Warming the heart

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

In every generation there are great story tellers, Homer and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, Blyton and Rowling.  They all tell their stories and those stories, which we then tell to each other, help to interpret truth to growing generations.  Among my favourites is Hans Christian Anderson.  By the harbour in Copenhagen sits the Little Mermaid testifying to the power of his storytelling.  But my favourite amongst the stories he tells is ‘The Snow Queen’, which, as the story begins, we hear ‘Tells of the mirror and its fragments’.

A new generation know a bit of that story through the work of that other great storyteller of our times, or rather an interpreter of stories, Disney, because Hans Christian Anderson’s great story can be glimpsed, just about, in that popular animated movie, ‘Frozen’.

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Heartlessness on the Israel -Gaza border

Both versions of the story centre on what happens when a shard of the evil mirror or the frost from Queen Elsa’s hand, enters the heart.  The heart at the very centre of the person is frozen, dies, is turned to stone.  Humanity is lost, love is lost and, as in those final moments of the film ‘Frozen’ on the icy wastes of the harbour, it takes an act of true love to bring the warmth and life back to the heart.

‘I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (Ezekiel 36.26)

It’s the promise of God through the prophet Ezekiel, it’s the life of which St Peter speaks so eloquently to the enraptured crowd on that first day of Pentecost.  The apostles, with Our Lady, have been locked away in the room that’s become for them both security and prison ever since, in an expression of true divine love, in that space Jesus broke bread and shared it, poured wine and drank it, gave them his body and blood and washed their feet.  But that warmth of divine love was replaced by the chill of fear.  The windows were bolted, the doors were barred, their hearts were locked until the wind blew out what locked them in and fire warmed their frozen hearts.

George Herbert uses another metaphor to tell the story in his poem ‘Whitsunday’.  Instead of a frozen heart, a stone heart, he likens it to an egg being hatched.

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

The mother bird sits on her eggs not allowing them to get cold.  She uses her own heart’s heat to warm those eggs until life breaks through the shell and the chick takes wing ‘and flie away with thee.’ It’s a wonderful image.

Pentecost brings us to life, like a hatching egg, a tender heart brought to true life, so that that heart beats with the beat of God, the rhythm of life is the rhythm of God.

The heartlessness of so much around us needs challenging.  Watching the horrific scenes from Israel last week as live ammunition was used on unarmed protestors on the Israel/Gaza border, seeing how the administration of the USA could heartlessly and for purely political and ideological reasons make a change to the status of Jerusalem by moving its Embassy and so unsettling and threatening what is always a fragile paece, registering how our own government deals with the status and rights of long term residents of this nation, our friends and neighbours, all these things remind us that the cold, frozen heart is not just something that can exist in the individual but in the structures that we create, in the places and communities that we inhabit.

When Jeremy Irons was in this Cathedral a few weeks ago reading to us T S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ he read these words

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror

The descending dove hatches the egg, warms the heart, turns stone to flesh and brings us to life, so that our heart beats in time with the divine heartbeat making Easter live for the whole of creation, as what was dead was brought to life.

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A heart warmed by the Spirit

As Peter says to the listening crowd

“You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

(Acts.2.28)

This is a story really worth telling, the truth of God come down from heaven which gives life to the people and thaws the frozen heart and makes flesh the heart of stone.

Come, Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your people
and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Amen.

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A piece in the jigsaw

So, thanks to all of you who liked the fact that I took a break last week from the blog (I took that as a positive and caring response) but I said I might tell you about what I was up to. So here goes.

I have a couple of friends with whom, over the last twenty years I’ve enjoyed an annual ‘city break’.  It normally happens at this time in the year, a good time for wandering around cities.  Over the years we’ve ticked off a great many of the European cities.  But we had not been to Malta.  So that is what we did.  We found a lovely, quite luxurious hotel just outside of the new gates to the city near the new parliament house designed by the architect of The Shard, Renzo Piano, and had four days there.  It wasn’t long enough, of course, there is so much to see on this little island and we only touched the surface.

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The beauty of Malta

People had told me that it’s lovely and they weren’t wrong – particularly if you keep clear of some of the ‘resorts’ which looked fun but weren’t the place for much sightseeing! Valletta with its Grand Harbour and the Three Cities across the water, it’s bastions and churches, the amazing Cathedral of St John, are simply beautiful.  The little streets, built on a simple grid pattern, with their overhanging enclosed balconies, were delightful.  We walked miles, seeing as much as we could and eating the Maltese speciality – rabbit (where the rabbits live on such a rocky island defeats me – we never spotted one in any field – perhaps because they are on every menu!).

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Not a rabbit in sight!

But being a bit of a pious thing I was especially looking forward to catching up with St Paul.  pilgrimages over the years from Southwark Cathedral have taken us into Turkey where we have been to places where St Paul had been – Ephesus for instance; we have been through Greece visiting all those wonderful Pauline places, Thessalonica, Philippi, Corinth and, of course, Athens.  We’ve been so many times to Caesarea Maritima on the Israeli coast where Paul was held.  And some years ago we visited the church on the outskirts of Damascus which marked the place Saul fell from his horse and we walked along Straight Street in the city itself along which he was led, blinded by the light, and saw the gatehouse from which he was lowered in a basket. We’ve been to Rome and it’s outskirts and walked along the road where Paul walked as he arrived at

‘the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns’ (Acts 28.15)

But what these few days in Malta gave us the opportunity to do was to encounter on the ground what we read in Acts 27 & 28.  Just to remind you of the rather swashbuckling story, Paul had been arrested and was being taken as a prisoner to Rome to stand trial.  It was a journey by boat across the unpredictable Mediterranean.  They set sail from Crete and then got caught up in a dreadful storm that lasted 14 days.  Those verses from Psalm 107.25-30 speak of that experience on the boat that the writer of Acts paints so vividly.

For at his word the stormy wind ariseth : which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep : their soul melteth away because of the trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man : and are at their wits’ end.
So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble : he delivereth them out of their distress.
For he maketh the storm to cease : so that the waves thereof are still.
Then are they glad, because they are at rest : and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.

The haven they came to was St Paul’s Bay and the island was Malta.  Acts 28 then tells us about they were warmly received by the local people who had seen them shipwrecked on a little island just off the coast and who built a fire where they could dry off. But a snake came out of the brushwood and attached itself to Paul – who didn’t die and so proved himself holy to the people.  You can see a wonderful painting of this event in the Diocese of Southwark (you don’t need to travel to Malta to engage with this story) because it forms the wonderful reredos on the east wall of the chapel at the Royal Navel College in Greenwich.  There is Paul, illuminated by the fire, with a snake dangling from his hand.

Paul was then taken to meet

‘the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days.’ (Acts 28.7)

The place where this happened is the magnificent walled city of Mdina.  It really is a treasure, beautifully restored, magnificent buildings and standing there, where Publius lived I realised that here was a real man who heard the word of God from Paul and was converted by him.  Acts then tells us that Publius’ father was ill and Paul healed him and the rest of the islanders brought their sick to Paul, who were also healed.  It seems that Paul lived there for three months and in the neighbouring town of Rabat, just outside of the city walls of Mdina, you can go down into St Paul’s Grotto, where he lived until there was a ship to take them on the final leg of their journey to Rome, where martyrdom would await him.

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St Paul in his grotto

It was like adding a piece in the jigsaw for me, my jigsaw of Paul.  I’m not sure if Paul and I would have got on, I think I would have preferred to hang around Peter to be honest.  I’m not sure Paul would have liked me and I don’t warm to everything that he writes.  But then I’m not that different to many of those who began travelling with him but decided to leave him, for one reason or another.  But this complex man gave his life to mission, to getting the Good News of Jesus Christ out there and the lands of the mediterranean are a witness to his travels.  And real people, like Publius, like those who saw the snake hanging, like those who brought their sick, met a man whose eyes had been opened to Jesus on the Damascus Road.  So thank God for the people of Malta and their faithfulness to the Gospel – I hope they served Paul a bit of rabbit as well!

