It hardly seems possible but there months have gone since the ‘last post’ on this Living God blog. But it is. Time passes very quickly and seems to concertina until it seems no time at all since I embarked on three months of sabbatical leave. But today I was back at Southwark Cathedral as we celebrated Advent Sunday and the beginning of another Christian year and this season of preparation for Christmas. It has been a fantastic three months and those who have been following my sabbatical blog will know some of the things that I got up to. For those who didn’t get a chance to read it you can see all the blogs here.
One of the final things that I did in Jerusalem, where I spent half of the sabbatical, was to attend an Act of Remembrance at the Commonwealth War Cemetery on Mount Scopos. In the early heat of the day we sat amongst the beautifully kept war graves and the Last Post and Reveille sounded out across the Jerusalem hills. This Advent Sunday is something of a reveille call for me, waking me up, bringing me back, alerting me to the things I have to do, reengaging me with the ministry at the Cathedral.
That was really the thrust of my first sermon back at the Cathedral and so I post the text here. I’m looking forward to resuming this blog and my Twitter prayers. The sabbatical has been energizing and renewing and so, woken up and alert, I look forward to what lies ahead.
The readings for this Sunday are as follows: Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44
Do you wake up naturally or do you need an alarm clock to get you up, someone shaking you, the smell of tea or coffee by your bed, or the sound of the ‘Today’ programme easing you out of your slumbers and into the harsh reality of the world? We all wake up differently – some are blessed to be able to leap from their beds with enthusiasm, new every morning, and some need dragging from their pit.
The poet Dylan Thomas in his play for voices, ‘Under Milk Wood’, paints for us pictures in words of the getting up routines of the people in the village of Llareggub.
The Reverend Eli Jenkins, in Bethesda House, gropes out of bed into his preacher’s black, combs back his bard’s white hair, forgets to wash, pads barefoot downstairs, opens the front door, stands in the doorway and, looking out at the day and up at the eternal hill, and hearing the sea break and the gab of birds, remembers his own verses and tells them softly to empty Coronation Street that is rising and raising its blinds.
Mary Ann Sailors, opening her bedroom window above the taproom calls out to the heavens
‘I’m eighty-five years three months and a day!’
It’s Advent Sunday and I can’t believe it. A couple of weeks ago I was in Jerusalem and it felt like summer. I come back to London and the streets are full of lights and the windows full of trees and it feels like winter and it looks like Christmas.
One of the last things I did before I left Jerusalem was to sit on the Mount of Olives and look at the view that Jesus and his disciples were looking at when he gave them the dire warning that we heard in the gospel. Well, it wasn’t the same view of course – no Dome of the Rock, no mosque, no Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jesus’ day, but some of it was the same.
What Jesus was saying to the disciples, what St Paul was saying to the Romans, is the call of the alarm clock, ‘Wake up’.
‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’.
We begin a new Christian year today and what a year the last one was. To be honest I felt I must have been sleep walking, deluding myself about the nature of our society, about what the values were that define us, what the values were that motivate us, what kind of communities and societies we wanted to build for the whole of our society. In our Mayoral election I saw a glimpse of an affirmation of that but everything that’s happened subsequently has suggested to me that I was deluded.
The first part of my sabbatical I spent in Canada, perhaps the most liberal, accepting, inclusive and polite society I’ve ever encountered. That was in September and everyone we met was looking south across the border with the States and wondering what on earth was going on – but imagining, from their urbane liberal perspective, that the right thing would happen, that common sense and common values would prevail.
In Jerusalem at the Anglican Cathedral with its guest house and college loads of people from the States were coming and going. By October they were beginning to be anxious but it was going to be alright.
But the shock of Brexit became the shock of Trump and the image of the anti-elitists, Farage and Trump, standing by the gold-plated lift in Trump Tower said it all.
‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’.
I’ve been reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s fantastic biography of ‘Jerusalem’. When Jesus was predicting the destruction of the city it wasn’t, to be honest, something unusual that he was talking about – Jerusalem, as Montefiore describes in his book, is a city that’s been destroyed and rebuilt in almost every generation. Something, somewhere as iconic and wonderful and central and holy, the city of God on earth, is supremely vulnerable. The stones and the structures make no difference – things are vulnerable and tomorrow not one stone can be left standing on another. I think that we all now recognise the fragility of so much that we’ve trusted was stable and lasting and had the touch of the eternal about it. But there’s been a wakeup call and we have to respond.
Isaiah of course gives us a vision, not of desolation, not of destruction, not of the negative but of the positive, of building, establishing something good. The city will be built, something to look up to, the weapons for killing will become tools for planting. People will come to the mountain eager that God ‘may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’
His is a fantastic word for us today as we embark on this new year of grace, as we wake up and realise that each new day and each new season and each New Year is laden with possibility. The wonderful thing about Jerusalem is that it was never really left a desolate heap of ruins for long, people came back, time and time again, Jews, Christians, Muslims, to rebuild it because it mattered, because it’s an icon in itself and more than humankind can imagine, it’s the City of Peace.
The wakeup call that we’ve all had – and that’s regardless of the way in which we’ve voted, or the way that we’d have voted in the States – is that we need to work together on what the values are, the values that drive our society, the values that undergird the vision of what and who we want to be.
We’ve been clear what they are in this cathedral and I’m delighted to be back to continue with you and my colleagues to pursue them. Remember what we’ve said and committed ourselves to.
Southwark Cathedral an inclusive Christian community growing in orthodox faith and radical love.
We’re still inclusive and we need to be so even more than ever before. The fear of the other has been given a new legitimacy and is being articulated all around us. We have a better, God-given vision of the mountain to which all head, equally, as sisters and brothers.
We’re still committed to the faith that we’ve received and which is the ground in which we grow. Our faith in God is the bedrock on which we build this house of the Lord.
The love that we express and live, the embracing of one another, is even more radical. We’ve always been a community unafraid to challenge the zeitgeist now we have to be even more challenging and even less afraid to be the prophetic community that we know God calls us to be.
This is no time for sleeping, my brothers and sisters. This new year is God-given and in a few weeks’ time we’ll see how God gives, as in a manger we see a baby and recognise God with us. He will be rejected, cut down, destroyed, but his life and his words will not be defeated and out of the rubble he builds us, his living stones, into a true temple to glorify God.
This is no time for sleeping, it’s the time for rising and eating and breaking the fast and in the strength of the food that God gives, his own flesh, his own blood, this Eucharistic banquet, we can be the people that he’s called us to be, in the church he wants us to be, for the people that he calls us to serve, in such a time as this.
Wake us, Lord, from our sleep,
alert us to the world around us,
that with your passion
we may include those others would exclude,
love those others may hate
and witness to our faith
in a faithless world,
for Jesus’ sake.