Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Uncontrollable God

A sermon for Easter Day

Song of Songs 3.2-5; 8.6-7; John 20.11-18

There is an episode of the cartoon series the Simpsons in which Homer becomes a missionary in the South Pacific.  In the course of this, he builds a chapel for the natives.  When it is finished, he stands back and admires what he has build.  “I may not know much about God,” he says, “but we built a pretty nice cage for him.”  As we mark Easter Day, and hear again the story of the empty tomb, we are reminded that we do not control God.  The empty tomb stands against all attempts to cage or to control God.

We do not control God with our minds and our understanding.  The tomb was empty.  It has puzzled scholars and believers ever since.  Mary Magdalene, looking into the tomb, sees that the tomb is empty and doesn’t understand.  Some have looked to the empty tomb to provide proof that Jesus rose from the dead.  But the empty tomb is no knock down proof of the resurrection of Jesus.  Mary’s example, together with that of Peter earlier in the story, demonstrates that.  Both saw the empty tomb and drew a conclusion that Jesus’ body had been moved.

But nor does the empty tomb allow us to simply dismiss the stories as fanciful and later rationalisations of the internal conviction of the disciples that Jesus was alive. The tomb was empty, something happened.  The empty tomb roots the story of Jesus’ resurrection in something in the course of events.   The empty tomb challenges simple faith and rationalism alike.  The tomb offers neither proof not disproof.  It is simply empty.  There is no explanation.  He is not here. We cannot control God according to our religious or our rational thinking.  We cannot pin down what God has done in raising Jesus from the dead.  The tomb is empty, and no one sees what happened, no one knows how life was restored to the corpse.  The elaborate theories of faith and scepticism alike are silenced by the emptiness of the tomb. 

We do not control God with our minds, and we do not control where God is found.  St John tells us that Mary, as she peered into the tomb saw two angels sitting at the head and feet of where the body of Jesus had been.  As ever in John’s Gospel, there is a deep meaning to this.  (We might take some comfort from the fact that Mary, who was there, didn’t see it!)  The two angels are the two cherubim who sat at either side of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple in Jerusalem.  There it was that God dwelled, at the heart of the Temple.  And now, God is present in the emptiness of the tomb.  God is found in emptiness, in places of suffering and death, in places of persecution and poverty.  God is present in Syria, with the homeless and the hungry.  God is present in our emptiness, even though we’d rather he was present in our fullness.  The pain and the absences in our lives are places where God can be found, but never caged or controlled.

We do not control God with our thinking, nor do we control where God is found.  And we do not control who is invited to share in the good news of the resurrection.  The resurrection does not cancel out the cross, a victory following close after a defeat. Rather the resurrection confirms that the path that Jesus trod to the cross was the right path, the path God called him to follow.  In the resurrection, Jesus whole life is given back to him and to us.  In life Jesus associated with the wrong people, with tax collectors, collaborators, prostitutes, sinners, the unclean, the ill and the despised.  Notably, the one set of people that Jesus did not get on well with were the religious!  In his risen life, these wrong people are still the people to whom

Jesus offers an invitation.  The stone has been rolled away, and the invitation is open to all people.  Christianity has its origins in a radically inclusive openness to all people.  Yet the church has made itself exclusive in all kinds of different ways.  As the hymn puts it: “we make His love too narrow/ by false limits of our own;/ and we magnify His strictness/ with a zeal He will not own.”  The empty tomb, its stone rolled away, challenges us to open ourselves and our church to all those whom the Lord is calling.

We do not control God with our thinking; we do not control where God is found; we do not control who is invited to share in the good news; and we do not control how we respond.  It is comforting and safe to have rules and regulations.  But we do not control God by following religious rules – I’ve prayed so hard, God must do what I ask.  Nor does God control us by giving us rules to follow and a clear set of consequences for when we keep the rules and when we break them.  Instead, God invites us to a far more challenging thing – he invites us into a relationship.  The love poetry that is the Song of Solomon, full of erotic imagery and passionate language, is in the Bible to remind us just that.  We are invited into a relationship with God, which is far more challenging than following any rules.  We are called to fall in love with God, to fall in love with life.  We are to share in all the joys and the pains of this and see where it takes us.  Easter is not a message to obey; Easter is a message, a life, to be lived.  We do not control God, nor does God control us – rather he invites us into this risen life, into his love, to live fully and wholeheartedly.

We do not control God.  The empty tomb bears witness to this.  It breaks our intellectual categories, it presents us with God where we do not expect or want him.  Its door is open to all the wrong sort of people, even us.  And it invites us to a passionate relationship of love and life.  The stone has been rolled away; the tomb is empty.  God in Jesus bursts out of all our attempts to control and cage him.  As we celebrate in joy this Easter, let us open our hearts and lives to live the Easter Gospel of an uncontrollable God who invites us to share his life.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.
He is risen indeed, Alleluia.

Given at Derby Cathedral 20.4.14.

Friday, April 18, 2014


A homily for Wednesday of Holy Week

“It was night.”   “Now is the son of Man glorified.”

It was night when Judas left to betray Jesus.  The lure of the thirty pieces of silver calling him from table.

It was night when Peter denied Jesus, the warmth of a fire the only comfort until cock-crow.

It was night when Jesus was born, the light of the world come into darkness.  But people loved darkness rather than light.

It was night when Jesus died – the sky blackened with cloud, the creation mourning the death of the Son.

It was night when the soldiers came, breaking into the house, seizing the women, killing the men.  Casualties of the darkness of the brutal war in Syria.

It was night when the young woman lay in the doorway.  A failed relationship, benefits that won’t be received until next week, no council housing available.  A doorway, a sleeping bag and a box are shelter and warmth for now.

It was night when they kissed and checked into a hotel.  Wives, husbands, children pushed into the dark recesses of the mind.  Betrayal that doesn’t feel like it until the morning after.

It is night where we are.  The half-truths we tell ourselves and others.  The parts of life we like to hide.  Complicities, betrayals, wounds to ourselves, damage to others, guilt and despair, insecurity and fear.  There is night in us.

It was night for Judas.  It was night for Peter.  It is night in our world.  There is night in us.

It was night when Jesus, the light of the world, announces “Now the Son of Man has been glorified”.

In the morning Peter sits with Jesus on the beach.  Do you love me, asks Jesus, three times.  Peter, hurt but forgiven, is given the space to repair his love.

In the morning Judas refuses the light, and flees for the dark of despair.  He throws down the money, shouts at the priests, flings down his life in defiance.

In the morning, Jesus the light of the world, is brought to new life.  Not to cancel out the cross, but to show that the cross is the place where light and hope and God were hung.  The light of the world is offered still, light in the darkness, light in the daytime, light that brings judgement, light that brings hope, light that brings forgiveness.

In the morning of our world there is judgement.  Those who kill and abuse and defraud are dragged into the light of justice, and must face what they have done.
In the morning of our world there is hope, hope for rebuilding, hope for shelter and care, hope for fullness of life.

In the morning of our world there is forgiveness.  Always hard won, but creating possibilities for love and life.

Morning in our world comes at different times for different people.  No gradual breaking of dawn from east to west, but a haphazard lottery of place and time.  But morning comes.

Morning comes when there is justice for the hurt and the oppressed.

Morning comes when there is shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry.

Morning comes when the truth is spoken, however uncomfortable that is.

Morning comes when the path of faithfulness is chosen over an attractive betrayal.

Morning comes when pain and hurt are brought for forgiveness and for healing.

Peter comes to the light, embracing it and facing his denial.

Judas refuses the light, and hides from it in despair.

Jesus is the light, and remains light in the darkest moment of the cross.

We long for the morning.  But in us there is night.

We bring our night to the altar, and hold and taste the bread given to the betrayer.
The light of the world is in us, even in our night.  The light of the world is with us even in our betrayals.

Let us come to the light, seeking him even in our darkness.

Let us come to the light, unmasking our painful hidden truths.

Let us come to the light, offering our wounds for healing.

Let us come to the light, opening ourselves to others and to God.

Let us come to the light, where there is hope, forgiveness, life.

“It was night.”  “Now is the Son of Man glorified.”


Given at Derby Cathedral.  16.4.14.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sue Townsend - A Mole and a human

I was very sad to learn of the death of Sue Townsend.  A self-taught writer, who knew life through hard and good alike, she was a great figure in the literary canon.  Her humour was her strongest asset, and through humour she could be touching or deeply political.  Her novel about the royal family showed her republicanism, but the touching way that she wrote about the Queen showed a humanity that underlay everything that she wrote.  The last novel of hers that I read was The Woman who went to Bed for a Year: a satire on contemporary society, a telling comedy of relations between the sexes, and an apologetic for suburban Britain, and just damned funny.  I remember listening to her on Test Match Special, speaking of her love for cricket, her blindness and her writing.  There was no self-pity, but a warmth that shone through all her trials.

Above all, Sue Townsend was known for Adrian Mole, and I can't be the only one who will mourn Adrian's death as well as Sue Townsend.  When I first encountered Adrian he was 13 ¾.  I was a little younger, but growing into Adrian's world.  I learnt a lot of life skills from Adrian's secret diary (mostly by not doing what Adrian did!) and also laughed a lot.  Adrian re-surfaced in my late twenties, with his take on Blair's Britain.  I learned less, but probably laughed more.  Adrian Mole, through the several volumes of his diaries, is one of the great social and political commentators of the late twentieth century.  Think Tony Benn but funnier.  The compassion with which Sue Townsend wrote Adrian Mole, meant that she was one of the great teachers of sexual politics to adolescent boys of my generation.  Adrian's bad poetry, his fumbling attempts to woo Pandora, his high level of self-consciousness, and his desperate need for love made him funny.  What made him lovable was that he was all of this while dealing with real life problems from his parents extra-marital affairs to caring for his own children. 

Sue Townsend was that admirable and quite wonderful thing - she was human.  I shall miss Adrian Mole, but I am glad to have enjoyed Sue Townsend's work for its sheer humanity.  Adrian once wrote of his early attempts at shaving that he was glad to see a reassuring quantity of stubble around the sink when he finished.  I still think of that as I shave in the morning.  Thank God for Sue Townsend and all she gave us.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Simplicity and Depth

Review of Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (SPCK, 2014)

There are those who complain about Rowan Williams’ writing and suggest that he can’t write simply. Mostly those people are journalists, lazy, reading the wrong stuff, or some combination of these.  This book decisively gives the lie to the complaint.  It is a model of clarity and something to put in the hand of those beginning to explore what it is to be Christian.  I plan to give it to someone being confirmed this Easter.

The four chapters each tackle a basic element of Christian life, just as the subtitle has it.  From their origins in talks at Canterbury Cathedral, these chapters have been edited for the page and retain most of their freshness and clarity.  They are full of enlightenment and practical insight.

For me the opening and closing chapters (on baptism and prayer respectively) are the best moments of the book.  In baptism, we learn that we are dipped into the suffering and death of Jesus.  Baptism recalls the chaos that preceded creation, when the Spirit brooded over the waters.  The renewed humanity that we are given in baptism is one that is associated with chaos, and to be baptised is to be in the vicinity of chaos.  For Williams, on the basis of baptism, “you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy” (p. 4).  And Christians are also in touch with their own chaos.  To be baptised is not to be superior to other people, but we are baptised into a deep solidarity with others.  And it is to be a sinner who doesn’t panic, but who relies on the depth of God’s love into which we are immersed.  This is a rich account of baptism, but not an inaccessible one.

One prayer, Williams turns to Christian history and to Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian.  But this is not a lesson in patristic theology, it is a very practical account of prayer and praying the Lord’s Prayer.  From Origen, Williams speaks of the way that prayer forms part of the whole of the Christian’s life; from Gregory, he learns that prayer is about healing relationships; and from Cassian, that prayer is what God does in us more than anything we do.  All this is surrounded by very practical advice: prayer can be done anywhere; silence and stillness matters; be freqyuent and brief; have a formula of words to return you to concentration.  Williams concludes that “Prayer is your promise and pledge to be there for the God who is there for you. And that, essentially, is where prayer for the Christian begins and ends” (p. 81).

This short book opens itself easily to the reader, it is full of simple and practical wisdom about the Christian life, and it floats on the depth of prayerfulness and wisdom that is our former Archbishop.  Highly recommended!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

We are Lazarus

A Sermon for Passion Sunday
Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-4

“I am the Resurrection and the life.”  These are words of promise and hope.  They are the first words of the funeral service. “I am the Resurrection and the life.”  Here we see Jesus at his most powerful, commanding the dead man to live again.  But we also see him at his most vulnerable, weeping for the death of his friend.  “I am the Resurrection and the life.”  This is a story about freedom, but it is only a story about freedom because it brings us face to face with despair, judgment and death. 

“I am the Resurrection and the life.”  Jesus arrives in Bethany at a time of despair.  It is too late.  There was a folk belief that the soul lingered in the body for three days, but four days have passed since Lazarus died.  All hope, even of miracles, has gone.  Did Martha know that Jesus delayed his coming? There might be more vitriol in her telling Jesus that “if you have been here my brother would not have died” if she did.  Jesus, it seems, withholds himself from the place where he is needed.  When he arrives, it is into the midst of despair. Lazarus is dead.  Hopes and dreams are no more.