Living God,
as you were alive to Paul,
as you came alive to Publius and his companions,
be alive in me
as I witness to your life.
Amen.

Take a break

We all need a break. That is what I am having. Just a few days away. I will tell you about them – maybe. But just for the moment, enjoy the Bank Holiday.

Lord of the sabbath, teach us how to rest, to play, as well as how to work. Amen.

More tea, Vicar?

One of the things that a curate used to have to do – back in the day, as they seem to now say – was to develop the capacity to drink a huge number of cups of tea in an afternoon without having to ask to go to someone’s loo! This was in the day when we did that very old-fashioned thing called ‘visiting’.  Our day was divided into three.  The morning was for doing stuff like going to Morning Prayer and Mass, taking assembly, writing a sermon, doing some admin and taking the Sacrament to the sick and housebound.  Then after lunch you embarked on visiting – some planned, some ‘cold calling’ – and you did this until it was time to go back to church for Evensong.  Then you had your tea and then you went to meetings in the evening.  It was all very straightforward.

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A perfect cuppa

And when you arrived in someone’s home the first question you were asked was ‘Would you like some tea, Father?’. The answer could be never anything else but ‘Yes – that would be lovely!’ because accepting hospitality was all part of the deal.

The thing that I notice about Jesus is his willingness to visit people in their home and his eagerness to accept their hospitality.  Some of his greatest encounters with people were during a meal, like in the house of Simon the Pharisee, who had a lot to learn about true hospitality.

But the people of east Leeds, where I was walking the streets each afternoon, knew all about it.  A nice tea-tray, with a few Hobnobs, maybe a piece of home-made cake and nourished we would sit and chat for half an hour.

So, last year when I was asked if we would be willing to bless the first of the new tea harvest, the First Flush Darjeeling, for one of the stalls in the Borough Market, I, of course, said ‘yes’.  The owner of Tea2You, Rattan, had seen what we did for another trader in the Market, BreadAhead, our local bakery.  They produce a Lammas loaf with the flour milled from the new grain.  They bring it to the cathedral and we use it for the celebration of the Eucharist that day.  It’s a very ancient – Anglo-Saxon – tradition.  There isn’t the same tradition with tea, well, not in this country.

But given the relationship between vicars and tea I felt I couldn’t refuse.  In his memoir one Revd Sydney Smith, wrote this

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

I think he meant, before we started drinking tea over here, because of course the tradition of drinking this beverage is ancient.  But I too am glad that the tradition was brought here.

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Blessing the tea

So last week we repeated the blessing.  Rattan and his staff with friends from the Borough Market brought some of the newly picked and dried Darjeeling, the very first and tender leaves, to the Cathedral and we blessed them and gave thanks for the harvest.  It is all in the tradition spelt out in the law of Moses that the first fruits be brought to God.

The Lord said to Aaron, ‘All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the Lord, I have given to you. The first fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the Lord, shall be yours; everyone who is clean in your house may eat of it. Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.’ (Numbers 18.12-14)

We read a poem “Song of Seven Cups” by Lú Tóng.

The first cup caresses my dry lips and throat,
The second shatters the walls of my loneliness,
The third explores the dry rivulets of my soul
Searching for legends of five thousand scrolls.
With the fourth the pain of past injustice vanishes through my pores.
The fifth purifies my flesh and bone.
With the sixth I commune with the immortals.
The seventh conveys such pleasure I am overcome.
The fresh wind blows through my wings
As I make my way to Penglai.

And then I blessed the tea using these words

Generous God,
you visit the earth and water it,
you make it very plenteous
and from the soil
you bless us with food to sustain us
and drink to cheer us.
We thank you for the tea harvest
and for this First Flush of Darjeeling.
We thank you for tea planters
for tea pickers
for tea merchants and importers.
We thank you for all who make tea
at home, in the market, in our teashops
and pray that all who drink it
may be calmed, strengthened
and comforted.
May your blessing rest on this tea
and those who will enjoy it
for you are God,
Father, Son and Spirit,
Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,
now and for ever.
Amen.

