Choose life

It’s god to be back from my holiday. Three weeks seems a long time. But on coming back I was thrown into the final preparation and then part of the delivery of our Diocesan Conference. So please excuse me sharing my sermon for today on this blog. It did come our of some of the reflections that were going on in the conference and as we sat beneath the Revd Cecile Schnyder’s wonderful triptych of Christ in community that dominated the hall where we met. The lections for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Philemon 1-21 and Luke 14.25-33.

I’m having to think about how I live. I know that the various and related crises that we’re all going through at the moment are requiring us all to think about how we live – but my thinking is on top of that.

One of the blessings of being ordained in the Church of England is that you’re given a house to live in alongside the stipend that you’re paid. The truth is that the stipend would never allow most of us to live in the kind of houses that we’re provided with. That’s not a complaint, it’s just a matter of fact.

So, I began in Leeds with a nice semi in the suburbs, one of those three bedroomed houses in which the third room is a bit of a box room – but I’d never really had my own home before, so it was amazing. Then I went to a huge flat created out of the first floor of one of those vast Anglo-Catholic clergy houses, then to a four bedroomed more recently built vicarage. Then I moved to Southwark and was given a grand detached Edwardian four bedroomed house in north Croydon, then to St George’s Road where the Sub Dean lives – a nice Georgian townhouse on four floors with all that that offers. Finally I’m in the Deanery – five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a huge hall, garden etc. etc. etc.

My point is that I’ve become accustomed over almost 40 years to live in overlarge houses and to spread out my clutter, to acquire stuff, knowing that I had places to put it. But now, since I announced my retirement, we’re having to find somewhere to live – and that was partly what we did on our summer holiday. But we’re going through something of a reality check. Inevitably we will be downsizing – and that’s the only way in which we can possibly live in the future, smaller, lighter, gentler.

In the musical ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ the brothers sing of the great days they’ve known in Canaan, when they had everything

Do you remember those wonderful parties?
The splendour of Canaan’s cuisine
Our extravagant, elegant soirées
The gayest the Bible has seen.

And then they sing

Those Canaan days
We used to know
Where have they gone?
Where did they go?
Eh bien, raise your berets
To those Canaan days.

My Canaan days are slipping past. I need to think how to live differently, maybe better, perhaps more honestly.

Moses is addressing the people in the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy that we heard in our First Reading. He’s setting before them the choice that they have.

‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.’

And then he says – and this always gives me a shiver down the spine, it’s so powerful

‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’

Choose life. But contrast that with what Jesus says in the Gospel for today.

‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’

He was speaking to the crowds that’d followed him, to the people who were gathering wherever he went, he was speaking to those who’d left their nets and their families and their communities and their livelihood and their certainty, for the uncertainty of the road and the uncertainty of the future. And he asks them not just to leave all those things behind but to hate them. This is strong stuff – and it’s not just the relationship stuff that he highlights, those human ties that they were expected to reject, because he adds ‘yes, and even life itself’. ‘Hate your life’ says Jesus; ‘choose life’ says Moses.

We don’t often get to read the Letter to Philemon. It’s Paul’s shortest letter and his most specific. He’s writing to Philemon who with Apphia and Archippus leads one of the house churches that were springing up. Paul is writing to them about a friend of his, Onesimus, formerly a useless slave to Philemon, but now someone Paul describes as a son, a bond of love that’s been formed during Paul’s imprisonment. Now Paul wants to send Onesimus back, to give him his life back, but not the life of the slave that he was living, but the life that in freedom he can live, the freedom that we know in Christ,

‘No longer as a slave but as more than a slave,’ he writes, ‘a beloved brother.’

For some reason it’d all gone horribly wrong for Onesimus; but Paul has opened life to him, and as Jesus says in St John’s Gospel ‘life in all it’s fullness’.

