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

Sunday, 18 May 2014

A Sermon on the Farne

Yesterday I went with the choristers to the Farne Islands and then to Holy Island. We walked in the steps of the saints to visit the sources of northern English Christianity. If you love Cuthbert as northern people do, then you want to discover the places he loved too. If you had asked him where especially, he would have said: go to the Farne. Imbibe the spirit of that remote place where the North Sea’s cold slatey waters beat against the whin sill rocks, where guillemots, puffins and terns have their island home under the wide Northumberland sky. Who knows where the name comes from? – an old British word farran meaning ‘land’, or faran meaning a traveller, or that the island group was thought to resemble a fern in shape?
Bede says that the Farne ‘is an island far out to sea’; that it was a ‘remote battlefield’, haunted by demons and that Cuthbert was the first person brave enough to live there alone; that he built himself a city, which is how hermits talked about their cells, consisting of a circular wall cut out of the rock, a shelter to live in and an oratory to pray in. He prayed hard, dug a pit and lo, God turned the solid rock into a standing water whose supply never failed. He built a lodge for guests and cultivated the meagre soil whose first harvest was a good barley crop. When the birds set about devouring it, he told them off. ‘Why are you eating crops you did not yourselves grow? If God has said you can, so be it. If not, be off with you and stop damaging other people’s property.’ Here Cuthbert spent the last part of his life, dying there on 20 March 687. The islands passed to Durham Cathedral Priory which kept a cell of two monks there. Prior Castell built a pele tower while the chapel is probably on the site of Cuthbert’s oratory. Surprisingly, the Farnes remained the Cathedral’s property until the nineteenth century.
I have preached often on our northern saints. They are among our prized gospel texts here in North East England. I put it that way because when the gospel is written on the hearts and lives of men, women and children, it comes alive in a unique way. ‘They being dead yet speak’ says our miners’ banner in the south transept, a quotation from the letter to the Hebrews. The writer wants to inspire his readers to courage in following Jesus, so he lists some of the great heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible and says: live like them; believe like them, hope like them. We read the passage in that chapel: ‘seeing we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith’.
But as I put it in my book Landscapes of Faith, holy people are inseparable from the locations they populated. The places where they lived and walked and preached and prayed have become sacred sites where pilgrims travel to remember how the saints did the work of God and bequeathed their spirit of faith and hope to those who came after them. So places become gospel texts too. Where the Spirit touches the earth, a sacred geography is establisheda way of reading ‘place’ in terms of its influence on human beings and their influence on it, and how people of faith have responded to God’s presence in particular places. This place, Durham Cathedral, is a great example: we are sitting within sacred geography. This Cathedral and the city that grew around it, what the monks called an English Zion, only exist at all because of the monks who brought St Cuthbert’s body here a thousand years ago and created a spiritual legacy that has shaped lives ever since.
The Farne is another of these places. So let me ask: what is the gospel written into the old eternal rocks and the deep salt sea that swirls round them? Among many words I hear there is one about creaturehoodI mean that these remarkable islands tell me something important about the natural world and how I must try to find my place within God’s creationdoubt that this has much to do with the conventional response of saying how beautiful they are. That would not have impressed Cuthbert who built his city wall high enough to stop him being distracted by his surroundings. Moreover, when the sea is stirred and the wind is up and the sky is like gunmetal, their gaunt isolation seems to seize hold of you, and the sense of exposure can be threateningThe thousands of birds wheeling round vast sky and nesting precariously on the basalt sea-stacks are one of the awesome sights of England; but Cuthbert knew they were not always comfortable bed-fellows. 

Yet this numinous quality of nature, ravishing or grim, grasps youIt puts you in your place, reminds you of your own smallness in the face of what can’t ever be tamedWe learn that we are mortals and not gods. The Farne is one of those places where our vision is brought back into focus, where we see what we always were and arefashioned by our Creator and a part of the same chain of being as the islandsthe rocks, the birds and the sea. How important that corrective is for our whole existence as a human race capable of destroying the planet given to us as our home. It keeps us humble to recognise that we must act with courtesy towards all living things, as Mother Julian says, not so much out of enlightened self-interest, as because reverencing God’s world is part of reverencing him for himself. To honour his handiwork in sky and earth and sea ought to teach us to honour one another made as his image charged with the care and stewardship of what he has made.
Reverence for God and courtesy for his fellow beings lay at the heart of Cuthbert’s life on the FarneHe went there, as Bede saysto find solitude and devote himself to prayer. Bede is clear that this was not an act of withdrawal for the sake of gazing out on beautiful sunsets and thinking beautiful thoughtsThe hermit saints looked for fierce landscapes where they would not be distracted from doing God’s work of prayer. Cuthbert knew he must focus on this daunting spiritual ordeal, just as Jesus did in the desert. The sea journey our monks frequently made across the sound from Holy Island to the Farne were often difficult under the fierce blasts of wind that rush down from Cheviot. The voyage was its own metaphor of arduous spiritual endeavour. When you step on to the Farne, you are reminded how demanding it is to take up your cross to follow Christ.
Yet we find this tough spirituality sits well with reverence for nature. The solitaries have always been strangely companionable. It is not that they are reclusive; rather that they perceive their friends - humans or birdsanimals, plants or rocks - as also belonging to a world that is charged with the grandeur of GodFor where our inner noise begins to be stilled, we become open to God in new ways, more responsive to our fellow-travellers and the environments we share with themSo while this Cuthbert vocation is not for most of us all of the time, it could be for all of us some of the time. I’m thinking of how important it is for health of mind and body as well as the soul to find regular times and spaces to be still and alone and prayerful. Whether it is for minutes or hours or days, we can embark on journeys large or small for the sake of travelling more deeply into God and into our own selves. As people of faith, it’s natural to want to imitate Cuthbert in seeking places that would nourish the spirit, as Jesus himself often did when he went up the mountain or in the wilderness to wrestle and prayIn the words of a desert father, ‘go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything’. So go wherever your soul finds it can drink deep of the Spirit of the living God whose risen Son shows us the Father, and as our way, our truth and our life, looks for human hearts in which to make a home.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Saint John of Beverley: a celebration

St John of Beverley is a truly northern saint, one of that galaxy of great men and women of old who, though long dead, continue to speak to us and inspire us today. I come to you from Durham Cathedral, a place that did not exist in John’s time; and yet seems to me to be intimately connected with our celebration of him tonight. Durham only exists because of St Cuthbert, the 7th century bishop of Lindisfarne whose community brought his body to our peninsula in the 10th century and built a cathedral as his shrine. John belonged to the same Saxon Christian world. A native Northumbrian from Harpham, he came back to the north from Canterbury where he had been educated, and entered the double monastery at Whitby under its great abbess St Hild. In the year that Cuthbert died, 687, he became bishop of Hexham and then of York, both sees connected with St Wilfrid who had been educated on Lindisfarne under St Aidan.

But the direct link with Durham is through the Venerable Bede. His remains were brought to Durham in the 11th century (said to have been stolen by the monks of Durham from their resting place at Jarrow). His shrine was nearly as important as Cuthbert’s in the middle ages. Bede’s huge significance not simply for the north but for the whole of England is that but for him, we would not know as much as we do about the Saxon church and the foundations it laid for the development of Christianity across this island. Aidan, Oswald, Cuthbert, Wilfrid, Hild, Benedict Biscop, Chad, Cedd – our knowledge of these great saints would be immeasurably the poorer without Bede’s writings. John of Beverley is another of them. Bede devotes five chapters of his History to John, and it’s clear that he was a man whom Bede not only admired but loved. One of the reasons for this may be that John himself ordained Bede as priest early in the 8th century. For many clergy, the bishop who ordained us is someone who holds a particular place in our affections and prayers. Perhaps it was like this for the young Bede.
Our New Testament reading tonight speaks of some of the virtues Bede found in St John. I chose a reading from St Luke because we know that John wrote a commentary on the 3rd gospel, though it has not survived. I wonder whether there were particular aspects of St Luke that he especially admired and that may have influenced the shape of his ministry. For St Luke, Jesus comes into the world as the Saviour not only of his own Jewish people but of all humanity: there is a universal dimension to this gospel of divine mercy without limit that many have found particularly appealing. Luke goes out of his way to speak of how Jesus gives back human dignity to and embraces slaves, outcastes, children, women, people who were not highly regarded in the patriarchal societies of antiquity. The first part of our reading recalled how crowds came to Jesus to be healed of their diseases: ‘all…were trying to touch him, for power came out from him’.

But the power of Jesus lies in his words as well as his works, says Luke. Indeed, the crowd, he says, had come out to listen to him as well as to find healing. Luke quotes the essence of his proclamation: ‘Happy are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God! Happy are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled! Happy are you who weep now, for you will laugh!’ And by contrast, how miserable are those who look for fulfilment elsewhere: in their wealth, their standing, their achievement, all the things that pass away and do not endure – for to invest your entire life in anything other than God’s kingdom of wholesomeness and promise is to miss what it means to be a human being. So ‘love your enemies’ he says, ‘do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ That rule is not golden simply because it makes for harmonious human relationships, though that is true. It is golden because it’s how God is in himself, the one who gives himself to humanity, to each of us, by coming among us in Jesus. And the secret of happiness is to live as Jesus did, in the light of the kingdom of God that he has come to announce and to embody in himself.
These are among the qualities Bede saw in John of Beverley. He introduces him as a ‘holy man named John’, the bishop who is not so absorbed in overseeing the affairs of the church that he cannot pay attention to a poor homeless young man who is also a deaf mute. He provides him with food and shelter, heals his infirmity and teaches him (literally) his ABC. Bede says he became like the lame man in the Acts of the Apostles (also a Lucan story) who, after his healing, walked and leaped and praised God. The boy says Bede ‘gained a clear complexion, ready speech and beautiful curly hair, whereas once he had been ugly, destitute and dumb’. The detail is so charming that we wonder whether Bede heard the story from him himself. Bede tells of other healings wrought by St John, and these are recounted at some length, as if to say: don’t pass over the stories told of this man of God too quickly. We should learn from them, ask ourselves how they point back to the example of Jesus Christ himself, what they might say to us and how they might inspire us as we try to live as committed Christians in our own times.

Here, I think, are particular questions for all of you here in this Minster community and in this East Riding town. Like Durham and St Cuthbert, this church would not be the marvellous building it is were it not for the shrine of St John, and the way he was revered throughout medieval times. Nor would the town would not be what it is. Some of England’s greatest kings fervently honoured his memory, among them Henry V who attributed his victory at Agincourt to the saint. With this memory of the enormous following St John had enjoyed here, you wonder what went on in the minds of those who destroyed his shrine during the Reformation era and confiscated its great wealth. In Durham, where Cuthbert’s shrine survived the king’s commissioners’ savage attempts to wreck it, there were dark mutterings about not tampering with places where the saints had performed works of deliverance and healing because they would not like it.
But of course, a shrine is more than a physical place within a grand building. Just as we in Durham gladly inherit the vocation of being Cuthbert’s community today, you here, by being a living temple of God’s presence, embody what belonged to the essence of St John’s shrine. That is to say, as people of faith who inhabit this great building and this lovely town, it is your vocation to do what John of Beverley did in his day. It is for you to follow your Lord and Teacher as he did, to imitate his words and works of mercy and salvation, as he did, to bring healing and reconciliation to the people among whom you live and work, as he did, to live in simplicity and loving community as he did, and to bear living witness to the coming of God’s kingdom of justice, truth and peace in the society of this town – as he did. In this place, all that makes us want to cherish and love St John of Beverley lives on, not simply in the stones of this church and its ancient shrine, or on words written on parchment by an ancient historian, but in you who are its living stones, a shrine of flesh and blood in whom the spirit of the risen Jesus bears joyful witness to the good news that he brings to the world that is both his and ours.

At the Patronal Festival of St John of Beverley, Beverley Minster, 11 May 2014 Isaiah 35; Luke 6.17-31


Sunday, 4 May 2014

Supper at Emmaus: a farewell sermon

St Luke is one of the best storytellers in the Bible. Take the gospel we have just heard. What we love about it is the way it leads up to the moment of recognition. The two disciples trudge wearily back from Jerusalem ‘looking sad’ says Luke,for they thought they had lost the one who had become the very focus of their lives. That man had been crucified two days before. It had felt like the endsuch hopes had they invested in him. Skilfully, Luke moves the story from bafflement to disclosure. The couple talk with the stranger who walks with them. They invite him in to share a meal, ‘and their eyes were opened and they recognised him’. All the pent-up tension in the story is resolved. There is catharsis, a dramatic cleansing. Something new has happened, and the world is a different place from before. That is the power of Easter.

A recognition scene is always a satisfying climax to a storyAnd perhaps it is not so big a leap of the imagination to make a connection with what we are doing here this evening. Principally, we are here to celebrate the Christian eucharist. Luke’s whole purpose in telling his story about Emmaus is clear: every time we gather at table in memory of Jesus, eyes are opened; there is a disclosure. So in this Easter season, wecome to the altar and perform this simple, this ancient, this profound fourfold action. We take bread, we bless it, break it and give it; and as we dowe know that the risen Christ is among us. We recognise him in the words we hear and in the bread we break, and in the faces of one another who share itEvery eucharist is a recognition scene.

For St Luke, recognition is not simply seeing Jesus in a new way, as risen and alive in our midst. It leads us to see one another in new ways too. Because Easter transforms the whole of life, it raises all our relationships into a new realm. Affection, loyalty, colleagueship, friendship, love all begin to glow in the light of Easter. We glimpse the God-given potential that lies within every human encounter and commitment. Indeed, we glimpse Jesus in the midst whenever heart reaches out to heart, whenever men, women and children understand that it is not good for us to be alone. Recognition transfigures things, as every lover knows. For St Luke Easter is the birthday of the church because it means the renewal of every aspect of life and gateway to new possibilities as they are gathered up and given fresh expression in the resurrection of Jesus.

And that brings me to the other reason we are here tonight. We are saying farewell and thank you to Jonathan Lawson who has been chaplain of this College for a decade. We may feel that like Jesus at Emmaus, no sooner have we ‘recognised’ him than he vanishes from our sight and disappears north of Tyne. But recognition comes into this too, for it is a word we use when we want to express appreciation and thankfulness to a colleague and friend. And I think I speak for all of you when I use that language. We recognise Jonathan for the decade of commitment he has given this College as its chaplain and in ways that have extended well beyond that role. He has loved this place and its community. Perhaps he would like us to say that he ‘recognised’ something here that he could give himself to, invest in, help build up so that it could flourish. And I believe we need to say that we have recognised these qualities in him, and thank him for his dedicated, caring immersion into the life of this college. He has, I suspect, touched more lives than perhaps he can ever know.

In the Emmaus story, there is one other dimension to Luke’s carefully crafted narrative. There is the parting of friends: Jesus disappears, and for the second time that day, the disciples are left alone. But this time, it is in a very different spirit from the empty forlornness of that afternoon. ‘That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.’ That meant another seven mile journey, this time in the dark with all the threats it held. Yet the memory of what had happened to them when the stranger broke the bread in their home impelled them; it energised them to go back to tell the others that Jesus had risen from the dead. The memory held a legacy, and acting on it could not wait, not even the few hours until morning. This too was an act of recognition: to understand what was required of them by the events they had played a part in.

So, what we recognise at this farewell service is not simply a past decade with so much to celebrate. We also recognise the legacy of Jonathan’s service here, and how it contributes to shaping the future without him. That legacy, I believe, has been to consolidate chaplaincy in this College in a way that has been admired across the University. I even dare to say that some Durham colleges that have no chaplain have envied StHild and St Bede for its privileged position as a college that is so well provided for. This is thanks to generous funding by the Hild-Bede Trust, a legacy of the time when the two colleges of St Hild and St Bede were Church of England teacher training colleges.

Chaplaincy offers many benefits to a college. Maintaining servicessupporting the music of the choir, and giving pastoral care to those who make the chapel their spiritual home is only a part of this - vital, but only a part nevertheless. A chaplain cares about the life of the whole college. He or she is freely available to all its members whether they are students or staff, whether they are observant Christians, belong to another faith or practise no faith at all. The presence of a chaplain adds the dimension of looking beyond the visible and tangible aspects of college into its deeper values and ethics, its collective imagination, conscience, spirit. It adds what I call ‘religious intelligence’, that is, an understanding of the part religion plays in public life, something that is crucial in today’s diverse society of many faiths and many degrees of agnosticism especially in the articulate world of higher education. Chaplains who minister in open and inclusive ways are part of the glue that hold communities together; they help prevent dangerous misunderstandings that polarise institutions.  This is as true of a Durham college as it is of workplaces such as hospitals, schools, the armed services and prisons. Even in the secular environment of a modern higher education institution, religion is inevitably part of the public discourse as it is in the world at large. This is why chaplaincy is important and worth investing in.

It is now for this College to do its own work of recognition and take Jonathan’s legacy forward. Like the disciples at Emmaus, it is for us to remember what has happened here, and act on it. We do this conscious of the void that is left when we say farewell. But we also do it in the spirit of Easter: gratefully, courageously, confidently and gladly. So thank you, Jonathan, for all that you have brought to us, and all that you have done among us. God bless you in your future ministry; and God bless us here as we continue what you have so effectively sustained during your Durham years as our chaplain and our friend.

Emmaus and a Winter's Tale

It’s the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Not long ago we went to see The Winter’s Tale. It’s a late drama, hard to classify. It starts out as a tragedy where, like Othello, the tragic flaw is jealousy. Leontes imagines that his friend Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione. The drama shows a man eaten up by self-absorption and jealousy, his rapid disintegration bringing about the collapse of a whole family with the deaths of his wife and his young son. But then comedy breaks in. The famous stage direction exit, pursued by a bear introduces a note of parody as if nothing is quite what it seems. There is a clown and dancing; all is set for a happy ending, though we can’t guess how Shakespeare will get there. Well, he uses a device that puzzles critics because it seems to resort to trickery. Paulina brings a statue of lost Hermione back to life. It’s a tease: we don’t know if she was really dead or had just been hidden away and looked after by Paulina. But in a beautiful recognition scene she and Leontes are reunited and the play achieves catharsis.

Does the comedy, following hard on the heels of so much grimness, mock what went before as if to say, don’t take any of this too seriously: it’s just playful illusion? Perhaps it’s a parody on both tragedy and comedy: the scarcely believable speed at which things go wrong at the beginning, the sudden lurch into careless comedy complete with songs, ballet, slapstick and a miracle (if that’s what it is) to end with and undermine belief still further. Or is Shakespeare showing his mastery by merging tragedy and comedy in one art-work and making what is unbelievable at one level credible at another?

I see resonances in The Winter's Tale of the central Christian story of the passion and resurrection of Christ.  It seems to take us through a passion-like experience of suffering and pain into a realm of laughter, reconciliation and dancing that suggest resurrection and the kingdom of God. It’s one great transformation scene that leads us out of winter into summer, bringing colour into the greyscale it began with. Paulina has a great line near the end: ‘it is required you do awake your faith’. Which is why, when the statue comes to life (and who envies the actor who has to stand there so still for so long?), you smile at the ludicrousness of what is happening, and yet find yourself believing in it and being deeply moved by this recognition scene. Theatre is always an act of faith for playwright, actors and above all, audience. In The Winter's Tale, we are drawn rather wonderfully into the life of things that are both tragic and comic. It’s either parody or it’s gospel - or maybe both, because in an important way the gospel parodies the self-importance of so much of life and says: look beyond this and see something that is not transient but real and that lasts for ever.

Many of the Easter stories in the gospels are recognition scenes: the astonishing reversal of separation and loss in the joyful reunion of followers and friends with the risen Jesus.  Think of Mary Magdalen, supposing him to be the gardener, hearing him pronounce her name and recognising him as Rabbouni.  Think of the eleven behind locked doors and the Visitor who greeted them as only Jesus could, ‘peace be with you’.  Think of Thomas who would not believe, and his radiant confession of faith: ‘my Lord and my God’.  Think of Peter and the disciples after the miraculous catch of fish: ‘it is the Lord!’ All rather like statues brought back to life.

But for supreme artistry, go to St Luke’s story of Emmaus that we heard this morning.  The two disconsolate disciples trudging back home, joined by unknown stranger; their conversation on the road, the supper at which guest turns host, the familiar action of bread blessed and broken, the moment of recognition, the excited return to the city to tell the others – it is exquisitely told: there is not a false note anywhere.  Its intimacy and naturalness, its portrayal of the characters strikes us as entirely believable.  We are there: it is happening before our eyes.  Indeed, so vivid is it that we want to go beyond the sense of watching a drama happening to other people and say: truly this is happening to us. 

The journey is a favourite theme of St Luke. His Jesus is always on the move: indeed, the gospel is largely constructed around the theme of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem that ends in suffering and death.  But here is a journey from Jerusalem. It reminds me of that early story Luke tells about how Jesus’ family were going home after their visit to Jerusalem for the feast. His parents think the lad is among the crowd, but he isn’t. So back they go, and find him in the temple, recognise him ‘in my father’s house’, going about his Father’s business. Here is another journey, only this time, the Emmaus two think Jesus is not with them, yet they find he is.  Christ incognito, absent yet present, hidden yet disclosed, abased yet glorified, unknown yet well-known – these are St Luke’s themes.  And, says today’s story, when we take the risk of travel, walk by faith into an unknown future, the risen Christ comes to us as our fellow-traveller. There is recognition.  There is joy.  

There is another way in which we find we recognise. Luke’s gospel is a story full of eating and drinking.  Many of his key moments happen at the meal table where Jesus eats with tax-gatherers and sinners.  At the last supper he teaches his disciples about true service, and what the giving of his own body and blood will mean.  Does this recall how it was through a first supper that the human race was banished from paradise, when the man and the woman took the forbidden fruit and ‘the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’.  At that primordial meal, two people came to a recognition that led to death.  At the Emmaus meal, two people come to a recognition that leads to life.  ‘Their eyes were opened and they recognised him’ says Luke; as if to say: here, at Easter, with the first supper of the first day of the week, here is a new beginning.  Humanity’s long exile is over.  The way back to paradise is open at last. Eyes are opened; new life is breathed into our cold, rigid, statuesque existence. We recognise the risen Lord, we know who and what we are in the resurrection of Jesus.

In these days of Easter we celebrate with joyful hearts the memory of God’s wonderful works.  Luke says that the risen Christ walks with us, reveals to us the mystery of his being, crosses the threshold of our lives so that we recognise the one who wants to make his home with us.  What more do we need to know?  Like the disciples on that far-off day, we too are joined by the stranger who walks this earth and speaks to us of peace and hope.  ‘We greet him the days we meet him, and bless when we understand’, said Gerard Manley Hopkins, when the half-light of our existence is transformed into the full light of God’s new day, and our eyes are opened, and our hearts burn within us. Like Leontes, we know that it is required that we ‘awake our faith’, but that is precisely God’s Easter gift to us: that we recognise him, and know him, and love him, and find ourselves surprised by joy that our lives are given back to us, and winter’s tale has been transformed into spring.