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

Friday, 20 November 2015

Stirring us up to Sing: Sermon at the Consecration of Nicholas Chamberlain as Bishop of Grantham

Honour comes into things today. We are here to celebrate the consecration of a new bishop. We are glad for him, for the diocese of Lincoln and for the whole church. And it is not wrong to say that we honour him as we give thanks for Nick, this man of God, this friend, this priest whom we surround today with our love, our affection and our prayers.

Why do I use that word ‘honour’? Because it’s found in the gospel reading for this holy day, the feast of St Hild. (Two things to say here in parentheses. First, you’ll forgive me for preferring to speak of her by her Saxon name Hild rather than the Latin Hilda despite Nick’s honourable role as incumbent of St Hilda’s Church Jesmond. The second is that she died not on the 19th but the 17th of November 680. But as Lincoln people know, that day is also the anniversary of Hugh of Lincoln who died in 1200. To my mind Hugh, who was not only five hundred years Hild’s junior but also a gentleman, would not have hesitated to concede the 17th to the senior lady and taken the 19th himself. But the Church calendar has a wisdom of its own.)

But back to this word honour. In the gospel, Jesus has a lesson about good behaviour at a party. Be careful. Don’t grab the place of honour for yourself. Wait to be invited. It’s a pertinent reading at an episcopal service, for diocesan bishops as we know have seats. Cathedrals are named after these seats of honour, these cathedra; pretty grand some of them are too, if Durham’s is anything to go by. But, Jesus says, be properly reluctant about occupying a place of primacy and taking honour. Once, bishops-designate had to be dragged to their consecrations, so fearful were they to take up this awesome office. Nolo episcopari! they would cry, ‘I don’t want to be a bishop.’ Quite right. That should be an essential quality in the person spec of every episcopal appointment.

It’s so characteristic of Jesus’ teaching. Doxa, honour, is only to be had by those who begin by sitting in the lowest place and are invited to take a privileged seat. Why? Because his rule is a kingdom of nobodies where the greatest are least and the last first. Jesus himself is the example of this way of being: he who was rich became poor so that we might become rich, who took the form of a slave and was obedient unto death. All of Christianity is about this. But public ministry in particular, and episcopal ministry most of all. To be ‘grand’ is to subvert the very thing a priest or bishop embodies as-Christ. To be a ‘dignitary’, as we call it, is to embody true Christian ‘worth’, dignitas; and this means above all else, evangelical poverty of spirit, the virtue of humility we heard about in Ephesians, the grace to be as nobody and become one of God’s poor.

Hild was born into the royal house of Northumbria. But her vocation did not lie in being a princess but an abbess pledged to religious poverty. She had the oversight of a double monastery of women and men like her given as God’s poor in imitation of the humble Son of Man and in response to his call to follow. Like others inspired by gentle Aidan, she is depicted by Bede as a woman who embodied the spirit of the gospel herself by noticing and honouring those of little account. One of those to whom she said, in effect, ‘friend, come up higher’ was Caedmon. He was a nobody in that community. While the brothers and sisters were at prayer in quire or dining in hall, he would be outside in the stables caring for the animals and sleeping among them. Once in a dream, someone came to him and asked him to sing about the origin of created things. ‘How can I sing?’ he replied helplessly, 'how shall I sing that Majesty?' Yet in his dream, he composed a poem and sang the praise of the Creator. Next day he remembered the song. Hild heard about it and summoned him. Testing and recognising his gift, she called him to take vows and enter the monastery as its poet and singer in residence, one of the earliest poets to write in English. 

I love that story because of what it says to me about Christian vocation and ministry. For one thing, it underlines the Bible’s insistence that God’s humble poor are his special treasure. This is always a privilege of public ministry as deacon, priest or bishop, to notice and care about those in the stable no less than those in quire. But to go on, this ‘noticing’ is about paying attention to what God is doing in the lives of others, even when they are the most unlikely of others. We should learn from this story not to think we can ever predict or know where God is going to be at work. All ministry is to do the work of God, indeed, but part of this is the difficult and exacting task of discernment: understanding that God is at work in the world before we ever get to see it or know about it. Only then are we in a position to bring about reconciliation and healing, one of the gifts Hild was especially remembered for in the Saxon church. This is where we look to bishops to lead. I don’t simply mean that the recognition and calling out of gifts and ministries belongs to episcope as your act of loving oversight of the church. I mean something altogether larger than this: teaching the church to pay attention to creation, to all of life in its flourishing and in its brokenness, to listen and discern so that we do not miss the often hidden stirrings of the Spirit of God. Hild, we can safely say, always acted in an episcopal way as Abbess, and the story of how Caedmon was brought to her and her eyes and ears were opened gives us a clue about the leadership style of this remarkable woman.

And then there is the nature of the gift itself. To compose poetry and to sing songs in praise of God: this was the charism Hild discerned in Caedmon and brought out to flourish. Isn’t it the vocation of a bishop to help the whole church find our voice as poets and singers? When it comes to worshipping God and speaking about him, poetry and song are far closer to the truth of things than prose can ever be. In Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines, he traces the footsteps of native peoples who sing as they walk and bring worlds into being, echoing the primordial song by which the universe was made. ‘The trade route is the Songline because songs, not things, are the principal medium of exchange.’ Oscar Wilde says that Christ was a poet who makes poets out of all of us. I have a hunch that if bishops and all of us who are Christian leaders could worry about the prose a little less, and trade in song a little more, our church might breathe a great sigh of relief. For with the lightness of spirit and quickness of step that poetry and song bring, who knows how our worship could begin to dance, and our mission glow with gratitude, and our service of God and humanity, and our pursuit of all that is just and right be transformed from Pelagian duty into gospel joy?

This story of Hild and Caedmon fits so well with our gospel reading. Here is the man who knew his place but was called to a new role because his gift was discovered and recognised. I doubt if Hild ever forgot the day she first heard Caedmon sing. To him, like so many in the Saxon church of Northumbria, ‘she was known as mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace’ says Bede. To be a father or a mother in God, like every act of parenting, is to recognise the giftedness of those who are as children to us, and raise them to the place of honour where their God-given potential is realised, and where the base metal of prosody is transmuted into the shining gold of song.
'We need each other's voice to sing the songs our hearts would raise.' Nick, you are among us as God’s bishop to stir us up to sing even in dark and evil times, especially in dark and evil times*. So find your own voice, and help us to find ours so that we may be a church of joy and hope as together we learn how to 'sing that Majesty which angels do admire.'

*A reference to the bombings in Beirut and Paris by Daesh a few days before, and heightened security in the UK.

Southwark Cathedral, St Hild’s Day 2015.
At the consecration of The Right Reverend Dr Nicholas Chamberlain as Bishop of Grantham. (Ephesians 4.1-6, Luke 14.7-14)

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Global Terror and Christ the King

How do we respond to terror?  I don’t mean the strategies governments resort to in the so-called ‘war on terror’.  I doubt if the many-headed hydra of terrorism will be defeated in our time: the best we can hope for is that it can to some extent be contained.  What I mean is the effect it has on us, all of us probably, in generating anything from a low-level unease when stepping on to the London Underground to a much keener sense of fear when some outrage yet again destroys innocent lives and reminds us that we are living on eggshells. I guess we are leaning to live with fear, and to be prudent in the face of it.

There is nothing new in this.  Bloodshed, violence, terror are as old as the race.  Those who wrote the Book of Daniel from which we read in the Old Testament lesson knew this for themselves.  The era was the mid 2nd century BC, when the Jewish community had come under the rule of the Seleucid kings.  Antiochus Epiphanes’ programme was to impose all things Greek on this beleaguered Semitic community.  The terror was relentless in its operation and ruthless in its scope.  Jewish religion was proscribed under pain of death: practices such as circumcision, possessing the Torah, observing the Sabbath and the festivals, taking part in temple worship.  The crowning insult was the offering of swine’s flesh on the altar of the temple, what the writings called ‘the abomination of desolation’. Those who would not conform suffered terribly: they were tortured without mercy and then slain.  Their stories are told in the Books of the Maccabees. It isn’t too much to say that this was the first Jewish holocaust. It was not to be the last. 

How does a community live with its fear?  The Book of Daniel responds in two ways.  The first is by telling stories of heroic survival to inspire faith and perseverance.  Daniel and his three friends, depicted as exiles in Babylon, undergo all manner of ordeals because they refuse to obey the royal command to worship the tyrant’s golden image, and indeed the tyrant himself.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the burning fiery furnace for their loyalty to God (an eloquent image of the fires of persecution), yet they sing a Benedicite from the very heart of the cauldron and emerge unscathed as a testimony to how the God of Israel protects his own.  Daniel too is hurled into the den of lions; he too is unharmed.  The message is: the worst that others can do to you is as nothing if you remain faithful to God and to his covenant.  To do this, says Daniel, is what it means to be wise. 

But of course for most of the faithful living in times that must have seemed like the end of the world, there was to be no deliverance.  So the second part of the Book of Daniel draws out of those tales of deliverance their fundamental truth. It does this by using the colourful, dramatic imagery of what is called apocalyptic writing.  The threats to the community are presented as terrifying monsters, catastrophic floods, global conflagrations.  Amid ordeals such as these, where was God?  What was he doing to protect his people?  Why was he so absent from their suffering?  And the answer apocalyptic gives is to say that despite appearances, God is indeed king.  In our Old Testament reading, the Ancient of Days ‘has dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him.’  And ‘his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship shall never be destroyed.’  The persecuted author, perhaps on the threshold of death, can say that God is the Lord of history.  Only it is not yet time for him to intervene to rescue the faithful and claim his true sovereignty.  But that day of the Lord is coming.  When it does, the righteous sufferers will be vindicated.  Evil will be banished. Chaos will be returned to cosmos, just as it was at the creation.  The universe will regain its right order.

When we turn to today’s gospel from St John, we seem to be in an entirely different world.  We are in the presence of Christ before Pilate in the praetorium, one of the great scenes not only in the Bible but in all literature.  Their encounter turns on the meaning of kingship.  Jesus has been arraigned as ‘king of the Jews’.  Are you a king, asks Pilate?  You say so, says Jesus.  But he goes on to explain carefully what this means and what it doesn’t mean.  ‘My kingdom is not from this world; if it were, my servants would be fighting that I might not be delivered up to the Jews’.  So this kingdom is not founded on human power, imperial hegemony and the force of arms.   Rather, it is a kingdom of truth.  Jesus has come into the world to bear witness to the truth.  His subjects know the truth because they listen to his voice. There is a power that brings people into this kingdom.  But not the coercive power Pilate understands, rather the power of self-giving love.

Now for the Fourth Gospel, it is not a case of saying that whereas Daniel’s Ancient of Days has a worldwide glory and dominion, Christ’s kingship is hidden, inward, known only to those who follow him.  On the contrary, St John’s Gospel tells a story that leads to a climax that is visible, public and cosmic in scope.  That climax is what he calls Jesus’ ‘hour’ of glory where he is acknowledged as the world’s true king.  Where is his throne, his place of transfiguration?  The answer is: Golgotha.  The cross is where he reigns, where he takes the dominion and glory of the Ancient of Days, where he is lifted up and draws all people to himself so that peoples, nations and languages may serve him.  Here his dominion is everlasting, his kingship never to be destroyed.  The cross is where he acclaims in triumph that greatest of the eight passion words: tetlestai, ‘it is accomplished!’   

How can I transfer the extravagant apocalyptic language of Daniel to the gentle Good Shepherd of St John?  Because for John, the true glory of Jesus is that he lays down his life for the sheep.  John tells us, as Jesus begins his journey to the cross, that ‘having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’.  It’s this ‘love to the end’ that proclaims Jesus’ glory which the Christmas gospel will tell us we have beheld in the face of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  And because love is his meaning, we find the hope and strength we need to go on living with our fear; for we know that the cross is not only the sign of the love that sustains us through the ordeals we face, but is the demonstration that God knows from within the pain and suffering of his children.  He too is their victim, for he too has given his life and known the cost of bearing witness to the truth. 

Christ the king calls us his subjects and invites our allegiance and our love.  It isn’t much of a kingdom: nobodies, peasants, fishermen, prostitutes, tax-gatherers.  Yet the common people heard him gladly, and were the first to recognise what shone out of this man.  This king does not promise that if we go with him, his way will be glorious, or lead to wealth or success or even personal fulfilment, only afflictions and trials. Yet he also promises that we can discover a new way of living that is not driven by an oppressive sense of dread.  And this is the answer to our fear: not a palliative religion that denies fear’s reality, but a faith that takes away its power over us, and gives us the courage to live by hope and by the truth that sets us free.  Christianity is to acknowledge that Jesus is the king who has overcome the world.  It is to live as subjects of this kingdom ‘not from here’, whose law is the perfect love that casts out fear.    

Michael Sadgrove
Durham Cathedral on the Feast of Christ the King, 26 November 2006
Daniel 7.20-27, John 18.33-37