Sunday, March 13, 2016

Passion Sunday at Coventry Cathedral

There's something about this place...Coventry Cathedral. From outside it may look rather like a concrete barn, and the inside isn't exactly warm and cosy but still and all, there's a certain something...Something that seems to inspire extraordinary devotion from people who are left cold by other church buildings, - and even by the faith behind them.

Something that draws in volunteers from well beyond the city boundaries, as singers and bakers, needlewomen, archivists and guides - and many many more. Something that  inspires staff to work with a dedication that far exceeds the call of duty...just ask our soon to be commissioned Dean's Verger Jon about that...Or ask his wife about those times when he pops in to the Cathedral though officially off duty, to sort out some verging crisis or another. Devotion over and above...
Not that I can talk.
A few months ago I heard myself talking about a commitment to love and to cherish the place – and it was pointed out that I was using the language of marriage.

Yes, there's something about our Cathedral, right enough.

You could say that, after a while, it becomes a passion..though not, I hope, a consuming one. There's always a danger that special places, particularly those that are designed to act as sign posts become instead destinations, an end in themselves...

But mostly we, who gather this morning, know that this cathedal has a greater a theatre of memory, in which God's story is retold day by day, week by week, as we come to worship and find ways to hold, even make sense of our own stories within God's overarching narrative of  love.

We tell the story of God made man, recall the events that shape and define our faith as we travel through the year, from Christmas, through Lent and now, now we reach Passion Sunday.
Passion Sunday.
What are we to make of that? It's not, after all, the Sunday when we HEAR one of the Passion gospels read aloud – that comes next week, as a solemn post-script to the triumph of Palm Sunday.

So today our focus is on something else...

Not  THE Passion – Christ's suffering on the cross, though that has come very close......but, rather, the passion behind the Passion.

This is what inspires us and draws us to worship.

We're here because of God's passion for us – that overwhelming love that brought the universe into being and is endlessly poured out on each and every one of God's children.

We are here because that passion seeks us out relentlessly (the ceaseless pursuit of the Hound of Heaven) and is not content until it has brought about our ultimate salvation...

One dictionary defines of passion as “intense desire” - and indeed it is God's intense desire for us to come into relationship with Him that lies at the root of everything. That desire, that passion, is so great that had you or I been the only person ever born into our world, Christmas, Holy Week and Easter would still have happened – just for us.

But we tend to think of passion as a two way process – the glue that holds a relationship together... so what of our part in the process? Those who come here week by week will know we have been exploring how we score in evaluating the 8 Essential Qualities of healthy, growing of which, - which achieved neither our top nor bottom score – is Passionate Spirituality. In other words, our passion for God. In other words, we seem to think that we're rather lukewarm about our faith.I'm kind of sad about that, though by no means surprised. We don't tend to get overexcited about things in these parts really...We are a community that values dignity, decency, order...and the beauty of holiness, but I wonder how it would be if we were as wildly enthusiastic about God as God is about us. Can you imagine if we were people whose relationship with God was obviously and incontravertibly the most important thing in life.
Would that delight or alarm you?
We don't want to be seen as a load of nutty Christians after all....but still I wonder how it would be if we were a community whose love for God was a flame that burned so brightly that it drew others to its warmth and light?

But the reality is that like most other churches, our passion for God can sometimes be hard to spot at all.

God pours out his love without any inhibition, in wild and glorious of God's self as unreservedly as Mary gave of her precious ointment in today's gospel. Here is love vast as the ocean. How do I respond to that? With cautious good manners or a comparable reckless generosity?

“It is most wonderful to see his love for me so free and sure
but tis more wonderful to see my love for him so faint and poor”

runs a hymn I sang in childhood – and the sad truth is that most often, even when I focus as best I can on the wonder of God's love, I hold back, shrink from throwing myself into his arms.

I'm don't really understand why – though I guess it has something to do with a core of selfish, rebellious independence. Passion, you see, is apt to sweep you off your feet...and that doesn't sound so good if you want to choose your own path. Who knows where you might end up - even Coventry Cathedral. So, that foolishly self-reliant core, that part of me that fears to be lost in wonder love and praise, continues to hold out on God...even while I know that I will be most fully myself when I am lost in Him.

My better, best self, reading the gospel we've shared this morning identifies completely with Mary, ready to pour out her costliest treasure – that fragrant, wickedly expensive perfume – worth a whole year's wage for a labourer..I long to show Jesus that I can and will give him everything, worldly goods, heart, mind and soul, every moment of every day– just as he, in his passion, has given me everything.

I want to show my love in ways that will fill the whole house - even a space as big as this cathedral- with a beautiful perfume, so that nobody can miss my extravagant devotion.

That's my best self.

But I know in my heart of hearts that, had I been one of the crowd in that house in Bethany, I would probably have grumbled with Judas about the terrible waste, tutted in disapproval at such public displays of emotion, looked away, embarrassed at such naked feeling. Who does she think she is, making an exhibition of herself like that?  It's not very British after all.

I wonder, had I stood at the foot of the cross, if my reaction might not have been equally luke warm – for surely there has never been such a public display of longing love since the world began. Arms of love open wide to embrace the whole of creation – even me.

And yet, in the face of all that love, I still struggle to enter into God's Passion for me, risk remaining forever a spectator as I try to hold onto an independence that is, in the end, worth nothing.

“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things...”, or, to put it another way,
“whoever tries to keep their life will lose it”.

That's the kind of passion we might aspire to as we contemplate God's passion for us. The kind of passion that will lend purpose to everything we attempt - be it caring for this building or its artistic treasures, welcoming visitors to explore or to worship, worrying about fabric, money, resources...
That passion has the power to transform everything.
If, like me, you fear that you fall far short, might we at least dare to ask God for the courage and faith to let go, to risk the fall into those everlasting arms –for only then we will really discover their strength and their gentleness as they hold us secure.
And might we, this Passiontide and beyond, aspire to make these words true in our lives 

“Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small.Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”

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