exposing corruption, prejudice and hatred, putting into perspective the petty grievances and little setbacks we face whilst holding the hand of those who are weary, grieving or in pain, and speaking into their hearts and ours these words: Have faith. You are not alone.

The joy of the resurrection is too wonderful to be contained within our church walls and kept to ourselves, it goes with us on all our journeys, as we walk along whatever roads we are called to travel, the joy of the resurrection comes with us into our homes and sits at table with us.

For those who watch us now from the four corners of this earth, wherever you are, the joy of the resurrection is with you too coursing through cables and ethernet and WiFi-there is nowhere that the joy of the resurrection will not go.

The joy of the resurrection is there as we break bread and cherish the company of friends and family, the joy of the resurrection is there in the midst of all our dramas, the tragedy and the comedy are no boundary for the resurrection.

The joy of the resurrection is there in our acts of kindness and in the demands of love, it is there in the green shoots that are springing up all around us, it is there in the tears we shed as we say our goodbyes, and in the cry of new born babies.

Unless we are looking for the resurrection every day, in every place, in every moment of our lives in the so-called ‘sacred’ and in the so-called ‘secular’, in everything that we do, and in everything that we are, then we have missed the point of all this and as St Paul says, our faith has been in vain.

If it’s ok to clap in church, and I can assure you that it is, it’s also ok to take the church’s joy out with you into the world, and know that the risen Christ will not let you go, it will warm-up your hearts, and the sound of the resurrection will be singing in your ears as you navigate life, the universe and everything else.

No loss will be beyond us, no disappointment will define us, no goodbye will be the end.

So, my final words to my friends at York Minster, and all who celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ today: Rejoice- for the Lord has arisen.

And please don’t let it stop here.

Alleluia Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, Alleluia.

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‘Sabbath Time’ – The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Title: ‘Sabbath Time’

Preacher: The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Readings: Exodus 5:1–6:1; Philippians 3:4b–14

Date:  3 March 2024, the Third Sunday of Lent

 

‘Sabbath Time’

A few years ago, I caught a bit of one of the many reality TV programmes. It was called ‘Back to the Floor’. As you might guess from the title, this saw a CEO from a major company leave the office and spend some time on the shop floor. The episode I saw had the head of one of our rail companies working in one of his railway stations. There were complaints from the public about a lack of ticket machines; customers angry at a delayed train; and the time pressures on staff to simply get all their jobs done during the course of the day. In particular, there was a point in the programme where the timetable required a train to be de-coupled and then re-coupled to another service. This train was always, always late in leaving the station. Try as he might, with all the assistance he could muster, the CEO could never get this operation completed within the available time. He had to admit defeat and take back to the directors the news that the timetable needed to change.

Making bricks without straw might seem a remote image for the ways in which work can become a tool of oppression.

We heard in our first reading that denying the Israelites the straw they needed to make bricks became a form of punishment. Instead of providing the straw, as was the custom, the Israelites are told to find their own. As Pharoah says:

“let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy”

In this passage from Genesis the Israelites are called lazy because they wish to go and worship God in the wilderness, to mark one of their festivals. So the disagreement about this between Pharoah, Moses and Aaron isn’t about the people going to the promised land, but about them being able to make their religious obligation.

Very often the cry ‘let my people go’ is adopted by all sorts of people as a slogan for freedom – but in this account it’s about having a week off in order to worship God.

Many years ago I was in a department store in New York. It happened to be a Sunday and I was struck by a brief exchange between the man serving me and their supervisor. The young man was asking to have a Sunday off, as soon as possible, to go to church. As he put it to his boss: ‘Jesus goin’ to be angry with me if I don’t go soon’. Perhaps the supervisor, like Pharoah, might have thought this was a fancy way of dressing up laziness. Who knows. But for this shop worker, just as for the Israelites, finding ‘Sabbath time’ was important. Finding the space to be still for the presence of the Lord, to help maintain our faith and all that it means, matters.

Ultimately, Pharoah wasn’t denying the Israelites straw, he was denying them time. It also, created destructive relationships within the people themselves. When the quantity of bricks required weren’t delivered, the Jewish overseers of the people were beaten by the taskmasters of Pharoah. It must have felt that the days were numbered for the Israelites in Egypt. Moses pleads to the Lord, and God answers that things are about to change, saying: ‘Now you shall see what I will do’.

Giving people impossible tasks is a tool of oppression. Denying people the opportunity to worship, to celebrate the festivals that define them and shape them, is oppressive. Taking away the time to rest, and to be with your family, is also a way in which – down the centuries – leaders have sought to destroy the Jewish nation.

I’ve no doubt that the CEO I mentioned earlier was unaware that his organisation had set the staff at one station an impossible task. He experienced their frustration and I’ve no doubt that things were changed as a result.

People need Sabbath time – the space to reflect, to love and to live.

Perhaps, in the tragedy and turmoil of the Middle East, we need that space now more than ever. A pause in hostilities that allows people to recollect who they are, and where the God of peace is calling us to be. Setting people up for failure, be they Jewish of Palestinian, will never build a happy or just society.

In Lent, as Christians, we are called to journey into the wilderness with Jesus, and make our Sabbath in the stories of betrayal, sacrifice, suffering and absence. To make the power of resurrection – of hope plucked out of despair – our own (to quote St Paul). Despite all that stands in our way, or seeks to oppress us, the season of Lent encourages us to ‘strain forward’ to that love and peace which Christ alone can bring.

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Deference can be dangerous – The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Title: Deference can be dangerous

Preacher: The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Readings: Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16; Romans 4:13–25; Mark 8:31–38

Date:  25 February 2024, the Second Sunday of Lent

 

Deference can be dangerous.

Time and again in our church and across society, reports have highlighted that a culture of deference can become the landscape in which bad things happen. Deference is when people feel that even if they speak up, they won’t be heard.

