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

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas: taking the long view

Four days ago it was midwinter, solstice day. Here in this Cathedral, the brightest days are not in high summer but in deepest winter when the sun shines almost horizontally into the building and illuminates the vaults from below. For the few days on either side of the shortest day, you are not aware of any change in the sun’s altitude. But as the calendar comes full circle, the light begins to lengthen: ever so slowly at first, but perceptibly. It takes time for it to make a real difference. But we know it is happening. The light and warmth will return. The cycle begins once more.

Since ancient times, Christmas Day has been linked to the natural rhythms of earth and sky and nature. Like the Roman Saturnalia that celebrated the birth of sol invictus, the unconquered sun a few days after the solstice, Christians rejoiced in the birth of the Sun of Righteousness who had risen with healing in his wings. As they did this at the darkest time of the year, they experienced a surge of hope because of the one who would come, this promised dawn that prophets and seers had looked forward to, this long awaited Messiah and Saviour of the World. They longed for a sunrise of wonder. And now, the great Sun is shedding his great light on people who walked in darkness. The world begins to be bathed in it, coaxed into life, turning back towards the source of grace and truth.

The midwinter festivities that our Christmas customs owe so much to were never an end in themselves. Their point was to keep the precious light alive during a season of darkness and death. The rituals looked forward to the return of life in the springtime, the greening of the earth once more, the gift of fertile fields and orchards, the warmth of summer and the fruits of the harvest. In other words, the middle of winter opened up a long view, took a perspective on another new year.

And so must Christmas be about more than just today, wonderful though it is. Throughout Advent we have reached out for that dawn that will herald the end of all that is wrong in the world. We have learned how to take the long view, see how our lives are part of something greater. That something is what God wants to do with this universe, how he wants to end its sorrows and its pain. He has set eternity in our hearts and puts that same longing within all of us. So as Advent yields to Christmas, it is not that we come to the end of a journey. Far from it: we are launched on a voyage of faith and hope, full of confidence in the God whom we see in the baby of Bethlehem. That tiny, cherished life is like the precarious light of the sun at midwinter. How easily it could be snuffed out, as Herod tried to do in his massacre of the innocent children. But we know that light and love will not be extinguished. Because of Christmas, they are here to stay: His name is ‘God with us’, Jesus our Immanuel, says our reading.

This year we recall the Christmas Truce 100 years ago today that was kept by enemy soldiers along the Western Front. That outbreak of peace was extraordinary and unexpected, when men shared food and drink, showed one another photos of their loved ones, kicked balls around and sang carols together. It must have felt like a gift from heaven amid the mud, the slaughter, the smell of fear: perhaps a bit like a tiny solstice when the guns were silenced, and the sun was permitted to rise again into the clear air and shine into dark and murky places, and hardened men gazed into the sky and heard the birds sing and dreamed about a better world.

That was all for a while, an all too brief interval in a terrible war. It was only a truce. But Christmas can feel like that, in a world where there seems to be terror on every side with so little prospect of an end to suffering and pain; or when life feels unbearably hard or our personal demons haunt us. We can treat Christmas like a short-lived truce, when we are permitted not to peer over the horizon for fear of what we might see that could take away our merriment. But Christmas is not a truce, not if we take the long view. If we truly take in what we are celebrating today, God here among us in the infant Jesus, it changes our entire perspective on life. It is God’s sunrise on an old and weary earth, his promise to banish the shadows of our existence. If we can only see it, the Sun is rising upon us. In Jesus’ birth, the whole of time enters a new era. Our little lives take on an eternal significance because we know now that God cares for each of us. The solstice of dark and despair has passed. The Light of the World has come, the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness can never overcome the Great Light that enlightens every human being who has ever been and will ever live.  

The watchword of the Christmas story is, ‘Do not be afraid’. This is how the angel spoke to the shepherds while it was still night. All is dark, though I imagine the morning star shining brightly in the night-sky. Yet the angels sing, and the shepherds hear; they shed their fear and run to the manger to see this thing that has come to pass. And, says St Luke, when they have taken in the sight that awaits them, Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger, when they have seen this light shining out of a little tiny Child, and bowed low and worshipped him, they return ‘with great joy’ for all the things that they have heard and seen. In St Matthew, the angel comes to Joseph in a dream, while he slept, so we assume that this appearance too was by night. The message is the same: ‘do not be afraid’ for Mary’s child will be the salvation of the world. To be touched by an angel is to be touched by heaven itself. It puts life in a wholly new perspective. It gives back our long view because at once, life becomes worth living again. There is hope and expectation and joy. We come, we see, we are transfigured.

This can be true for all of us here today. We are here to celebrate Christmas once more and adore the new-born King. Some of us have been doing this all our lives. For some of us perhaps it is a first time. But might we all hear it as if for the first time, rekindle the wonder we saw in the faces of the children who thronged here ten days ago for the Blessing of the Crib? Could a bolt be shot back within us, a door opened, a light break in upon our darkness and our need? Could our wintry hearts be reawakened as the solstice passes and the sun begins to rise within us? Could Christmas change our lives for ever? Could it touch the life of our broken world?

I am appealing to all of us: take the long view of Christmas. See it as the start of something wonderful when angels tell us not to be afraid because of the day that is dawning. And if we find that life is never the same again, it redoubles our efforts to live differently, less selfishly, more truthfully, more kindly, because we are inspired by the spirit of Christmas. We need to believe that changed lives can change history, point to that better world the soldiers glimpsed during that Christmas truce. When the season turns, the solstice is past and the Sun rises upon us, we learn to see things by the new light of lengthening days. Our Advent longings were not misplaced. He has come as he promised, God with us. We meet him, we greet him, we bless him, we understand, we hope, we celebrate, we love. Fear is gone. We know that our joy at his birth will last for ever. 

Durham Cathedral, Christmas Day 2014 (Matthew 1.18-25)

Nativity - 2014 Style

Many of you will have been to a school nativity play this Christmas. I wonder what you found? The answer isn’t as obvious as it should be. Some schools have changed ‘Christmas’ to ‘winter festival’ (like the illuminated sign on our town hall – once upon a time it used to say Happy Christmas too, but despite my best efforts, it’s now Seasons Greetings – without even so much as an apostrophe!). In most nativities, Mary and Joseph are still there, because the appeal of childbirth is universal. But instead of angels, shepherds and wise men, you may well find other characters crowding the stage: aliens from Star Wars, punk fairies, football celebrities, drunken spacemen, a lobster. And where the infant Christ should be, some more modern messiah such as Elvis Presley. 

You don’t believe me? I’m afraid it’s true. Welcome to Nativity 2014-style. It seems we are losing confidence in the festivals our country has observed for centuries. Many of our friends of other religious faiths tell us not to lose confidence. They want us not to forget Britain’s deep Christian roots. Some Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, join in out of respect for our native culture, or because they honour Jesus as prophet of a great world faith. But I read a news item recently telling us that in some schools, teachers are afraid of causing offence by talking to children about Jesus’ birth. ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ asks the song. Apparently not: a worrying proportion of youngsters, when asked, could not name the child in the manger or his parents.

You haven’t come to church on Christmas Eve to hear a rant from the pulpit. You’ve come for the same reason that the shepherds left their flocks and the wise men travelled so far: to see what it means, this good news of great joy for all people. And if there’s one thing that strikes us in the Christmas stories, it’s how good news brings not just happiness but a new confidence,  because life has meaning again, there is a purpose in things and it’s worth being alive after all. ‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’ They were changed by what they had experienced.

We mustn’t be sentimental about the nativity. When Jesus was born, the world was as troubled and insecure as it is today. Nations were in turmoil like they are now. Life was cheap. No-one cared too much about this or any other humble family on a pointless journey. ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ this Infant would say when he grew up. Mary and Joseph had plenty to worry about on Christmas night, for who would give house-room to a mother about to give birth far from home? They were not quite like today’s homeless or asylum keepers yet the story gives us a feeling for them as people who were dependent on the kindness of strangers. 

The shepherds, too, were men without security or future, for in their time they were little regarded, a kind of underclass of the ancient world. So in a way, the Christmas story is a gathering of nobodies. The child, the parents, these first witnesses – none of them belonged to places where important people notice and pay attention. Yes, others more rich and powerful would come in time to worship this King, but not yet and not here in this lowly cave. That is St Matthew’s story, not Luke’s. 

This is why it’s decidedly odd to fill the nativity scene with celebrities and stars. It just misreads the story. I’ve nothing against Elvis and his blue suede shoes – I wear them myself sometimes - but they don’t belong in a crude manger with ox and ass and swaddling clothes. The stars belong not there but in the night sky where the angels sing ‘glory to God in the highest’. It’s the nameless and ignored to whom the Son of God is first made known. No wonder that the shepherds walk tall as they go back to the fields, for who else in the history of the world has ever seen what they have just seen?

If only we could recapture that nativity! In his poem ‘The Oxen’, Thomas Hardy goes in his imagination to the crib at midnight on Christmas Eve, ‘hoping it might be so’. I think that rings true for many people. Some come to church at Christmas out of childhood nostalgia. But I want to take our motives more seriously than that. I believe there are many who are touched by Christmas, stirred by this story of a new beginning, genuinely longing for the message to be true and for it to make a difference to the world and to our own lives. ‘Hoping it might be so.’

Perhaps the secret is to see ourselves like Mary, Joseph and the shepherds: as ordinary men and women, yes and children too, who have been given the extraordinary privilege of glimpsing a miracle. It takes humility and courage to admit it. If you go to the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, you have to bend low to go down the rough steps and enter the place where by tradition Jesus was born. And the less we think we can bring to that place, the more open we are to what we find there, the more likely we are to see it for what it is: God reaching out to us wanting us to recognise him in the person of the Infant Jesus, welcoming us home. 

But glimpse that miracle, surrender your life to it, discover the difference it makes and life is utterly changed. That’s when our hearts are stirred and we begin to walk tall when that great light Isaiah spoke about floods into the darkness because of the one who is born: our Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, the Saviour who is Christ the Lord. Born for us today – for the world whether it cares or doesn’t care, for each of us whether we know it or not, asking that we say yes to him and give him a home in our hearts. 

Perhaps it’s those with nothing to lose who see best into the heart of Christmas: what it means, how it changes everything, how it gives us back our hope. All we have to bring is our simplicity, our hands open and stretched out towards the heart of Love. Let’s give it a go this year. That's Christmas. That's true Nativity 2014-style.

For if this Holy Child can’t touch us this Christmas, what else can? 

Durham Cathedral, Christmas Eve 2014. Isaiah 9.2,6,7; Luke 2.8-20.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Secret Ministry of Frost: a sermon on the winter solstice

This solstice day calls for a wintry sermon. We may affect not to care for winter, but painters and writers have always loved it. Here is one of the great English romantic poets.

All seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

That is the beautiful last stanza of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem ‘Frost aMidnight’ written in 1798. ‘The secret ministry of frost’ is one of those happy phrases that once heard, you never forget. But I love that conclusion for its embrace of the entire circle of the seasons. As the earth turns on its axis and we journey through this shortest day of the year, our thoughts inevitably turn to the promise of spring’s light and the greening of the earth, the happy warmth of summer we begin to travel towards tomorrow. It focuses our minds on the order of time running its course, the turning of the seasons, the human cycles of birth and death and all that comes in between.

Advent makes us think about first and last things. That can mean the order of time that is marked by equinox and solstice, by feast day and fast, and by the times and seasons that hold memory or significance for us. But at a deeper level, it means what is of first and what is of ultimate meaning for us and for all humanity. And this is the real purpose of Coleridge’s poem. He is in a reverie, musing by his fireside on how, outside, ‘the Frost begins its secret ministry’ silently, mysteriously, without the help of wind or weather. Inside all is warmth and peacefulness, a calm gently fluttering flame inducing a meditation about what it means to be alive. I guess that one of the gifts of Advent, even this late, is to urge on us how important it is to stop, ponder the wonder of things, the sheer gift of being human, and aware, and capable of thought and generosity and love.

Coleridge has a specific focus for his wonder, for he is not alone by his fireside.

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes!  

His infant son prompts thoughts about his own childhood and upbringing – not an unmixed blessing for Coleridge, sent away from home, deprived of his beloved nature, alienated from his mother. He wants better things for his own child, above all that he will be at home in a beautiful world, and at one with the God who made it and is present in its majesty and mystery, the Creator who will himself shape this precious human life:

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

His prayer is that ‘all seasons shall be sweet to thee’in youth and in age, for better or worse, happy or sad, disappointed or fulfilled, walking in darkness or seeing great light. What do we not long and pray for when we think of our own children or grandchildren when they are little and still a source of wonder to us? We gaze on them in awe and tenderness, and ask ourselves and God what will become of them when they grow up. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t find ourselves gazing far into the future, hoping that our children will be safe in this precarious world we have brought them into, praying that they will live long and well and happily. What wouldn’t we do to protect them from damage or harm? What wouldn’t God do? we imagine. For each birtheach infancy, each dawning of awareness is a sunrise for the entire human family as well as for child’s loving parents, family and friends. It is why the hurt, the abuse children suffer at the hands of trusted adults is so terrible, so outrageous. All creation cries out against it, this massacre of innocent children, this massacre of innocence itself.  