And then? Well, it was time for another cup of tea, brewed in the market, the cup that cheers, for which I am always happy to give thanks to God.

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Enjoying a cup of ‘blessed’ tea with Rattan and Darren

Creator God,
for the food we eat,
for the drink we drink,
for this bountiful
and beautiful earth
we give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

A hostile nation?

This is the sermon I preached in Southwark Cathedral today. I felt I had to. The readings I refer to are Acts 4.5-12, 1 John 3.16-24 and John 10.11-18

The flag of St George is flying proudly from the Cathedral Tower. In the Borough Market, people are celebrating the St George’s Festival. Morris dancers are limbering up. Helmeted children get ready to stage fights against paper dragons. What could be more English, what could be more British?

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The image of St George in Southwark Cathedral

Shakespeare put the words and the images into our minds and into our mouths, the mythology of England that’s played out at this time of the year. What heart can fail to be stirred by those words from ‘Richard II’

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Of course, St George was not English and never came here. He’s not exclusively ours and in fact is Patron Saint in one way or another of 24 countries, more than probably any other saint. People think that he was Palestinian but no one’s certain. And we hadn’t had anything to do with him as a nation until the Crusades when the soldiers returned wedded to this martyr warrior, this saint for conquerors who was established as patron in 1350 usurping St Edward the Confessor who was our Patron, the kindly, good king.

But that shouldn’t stop the celebrations, these few facts, rather than the fantasy, and we fly our flag with pride. But as we do so, we have to ask ourselves, as Christians, the question, the vital question, what kind of nation are we, what kind of England, what kind of ‘other Eden’, what kind of country do we want to be?

The image of the Good Shepherd is probably as far removed from the images of St George as we could possibly imagine. But it was that image that first captured the imaginations and the hearts of the early followers of Jesus. As they were being buried in the catacombs outside of Rome it wasn’t the cross that they drew around their tombs, but more enigmatically the symbol of the fish, ‘Ichthus’, and it wasn’t the crucified Christ who they pictured but the shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders.

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‘I am the Good Shepherd’

It was the image of the Good Shepherd that attracted people, the images that Jesus describes in the Gospel reading for today, the shepherd and the lambs.

Lambs, for some reason, produce in us a variety of responses but mostly ones of affection.

Blake, the other creator of the mythology of England, wrote in his book ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ two parallel poems – ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’.

Blake writes so tenderly and brilliantly

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.

He is the shepherd who is himself a lamb, we are the lambs and called by his name and he draws us into one fold, with one shepherd, a people who know his voice and who know, to use St Peter’s words from the First Reading, that

‘there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’.

The Lamb of God, who is the Shepherd, is the saviour. And the pastoral and the caring and the loving and the salvific image that this set of ideas creates inspired those first Christians in their believing, inspired the likes of George, a Palestinian Christian in his own fearless believing – not the dragon slayer but a lamb of the same flock as we.

St John in our Second Reading challenges the early church, challenges those early Christians

‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’

What kind of nation are we celebrating as the flags fly and the Morris Dancers dance and the dragons are slain and what kind of nation do we wish to be? What kind of England, what kind of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? What kind of ‘other Eden’ to use Shakespeare’s monumental words?

The scandal of the way in which some of those of the Windrush Generation were being treated, which became clear last week, cast a shadow over our nation as the leaders of the Commonwealth gathered here, cast a shadow over a nation already overshadowed for some of us.

What did those in government, which ever government it actually was, of whatever colour, think that they were doing, denying the rights of people who arrived here, at our invitation so long ago, people who’ve been our neighbours and our friends for so long, who’ve helped the Church of England to survive in so many places in spite of the way in which in so many of our churches Caribbean Anglicans were effectively frozen out? What kind of hard, uncaring, unjust and inhospitable people are we who seek to create what seems to be called a ‘hostile environment’ rather than a hospitable nation? Thank God that some of our bishops amongst so many others stood up and made the government think again – but the very fact that they had to think again makes my blood run cold.

We will be brexiting, I’m sure of that. I remain, unashamedly as you know, a remainer but I also know that the path we’re set on seems inevitable. Much of the passion behind leaving Europe seemed to be driven by a desire to be a different kind of country, but what kind of country will that be?

The shepherd who we celebrate today is not some soppy, romantic individual. The shepherd works hard to protect the sheep, to save the lambs, to find the lost and bring the straggler home. As Jesus says to his listeners

‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’.

But the fold is as large as the love of God and Jesus makes that clear

‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.’

We say that as a community in this place we believe in inclusion. If that is really true then I believe that we will need to witness to that even more powerfully and even more openly in the months and the years to come.

There are some who wish to change the nature of this country and have been working at that, feeding the fears and the insecurities and the prejudices of some, who also need pastoring. We’re called to stand with the Windrush Generation some of whom will, in those early days, have driven us to work, mopped our brows in hospitals, delivered our babies, cleaned our offices, served our food, put up with our abuse and whose children are now some of the leaders in our society and our church. And we need to stand alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters, we need to stand alongside refugees, we need to stand alongside those who still suffer prejudice as a consequence of gender or sexuality. That is our calling and as we gather as a congregation at our Annual Parochial Church Meeting that is what we need to affirm, again, and again and again and again.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd and his love enfolds all, we’re all included and enfolded in the fold and that is the ‘other Eden’ where the lambs are fed at the shepherd’s hand and where love is the banner under which we sit. If this sounds like a rallying cry, it is.

Fly the flag, for it bears a cross, the Saviour’s, the shepherd’s, the sign to the world of the God who out of love, not out of hostility, came and died and rose for you and for everyone of our neighbours, the fruit of the tree of another garden, the fruit of the tree of ‘the other Eden’, the tree of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – and tasting of that fruit opens our eyes to the truth.

God,
give us the courage
to be the people
you call us to be.
Amen.

Looking for evidence

I don’t know what Maths classes were like when you were at school but for me, after a bit of talk and chalk, we used to have workbooks handed to us, with lots of questions, that had to be answered.  Obviously our teachers weren’t stupid but it didn’t take me long to find that the answers to all the questions were printed at the back of the book.  So it seemed obvious to me that you just copied the answers from the back of that book into your own Maths book, take it to the teacher and, hey presto, the job was done. ’10/10 please, Miss!’

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Does it bring back memories?

But the teacher had this annoying habit of sending me back to my desk with the instruction that I had to show the ‘workings out’, that I had to write down the formula with the numbers in it to show how I had got to the right answer.  She was no fool – and as I was and am still useless at Maths that rather stumped me.

Show me the workings out, show me the evidence.

Thinking about it I suppose that I lost confidence with the government (in general not specifically) and with politicians (in general not specifically) when the whole Iraq war ‘weapons of mass destruction’ debacle hit us.  We were told so clearly that there was evidence that these WMDs existed and were ready to be deployed.  We had to go in and take these out so that this particular political despot could not threaten his people or us.  And there was nothing behind it.  ‘Show us the workings out’ and they couldn’t.  So whether it be with the poisoning of the Skripal’s in Salisbury, or the chemical attack in Syria, I find it hard to accept that when I’m told there is evidence, that there is evidence.  I understand that no one is going to come round to my house to show me the evidence but deep down, in my stomach, I just wonder what the evidence is and its veracity.  And then we launch an attack whilst we are still in the process of verifying the evidence.

So I have a lot of sympathy for Thomas in the Upper Room. Coming into that room on the evening of the first Easter Day to be met by an ecstatic group of his friends telling him that they had seen the Lord, but without any evidence apart from their excitement, I can entirely understand why he then said

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ (John 20.25)

He needed the evidence right there in front of him, he needed to handle the evidence.

But didn’t he trust his friends? He’d known them for so long, been through so much with them, you would have thought that if they all were telling him this that he would have believed them, without needing to touch and see, without needing that physical, irrefutable evidence.  But Thomas wasn’t like that, ‘show me’ was important to him, vital if he was going to believe.  And after all it was a matter of life and death, of death and life, for each of them and for us.

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Carravagio

Of course, in so many things I have to trust.  But trust, like respect, is earned and easily lost.  You trust until the basis of that trust is broken and then you find it hard to trust again, something big has to happen in order to win it back.  As one translation expresses the words of Jesus

‘Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.’ (John 14.1)

What is remarkable is that this is  said on one of the other occasions mentioned in St John’s Gospel when Thomas is there and involved in the debate.  The first time we meet him the disciples are about to travel with Jesus to see Lazarus who has died.  On this second occasion Jesus speaks of trust and the third occasion is in the Upper Room.  From that first response of Thomas to Jesus and the others when Jesus tells them that their friend Lazarus has died

‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11.16)

a reckless kind of response, we find someone who appears more hesitant as time rolls on, until he sees the evidence and then makes that great declaration of faith that we utter sotto voce as the host is raised before us at the Mass

‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20.28)

He believes, he trusts, he declares his faith and is willing to pick up that initial recklessness and die with Christ, for Christ, which is what the tradition tells us happened.

But as far as Syria goes I need my trust rebuilding before I can accept something without the evidence.  Like my Maths teacher, I need to see the workings out.

Lord,
teach me how to trust and to question
to question and to trust.
Amen.

A touch of doubt

It’s that Sunday when we remember again ‘Doubting Thomas’ and there’ll be many sermons, I suspect, encouraging us not to worry about the doubts that we have.  I’ve said a lot about that over the past weeks and during Holy Week about that subject whilst we had Susie MacMurray’s art installation, ‘Doubt’ hanging as a cloud over our heads.  So this is a very short blog.  But I just wanted to share with you one lovely thing – well, I thought it was lovely.

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A little bit of doubt amongst the blooms

The Easter Garden at Southwark Cathedral has had to be, for various reasons, relocated and so it has given members of the Flower Guild the space to do something a bit different.  Where it has ended up happens to be right next to my stall and I was looking down at the daffodils and primulas (not very Jerusalem authentic I suspect) and the olive trees (better!) and I saw amongst it all some of the netting that had been rescued from the cloud when it had been taken down on Holy Saturday.  Hidden there, a little bit of doubt, the permission to ask the questions that as people of faith we should ask, we need to ask, the questions that Paul asks about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 – and goes on to answer.

We need honest, not simplistic engagement with the gospel and with Jesus and the sight of the remnant of the cloud against the empty cross and amongst the spring blooms gave me encouragement to continue in my own deepening of faith through asking questions.

Bless us Lord
in our believeing
in our questioning;
bless us in our doubting
in our questing;
bless us in our journey of faith.
Amen.

A new dawn

Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by Thee;
joyless is the day’s return,
till Thy mercy’s beams I see,
till they inward light impart,
glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

This verse from Charles Wesley’s beautiful hymn ‘Christ, whose glory fills the skies’ strikes me as the song that Mary Magdalene was probably singing as she headed from the Upper Room on that Sunday morning.  The Sabbath had ended and so they were able to complete the burial rites for Jesus that had been curtailed by the beginning of that enforced period of rest.  But only as soon as it was possible and safe to do so.

Morning

All the cloud that had been bubbling up during the week, culminating in that period of darkness on Good Friday as Jesus hung in agony on the cross, had gone.  It was still dark but the first streaks of light of a new day could just be seen in the east.  The day was beginning, it was a cloudless sky but Mary’s heart was heavy.

Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by Thee.

Mary was too impatient to wait for the others to wake and so she crept from that room, not disturbing the rest who were still sleeping, and made her way out through the gates of the city and to the garden in which the cave was located where Jesus was buried.  What she intended to do we don’t know.  St John who tells us the story just says that

‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.’ (John 20.1)

In the first light of day, with eyes still bleary with sleep, things don’t always seem as they are, things look different as the light changes.  But Mary was shaken from any remaining effects of disturbed and restless sleep when she saw that the stone was no longer sealing the tomb but had been rolled away.  John doesn’t say it but this brave and desperate woman must have gone into the cave, into the tomb, she must have seen what had happened, without knowing what had happened because the next thing that John tells us is that

She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ (John 20.2)

I’m fascinated that when Mary reports the news she speaks of ‘we’, ‘we do not know where they have laid him.’ But she was on her own, she didn’t know where they had laid him.  Or was it that she was speaking for me, was it that she was speaking for us, is it as if we were accompanying her in that early morning vigil at the tomb who know that

‘joyless is the day’s return,
till Thy mercy’s beams I see.’

The cloud has been removed from the chancel of the Cathedral.  Since Ash Wednesday it hung there, brooding over everything that we have been doing.  It has hovered as a constant reminder of the clouds that can hang over us, those clouds of doubt and fear, the clouds of depression and anxiety but also those clouds of unknowing that are part and parcel of the Christian life.

It was an unknown English author of the 14th century who first coined that phrase in the book ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ where it is written

‘Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.’

Mary longs for Jesus.  He gave her back her life. He changed the lives of all those locked away in that Upper Room, out of fear, out of guilt, in shock at what had happened.  But whilst all of their lives had been changed it was Mary whose life had been saved.  As Jesus had once said of her to the others

‘The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ (Luke 7.47)

But she ‘has shown great love’ he says to them all and we see that played out this morning as she runs from the room to the tomb – and we run with her and see and do not know. There can still be a cloud of unknowing even though the sky is cloudless and streaked with the bright beams of a new day.  We beat ‘with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud’ longing for the one from whom we seem to be seperated.

There have been many interesting comments about this year’s Lent art installation by Susie MacMurray.  But one of the ones was made more often was amazement that a Christian church should exhibit something called ‘Doubt’.  ‘We thought you were about certainty’ people have said.  That has given us the opportunity to say that the opposite of doubt is not certainty but is faith.  We do not know for sure, we do not have a cast-iron proof of anything, we believe and belief is about faith.  We peek into the empty tomb and we share with Mary the not knowing so that she can say to the others ‘we do not know where they have laid him.’

Wesley’s verse ends though in that great place where Mary ends.  The men come with her to see what is going on and when they see it as we have told them they rush back to tell the others.  But Mary remains, weeping, and we stand alongside her.  Peter will always rush here and there and John will run after him, impetuous pair – but we will remain with the unknowing – and then into that space Jesus comes, even though for a moment we still do not know – do not know who he is

till they inward light impart,
glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

Jesus speaks her name and she knows him; Jesus speaks our name and we know him.  Our eyes are glad, our hearts are warm.  We may not have all the answers about resurrection but we know that it is true, because we have faith, because we believe and because on a cloudless day we are touched by the warmth of his presence in the chill of the early morning, as bread touches empty hands and we know that he is with us.

Alleluia.  Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Cloudless?

It was Saturday.  It was the Sabbath. No time for doing anything but a time for staying together.  It was true.  Outside it was cloudless but for those in the Upper Room, who had headed back into the place they had left at haste on Thursday evening it was as though a cloud of despair hung about them.  The table had the remnants of the meal still on it – a vessel with a drop of blood-red wine at the bottom, the dregs; crumbs were on the table where bread had been broken. A chair was overturned, knocked over as Judas made a hasty exit. It was a room of echoing memories – but they were silent.  What was there to say? And as they sat in silence the cloud descended.

Cloud3

The ‘cloud-busting’ team

Installation art, of its very nature is for a time.  Those who constructed our cloud of ‘Doubt’ it are dismantling it.  The metres of black butterfly netting are being rolled up to be recycled, the supports that held the whole thing in place, the cords that extended from the clerestory across the chancel being removed and the cloud is taken away, no more, for a time only, its time.

Cloud4

And it’s down!

The wind can change suddenly and blow the clouds away, sometimes the ones we carry with us are harder to shift.  Sometimes, with the friends of Jesus, we just have to wait amongst the crumbs and dregs.

Lord Jesus, my light, my day,
stay with me in the dark, in the night.
Amen.

Darkness came over the whole land

People will travel half way around the world to experience a solar eclipse; they’ll search out just the right place to experience a partial one.  We are fascinated by the experience just as our ancestors were.  Indeed, there is something primordial about the fascination with such an event as though we suddenly realise that we inhabit a planet among planets and that one has an effect upon another, that moons and suns coincide with dramatic and, literally, chilling effect.  The eclipse becomes a portent, a sign of deeper things happening and as Tomasz Schafernaker, or some other weather watcher or reporter stands there in the gloom, you expect momentous language to be used to describe what is happening.

Doubt2

‘Doubt’ by Susie MacMurray

From the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane, from the darkness of the cell beneath the house of Caiaphas, Jesus emerges into the glare of public attention as he stands before Herod, stands before Pilate, a man under judgement.  When we were still condemning people to death, when Capital Punishment was still being practiced in this country, the judge, before pronouncing judgement, would place the Black Cap on their head.  The Cap, still part of the official regalia of judges in this land, is a simple square of plain black cloth.  It is as though a black cloud is placed over the head of the one sitting in final judgement, the most final judgement that one person can make of another.

Pilate washes his hands of the whole affair and Jesus is led from the Antonia Fortress, close to where his mother was born, and along what we now call the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, the Way of the Cross, the route of the world’s darkness.

The 19th century poet, William Ernest Henley, in his poem ‘Invictus’ writes

Out of the night that covers me, 
      Black as the pit from pole to pole, 
I thank whatever gods may be 
      For my unconquerable soul. 
The night covers us, yet in a sense we are unconquerable.  There is a strange and unmistakable dignity about Jesus even when he falls, one, two, three times, according to the tradition in the Stations of the Cross.  The Black Cap was donned for him, but who is really condemned, him, or us?
How many times have I read, or heard, or even sung St Matthew’s Passion?  But when I was rereading it I suddenly realised something – that the darkness didn’t descend when Jesus died, as I had somehow falsely imagined, falsely remembered.  The darkness descended from noon and Jesus was still alive.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. (Matthew 27.45)
Jesus suffered in the darkness, the cloud was thick above him.  It was the darkness of the plague, the darkness that descended on the Egyptians in response to Moses’ prayer.
Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. (Exodus 10.22)
It was a curse, a plague, it was the unfolding of creation which had begun with a single command, ‘Let there be light’. The passion was not just of Jesus but the passion of creation itself.  Even the first act of creation was faltering, the roots of the universe hacked at as had been the roots of the tree out of which the cross was made.  As the theologian and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin wrote
Christ has a cosmic body that extends throughout the universe’.
As Jesus suffers so does creation.  This is no simple eclipse that lasts a moment, that passes whilst we are looking at it, but the pangs of a passionate universe witnessing the death of the one who as we say in the Nicene Creed ‘through him all things were made’.
Thick darkness descends and for three hours there is no light.  But Matthew seems to suggest that it all ended at ‘three in the afternoon’ when Jesus cries out ‘with a loud voice and breathed his last.’ (Matthew 27.50) Did that final cry disperse the cloud and release the light?  Did in some way that death break the spell that had held the earth in bondage? And did those who had watched through the darkness see now in the clear light of day what they had done?  Was that why that lone centurion, who had been kept in the dark, suddenly could see and make the declaration on behalf of us all
‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ (Matthew 27.54)
The great prayer of St Richard of Chichester is on my heart as I too look beyond the gloom and into the light.
Praise be to you, O Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the many blessings which you have won for me,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for me.
O, most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.
Amen.

 

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sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

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the personal views of the Dean of Southwark