Deference is when the invisible forces of respect mean that people don’t say what matters to them most. Deference is when people can collude with damaging behaviours that hurt themselves and others.

This isn’t by any means an issue unique to the church. Those who have watched ‘Mr Bates v The Post Office’, or read about these miscarriages of justice elsewhere, will know that an unquestioning respect can lead to calamity. That organisations beyond reproach become very dangerous organisations. Because they can never be in the wrong – even when they are.

In the past year the Church of England received the third report from the Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice. Among other things, this report addressed the patronage system that still operates in the Church. Among other things the authors of the report said:

“we want to ask whether an institution that still openly exercises the power of patronage in its affairs is capable of initiating and enabling a process of cultural change”

Last week you may have heard in the news that another major report was received by the Church – this time on safeguarding. The report makes clear that ‘a complete change of culture is needed’. On many occasions patronage and deference have been given as key reasons why the Church has failed to act on concerns about safeguarding.

When I think about the life of Jesus, I’m left wondering how on earth we ended up in this position. Why a church founded on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus gravitated so much towards unaccountable power. Why the mutuality of early Christians – argumentative as they were – somehow got lost in the structures of hierarchy and power. Perhaps it’s the fault of him out there – Constantine the Great with his broken sword – perhaps it’s his fault of making Christianity the state religion and embedding it in existing power structures.

However, if ever there was someone to defer to, and allow unaccountable command of his followers, surely that was Jesus? Yet in our Gospel this morning Peter takes Jesus to one side in order to rebuke him. Peter the fisherman having stern words with the Word made flesh; rebuking the one ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (to quote the Epistle).There is love and concern in what Peter says – but not deference. Peter is worried about the impact on the disciples of all this talk about suffering, rejection and death. It’s hardly the kind of pep talk designed to rally the troops.

While Peter appears to have no hesitation in taking Jesus to one side to have this conversation he finds himself being rebuked in return. Jesus addresses Peter in the harshest terms – ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Time and again Jesus has to explain that his way isn’t the way of the world. Peter hears all the doom and gloom, but misses the promise of resurrection. Jesus is not to be deflected in his mission: he has a relationship with the disciples of open debate and honest speaking. There’s no place for fake deference, or unspoken truths, in this work of building God’s Kingdom.

Lent is traditionally a time when people new to the Christian faith prepare for baptism.

Perhaps one way of changing the culture in the Church is to remember that baptism is the most significant sacrament that we have to offer. That being baptised, and living out our faith each day, is the highest form of Christian discipleship. Consequently, being made a deacon, priest, or a bishop, or even and archbishop, is something that can only happen when that primary act of baptism has taken place.

In the Christian faith, if there is to be deference, it is surely first and foremost for the baptised in Christ – because everything else is simply commentary on that primary gift of grace. Perhaps, to paraphrase St Paul’s, we need to turn upside down our thoughts about the Church, so that in humility and love we can in turn, up-end and transform the world.

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The River Within – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title: The River Within

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Readings: Genesis 9:8–17, 1 Peter 3:18–22, Mark 1:9–15

Date: 18 February 2024, The First Sunday of Lent

 

The river is within us, the sea is all about us; In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our readings today on this first Sunday of Lent, there is water, water, everywhere; within and without. I hope you’ve brought your raincoats and umbrellas for a very watery sermon!

We all know that water is a daily need for us, without water, we have no daily bread. Human beings are made up of around 60% water, and water is vital for life. Without water, our crops fail. Wounds do not heal. We wither away. Without water, we die.

W H Auden said that ‘Water is the soul of the earth’ and water is also one of the deeper spiritual symbols that has traditionally been a focus during the season of Lent. We thirst, like a deer that longs for the waterbrooks, we yearn for God to quench our desires through our prayers, fasting and acts of service.

The earliest theologians of the church reflected deeply on the symbolism of water in the life of faith, and this was drawn from the imagery of water which runs throughout the scriptures, from the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the deep in the book of Genesis, to the Crystal River in the book of Revelation. But there is water and there is water.

In his four quartets, (The Dry Salvages) T S Elliot, makes the distinction between water and water. The river and the sea are different beasts: The river is within us, he says, the sea is all about us. We can drink from the river, but drinking salty sea water just makes us more and more thirsty and ultimately brings death.

And so too in Christian symbolism, these two different kinds of water have different meanings. The sea has often been portrayed symbolically as chaos, ‘I am all at sea’ we might say, the sea is known as the abyss, the deep, like sheol or hades, as an all consuming evil, or an agent of God to overwhelm all that needs renewing.

In the book of Genesis we see God using the seas of the earth to wipe out the sins of humanity, to start all over again, but it’s Noah’s righteousness alone which brings a few of the faithful through the waters, to dry land. The sea is something to be rescued from. In the middle of a storm, Jesus commands the sea to be still, who is this, that even the winds and the waves obey him? The disciples ask.

God says ‘never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth’ and instead, little drops of water in the sky refract the light to give a sign of a rainbow in the clouds – a sign of God’s promise and God’s love.

When Moses parts the red sea, the people of Israel are brought into the plains of the promised land, a journey from water into wilderness where thirsty people are given manna to eat and water from a rock. Water becomes a sign and symbol of the movement from captivity to freedom, from death to life, a sign of God’s presence with us in the difficult places of this life. There will always be water.

Jesus reveals his identity as ‘the living water’ to the woman at the well and says that those who believe in him will have rivers of living water flowing within them. On the cross, Jesus side is punctured and water spills out.  At the end of all time when the whole creation is born again, we are reminded in the book of Revelation that there will be no more sea. Just a river of the water of life, running to the throne of God where the saints will gather and sing.

The first letter of Peter, tells us that the flood prefigures baptism, the dying to sin and rising to new life which every Christian claims when they are immersed in the water of a font, and takes their first breath as a new person beginning a new life.

