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?

Saint-George

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.

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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!’

Math book2

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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

 

And it was night

Those four words in John 13.30 say it all for me

‘And it was night.’ 

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A dark cloud hovers in a holy place

It feels as though the rest of this drama, which began in sunshine and optimism will be played out in gloom and darkness.  The row that began at the table in Bethany, as Jesus and his disciples enjoyed the too generous hospitality of their hosts, spills over into what is going on in the Upper Room.

It has been an intense day and emotions are running high and tempers are getting frayed. As we saw earlier in the week Jesus’ teaching no longer caused amazement but anger among the teachers who heard him.  His provocative act as soon as he entered the Temple in overturning the tables had set people against him.  Those who had been glad to see him on Palm Sunday where it all looked like a party are now beginning to think again.

The Chief Priests and the Pharisees are disturbed

‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ (John 11.47-48)

They can see storm clouds gathering around them and threatening everything they hold dear, not least their power and their positions. And when Caiaphas speaks up and says

‘It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11.50)

the beginnings of a plot are hatched.  And a disgruntled insider who has been storming around are just what they need.

John Donne in his sonnet, ‘Crucifying’, hits, as it were, the nail on the head

He faith in some, envy in some begat,
For, what weak spirits admire, ambitious hate;
In both affections many to Him ran.

We see all of that in the reactions of those around him, and in ourselves, and in myself.  The mixed emotions of that fateful evening are mixed up with the mixed emotions around the table, the envy, the ambitions (who can forget the uncomfortable ambitions of the mother of James and John), the fear, the confusion, the doubts and the love.  It is a heady mix into which Jesus breaks bread and says ‘This is my body’ and takes a cup of wine and says ‘This is my blood’.  And that is the same for the church every time we gather at the altar and look at each other and wonder why we are there. Our motives are not clear but clouded, we do not operate always in the clear light of day but often in the night.

It would be lovely if when the priest says to us from the altar at the end of Mass

‘Go in the peace of Christ’

and we repond

‘Thanks be to God.’

that that were both honest and true.  But clouds hover and darkness settles even around the church as the last three weeks of the ‘Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’ has shown all too clearly and painfully. However much we might wish the church were different, it isn’t.  We are up to our eyes in the mess of the world, we are groping in the darkness, living under a cloud, doubting and uncertain.  The poet R S Thomas makes that quite clear in his poem ‘The Coming’

Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. 
We live in that scorched land and into it Jesus comes.  Thomas’ poem ends with those chilling, thrilling words
Let me go there, he said.
And into that stormy room Jesus brings a bowl and a jug and a towel, and, despite their protests, washes their feet. And onto that stormy table Jesus places bread and he brings wine and shocks them with the offering of himself. Jesus gifts them with the sacrament of hospitality, washing and feeding, even though in their gloom and confusion they cannot understand what on earth is going on, even though it is night.  And when the church is groping forward in the night as she is today Jesus washes us and feeds us, even though we don’t know how to accept this sacrament of hospitality in our darkest moments.
Did Jesus whisper ‘Go in the peace of Christ’ as Judas stormed from the room and it was night? ‘In both affections many to Him ran.’ and many ran away under the cover of darkness – and still do.
Lord Jesus,
shine into my darkness
and dispel the shadows of night
to which I so often run for cover.
Amen.

A storm breaks out

It’s great when there is somewhere we can use as a ‘bolt-hole’, somewhere we can go for a bit of peace and quiet, where we know we will be well looked after, fed and watered and no one is going to make any demands on us.  In reality that is a bit of a fantasy, such a place is a very rare thing indeed and, to be honest, most places where we look to take a break demand something of us in return.

Jesus was fortunate that three of his friends lived just over the other side of the Mount of Olives in a small town called Bethany. There has been a great deal of discussion about what the name of that town, which pilgrims still visit, actually means.  But it looks like people have settled on the definition being ‘The House of the Poor’ and one suggestion is that it was called this because it was the location of an ‘almshouse’.  That sheds a whole new light on what happened in the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the friends of Jesus who lived in Bethany and to where he retreated each evening at the beginning of this final week.

Mary and Martha-Qi

Mary and Martha and Jesus

This was a house of hospitality, we have seen that before in the gospels when Mary and Martha row in front of Jesus about who is doing the cooking? But even though there was a dispute about the practicalities the hospitality itself was not in dispute.  This was also a house of sorrow and of joy, all because of Lazarus.  He had died and his sisters were plunged into deep distress and so was Jesus when he finally joined them and raised their brother from the dead.

So, a meal had been organised and John tells us all about it (John 12.1-8). Martha was serving (there was no row about this this evening), Lazarus was with Jesus at the table and Mary? Well Mary was again at Jesus’ feet.  Last time she was sitting at them, listening attentively to his teaching.  But now she was anointing them with costly ointment and wiping them with her hair.  It was the ointment, Nard, that caused the problem.

Nard was expensive, I mean really expensive.  John tells us that the oil that Mary was using on Jesus’ feet cost three hundred denarii – that was a years’ wage for someone and Judas knows that, everyone knows that – there was no hiding the smell, ‘the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’ (John 12.3).  Suddenly there was a whiff of something else in the air, a cloud of anger in the room.  The row breaks out.  They all know there is an almshouse down the road, tending to the needs of the poor and next door money is being wasted on this scale.  It is scandalous.  Yet, in some ways this was a trigger for everything else that would happen.  As John tells us in his account of the events in the Upper Room on what we call Maundy Thursday

Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. (John 13.29)

The issue of the poor had not gone away and as Judas storms out of the home in Bethany and as he storms from the table in the Upper Room the clouds really do gather.

In the House of the Poor generous and well-meaning motives cause a storm.  We never quite know in life what is going to kick off a whole series of events and when the deluge will begin.

Jesus,
when we are caught up in a storm
bring your calm
and your peace.
Amen.

A clap of thunder

The once sunny sky must have become cloudy.  Someone thought that they heard thunder.  They were listening to Jesus teaching.  This is what Jesus was spending his time doing; he could never stop it, never stop teaching the people.  After all he was a natural.  When he was twelve years old, and in this very temple, he was found with the teachers.  His parents were searching for him; they had lost him among the group of their friends with whom they were travelling, and returning to Jerusalem there they found him, seated with the teachers, teaching.  Luke tells us about the reaction of everyone to what he was saying

‘All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished.’ (Luke 2.47-48a)

What a difference a few years make.  Now, when Jesus is teaching in the Temple, it is not amazement, astonishment that is the reaction of those who teach but anger, when they hear him they want to kill him.  But not all of them, of course, not Joseph of Arimathea, not Nicodemus, not Gamaliel.  They were teachers, they were leaders of the Pharisees, they were secret supporters of Jesus but were they also those who some years earlier had been seated discussing the finer points of some texts when a young lad had wandered up to them, sat down, listened and then asked that most insightful question? Is that where their discipleship began?  Did they become students of this teacher at that moment of revelation, were they those who were amazed and had they been looking out for his return from that moment onward?  They had seen him ‘carted off’ by his relieved but angry parents who were amazed to find him in such company, the gentle mother and the father with carpenter’s hands, but had they been looking out for their teacher, until now?

People came from all over to listen to Jesus.  John tells us that some Greeks came along, found Philip who found Andrew and together they found Jesus, teaching, and they too were spellbound by what he had to say.

And then there was a thunderclap.  Those threatening clouds were gathering and one caused the sun to disappear for a moment and the early spring heat and the early spring light disappeared with it.  There was a clap of thunder, just one.

‘The crowd standing there heard it.’ (John 12.29)

They thought that it was God speaking because God had a habit of speaking out of thunder clouds or at least that had been Moses’ experience.  And the teacher teaches.

But all was not right with Jesus.  He was doing what he loved doing, teaching, in the temple, the place where it all began, but something was not right.  In fact that thunder clap was part of the cloud that had gathered for him, in him.

‘Now my soul is troubled.’ (John 12.27)

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We have lived in Southwark Cathedral for the whole of Lent with a cloud hanging over us, the cloud which the artist, Susie MacMurray, created and called ‘Doubt’. It has hung there as a reminder of our own clouds, of doubt and unknowing, but also of trouble and depression, the black dog day cloud that can be all too real for people, every day, for a season, for a time.  We have been recognising that such clouds are part of our reality and that, despite what I said on Sunday, it isn’t always ‘Sunny in Philadelphia’; I know, I have been there in the rain! Jesus could teach, eloquently, beautifully, life-changingly about the light and the dark as the cloud hovered but there was an internal cloud that had bubbled up.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”?’ (John 12.27)

We shall hear him pray that prayer again, in the dark, in the garden but for now he answers his own prayer

‘No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ (John 12.27-28a)

and he carries on teaching as the rumble of divine affirmation sounds around them. But the clouds won’t disperse that easily and, sometimes, neither will ours.

Lord Jesus,
you know what a troubled soul feels like.
Rumble your affirmation
into my own troubles
and teach me to see the light
through the darkness.
Amen.

A storm brews

It had been a lovely day when Jesus came down the Mount of Olives.  There was a party atmosphere, the crowds were out, the sun shone and the sky was clear.  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind – not in Judas’ who would betray him, not in Peter’s who would deny him, not in Thomas’ who would doubt him – this was the right thing to do.  This was the last stage of a journey that had taken them from their former life by the Sea of Galilee, through the towns and villages of that region to this great city, another world.  They had seen some amazing things on the way, the sick healed, the dead raised, the excluded included, storms were calmed, fish were caught, sins were forgiven and their fame had spread. Their fame had spread, not just that of Jesus, but all those who were travelling with him.  After all they had all gone off, two by two, to proclaim the Good News and they came back with such stories.  They were all celebrities.

So this felt like the culmination of all of that, this final leg of the journey, down the Mount and into the Temple.  No one was in any doubt that this was the right thing to do, no one.

The donkey was handed back, they washed in the mikveh and made their way up the steps that led to the first of the courts that surrounded the Holy of Holies, the place where none but the High Priest could go.

We’ve all seen it happen – a lovely day, a picnic taken out, the family on the beach, the barbecue set up in the back garden, the paddling pool filled, ready to make the most of the sunshine and then someone looks up and notices a huge storm cloud that has bubbled up out of nowhere.  ‘Where did that come from?’ someone cries. There’s a clap of thunder and the heaven’s open as picnic, deck chairs, children, uncooked sausages are rapidly gathered up and all head for shelter. ‘Typical … whatever happened to a proper British summer?’

It had all seemed like sunshine.  But Jesus’ face was suddenly dark and stormy and the disciples had all noticed it.  They had come through the entrance and had been confronted by the reality in the Temple, they had entered ritually clean to be met with the filth that was going on.

Cleansing Temple El Greco 1591

The Cleansing of the Temple by El Greco

 

Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’
(Matthew 21.12-13)

Archbishop William Temple wrote, ‘His coming means a purge.’ Jesus, like a storm breaking out, all of a sudden, purges and cleanses, and the ritual baths at the approach to the temple overflow in the deluge that ensues.  As John Donne write in his sonnet ‘Temple’

Nor had time mellow’d Him to this ripeness ;
But as for one which hath a long task, ’tis good,
With the sun to begin His business.

Those summer storms pass quickly – but perhaps this storm will take longer to pass over Jerusalem – it has been threatening for a long time and has come to ripeness.

Lord Jesus,
do not look on me with anger
but purge me
and wash me
into newness of life.
Amen.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark