Sunday, May 27, 2018

Windows onto God – a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, May 28th 2018

When I was a teenage chorister, passages like those we’ve just heard used to drive me to distraction.
You see, my favourite escape route when the sermon didn’t grab me was to wander off in my imagination, into the depths of the readings. This was fine when they were stories of Jesus and his friends, or parables, or the Old Testament adventures...journeys through the wilderness, escapes from captivity...or the beautifully poetic prophecies of Isaiah about lions and lambs, or deserts bursting into life.
But passages like tonights were another thing altogether.
I would tie myself in knots trying to actually picture the 4 creatures.
4 faces, 4 wings, eyes wherever you looked – how on earth did that work?
Were Ezekiel and John both indulging in substance abuse?
I tended to think that they might be, and would retreat with relief to whatever was going on in the psalm.

Now I find myself preaching on those same passages – and its tempting to take the same escape route.
Except, of course, that there’s no way out!
It seems that all our readings, from Old and New Testament and psalm alike have the same message…
Lord my God, you are very great… You are clothed in splendour and majesty”
Every word of Scripture we’ve heard this afternoon is designed to convey offer a range of different images that might give us, the hearers, a window onto God – or, as John experienced it, a “door standing open in heaven”. Open doors are surely, always, an invitation...It would be simply perverse to turn away...but as we go through, we need to adjust our expectations, to understand that we are entering a different kind of reality.

You see, it’s important to notice what’s actually going on in the passages.
Neither writer is attempting an accurate scientific description of something you might try and draw for yourself (I say this, though behind me you have John Piper’s interpretation, to which we’ll return later, which might also help your imagination to take flight).
Notice how often Ezekiel tries to make this clear
what looked like four living creatures...” “The appearance of the likeness of the glory of God”.
He knows we’re not dealing with exact equivalence. All these images are things glimpsed through a glass darkly…best guesses at a wonder beyond all words and all imaginings.
In the same way that icons, beloved of the Orthodox tradition, don’t presume to offer pictures OF God but rather invite us into a way of contemplating God’s majesty – so these passages are in no way factual descriptions of the glories of heaven, but routes into wondering.

As such they are part of a great tradition, and those living creatures are carefully chosen for their honorable place in Jewish writing as representatives of the whole of animal life.
Midrash declares that each is present because “all have received dominion” – the “king of the beasts”, the lion, symbolises strength and power and rules over all wild animals; birds are commanded by the eagle, far-sighted and visionary, and gifted with eternal youth; domestic animals are led by the ox, patient, strong, obedient; and here, too, is humanity, not in any way the “crown” of creation, but a good, respected part of it.
Four creatures – made into perfected, extraordinary versions of themselves, to emphasise just how charged and heightened these visions really are – because our writers are glimpsing something truly tremendous. We know this – even while we struggle to place ourselves beside them, to share their imaginings, see through their eyes.

But in fact our failures of imagination don’t matter in the least. These living creatures are there not for themselves but because they ARE creatures – part of the natural order, beings made for God’s glory and taking their part, with us, in the eternal song of praise around God’s throne.

One commentator writes of the vision of Revelation 4
This is a throne-room for the universe – and the throne is not vacant. The universe is not a chaos, nor is it ruled by blind fate. Someone is in charge”….and this, of course, takes us back immediately to our great tapestry where that Someone, Christ himself sits, flanked by the four living creatures that our writers have described to us.

Michael Sadgrove, a former Precentor of the Cathedral, describes the tapestry as a ‘magic carpet’, carrying the worshipper on a flight not into fantasy but into reality at three levels – the reality of God, the reality of the world, and the reality of the person themselves.
That’s what lies on the other side of the door, if we have the courage to walk through.
Reality. We’re no longer dealing with “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God” but with a direct encounter with God made human, with God’s whole life and being walking the earth in the person of Jesus Christ...that same Jesus who now sits in glory, ruling over our world, our history and our future.
This “window onto God” is quite unlike any other – because we are invited to come close to, to know for ourselves, to receive into our own beings the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth”.
Where pictures fail, and dreams fade on waking, this Christ meets us where we are, in our everyday lives, and walks beside us here and now.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come...”
In Revelation, the 24 elders join with the living creatures in a chorus of universal praise…and surely our ultimate calling is to find our voices and to join with them..
In the meantime, though, we may feel rather more like that human figure standing between the feet of Christ, simply too close to see what is going on, oblivious to their surroundings.
But though we may not have much grasp of God’s reality, nonetheless we are secure – because the One who holds the universe in love will not let us slip or fall, however poor our vision as we travel onward til the door is fully opened and we are welcomed home to join ourselves in the song of heaven.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ascension day sermon, Coventry Cathedral, 2018