We are drowned in the sea and rise in the river, so to speak and when we witness Jesus baptism in the River Jordan, his journey echoes that ancient journey, from water to wilderness, and ultimately from death to life.

We might well recognise the danger and delight of water which lies as such a powerful symbol at the heart of our faith- we might well recall our baptism and its symbolism of death and new life, loss and love, endings and beginnings, and our journey from water to wilderness, and from ashes to the living font.

Christ says to us I am the living water, drink of me, I am the river within. Christ imbues water with a deeper spiritual meaning, it becomes for us an outward and visible symbol of an inward and spiritual grace and during this season it is the inward and the spiritual to which we are called to attend.  In this season of Lent, how will we navigate the waters that surround us and how will we attend to the river within?

Do we find ourselves all at sea? Confused, chaotic, restless, buffeted by the waves and storms and floods, drowned by doubt, or expectation, or lack of self-worth? Are we yearning for clean water to drink but tasting only salt on our lips? Are we praying that the choppy waters will be stilled and the floods will pass?

Are we thirsty for the sweet water of new life and new beginnings and new love and new hope?  How will we calm the oceans of hatred and greed, injustice, and malice, the pride, hypocrisy and impatience of our lives?

St Ambrose, who wrote much about the waters of baptism, said, it is our own inclinations that are often more dangerous than external enemies- How do we overcome this sea of sin that is all about us and threatens to overwhelm us?

Shall we instead gather at the river? The fountain of living water, the flowing water, clear and graceful, returning to that moment when we were drawn from the water, to breathe again, and to be born again.

The church does not see baptism as an end in itself, neither a tick box nor a ticket to an easier life, nor the promise of a life free from loss, pain or challenge, nor free from testing and temptation in the wilderness. Baptism is not the end of a Christian journey but the beginning, it is the place from which we start as we gather at the river to drink, and this water should be denied to no-one.

How we need this living water. Our world is thirsty for it. Give us this water always and may our thirst not be fully satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, until the earth will be full of the glory of the Lord, till the waters cover the sea, until we become living water too, until we become an oasis for others who are thirsty.

We find ourselves again, between ashes and the living font, and in this place of ambiguity we are called to return to the river within, and drink deeply from the living water, until our thirst is quenched and until we are made anew.

To the glory of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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“May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight” – Canon Dr Eve Poole

Title: May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, our strength, and our redeemer

Preacher: Canon Dr Eve Poole, Chapter of York Minster

Readings: Genesis 14:17–20, Revelation 19:6–10, John 2:1-11

Date: 21 January 2024, Third Sunday of Epiphany

My favourite bit of today’s gospel is Mary’s eye-roll in the middle of it. “When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to me and to you? My hour has not yet come.” CUE MARY’S EYEROLL, as she says to the servants [no doubt in a rather weary voice], “just do whatever he tells you.” Every mother of every son can identify with that kind of bumptiousness. Sons, eh?

Talking of which, some of you have got people pregnant; some of you have been pregnant; and all of you have been born. Babies are a source of such wonder. How extraordinary that an egg and a sperm, themselves distinct, combine, then split; splitting and changing, exchanging cells with the mother’s body, until all these cells combine again; to create skin and organs and teeth and hair; and even, in female babies, a full set of egg cells for their own babies in the future! Why are we then even remotely surprised by such an ordinary miracle as water into wine? Even in adulthood, when I broke my knee ski-ing, they took a hamstring from my thigh and used it to secure my femur to my tibia, knowing that in the laboratory of my body it would soon be transformed from hamstring to ligament.

We’re all completely extraordinary, you know. Congratulations on being here today. What are the odds? It’s been estimated that the chances of you being born are 400 quadrillion to the power of 150,000, which is a ten followed by 2.64 million zeroes. You’d have to run the length of the Minster sixteen and a half times to read all those zeroes; it’s a number as long as the first 4 Harry Potters, or three sets of New Testaments. And in a universe that extends tens of billions of light years in all directions, containing over two trillion galaxies, and more stars than all the grains of sand on all the beaches on planet Earth, here you are. Living on the Visited Planet, the one chosen by God, who send his only son here; sitting in York Minster, or watching at home, busy being a very particular, unique and special miracle.

But will we still be here to mark the Minster’s next millennium? As a species, I mean? Because of late it seems Sci Fi is not very ‘fi’ anymore, it’s creeping into fact, via ChatGPT and advanced robotics, and making us wobble about jobs and reality. For many people, that’s a good thing, if you believe that evolution is just a narrative of improvement, with an end game of perfection. Because if AI would make us perfect, surely we should hand over the keys, and exit stage left. But for Christians, we’re not at liberty to be quite so cavalier with our own design, because God made us in his own image. That means we’re fearfully and wonderfully made, perfectly designed by God for God’s perfect ends.

But we’re so used to hearing about human shortcomings that I think we’ve lost confidence in our design. Burdened by our manifold sins and wickednesses, we feel ashamed of being such miserable offenders. And it’s true that current worries about AI running amok have nothing on what humans have already done both to each other and to the planet. But we’re not actually designed to be bad, we’re just wayward; but we don’t HAVE to be. So when we worry about all the bugs in our system that seem to ‘make us bad,’ it’s salutary to remember that they’re not really bugs, they’re features, and we could all get better at using them.

Take for example mistakes. We all know about trial and error, and we’ve all watched toddlers learning how to walk by falling down and picking themselves up again. But in our design, mistakes also have a moral purpose, because when you make a mistake, people around you react to it. They get upset or hurt, and you feel bad. You don’t like that feeling, so you learn not to do it again. Over time, this develops in you a healthy conscience, which future-proofs your decision-making against this kind of error and hones your moral compass. Mistake-making looks like a design flaw, but it’s vital for our learning and development. And if we do learn from our mistakes, we really have little excuse for all that sinning.