On this last Sunday of Advent, we contemplate Blessed Mary and her vocation to be the mother of the Lord. We acclaim her, as Elizabeth did: Ave Maria‘blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. It isn’t to diminish the force of those words to say that this is the response of every new parent where a birth is waited for with expectancy and joylike Elizabeth herself looking forward to the birth of her own son. Happy are you, happy is your child, happy your family and community! Mary could not love her Infant more than any other mother loves. She loved, and Joseph loved with her, giving all they had so that their Child would grow strong and flourish. Even when they heard Simeon speak about the shadow that would fall across the holy family one day, the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart, it did not change anything. They loved him just the same. Their hopes and longings for the future were just the same. And like Coleridge, you imagine Mary and Joseph gazing at their firstborn in wonderfilled with thankfulness that God has brought them to this point, offering these tiny hands and feet to God, asking only that he will mould his spirit and shape his life so that he will grow ‘in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and humanity. And asking that as his feet touch the earth, a new dawn will bathe the world in its sunrise, a light for all nations.  

At each solstice, the Precentor chooses a hymn for the year’s turning. Christ whose glory fills the sky, Christ the true, the only Light. On this day when the sun scarcely clears the horizon, and its warmth is extinct, when darkness is long and spirits low, when nature sleeps, and storm and frost have their way on the earth, it is then that we are roused to pray all the more fervently in the spirit of Advent: Sun of Righteousness arise, triumph o’er the shades of night; Dayspring from on high, be near; Daystar, in my heart appear! All of human life is gathered up in this yearly metaphor of the darkness and cold that will one day be banished as the light lengthens and the warmth strengthens. And in four days’ time, metaphor will become reality. Like the poet, we shall gaze in wondering love upon the beloved Infant, and see in him all grace and truth, all hopes and longings met, and the secret ministry of frost will be past, and hearts will sing, and all seasons will become sweet for us

O God, by whose command the order of time runs its course: forgive our impatience, perfect our faith, and help us to have a good hope because of your word; through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Durham Cathedral, Midwinter’s Day, 21 December 2014.  Luke 1.39-55

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A Christmas Homily for the Bereaved

At Christmas we especially remember those we have loved but who are gone from us. Some of them shared Christmases with us, perhaps for many years: our parents and grandparents, brothers, sisters, our children, our colleagues, our friends. At this time of year when we get together to celebrate, when we are thankful for all those who are close to us, we feel their absence all the more keenly. I’ve found that nothing takes that away, however many years pass.  

In my personal prayer folder, for most of my life I’ve written down the names of people I’ve known who have died. Some are close family like my grandmother, my wife’s parents, my own father. Some are friends from school or college days. Some are the men and women who taught me or influenced me in important ways. Some have been work colleagues. Many are people I’ve worshipped with in the churches I’ve served in and whose funerals I conducted. At my age, these lists are getting long. I go back to them at this time of year – All Souls’ Day in November, Advent, Christmas. The whole of my life seems to be recorded there, because I have known each of them personally, even if not all in the same way. It helps me to be thankful for their memories, and to keep them alive in mine. And to continue to hold them before God. 

It is so important to keep memory alive. ‘Lest we forget’ as we say at Remembrance. We should never forget those whose lives have been intertwined with ours, who have walked with us for a while. Most of our memories of the departed are grateful: we realise afresh how much we owe to them. Sometimes, our memories can be painful or hard: they may have needed to forgive us for some hurt we did them, or we may need to forgive them. I find that this can go on beyond death. It matters for them and for us that we do this spiritual, emotional work, this work of the heart. Christmas is a good time to remember, to be thankful, to be forgiving, to learn and to grow. 

This is why we are here today. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as the light of the World. St John says that this true light coming into the world at Christmas time enlightens all of us. These sayings draw on a long history in the Old Testament scriptures where God is our light and our salvation, and brings light to all the world’s peoples as heard in the readings earlier. At this dark time of the year when the days are shortest and spirits can be low, we need to hear these wonderful words and be strengthened by them. We need to reawaken our belief that they apply not only to the living but to the dead, for God holds all souls in life, and through Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection he lights up every life that has lived with his grace and truth.   

Whatever loss brings you here, whatever your sadness or emptiness or pain, Christmas brings its message of light, peace, hope, comfort and joy. ‘The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more' says the hymn. I pray that the Holy Child of Bethlehem will light up all our lives, living or departed, this Christmas and always.   

At St Cuthbert’s Hospice Service, ‘Light Up a Life’, 14 December 2014

Christmas Truce

A hundred years ago this Tuesday, the German navy stole up on the coast of North East England and assaulted Hartlepool. Over 100 people died, most of them civilians. Missiles also fell on Whitby and Scarborough. If the rest of England was deluded into thinking that the war would be over by Christmas, I suspect that up here they knew better. In 5 months the British had already suffered 90000 casualties. But in 1914, the nation tried to celebrate Christmas as usual. In Belgium and France every member of the British Expeditionary Force received cards from the King and Queen, and from Princess Mary a brass tobacco box, tobacco and cigarettes.

And something happened that no-one who was there would ever forget. I have an illustrated book of reminiscences written in 1915 by an army padre called Douglas Winnifrith. This is what he says about it: ‘The opposing forces left their trenches and fraternised on the intervening ground, exchanging gifts and good wishes!...For his enemy individually “Tommy” has no hatred. He is goodness itself to German wounded and prisoners to whom I have seen him give the last of his precious Woodbines’. To him, the trenches were an extension of the rugby pitches of Charterhouse and Eton. Sportsmanship was everything, playing the man. So ‘one was not surprised to find him prepared to shake hands with his foe on Christmas Day’.

The following Christmas things were very different. The high command of both sides were determined that there should be no more truces. Anyway, soldiers were no longer in the mood for it. There had been too much suffering. The Manchester Guardian, in its Christmas leader, spoke about ‘a Europe fast bound in misery and iron’, this ‘great disaster to civilisation’, the ‘bitter irony’ of the contrast between the conduct of the war and the spirit of Christmas. It looked back to 1914 across a brutalising year of civilian air raids that had begun on Christmas Day itself, mechanised warfare, the misery of the trenches and poison gas. It spoke about ‘the strange and pathetic episodes of temporary friendship men who were seeking each other’s lives…. We seem to be “dug in” against the essential meaning of Christmas with a thoroughness that leaves nothing to be desired.’ It warned against moralising, saying that ‘the conflict has grown ever vaster and more impersonal, and we should treat it like a terrible earthquake where we know what duty and compassion require of us without being able to answer the question why?’.
The Sainsbury’s TV Christmas Truce advert has been criticised for its sentimentality, ‘smearing chocolate’ over the stench of death that permeated the trenches. I didn’t see it that way: 1914 was early enough for men still to believe that reaching out across no man’s land could betoken a future they all longed for. Far too soon it would seem like a broken dream. The Battle of the Somme 18 months later must have felt like the ultimate mockery of those fraternal carols and football games, as if they were a bizarre aberration in the history of war. But that is what makes it poignant. For it asks the questions: what happens when beautiful dreams break up under the weight of catastrophe, cruelty and darkness that are too heavy to bear? Was it just a child’s fantasy that was best forgotten? Or did those lads glimpse a better future that Christmas day as they played at being a world free of threat and foreboding, healed, reconciled, filled with friendship and delight? If so, it was important to remember it.

I expect many a preacher this year is drawing a message out of this centenary of the Christmas truce. The symbolism is powerful as we have seen in the touching memorial unveiled last week in the National Arboretum and designed by a 10 year old from Tyneside: those precious hours of shared humanity in which enemies were drawn together by the Christ Child. Even the terrible attrition that followed did not undo the significance of that moment. It was like a sacrament, presenting combatants with the possibility of a better world in which swords would be turned into ploughshares. That day it felt near enough to be grasped. How wonderful it must have seemed. And if it laid down somewhere in the combatants’ souls a memory of peace-seeking, the realisation that the enemy we are commanded to love is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, well, that is the purpose of every good dream.

And so it should be at this Christmas time 2014. No-one pretends that the message of ‘peace on earth, good will to all people’ is the truth of things today; like those later Great War Christmasses, it seems further off than ever. Violence, terror and hatred seem ‘dug-in’ in ways that we did not imagine even a year ago. And the worst of it is that so much of it is fuelled by the furies and hatreds of radical practitioners of religion. I mean Islam, that noble religion of dignity, truth-seeking and peace. It is terrible to think that faith can be so debased by atrocities perpetrated in the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful. And if that were not enough, we now have more refugees and asylum seekers on the move than at any time since the last war. Then we have Ebola, and unending revelations about child abuse, and the plight of the hungry in our own midst, something that took even the Archbishop of Canterbury – who has seen many dreadful things – by surprise. Meanwhile there is scant progress among leaders trying to address climate change, and isolationist politics are pulling us apart from our neighbours precisely when we need one another most. As 2015 dawns the prospect of a better world is bleak.

Yet Advent and Christmas speak into the state we are in just as they did in 1914. Our seasonal stories touch us because they are always fresh and new; they invite us to rediscover innocence. It is like looking at an old master painting: exquisite, beautiful, filled with adoration and joy. But peer into the dark places and shadows on the canvas. Sometimes you can trace a broken world in there: a poor family crying out for bread, the crippled and diseased longing to be healed. Often they conceal a frozen river or skeletal trees, metaphors of deadness. Or the shadows may just be dark, symbolising human hearts breaking under the weight of fear or grief, guilt or worry or pain, waiting for the illumination the birth of Jesus brings. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ That is what we love about Christmas. It holds out the possibility that we can find hope, and life can begin again.

Other than the medicine of the gospel, I don’t have any cure for our ills. If I did, you wouldn’t believe me. But the voice of the prophet in our first reading heralds good news for victims, freedom for captives, release for prisoners, comfort for the sad, gladness for a people who wait with longing and who keep hope and faith alive. It’s the advent of the Lord’s great jubilee. So we must never give up on God and his love for the world he made and will always cherish. We must never despair. This precious Infant in the manger is for life, not just for Christmas. He will know soon enough the bitterness of dark and pain; a sword will pierce his mother’s heart. But by embracing evil and making it his own, he draws the sting out of death and hell. He gives us back our broken selves, our future, our freedom, our happiness, our life. He inspires us to believe that transformation can happen in our world, in our human family, in ourselves.

Was this what those soldiers glimpsed, however partially, in the trenches a hundred years ago, that the true light that enlightens all people was coming into the world? Like Advent, it was a moment of awakened longing for something better. Far off, yet coming one day: a truce that lasts forever, an eternal reconciliation and peace, a healing of the world’s pain, a love that is without limit and without end. We have a reason for the hope that is within us.

Durham Cathedral, Advent 3 2014 (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-end; John 1.6-8, 19-28)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

In memoriam Joy Sykes

In one way, it’s a bitter thing that just a few weeks after saying farewell to Stephen in this Cathedral, we are here again, this time for Joy. We feel for all the members of their family in their double bereavement. It is poignant that the retirement they had looked forward to was so cut short by illness. But as Richard put it in a recent message, we can be glad that they were separated by death for such a short time. ‘In life and in death they were not divided.’ And that is a beautiful and comforting thought.

The vocation of a senior clergy wife is not, I imagine, an easy one. I did not know Joy in Ely days. But I can imagine her adopting a thoroughly down to earth style in the Bishop’s House: hospitable, supportive, practical, not above saying (or at any rate thinking) ‘come off it Stephen!’ I think bishops need this kind of well-grounded practicality in their spouses; deans certainly do. In their Durham years, not least latterly when Stephen needed so much looking after, her devotion and care shone through.

And her joy. Anyone with such a theological name must be challenged to live up to it. But Joy had a genuine gift for lighting up the lives of others – not in any conscious way but simply because of the person she was. She loved life and it showed in ways that endeared her to all her friends. And her family of course, so cherished and loved. She was one of those people who is naturally generous with her affections and loyalties. Stephen’s moving tribute in an anniversary card is quoted in the introduction to the service sheet: he thanks her for ‘a lifetime of fun, adventure, travel, child rearing and, for the last five years, simply astonishing resilience in the face of an extraordinary disease in yours truly. I simply could not have managed, and been managed, without your steady love.’ Their children Richard, Juliet and Joanna and grandchildren Ella, Rebecca, Matthew and Shannon, all know how much they owe to her.

Wildlife, pets and the garden were important to her all her life. The family recall how they were never without pets, most notably dogs of which her favourite breed was the Pekingese because of its ‘independent and feisty spirit.’ In temperament, like recognising like perhaps? At one point the menagerie numbered 13 and included dogs, a cat, a horse, gerbils, hamsters, a rabbit and Torty the tortoise, her long-lived companion for over 60 years. In gardening she found recreation of mind and spirit. Every house she lived in had to have a decent garden for her to work in, to the point where she chose Ingleside, their last home here in Durham without Stephen having even seen it. Along with Rosie the labradoodle, she leaves behind Irish thoroughbred Sweet William who gave her such pleasure in her last months, and whom she loved to ride when she could.

Joy's intimacy with human beings and with the natural world means that her leaving us is all the more keenly felt. We wouldn’t be human if we did not need to be held at times of loss – by our memories, by one another, by God. This is what today’s service gives us: the opportunity to find strength by celebrating a life of goodness and joy, by helping one another in our sadness; and by giving back to God the person he lent us for a while. In all this we draw hope and strength from the prayers, the scriptures and the music.

What do they say to us today?

In the gospel, Jesus urges us: ‘do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God: believe also in me’. Of course, it’s precisely when our hearts are troubled and afraid that we can find it hardest to believe. Yet what Jesus invites us to do is not to make some colossal effort to believe when we have so many questions, rather it is to trust in the essential truth of things, that it is love that moves the sun and the stars. This is, I think, what Joy would want for us, because it was how she was in herself. In her lifetime, she had found that despite all its changes and chances, there is a deep-down trustworthiness in the universe. She loved life, and inhabited the world she felt at home in. She knew, and we know, that we are cared for, believed in, embraced, held, loved.

And this is the theme St Paul warms to at the climax of the great eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans that we also heard. ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’ He lists some candidates: ‘hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword?’ And a thousand other risks and perils that we face simply because we are alive in a precarious world? Shall these hazards have the last word? No, he says, rising to one of the greatest acts of faith in the Bible. ‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’

‘More than conquerors.’ Joy she seemed to know the truth of those words during her final illness. It was such a cruel disease. It deprived her of the years she had every reason to look forward to enjoying. Who would not be disappointed, angry even? But I never heard Joy complain or feel sorry for herself. Week by week she was with Stephen here at the Sunday eucharist, and we had many a conversation at the back of the Cathedral afterwards. She would be confident and calm, her wry laughter somehow defying worry and disease to do their worst. I don’t say that she did not struggle with it at times: the cancer and the treatment both took their toll. I am saying that they did not get the better of her. She practised courage throughout her life and did so in the face of suffering. She died as she had lived: in the end, she was the victor, not her illness. This is what we celebrate in this eucharist. Here we remember the goodness and mercy of God as we lay on the altar our dearest and our best. We do this with heavy yet thankful hearts, knowing that nothing is lost, and ‘all in the end is harvest’.

So we say farewell and allow Joy’s spirit to return to the God who gave it. William Blake has a beautiful epigram that plays on her name. It’s about being grateful for a precious gift, allowing ourselves to let go, and in that very act discovering that we are bathed in the unexpected radiance of golden memories. We find that paradoxically, loss brings with it not so much absence but a deeper presence, and that an eternal dimension breaks through our transience and illuminates our lives and our loves.

He that bends to himself a Joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy.
He who kisses the Joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

St Paul says: ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Eternity’s sunrise, indeed.

At the funeral of Joy Sykes, Durham Cathedral, 4 December 2014
Romans 8. 28-end, John 14.1-6, 27.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

On Showing Mercy: a hospice sermon

‘Blessed are the merciful’ says Jesus in today’s second reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Mercy is one of the great words in the Bible and one of the most beautiful.  It’s perhaps a word we use less than we used to, though we implore cruel men and women to have mercy, we look for our judicial system to be merciful as well as just, and above all, we attribute this lovely quality to God himself as a key aspect of who he is. We heard it in one of our Psalms this afternoon: ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful: long-suffering and of great goodness. The Lord is loving to everyone, and his mercy is over all his works.’

Jesus is saying: if you want to know happiness, imitate God himself. ‘Happy are the merciful’ because that is how God is. He is not only holy, exalted, glorious and just. He is also generous and kind to all people and all things. Indeed his glory is revealed in his compassion. There's a striking Prayer Book collect that begins 'O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity'. What we understand by kindness and compassion is drawn from his essential character. In the Quran, the Prophet speaks ‘in the name of Allah the compassionate, the merciful’. Islam honours the same qualities that Jews and Christians love God for, because he is the same God we all worship as children of Abraham. If he were not compassionate and merciful, he would not be God. It's as simple as that.

We have come here today to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Butterwick Hospice. Hospices are a familiar part of the landscape of care, but it was not always so. We have Cicely Saunders to thank for her far-sighted vision of palliative care and for the beginnings of the hospice movement nearly half a century ago. You may not know that it was reading one of the Psalms that led her to launch this great initiative. People like Mary Butterwick were inspired to put their enterprise and perseverance into establishing hospices across the country in the face of a not always sympathetic medical establishment. How much we owe to them! It’s still the case that hospices are largely funded from voluntary donations, so we want to honour our benefactors today. And I know from my own experience how devoted and selfless is the service of hospice staffs, trustees and so many volunteers, so this is an occasion to recognise and thank them too. 

This all adds up, I think, to the wonderful way in which hospices express mercy: human kindness and care, of course, but through human beings, God’s mercy. And by mercy we mean precisely all the qualities that go into enriching human lives so that men, women and children flourish. I don’t need to remind anyone here that hospices are not places you go to die in, but to live in. Hospice, such a lovely word for welcome, hospitality, needs met, provision offered for a long journey. End of life care is hugely important. But the point is to be as fully alive as possible before it is time to die. This is what Butterwick stands for. It is compassion, it is mercy because it matters to God that we make sure that human life, dignity and wellbeing are always honoured however severe the ordeals, however hard the circumstances, however hopeless things feel. It especially matters to show kindness at these times both to all who are suffering and to those who love them. It matters to him that he is present as friend and comforter to all who need him. And he is, in everyone who has a part to play in hospice care. 

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung had a motto inscribed above the door of his clinic in Zurich. ‘Recognised or not, God is always present.’  Our service today makes explicit what is always true at Butterwick, that through the people who serve it and by being such a caring, humane, hospitable place, God is at work to bring healing, comfort and mercy. Thank you to Mary Butterwick for her founding vision; thank you to all who serve the hospice today. May God the compassionate and merciful give you all his rich blessing. 

Durham Cathedral 19 October 2014. 
For the 30th anniversary of Butterwick Hospice Care
Psalm 145, Matthew 5.1-16

Ebola: fear and love in West Africa

The name Mabalo Lokela may not mean much to you. He lived in a place called Yambuku in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the end of August 1976 he suddenly became ill and was admitted to the local mission hospital. At first, the staff thought it was malaria. But he failed to respond to the usual drugs. In a week he was suffering from uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhoea and terrible pains. Then he started bleeding from his nose, gums and eyes. No-one had any idea what these frightening symptoms meant. On 8 September he died. Within days, his family and those who had treated him developed the same symptoms. Soon hundreds of cases were reported. The mortality rate was nearly 90%. 

You’ll have realised by now that I am talking about EHF, Ebola haemorrhagic fever. It is one of the deadliest diseases to have emerged in our time. Many of us remember the rhetoric of the 1950s and 60s when we were told that thanks to modern drugs, epidemics were a thing of the past. But for every disease eradicated like smallpox, others have sprung up like Medusa’s heads: Lassa fever, Lyme’s disease, Legionnaire’s disease and of course HIV-AIDS. Ebola is one more in the litany of names to strike fear into human hearts, and as we are learning daily, it is perhaps the most lethal and most frightening of them all. In Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea it is rapidly getting out of control. Thousands have perished; the attrition rate is doubling each month. ‘With war you know to avoid the enemy’ says one Christian sister who is well-used to violence and civil conflict. ‘With Ebola you just don’t know.’ And now thanks to global travel, it threatens people across the world, not only those who have travelled to West Africa or been with those who have, but all of us, wherever we are. 

Once upon a time, disease was seen as divine punishment for wickedness, unleashed by the pale green Horseman of the Apocalypse whose name was Death and who had authority to kill with sword, famine and pestilence. Retribution was the most plausible explanation. It has a long and ugly history that goes back to the ten plagues visited upon Egypt in the Book of Exodus. In the early days of AIDS, you frequently heard reckless and cruel talk about a gay plague sent to punish homosexuals. You might have thought that the Book of Job had put paid to this idea of reward and punishment for all time. Not so. But as with all suffering, it is unexplained and unexplainable. Why does God allow it? It is beyond our understanding. When victims ask ‘why me?’ and cry out that it isn’t fair, they are right. It never is. The best we can do is acknowledge the risk that is built into our universe that is the price of existing at all. But civilisations have been here before. When the Black Death swept across Europe and arrived in Durham in 1349, peoples’ hearts failed them for fear. This was final judgment. It wasn’t of course. But it took generations for England to recover, not least from the economic and social fallout. I don’t want to frighten you but I’ve read that it’s even possible that the Black Death was not bubonic plague but a haemorrhagic disease like Ebola. Whatever it was, it haunted the European imagination and left it with a profound foreboding as you can see in Dance of Death wall paintings in churches of that century. It was not until the Great War that Europe suffered a shock comparable to it.

Why am I disturbing the tranquillity of Cathedral matins by reminding you of this? Because I believe that every threat our world faces is our business as human beings and as churches, whether it is ISIS, Ebola, climate change or world poverty. Because of that, I believe that it is God’s business too. God cares about the victims of Ebola. God cares about those who are caring for them, at great risk to themselves. God cares about the panic that is running through populations in West Africa. God cares about those who researching the causes and cure of this disease. Perhaps the most important thing the preacher can say today is that whatever ordeals humanity faces, we are not alone. And that should give us courage as we try to find ways of responding to what is rapidly becoming a worldwide health crisis. 

So what does God want us to do in the face of Ebola? We all need to recognise, and name, and deal with these atavistic fears that are taking hold. We need to know that this epidemic is not an apocalyptic event sent to punish us. We need to understand the causes of Ebola and how the virus is transmitted. We need to throw everything we can at it by way of scientific research, hospitals, beds, drugs and everything else that the best health care needs. We need to support relief efforts going on across western Africa. I mean not only the medical emergency but its social consequences: failing economies, food and water harder than ever to come by, orphaned children whose schools are closed. So much needs to be done to contain at its sources a virus that is doubling its victim count each month.

Many of you will know a 20th century novel that charts the impact of an epidemic, Albert Camus’ The Plague. It’s a profound exploration of how the contagion of fear spreads through a society and paralyses it; how panicky self-interest, the survival instinct dominates all else, how preachers try to make sense of the catastrophe that is happening. This epidemic set in. North African town was fictional, but it stood for an important truth. Writing in Vichy France during the 2nd World War, Camus meant it as a metaphor of enemy invasion and occupation, and how a terrorised society reacts. But we can see in it a metaphor of another occupying power that holds sway over humanity: the effect of fear on ordinary people's lives, the corruption of motives by self-concern, putting ourselves first, protecting ourselves from harm at all costs. In an important way, it is fear that spreads a spiritual plague, not because it’s unnatural or wrong to be afraid, but because of how we respond when it takes hold of us. Like prayer, what matters for fear is what we do next. 

Stories coming out of West Africa point in another direction. Even non-religious observers have noticed that in some villages it is imams, priests and religious who are willing to take supplies into stricken villages because only they are willing to put themselves at risk. I wonder how we could emulate that response here in the west. It's good that the UK is taking a lead by putting resource and muscle into fighting the epidemic on the ground. The World Health Organisation, the United Nations and Médecins Sans Frontières all tell us that this is where the battle to contain Ebola will be won or lost, not here. But all that is being done is not yet enough. We must multiply our support twentyfold if we are to contain the disease, avoid a global pandemic and bring sufficient medical support and health care to many thousands of victims. That means doing what we can to meet a grave emergency out of care for our fellow human beings who are in desperate need. But as Anthony Banbury, head of the UN Ebola emergency response mission warns, 'Time is our enemy. The virus is far ahead of us.' 

I recognise the part fear plays in our response to Ebola. But I have good news. In today’s lesson, St John takes us to the source of what makes us Christian. At its heart is love, ‘not that we love God but that he loves us and sent his Son’. Now he addresses the consequences of this for how we are with one another, how we live in community. ‘Since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another.’ And he faces the issue of fear itself, and its paralysing effect. What is the antidote? John tells us. ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.’  So what must we do? ‘Beloved, let us love one another not in word only but in deed and truth’. We can bring this kind of love that is 'in deed and truth' to our comrades in suffering by holding them in our minds and hearts, by giving financial support to the relief agencies, and by raising awareness of a real crisis where it might make a difference to how western nations respond. And in all this, falling on our knees and saying our prayers.

Durham Cathedral, Trinity 18, 19 October 2014 
1 John 4.1-18

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Bishop Stephen Sykes: In Memoriam

As preachers in this Cathedral know, Stephen was a keen listener to sermons. He could be exacting too. After the service, you could expect comment on your handling of a biblical text, the rigour of your argument or lack of it, the citations you made or might have made. He would always thank the preacher and offer encouragement. But he could be direct in his dissent. He once told me over coffee after a serviceMichael, that was the most profoundly unhelpful sermon Ive heard in years. Nevetheless Stephen asked me to preach at this service. This preacher is keenly aware that a decade of homiletic scrutiny is not over yet

In a beautiful essay on Thomas Cranmer, Stephen wrote about how his communion rite was an invitation to a pilgrimage that would pattern and structure human experience as a wholeCranmers liturgies amount to a map of the heart as topos, a map for pilgrimage from the depths to the heights. It is a pilgrimage with God who is struggling with the heart, addressing comfortable words to it, pouring in the grace of his Holy Spirit to lift it up, melting it and remaking it…not a disembodied mental process but one linking mind and guts. That captures StephenlifeIn those words you can hear the thought and language of lifelong love affair with Anglicanism, the spiritual insights learned from its liturgy and theologians and poets. He was a man whom, to steal a line from a famous war poem, the Church of England bore, shaped, made aware, gave once her flowers to love, her ways to roam. One of his generations best theologians, his Christian identity never lost its practical, visceral dimension. Faith was something deeply felt in the heart, the emotionsthe affect  ideas as important to him as the cognitive language of mind and thought.Those of us who heard him preach Holy Week in this Cathedral a few years ago in a series of addresses based on George Herbertpoems will never forget it. His Good Friday address on St Johns tetelestaiit is finished, was one of the most moving sermons I have ever heard here or anywhereHe preached in the spirit of Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnisfrom the heart  may it go to the heart. You could tell by the catch in his voice that he was close to tears. 

This rich, complex inwardness constituted Stephencareer in public ministry. There is a symmetry in his curriculum vitae. He started out as Dean of Chapel in his alma materSt Johns College CambridgeThere he inhabited both church and academy as an emerging theologian whose day job had at its heart the daily worship of a chapel community and the pastoral care of collegeHe developed a love for students that never left him even at the very end of his life, and to which they responded with huge affection. He ended his career as Principal of another St Johns College, our neighbours here in Durham, where once again the quotidian concerns of student life were married to his continuing intellectual vocation as a Christian thinker, teacher and writer in the Department of Theology and Religion in this UniversityIn between, his successive professorships in Durham and Cambridge consolidated his reputation as a theologian of international significance, as his steady stream of influential writings testified. But then came the bishopric of Ely where he spent nearly a decade. Was this to lay aside the role of a theologian for the sake of leadership in the Church of England? He would not have put it that way. He would have said that it is the calling of every theologian to understand his or her role as essentially ecclesial in character, as a vocation within the church which it is the privilege of theology to serve as faith seeks understanding. Indeed, he would have gone further and said that theologys audience is not the church only, but the human community in its all its diversity. He looked for a theology that is genuinely ecumenical and public and has something to say to the dilemmas modernity puts to a society prepared to listen, reflect and examine the assumptions of its thoughtThis was the direction he took in his chairmanship of the Doctrine Commission: not that the church theologises to itself, but that its voice is heard in the public arenas of our time and, as the well-worn phrase has it, speaks truth to power

Stephenlast book Power and Christian Theology reflects his breadth of outlook and the range of his thinking. The final chapter is about leadership in the church, especially the role of the bishop. Drawing on Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux, he examines the tensions between rule and service, loving your office and remaining humblezeal for holiness and accepting human shortcomings in yourself and othersand between deference to leaders and affection for them. He concludes: Although [public leadership] is a necessity which we deeply desire to the point of wanting to idolize our leaders, we have also succumbed to the habit of suspicion and mistrust. Both instincts are unjust to the men and women whose real talents are exercised in Gods service. Their powers are best employed when they are recognised by them and by us as genuine and proper, not as a substitute for service or love, but as an expression of them. He does not say so, but I doubt he could have written in this way unless from within he lived experience, drawing on the memory of his years as a diocesan bishop. He was writing about his own aspiration as a bishop. Service and love allied to clear thinking and purposeful activity informed by discipleship: that holistic, humane linkage is typical of Stephens life. 

All his days Stephen made it his goal to live the gospel and allow the cross and resurrection to interpret the changes and chances of human living. The name Stephanos means crown.  When preached at Stephen and Joygolden wedding two years ago, I quoted poem by his beloved George Herbert that happily unites their two names in one line

My joy, my life, my crown!
My heart was meaning all the day,
Somewhat it fain would say
And still it runneth, muttering up and down
With only this, My joy, my life, my crown.

The poet wants to sing his best hymn in praise of God, indeed he wants to be that hymn. He has the words, the rhyme, the metre but has not yet found the spirit.  He knows that life is meant for us to worship God my joy, my life, my crown.  But how is he to live the truth of his own song? In the end he finds the way. 

Whereas if the heart be moved
Although the verse be somewhat scant, 
God doth supply the want.
And when the heart says, sighing to be approved,
O could I love! And stops: God writeth, Loved.  

To know we are cherished melts and remakes the heart, calms its unquietness, lifts it up to sing. God so loved is the best of all comfortable words. God writeth, Loved. When we know we are loved, death has lost its sting. It is swallowed up in victory. It no longer has the power to hurt us that it once did. Like Martha, we affirm our faith and hope in the risen Jesus. Our lives are hid with Christ in God: Stephens, and ours, and the company of all who have trusted in him. Today we honour the memory of a man beloved by family and friends, a great scholar, a good man, a loyal disciple, a seeker-after-truth, and a faithful priest and bishop. And nowhere, while we are still in this vale of soul-making, as we give thanks for his life, we sit and eat with him at this eucharistic feast where, living and departed, Love bids us welcome.

Durham Cathedral, 10 October 2014. 