When I was a small child, I loved Ascension day because there was a half day from school after early Mass, sticky buns and country dancing. Now it’s more a day when I hanker after chestnut candles against blue skies, revel in glorious music and try my hardest to write a sermon that has no mention of the tips of Christ’s toes vanishing into the clouds…but I still love this feast, despite the problems that it might present to those who want to view their faith through a purely rational lens. In a world which, on the whole, doesn’t imagine heaven as a realm above the skies, we do rather struggle with the baggage of past understandings of the Ascension, and perhaps that is in part the reason that a festival that was once so significant that it involved a half day from school is now largely forgotten, even among the faithful. Today does matter though. It is a turning point.
“The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now” we sing, and it is tempting to think in terms of before and after, to see those two states in opposition to one another – and of course it depends on your perspective how you understand each part of the story.
There is one view for the eleven, left craning their necks for a last glimpse of the One who has given their lives hope and purpose through three extraordinary years…and pondering what his promise of “power from on high” might actually mean. For them, as for us, Ascension represents the start of a season of waiting in faith and in hope…and of trying to understand their new calling as apostles, those who are sent, rather than disciples, those gathered to learn.
And for Jesus? Well, when teaching children, I tend to explain today as “Christmas backwards” – but of course that is to oversimplify. While it is true that Ascension marks the end of Jesus’s physical presence in the world, it isn’t simply the moment when he returns home, takes off his humanity with a sigh of relief and everything goes back to “normal”…Things have changed for all time. The One who returns to glory returns wounded – for us and by us.
And the point is – the wounds are part of the glory! “The Messiah will suffer.” That’s essential…though not to assuage some cosmic system of justice. Some years ago, a speaker at a diocesan conference completely changed the way I was feeling about my beloved but rather struggling parish when she pointed out “The glory of God is as fully revealed on Good Friday as it is on Easter Sunday”. That enabled me to celebrate the church as it was there and then, rather than feeling frustrated that it wasn’t yet the gloriously confident, vibrant community of my dreams and longings. Surprisingly, (or maybe not really so very surprisingly at all) as soon as that happened, the church began to change….to see itself as revealing the glory of God in all the muddle and brokenness…and that fresh understanding began a process of healing and transformation. But that’s another story.
Last Sunday morning , Archbishop Justin gave us a similar message as he spoke about the tapestry – about the crucifixion, which is invisible from the nave, obscured by the high altar, but which literally provides the foundation for the image of Christ in glory which dominates our whole space. He pointed out, referring both to the tapestry, woven in a single seamless whole, and to the two moments of revelation  “It’s ALL ONE.”  Crucifixion and ascension are both alike manifestations of Christ’s glory
“And I, when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself”
Christ , risen, ascended, glorified, carries with Him both the marks and the lived experience of agony. They are for all time, - which means that our experiences of pain and suffering are part of what he carries with him for all time too.
This, of course, is also the message that our cathedral, ruined and rebuilt, carries to the world. We resisted the temptation to clear away the ruins, and recreate the lost cathedral – something done with startling effect in Dresden. Equally, we chose not to tidy up and build something new and different where the wreckage of the past had stood. Instead, we left the scars of history visible as a permanent part of our present reality. We do not cling to them with bitterness, but acknowledge that the pain was real, that places and people ARE changed and shaped by such experiences, that although we all carry our own wounds – of  loss, disappointment, failure – yet we dare to move forward in hope of a new kind of future.
Often people describe the relationship of old and new cathedrals in terms of death and resurrection…That makes sense too, but the presence of the scars on hands and feet of Christ in glory reflects the wounds of the ruins on which he gazes out day by day. And it’s ALL ONE. Cross, pain and glory inextricably woven together in the fabric of our salvation.
In Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard, about the great medieval theologian famous for his love affair with Heloise, she describes Peter  walking in the woods with his friend Thibault. They come across a rabbit trapped in a snare, and its suffering triggers a deep conversation about pain and the cross:

I think God is in it too.'.
'In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?' Thibault nodded.
'Then why doesn't he stop it?'
'I don't know,' said Thibault. 'Unless it's like the prodigal son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this,' he stroked the limp body, 'is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do.'

Abelard looked at him, perplexed. 'Thibault, do you mean Calvary?'

Thibault shook his head. 'That was only a piece of it - the piece that we saw- in time. Like that.' He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. 'That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ's life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because was like that, kind and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that for ever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped.'

'Then, Thibault,' he said slowly, 'you think that all of this,' he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, 'all the pain of the world, was Christ's cross?'

'God's cross,' said Thibault, 'And it goes on.'

Christ in glory continues to hurt for the pain of the world. That gives a particular kind of hope to those who are suffering here and now. To the family of a young mum with a life limiting illness, who will not live to see her children grown. To my friends who watch by their  mother’s bedside, wondering if she will recover after the removal of a lung. To another who has been told that thereis no more treatment left. To others who have flown across the world to be with their dying son. To those forced from their homes by violence. To those longing for a fresh start and new possibilities.
All of those weeping, aching souls can know that their pain is known, understood, shared by the one who is all love. Christ’s triumph does not undo or override the struggles that are part of the here and now…It redeems but does not banish pain. It’s all one….
So Ascension is about so much more than vanishing toes or easy triumphalism. There is glory and pain intermingled, Rich wounds still visible above in beauty glorified. It is indeed a turning point, but not one that signifies Christ’s departure from the world – but rather that same world’s brokenness bourne by him up to heaven, where the hands which bless us in our weakness bear the marks of suffering too.