I think we’ve become rather too used to rubbishing our own design, and blaming it for our own bad behaviour. But now that AI is trying so hard to copy it, the extraordinary sophistication of that design is becoming much more apparent. So while we celebrate the miracles of Jesus today, please remember that you’re one too. Maybe we should find more time to celebrate the miracle of human design, and to take it a lot more seriously. So, as the poet Mary Oliver says, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Amen

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“Stewards of one another” – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title: Stewards of one another

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Readings: Genesis 1:1-15, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Date: 7 January 2024, The Baptism of Christ

 

I wonder if you know where you were baptized. If you are not baptized there is still time by the way, please see us afterwards!

I wonder what we would find and what we would learn, if we went on a pilgrimage to the place of our baptism? This Cathedral Church is only here because of a baptism. In the year 627AD, Queen Ethelberga brought her husband, King Edwin to faith, he was converted to Christianity because of her, and was baptised somewhere near this site. York Minster is built on a baptism. We often celebrate St Paulinus who did the baptizing, but let’s not forget Queen Ethelberga who nurtured her husband in the faith and brought him to baptism.

If I journeyed back to my beginning as a Christian, I would need to go back to rural Shropshire, to the Church of St Leonard, in a place called Linley Brook.

The Church is a near complete, 12th century Norman building, at the end of a dirt track in the midst of a Lime tree wood.  I was baptized in a small round, Norman font, and in a file of papers and certificates at home I have the original baptism certificate which gives these instructions to those who took me to be baptized:

“This child has begun life as a Christian: and will need to be trained to pray and taught the Christian faith, and trained to Christian habits as soon as possible, they will need to be helped to know and understand the church’s catechism, encouraged to attend church by personal example, and brought to confirmation when the churches catechism is known and understood.”

The interesting thing about that list, is not one of those things were dependent on me. Other people were commissioned with doing the work for me!  You can decide if they succeeded! My beginnings in the faith, were dependent on someone else, my parents and godparents, the family of the church into which I was being incorporated. This is a good thing, because a three-month-old baby is pretty dependent upon others, as is anyone who begins their journey as a Christian person, whatever age they are. Even Kings cannot be baptized in their own strength.

It turns out the Christian faith needs people to pass it on… We cannot be a Christian on our own. We depend on our parents and godparents, we depend on being adopted into a new family, the church. We gain a whole new set of brothers and sisters, who are there to encourage, teach and nurture us. And like any family, annoy us, knock the rough edges off us, and burst the bubbles of our own self-importance.

Our faith, is then, dependent on the faith of others, as much as it’s dependent on our own. But we mustn’t forget that, our faith and theirs, is dependent on God’s grace, for without this we can do nothing.

When we are baptized, we become incorporated into God’s grace and God’s community in such a way that it empowers us to do what is impossible by our faith alone.  We realize that we are part of something bigger, that our faith, is kept by others, as much as it is kept by us. We are stewards of one another.

It’s perhaps no surprise, that Mark begins his gospel with a baptism. For him this is where the journey of the church begins. There are no mangers, or shepherds in his account. This is the moment, when Christ begins his ministry. For Mark, this is the nativity, this is the Epiphany. This baptism is the beginning- a new creation, the place where all our lives in Christ begin.

This is the moment when Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. This is the moment when Jesus accepts his destiny. But even Jesus could not do this on his own, he asks to be baptized by John the Baptist. It’s interesting isn’t it, that John felt unqualified, inadequate, not good enough to do this.

Jesus asks John to baptize him: even Jesus needed and accepted the ministry of another, even Jesus was dependent upon God’s faithfulness, God’s love, and his identity was revealed by the faith of those around him.

Every day we are called to put our life in God’s hands, we are called to trust in God, and trust that we are part of a family of faith that exists through time and space and networked across the globe, so that when we cannot pray, others are praying for us, when we doubt, others are believing for us, when we need support, others will hold us, and when we don’t know who we are any more, our identity is revealed by the faith of those around us.

In a family like this, on the days when we aren’t so sure what we believe, our faith is kept alive by them. They speak for us, they sing for us, they pray for us. Look around this church today, these are the people who keep your faith today, just as much as you do theirs.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses.”

It might be hard to grasp in our self-obsessed society, but your faith is not all about you.  My faith is not all about me. Once we step out on this journey, we become incorporated. Through baptism we all become kindred, and in this family, we are born not of blood, or by the will of the flesh, but of God.

There are moments on our journey when are called to stand up and affirm our baptismal faith for ourselves and remember it, by journeying back to the font, to the place of our baptism.  As we journey back to the waters of baptism today, we reflect on all those people who have brought us here, and helped us grow in faith, and live the Christian life. We have not come here in our own strength.

And as we reflect, we might realise that it is now our turn to keep the faith alive for those who cannot keep it for themselves, to share the faith with those who have not heard, to pray for others as they have prayed for us, and we can only carry out this commission, because we know that we too are completely dependent on God, who calls us, and names each one of us ‘beloved’.

May we be faithful to that calling and faithful to our baptism

through the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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“For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title: For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

Date: 6 January 2024, The Feast of the Epiphany

 

In the medieval church, on the feast of the Epiphany, the clergy would wear vestments embroidered with stars- vestimenta stellata. A rubric from the fourteenth century states that it doesn’t matter what colour the dalmatic and tunicle and chasuble be, so long as they be sprinkled with stars. I leave that lovely thought with you all, and suggest that in memory of the exiting Canon Precentor, some new vestments be commissioned for York Minster, that are ‘sprinkled with stars’ for this specific feast! The church of course, is full of things which speak of deeper meanings, stone, wood, glass, vestments and fabric, lights and candles, oil, bread and wine, things which by design and imagination speak of greater things.

