‘I am with you always’

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Southwark Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 2017 the day on which we were able to reopen the Cathedral following the terrorist attack on our community a week before.

Saturday night last week was like a living nightmare. It’s the kind of experience that only happens to other people, not to you, not on your own doorstep. But it happened to us, it happened on our own doorstep, literally; it happened in our own community that we love and that we’ve served in Christ’s name for over 1400 years. Those years have seen their share of war and pestilence and fire but I doubt that ever before has the church been inaccessible to worshippers for a week, inaccessible as the place of peace and contemplation that people expect and need, inaccessible as the place of welcome and embracing, radical hospitality and love that we seek to be. But it happened.

Flowers

When I first heard that something was happening in the London Bridge area I put on my dog collar and headed down Bankside to try and open up the Cathedral so that we could be a place of refuge. But initially I didn’t get far.

So I went through the back alleys and got as far as Park Street and Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Market Porter. But heavily armed police barred my way and forced me back. ‘Run, run’ was all they shouted. I was directed on to Southwark Street and there saw people lying on the pavement being cared for by the emergency services. ‘Run, run’ was all I could hear through the sound of sirens and helicopters and I was forced on and on until I got back to the Deanery and shut the door behind me on the living nightmare.

Around midnight I received a text from Amir Eden, a young man who lives on Park Street, a lawyer who was a pupil at Cathedral School, a practising Muslim who’s the chair of the Bankside Residents Forum. ‘Could I come to yours? I can’t really go anywhere.’ was his text. I texted back ‘Of course’ and so he arrived and with 8 other people spent the night in our house.

The rest I suppose you know about. 8 brutally killed, 48 horribly injured. The Cathedral was forcibly entered by the police searching for more attackers, doors broken down, glass smashed in a desperate effort to stop more bloodshed. It happened on our doorstep, on the threshold of God’s house.

And now we’re here on this Trinity Sunday, back in this sacred place, which is still sacred. The risen body of Jesus bears the marks of the nails and the spear and Jesus shows his hands and his side to his disciples. The Sacristy door shows the marks of the baton rounds fired at it to break open the door and allow the police access. We bear on our body the marks of suffering that so many bear in their flesh and in their soul and spirit.

St Matthew places the final encounter of the disciples with the risen Jesus not on the Mount of Olives, just outside the city of Jerusalem, but back in Galilee, the place where they started, the place of call and from that place of call he sends them out to the nations, to take the Good News, to baptise and teach. But then, before he leaves them he makes a promise, a promise to them and a promise to us.

Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. (Matthew 28.20)

In the horror of the moment it’s all too easy to imagine that you’re on your own, that you’re abandoned to the nightmare, lost in the terror, but Jesus says ‘No; remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

God was not absent on that Saturday night; God is never absent. The Psalmist knows it to be true when they say

Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. (Psalm 139.7-8)

We are not abandoned by the Sprit, we are not abandoned by the Father, we are not abandoned by the Son for we have this promise ‘I am with you always.’

On Friday I was invited to go to our local mosque by the Imam. I went with other clergy from here and we were welcomed with open arms. I’d been invited to speak to a packed congregation. The Imam preached about our shared humanity and our shared heritage through Adam and I was able to respond to that, taking your greetings to our brothers and sisters, telling them that we do not hold the Muslim community to blame, telling them that we recognise that we share so much, praying, peace upon you, greeting them as Paul greets the Christians in the multi-cultural, multi-faith, complex and exciting city of Corinth

‘Live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you’. ( 2 Corinthians 13.11)

That is what we have to do. What we share is what God has given, a shared heritage, a shared humanity, not just with the Muslim community but with all people, all men and women, regardless of anything that others might identify as difference. Difference does not mean division unless we chose to make it so, and we chose to make difference a blessing and an enrichment to our community which is why we celebrate who you are, who we are, male and female, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight – and I will say that again and again and again from this pulpit until it is deep in all our hearts, to the very core of our being.

The great metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, famously wrote a poem, so well known.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

‘Any man’s death diminishes me’ which is what the Quran teaches, that killing one life is killing all life. We have all been scarred by what happened last Saturday on our doorstep and we will bear those scars. But they will not make us bitter but make us stronger.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ said Edmund Burke. We will not do nothing. We will rebuild with the community what good things we have, we will rebuild the joy and diversity, the confidence, the acceptance, the inclusive, radically beautiful nature of this community that has been built over centuries and millennia. The roots go deep and cannot be destroyed by evil men and we will not allow it but will confront that evil with love.

wounds of crucifixion

We bear on our body the marks of Jesus

The Feast of the Holy Trinity is the feast of relationship, that beautiful relationship of diversity in the very Godhead, the Perichoresis, the divine dance into which we’re drawn. And we’re drawn and invited to this altar, through the Spirit, by the Father, to share in what the Son gives to us. With scarred hands he gives his broken body to us, gives his shed blood to us, and he asks us to eat and drink so that through his death we may have life. He is always with us, always, at the altar, in the world, walking through the dangerous places and showing his scarred self to a scarred world and making it, ultimately, beautiful.

Loving God,
when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.
Amen.

Silver and red

The house in which I have the real privilege to live whilst Dean of Southwark is lovely but nowhere near as historic or photographed as the house the other side of Cardinal Cap Alley.  That house, 49 Bankside, even has a book written about it, ‘The House by the Thames’ by Gillian Tindall.  The book is a real social history of Bankside and whilst the author debunks some of the myths around the property, principally the story that Wren lodged there during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral, nevertheless the real stories of the house are even more interesting.

One famous resident was Guy Munthe, from my understanding an exotic and rather wonderful socialite. He came to mind on 1 December as I returned to the Cathedral following my sabbatical and presided at the early morning Eucharist.  It was World AIDS Day and so the Mass that morning was in St Andrew’s Chapel which is in the retrochoir of the Cathedral.

aids-ribbon-e1414547907227

I arrived in the chapel, kissed the altar and went to the ligilium to begin the liturgy.  As I did I looked to my right and quickly read the plaque on the wall commemorating the dedication of this chapel as the ‘AIDS Chapel’, the place which provides a focus for our prayers and witness on behalf of those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.  I immediately noticed that the dedication took place in 1991 and as this was 2016 it was the 25th anniversary, the silver anniversary, of the chapel.  I mentioned that in my introduction to the Mass; it was something to give thanks for.

And my former neighbour? Well, he died in 1992, one of those caught up in the horror that at that time was sweeping through the gay community in London and beyond.  He is commemorated alongside that chapel in a simple and non-ostentatious plaque.

I remember that when I arrived at the Cathedral in 1999 as the Precentor, one of my responsibilities was to organise the AIDS Day Service which took place on the first Sunday in December.  It was a large service, ecumenical and inter-faith.  We had Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Zoroastrians all taking part with a large and broad Christian group.  The London Gay Mens Chorus once provided the music, we sang ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ (of course), candles were lit and processed, a quilt was brought  in, we all cried and remembered those who had died since the last service and prayed for them.  It felt like a vignette of the world of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ with a few Mrs Madrigals amongst the crowds of men.

Seventeen years later there is no service. The energy ran out of it. It no longer seemed necessary and our partners who helped with the service all faded away. The issue had changed, people now lived with a positive status, they didn’t die.  It was no longer a male, white, gay issue, it had changed.  One of the things that had changed in south London was that the community now facing up to the challenge of HIV/AIDS was made up of a great many more recently arrived black migrants and they weren’t as organised or cohesive as the gay community and we had no easy way of making contact with them. It is a sad story for me to write and one in which I have no pride.  The ‘big’ event drifted away from us, though we still offer the Mass every Saturday in the AIDS Chapel for those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS and we still wear our red ribbons.

But things have changed again. The numbers of those being infected and living with HIV has increased. Over the decade 2006 to 2015, there has been a 73% increase in the number of people in the country accessing HIV care. 46% of these people live in London, and almost 96% of infection is as a result of sex, split almost equally between heterosexual and homosexual sexual encounters. The Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark now account for almost 25% of HIV cases in England.

The other changes are, of course, around the success of drug and other regimes that mean that people can live with the infection and not see a positive diagnosis as a death sentence.  The debate on whether Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, should be paid for by the local authority or by the NHS is a side-show compared with what could be the effect of this drug being made available.

The commemorative plaque in St Andrew's Chapel

The commemorative plaque in St Andrew’s Chapel

Over the years we have wondered from time to time whether it was right to keep St Andrew’s Chapel as an AIDS Chapel.  But each time we talked about it we decided it was.  To our knowledge it is the only one in this country.  It still makes people stop, think, ask questions and, I hope, pray.  It still serves as a focus for our prayer and concern as a Cathedral community.  In fact, when in response to our new vision statement we were working out what our priorities should be renewing this ministry and looking at ways to live out in action what we proclaim in prayer as far as the HIV+ community is concerned became one of our priorities.  Given the changes that I have already mentioned and the extreme needs in Lambeth and Southwark it feels as if the chapel is a relevant today as it was 25 years ago.

The most important thing, of course, is to continue to witness to the unfailing, hospitable and transforming love of God through all of this.  It is right that we do the praying in St Andrew’s Chapel for it is Andrew who we remember ‘first found his brother’ (John 1.41) and brought him to Jesus.  We do the same with all our sisters and brothers.

Lord Jesus,
you love us
just as we are.
May we love
as you love.
Amen.

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