Everything’s Changed! Let the Celebrations Begin! A sermon for Easter Day

On that first Easter Day everything changed. It was their equivalent of Monday morning, the first day of the working week. Back to business as usual. Not. It wasn’t just the earth that cracked open, though it did, as an earthquake struck. It wasn’t just the heavens that cracked open, though they did, as an angel came down. It was time-space itself, the very fabric and logic of the cosmos that cracked open, as creation began again, Creation Two, the beginning of the beginning of the new heaven and the new earth that is God’s good future for the world he loves.

Whatever happened that morning – and something staggering clearly happened or the effect on the followers of Jesus wouldn’t have been so electrifying, and frankly we wouldn’t be here now – whatever it was, it clearly broke the canons of ordinary scientific enquiry. We can hardly repeat the experiment, or classify something that was once, once only and once for all. It’s not to be dissected or up for discussion. Either we shrug our shoulders, and get on with business as usual – and are immeasurably the poorer for it. Or we are stopped in our tracks, and our own life is cracked open too – and who knows what might happen then?

So what did happen, that first Easter Day? The guards froze with fear. Forget the feathery wings and tinsel halos. That seems to be the standard effect angels have on people. Just look how many times their first words to humans are, “Fear not.” I said fear.That in fact is what they say to the women, who are far quicker to wake up to what’s going than the men. Nothing new there. A moment of “Come and see” follows – the eye-witness account is going to be important especially (sorry girls) since women were not considered verb trustworthy at the time. But “Go” follows “Come” very quickly indeed. “Go quickly” in fact. Jesus has broken out of the tomb and is going ahead of them, and their job is to not to catch hold, but to catch on and catch up.

And in case you hadn’t caught on, the whole point of Easter is that it’s an empty tomb. Not much  use standing and staring. The action has moved on.

That starts to cast what we are doing today in church in a very particular way. This if you like is Jerusalem. We’ve made our pilgrimage here, just as a party from the diocese has recently made its pilgrimage to the real Jerusalem. And we like they are changed by what we see. The setting has an effect. The stones of Bethlehem or Calvary still resonate. But even more affecting is the glimpse of the Christ who has just gone ahead of us, his presence still felt, but out of our grasp lest we enshrine him in the sepulchre, a relic not a raising agent, our history not our future.

So if we want to catch on, catch up, catch a slice of the action, it’s to Galilee we must go. And our Galilees are there waiting for us, in our homes, our workplaces, our communities, our sports centres, our food banks, our council chambers. That’s where Christ says he’ll meet us. Church is not our end but our beginning, and the validity of our prayers will be tested by the places to which they take us.

In Suffolk that means lots of things. For people living at Thorndon,near Eye, it is using their new kitchen and toilet to run a community cafe for the whole village. For the people at Badingham, near Framlingham, it is helping provide a playgroup. For people of St Matthew’s in Ipswich it is running a community shop with good second hand clothing, and a laundrette. It’s foodbanks and credit unions, night-shelters and street-pastors, parish nurses and women’s counselling, and so much more I could mention.

So pause now and call those places to mind. Picture Christ there if you can. Pray for the people that he is already with there. Ponder how you can join in with what he wants to do for them. For the God of our pilgrimage calls us in this centenary year as always to be a church without walls, to be with him on the way, to build not just a congregation but a kingdom. Amen. Alleluia, and let the celebrations begin.

Good Scary: a Sermon for Easter Eve

From the moment the Easter candle is lit, it is giving itself way to give light and life to others. That’s what following Jesus is all about. It’s scary.

But do not be afraid! Had you noticed that whenever God or an angel speaks in the Bible, those are often the first words? It’s scary – but good! Bad scary can be horrid. Good safe can be soggy. But good scary can take us places, if we’re up for the ride. And I think the amazing folk who are here tonight to be confirmed are up for it – so what about you? I’m one of nature’s hibernators; give me a good book and a cup of cocoa any time. But somehow God keeps on getting in the way and giving me no choice.

So thank goodness we’re in good company. The women at the tomb are told – you guessed it – “Do not be afraid”, and though they still are, they are filled with joy too and become the first witnesses to the resurrection. And just listen to a list of some of the others who heard those same words: Abraham, Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, Paul, the Twelve, and so it goes on.

We can learn from all of them.

If we’re facing change, new beginnings, new directions like Abraham: Do Not Be Afraid – the Spirit comes to give us new life, and it’s going to be good.

If we’re facing challenge, even conflict like Joshua: Do Not Be Afraid – the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness; it’s a promise.

If we’re facing the charge of a new ministry or work for God like Isaiah or Paul: Do Not Be Afraid – the Spirit comes to give us the gifts and words, and they’re just what we need.

If we’re facing the spiritual equivalent of having a child like Mary (or even really having one) and giving life away to others: Do Not Be Afraid – the Spirit comes to help us bear fruit and it’s fruit that will last.