Like the Fireworks we enjoyed on New Years Eve- simply mixtures of gunpowder, plastics, and fuses- which with a spark of fire lift up our eyes and our hearts to contemplate life and love in the year just past and our hopes for the year ahead. Shimmering plooms, explosions and dazzling light litter the skies with the meaning we chose to make of it. Like the gifts we give to one another in this festive season, if we lift up our eyes and look into the face of the gift giver- we are able see beyond the soap-on-a-rope, or the pair of socks, in our hands and contemplate how a token offering can say so much more than words. There is meaning in the matter.

This evening we hear of scholars and sky watchers- who through their attentiveness to the heavens noticed a bright star in the East. In ancient times everything was all of a piece, there was no disconnect between the earthly and the heavenly, and it was only natural that any significant event would be reflected in the skies.

They looked up and found that the heavens were telling the glory of God- and by their wisdom, they understood that meaning could be found in all things if we have eyes to see: the star in the sky drew together the material, the spiritual, the physical, the intellectual, the rational.  The Magi were open to what it could mean, and alive to its possibilities. It was a bright pinpoint on a dark horizon, the first sign of heaven bleeding into earth in a new and remarkable way- puncturing the night sky.

They took with them gifts, as foretold by the prophets. Tangible material things which they held in their hands, things which each had a meaning beyond the matter. Gold, heavy and luminous for a royal birth- Frankincense, whose fragrance took the senses elsewhere and was perfume fit for a king, and also Myrrh, the spiced ointment for anointing the dead, an ominous reference towards the cross. Gifts for a baby shower of cosmic proportions.

The star is a sign of Christ the light guiding us all through a confusing and sometimes dangerous world.  In the Book of Revelation, Christ calls himself, the bright morning star- we call upon him by this name in Advent: O Oriens- star of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. We now sit under that living light, revealed on this holy night of revelations.

Jesus the lovely, shining morning star manifests himself in creation in many and various ways. A challenge for us this coming year is to find meaning in the matter of life and as St Paul suggests to see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things.

The Roman Catholic Theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, said this:

Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see. The Incarnation is a making new, a restoration, of all the universe’s forces and powers; Christ is the Instrument, the Center, the End, of the whole of animate and material creation; through Him, everything is created, sanctified and vivified.

King Charles said something similar in his Speech on Christmas Day when he said that the whole of Creation is a manifestation of the Divine.

For Christians, Christ gives meaning to all things in heaven and on earth. He came to share our humanity, so that we may share in his divinity.  Maybe those medieval vestments with their embroidered stars, were trying to communicate the simple and dazzling truth that we are all robed with Christ, sprinkled with the bright morning star, and throughout our lives, in their fullest physical and spiritual expressions, Christ is made known.  In him, our humanity is dignified and we can look beyond the limitations of matter to the truth it may speak, and the good news it may tell.

CS Lewis wrote “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. God likes matter, he invented it”

Epiphany is a feast of God with us in our humanity – God revealed to us, in the stardust, in wine at the wedding at Cana, in the water of baptism, and in ways too astonishing to contemplate. God intimately woven through every fibre of our being, with us in this bundle of life, bound by neither time or space nor any other human construct we design to limit God’s love.

The world is brimming with life divine, from sunrise to sunset and it has been revealed to us by a child, over whom a star rested, drawing others by its light to bow down and worship. The bright morning star is there for us to see and to follow– if we choose to look for it- not only in the things of beauty and joy which dazzle our senses, but also in the ordinary things of life: bread and wine, water and oil, and even in the pain and trauma and tragedy of life as well; in the blood, the sweat, the tears there is meaning beyond matter. Every atom of our being matters to God.

Is anything unredeemable through Christ, is there anything which cannot find its meaning the God who is in all and through all?

So come, bring your gifts, whatever they are. Bring your heart, bring your self, bring your body, mind and spirit, bring every part of you, and bow down before the Lord our maker, as he steps into our humanity, and adorns each one of us in vestments, sprinkled with stars.

To his name be glory for ever.

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The First Sunday of Christmas – Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Title: I want to be a shepherd

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1–6, Colossians 2. 16–23

Date: 31 December 2023, First Sunday of Christmas

 

Each Christmas when my daughter was a child, I very naughtily told her teachers, that all Abi ever wanted to be in any Nativity play was a Shepherd. Not Mary; not an angel; not a King – but only ever, a shepherd.

Why?

Well obviously because a shepherds  costume is so much simpler to organise! Some loose fitting over-sized shirt (no particular colour) and a tea towel. Simples.

In all the hassle and hurry of the weeks leading up to Christmas this was really, really helpful to me so that I didn’t have to over-think some exotic costume creation and send her as the second lobster of the nativity (You need to know your Christmas films for that reference).

So every year there was Abi dressed  as a  simple, no nonsense, down to earth, every-day, shepherd. Sorted.

Now, if those particular qualities appealed to me, they also seem to appeal to God.

Shepherds are everywhere in the Bible. They are there as themselves of course, but they are also used as an image for the leaders charged with looking after God’s people.

In our first reading, however, we find that the shepherds charged with protecting the sheep have become a threat to the sheep. The sheep have been destroyed and scattered by the very people called to unite them and protect them.They have failed to attend to the sheep God entrusted to their care and failed to live holy lives.

Therefore, says the Lord God of Israel,

 ‘I will attend to you’.

God is going to take over the care of the sheep directly. The old shepherds will disappear, and new shepherds will be raised up. God intervenes to save the people by raising up a righteous branch for the people of King David – a new King who will be a wise ruler.

For Christians the righteous branch that is promised comes to us in Christ. When Jeremiah prophesied that God would take over the work the shepherds had failed to do, we find that prophecy fulfilled in the birth of Christ. Because, as our second reading puts it,

 ‘For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily’.

