This is the text of last night’s sermon from the stage on the Marktplatz in Halle, Germany, in the Ascension Day ecumenical service to kick off Kirchentag auf dem Weg. 

Kirchentag auf dem Weg, Halle, 25 Mai 2017

Predigt

„Du siehst mich.“ (1 Mose 16:13)

Sind diese drei Worte eine Drohung oder ein Versprechen? Als Adam und Eva merkten im Garten, dass sie nackt waren, hatten sie sofort Angst. Gott kann alles sehen. Wir sind transparent.

Vielleicht gibt es eine andere Frage: Gott sieht mich, aber wie siehe ich Gott? Heute feiern wir auch Christi Himmelfahrt, und ich möchte jetzt versuchen, diese Frage mit Bezug auf dieses seltsame Ereignis zu beantworten.

Als meine Kinder noch klein waren, fuhren wir aus dem Norden Englands nach Traun bei Linz in Österreich, um dort mit Freunden zwei Wochen Urlaub zu machen. Einige Dinge haben diesen Urlaub unvergesslich werden lassen – nicht zuletzt der vierzigste Geburtstag meiner Frau im Mauthausener Konzentrationslager … was beweist, was für ein toller Romantiker ich bin. Aber zwei andere Erinnerungen zeichnen sich aus: erstens, mein jüngster Sohn, der ungefähr zehn Jahre alt war und gar kein Wort Deutsch kannte, war erstaunt, wie riesig groß die Stadt ‘Ausfahrt’ war, wie jedes Verkehrsschild auf der Autobahn darauf hinwies; die zweite war seine inzwischen in unserer Familie legendäre Frage: “Dad, warum sagen sie auf Star Trek immer wieder, ‘Beat me up, Scottie’?”

Ich weiß, dass das schon vor langer Zeit war, aber ich erinnere mich auch daran, dass alle drei Kinder immer wieder fragten – wie eine Schallplatte mit einem Sprung: “Sind wir bald da?” Es ist ein echtes Wunder, dass sie alle die Reise überhaupt überlebt haben. 1200 Kilometer. Ich freue mich sehr darüber, dass zwei von ihnen nun ihre eigenen Kinder haben und gleichermaßen von ihnen geplagt werden. Das heißt Gerechtigkeit … Rückzahlung.

Ich erzähle diese Geschichte nicht, um zu zeigen, dass die Briten den Begriff ‘Schadenfreude’ verstehen, auch wenn wir kein Wort dafür haben. Ich erzähle sie, weil sie illustriert, was wirklich im Hintergrund der Ereignisse vor sich geht, die wir den Himmelfahrt Jesu nennen. Die Freunde Jesu haben eine schwierige Reise erlebt – eine Reise voller Drehungen und Wendungen und unerwarteten Ereignissen; und nun wollen sie einfach wissen, ob sich die Reise dem Ende nähert – dass sie schon fast da sind. Sie wundern sich nicht über Star Trek, aber sie sind immer noch darüber verwirrt, was ihre Erfahrung mit Jesus tatsächlich bedeutet, und wohin die Reise weiter geht.

Die Freunde Jesu haben erlebt, wie ihr gewöhnliches Leben durch das seltsame und beunruhigende Verhalten und die Aussagen des Zimmermanns aus Galiläa total gestört worden ist. Vorher war das Leben klar und ihre Erwartungen waren ziemlich einfach: Sie lebten unter dem Druck der römischen militärischen Besatzungskräfte; sie sehnten sich nach und beteten für den Tag, an dem sie wieder frei werden; sie sahen sich als Gottes Volk, und sie warteten auf die Rechtfertigung Gottes, auf die Wiederherstellung der wahren Ordnung der Welt, auf die Erneuerung des jüdischen Volkes. Aber, trotz aller Hoffnungen und der Versprechungen von vielen Messias, dass sie schon fast da seien, ging das Elend weiter. Ihre Welt war von politischen Intrigen, religiöser Korruption und gesellschaftlichem Unbehagen geprägt. Mit den Worten des Psalmisten beteten sie ernsthaft: “Wie lange, O Herr, wie lange…?” Wie lange müssen wir noch warten, bis Du dich als der Herr im Himmel wie auf Erden zeigst?

Dann steht Jesus auf einem Berg – genauso wie Mose einmal auf dem Berg stand und die Zehn Gebote direkt von Gott erhielt (und froh war, dass es nur zehn und nicht zwanzig Gebote waren) – und Jesus fängt an, ein neues Licht des Verständnisses auf Moses zu werfen. Wie die Israeliten, die mit Mose nach dem Exodus vierzig Jahre durch die Wüste zogen, verbringt Jesus nach seiner Taufe vierzig Tage und Nächte in der Wüste, um dort ohne Ablenkung seine Prioritäten aussortieren zu können, und um seine Ernsthaftigkeit über die ihm bevorstehende Aufgabe zu prüfen . Gleich danach wählt er seine Freunde aus, und lädt sie ein, mit ihm den Strand entlang zu laufen und ein neues Leben voll von neuen Erfahrungen und neuen Gefahren zu beginnen. Aber es scheint, dass diese Reise mit Jesus auf einem anderen Berg – das heißt Golgotha – zum bitteren und tief enttäuschenden Ende gekommen ist … aber dann noch eine andere unerwartete Wendung nimmt, als der vermeintlich tote Jesus immer wieder seine Freunde trifft. Schließlich nimmt er sie auf einen weiteren Berg mit, wo er sie beauftragt und sich dann von ihnen verabschiedet.

