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Divine Subversion – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title of sermon: Divine Subversion

Date/time/service: Sunday 26 June 2022,Choral Evensong

Readings: Genesis 27:1-40, Mark 6:1-6

 

I stand here in some trepidation because as a Preacher, when faced with that reading from Genesis about Jacob and Esau, who was ‘an hairy man’, one can never hope to exceed the archetypal and wan Church of England Sermon preached by Alan Bennet in the 1960’s! So I won’t compete, but I will use the very same reading as the basis for what I want to say today.

Just over 100 years ago, Parliament gave approval for women over 30 to vote. The right to vote was also extended to working class men; in what was known as the Representation of the People Act. Until then, only wealthy male landowners and the aristocracy were entitled to democracy. No offence is meant, but I suspect not many of us here today would have had the right to vote at that time. I’m not going to speak about politics this evening, though there is plenty to speak about, but I am going to speak about who gets to be heard in our world: who has rights and who doesn’t; and contrast that with the subversive-ness of the Gospel, which undermines our human conventions, expectations and norms, and enables us to question in the light of Christ, who gets given rights and power, and who doesn’t.

At the time of Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, the order of the world was mainly governed by predictable people holding power and authority. Within families and tribes, the first born son was always the privileged, rightful heir, the person on whom the future was built.  Younger sons and daughters did not even figure, however much wisdom they had, and were cut off from the natural legacies of power passed on from one generation to another. In the book of Genesis, we see Jacob, the youngest son, and not by much because he was a twin, grasping at the heel of his older brother Esau, even in the womb, to try and subvert the expected privileges of power in his world which would be bestowed upon the first born male. Later in life, as we hear tell this evening: Jacob deceives his own father to take the birth right of Esau, gain his Father’s blessing and so ultimately fulfil God’s plan.

When reading this story before, I have always felt naturally sympathetic to poor Esau, robbed of what was ‘rightfully’ his, but I’ve been trying to fathom why God chose to work through Jacob, the young pretender. Was I missing something and looking at this story with the eyes of predictable privilege?

The story of Jacob is, in some ways, a story which repeats itself over and over again throughout the scriptures if we are prepared to look beyond the usual pattern of disseminated powers and patriarchies. It seems God’s will and God’s way often take a different course, choosing the unexpected or atypical, the weak, the small, the ignored, the youngest, the poor, the women, the children, the outcast, the foreigner and the widow, in fact, all those who have traditionally had no voice in society, and certainly no rights.

St Paul offers: God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians). The last will be first and the first will be last, we hear Jesus teach. Look for divine subversion and it can be found throughout the scriptures, and throughout the life and teaching of Christ, if we have eyes to see and can perhaps learn to see beyond our own privilege.

Moses is abandoned and then rescued from the bulrushes and goes on to lead his people; David, the youngest son of Jesse is chosen as the one to be anointed. Mary, an unmarried teenager is chosen by God to be the mother of his Son. Matthew the Tax Collector is called to be a disciple, these are just a few examples of unpredictable outcomes, by human standards.

The Gospel of Mark recounts that Jesus the Carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses, Judas and Simon is the Messiah of God and of course he is rejected by his own community because he does not conform to what they were expecting a Messiah to be. In his own humanity, Christ subverts the prejudices of humanity itself and points us to our better nature.  Christ then tells us stories of prodigal sons, widow’s mites, banquets to which those on the streets are invited, children who inherit the Kingdom of heaven, untouchables who are healed, sinners who are forgiven and restored.

In Hebrew, the name Jacob can mean “to supplant, circumvent, assail, overreach”. What if the person of Jacob, represents all those who long to be heard and recognised and given a voice? What if he represents those who strive to over-reach the stereotypes and restrictions laid upon them by the privileged of their society? What if Jacob represents all those who struggle to supplant and circumvent the oppressive power structures of their world, and assail every form of injustice?

Perhaps we can all be more attentive and alert to our human proclivity to revert to the predictable patterns of power: in the church, in our communities and in our world. Let us observe who holds the power, who speaks, and whose voice is erased or ignored.  Let us observe who sits in the seats of honour, who is always at the table, who is always given a platform or indeed a pulpit and what happens to those who ask the difficult questions, or try to give voice to the voiceless or try to shake up the way the world works? Who gets the rights and who doesn’t?

The work of the gospel will continue until these imbalances are reconciled, and Mary sings so beautifully and so clearly in the words of the Magnificat of a God who will scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, put down the mighty from their seat, exalt the humble and meek, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. For many in our world today, the words of Mary and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, might well herald an uncomfortable reckoning.

We should not be surprised that all of this is a struggle, there is always a wrestling between powers and for power, but as Christians we are children of this subversive God and called to recognise the unjust structures in our world which need divine disruption and challenge. Jacob goes on to wrestle with an angel, until he is given a new name ‘Israel’ which means- the one who struggles and contends, the one who wrestles for recognition and so becomes a light for all people and bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

As we observe all these things and as we meditate on who holds power in our world this week, whether dictated by birth, gender, class, wealth, race, sexuality or education, perhaps we might pray for a little divine subversion to gently disrupt and deceive our human systems of power and privilege, and have faith that it will, according to the promises of Christ and just as it has always done if we have eyes to see.

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

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Present day Taboos – Canon Missioner Maggie McLean

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner 

Title of sermon: Present day Taboos

Date/time/service: Sunday 19 June 2022

 

Today at Evensong we have readings full of women who are the subjects and agents of action. So I’ve no idea why I was asked to preach!

 

There is Abraham determined that his son will marry one of his own people, rather than a Canaanite from where he was living. In seeking this potential wife for his son, Abraham isn’t interested in compulsion: ‘if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath’. However, the priority for Abraham is to secure his ‘blood-line’. To have descendants that ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.

 

The second reading recounts a remarkable set of events that highlight the unique character of Jesus as a Rabbi. Firstly, as a teacher touched by someone ritually unclean and, secondly, as a rabbi who risks further impurity by holding the hand of someone who has died.

 

It is highly likely that, at the time, contact between this woman and a Rabbi would have rendered Jesus impure. In the Biblical text there is a strong suggestion that the woman’s action ‘was seen as crossing the boundaries of decency’[i]. However, Mark’s main focus in the account lies in the illness rather than the impurity. The woman comes to Jesus in a state of despair, having sought the help of doctors. Her condition has worsened over 12 years, and all her resources are now spent. Almost certainly aware that she will make Jesus impure, she approaches him from behind, attempting to be unseen as she reaches out to touch him.