Here is the shepherd, born amidst the people, the coming of God to lead us into the way of salvation. Baptism becomes the way through which the sheep are made part of God’s own flock – and all our trespasses are washed away, ‘erasing the record that stood against us’.

In the powerlessness of the cross the rulers of the world are disarmed, because in Christ we have a dignity that they cannot touch, and a relationship with God which nothing can divide. All the baptised are called by God to be as Christ in the world – to live Christ’s story and express in word and deed the love of God for all people.

I think the prophet Jeremiah would find countless examples in our society where leaders have not attended to needs of the people.

When shepherds’ have placed their own wants above the needs of those placed into their care.  At Evensong on Christmas Day we heard Isaiah’s alternative vision of a city in the time when shepherds are faithful and God’s will is accepted with joy:

‘no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it or the cry of distress.  No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old person who does not live out a lifetime, for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth’

The costume for a shepherd might be easy to find, but having the heart of a shepherd is a much greater challenge. As we stand on the cusp of a new year let us hope and pray – and speak and act – in ways that draw us closer to the world as God calls it to be. And let us each find in our heart the desire to be a good shepherd, and to support good shepherds, enthroning the Christ child in the centre of our lives.

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First Eucharist of Christmas – Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Title: I want everything

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Date: 24 December 2023, First Eucharist of Christmas

 

Recently I was standing just inside one of those vast retail outlets – a warehouse packed with almost anything you can imagine. The shelves seemed to go on and on, almost as far as they eye could see. Just entering the store, was a woman and her daughter. Perhaps the daughter was 7 or 8 years old, and I think it was the first time she’d visited the warehouse. She stopped, looked around her, and then with her eyes wide open she said to her mother:

‘I want everything!’

In that store ‘everything’ would have been a tall order, and I’m not sure how many trucks would be needed to transport everything, home. Nor could I even begin to calculate exactly how much money ‘everything’ would cost.

Perhaps we’ve all been there.  Eager and excited for Christmas with so many different and sparkly things for sale, simply wanting to possess and enjoy it all.

Maybe, having it all would make us feel happy. But all the evidence is that it probably wouldn’t make us better human beings. Time and again research has shown that less well-off people, including people living in virtual poverty, are the most generous. As a proportion of what they have, it is those with very little who are most inclined to share; to give and to support.

One of the reasons why this happens may lie in the consequences of being rich. It isn’t that having lots of stuff makes us less generous or less compassionate. But apparently, it’s the fact that wealth buys SPACE.

Wealth enables people to distance themselves from their neighbour. It is less likely that someone with heaps of cash will use public transport. Less likely that they will live in close proximity to others. But also, more likely that they will live in a house of many rooms – and, perhaps even have many different homes. It appears that distance reduces our capacity to understand the needs of the people around us.

Wealth can also result in a sense of entitlement. We are rich because of our own industry, our own efforts, and we are entitled to have more. Consequently, the poor are people who have failed to become wealthy. And somehow our Possessions are seen to reflect our character and our abilities.

Tonight, we think about the most powerful being in the universe.

We come to worship one who does, indeed, ‘have everything’. As the Bible says about God: ‘All things come from you and of your own do we give you’. There is nothing which God lacks.

Yet the joy of tonight is that God in Jesus sets aside every entitlement of divinity and chooses to be as close to us as is humanly possible. St John puts it with powerful simplicity: ‘The Word became flesh’. As flesh and blood, God chooses to be one with us in the womb of Mary, and lies beside us in the busy, bustling town of Bethlehem. Rather than space, exclusivity and distance, Jesus comes as one in need of human love and care.

This Christmas it is 800 years since the first Christmas crib was created. It was St Francis of Assisi who began this custom in the year 1223. We may be familiar with a simple crib of shepherds and kings; oxen and sheep. But if you go into churches in other parts of the world these can be very elaborate scenes. There might be hundreds of figures inside and outside the stable. It can feel as though everyone in the community is moving towards this miracle.

The Christian community is created by people drawing together in response to the news of the Word made flesh. There is no place for exclusivity in either the stable or the church.

The greatest surprise of Christmas turns out to be that – in setting aside privilege and power – Jesus becomes our ‘everything’. The gift in whose love we find new life, the forgiveness of sins, and a light that, despite the darkness of our world, will never be extinguished.

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“O Adonai…come and deliver us with an outstretched arm” – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: O Adonai…come and deliver us with an outstretched arm

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date: 17 December 2023,  The Third Sunday of Advent

 

O Adonai…come and deliver us with an outstretched arm.

On Thursday night, the Archbishop of York and I were amongst a group of thirty or forty people who gathered in the rather ugly surroundings of the lowest floor of the Sainsbury’s car park at Foss Bank, just a few minutes’ walk from here, outside Monk Bar.

The three of us were guests of York’s small Jewish community, which was celebrating the last night of Hannukah. And the choice of this ugly venue was very particular. If you are a local resident, you will know that this part of Foss Bank is known as Jewbury, and in the name is the clue. For pretty much exactly beneath this unattractive modern structure is the site of York’s medieval Jewish cemetery. And it was here that, in 1190, the last burials in the cemetery took place, when the 150 or so victims of one of the worst pogroms in medieval England, which took place just down the road at Clifford’s Tower, were hastily interred here.

And thus, on Thursday evening, Archbishop Stephen and I joined Rabbi Elisheva and members of her community, who, in her own words that night, gathered to bring hope in the darkness, by lighting 150 candles to mark those who were slaughtered over 800 years ago, and to give them what was probably the first liturgical memorial of their deaths, even as their successors in the York of today still come to terms with the global ripples of the events in southern Israel of 7th October.

And as we lit those candles, a particularly ugly reflection hit me. The simple truth that the terrible event of 1190 was committed by people who would have principally identified themselves… as being Christians.