1 Corinthians 15; John 11.17-27

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Disappointment: The Antidote

Once, as a child, something didn’t go my way. I was upset and angry. So my father told me a story. He and a friend, they were teenagers at the time, decided to go on a cycling holiday.  For months they planned their journey, discussed provisions, chose youth hostels to stay in.  At last the long awaited day arrived.  His friend was to call for him at six o-clock in the morning.  My father and his bike were ready by five.  Six came, and then seven and eight.  By midmorning it was clear that something had gone wrong.  My father cycled round to his friend.  He opened the front door in his slippers, surprised to see him.  ‘But what about our cycling trip?’ my father asked.  ‘O that’ said his friend, ‘I thought it was just make-believe.’ That experience of disappointment was indelibly burned on his memory. I knew I would never forget it either. A penny dropped. 

The cynic philosopher Diogenes knew a thing or two about it. He would go around Athens in day time with a lighted lamp saying ‘I am looking for an honest man’. He would prostrate himself in front of a statue with a begging bowl and ask for alms. When asked why, he replied ‘I am practising disappointment’. Sooner or later in life, it dawns on us that the bitterest disappointments are when friendship fails, or trust is abused, or a promise is reneged on.  Paul Theroux in his book Sir Vidia’s Shadow tells of his long friendship with the writer V.S. Naipaul, and how, one day, when they met in the street, Sir Vidia cut him dead just like that. ‘Take it on the chin’ he said and walked on. More classically, it is Julius Caesar’s last gasp Et tu, Brute?; it is Jesus ‘do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?’.  ‘It is not an open enemy that hath done me this dishonour, for then I could have borne it…. But it was even thou, my companion: my guide and mine own familiar friend’ says one of the psalms. 

There is an undertow of disappointment in today’s readings.  A vineyard is the focus of unrealised, perhaps unrealistic, hope.  Isaiah tells of how the owner of the vineyard looked for it to produce grapes, but it yielded only wild or sour grapes – no good as fruit, no good for wine. God looked to Israel his vineyard to produce the good fruits of justice and mercy, but in vain.  In Jesus’ parable, the problem is not the vineyard but its tenants, whom the absent landowner has left in charge of his property.  At harvest, he sends his slaves to collect his produce; but the tenants beat, stone and murder his emissaries. The owner’s son fares no better.  In both stories the theme is God’s disappointment in his people, the God who looks for the friendship of human beings only to find that they have hidden away from him, responded not with loyalty and love as he invited them to do, but with hatred, injustice and indifference. God’s disappointment has a long history.  From Adam hiding himself in the garden to the waywardness of ancient Israel and the conflicts and crises of our own time – how we have grieved his heart of love, tried his patience!  No wonder he calls out to humanity in the words of the Good Friday Reproaches, ‘O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!’

But disappointment is a two-way street. Human beings also have a long history of being disappointed in God or feel let down by religion. Every priest hears stories from people who turned away from the church because it (and they often implicate God in this) failed them at some crucial time in their lives, or religion didn’t live up to its promise. The Bible is eloquent on the subject of unrealised hopes and expectations. The Psalms of lament like the one sung this morning beseech God to be true to himself and cannot make out why he does not rush to vindicate himself, judge the heathen and save his people: ‘how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? Turn again, O God of hosts, look down from heaven and see!’. In one of the bitterest yet bravest utterances of the Bible, Jeremiah cries out against God: ‘O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived’. In the gospels, there are those who no longer accompany Jesus, or like Judas, feel let down by him. And – dare we say this? - when, at his crucifixion, Jesus cries out in anguish, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’, is it as if the Father has turned his face away from him and like Jeremiah he faces the awful agony of being God’s deceived lost son? 

The vineyard parable points to the cross, for it is set within the last week of Jesus’ life. It seems to suggest that Golgotha is at one level a huge disappointment, an inexplicable tragedy. Jesus came to proclaim a kingdom and invite us into it; more than that indeed, to usher in God’s reign. Was this God’s deepest hope? The way Jesus tells his parable makes me think so. ‘He sent his son to them saying, “They will respect my son”.’ Matthew points out that the story is addressed specifically to the ‘chief priests and elders’, the religious establishment for whom Jesus always reserved his harshest words. Their refusal to listen, like the tenants who held the stewardship of the vineyard, is what makes his crucifixion inevitable. But perhaps he clung to the hope that this death would wrench the wheel of history out of human hands and deliver the kingdom to God even if it crushed him in the process.  Which, in the profoundest sense, it did.  And when the meaning of the cross and resurrection dawned, they found their hearts stirred once more by their memories of a man whose words had burned like fire and whose deeds had astonished even kings. They had thought he was the one who would redeem Israel. Now they knew that he was the one who had given himself out of infinite love and mercy for the life of nothing less than the whole world.  

What is the antidote to disappointment? How do we stop it gnawing away at our souls like a cancer? What's the answer to that quartet of poisonous weeds that disappointment can sow: envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness? The answer is: thankfulness, eucharistia, gratitude for the goodness of things, the loveliness of life, the generosity of God. And this is the gift of Easter. It is why we are gathered here on this first day of the week, to remember the resurrection of Jesus. For looking back from this far side of Easter everything is transfigured: tragedy into comedy, tears into laughter, disappointment into the upsurge of hope because of a strange yet wonderful work begun, a brighter dawn that is breaking over the world. Easter changes everything. The rejected One has ‘become the cornerstone; it is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes’. The vineyard is given to a people who will produce the fruits of the kingdom. It is the liberation of all that we have been and are.  We are forgiven, found and free. 

It doesn’t happen at once; it may take years for it to dawn on us that thankfulness changes everything because it gives us a new perspective on things. When I went to be a parish priest, I met the widow of the last incumbent who had died suddenly of a brain tumour after just 8 months as vicar. I asked her how she was in the aftermath of this terrible bereavement. ‘John always spoke about how thankfulness transforms our view of life, even when the worst happens’ she said. ‘I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. I am trying to practise that now.’ Something else I knew I would never forget. Somewhere inside me, I recognised a deep truth about Christianity, and what it means to follow Jesus faithfully and joyfully.  

So we bring to the cross and the empty tomb our disappointments, our failed hopes, our unfilled hungers and unmet longings. We unburden our souls of their bitterness and regret at this place of healing. We turn back to him, and find that the simple word ‘yes’ said with heartfelt thankfulness is the bridge across that gulf between disappointment and hope: God’s yes to us in his Son; our yes to him as we receive the gift of love without end, and learn to be his people once again.

Durham Cathedral, 5 October 2014
Isaiah 5: 1-7; Matthew 21: 33-46