Wednesday, February 17, 2021
I only see you when you smile - a sermon for Racial Justice Sunday, next before Lent Yr B 2021 at Coventry Cathedral
How’s your eyesight? Have you found that a year of live lived mostly through a computer screen has taken its toll? Can you see as well as you did, or is it time for an eye test? Clear vision is a gift which we shouldn’t take for granted. Today’s gospel relies on it, as we hear again Mark’s account of the Transfiguration. We hear of Jesus and his three best mates going up the mountain – and then, an amazing experience. “He was transfigured before them”…transformed in front of their eyes. I say “transformed” – but in fact, nothing about his reality had changed at all. His appearance, though, was altered enough for that reality to show through – and that experience changed forever the disciples’ perception of their Lord’s identity. He wasn’t different. They were. The American author Madeleine l’Engle put it this way in her wonderful book The Irrational Season "Suddenly they saw him the way he was; the way he really was all the time, although they had never seen it before, the glory which blinds the everyday eye and so becomes invisible. This is how he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands. This is the way he was - is - from the beginning and we cannot bear it. So he manned himself, came manifest to us; and there on the mountain, they saw him; they really saw him, saw his light. Now, perhaps, we will see each other, too. Now, perhaps, we will see each other, too. Hold onto that idea. For the disciples that day, it just took a shift in perspective to see the truth. Like Peter, most of us would like to stay on the mountaintop – in that wondrous space, far from the trials of reality – where the air is clear and we can see the truth of God in all its beauty…but that’s not an option for us, any more than it was for him. The disciples had to follow Jesus down into the valley – and to hold on to that new vision, that fresh understanding of his nature through the heartbreak of Holy Week that lay just around the corner. They had seen the truth and then they had to share it – even when it endangered them. God’s truth still needs sharing – and on this Racial Justice Sunday, it may not be a comfortable process. It’s strking that our gospel today celebrates whiteness; connecting whiteness with holiness. “His clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them”. Miraculous, shining, splendid…repeatedly the Bible presents whiteness as something wonderful. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow…. Conversely, the word ‘black’ often carries more negative associations…reinforced in translation Dark skies become black skies, a portent of bad things. If you fancy it, have a look at the 18 times the word “black” appears in the Bible. You will find that it is rarely a term of approbation. “Let light shine out of darkness” says Paul…setting the two in opposition in a way that has, like it or not, shaped our collective psyche. That which is white is good, normative – the black, deviant, discomforting… Just think for a moment… He’s my white knight We live in dark times, It’s a black day for the nation … You get the picture. Black and white set in opposition to one another. It’s really not surprising that prejudice and xenophobia abound… Not surprising – but not what God intended. Let’s fast forward for a moment to Revelation, and the vision of those gathered before the throne of God ‘from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,’ THIS is how the Church, the Body of Christ, should be –living God’s future now, reconciled and reconciling… To be honest, I think we have a bit of a way to go., Here at the Cathedral there’s much to help us on the way… Our calling articulated clearly in the CCN principles: Healing the wounds of history Learning to Live with difference and celebrate diversity Building a culture of peace. We would do well to attend to them today. Remember Madeleine L’Engle? “Now, perhaps, we will see each other too” We cannot celebrate diversity if we don’t actually SEE it… Over the past weeks and months, since the death of George Floyd and the escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement, a group of us at the cathedral have been trying to educate ourselves, learning to recognise just how far from level the playing field of UK society really is for people of colour, trying to face up to our own unconscious prejudices and those which scar the face of the Church as well. We’ve been helped in our explorations by a book “Ghost Ship” by the black Anglican priest Azariah France-Williams, whose narrative is disturbing but illuminating. One passage has stayed with me, a description of the writer and two cousins at a church bonfire party. When the evening ended and it was time to board the coach home, the white youth leader couldn’t find the boys, though they were only a few feet away from him “We stepped forward into the light of the fire and he laughingly said “Because you are black and it’s dark, you lot are invisible unless you keep smiling. We all laughed and boarded the bus – this was a very familiar comment to me “Unless you smile, we cannot see you”. The book has helped us to see a little more. We have learned that to be colour-blind is not a virtue: in denying someone’s colour, you cut them off from their culture and refuse to see them as they really are..That’s no way to celebrate diversity. We have learned just how deeply implicated the Church of England is the slave trade – and discovered with horror that it was only in 2015 that UK tax payers finally paid off compensation to the slave masters inconvenienced when slavery was abolished in here in 1833. That’s a deep deep wound in history that we have preferred to gloss over…never the best way to achieve healing. We have realised, too, that the dominant voices of the Church of England, even in a diverse city like ours, tend to be white…and that the institution is still a hard place for people of colour to flourish. We have recognised the truth that we still see them best when they smile – when they fit in with our rules without making waves, when they conform to our ways…. . We have tried to see things – and to see ourselves and others, as we really are. And having seen, we have work to do. We have to BE the Church, you and me. We are called to go up the mountain, to stand in the fog and listen to strange, unfamiliar voices, saying things beyond our comprehension, sharing hard truths, teaching us to see. That may well be uncomfortable…but as God’s people we must risk being disorientated, being thrown into confusion, in order to be able to clarify our calling. In the turmoil of the pandemic, in this disorientation, in the rawness of truths exposed, we encounter injustice in our country and in the Church – in our past and in our present too. And once we have seen things as they are – we cannot keep silent. Our world has been bruised and battered in this past year. The pandemic, the climate emergency, black lives matter. Nothing will be helped if we try to hide the truths we have discovered. We must set aside our old certainties and risk our comforts to join God on that mountaintop, where truth is revealed…and where God speaks to each one of us “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Listen - and follow. Remember. Reconciliation is never a matter of burying uncomfortable realities. If it had been, we would probably have swept away the ruins, rebuilt as if the blitz had never been – but we know that’s not an option. We are called to honesty – to challenge injustice, prejudice and falsehood wherever we see them. To speak against systems which exclude, enslave and keep people down. Like Jesus, we need to spend time with the marginalised, learning from them, hearing their stories, learning to see them, whether they smile or not. Humankind cannot, we are told, bear too much reality – but if we run from it, we will lose the opportunity to look on the face of Christ, his likeness revealed in each of his children. Today, let’s ask for the courage to really see.
Sunday, February 07, 2021
Where have you seen God this week? I hope its not been one of those grim periods when God seens intent on hiding. I know it can be hard to keep on with faith when some of the regular practises of worship that have sustained us through a lifetime are currently not available to us, and we may well be exhausted by our heartfelt collective prayer Please God, make it stop, But nonetheless, let's take the fact that you've made it to Dining Room Church as a hopeful sign, on the strength of which I will dare to repeat the question... Where have you seen God this week? For me, throughout this whole season of struggle, sadness and stubborn hope, I've seen God more in creation than anywhere else at all. Last spring, when the threat of the virus was very new and real, I took comfort from the life force bubbling over in that most exuberant of springs. Watching nature renew itself in such beautiful profusion somehow comforted me as I considered my own mortality. For a while I really knew, in heart as well as head, that beyond my life and death, birds would still sing, buds open, lambs be born...and that somehow made my own sense of vulnerability easier to bear. I found myself singing Great is thy faithfulness around house and garden Summer and winter and seed time and harvest... and that did indeed help me to ask for and receive Strength for the day and bright hope for the morrow... God spoke to me and his message of love stilled my soul And this week as I saw snowdrops, catkins and even a cowslip begin to speak of spring, once again God met me in creation with the good news I needed. The Celts used to talk about the little book - that was the Bible - and the great book - that was creation, and they read God in both. The instinct to worship in response to the beauty and mystery of the universe is as old as the human story itself. The Psalm we read just now is a reminder that for thousands of years, people have looked at the world around them, and seen God as creator of heaven and earth, of the sea and all that is in them. The passionate outpouring of the Psalmist, in this, and in so many of the psalms, is a song of praise to God the Creator which echoes down the centuries and still resonates today. But even here we are reminded that all life is finite, that we are not rulers of our own destiny When you take away their breath they die and return to the earth. This past year has bought that home to us again and again. We had thought, for a while, we were unassailable, masters of the universe....only to find ourselves brought low by something too small to see with tbe naked eye...The very triumphs of human science and engineering that enable us to travel all around the world and experience it's winders, nonetheless also enabled a tiny virus to travel around too, wreaking dreadful havoc. We are clever, yes...but we are not in control. We too have limits. When all is said and done, full of potential as we are, we are created, not creator. Kathy Galloway once leader of of the Iona Community writes It’s a timely reminder, because as a species, we have not been very good at recognising our limitations with regard to creation, to the earth we inhabit, and share with other species and life-forms. It is one of the most painful lessons of adulthood, realizing how little we really know, and how much less we can command. The struggle to impose our will on everything around us, including the earth, causes grave damage to the environment, to other people and to ourselves. The need to get our own way, especially with regard to energy over-consumption, is really something that belongs to the ‘terrible two’ stage of infant development. Our tendency to assume that the universe is at our disposal, that it has no intrinsic worth other than its usefulness to the human species has made us dangerously, even criminally careless. I've just begun watching Sir David Attenborough latest series The Perfect Planet. As always, it is stunning in its beauty, but his message is stark. Our planet sustains life, is, as far as we know, the one perfect planet in all our galaxy because everything is held in balance. But humankind has gone all out to upset that balance. We have over reached ourselves again and again, and now, as ice caps melt, islands are covered by rising tides and species become extinct forever, we face the probability of a dreadful reckoning. The climate emergency may be the greatest act of human defiance ever. If we believe that the earth is the Lord's and everything in it, if we seek and find comfort in our frailty as we treasure the rhythms of the seasons, then we need to be prepared to change. I've needed to hear God's voice speaking in creation. Don't let's drown him out with our toddler cries of "me, me, me"...but set aside the greed that destroys the work of human hands and lays waste the earth. Are you with me? It really is time for a change...