O Adonai…come and deliver us with an outstretched arm.

And yesterday, in the compound of the Holy Family Roman Catholic parish in Gaza City, an elderly woman and her grown-up daughter were shot dead, apparently as they attempted to cross the compound to a building that had a working toilet. The office of the Latin Patriach – the Catholic Archbishop in the Holy Land – alleges that this was a murder performed by an IDF sniper, without any warning of an attack of any kind. “They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the parish, where there are no belligerents,” said a spokesman for the Archbishop.

Just one story of many that are now being told from within Gaza, as the vast majority of the world’s sovereign states vote at the UN for an immediate ceasefire – but a call ignored by the Israeli government, whose actions, to many people, now feel a disproportionate response to the events of October 7th.

O Adonai…come and deliver us with an outstretched arm.

And, away from the horrors of murderous acts committed by members of the three great monotheistic faiths, the quickest glance at any newspaper or current affairs website will give us the inevitable reminder of the terrors of the Climate Emergency; of the ongoing war in Ukraine, temporarily overshadowed by the unfolding events in the Land which feels so very un-Holy at present; of the latest deaths in the central Mediterranean as asylum seekers gamble their very lives to reach the shores of Europe or Britain; of ambulance queues heralding yet another impending NHS winter crisis.

And so the great Advent cry goes up, O Adonai…come and deliver us with an outstretched arm. Is it any wonder that both our main services in this great cathedral today began with the words, Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness?

The challenge, of course, is two-fold. First of all, there is the overwhelming challenge of inadequacy. What can you or I do to bring peace to Gaza and Israel, or to Ukraine and Russia? What can ‘ordinary people’ do to change the world around them? And that is an enormous challenge – one which can feel impossible to answer.

And the second challenge is the one my colleague Catriona identified in her powerful sermon this morning, which is the challenge of hearing that beautiful plainsong cry to the one whom today we address as ‘O Adonai’ sung so exquisitely by our wonderful choir, while we enjoy this musical feast in what she so aptly called the ‘twinkly’ surroundings of this Christmas-tree filled Gothic masterpiece.

But the hard truth of Advent is unavoidable, despite the musical, liturgical and architectural beauty in which we find it cast this afternoon. The hard truth, as Jesus reminds his followers near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, is that it is not good enough to say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” unless we are prepared, as he put it so famously, “to do the will of my Father in heaven.” It is not enough for us to sing the great antiphons of Advent and cry, “O Adonai”, if we do not honour the one whom we address as Lord, by making our thoughts, our words, and our actions speak of the inbreaking Kingdom of God.

For throughout the many centuries of history contained within the pages of the Bible, and in every era ever since, many have made this cry, but dishonoured the one on whom they have called, and whether in 12th Century Jewbury or modern-day Gaza, too many skies have poured forth anything but the righteousness for which we pray each Advent.

So, today, let us remember that building that kingdom starts – incredibly – with us. With our conversations; with our economic choices when we reach for a purse or a wallet or a credit card; with the privilege we exercise when we approach a ballot box or write to a democratically elected politician; and in many other small ways that either build or which tear down that precious thing we call ‘community’. For, as one great Anglican last century remarked very truthfully,

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.

So today, and throughout our lives, when we pray that the one whom we address as, ‘My Lord’ (which is all that the Hebrew title Adonai means), when we pray that Adonai should, indeed, come ‘with an outstretched arm’, let us make sure we have played our part to make ready for what he will bring. Amen.

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An Inconvenient Prophecy – Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Title: An Inconvenient Prophecy

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Date: 10 December 2023, Second Sunday of Advent

Readings: 1 Kings 22:12–28, Romans 15:4–13

 

Power has the tendency to shape the things that are said around it. When someone has power to make our lives easier, or harder, it becomes tempting simply to say what the person wishes to hear. A rather cynical friend once told a newly consecrated bishop that two things in his life were about to change. ‘What things?’ the bishop enquired. ‘You’ll never have to pay for lunch again, and no one will ever tell you the truth’.

Well, I suspect that those days have gone (to some extent), but the story illustrates the idea that power can alter relationships in ways that aren’t always constructive or helpful. Our first reading this evening seems a rather odd story. It begins with all the prophets urging the King to go up against Ramoth-gilead, because they believe God will give it into the King’s hand. We hear that all ‘the prophets with one accord are favourable to the king’.

But then there’s Micaiah. Micaiah was a prophet with a reputation for being independent.

He didn’t simply go with the crowd or say what people wanted to hear. That’s a risky way to live and I’m sure that it caused Micaiah a lot of trouble.Indeed, in tonight’s reading from first Kings we find that Micaiah wasn’t with the rest of the prophets. He needed to be summoned to be present and give his prophecy to the King. Perhaps, like Jonah, Micaiah decides that keeping out of the way might be better than telling the King what he had in his heart to say. Who knows? Micaiah is urged to conform but replies that he’ll have to speak whatever the Lord has given him to say.

Yet, surprisingly, that doesn’t happen. Micaiah does conform and makes his prophecy fit with that of the other prophets. Fascinatingly, the King won’t accept this. Perhaps the King senses that Micaiah is simply playing along with the others and his characteristic passion is missing. In any event, he demands that Micaiah tells him the truth. And the truth isn’t what the King wants to hear. A leader of the group of prophets, Zedekiah, then intervenes and gives Micaiah a slap. But Micaiah won’t abandon the conviction he has in the prophecy God has given to him. So, our reading ends with Micaiah put in prison on half rations.

As I said, telling a truth that doesn’t bend to the liking of power isn’t a comfortable place to be. If you’ve read the Hilary Mantel novels about Thomas Cromwell, or seen the adaptations for TV or the stage, you’ll know just how terrible absolute power can be. In Bring Up The Bodies Mantel writes the following about Henry VIII:

“You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.”

