I wonder if youve ever noticed that some of the loudest words arent there at all?
I sometimes think that the greatest gift that we at Coventry Cathedral have given to the world is to be found in the word that isn’t there.
You know the one – the word that it isn’t there SEVEN TIMES
Whenever we pray the Litany together.
That’s quite a lot of absence – and the missing word, of course, is “Them”.
While Jesus, from the cross, looked at specific people who had done, in ignorance a particular and cataclysmic thing...and prayed in love and compassion “Father forgive them” - he is in fact the only one ever who could dissociate himself from the pain and brokenness of human life, from those destructive behaviour patterns that are part of the fabric of humanity.
He alone needed no forgiveness – so could ask for it with complete altruism, on behalf of everyone else.
For the rest of us, there’s no such option. We can’t pray “Father forgive them” with any kind of integrity because the truth is that we’re all in the mess together, and we are the ones who made it.
And so, gloriously, the litany points this out and invites us to ally ourselves with our brothers and sisters across the world and across history as we say “Father forgive” – and recognise that there IS no them and us...that we are all alike fallible, hurting one another, hurting the planet, and hurting God.
That’s part of the Cathedral’s DNA – and on our best days I imagine that we can all both recognise and feel the truth of it in our beings and our bones...know ourselves as flawed and broken as the person next to us...and know, too, that this means we are all alike taken up in Jesus’s great forgiveness project, all included in his saving act…
We hold to that missing word, and whisper fervently “Father forgive”
That’s on our best days.
There are other times, of course, when we are distressingly keen to rebuild the barriers that Jesus came to break down.
We LIKE defining the world in terms of “them” and “us”...and are keen to recruit Jesus to our team
Last week, John’s sermon included John Donne’s reflection “no man is an island” - but we often seem rather keen on insularity...both as individuals and as society.
We saw an example of this in our national life, in the way our government had planned to deal with the Windrush generation…and in the continued manoeuvres around Brexit…
It was part of the motivation behind the “Rivers of blood” speech whose anniversary has been marked this week…
And of course, it’s integral to the thinking behind the ongoing “hate that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class” right across the world.
Them and us.
And, to my shame, it’s part of me too...though I really do try to resist it. I know there’s a reserve, a suspicion, in the way that I react in some situations, some people with whom I try too hard, because deep down they make me nervous. They are different, in faith, politics, world view…
If it’s all the same to you, Jesus, I’d rather belong to a flock of people just like me.
It would make my life so much easier if only everyone else would fall into line and do things my way, enjoy Byrd and Bach and the laughter of children during worship…
Strangers are welcome as long as they can be assimilated...turn into people just like me and my tribe…
Does that sort of thinking sound even vaguely familiar ?
I suspect there might a similar process at work in some of you too...that you’ll have your own internal yard-stick against which you evaluate a newcomer in your street, a stranger who sits next to you on the bus, or comes in to the Cathedral to pray.
Part of accepting our flawed humanity is understanding that we are still not very good at learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity, though voicing the aspiration is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
Jesus is very clear about it.
There shall be One flock, one shepherd...who knows each of his sheep... the secrets of their hearts, their struggles, their hopes, their wounds and their dreams…
Knows them as fully as Father and Son know each other.
Knows them– and YET - Loves them.
Knows me – knows you – and yet...keeps on loving.
And lays down his life – to show that ALL are equally loveable...
You see, love is a universal language, that all can understand...
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd”
They will listen because that language of love transcends faith and culture....Does not depend on good behaviour....cannot be bought or earned…
No matter how big a mess we have made of our pasts
No matter how raw and painful our present the message of love speaks into our situation.
It is, always, a free gift.
God's grace poured out in wild extravagance and made clear to us at that moment when Jesus, on the cross, draws all people to himself.
Not just the good, the trying to be holy,
Not just the people with whom we would enjoy sharing a sheepfold, or a desert island.
One flock, one shepherd.
And yes – we do need to learn to hear his voice…
And we may not always enjoy what he has to say, for that voice will be calling us to have larger hearts, to pray blessings on those whom we cannot understand, those whom we fear, those whom we are sure that we cannot be called to like, to follow ways of greater love.
No them and us, remember.
One flock, one shepherd.
But, though we do need to listen to his voice, that’s all that is asked of us.
The salvation that we find in no-one else is not conditional.
We're talking grace and not works here.
We can't earn God's love.
We can't forfeit it.
Think of the person you find it hardest to love...whether someone you know personally or someone you think you know through their words and actions reported in the media day by day.
Think of them and remember, they too are part of the one flock…
In a few days time I will have the privilege of conducting the funeral of a wonderful man, one of a whole set of honorary parents whose wisdom, love and care helped me navigate
tricky years of young adulthood after the death of my own parents.
I loved him then and love him still and it will be a joy to pray
“Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
But I know that I need to be able to pray those words and know their truth no matter who I speak of…
No them and us
but one flock, one shepherd…
Jesus in whom, alone, we find our salvation.
Jesus, whose love and grace amaze us with their wild generosity day by day by day…
Thanks be to God.