‘Choose life’ says Moses to the people; ‘hate even your life’ says Jesus to us. But what I think is going on here is the same thing. Jesus is encouraging his listeners in a dramatic way to re-examine their priorities, their life, their choices, to cast aside the Canaan days if you like and embrace the radical, kingdom life that Jesus proclaims.

Yesterday we concluded the Diocesan Conference. We met for three days in Bacon’s College, a church secondary school just down the road from here, in Rotherhithe. The theme for those three days was ‘Christ centred: Outward focused.’ It was amazing. Each of the speakers challenged us, to choose life, and not just for ourselves but for all people, those living on the margins, those living in fear, our children, our young people, people of colour, people for whom poverty is already a daily, grinding reality.

We were challenged to think about how the church in this diocese can help to make the kingdom reality, the reality, to hate the life that leads to oppression, to injustice, to violence, to abuse, to prejudice, to homophobia, to sexism and all the other scourges of our time and choose the life ‘that really is life’.

That is also the challenge that we must insist that our leaders, our politicians, our opinion formers also address. Tomorrow we will learn who our new Prime Minister is to be. The week that faces them will be monumental. They will be moving into a new house which goes with their new job, but whoever they are, they need to have before them the desperate life situations that are not a matter of our sisters and brothers choices but a consequence of the choices that others of us who have choices have made. Choose life – not just for yourself but for every one of our sisters and brothers, our neighbours, and not just in this country but around the world.

I have to live differently, we have to live differently, we need to hate the choices we did make and embrace the more gentle life that Christ offers that made Onesimus, once a useless slave, now our brother.

It’s a dream, it’s a vision. W B Yeats in his poem ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ says this

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Tread softly, on the dreams of your brothers, on the dreams of your sisters, live gently, dream and as you come to the altar today and hold those empty, emptied hands out, choose life, for it’s life, full life, life worth having, life worth living, that will be placed in them.

Loving God, may I choose you, as you in love choose me. Amen.


The unlived life

This is the sermon I have preached this morning. According to our Statutes it is meant to be the bishop who preaches on Easter Day. But +Christopher is still recovering after some knee surgery – so I was able to enter the pulpit of the Cathedral and preach. As I say in the sermon I am picking up on the theme that Canon Leanne Roberts had chosen for her sermons this Holy Week; she has been our Holy Week Preacher. The title she chose for herself was ‘The Kingdom is Now: fear and the unlived life.’ I couldn’t resist adding to the stream of her thoughts – and she kindly gave me permission to do so. You can listen to all her addresses on our Facebook and YouTube platforms. The lections for today were Isaiah 65.17-25, Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18. Happy Easter!

‘Mary, why are you weeping? Mary, for whom are you looking? Why are you weeping; why are you searching?’

Mary was in deep distress in the garden in the first light of dawn. She’d been there when the body of Jesus was laid in the tomb. She’d seen it with her own eyes, helped with her own hands. But now the tomb was empty, the body gone, the grave clothes left behind and there were these angels and this stranger asking annoying questions. ‘Why was she weeping; who was she looking for?’ It was obvious, or it was to her, she was looking for the one who’d given her back her life, the one who was her life, whose life had been taken from him. She was weeping for Jesus, she was looking for Jesus.

The other gospel writers give us other sets of emotions in this scene on the morning of Easter Day. They speak of fear, of terror, of anxiety. But however they describe it, we’re thrown with the women, with the disciples, with Mary, into a place in which people are in one way or another afraid.

Oscar Wilde’s ‘Selfish Giant’ has a very nice castle and a very nice garden. Having been away for seven years visiting his cousin, a Cornish giant, he comes back and finds that other people are enjoying his home. So he builds a wall, a high one, to keep the outside out, to keep others out, to keep him in. He can sit behind his strong wall and enjoy all that he has.

But the wall keeps everything out, it keeps the children out, it keeps spring out and it even keeps Christ out. Until someone makes a hole in the wall, just big enough to creep through. And spring and Jesus enter into his closed space, making not just the tree in the corner of the garden blossom but his life as well. As the spring petals fall on the dying giant the child

smiled on the Giant, and said to him, “You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.”’