In Advent there’s another courageous prophet who won’t bend to the will of a King. It’s John the Baptist and the King is Herod. Out in the wilderness John is like an earthquake disturbing the settled landscape of religious belief and custom. The tremors even reach as far as Jerusalem. John is there, preparing the way of the Lord – doing his best to alert the people to what’s coming. It’s not a message that Herod likes. John is preaching change, and the future he is describing is a danger to the people in power. As with Micaiah, John’s determination to speak truth to power will land him in prison – and then lead to his execution.

As we hear in the letter to the Romans, God’s desire is for harmony. The church should be an example of peace, in which we welcome one another just as Christ welcomes us. Yet, even here, when prophecy leads to change it generally ends in some sort of conflict.

The extension of evangelism into the Gentile world didn’t please everyone. When prophetic vision says God is calling us to change, it isn’t good news for everyone. In Romans St Paul celebrates the message of joy that comes to the Gentiles, and he wants the unity and peace of the church, but that is seldom what happens.

Prophets who do their job well and faithfully don’t often get a reward in this life. The poet TS Eliot wrote the following words for a tempter in his play Murder in the Cathedral: ‘The easy man lives to eat the best dinners’.

On half rations Micaiah in prison knew the cost of not saying the thing which a King wanted to hear. John the Baptist – also in prison – would lose his life to the whim of Herod when Herod was enjoying a very good dinner.

In Advent perhaps what we don’t want to hear, matters most – and making the effort to listen to those who make us feel least comfortable is the hard task of this season. Just as Advent begins with the call for us to be ‘stirred up’, this Sunday reminds us that we need to pay attention to the stirrers.

The people God calls to challenge our complacency and to make us alert, ‘now in the time of this mortal life’. It is a calling that can be very costly, but the Kingdom of God breaks into our world, in part, due to the faithful determination of the prophets sent to us in each and every generation.

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“If you prick us do we not bleed?” – Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Title: “If you prick us do we not bleed?

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Readings: Isaiah 64. 1–9, 1 Corinthians 1. 3–9, Mark 13. 24–end

Date: 3 Dec 2023, First Sunday of Advent

 

There is no doubt that the people of Israel have a troubled history. As we know, part of that history of antisemitism and violence lies in the past of this city.  It was very moving recently to be at Clifford Tower, here in York, to hear the actor Tracy-Ann Oberman speaking about her experiences of growing up and experiencing discrimination. She was speaking just before dashing to the Royal Theatre to star as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Before leaving, Tracy-Ann recited one of the most famous speeches of the play when Shylock pleads the case of our common humanity. ‘If you prick us do we not bleed?’

Tragically, the Jewish people also have a deeply troubled present. Standing beside Tracy-Ann was Rabbi Elisheva, the first resident Rabbi in York for 800 years. Rabbi Elisheva prayed for peace – an intercession made all the more poignant and as it was spoken on the site where so many of the Jews of Medieval York lost their lives.

Understandably, the experiences of the people of Israel and Judah often left them asking where God was in their time of need. More than that, on occasion it led the people to blame God for their misfortunes.  A few verses before the passage from Isaiah we heard read this morning, the prophet portrays the people questioning God as follows:

Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?

It is out of this sense of abandonment and desolation that Isaiah addresses God at the beginning of chapter 64 – begging for God to come down, tangibly and powerfully, to intervene and save the chosen people. It is almost as though Isaiah is reminding God of what it means to be God. That God is like a small fire becoming a blaze; still water beginning to boil; the steady ground that begins to shake. Isaiah wants God to be stirred up and present in the midst of trouble. This is the God who does unexpected and awesome deeds. Without God the people are like autumn leaves, and their iniquities are the wind that strips the trees bare.

Isaiah’s plea and petition for God to return to the people is a fitting start to Advent. The prophet appears to imagine an apocalyptic appearance of the Divine: ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’. It is a theme which continues in our Gospel reading from Mark. Here the Son of Man is seen as coming in clouds with great power and glory, with the sun darkened, and stars falling from heaven. It is an overwhelming image. Both Isaiah and Jesus call us to be awake and watchful, conscious that all our striving and anxieties will come to an end. In time, God’s time, history will be completed and both heaven and earth shall pass away.

But I think that there’s also another message woven into these prophesies of the end time. Because the end time has already begun. The fruits of the Kingdom of God can already be tasted ‘now, in the time of this mortal life’. The Risen Christ is present and active in the world, not yet appearing in clouds of splendour, but appearing in the acts of love and peace, the acts of forgiveness and reconciliation which are the works of grace. Wherever women and men recognise their common inheritance as children of God – to recognise, as Shylock says in the play, that all people are: Fed with the same food, hurt with the same  weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the  same means.

At the end of our reading from Isaiah the prophet writes in words notably similar to those of Shylock: We are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

As we begin Advent, and journey towards Christmas, we think of the end times and also the acts of love now that are a foretaste of what is to come. At the most basic level it is simply to recognise and act upon our common humanity. To remember that we are all made in the image of God and that God’s love is for each and for all.

In both our readings today there is an explosive sense of God’s mighty descent to us in power and splendour. Yet in the Christian faith God does something completely unexpected. Perhaps the almighty potter recognises that stubborn humanity is going to need a bit more than another turn on the wheel. Remarkably, the days of Advent bring us to the moment when the potter becomes the clay.

God enters our world as a baby and knows that when we are tickled, we laugh; that when it is winter, we are cold and when it is summer, we are warm. And to know, in the bitter agony of Good Friday, that when we are pricked, we bleed. God in Christ dignifies the experience of being human. The gulf between the maker and the material of making, is closed.

Isaiah speaks repeatedly about the ‘presence’ of God and in Advent we are called to be alert to God appearing in ways that both challenge and surprise. And we are reminded, powerfully, of the sacredness of our common humanity.

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