When have we known despair?  Because I think we do know despair.  There are times and places when we have been brought to a complete halt, floored by something that leaves us seemingly with nowhere to go.  The death of a loved one.  The end of a job.  The break down of a relationship.  And more.  Our world ends and we know despair.  And we rail against God and Jesus.  Where were they? Why has God permitted this?  “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Martha’s complaint is one we know well, and we share her suspicion that Jesus has delayed and that has made things worse.

“I am the Resurrection and the life.”  Spoken in a place of despair.  As his conversation with Martha goes on, Jesus seems to give cold comfort.  He speaks good religious platitudes, “Your brother will rise again.”  And Martha, perhaps coldly, gives the good religious answer, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  The last day, a long way off, the day of judgement.  And Jesus turns the conversation in a new direction. “I am the Resurrection and the life,” he says.  Jesus, as John’s Gospel has been keen to tell us throughout, is judgement.  Here he claims that judgement to himself.  And he is also life, life in all its fullness.  Life which is inescapably linked to judgment.  Bringing Lazarus out of the tomb is life and it is judgement.

Judgement is something we fear.  And all too often, so is life.  Life is raw, holding us up to the light of reality, marking us harshly.  We fail life’s judgement, hiding as cowards from all that is dark; contributing to the misery and pain of others and of ourselves.  Moses set before his people two ways: the way of life which leads to blessing and the way of death which leads to curse (Deut. 31).  The choice seems obvious, but how often we choose the curse.  Resurrection brings us up against this brightly burning life.  It burns away from us all that leads to death and to curse.  Painfully, we are offered life once again, life that brings blessing.

“I am the Resurrection and the life.”  Words of judgement, spoken in a place of despair.  They are words that speak of life, but words that lead to death.  Today we enter Passiontide, when the focus of our Lenten observance shifts from the wilderness to the cross.  It may seem odd to mark that shift with a reading that tells of Resurrection and new life.  Our reading ends on a positive note, with many believing in Jesus.  But the story of the raising of Lazarus does not end there.  I urge you to read the whole of chapter 11 of St John’s Gospel over the coming week, as part of your preparation for Holy Week.  Immediately after the end of our reading today, we learn that the religious authorities, fearful of Jesus, the crowds and the Romans, decide that enough is enough and that he must be killed.  The high priest, who St John tells “prophesied” (John 11.51) in giving his verdict, says that “it is expedient that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11.50).  In bringing life to Lazarus, Jesus brings sentence of death on himself.

We too know this expediency.  Whether it is the cheap tabloid scapegoating of the poor or the immigrants, or our own blaming of politicians, those in authority, or the media.  We know how difficult it can be to take the lonely road of standing up for the weak and the picked upon.  We know the fear of choosing goodness and life for others, only to bring pain and death on ourselves.  The road to life goes through death, not around it. We know this, and we try not to know it.

“I am the Resurrection and the life.”  Words that bring death, words of judgement, words spoken in a place of despair.  But these are Gospel words, words of good news, words of freedom.  “Lazarus, come out,” cries Jesus, and stumbling, struggling with his shroud, Lazarus leaves the tomb.  “Unbind him and let him go” Jesus tells those who watch. 

Lazarus, tied up by all that would still bind him to death and the tomb, stumbling and needing to be set free, Lazarus is us.  We still know the despair that binds us, immobilizes us and leaves us for dead.  We still dread the judgement that the light outside brings.  So we turn from life, preferring the comforting darkness of the tomb.  We know the fear of standing for life and the ease of finding another to blame.  We are tied up by all of this, bound in grave cloth, locked in a tomb.  And Jesus calls us out, and stumbling and struggling we Christian pilgrims are in the process of leaving the tomb.  We are Lazarus, still bound by death, still struggling with our bonds, but called into new life. 

Throughout Lent, our disciplines are there to help us face the despair, the judgement, and the death that bind us and keep us from following the call of Jesus to leave the tomb.  In our disciplines, we ease the bindings and try to take another step out of the tomb.  As we now enter Passiontide, we see that this path is the path that Jesus has already walked.  Despair, judgement, death – these are the features of the story that will unfold as we follow Jesus on the way of the cross.  It is only through despair, judgement and death that the freedom of resurrection comes.  Because we are bound by these things, tied into death by them, we cannot step into life until we are untied.  This Passiontide, and at every Eucharist, we are brought into the death of Jesus.  Here we will find the loosening of our bonds that we can hear Jesus’ call to come out, and stumble one more step out of the tomb and into life.  Amen.

Given at the Chapel of St Mary on the Bridge, Derby 6.3.14.