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

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Core of Christianity

It was a test question, says the gospel. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” What answer did the clever lawyer expect from Jesus? Later Jewish scholars like Moses Maimonides decided there were 613 commandments in the Torah altogether, what we call the law of Moses. 365 of these concerned things we shouldn’t do, as many as the days of the year; and 248 concerned things we should do, the same as the number of bones and organs in the human body. Talmudic scholars loved probing the mystic significance of numbers. Was the lawyer one of these? 
And what was the test? To see whether Jesus equated not eating the sinew of the thigh with honouring your father and your mother? Or not crossbreeding animals with not stealing? Well, Jesus gives his answer. In the order the commandments appear in the Old Testament, they are numbers 240 and 415. We must love God with all our hearts. We must love our neighbour as ourselves. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 
What is Jesus saying? At a stroke he cuts through the labyrinthine complexities of Hebrew law and teaches us, in effect, that everything has to be judged by a single principle, the law of love. That’s the only criterion that matters in the end. Not unremitting scrupulousness, not self-inflicted martyrdom, not self-wounding discipline, not the impossible quest for perfection. None of these things can save us, though good people often fall into the trap of trying to live that way. No, what matters is what’s going on inside us at the level of desire and attitude and motive. This is what interests God. 
And Jesus says that the test of authentic religion is very simple. Simplicity is often a guide when it comes to attitude and motive, like when Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that in our fasting, our almsgiving and our prayer we need to go into our room and shut the door and be alone where only God can see. So he strips away all the tired, extraneous performance of religion, “that moth-eaten musical brocade” Philip Larkin calls it, and says: stay with what really matters. Know what’s essential, what lies at the heart of your faith. And whenever you make a choice about what to do, always ask yourself if you’re acting out of love: love of God, love of your neighbour. That’s the surest guide to doing what is both good and right.
We heard these words in the Lord’s summary of the law earlier in this service. “Lord have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts we beseech thee.” That prayer is an allusion to the Hebrew prophets who spoke about how in days to come God would remove the people’s heart of stone and write his new covenant of love on hearts of flesh. To love God “with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind” is an echo of that great promise. It means the whole of me, everything freely given to God, with nothing held back. For that, says the gospel, is precisely how God has loved us. Everything freely given to us, with nothing held back. “You shall be my people and I will be your God” said the Hebrew Bible. It’s as simple as that.
Or it should be. In one of my favourite hymns “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” the Victorian Catholic priest Father Faber says:
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own. 
That captures the problem of organised religion, or at least how many see it: rule-bound, oppressive, stern. I think of the people who have fallen the wrong side of religion, or think they have, because all they can hear are the fateful “thou shalt nots”: the divorced, gay people, people of colour, women, the poor, the helpless, those who are in prison or locked into addiction: how many, even among our own friends and family, think that religion has nothing to say to them? Here’s a famous poem by William Blake.
I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen;
A chapel was built in the midst
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
If God’s law of love were written on our hearts, how different it would be! The older I get, the more I realise this, the more I want to pare down my carefully constructed edifice of faith so as to reach the core of what it is supposed to mean: loving God and our neighbour because love is how we know God to be, the love that has come among us in Jesus and found us and changed our lives. 
I guess that’s what the gospel is saying to us today, whether we’ve been coming to church all our lives or have only recently begun the spiritual journey. We are here at this eucharist because we see in the bread and wine the symbols of the self-giving that loves to the end. In the broken bread and poured out wine we see the kind of God we worship and have promised to be loyal to. He beckons to us, invites us in, says to us: feast at my table, play in my garden, dream of new worlds, discover what it means to be precious and beloved. Be surprised by a joy you never knew possible. 
And discover for yourself what Jesus means in the gospel, that all of life comes down to loving God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” said St Irenaeus. I crave that sense of aliveness, that deep and wonderful way of being human. It's the only way we shall save ourselves, and heal the world.
Haydon Bridge, 29 October 2017. Matthew 22.34-end 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Saints on the Borderlands