All this is the work of the one Holy Spirit, the same Spirit by whose power Jesus was raised from the dead. We are sharers in the resurrection. Is that good scary, or what?

He is at work in us, now. And to that the only response is Allleuia, and Amen!

Faith and Wisdom in Science: Hold the Date

2014-04-19 10.12.24

Professor Tom McLeish’s new book on Faith and Wisdom in Science is out now! See if the 30% off code AAFLY6 still works at OUP website.http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198702610.do!

I’ve had the privilege of working with Tom on a series of religion and science conferences at Durham, where he is Professor of Physics and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research – and an all-round great guy too. So I’m delighted that our fine local bookshop Toppings of Ely have just agreed to run one of their author evenings with Tom on Friday 6th June, 7.10 for 7.30 in Ely. Details to follow, but hold the date! This promises to be really good (and there’ll be a glass of wine and discount on the book too in return for you ticket).

  • Read on below for a taste of what is to come…

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Blossom at Bungay

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I forgot to post these pictures of Bungay’s two ancient churches, which I visited when our staff were on retreat nearby. Holy Trinity (left) is the parish church, with one of those marvellous Saxon/Norman round towers and (visible from the outside only) the remains of an original window from the same time with its narrow slit-like opening to keep the weather out and wide splay to let the light in. St Mary’s (right) was a substantial priory church, now cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. Inevitably the inside is rather spartan now, but most moving for me was the equivalent of the list of vicars, which here of course was a list of prioresses. So good to see those forgotten female names! Both churches are kept open for prayer, and today would be an ideal one to call in and say one.

Young people stepping forward to be clergy of the future

The Economist carries a report on growing numbers of young people choosing to train for ordination in the Church of England, with 113 candidates in their 20s training last year. One curate quoted says working as a priest is a “distinctive alternative” for people disillusioned with how much of modern Britain is run.

We’re really up for welcoming new young ordinands into our ranks in Suffolk. In fact, I think they are going to be a vital part of our future. If this report and God’s nudgings this Easter are leading you to wonder whether “It could be you” then I’d like to you to get in touch with me at bishops.office@cofesuffolk.org and we’ll take it from there.

Easter Message

The thing that really shook people was that the tomb was empty. No-one had stolen the body. It was definitely dead. But Jesus wasn’t there. And when the disciples did meet him, it was as a very live person indeed who told them to get a move on and get a life because he was going ahead of them to Galilee and would see them there. Not to stand looking wistfully back, but to get on the front foot living out his mission to bring good news to the world.

So Easter gives the church its marching orders. At last spring is here, the parks are full of people again, we’re meeting up with friends and family, and everything is coming to life. And I love to hear the stories of how churches little and large across the county are getting out too and making a difference for good and for God in their local communities. Bringing a bit of Easter to Everywhere.

Because remember. The punch line of the story is that it’s an empty tomb. Jesus doesn’t stay dead. Locked away in some sort of spiritual museum. He is up and out, and already ahead of us, waiting to meet us in our homes, our workplaces, our sports clubs, our shopping centres. Waiting to breathe his new sort of life into our old ones, help us start over, and make the world a better place for us all.

We’re in our Centenary year now as the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, a diocese specially created to serve Suffolk a hundred years ago and still in the business of serving Suffolk’s communities now. We’ve taken Pilgrims in Time as our theme, and that gives us a great excuse to go out on pilgrimage ourselves, to special places abroad like the Holy Land, but also out and about in our own county as well. We’ve published a book about A Hundred Treasures in our local churches and I know many people are seeing if they can get round and see them all.

But we’ve also teamed up with the Suffolk Community Foundation to launch a special Centenary Fund to help churches and their communities build treasure for the future – setting up community projects, adapting buildings for better use, helping people pull together for the common good. It’s an endowment fund, so give now and the benefit will be felt for generations to come.

Above all though, let’s all get out and live the story of Jesus, and be his good news in our own generation. And if you’ve got a moment, I’d love you to let me know what you’re up to. It’s so encouraging when we share our stories, and discover that despite the doom and gloom there’s lots going on, just as when I drop into a village church and find that the ancient exterior is hiding some exciting community activity that is right up to date and making a real difference. So here’s three cheers and an Alleluia for death crossed out, life that’s worth the living, and an amazing year to look forward to.

See the report at http://www.eadt.co.uk/news/suffolk_church_celebrates_easter_with_centenary_fund_launch_to_help_communities_1_3561999

Sermon at the Chrism Eucharist, Maundy Thursday 2014 at St Edmundsbury Cathedral


Luke 7.36-50

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The gospel today is the story of an unilateral act of love. The Pharisees challenge Jesus’ status as a prophet, but do not even consider that the woman, Mary perhaps, might be acting prophetically too. She sees in her Spirit the outrageous, unilateral love of God in Christ that will take him to the cross, to death and beyond. And this evokes and empowers in her a response of equally outrageous and unilateral love that saves her, and turns the world of her accusers upside down.

