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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Christ the King: Coersive power/Crucified power

This is my first sermon after last week’s vote in the General Synod that saw off - for now - the resolution to ordain women as bishops in the Church of England.  As many of you know, I am a fervent advocate of female bishops for reasons of theology, history and justice. So I won’t deny that I am more disappointed than I can say.  This is not the place to go into the whys and wherefores: you can read my blogs if you wish. However, on this feast of Christ the King, I believe we all need to gather to acknowledge the sovereignty of the one who is on the throne, and whom we all worship, follow and serve whatever side of this debate we find ourselves on.  There are memories to be healed today, and the eucharist of our risen Lord is the right place for us all to be as his loyal subjects and faithful friends. 


After Jesus has fed the crowd, John says that he hid himself ‘because they were about to take him by force to make him king’.  On the day we celebrate Christ the King, the gospel tells us that this is precisely the title Jesus refuses!  And not only here but throughout John’s Gospel. Of all the titles of Jesus, John seems to say, it’s the one most susceptible to misuse.  When Nathaniel is the first to recognise Jesus as a man like no other, he says: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ And Jesus’ responds by telling Nathaniel not to make too much of it: ‘do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these’.  And this understated way of using Old Testament kingship language pervades the whole gospel.  Jesus distances himself from popular acclaim as if to say: you have your ideas about what kingship means; but I will show you another way.  So he contrasts the shepherd-kings of Israel and Judah who abused and betrayed their trust with the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The messianic ruler, entering his city on a donkey to palm branches and shouts of hosanna turns out to be the Teacher and Lord who washes feet. 

When Pilate says to him in the passion story, ‘so you are a king then?’ he replies, ‘this is your word, not mine.  But if this is the language you insist on using, I had better explain carefully what it does and doesn’t mean’.  ‘My kingdom is not from this world’ he begins.  He is saying that there is a world of difference between kingship as mortals set it up and the divine character of God’s rule.  Jesus’ kingship comes from another source entirely.  It is stronger than any earthly power.  It endures when all other kingdoms have crumbled to dust.  But not everyone can see it, still less welcome and embrace it. 

This is not the kind of rule Pilate knows about.  His is the world of power politics and coercive force.  But what Jesus is speaking about comes from a different place. ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.’  Power and violence are not very far apart in most societies, whether it is the Rome of Pilate, the Jerusalem of the zealots, or the Babylon of Belshazzar’s feast.  Jesus emphatically rejects a kingship built on them. His reign is based on a different premise, what he calls the ‘truth’.  What does it mean to be citizens of this kingdom of truth?  This is what Jesus goes on to explain to Pilate.  ‘For this was I born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’.  In the upper room, Jesus has spoken of himself as the truth, the truth that sets free.  Truth, in the way Jesus means it, scrutinises how we see ourselves.  It’s an uncomfortable judgment upon us all, for truth has implications for all that belongs to ‘human empire’: the governance of nations, the leadership of society the management of institutions, and all that belongs to the life of every human being.

Jesus has come to testify to the truth.  This is why we must not be seduced by power.  Even in the church we easily fall prey to lazy notions of victory and triumph.  For some churches it is elaborate building projects; for others it is church growth and success in outreach and evangelisation.  Or we talk the language of politics, winning or losing the argument over female bishops, and still the categories are of human power in its assertive, adversarial mode. We begin to think that we can grow or build or extend God’s kingdom with our own hands.  Yet Jesus teaches us that the kingdom is God’s act, not ours.  We must be open to it, embrace it, live out its values, but we can never bring it about.  In places like this we must be especially vigilant against triumphalism.  The Normans built Durham’s castle and Cathedral as a sign of their conquest of the Saxons of the north country.  That subjugation meant terrible attrition, the notorious harrying of the north.  In the Cathedral the prince-bishops erected the highest throne in Christendom.  It all sits uncomfortably alongside St John’s image of the Christ who washes the feet of his disciples and goes out to die. 

How is the human power embodied in places such as this stronghold redeemed then?  One answer is, in the shrine of the man who was remembered on this peninsula for his Christ-like humility and truth-seeking holiness.  Cuthbert is its conscience, the key to its spirituality, the antidote to triumphalism.  This is how his beloved St John saw things, for one of the identifying marks of the church for him is truth.  Truth-telling, in the sense of open, honest unafraid relationships, is part of being ‘aligned’ to truth. ‘Truth-telling’ is an outcome of loving the truth for its own sake, believing that truth is something to stake one’s life on.  I am saying that to be the church in an authentic way, truth-seeking must always be at the core of our endeavour.  It is costly and difficult.  It involves dying to oneself.  Bearing witness to it entails sacrifice. We must not forget that the Jesus who speaks of being ‘from the truth’ is on his way to the cross.

The cross is where this kingdom ‘not from here’ is finally revealed.  Golgotha is the writing on the wall of the world-empires.  There, the fingers of the man’s hand write the fateful words for all to see: that they are numbered, weighed, divided and destined to topple before the coming kingdom of truth and peace.  The cross is the judgment of truth on all falsehood and fantasy.  Jesus says just before his crucifixion: ‘now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out’.  We who want to hear the voice of our king and be his loyal subjects know where we must go.  We will find him not where crowd-pulling signs and wonders are worked, but outside the city wall.  For if he is Christ the King, his heavenly reign is not different from his earthly coronation on Golgotha where, high and lifted up, he is sovereign in a purple robe and crown of thorns.  
Yes, we have been to the place of a Skull.  We have looked on the king we have pierced.  We have seen his glory. 

Durham Castle University College,
Christ the King, 25 November 2012.
Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; John 18.33-37

Letter to the Church Times: Vote on Bishop's Credentials

I have been asked by someone who does not regularly read the Church Times to post on my blog the letter my wife and I wrote to the paper.  This was about their vote on Bishop Justin Welby’s credentials as future archbishop.  Here is our letter together with the reply from the editor, both published on 23 November.  Further comment welcome, but please no voting!

Sir, ‘Does Bishop Welby have the right credentials for Archbishop?  Vote on…’ (News, 16 November).  What purpose can possibly be served by putting this fatuous question to the vote?

The Bishop of Durham is a remarkably gifted leader and Archbishop-designate.  Putting his credentials to a referendum is hardly designed to foster confidence in what we are sure is going to be a distinguished ministry in this complex and demanding post. It would be better, surely, to solicit prayer for him and his family. We thought better of the Church Times than this tabloid behaviour.

Michael and Jenny Sadgrove

Be it fatuous or not, we thought the readers might like an opportunity to express a view on whether an archbishop needs to have been a diocesan bishop for a greater length of time.  A significant yes vote, for example, might help to alter the criteria on which future appointments are made.  Editor.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Praying Twice: Singing the Lord's Song

‘To sing is to pray twice’: that is the title of our service tonight. It’s a beautiful saying of St Augustine. What does he mean?  He is saying that when we sing to God, we are using not one but two kinds of language: the language of words and the language of music. We ‘double up’ in our prayers: not because it will make a difference to how God responds, but because it makes a difference to us: it reinforces our passion, our conviction, our sheer belief that the most important thing we can ever do in life is to offer praise and prayer to our Creator and Redeemer. 

Tonight’s readings underline this message.  In the Old Testament passage from Chronicles, Solomon is dedicating the temple he has built at the behest of his father David.  King David himself was known as ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel’, the king who sang.  He sang to placate his enemy Saul when he was in one of his rages: music has that gift to soothe the soul and David knew it.  But more especially he sang and danced out of sheer joy in the God who had been so good to him.  It gave him a voice to express his boundless love for God without reserve or inhibition – because music also frees the soul and the body to take us to realms that mere words can never transport us to.  So Solomon, at the outset, establishes musicians in the temple to give wings to its worship and to make its praise glorious.  When I was a canon of Coventry Cathedral, I often quoted a phrase from one of my predecessors: ‘worship without music does not easily soar’. It’s clear from Solomon’s cymbals, harps, lyres, trumpeters and singers that transfiguring worship was his priority for the new temple.

The New Testament reading takes us on from the Old. Here, Paul urges the Colossian Christians to ‘sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God’.  It’s not clear whether these were three different kinds of singing or three ways of describing the same thing.  But what is clear is the reason Paul gives for singing to God. He says: ‘with gratitude in your hearts, sing…’  Indeed, there are three references to thanksgiving in that short paragraph. Paul is saying that gratitude is absolutely fundamental not only to singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, not only even to the activity of worship itself, but to all of life.  ‘Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ Linking that with singing, we might say: as we sing, so we are.  If we don’t allow ourselves be carried up to heaven through music and singing, are we truly a people who live and breathe through thankfulness? The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharistia. That is the central act of worship for Christians because thanksgiving lies at the heart of life: gratitude to the God who created and redeemed and sustains us. This is the reality singing gives substance to.  To sing is to thank twice.

So the gospel motivates us to sing because through music, heart speaks to heart, and adoration and love always belong to the heart.  As Beethoven put in his score of the Missa Solemnis, one of the greatest choral works ever composed, ‘From the heart: may it go to the heart’. But whose hearts was he talking about?  Our hearts reaching out to God in song?  Or maybe, just as much, God’s heart reaching out to us in music too.  In Bruce Chatwin’s novel Songlines, the aboriginals of Australia speak about how the world was created through the spirits’ songs, and as we ourselves imitate them, we too bring new worlds into being, tracing new journeys of son across the landscape and bringing them to life in ways undreamed of in our ordinary lives.  What music does is to open up new dimensions and possibilities to being alive. Music can transport us to glimpse a new heaven and a new earth.

I have my own story to tell about this. When I was a teenager I sang with the school’s choral society.  The first work I ever sang as a treble was Mendelssohn’s Elijah and I have had a soft spot for it ever since. But one year we sang Bach’s St John Passion.  My life was not the same after that.  I wrote about it many years later in a book about St John’s story of the crucifixion and death of Jesus which I wrote as a tribute to Bach.  I said that this schoolboy experience was unforgettable.  I knew then that it would change me and it did.  I would not be in this pulpit today if it were not for that spring which played a vital part in my coming to Christian faith. To me it felt not that I was singing Bach’s music to God, but that God was singing it to me, speaking personally to me, waking me up in ways I couldn’t then begin to understand, summoning me to look and see the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross for all creation and for me personally. The words by themselves might not have spoken so directly or powerfully.  But because God was singing them, it was as if he was proclaiming twice over, just as Augustine says that when we sing, we pray twice. I had not quite seen that until I was preparing this sermon for tonight.  But the more I think about it, the more I believe that this is a creative way of putting it.

This service marks the end of this wonderful year of celebration for St Giles’ Church.  So what does tonight’s theme of singing twice say to us as a parish?  Here are some insights I draw from the scriptures.  First: This has been a year of thanksgiving for all God’s goodness to this ancient parish and its people.  But thankfulness does not stop there.  We are called to live out of thankfulness in every aspect of life. Perhaps we could allow this 900th anniversary year to help us practise gratitude in a more committed way, learn how to bless the Lord at all times and in all things.  This is for all of us as a community, and for each of us as individual men, women and children. Thankfulness transforms the way we see the world and ourselves.  It is the secret of contentment, flourishing and having purpose in being alive.  To contemplate the wonderful works of God makes us glad. To sing of them makes us twice as grateful and twice as glad.  We give thanks twice and we pray twice.

Secondly, I hope this parish will continue to invest in the part music plays here in your worship. As you know, it lies at the heart of our mission at the Cathedral: not as an end in itself (though it gives huge pleasure to so many), and not as a contribution to the cultural riches of Durham and the north-east (which it does) but because when we are in tune with angels and archangels, our worship begins to take wings. This alone justifies the great costs of maintaining music in our churches: investment in worship always does.  But we need music to be accessible to many different kinds of people; it should be genuinely inclusive.  At the Cathedral we are trying to learn that not everyone listens to Radio 3.  God speaks on other channels too. 
Thirdly, don’t underestimate the power of song even in dark times when the lamp of hope runs low. To put our prayers into song is to focus attention on God even in times of suffering and pain.  There are more laments in the Psalter than any other kind of psalm: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’: those words were meant to be sung, a remarkable thought since our crucifixions are when we feel least like singing. Perhaps we need to recover the art of lament in our repertoire of song.  The danger is that if religion only consists of upbeat praise and worship songs, we don’t do justice to the realities of being human in a world where suffering afflicts the majority of the human race, and at times grievously afflicts all of us too. How do we ‘pray twice’ and embrace the cruel realities of the pain of the world and the valley of the shadow of death we ourselves, or those close to us, may be walking? How can our song and our prayer express our faith and love when we are baffled and bruised by things?  How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land – the vale of sorrow and sighing and tears?

Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs have the power to change the world and to change us. So let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and above all, sing the kingdom of God so that in all times of our sorrow and in all times of our joy, our hearts may always belong in heaven where Christ is, to whom be praise and honour for ever.

St Giles’ Church Durham, 18 November 2012
(2 Chronicles 5.11-end, Colossians 3.2-end)

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Hope and the Death of Death

It’s good to be with you on All Saints Sunday and to be launching this sermon series on hope. There is an evocative aspect to this time of year as autumn dies into winter, when the light is eclipsed and the first frosts come.  It can be a forlorn season when spirits are low and summer a beautiful but fading memory.  The solstice beckons, and dark times, and perhaps forebodings about what another year may bring: for our world, for our society, for ourselves. 

Yet we know within ourselves that the turning of the year tells a truth about the transience of things, the necessity of dying, our own mortality. The Christian and civic calendars echo this time of fall and of loss with the commemoration of the dead on All Souls’ Day followed by Armistice Day not long after.  Yet the liturgy lays over it a quite different way of construing winter: with the joyful celebration of All Saints, and with the exquisite season of longing and expectancy which is Advent.  Liturgical winter is not only a time for the burning of the leaves but for the rising of the sap; of light penetrating the darkness of this world, of grace and truth ordering our wayward human lives, of love everlasting transfiguring our loneliness, struggle and pain.  It is a time to rediscover hope.

I am sure you agree that hope is in short supply right now.  Like the colliding weather systems that made Hurricane Sandy such an awesome and destructive power across the Caribbean and North America, it is as if many different kinds of turbulence have come together in this decade to make things appear even more precarious than they were before.  I am thinking of the economic chaos whose millions of victims are the voiceless poor and those with least resources to withstand its angry shocks; and of the recognition of how close we are to irreversible climate change; and of the relentless conflicts tearing apart the Arab world; and of the failure of powerful wealthy nations to make lasting inroads into global poverty. I could go on.  If the church can speak a single word into this state we are in, it must surely be hope: daring to look both into ourselves and beyond ourselves for the power to give us back our dignity, rebuild fragmented societies and mend a broken world.

And if hope is needed to transform the big story of the world and its future, it is also needed to transform the little stories of our personal lives and relationships.  I say little: but they are not little to us. Each day many face fightings within and fears without that constitute a powerful undertow dragging us away from the light and immortality for which we were made. Physical or mental illness, ageing, misfortune, broken relationships, addictive behaviour, unhealed memories, loss: these are our personal equivalents of the global threats that on good days we try to pretend are not as bad as we had feared, and on less good days have the capacity to paralyse us with the thought that one day this little light of ours will be put out for ever.

This makes All Saints’ tide all the more of a gift.  At this time of year, the liturgy invites us to celebrate those who were and are lights in the world.  It says to us: notice what fills the pages of history and what is all around you today: the goodness, the graciousness, the joy, the perseverance, the charity of the people we call saints.  Sainthood is not the sentimental whitewashing of a human life to make it seem something that it isn’t.  Nor is it often heroic, as if the only way of holiness is to scale Himalayan peaks of faith, discipline and good works.  The secret lies in the ordinary, the commonplace, the everyday.  Pusey said that sanctity doesn’t mean doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways.  ‘Extraordinary’ means doing them for God, making drudgery divine:  The saints are emblems of hope: because they light little fires in dark rooms and inspire us to go on believing, trusting, hoping against hope in the God who makes all things new as our reading puts it.. 

One of these is death itself, the last enemy that we have faced on All Souls’ Day.  Today’s gospel tells of how Jesus raises Lazarus back to life.  Bethany where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived was a favourite place for Jesus.  There he found what he had had to renounce for the sake of his ministry: friendship, family and foyer, the warmth of care and affection, a place to call home.  So Lazarus’ death is a blow not just for his own family but for Jesus too: ‘see how he loved him’ they say.  St John uses this story as an introduction to his account of the death and resurrection of Jesus that makes up the rest of the gospel.  It’s a kind of visual aid: the man who died and came back from the dead announces what Jesus himself is about to do, only more gloriously, for when Jesus comes back from the dead, all things will begin to become new for he will be alive for ever.

But this beautiful story doesn’t simply illustrate a truth about Jesus crucified and risen in history.  It gives us a picture of what we ourselves are in him: those who have been brought back to life through the power and grace of God.  We are Lazarus, once held by our grave cloths as people who were not yet truly alive, emerging blinking and bewildered out of our tombs into the strong light of day into which the risen Saviour has led us. We are Lazarus, sought out and found by the searching loving grace of God that rolls away the stones that imprison us, opening up amazing new doors of possibility: new life, new purpose, new meaning, new joy, new hope.  This is St John’s message.  It is about how Jesus transforms our lives: like the man born blind who comes to see; like the woman at the well whose thirst is quenched; like the water turned into wine and the bread multiplied on the hillside.  It’s the light shining in the darkness as we shall soon hear in the Christmas gospel, and the darkness never again being able to overcome it. 

And this, I think, is what St John would mean by sainthood.  To be a saint is to live the new life God offers us in Jesus, to find that the ordinariness of work, leisure and relationships becomes something extraordinary because we learn to see God and bless him in it all.  So All Saints is about who and what we are as the people of God, faithfully following Jesus, speaking his words of truth and love, living in the strength of God as points of inspiration and challenge in a world that has so little time for him. The secret is to live out of gratitude for the love of God that made us and redeems us and sustains us. 

At All Saints’ tide, I think of the men, women and children who have lived that way in past ages and have completed their journeys and are now at rest.  I think of those who have loved me into life, influenced me, touched me in important ways, but for whom I would not be here now as a priest, a Christian and a man.  Like Lazarus, who was no-one in particular, simply a friend of Jesus in whom the life-changing power of God made all the difference.  That is why we celebrate that great multitude no-one can number who were faithful unto death, and have now received the crown of life, and in whose company, God willing, we shall one day find ourselves sharing in the vision of God when death shall be no more, neither mourning nor crying nor pain, for the first things have passed away, and the One seated on the throne says: ‘behold, I am making all things new.’. 

Blackburn Cathedral
4 November 2012
(Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44)
The first in a series of sermons at the Cathedral on the theme of hope.