 

Today we may not have any particular sense of ritual impurity. We might see ourselves in an enlightened age that’s beyond such things. But that doesn’t mean we have no sense of ‘taboo’. There are many topics which are tacitly excluded from public debate or polite conversation. Often these will relate to perfectly natural bodily functions that are still, all too often, shrouded in shame.

 

It seems remarkable that it is only in recent years that the subject of period poverty has achieved political significance. Hidden and silent, the topic has long been a reality for women across the world but has failed to get the attention it deserves. Of course, it is not the same situation as the bleeding of the woman who turns to Jesus in her desperation. But it is a topic that is taboo. Undoubtedly it is also a situation where gender is critical to the story; and it’s a Gospel account that concerns both need and poverty.

 

One of the people honoured in the recent Jubilee Birthday Honours is Tina Leslie. Based here in Yorkshire, Tina was awarded the MBE by the Queen for founding the Freedom4Girls charity in 2016. It’s a charity that works to improve access to sanitary products for women in the UK, Uganda and Kenya. Here at York Minster we are delighted to support Yorkits, a local Rotary charity spearheaded by a member of our congregation – Issy Sanderson – which makes and supplies feminine hygiene kits to a huge number of countries around the world, including refugee camps in Europe.

 

I can only imagine that as the cost of living crisis deepens it will be the taboo topics; the minority groups and the poorest in our society, who will struggle most to access the basic necessities of life. We hear on the news about families choosing between heating and food – but I’m sure that other choices will be made, and sometimes those will involve women’s fundamental health and dignity.

 

One of the most moving and remarkable things about the ministry of Jesus is that he wasn’t limited by the conventions of his time. In order to heal people; to save people; and to love people, he crossed a line, time after time. While onlookers may have been aghast at a Rabbi being touched by a woman who was bleeding, there can be no impurity in Jesus – and he cannot be made impure. Instead, his presence transforms suffering into wholeness. When the Lord of life takes the hand of a young girl who has died, risking his own purity, it is death that is driven out.

 

Sometimes, when we touch on difficult topics, we might feel uncomfortable. We might want to stand back and look away. But we need to remember that this is where Christ walks. This is where Christ stands with arms open to the suffering of the world. Our discipleship, our calling, is to be with him – and to transcend any barrier that prevents us being in his Kingdom.

 

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How do I love thee? – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Sermon preached by Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor, on Trinity Sunday 2022

Readings Proverbs 8. 1–4, 22–31, Romans 5. 1–5, John 14. 23–29

Title: How do I love thee?

‘How do I love thee, let me count the ways!’.

So wrote the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ostensibly about the love she had for her husband. But for Barrett Browning, a faithful Christian with a lively theological mind, the many forms of love which we experience in our earthbound life, were consummated most fully through the love of God, the love from which all other loves come.

Of course, there is an irony in the first line of the poem because it supposes we can count the ways that we love, but we can never really count the ways can we? Barrett Browing knew that, and I think we all know that too- Love is beyond numbers, and beyond measure and sometimes beyond even our understanding.

In our reading from the Book of Proverbs, we see a representation of wisdom, a name assigned to Christ, designated as a co-worker and a delight to God the creator. There at the beginning of all things there was a relationship, a community of love, which delighted in the human race, a human race always destined to be loved and have the capacity to love in return. But if we’re not counting the ways– how do we human beings show that love for which we were made? How do we express, how do we show that we love God? How do others know that we love God?

Is it through great works, or through a keen intellect? Is through knowledge, or charity? Is it through status or effort? Are we rewarded for long service? Humans may monitor such things and measure them and indeed judge them- but God counts none of these things.  For God only looks at the heart, each and every heart. It is the greatest mystery and miracle that God asks nothing of us but love.

Since the beginning of time, human beings have made known our love of God, shown our love of God, through worship, through adoration. How do I love thee? we might ask the creator of heaven and earth. Let me offer praise, might be our answer.

Tom Wright, Theologian and former Bishop of Durham, describes worship as ‘love on its knees before the beloved’.  He implies that Christian worship calls us always to humility, to obedience and to love. Worship is an activity of the human heart. It is a school for the soul and it is the place where love is made.

It is the way that human beings can ultimately show their love for God: an expression of that first commandment: To love with heart, and mind and strength.

Trinity Sunday is a day when the Church acknowledges the call to worship God. We don’t have to understand the Trinity, we just have to worship, letting ourselves be swept up into adoration of God who is our creator, our redeemer and our sustainer.

Worship is not a means to an end, it is an end in itself -but through the grace of God it is always a beginning, because being drawn into the loving community of God can only result in building a loving community in the name of God. Worship is not a mission strategy, but it is the source of all mission, it is the bedrock of all evangelism, it is the engine oil of all loving service in the name of God. It is where God’s love is poured in our hearts.

Of course, it is from the love of God that other loves come, because when we are drawn into worship, that divine love shines upon us and within us, so that we may bring light and love to the world. Our love for God ripples out into the wider pool of our lives and into the ocean of our humanity, and that love can move us to speak against injustice and prejudice, and name corruption, and call out evil, and attend to feeding the hungry, caring for creation, binding up the broken hearted and raising up and honoring the most vulnerable. Through worship, the Spirit of truth guides us into all truth.

The Love of God and God’s love for us, always provokes us to greater loves which know no boundaries and carry no agenda and seek no gain nor reward, we are called, for this loves sake, to love neighbour beyond the self, the second great commandment.

God is always drawing us into the community of love, and this is what the love of God means. If we enter into that love, if we even speak the words of love given to us in Christ, we will find that we are, in Michael Ramsey’s words: humble to the dust, full of gratitude and our whole scale of priorities and concerns may be turned upside down, because the first thing, the love of God and our response to it, will indeed come first. First before everything else, before family even, before work, before politics, before nation, before the conveniences and habits we cling to, before even our traditions and our history.

If the church decided to count the ways, if we took a measure of how we assign worth to God, we might note that nationally, fewer and fewer people attend worship. We do pretty well here in York but it’s not like this everywhere. Does that really matter? Is our mission to get more numbers in at any cost- is our mission economic? A numbers game? Or is our mission simply to be faithful- to love God and have faith that God will do the rest? Is not the love of God the best witness to our faith and the best measure of our health as a church?

Jesus said ‘when two or three are gathered together my name, there I am in the midst of them’. In Cathedrals of all places we know this to be true because cathedrals, of all the ecclesiastical entities of the church, seem to have an increasingly unique vocation. We’re not just about the big services!

Day by day, in this Cathedral we offer prayer and worship-morning and evening, and in between we break bread together, we are never closed (barring global pandemics), we are open to all, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, that’s more than Tesco.  The reason? Worship.

Worship is our primary purpose in this place, and even when no-one comes to join us, even when people have other priorities, even when it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, or isn’t at a convenient time, worship continues come rain or come shine, even if there are just two or three of us. Without that, this place is just a museum or a glorious heritage asset. Worship brings this place to life and it gives life to those who come here, and it gives life the world. We do this on behalf of, and for, everyone.

I have to break the news that we don’t worship for the numbers: maybe that’s why we’re growing? It’s great to have a full house, but if one person offers prayer here that is enough.  T.S Elliot, who wrote quite a lot about Cathedrals (as well as Cats) said that “The ‘use’ of a cathedral is the performance of the complete liturgy of the church through the Christian Year.

‘The numbers of people attending seems to me of quite minor importance’, he said. ‘I should feel no misgivings even were there no congregation at all.’

The Cathedral, for Elliot was a sign and a symbol of the continuous worship of God, whether by one, or one hundred, or one thousand. Perhaps we are called to be a sign and a symbol of the continuous worship of God, and an embodiment of humanities vocation to love God with heart, and mind and strength, seven whole days a week, not just one in seven- a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving on the altar of the Lord? Perhaps we are called to be the sacred heart of culture, a gift, for all those who cannot, or choose not to be present? We worship to show our love of God, and humanities capacity for love.

When I see people kneeling in prayer, and approaching the altar with such awe and reverence, lighting a candle, when I see what is brought into worship and how people prioritize worship against all the other demands on their time, the places they have come from, the problems they are facing, the suffering, the endurance they bear, the hopes they have, the joys they celebrate, when I see all this, I remember why we are here and I remember that this worship thing that the church is called by God to do- is truly, a priceless gift and our true purpose.

Oscar Romero said  ‘let us not measure the church by the number of its members or by its material buildings. That doesn’t matter, what matters is you the people, your hearts. God’s grace, giving you God’s truth and life.  Don’t measure yourself by your numbers. Measure yourselves by the sincerity of heart with which you follow the truth and light of our divine redeemer.’

Perhaps the seemingly impossible mission that God is calling the church to fulfil in this age- is to be faithful and to adore, to bow down in worship, and embody love on its knees before the beloved, and to the glory of the one and only living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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An Unexpected Ending

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson

Title of sermon: An Unexpected Ending

Readings: Psalm 98, Daniel 6.6-23, Mark 15:46-16.8

Date/time/service: Sunday 15 May 2022, 4pm, Choral Evensong

 

Last night, as you settled down to watch the Eurovision Song contest, perhaps you were expecting the usual ‘nil points’ for the United Kingdom, or perhaps you were expecting political voting to hold sway, as I believe it occasionally does- so what on earth happened!? Ukraine won and we came second- our best result since 1998! The narrative we have been so used to, was happily and miraculously subverted by a spirit of generosity across Europe! It’s almost as if a new chapter has been opened in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest. Isn’t it wonderful, when things don’t turn out as you have come to expect?

The acknowledged ending of Mark’s Gospel, which we have heard read this evening, suggests that after being told by an Angel that Jesus was risen from the dead, the women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, fled from the tomb in terror and amazement, and said nothing to anyone. For they were afraid.  We are left wondering what happens next.  We are left with a closing down of the story. It’s over. The tomb is empty, the women flee in fear. Is this the end? According to the Gospel of Mark it seems so.

The Gospel writer is though deploying a dramatic device to cause the reader to question where this story really ends, because as we read and hear this story again, two thousand years later, we suddenly realise that of course, the story did not end with the women fleeing in fear and remaining silent…our very presence in this place today, suggests that the women may have fled in fear, but very soon afterwards they shared with others what they had seen and heard, they had good news to proclaim and they did just that.

Mark is actually telling us that the story continued, and you are only reading this story, or hearing this story, because it did not quite end in the way that is implied. What actually happened, beyond the written words on the page, is a story of the risen Christ subverting the ending that the world expected, subverting the ending we have been given. Death was not the end of this story- there was more to come, another chapter. This story did not end in silence, it ended in song.

A similar subversion of an expected narrative happens in the Book of Daniel, Daniel is thrown to the lions for praying to God, and is miraculously left unharmed, because an Angel commands the lion to shut its mouth leaving Daniel unscathed.  These are unexpected and curious turns of event. Daniel too- through his faith in God, subverts the expected gory ending of the narrative. His story had more to give. He had more to say.  This kind of narrative turn is one we experience throughout salvation history. There is an apparently inevitable outcome, but God subverts our human expectations. All seems lost, but instead things start again, or new life finds a way through. The lost are found, the broken are healed, the outcast is restored, the last are first, the dead come back to life.

In the mighty anthem we have just heard- (For Lo, I raise up by Charles Villiers Stanford) a violent and corrupt people are ravaging through the Land and terror is all around, but God promises that a new world will be born, even if it seems a distant dream. ‘Be patient and wait for it’, God says, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.  The anthem begins with loud drama, but it ends, perhaps unexpectedly, with the soft sound of peace. The Magnificat, which we know so well in this service, is also a narrative of subversion: the rich and powerful are knocked down from their pedestals and the poor and lowly are raised up. This is not the ending we might be expecting in a world driven by power, wealth and status.

In our own histories, we might often feel trapped by the endings that are imposed upon us, watching things unfold just as they always do, the same old, same old, imprisoned by the dictated narratives which keep being rolled out again and again.  But we learn through Christ, that it does not have to be this way.  The biggest narrative turn in scripture is probably spoken by that anonymous young man, dressed in white. ‘Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here’.

No longer can we predict the outcome, no longer need we be trapped by the usual endings that others may have imposed upon us, or the narratives we are predicted to inhabit, because the Lord himself, through the power of the resurrection gives us the possibility of a new ending and a different future.

The same Lord, from whom all good things come, gives us all the possibility of an unexpected ending and a new start. We all have more to do, more to say.  The story of Christ – the good news we have been given, is a story of a birth in a stable, the story of a love given for all people, the story of trampling down death with the joy of new life.

We are invited to be part of this story, to live out this story, and to keep proclaiming it over and above the narrative frameworks which the world tries to impose upon us.

He has been raised. Alleluia.

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Resurrection life – Honorary Minor Canon Peniel Rajkumar

Preacher: Honorary Minor Canon Peniel Rajkumar

Title of sermon: Resurrection life

Date/time/service: Sunday 8 May 2022, 4pm, Choral Evensong

 

When I initially told my wife about my new association with York Minster, I was gently reminded that I had a hard example to emulate, because one Indian many would associate with Yorkshire would be the Indian cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar. Well, no pressure there, though I have to admit that my cricketing abilities are not quite up to Tendulkar’s. But on the other hand, I learnt that Tendulkar’s link with Yorkshire lasted just a little over four and a half months, and I’m genuinely hoping to be here a bit longer, not the least because of the beauty of this place and the generous welcome I’ve received from its people. Thank you.

Narratives, narratives and more narratives! The Easter experience of Jesus’ disciples seems to be filled with narratives. Our gospel reading is set in the middle of one such narrative and begins with the words “while they were talking about this”. The disciples are talking about Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus, and Jesus appears in their midst.

However exciting these narratives of Jesus’s resurrection may have sounded, they nevertheless seem powerless to irrupt into the reality of the eleven disciples, who seem barricaded from the rest of the world by grief, fear and doubt. The disciples seem to be in some senses what the Indian theologian Stanley Samartha calls “the Saturday people”, squeezed between Good Friday and Easter, who inhabit that unbearable pause between death and life, to whom Easter never comes.

No wonder they are shocked when Jesus  appears among them. They did not expect this because Jesus’s crucifixion was a Roman execution that was meant to be the metaphorical final nail – something so cruel, so cunning and so complete that it was meant to be a ‘full-stop’.

And into this reality of doubt, despair and disillusionment Jesus breaks in, confounding the disciples.  But what happens next is even more shocking. Jesus calls the same disciples who doubt his resurrection, to a new life of witness. While they are still caught in a flux of conflicting emotions – joy, disbelief and wonder – Jesus calls them to a new life which will culminate in them receiving power from on high. They are embraced in all their vulnerability and confusion into the possibility of a transformed life.

Yet, this transformed life is not a life of quick fixes. One of the consistent features of Jesus’s resurrection stories is that they offer no quick solutions for the disciples’ fears and doubts.  Jesus appears and disappears, but very little happens in their life. However, the way the disciples are transformed is through embracing Jesus’ invitation to enter into a new pattern of living.

In our reading we see that the initiation to such living begins with the sharing of food – a distinctive mark of Jesus’s earthly ministry. In this table fellowship the disciples become hosts to Jesus himself, who enters their life as a hungry guest and asks them “have you anything to eat?” and teaches them at the heart of their new life was the challenge of responding to the need of the ‘other’.

It is a pattern of living where the disciple’s minds are opened to fresh readings of the scriptures in a context where closed minds may have provided more comfort and certitude.

It is a pattern of living where the disciples are promised the power to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in a context where revenge and retaliation might have been easier and preferable.

Finally, it is a pattern of living where they are asked to wait to be clothed by that power which is not of this world, while resisting the overwhelming temptation to make this power one’s own possession.

That is the promise and possibility that the risen Christ opens to a despairing and disbelieving people. The former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams captures the significance of this dimension of the resurrection in the following words, “The Christian proclamation of the resurrection of the crucified just man, his return to his unfaithful friends and his empowering of them to forgive in his name offers a narrative structure in which we can locate our recovery of identity and human possibility”.

In Christ’s resurrection we are offered the possibility of a life that is both transformed and transforming. It is this transformed and transforming life that we may be called to live out in a turbulent global context of war, hate and greed, where it is easy to lose hope like the disciples, and  – as a modern poet poignantly put it – “let the wire brush of doubt scrape from our heart, all sense of ourself and our hesitant light”.

Thankfully this life is available to us as an invitation of the risen Christ, who accompanies us through our fears, our doubts and beyond with the words – “Peace be with you. Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Amen

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The Resurrection Perspective – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title of sermon: The Resurrection Perspective

Date/time/service: Sunday 1 May 2022

 

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There are moments in life that change us. That change our perspective indelibly.  Not just a U-turn to save face, or an alternative choice, but a complete ground breaking, life-changing, earth shattering transformation of fundamental proportions.

There are moments in life that change our perspective and make us look at the world differently. Almost as if we have been given a new way of seeing things. Moments that turn all of our assumptions upside down. Paradigm shifts, Eureka moments at the most personal level: a ‘Damascus Road experience’, is the phrase often used. An Epiphany, an enlightenment. An event which completely re-orients our very being, our lives, and our way of life. We’re never the same again.

When orbiting in space or walking on the moon, Astronauts from the International Space Station, are able in the most unique and profound way, to quite literally look at the world differently, from a different point of view. They look back at our blue planet, silently spinning, and see it in all of its wonder and fragility. The effect that this experience has on the astronauts has been well noted.

The NASA Astronaut, Nicole Stott describes how looking upon the earth from a distance, gives humanity a new perspective: She says: “We have this connection to Earth. And I don’t know how you can come back and not, in some way, be changed. It may be subtle. You see differences in different people in their general response when they come back from space. But I think, collectively, everybody has that emblazoned on their memories, the way the planet looks. You can’t take that lightly.”

This is a common phenomenon amongst those who journey into space, they call it the ‘overview effect’, a cognitive shift in awareness, a huge ruction in perspective which changes your life forever. It might result in compassion for the planet, an acknowledgment of the preciousness of life, a desire to do good and make the most of the time that has been given to us.

Most of us, will not be lucky enough to jet off into space.  But there will be moments in our lives when our world view shifts in a similar way to those astronauts- moments of clarity and insight-when we see the world differently.  In your own life can you identify the moments which have changed you? A moment of intellectual clarity? A sudden realisation of the truth? A revelation? Falling in love? The birth of a child? The experience of grief? An illness? A global pandemic perhaps? Can you identify the moments when you have experienced the Overview effect and been enlightened or shocked into seeing things in a new way?

