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

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