We are called to be now as that woman was then. We are called and called again in the daily out working of our ministries to make unilateral acts of love like hers. Acts of love very often symbolised by the same physicality of sacramental touch as hers. Anointing, baptising, confirming, ordaining, healing, the holy communion. Or just a simple hand on a shoulder.

When we love like this, we are calling people into Christ’s love and light, into Christ’s community and communion, into Christ’s ministry and mission. And whether you translate those into the Church of England’s quinquennial goals, the Archbishop’s personal priorities, the roots, shoots and fruits I bang on about, or the likely themes of a diocesan strategy for the future, it all comes down to the same underlying living out of the love of Christ, without limits or conditions.

Nothing could be more exhilarating than such a calling. And nothing could be more exhausting. That’s why the clerical life comes out top, on the one hand, on job satisfaction surveys. But why on the other we give a very wry smile when we read them. The simple truth is that without Christ’s own touch on us, such a calling cannot be sustained. Without the touch of his love the exhilaration will inflate our own ego. Without the touch of his love the exhaustion will empty our heart. It is at heart his ministry not ours. Thank goodness. Thank God.

So it’s no wonder if people think we must be a bit touched to be a priest or a preacher. Indeed we must, and more than a bit. You probably know that the phrase about “being a bit touched” originally meant having had a touch from the gods, which made you mad. Sometimes it may feel like that, but God’s gift to us is actually the touch of Christ which makes us whole.

Can you call to mind the times of touch you have already known? Can you get back in touch with the call of Christ to you?

As you ponder, have a look at the painting on the back of today’s service sheet. I’ve been speaking on the story of Cross in art this week. It’s an interest that goes back to a sabbatical I had about ten years ago now, when I not only looked at older religious art, but made a point of meeting some living artists too – and amongst them Helen Meyer who painted the picture you’re looking at. 

imageWhat does the painting suggest to you? What do you see? For me, the thing that stands out most is the sense of touch. The tenderness and sadness of the touch of John and Mary on Christ – and strangely of his body on them and of his hands towards the world – draw me too into the touch, as if I was there with them.

Meyer is in her eighties now. She lost her brother in the invasion of France near Caen in 1944 when she was just 14, and she said that the  memory of that loss surfaced strongly when was she was painting this scene, with the verse from Luke chapter 2.35, that Mary’s child was set “for the fall and rising of many in Israel; and a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” Fall and rising, birth and death – there is an ambiguity in Simeon’s words to Mary, and an ambiguity too in this painting. It seems to be poised between death and life – that moment of stillness around which the universe turns, the moment of equilibrium when fall finally ends and rising can begin again.Lines from T S Eliot’s Four Quartets pour into my mind. 

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Christ on the Cross is the touching place of the divine and the human, the eye of the needle through which all history must pass. The great power of Helen Meyer’s painting is to present that moment in such a way that it draws us into it, and makes for us a touching place too, to which we can take all our unresolved issues and aching agonies. Words from John Bell of the Iona Community’s modern song make a very modern commentary on the picture:

Feel for the parents who’ve lost their child,
Feel for the women whom men have defiled,
Feel for the baby for whom there’s no breast,
And feel for the weary who find no rest.

To the lost Christ shows his face;
To the unloved he gives his embrace;
To those who cry in pain or disgrace,
Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place.

Bell pulls no punches, nor should he: but however hard the blow, Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place. “I call you friends,” he says to us. As for Christ’s sake and in Christ’s name we touch the barely touchable, we are touched by Him, or – better – become aware of His touch that was always with us, but to which we had become calloused.

I will always remember, myself, the time when my wife Jean touched what for me was untouchable, and left me with an open wound that will never let me ignore the challenge it brings. We lived on the tramps’ highway between Coventry and Oxford. One dark night a regular called for shelter. We had a chapel room kitted out for such occasions, but the smell of the poor man’s feet could not be ignored. Jean peeled off his shoes, then his socks, and with them as it seemed part of his feet as well. He was in a desperate state. We took him to a hostel next day: I fear he was not long for the road, or for life.

You too, in your ministry, will have been taken and will be taken to your boundaries and beyond them, and there, as you touch a new reality, will be Christ’s touching place for you. We have our treasure in earthenware vessels; but though we are afflicted in every way, we are not crushed; though perplexed, not driven to despair; though persecuted, not forsaken; though struck down, never destroyed.

For this is Christ’s ministry not ours. 

And in the words of Vanstone’s beautiful poetic hymn to love’s endeavour and love’s expense, he is God, whose arms of love Aching, spent the world sustain.