The events of the resurrection which we continue to celebrate and which we are witness to today (recounted in the Gospel of John), illustrate world changing events in the lives of a small community of men and women in first century Palestine. The Lord of heaven and earth, the one who had been crucified, dead and buried, appears in a garden to Mary, moves through closed doors to be with the disciples in the upper room, walks along a road and reveals the meaning of the scriptures- breaking bread with the disciples, stands with them on a beach, early in the morning.

As the sun rose, this was the new day, the new beginning which no-one could have anticipated. The new day of a new world. Here was Christ, risen from the dead. How could this be possible? Of course the disciples didn’t know that it was Jesus, because that possibility was beyond anyone’s comprehension. The dead did not come back to life.  But here was Jesus. Stood on the beach and when their nets were empty, when they felt dejected and useless and lost, when they perhaps could see no way out, no way forward, when they had no perspective, this risen Christ tells them to put their nets on the other side. In sense he is telling them to look at things differently.

This is what Christ does, always calling us to see the world differently, to believe in the impossible, daring us to change, willing us to be born again and see the world as if for the first time. Urging us to throw our net on the other side, strengthening us to break out of the traditions and expectations and assumptions that bind and imprison us.  Christ wakens humanity from the slumber which obscures new life and breathes into us the gift of spirit, bursting the prisons of our souls and turning hearts of stone to hearts of mutable, transformable, changeable flesh.

For Saul, on the road to Damascus the voice and the light of Christ are dramatic interventions which turn a persecutor to a protector, an enemy to an advocate, a denier into a believer. This new perspective gives birth to Paul, whose life is then lived in proclaiming the risen Lord to anyone who was ready to see the world differently, a man whose life was turned upside down by Christ. The same might be said of Peter in whom three denials are transformed into three commissions, to tend and to feed the new community of Christ. A weak willed man, through the eyes of Christ is changed into the rock on whom he will build his church, a sinner is turned into a saint.

This is the Christ who is called the shepherd and yet is also the lamb, the God of heaven who is with us eating breakfast on the beach, this is the body crucified, and made glorious through resurrection.

Listen, says St Paul to the church in Corinth- a little time after his Damascus Road experience: I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. I suppose he, of all people, was able to talk to the Christian community about the change in heart and the change in perspective enabled by Christ.

The reminder of our baptism at the beginning of this service challenges us with the question: Do we really want to be changed? Are we open to having our perspective transformed? Are we ready to see the world differently?  I think we might all acknowledge that something might need to jolt humanity into a new perspective as we face this moment in our history- climate breakdown, war in Europe, the stock piling of nuclear weapons, a loss of integrity among those who lead us, a growing inequality between rich and poor, poverty on our doorstep, anxiety and confusion. We surely need to pray for a resurrection perspective on what it means to be human? Yours are the eyes, ours are the eyes, says St Theresa of Avila, with which Christ looks with compassion on the world.

It is through the eyes of Christ that we can see for ourselves all the things that mar the image of God in the family of humanity; it is through the universal and cosmic Christ that we can look upon this earth in wonder and awe, and see also its fragility and beauty; it is through Christ that we can be transformed by an overview effect which changes who we are and how we live.  Most of us do not need to become astronauts, in order to gain a new perspective. God simply asks us to turn to Christ, to submit to Christ and to come to Christ the way, the truth and the life.

It is in Christ that we can be changed and made new, and stand each day as if on the seashore, with endless possibilities set before us, if only we could open our eyes the reality of the living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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‘Ok, let’s go to York Minster and get it over and done with’ – Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner

Title of sermon: ‘Ok, let’s go to York Minster and get it over and done with’

Date/time/service: Sunday 17 April 2022, 4pm, Easter Day, Choral Evensong

 

York has been full of visitors in recent days. After two Easters with COVID restrictions it’s been good to welcome so many visitors into the Minster. A couple of days ago I was walking nearby when I heard a family debating their plans for the day. Sometimes it’s not easy to decide what to do when there is so much to do. However, eventually, one voice rose above the others, saying: ‘Ok, let’s go to York Minster and get it over and done with’.

I was amused. But I suspect we all know that feelings. When you tell people you’re going away and they say, ‘oh if you’re going there you must see so-and-so’. Whether it’s the Louvre in Paris or Nelson’s Column in London, every tourist destination has its own ‘must see’ place.

In the events we’ve marked in recent days the city was Jerusalem and the place was the Temple.  The streets would have been packed, the stalls and money-changers thriving. Every available room in the city would have been taken and many visitors would have camped outside the walls.

But this festivity was overshadowed by the darkness of a public execution. Now, on the third day, there are strange reports of an empty tomb; Jesus no longer dead but living; his body seen bearing the wounds he received on the cross. In time, as our second reading describes, more and more people would come to encounter the Risen Christ. All of this fulfils God’s promise to save his people.

In Isaiah and Psalm 66 we are reminded that even though we may suffer for a time, God does not abandon us. God freed the people from captivity in Babylon – just as God had freed the people from slavery in Egypt. The promise we celebrate today is the news that even death cannot hold us captive.

As we pray for God’s Kingdom to come (on earth as it is in heaven) we look forward to a time when each of us and everything is brought to completion in the light of God’s love.

And that’s why the comments I heard in the street are prophetic.  Christians look forward to a time when the Church will ‘be over and done with’.

Holy Week and Easter in Church help us affirm our faith and shape our determination to love as Christ loves us. Fed by word and sacrament in the hope that one day all this will no longer be needed.  God promises to save the people. In Jesus Christ death no longer holds us captive.

At Easter Christians are sent out to live this promise of freedom and work for God’s peace in a world torn apart by violence and hatred. We all know how much that is needed. This Easter may the Risen Christ inspire us and lead us to that day when God’s Kingdom comes, and justice and peace will be established for all people in our world.

 

Amen. 

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God tugs us back into life – Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner

Title of sermon: God tugs us back into life

Date/time/service: Sunday 17 April 2022, 8am, Easter Day, Holy Communion

 

We began this week shadowing the last days of Jesus of Nazareth.  Like the first Palm Sunday it started with lots of people, excitement and anticipation.  We had a great service here last Sunday, bright sunshine for our Palm Sunday procession with donkeys and crowds of people following them into the body of the Minster.

