Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lord, let me know my end: a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 1st Sunday after Trinity, 29th May 2016. Psalm 39

For I am a stranger and a sojourner here

Sojourner isn't a word much used today. It has its roots in the idea of a day tripper, "sojours", someone passing through, without putting down any roots – and some versions of the psalter translate the word as “Passing guest”.

We know all about passing guests here, of course.
Passing guests from all over the world, drawn by our story of Reconciliation.
Passing guests from the city, come with a particular need – to give thanks, to mourn, to commemorate together.
Guests coming to be resourced, guests coming with no agenda at all – walking purposefully through the building to leave without a backward glance.
Guests bringing gifts, – as you have brought your gift of music.
Guests whose stories interweave with ours for a little while, so that  we impact upon one another  and are enriched by the encounter.
Guests who sometimes decide to settle down and stay, so that sojourners are transformed into friends and family, strangers into community.

But our psalmist has another idea in mind with his use of the word here, as he reflects on the transience of life, the idea that though we are here on earth for the moment, our real home is in heaven.
We are, you see, God's passing guests...only here by his gracious invitation.

I find it difficult to hear this psalm without the portentous music that accompanies it in Brahm's German Requiem.
Lord - let me know my end and the number of my days.

How long have I got?
Should I start to pay particular attention to the items on my bucket list?
It's a question that continues to surface for us.
Here and now feels very permanent, the only reality we've directly experienced – but we know in our heart of hearts that nobody gets out of here alive.

The strange thing is that for the most part we refuse to accept mortality. While our 19th century forbears seemed intent on reminding themselves on a daily basis that death is inevitable, surrounding themselves with so many momenti mori that from a distance it can sometimes look as if they made death a way of life, now we have hit the other extreme. "Death is nothing at all..." proclaims a whole industry intent on persuading us that the failure of our bodies is nothing more than a minor inconvenience.                                              "Those whom we love can still be part of our lives – as jewellry, works of art, or whatever you will, really...Let us distract you..." they say. "Don't worry about endings. Focus on the here and now. Seize the day!" 

But the trouble is that death is real...and that actually, we need it to add impetus to our lives. As my colleagues and children would tell you, I'm a professional procrastinator.
Without some sort of deadline sermons, articles, birthday cakes would simply never happen.
Thankfully, there's a time limit built into our lives too – so that even such should be encouraged to get on with things.

“Thou hast made my days as a span long” - human lives just as long as the breadth of God's hand – a measurable period in which all is gift. Not one second can be taken for granted – and so it matters that we spend those seconds, minutes, hours well and wisely.

That's the point.
Not a morbid preoccupation with the moment when we pass from time into eternity but a determination to use our time for things that really matter. Seize the day, indeed - but seize it to good purpose!

“Blessed are they who live with integrity, who walk in the way of the Lord” said our anthem...or if you prefer it, Augustine proclaimed
“Life is for love. Time is only that we might find God”.

That's what it's all about.
Yes, we are small sparks of life, here on a temporary basis – but this does not, as the psalmist suggested, mean that we simply walk “in a vain shadow”...that nothing has meaning or purpose.
We are here to love, and to encounter the God who created us, redeemed and loves us.

And now, Lord, what is my hope? My hope is even in thee
It is in our relationship with God, and in living each day in the light of that relationship that we find our peace and security. In this world of time and chance, here is solid ground....

Love God. Love neighbour. Live to make a difference – and you will do well.

On Friday this cathedral was packed as the Barbadian community from across the Midlands and beyond gathered to give thanks and say goodbye to a remarkable lady.                         You won't know her name. 
She didn't amass a fortune, large or small.
She didn't have a glittering career, working instead in the kitchen of a local care home..But she lived her life with a warmth and generosity that meant that everyone who knew her was inspired, encouraged, persuaded into being their better selves – and the loving family that she left behind have clearly learned from their mother. She used her time well, right enough...and she knew, too, where her hope and security lay.

If she was a passing guest, she was the kind of guest that gets stuck in, helps you deal with a long-avoided household task, brings love and laughter with her as part of the luggage, even if her stay is short.

That's who I want to be in this world.

Someone with such security in God that I can live knowing that time is limited.
Someone who can accept mortality without fear or dread, seeing it as simply an encouragement to get on with being my best self here and now.

Someone who knows that, even when she fails and falls,again and again and again, there is a solid hope in God, who holds all our time in his hands.


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