Canon Leanne has been helping us to confront our fears during this Holy Week, the fear of change, of disgrace, of death, to name but three and I want to pick up on her powerful theme and address the Fear of life, the fear of living, living the unlived life.

It’s not just the giant who’s effective at building walls to keep life out. We can all be wall builders in one way or another, to protect the life that we have, the life we enjoy, the life we can cope with, and then spring fails to come and we need God to find that hole in the wall to break into our place of fear.

The prophet Isaiah in our First Reading says something so powerful

No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.

The prophet is speaking of this new heaven, this new earth, that Peter presents to Cornelius and his household, in our Second Reading. He speaks of what we’d want to call the kingdom, of which our Risen Lord is king, he speaks of a place in which we can live life to the full, not a shortened life, not a lessened life, not an unfilled life, but one in which both infant and old person live their full potential.

When I was a teenager we had the most amazing curate in our church. Fr Irving had come to us from Mirfield. He’d been born in Antigua and had come over to study. He had Sidney Poitier good looks and I’d never seen such a handsome priest let alone a black priest before. Like all of us he had basically one text and one sermon. It was this, John 10.10

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’

Abundant life, life in all its fullness, life to be properly lived, life to be embraced, life lived in the fast lane, full-fat life, in which you can be you, truly, fully, as God intended, as God created, outside the walls where Jesus died but where life sprang from the earth.

You may know the Easter hymn which begins like this

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

The final verse says this

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Jesus’ touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Jesus’ touch can call us back to life again.

This is what is happening in the garden and whether it evokes tears and frantic searching, whether it evokes fear or terror or anxiety or any of that rag bag of emotions that we see displayed in the Easter stories, it’s all because we sometimes fear the life that he, the risen Jesus, holds out to us, because we are too comfortable, too certain, too safe behind the walls we’ve built for ourselves or that others have built for us to contain us, too easy to live the half-life we’re living.

Am I really prepared to live my unlived life, have you really embraced life in all its fullness, are you living the abundant life that Jesus says he came to bring, is his touch bringing your wintry, grieving, painful self back to life and to a better place?

I want that life myself, I want that life for you, my sister, for you, my brother and I want that life for every person.

We’ve kept Lent, Passiontide and now Easter with the horrors of the events in Ukraine at the forefront of our minds. Lives are being destroyed, futures are being bombed out of existence and life is being lived out in an atmosphere of overwhelming fear. At the same time we’ve seen in the past few days our own government responding to what they call, ‘the People’s priorities’ by proposing to transport to a processing facility in Rwanda, those who arrive on our shores seeking a better life for them and their families. Cruel, cold, inhuman, callous – there are no good ways to describe what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are proposing. And it needs to be said, this is about people of colour who arrive on our shores, the ones whose needs we’re being encouraged to despise. This is not the abundant life that Mary was confronted with in the garden, this is life denying, not life giving – and it’s shameful.

Instead, what we proclaim today is Jesus, demolishing the walls that divide, breaking into our locked places, dragging us into the light, holding before us the possibility, the reality of life and leading us to live our yet unlived life in the kingdom – if we dare.

Because it means you being fully you, and me being fully me, and can we bear to be whom God loves and the world and the church so often condemns?

‘Mary, why are you weeping? Mary, for whom are you looking? Why are you weeping; why are you searching?’

Mary’s tears ceased, her searching ended as she turned and recognised Jesus and he called her by her name and brought her into the first day of her new life. And he does that for each of us today, he invites us to step with him into the garden of his delight, to blossom and flourish, to bear kingdom fruit, to be fully who we are, fed and nourished as we are in this Eucharist with the fullness of his presence, the fullness of his life.

Do not fear life; embrace it, live it, be it.

Risen Lord Jesus, cast out my fear, that I may fully live, fully love, fully embrace the life that you have given to me. Amen.

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My Lent Diary

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Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

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In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark