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‘In the days of King Herod of Judea’ – Canon Peter Collier KC, Cathedral Reader

Title: ‘In the days of King Herod of Judea’

Preacher: Canon Peter Collier KC, Cathedral Reader 

Readings: Judges 13:2 -7, 24-25; Luke 1:5-25

Psalm: Psalm 71

Date: Sunday 23 June 2024, The Eve of the Birth of St John the Baptist 

 

May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“In the days of King Herod of Judea”. One of the things about Luke’s writing, which is very often about miraculous and other worldly things, is that he always grounds what he is describing in its real, historical, and political context. So here in Ch 1, it is “in the days of King Herod of Judea”. Similarly, in chapter 3 it begins “in the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius”. Luke knew that any work of God, any experience of God is, always rooted in a real place and time. So for us today, living Christ’s story is done here and now in the days of a conservative government, a labour controlled local council and whatever other political context you want to give, as well as your own family and other social contexts. Because our experiences of God as we follow Jesus Christ here and now can happen only in those real-life contexts.

“In the days of King Herod of Judea” there was a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Let’s look for a moment at their here and now. Zechariah was a priest from, as they would say, “up north”. He came to Jerusalem twice a year when it was the turn of his division of priests to do their Temple ministry for a week.

Zechariah was married to a priest’s daughter, so would be regarded as especially blessed. Their piety as a couple was well known. They kept the laws and followed all the relevant regulations. They were faithful people.

But they were childless, and they were now both getting on in age; their days were almost over. And that absence of children was a source of much pain and grief to them. Elizabeth in particular would have felt ashamed amongst other woman, as the law seemed to say that if you were faithful then you would be fruitful and have families. And she would have been very self-conscious of how others viewed her, and what she sensed they were saying about her behind her back.

But let’s be clear about this – suffering pain is not sin. And many today suffer pain in their families, or perhaps because of their families or maybe because of how other people look at them. Feeling different, feeling excluded is a common experience, especially in a religious environment. And it can be very painful. I expect there will be many here this evening, who feel real pain for some such reason. And if you take nothing else away tonight it should be that to be in pain is not to sin. Because like Zechariah and Elizabeth we can remain faithful and trusting in God whatever we are going through in or families, in our church, and whoever is running the country.

“In the days of King Herod of Judea”, Zechariah was about to have a remarkable spiritual experience. God who seemed to have been silent for 400 years, was about to speak prophetically to Zechariah through the angel Gabriel. It happened on what was a very significant day for Zechariah. Significant because he had drawn the lot that day to offer the incense at the altar. According to Jewish oral tradition, a priest could only do that once in his lifetime. So for Zechariah as a priest this would have been the most important moment in his whole life.

And as he came to offer the incense, there suddenly appeared an angel. And whatever else he might have expected at that great moment it was not that. And he was terrified. But the angel spoke, and said “Don’t be afraid; your prayer has been heard.”

I am confident that the prayer that was referred to by Gabriel was not a prayer for a son, but the prayer that he and the nation prayed day after day, longing for God to come as he had promised and once again redeem his people. In a couple of chapters’ time Luke will also tell us about Simeon, whose song – the Nunc Dimittis – the choir has sung again tonight, and of 84 year old Anna. He tells us that they both spent their time in the temple praying for God’s salvation to come. And the answer to Zechariah’s prayer is that God is about to come and redeem his people and that Zechariah and Elizabeth are to have the Elijah like child who will come and prepare the way and get people ready for the Messiah to come. And so, says Gabriel, they and many others will have a lot of joy because of what this child, their child to be, will do.

Now Zechariah cannot get his head round this, it is all too much for him. How can this happen he says. I am old. My wife is getting on in years. I just don’t get it! I can’t get it!

The angel responds by saying that he had come directly from God to tell him this and because he hadn’t believed it, he would now be mute until the child was born.

Now all this would have taken a little time and it meant that he was in the sanctuary longer than people expected and they began to wonder what was going on. And when he did come out, obviously he couldn’t tell them what had happened and it must have been a very weird sight as he tried to indicate in some sort of basic sign language what had happened. They realised he had had some sort of extraordinary spiritual experience, perhaps a vision. Of course later he would be able to write down what had happened, and no doubt when he got home at the end of the week that’s what he would do to break the news to Elizabeth.

And as we know in due course it all came to pass.

Spiritual experiences can have many different effects, sometimes quite dramatic as with Zechariah or you perhaps remember in the Old Testament, Jacob when he wrestled with God went away limping. Sometimes as here there is an impact that is visible to other people. Though more often that is not the case.

But when we do have an experience of God very often it takes time to work out what has happened, what it means and how we move forward from there. Zechariah needed time to do that processing – there were to be a lot of implications to what he’d just been told – a baby when it was really time for grandchildren, the boy would have to grow up with them, there were special instructions about the diet – no alcohol whatsoever. And what about all that lay ahead for the boy as the Elijah like prophet; how different their lives were going to be from now on. There was an awful lot for Zechariah to process.  And God gave him time, time when he couldn’t talk but could do a lot of that internal processing.

And when we have any experience of God in our lives we need to pause and reflect and process what it means.

So on the eve of the feast of the birth of John the Baptist what are we to make of all this? What impact might it have on our lives in the days not of King Herod of Judea but of King Charles of Windsor? What are our circumstances? Our here and now? Are we feeling excluded and consequently experiencing pain? Are we open to experience God in new ways? And are we making space to process what we do experience of God, day by day and week by week?

May it be so for his name’s sake. Amen.

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‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean

Title: ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean

Date: Sunday 16 June 2024, The Third Sunday after Trinity

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.

Hector Pieterson died 48 years ago today. Had he lived, he would now be sixty, and, one hopes, beginning to contemplate plans for retirement. He might have had a successful career, a loving spouse, children and possibly grandchildren, in whom he might have found joy and pride. But it was not to be. And the reason it was not to be – the real reason – was quite simply that he was black.

The apartheid government of South Africa had implemented the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools across the country, refusing to heed the desire of the majority of black schools that tuition should be in local languages, and not the language felt to be ‘the language of the oppressor’. Across Soweto, students from many schools protested, and into the midst of peaceful demonstrations, came fierce police brutality resulting in at least 176 student deaths.

Of this tragedy, Hector became the icon, captured in a famous photograph as he was carried, dying, in the arms of a friend, with his elder sister running alongside. A tragedy fuelled, at least in part, by the strongly propagated teaching of the Dutch Reformed Church that apartheid was divinely ordained and set out in the Bible – a teaching that encouraged and emboldened the South African government in this abhorrent era.

And yet, If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. And that means we need a new way of thinking about things…

For the sixty-six books of the Bible, of course, can be understood and interpreted in so many ways, and are redolent of images, not all of which seem to make a great deal of sense. You will find ample proof of this in the Great East Window, most of which is devoted to recounting the narrative of the Revelation to John in 81 remarkable panels of glass that are one of the greatest highlights of this magnificent cathedral.

But, remarkable and exquisite though John Thornton’s breathtaking window is, the bizarre and complex imagery of Revelation has ensured that its message of encouragement to a community of persecuted Christians in the very late first century has been consistently misinterpreted in all sorts of weird and not very wonderful ways – some of which have been downright dangerous, especially when the religious fundamentalism they create gets mixed with political fundamentalism.

Interpretation, of course, is at the heart of our gospel reading this morning, which also contains some less flamboyant but nevertheless rather challenging assertions. For while the science of agriculture is understood in a far more complex manner in the modern age than in first century Palestine, to depict a farmer watching plants ‘sprout and grow’, and to say, ‘he does not know how’ would have done a great disservice to those who tended the land in Jesus’ own day. For you may be assured that two thousand years ago, they understood the importance of ploughing, of weeding, and most certainly of watering.

If we should wonder, therefore, what is going on, the answer is at least hinted at in the curious paragraph that ends almost an entire chapter of agricultural parables in Mark chapter four. In this editorial note, picking up a similar text inserted into the longer Parable of the Sower which immediately precedes this morning’s section of this chapter, we learn that only Jesus’ disciples are privileged, at this point, to get a clear explanation of what he is talking about.

And, if it were the case in Sunday School, that you were simply told that a parable is a story based around one easy-to-grasp, straight-forward image, we need to accept that this is an over-simplification that simply does not work all the time. For if it was a straight-forward truth that parables use one easy to understand illustration to make one simple point, then the confusion and lack of understanding that pervades this part of Mark’s gospel would simply not be the case.

Indeed, if you scroll back a few verses in this chapter you will find Jesus explaining that he speaks in parables precisely to cause mis-understanding, quoting the prophet Isaiah, and saying, “everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

And, in the passage we just heard read, Mark’s editorial remark clarifies that the word – and even outside the Fourth Gospel our ears should prick up at the use of this term – Mark clarifies that the word is spoken to people ‘as they were able to hear it’.

So what is going on?

How could people not understand the basic point Jesus is making about the universal mission of the kingdom of God offering shade, shelter and protection to all who seek it?

Or, perhaps more worryingly, how could almost fifty years of the offensively vile apartheid regime in South Africa be propped up by theological arguments propounded by a major Christian denomination justifying its evil and often murderous behaviour?

What – to get to the root of what is going on – what does it take ‘to be able to hear’ Jesus’ teachings in a manner that elicits an appropriate response? A response that – in the context of South Africa of fifty years ago produces a Tutu-like condemnation of apartheid, rather than the faux-theological justification for it that so stained the Dutch Reformed Church of that time.

Of – if we were to borrow the language of the better known Parable of the Sower which immediately precedes this morning’s gospel – why is it that only some seed falls on fertile ground, while other seed lands, unproductively, on the path, or amongst thorns, or on rocky ground?

A clue to the answer, I would suggest, is to be found in the words we have just heard from Saint Paul. Words penned by him at a very low point in his life, castigated and criticized by his beloved Corinthians who, now that he no longer is living and teaching among them, have come to regard him in a very harsh light that clearly has stung Paul very deeply.

And thus, from a section of this letter which speaks of the pain and risk of human vulnerability, Paul is, as it were, getting back to basics, and speaking of the call and of the demands of love – of divine, selfless love. Of the love of Christ which, so he passionately believes, is what urges on both him, and others who truly know they are called by God. For, as Paul has come to know in the very depths of his being, the love of Christ has consequences, because, as he says so powerfully:

We are convinced that one has died for all… so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.

The issue at the heart of the call of today’s readings from Scripture – the issue at the heart of our response to the Good News of the gospel – is about God’s love, and our response to it. It is about whether we have the great-heartedness to open our lives to God in the manner in which Paul did in such a remarkable and surprising manner.

For when we first get to know Paul or Saul, he has a very rigid view of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘not in’. At least in a religious sense, the Saul we first meet in Acts has an apartheid-like view of those who are acceptable to God. An apartheid-like view that saw him approve of a murder even more violent than the murder of young Hector Pieterson in South Africa, as he stood by and watched the stoning of Stephen – something which, at first, propelled this zealous Pharisee into active and harsh persecution of the first Christians.

But then, on the road to Damascus, Paul loses his sight as he encounters the risen Christ, but perhaps – to pick up the language we are using this morning – perhaps he gains his hearing, as he encounters the true breadth, depth and height of God’s love

And thus, as he writes so profoundly to his erstwhile friends in Corinth, he has learned that if we hear the words of Jesus properly and take them into our lives, From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…

Young Hector Pieterson died an evil and tragic death because those in power in his native land did not regard him, and all those whose skin colour was different to theirs, as God regarded him. Their actions were actions urged not by the love of Christ, but by the worst sinful instincts of human greed and hatred – sinful instincts that, in other parts of the globe lead to similar suffering and death right now.

As we gather today to feed on the Body of Christ and to be transformed anew into being the Body of Christ, let us never forget that Christ died for all, precisely to ensure that we who live might, indeed, ‘live no longer for ourselves’, but strive to look at the world and its children as God looks at us, so that, truly, in Christ there might yet be a precious new creation. Amen.

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‘Jesus has come to do something different. To be something different.’ – The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Title: ‘Jesus has come to do something different. To be something different.’

Preacher: The Revd Canon Maggie McLean

Date: Sunday 9 June 2024, The Second Sunday after Trinity

 

Most of us in the Minster this morning probably have heard of Quakers – fewer of us might have heard of ‘Shakers’. Shakers were a small Christian community which emerged in Manchester in the mid 1700s but found its greatest flourishing in America. They were at first called ‘Shaking-Quakers’ because of their boisterous dancing during worship. However, the shorter name was the one that stuck. Today only one Shaker village remains. Part of the reason for the demise of the Shakers was their strong belief in celibacy. They thought having children involved sin. You can do the Math! Today Shakers are best known for their beautifully simple worship songs – including the tune to ‘Lord of the dance’ – and some beautiful, spare and handsome furniture.

The Shakers believed that the second coming of Jesus was already underway and because of this many of them also abandoned the institution of marriage because – in the words of Jesus: ‘In the resurrection people neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels of God in heaven’. As we heard in our New Testament reading today, “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus”.  So the Shakers, confident that the end time was already here, saw themselves as living in heaven on earth.

It is easy to understand how gospel passages, such as the one we’ve just heard, contributed to the Shakers’ idea of a radical new community. Probably a lot of people called them mad and in  todays Gospel reading, that’s exactly what people were saying about Jesus. “He has gone out of his mind”.

His family becomes so concerned about him that they go to retrieve him. However, the crowd is pressing in so tightly around Jesus that there wasn’t room even to lift an elbow to eat, let alone allow people in, so his family passes forward the news that they are there. The response from Jesus is startling. He asks who his mother and brothers are and answers his own question by pointing to those around him: “Here are my mother and my brothers”. It must have come as a crushing blow to his family, perhaps even confirming their anxieties about his state of mind. What on earth could he mean?

Mark places this event right at the start of the public ministry of Jesus. Jesus has just appointed the 12 disciples and now he is rejecting his family. This isn’t a coincidence. Jesus is making the point that something entirely new is underway.

The 98 year old German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann – whose death was announced last week – reflected on this passage. He argued that Jesus is here proclaiming something radical, the creation of new relationships – what he describes as a Messianic community – a sacred family worshipping a common heavenly father. Moltmann was keen not to underestimate how shocked people must have been about what Jesus had said. Moltmann notes, “it is a Jewish mother that makes a person a Jew”. So when Jesus asks “Who are my mother and my brothers?” it would feel like a rejection of his basic identity. Not only that, but a breaking of the 5th commandment, to honour “your father and your mother”.

This explosive incident at the start of the Gospel marks out the fact that Jesus has come to do something different. To be something different. In him all relationships are altered and transformed.

We need to think beyond the narrow limits of the nuclear family to remember that, through baptism, we are born again into a new community. The Prologue to St John’s Gospel could not make that any plainer:

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  

We might think that the Shakers understanding of the church was too extreme. But they were living in one way, something all Christians are called to live in some way. Not by rejecting our immediate family relationships, but by recognising that we also belong to a new community that is coming into being. A community that connects us to siblings across the world, young and old, poor and rich, different but united. Together we share our kinship with the same loving creator God.

In a week when the world has lost a great theologian, the last word should belong to Jurgen Moltmann. He never lost his great hope in the Gospel and, within that, the one God who is and always will be, perfect love:

“there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love”.

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‘Law, declares Paul, establishes information, but not transformation’ – The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Title: ‘Law, declares Paul, establishes information, but not transformation’ (Marcus Borg) 

Preacher: The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Date: Sunday 2 June 2024, The First Sunday after Trinity

 

“Law, declares Paul, establishes information, but not transformation” (Marcus Borg) 

This afternoon the lectionary brings us pretty gloomy readings.

Jeremiah – not known for his sunny disposition – is full of prophecy about God’s chosen people failing to learn the lessons of the past. Now things will catch up with them and their falling away from God will lead to disaster. In the second reading, Paul writes about the inner struggles of faith and practice. Despite what we believe, what we know to be right, we end up time and again doing the thing that is wrong.  It’s a sad reflection of a people who failed and a person who fails.  

I’ve always rather liked the distinction made in industry between a mistake and a defect. A mistake can be something excellent. When a mistake is found we can learn from it, change and make things better for the future. By contrast, a defect is a mistake that no one notices, and it keeps being made for a long, long time. We might think of those times when a car company issues a recall notice because of a defect. It means that thousands of cars have been produced and sold which all carry a fault. The inconvenience and cost can be immense. 

Both Jeremiah and Paul can see the mistakes that are being made, by a people and by an individual. There’s some discussion by scholars about just what Paul means when he says that there was a time when he writes “I was once apart from the law”. The debate arises because elsewhere Paul writes about being under the law from the time he was a child. For that reason, there are people who think Paul is using ‘I’, but means the whole people. 

It is true that the Israelites were, at one time, “apart from the law”. The law being delivered by Moses about 430 years after the promise made to Abraham.  

St Paul tells us that “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin”. In other words, the law sets out the description of what leads the law to be broken. It helped the Jewish people recognise when mistakes were made, for individuals and also for the relationship of the people with God.  

Paul knows and understands the relationship of the law and our mistakes. In this passage from Romans, he makes it crystal clear that we sometimes know what it’s right to do, but we end up doing the opposite. For this reason, the law can only take us so far. The problem is, as Paul puts it: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do”. 

So, apart from the law which can help us identify our mistakes, there is a more fundamental defect in human nature. Because, even when we see the good that needs to be done – and the sin to avoid – we still get it wrong. It’s something in the Bible goes all the way back to Adam in the Garden of Eden. And it’s not only an issue about seeing our mistakes, as Paul writes: “ I do not understand my own actions”. While the law might take us so far, there is a real risk that we simply don’t see – or don’t understand – the impact and nature of our actions. 

When Paul comes to the end of his rather gloomy reflections he suddenly exclaims:  

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” 

The expectation of the law was that human beings would abide by the commandments in their own strength and keep their faith with God. However, since his conversion, Paul knows that he doesn’t have to do all this in his own strength. And even when he falls and fails, God’s loving mercy – God’s grace – brings forgiveness. That’s why Paul makes his sudden exclamation of faith in Jesus Christ, because grace fulfils the law with love; forgives and restores. As the theologian Marcus Borg has put it: 

“Law, declares Paul, establishes information, but not transformation”. 

In the law we know when we go wrong, the law provides the information about our mistakes. But in Christ we experience an inner transformation. We don’t get everything right, but we are on the right path. The defect is put right, not by our own efforts, but by the cross and resurrection.  As Paul will go on to say in the next chapter, this truth means that northing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. 

The Collect appointed for today which – as collects should – expressed far more succinctly what I have attempted to say just now and so I end with a few lines from this evening’s collect: 

“because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace…  Amen”.  

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‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ – Canon Peter Collier KC, Cathedral Reader

Title: ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’

Date: 28 April 2024, The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Preacher: Canon Peter Collier KC, Cathedral Reader

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-14; Rev 3:1-13, Psalm 96 

 

‘Sing, Sing, Sing’

The psalm the choir sang this evening – Psalm 96 – is one of the great psalms of praise.

We don’t know if it was written for the particular occasion, but we do know of a particular occasion when it was used. That was when the ark was being brought back to Jerusalem. We read about it in the first book of Chronicles chapter 16.

After the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, they had some formalities about how and where they worshipped God. They worshipped in what was known as the tabernacle, which was a portable shrine. In it there were various items of furniture and the ark was the central item, which was basically a wooden box covered in gold. Inside the box were the two tablets of stone on which the 10 commandments were written, a pot of manna, which was the special food God had provided for them in their 40 years in the desert, and Aaron’s rod or staff.

The ark had been captured by the Philistines, but it had brought them very bad luck – 7 months of plagues. So, they took it back to Israel and dumped it in a place called Kiriath-jearim where it sat for 20 years.

Then King David decided to bring it back to Jerusalem. And that is where we read about it in Chronicles.

We read how it was brought in a great procession into Jerusalem. I want us tonight to picture in our minds’ eyes this procession that David organised to bring the ark up into Jerusalem.

It talks about a choir of singers and then there were musicians playing horns, cymbals, trumpets, harps and lyres.

I had hoped that I might find somewhere on the internet that someone had attempted to put that sound back together again; but if it is there, I couldn’t find it. It would unquestionably have been very loud, and I think rather cacophonous.

The choir was formed on royal command specifically for the event. The choir’s commission was to sing this psalm, along with parts of two other psalms, but this psalm – psalm 96 – was the main part and body of their work.

It would seem that this is the first mention in the Bible of the formation of a choir to sing a service. So we can trace what we have been doing here this afternoon right back to that event 2000 years ago. And ever since then, this psalm has been sung in worship. The style of music has of course changed over the years because music is a cultural phenomenon. In this country and on this very site in the early years of the Minster it would have been sung in plain song, and then polyphony was introduced in the middle of the 15th century, along with someone known as the “instructor of the choristers”. We now sing in a variety of styles. And there are of course a number of modern hymns and worship songs also written based on this psalm.

Apart from the music there was also dancing. We know the king threw some real shapes that day. David was leaping and dancing about in his white tunic.

And there was a barbecue of roast meats.

They really knew how to hold a party.

Although the music has changed the words have remained unchanged. They have passed through various translations into many languages over time and of course the one the choir sang to us tonight is Coverdale’s translation into the English of his day from the Latin version that was in use in 1535.

So what of the content of this psalm?

Well, we can note the repeating of things three times. At the very beginning of the psalm the word “sing” is used three times, and a little further on the word “ascribe” is also used three times.

Today often in our own worship we repeat things three times – “Holy, Holy, Holy”; and often composers of music repeat a line three times. There is something that is quite basic and satisfying about that, and it’s here also. A tradition that we have inherited from way back then.

But what are we to sing? Three “sings”: three things.

First, we are told to sing a new song. And this was on that occasion a brand new song. I am very encouraged that in our worship here, we often sing new songs – sometimes new words but more often new music. Much of our music this evening has been written by 3 women who are all our contemporaries and most of them significantly younger than many of us. The music for the introit the choir sang as the service began was composed last year by Lucy Walker, who is 25 years old; the preces by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange who is all of 52; and the canticles by Dobrinca Tabakova who is 43.

So this psalm is a real encouragement to us constantly to go on finding new ways of expressing our worship to God. The song remains the same, but it needs to be ever renewed.

But secondly – the second “sing” – the psalm invites the whole earth, all creation, to sing to God. You may remember a few weeks ago on Palm Sunday we were remined that when the religious leaders told Jesus to stop the people singing his praises, he said that if they stopped the very stones would cry out. And as we walk around the city, especially at this time of year when the trees and shrubs are coming alive with that lovely fresh greenness – we can see perhaps a small part of the whole earth singing its praise to the God who made and sustains it all.

And of course the anthem was just about that, about when the winter is ended and all things begin to come alive again. And so the whole of creation is to and does sing to God.

But the third “sing” is what should be at the very centre of all our singing and praise – namely the salvation God has given us. For David and his choir that was focussed very much on God saving them from slavery in Egypt. For us it is the salvation we celebrate in this season of Easter, when through his death and rising Jesus has shown that Good Friday is never the end. Through his dying and rising Jesus has enabled us to have God’s life within us; to know God as our Father – Abba, our Daddy. In a moment we shall be singing about how Judah’s Lion burst his chains and crushed the serpent’s head, and how He is now triumphant in glory, ruling over everything. This is the very heart of the gospel and should always be at the heart of our worship.

Then there is another strand finally to this psalm which again should always be at the heart of worship – there is only one true God – the God who made everything. Coverdale says “as for all the gods of the heathen they are but idols”. These gods with a small “g” might be things, objects, images, but they may be ideas. There are so many things that we can see as being in control of our lives and to whose laws we must submit. The psalm says that all these things are “idols”, the word literally means, and in other places is translated: “worthless”. So our worship should always bring us to know in our hearts that there are no other people, principles, or powers that are to rule our lives; they are worth nothing compared with living as the children of the one true God.

So we are told three times to ascribe worship and honour to God and to stand in awe of this God. Ultimately again that is what all our worship is about. The introduction to our service booklet says this service immerses us in scripture which spoken and sung gives us time and space to lose ourselves in prayer and come closer to God.

Amen

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“These things are written so that you may come to believe” – Canon Peter Collier KC, Cathedral Reader 

Title: “These things are written so that you may come to believe”

Date:  7 April 2024, The Second Sunday of Easter

Preacher: Canon Peter Collier KC, Cathedral Reader 

Readings: Acts 4:32-35; I John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

 

These things are written so that you may come to believe”

Almost certainly the gospel passage that has just been read was the original ending to the Gospel John wrote.

And with it, John completed the circle he began in chapter 1 – that great gospel prologue we so often associate with Christmas – central to so many of our Christmas services. And it is indeed the climax of our own annual service of nine lessons and carols.

In that prologue John tells us that the God who had made all things, became flesh and lived among us. But when he came to live among his own people, generally they did not accept him. But those who did receive him and who believed in his name, they become children of God – God’s sons and daughters – able to communicate with God as Jesus did – crying Abba, father, daddy. They have God’s own life within them.

And, says John, that life brings light to everyone. And we live in a time of great darkness where there is much need of light.

In his gospel John goes on to tell us that he has recorded some of the signs that Jesus did to show who he was and what he was about. We know those signs well – turning water into wine, feeding 5000, various healings, walking on water, and finally the raising of Lazarus.

And as John says at the end of this chapter – those signs were all recorded so that we might come to believe and go on believing that Jesus is that one who was sent as the Messiah, the Son of God; who had taken our human flesh and pitched his tent among us. And in so believing, we will have God’s life within us.

And this account about Thomas is recorded here because it is the fitting completion for John’s purpose in writing the gospel. And it is a story not about doubt but about belief.

We often speak about “doubting Thomas” – a phrase made popular from the late 19th century onwards. I believe it was a certain W C Wycoff, an American scientist, who wrote an article in Harpers magazine in 1883 in which he referred to “doubting Thomases, who will only believe what they see.” So far as I can establish that is the first use of the phrase “doubting Thomas”

The version of the bible we use – the NRSV – has sadly adopted the word “doubt”; but it is a mistranslation – the original text actually says: “don’t be unbelieving but believe”. This account is not about having doubts, but about having belief.

John says his gospel is written so that we might come to believe. That we might come to believe that Jesus is the creator God come to this world, taking our humanity and bringing us light and life.

As always we need to understand the context to understand the meaning.

I guess most of us know well how the Easter story unfolded – some of the women had gone to the tomb early in the morning and found it empty; they reported that to the disciples; Peter and John ran to the tomb and found it as the women reported; Mary had an encounter with Jesus in the garden; Mary told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. All that happened on that first Easter Sunday. We can perhaps begin to imagine the many conflicting thoughts going on in the minds of those disciples at the end of that day. What was going on? What had happened? Had they really seen Jesus?

That evening the disciples locked themselves into a room because of their fear.