But how quickly things can change. Back in church later the same day I was with a bereaved family as they remembered someone very special to them.  From the many and the joyful, I was with the few and the mourning.  We live lives threaded through with all these different experiences – often without much time between them.

It’s hard.

Last week pulled all these themes together, moving from the joy of Palm Sunday to the desolation of the cross.  It’s hard to imagine the rollercoaster of emotions Jesus and his followers went through.  To be the object of popular approval; to be sharing a meal with your closest and dearest friends; to the public ridicule of a shameful death – with your mother watching it all.

Then there’s today.

Friday was supposed to be the end of it all.  As Newman puts it in his prayer: “the fever of life is over and our work is done”.  Despite its horror, at least Good Friday was an end.  The disciples could return to their normal lives, friends could mourn and life would once again become routine, ordinary.

Not today.  Today is the day that changes every day.

The appeal of Jesus had been that he was larger than life – and now we discover that he’s larger than death. Crucifixion; a sword in the side; a stone sealing his body in the darkness of a tomb.  God seems to smile at our puny efforts to decide that his Son is dead.  None of it matters.  God calls Jesus back into life – to bring his life and new possibility to all who put their faith in him.  With God, everything is possible.

What we celebrate today isn’t a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  It doesn’t allow us to skip past pain or be sheltered from suffering.  But when we’ve had enough, and would rather stay in a tomb of our own despair, God tugs us back into life. God asks: “Bring me whatever you have – even if it looks and feels like death: and I will call it back into life”.

We only have to look down the long centuries of Christian history to see how time and again God has taken what the world has written off in order to breathe new life into humanity.

People discarded by the world have wept and battered at the doors of the powerful and demanded justice.

Every Easter we find ourselves at a particular moment in our lives. I hope, for many it will be a good and hopeful place.  But for others it won’t be.  For many today will simply be a grim repeat of yesterday – and a fearful taste of tomorrow.

God knows.  And God says to us: ‘bring what you have – bring who you are, and I will give it life’.  Because today God doesn’t let death have the final work.

 

Alleluia Christ is Risen!

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Lament and Hope – Prayer and Poetry – Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner

Title of sermon: Lament and Hope – Prayer and Poetry

Date/time/service: Sunday 3 April 2022, 4pm, Passion Sunday, Choral Evensong 

 

Here in the Minster, as in many cathedrals and churches the psalms have a special place in our daily acts of worship. In fact, it’s not difficult to argue that the Psalms have a special place in Christianity. Often you will find them in a copy of the New Testament – the only part of the Jewish scriptures routinely included. Why? Why should these songs and poems be of such critical importance that they stand out from all the other books that stretch from Genesis to Malachi.

During Lent at the Minster we’ve been holding a series of talks that look at the relationship between the arts and prayer. One of these talks, given by Wendy Lloyd, discussed ‘Prayer as Lament and Hope’. For many, ‘lament and hope’ might be a good description for what Psalms express. They don’t shy away from the realities of human pain and suffering.

 

According to the Richard Schmidt:

“It is not that every sentiment expressed by a psalmist is admirable, but that in praying the Psalms, we confront ourselves as we really are. The Psalms are a reality check to keep prayer from becoming sentimental, superficial, or detached from the real world.”

 

In Lent many of the Psalms we hear in church articulate lament. The music to which they are often sung reflects that sense of anguish and sorrow. If this was all the Psalms conveyed it would indeed be a very bleak 40 days before Easter. As it is, in every Psalm, lament is peppered with hope. Anguish is countered by resolute faith and trust. The lost dare to believe that they might be found; embraced and loved.

Like a rainbow the Psalmists’ hope can seem beyond reach. Despite the grim realities we can all face the Israelites nevertheless believed that this arc of hope was worth pursuing.

It transcended the journey through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ and gave people who might otherwise have been crushed by life the determination to endure.

Perhaps this is the reason why Psalm 31 has become the key text in the spiritual response to the war in Ukraine. It’s a Psalm that touches on the realities of conflict, with the Psalmist writing: “I was beset as a city under siege”.  The text gives full recognition to the distress, grief, horror, alarm and sense of shame felt by victims of violence. Yet it moves between those feelings and expresses a great sense of hope in God – a conviction that God will come;

that God will restore justice; and that we will be saved through the steadfast love of the Lord.

Our prayer tree here in the Minster is littered with words that express the anguish of what we are all seeing and the longing for peace. Mostly the prayers consist of just a few words – a cry from the human heart for an end to this senseless conflict and the passionate desire for peace. Time and again these prayers express a human solidarity with people whose lives have been ripped apart by conflict.

In holding together gritty realism and spiritual hope the Psalms are strongly poetic.

Like so many of our prayers, poetry allows us to allude to a hope that vanishes if we try to pin it down too exactly. Hope is about something that doesn’t yet exist – but might. The form of language reflects the emerging nature of what we long for; pray for; work towards.

It was a great privilege for us to have here in the Minster recently the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. He had written a poem commissioned by the Chapter of York to mark the second anniversary of the first UK lockdown. Reflecting on our experiences of isolation Armitage writes about how we “candled our own hearts till the air was fit to breathe again”. Entitled ‘Only Human’ the work concludes with the words: ‘We are better now – that is the hope’.

As the Psalms illustrate, and poets tell us, believing that things will one day be better isn’t an idle or an easy hope. The hope of faith can test the best of us. Whether it’s the Psalmist, Jesus on the cross, or ourselves, there can be times on the journey of faith when we wonder where God is in the darkness.

These fundamental questions are of concern to people of faith and as we, at the Minster, see and hear on a daily basis they are also questions raised by those who come here as tourists but through the experience of this place they find space to explore their spirituality.

At times this can be tentative and ambiguous such as the prayer offered the other day by a visitor which said: ‘I am not a Christian but please God do something about this war’. Rather than dismissing that complexity we need to respond with skill and sensitivity.

The Explore Project is designed to address these kinds of questions.

That’s why I’m delighted that we are launching tailor made resources: prayer cards, booklets and a website, which are informed by research into the kind of questions people experience here and in other Cathedrals and Churches across the UK.

And so to mark this launch I would like to finish with a prayer of dedication:

 

God of all our explorations,

let this ancient place of prayer

and the churches and Cathedrals of this land be places where faith can blossom and lives be transformed.

We dedicate the resources of the Explore Project, that they may be a means by which the gentleness of your invitation to know and to love you is stirred; a means by which fears and anxieties can be named; and an opportunity for questions and doubts be explored. In your name we pray and give thanks.

 

Amen.

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A brief history of the Fourth Sunday of Lent – Revd Dr Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Preacher: Revd Dr Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title of sermon: A brief history of the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-end, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 19. 25b-27

Date/time/service: Fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday,

 

I know it says that today is the Fourth Sunday of Lent on the front of the order of service, but in fact this Sunday can go under the guise of many different names. We could mark this day in any number of different ways. So I thought I would offer a brief history of The Fourth Sunday of Lent so we can all make an informed choice as to why we might be here today!

Many years ago, when the church was fairly new, the fourth Sunday of Lent, was called Refreshment Sunday or ‘Rejoicing’ Sunday, in latin, Laetere Sunday. It was a day of celebration during the season of Lent, a little oasis in a season of fasting and penitence.  It got this name because one of the readings on that day began with the words ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’. And people were happy to take it literally. Some people called it Mid-Lent Sunday, rejoicing that perhaps that they had managed to get half-way through!  Sometimes, the clergy would wear rose coloured vestments to show that they were relaxing- a change from the normal purple, or in our case blue- so, some  people called the fourth Sunday of Lent ‘Rose Sunday’. Confused already?  Welcome to the Church of England!

Another reading that could be read on this Sunday, was the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, telling us about the generosity of God.  So sometimes the fourth Sunday in lent was called Five Loaves Sunday. People would rejoice and give thanks, and sing psalm hymns and spiritual songs to God for all they had. It was a day to remember the goodness and providence of God.  As the years went by, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, people would be given a break, a day off, a holiday for rest and refreshment. They would make a cake to share with their family- a spicy Simnel cake, covered in Marzipan, and so some people called the Fourth Sunday of Lent ‘Simnel Sunday’. There’s more….

Another reading on the Fourth Sunday of Lent was written by St Paul, and he said that Jerusalem was the Mother of us all, reminding us that we are all children of God.  So again people gave thanks to God in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs for the Mother Church and for Mary, the mother of Jesus.  On the fourth Sunday of Lent, people went back home to their mother church. It might have been the church where they were christened as a baby, or sometimes they would even go to the Cathedral, the mother church of the Diocese.

People who visited their mother church on the fourth Sunday of Lent, would say they had gone “a-mothering.” So, the fourth Sunday of Lent became known as Mothering Sunday. Please note: This is a different festival to Mother’s Day, which began in America about 100 years ago, though in England over the years the two festivals have kind of merged into one at least in secular culture.

So from that day to this, if not keeping the fourth Sunday of Lent, the church still keeps, not Mother’s day, but Mothering Sunday, though we remember all the qualities of mothering shared among us, we also remember Mary, the mother of God, and the family of the church, which helps us make a new kind of human family.

All these choices, all these options, what is your preferred choice for this fourth Sunday of Lent? The variety of options experienced on this one Sunday of the churches year, reflect very well the reality and the complexity of the church itself, variegated, different, diverse, sometimes confusing, with as many opposing opinions as Anglican Twitter and as many choices to make as any local coffee shop. Whose corner are you in? What flavour do you like best? It’s sometimes hard to imagine how any of this diversity can be drawn together effectively. If you were trying to tell someone about the church, or indeed sell the concept of church to someone -what would be the USP? As we sit here today, we ourselves in some ways represent the great diversity of humanity, and if we don’t we should.

When we come here what is it that makes this gathering into a community, and what is it that binds us all together not only with one another, but also with every other church in this city, diocese, across this land and across the world? There isn’t time today for a full examination of what Christian community is, we’re just making a start-but maybe it’s something we should all be thinking about?

Of course, there is only one thing that binds the church together beyond all of the flavours, customs, options, opinions and traditions that may exist. That one thing is Christ. Christ alone. Christ on the cross looking down upon the world, embracing the world in his loving arms, with love and compassion, looking down upon the world and binding it together in love.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus said to Mary his mother, this is your Son, pointing to John the disciple.  And pointing to Mary, he said to John, this is your mother. There on the cross, Jesus created a new kind of community not bound by conformity or sameness, not bound by blood, but bound by a love which breaks every barrier down and gathers together the fullness of humanity in all of its diversity and difference. It is only ever Christ that binds us all together. As St Paul says let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.

It may not matter what name we give the fourth Sunday of Lent, as long as we have Christ before us, beside us, below us, above us, between us and that we, for as long as we live, give ourselves to the Lord as our first concern, always through Christ, and with Christ and in Christ.

Disunity, within the church is a sin- it is the devil who tries to divide. There is a difference isn’t there between diversity and division and of course we currently live in a world of deep divisions, divisions between individuals, between families and communities and sadly between nations, perhaps we as the church of Christ, the body of Christ, can help heal those divisions by embodying what unity in diversity is….. if we are brave enough to let ourselves first be bound together as the body of Christ?

The church is one body, we are defined by our community and our unity, we are defined as a church by how we come together in difference and by how we bind together humanity with all of its faults and in all of its fullness.

There is one final tradition for the fourth Sunday of Lent I want to mention – it’s called ‘Clipping the Church’ or embracing the Church, or in modern language ‘hugging the church’, it often happened in the countryside, and the congregation would gather outside all around their church, hand in hand and sing songs, to remember that they were all bound together by the love of God, because sometimes it seems even the church needs reminding that it is called to be one family.

In the late seventies, there was a song that everyone was singing, it was a kind of folk song. It was sung by children in Sunday school and in assemblies, it’s still sung today. It’s the kind of song that is usually banned in Cathedrals, because it’s a bit twee and usually played on a guitar and not to everyone’s tastes, and don’t worry I’m not going to make you sing it, not this year anyway, but I am going finish with its words as a kind of prayer, it’s called Bind us together, you might know it. It might be the spiritual song that we could sing in our hearts today as we pray for our community and our unity as the church of Christ and as we pray for unity and compassion in our world:

Bind us together Lord, Bind us together with cords that cannot be broken,

Bind us together Lord, Bind us together Lord, Bind us together in love.

There is only one God, there is only King, there is only one body, this is why we sing:

Bind us together Lord, Bind us together Lord, bind us together in love.

 

Amen. 

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Suppose a King is about to go to war – Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner

Title of sermon: Suppose a King is about to go to war

Date/time/service: Sunday 13 March 2022, 4pm, Choral Evensong 

 

Our first reading tonight contrast two kings, father and son. The first models the kind of sovereignty God asks of those anointed to be King. It is a reign of service in which the rights of the poor and needy are upheld. In which there is no violence and where innocent blood isn’t shed. Addressing the son, the prophet mocks the attitude that successful kingship amounts to having finer buildings than those of his father. The son has missed the point.

In Old Testament times, Kings were a separate kind of human being. They had a direct relationship with God. As it was said in this era, the king represented ‘the living law’ – with power and responsibility to match. God used the prophets to rein in this power when it was abused, and the King stopped listening to God and ignored the justice and duties that belonged to royal office.

If at times we feel that stories in the Bible are remote or irrelevant, I think we need to think again. We don’t have to look far in our world to see the tragedy of power that has little or no accountability. Where authority brings ‘oppression’; ‘robbery’; ‘violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow’; where ‘innocent blood is shed’.

In the prophet’s oracle God says: ‘Is not this to know me?’ – ‘to judge the cause of the poor and needy’.

In Ukraine we see today the complete disregard for the poor and needy. In a brief period of time, people are living in what have been described as ‘Medieval’ conditions. No electricity, little food and medicine, a lack of heat in a land where snow is falling. I don’t think we need to ponder very long on the question as to what Jeremiah would make of these actions. While I recognise the dilemma for leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church surely there are some words of prophecy that this moment demands? The former Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote a letter to The Times last week expressing people’s amazement that the Church has entered Lent with no criticism of what is happening in Ukraine:

Orthodox Christians engaging, at this season of all seasons, in indiscriminate killing of the innocent, insanely reckless attacks on nuclear facilities… the unashamed breach of ceasefire agreements, and an attack on one of the most significant Holocaust memorials in Europe.

He concludes that it is not too late for the Church to intervene. But will it?

In our second reading Jesus tells his hearers: ‘suppose a King is about to go to war’.

The parable Jesus tells is about repentance. The idea that no one in their right mind would take up arms against an all powerful God. Instead, reflecting on their circumstances, they would send a delegation to meet the King and negotiate a peace. In other words, knowing our own weaknesses and failings, we should repent and seek God’s forgiveness rather than try to oppose this overwhelming force.

But, thinking of Ukraine, we must ask what happens when the price of any peace you might be offered in this life, is simply to surrender? When accepting defeat means the loss of statehood and independence. In reality, as President Zelensky made so clear speaking to the UK Parliament, the choice is either annihilation or resistance. Ukraine is choosing the latter.

Not every King is willing to negotiate terms. Not every authority is reasonable. Not every use of force is ethical, or moral or justified. We should be hopeful – but not naïve. There are ‘kings’ in our world who do not recognise the value of peace or the claims of people who are poor and in need. Leaders unafraid of spilling innocent blood. Heads of State who seem to feel that they have no accountability to God or anyone else.

Jesus tells us that we each have a cross to carry in this life. There is sacrifice in the confusion of this world, and following a God who seeks justice does not come without cost. It may be that the extensive sanctions now in place will demand some sacrifice from all of us. As we play our part in upholding the needs of the poor and the needy there may also be sacrifices to help and support people who have lost their homes and livelihoods. It feels that this year we are all being asked to share in a Lent which, in our prayers for peace and the sacrifices that help others to live, will draw us closer to the justice God seeks for the world.

Along with us, I hope and pray that the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church consider this deeply, and that they will decide to speak prophetically. It is their job and it is their calling.

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Turning aside – Revd Dr Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Preacher: Revd Dr Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title of sermon: Turning aside, A Homily for the Solemn Eucharist on Ash Wednesday

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Date/time/service: Wednesday 2 March 2022 

 

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it.

But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  

Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Not my words but those of RS Thomas, from his poem The Bright Field. This poem captures in words the image of the sun breaking through a dull welsh sky, lighting up a lowly field- a sight so enchanting that it calls us to turn aside and look and absorb that moment of glory being revealed. Brown clay and soil and earth and dust is elevated to take on the mantle of a priceless gem, a pearl of great price, a treasure, in a landscape of gilded furrows.

That idea of turning aside and of turning, is a pertinent one for us today. Perhaps, as we race through life and we hurry on to our receding futures and hanker after our imagined past, we fail to see Gods’ light breaking through around us and within us.

Far from turning aside we rush onwards at speed, hurrying, hankering, caught up in the pace which the world sets for us, constantly ‘ON’, always doing, running, speeding, sending, self-obsessing, oblivious to small miracles coming to birth all around us, failing to take time for the things that matter, not hearing the voices that need to be heard, not noticing the hungry, the naked, the afflicted.

What if life was about turning aside? What if we made a conscious decision daily to turn, to turn towards Christ, and be faithful?

What if we made some effort to turn away from ourselves, and have eyes and hearts open to noticing, perceiving, taking things in, being observant about the world and its needs? Putting others first, making time to stop, and wait, and seek-out God’s presence and see the light breaking through?

What if life was about turning aside? What if life was about turning away from sin, from all that mars God’s image within us, and turning towards Christ? So that we might be strengthened to re-build, to repair, to heal, to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, so that the fast that we choose goes deeper than a mark on our forehead?

We are offered the chance to turn aside for a while- recognizing our mortality, understanding where we have come from and where we are going, coming to appreciate the preciousness of life itself: from dust we come and to dust we shall return. How then shall we use this gift of life in between? How will we honour this life in those around us? How will we work for this life in a world which constantly tries to diminish it through prejudice, hatred, violence, and now war?

During Lent, day by day we commit ourselves to use the gift of life we have been given, the life between the dust and remember that the dust from which are all made, and the dust to which we will return- is indeed holy ground.

We are called to turn aside and take a moment to pray, so that even in the dust and dirt there may be hope and light, even in the rubble of a building, in food scarce and yet shared, in underground shelters, in the cries of refugees, we pray that there may yet be hope and light. In our weeping world, we pray that the light will break through and we may notice it when it does.

Instead of hurrying on to a receding future, instead of hankering after an imagined past- instead of being oblivious to all that is around us, we are all being called to turn aside and through the brown clay and earth and soil and dust, to notice the treasure before it’s too late.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Amen.

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