I feel a strong kinship with Herefordshire. In Northumberland where I live, the borderland of the English Middle and East March is part of our identity. Marcher lands are of a piece, whether they are on the margins of Scotland or Wales. But my links with this county are more personal. My wife grew up in Ledbury, so this is historically her cathedral. Before that, my mother, a Jewish war refugee from Germany, found refuge in England and was sent to be looked after in the same town, in Ledbury not many doors down from the black and white house my wife’s parents would buy a few years later. It’s a coincidence that’s beyond curious.
And your native saint Thomas Cantilupe offers another connection. Not every cathedral is lucky enough to hold the shrine of a saint, but Hereford and Durham, where I was dean have that in common. The original Diocese of Durham reached up to the Scottish border where most of our northern saints came from, especially our beloved Cuthbert. Cantilupe, too, belongs to the borderlands, as the title of your Dean’s fine book Saints and Sinners of the Marches suggests. Maybe there is something about borderlands that fosters sainthood, and grows holy lives that we can admire, learn from and emulate.
Why do I suggest that? 
In Cuthbert’s and Cantilupe’s times, border regions were not safe places. You only have to see how the marches are peppered with castles and fortifications to see that. In these lands, fought-over for so long, life took on an uncertain, provisional character. Identity was less settled, institutions less permanent. Perhaps only the church provided a bigger perspective, a longer view, stood for stability, offered hope. In a debateable land, who can say what reassurance and safety this Cathedral that Cantilupe knew so well offered to people whose loyalties and allegiances were blown this way and that with the changing winds of history?
Our epistle reading from the Letter to the Hebrews offers, I think, a perspective on life in the borderlands and how it can grow saints. Abraham, says the text, “was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land.” And this sense of being on a journey in a strange land, never quite belonging, walking the borders of another country, is echoed in what follows. “They (these people of faith in the Old Testament) confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland;…they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”
“What’s a saint?” yell the demons scornfully in Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius. We could answer that question in a thousand ways: “a bundle of bones / which fools adore / when life is o’er. / Ha! Ha!” Who doesn’t love belting it out in Elgar’s great oratorio? But here’s an answer I like, from Graham Greene in his novel The End of the Affair. “For if this God exists…if even you with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all… It’s something He can demand of any of us: leap.” The idea is that you only have to give yourself a little height by leaping, stretching, craning your neck even, in order to see beyond yourself and your little world. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” asks Robert Browning. To glimpse heaven and then to find your life is changed because of what you have glimpsed – maybe that’s the essence of sainthood. And the reason we love our saints is precisely because they have seen what we long to see, touched heaven, and point us to the way in which we can do the same. 
This is what the writer to the Hebrews is getting at. He says that those who lived and died in faith were, in a sense, living on the borderland of two worlds. Their feet were firmly planted in one world, but they could gaze across to the other, as Moses on the brink of the promised land took in the landscape before him. “As it is they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” he says. That’s the language of the border where two landscapes meet, two countries, two realms. In the marches of the spiritual life, on one side there is this world where we are called to live as good citizens and faithful followers of Jesus, where we must be loyal to the Lord who is the way, the truth and the life, and through his death and resurrection embrace and embody the living hope that is the gift of the gospel. On the other side there is the new heaven and the new earth that we look forward to when we confess our faith “in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”. 
You could call it the city of God as Augustine did, or the kingdom of heaven, or the new creation. The point is that it is not far from each one of us; it is within our reach if only we will feel after him and find him in whom we live and move and have our being. In the north we sometimes speak of holy sites like Lindisfarne as “thin places” where the borderlands of earth and heaven seem almost to merge. And perhaps the saints like Thomas of Hereford and Cuthbert of Lindisfarne are thin people for the same reason that they have had the courage to leap, in Graham Greene’s image, and glimpse for themselves the glory of a world transformed, Jerusalem the golden, “blessed city, heavenly Salem, vision dear whence peace doth spring”. 
Isn't that an answer to the question, what's a saint? The saints belong to these borderlands because they look into both worlds of our human experience – the world we know because we live here, and the new heavens and the new earth that for now we only long for and on our best days, glimpse a little. The shrine of St Thomas Cantilupe is an ever-present sign in this cathedral of a life lived on the borderlands, this man who in purity of heart, in suffering and in healing looked into the world to come and embraced it. Thomas can help us be borderlanders too, people of the spiritual marches who know “we have here no abiding city, but seek that which is to come”. We can pray “thy kingdom come”, not as a wishful thought or a beautiful dream  but as a sure and certain hope, because of the saints who have already leaped towards it and who stretch out their hands to us to help us reach for it too. 
Hereford Cathedral, The Feast of St Thomas Cantilupe, 1 October 2017
Hebrews 11.7-10. 13-16; Matthew 24.42-46