And, suddenly appearing miraculously among them there is Jesus – “peace be with you” he said and he showed them his pierced hands and his side. Then he commissioned them – breathing over them the promise of the Holy Spirit, which they would inherit fully at Pentecost and telling them that their commission was to speak about the forgiveness of sins – just as he had done throughout his three-year ministry – and as we read about in our second lesson. And then it would seem he was gone.

When they next saw Thomas, who had not been with them that night, they told him that they had seen Jesus. And as we know his response was to say that unless he saw and touched those marks of crucifixion, he wouldn’t believe it was real. In his mind no doubt there were endless possibilities about what was going on – phantasies, dreams, visions, probably all crossed his mind as possible explanations for what he was being told.

So, what do we know about Thomas? There are two mentions of him earlier in the gospel and we see two things about his character, and we learn that what mattered to him was clarity and reality.

In chapter 14 Jesus is talking about going to prepare a place for his disciples in his father’s house, and he said they knew the way to the place where he was going. Thomas replied “Lord we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” evoking from Jesus those wonderful words “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” It was Thomas who was prepared to ask questions, to probe more deeply than the others, in order to get clarity. In order to understand clearly what things meant.

The other mention is in chapter 11. Lazarus was ill and Jesus delayed going to see him; but after two days he said to the disciples “let’s go to Judea again”. Only shortly before that, in Judea, the Jews had attempted to stone Jesus and to arrest him, as they were constantly doing, but he had escaped from them. And Thomas had often heard Jesus speak about his own dying – “going where they could not follow”, “being lifted up”, “giving his life for his sheep”. So, when it is clear that Jesus is set on going to Judea to see Lazarus, where he would be walking into the arms of those who wanted him dead, Thomas’s response is to say “let’s also go that we may die with him”.

When Jesus did die, despite all that Jesus had been saying about his impending death, the disciples really didn’t have a clue about what was happening. All their hopes and dreams seemed to have come to an end. And when he appeared alive again what were they to make of that?  None of it made any sense.

There is a reason why John includes this account about Thomas as the very last event in his gospel. The reason is that Thomas had understood what was happening. He did have clarity about it – he understood not only what had been going through those three years, but what had just happened in those last three days.

In those three years he and the others had recognised that God had come among them, that they were following the Son of God, that this was the promised Messiah.

But John knows that Thomas has grasped something else. It had begun to fall into place for Thomas that Jesus was indeed the creator God, the Lord of all things, with whom they had shared their lives for three years. He had now completed the mission for which he had come. That mission was to suffer and to die so that he could share his life with those who believed in him, so that they would become children of God – his brothers and sisters. But he could only bring that new life into being, by dying and rising. By entering into all our pain and suffering, by taking all that into God’s own self, knowing all that rejection and then facing and going through death itself. Only through all that would God’s life become available to us.

And to get to that point Thomas needed clarity that the person who is now alive is the one who had died on the cross. So he wants to put his hands into the wounds – into the body of Jesus – to know that he was the one who had been crucified and is now alive. That all the signs they had seen that Jesus was God who had taken our flesh and through his dying would bring us life, all that evidence was now firmly and finally established by this ultimate sign of the resurrection.

If he had died and was now alive then truly the darkness had not overcome him; he was alive – the light was shining brightly and new life was available.

As John said in his prologue and repeats now – that life Jesus offers to all who believe in him. And believing in him we become children of God – sisters and brothers of Jesus.

Do you remember what Jesus said to Mary in the garden – “go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father to my God and your God’”.

As you know Jesus spoke to Thomas about those who would believe without seeing what he had seen. And of course that includes us. But we are not left without help in our believing. We need connections like Thomas did. Thomas wanted to touch into the body of Christ; each of us has been baptised into the body of Christ, baptised into Jesus. And when we come in a few minutes to take bread and wine which he told us were his body and blood, we shall eat and drink by faith with thanksgiving.

These sacraments speak to us today of what John said the gospel was all about – that God took flesh, was rejected and crucified, but through that death and resurrection he shares with us his own life and will transform our lives beyond our imagining.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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