Während dieser drei kurzen Jahre ist das Leben dieser gewöhnlichen Männer und Frauen aus dem Bergland von Galiläa auf den Kopf gestellt worden. Sie haben – in den Worten von Markus gleich am Anfang seines Evangeliums – sich der Herausforderung der Umkehr (der Buße – metanoia) gestellt: das heißt, die Art und Weise, wie sie Gott, die Welt und sich selbst betrachten, zu ändern, … um zu verändern, wie sie über Gott, die Welt und sich selbst nachdenken, … um zu verändern, wie sie in der Welt mit Gott und einander zusammenleben.

Metanoia: eine radikale Veränderung nicht nur von, sondern auch zu einer neuen Art zu Sehen, Denken und Leben. Wir wissen, dass Gott uns sieht; aber wie sehen wir Gott?

Nun ist das ja keine einfache Sache. Zum Beispiel, wenn jemand versucht, mich zu überreden, meine Liebe für den FC Liverpool aufzugeben, um ein Fan von Manchester United oder Chelsea zu werden, könnte ich das nie tun. Nie. Es ist total unvorstellbar- unmöglich. Aber diese Männer und Frauen sind gebeten worden, die Art und Weise, wie sie über Gott denken und ihr Leben in Gottes Welt verstehen, radikal zu verändern. Wenn diese kurze Erzählung wie ein dramatisches Schauspiel ist, dann werden sie aufgefordert, in ihrer Rolle aktiv zu werden, und nicht nur darauf zu warten, bis die anderen die Verantwortung übernehmen. Sie müssen auch ihren Platz einnehmen und in dem sich entfaltenden Drama Gottes mit seinem Volk eine echte Rolle spielen.

Die klarste Beschreibung davon befindet sich im Lukasevangelium Kapitel 24. Zwei Freunde von Jesu sind auf dem Rückweg von Jerusalem; ihre Gedanken sind in Aufruhr. Sie versuchen, alles zu verstehen, was in den letzten Tagen passiert ist – aber wahrscheinlich auch was in den letzten drei Jahren mit ihnen passiert ist. Es klappt einfach nicht. Der Messias soll nicht sterben. Also war Jesus von Nazareth nur noch der neueste enttäuschende Möchte-gern-Messias, der die Hoffnungen des Volkes weckte … und dann diese Hoffnungen verriet? Diese Menschen, die Freunde von Jesu, haben gerade beobachtet, wie ihre Hoffnungen im Schmutz und Staub des Bodens von Golgotha bluteten. Sind sie wirklich verraten worden? Betrogen? Aber, wenn ja, wie sollten sie dann all die Wunder, die geheilten Menschen, die verärgerten religiösen Führer, die seltsamen umgedrehten Lehren (und so weiter) verstehen?

Der auferstandene Jesus kommt zu ihnen auf die Straße, und läuft neben ihnen her. Er geht nicht vor ihnen her; er geht auch nicht hinter ihnen her. Er geht neben ihnen her, und läuft in ihrem Tempo – in den Worten des asiatischen Theologen Kosuke Koyama, ein Gott, der drei Meilen pro Stunde geht (three mile an hour God). Dann stellt ihnen Jesus eine Frage: “Wovon redet Ihr?” Sie antworten ihm: “Über alles, was in den letzten Tagen in der Stadt passiert ist.” Jesus fragt: “Was denn?” Also fangen sie an, ihm zu erzählen, was passiert ist. Sie schütten ihre Verwirrung aus, und erzählen eine Geschichte, die keinen Sinn macht – eine Geschichte, die an der falschen Stelle endet, so als wäre, zum Beispiel, Rotkäppchen am Schluss von ihrer Oma gefressen worden.

24:19-24

Nun, wenn ich Jesus gewesen wäre, hätte ich mich nicht mit den Fragen aufgehalten, auf die ich schon die Antworten wusste. Aber Jesus fängt an, dort wo sie wirklich sind; er geht in ihrem Tempo; er lässt sie ihre verworrene Geschichte artikulieren, bevor er anfängt, die Geschichte anders zu erzählen. Er bietet ihnen eine alternative Erzählung erst dann, als diese Freunde bereit sind, sie zu hören. Später, als sie in ihrem Haus in Emmaus das Brot brechen, werden ihre Augen geöffnet: “Brannte nicht unser Herz in uns, als er mit uns redete auf dem Wege und uns die Schrift öffnete?” (Lukas 24:32)

Aber jetzt versuchen die Freunde, alles zu verstehen. Was bedeutet diese Geschichte für das Judentum? Und für die Welt? Oder für Jesus selbst? Und für sie und ihre Zukunft? Was war das alles? Ich denke, diese Geschichte erzählt uns etwas Wichtiges über Jesus, etwas über die Welt, und etwas über die Kirche.

Diese normalen Menschen haben mit Jesus von Nazareth gelebt, und sie haben beobachtet, wie er stirbt. Sie haben gewagt zu glauben, dass er der wahre Messias sein könnte. Aber jetzt fühlen sie sich nicht mehr so sicher. Jesus verlässt sie – und dabei zeigt er ganz klar und deutlich, dass Himmel und Erde nicht zwei verschiedene Orte sind, sondern zwei Dimensionen derselben Realität. Die Wolke – die in der Bibel immer mit der Gegenwart Gottes verbunden ist – verbirgt Jesus; aber die Wolke bringt ihn nicht zu einem Ort, der außerhalb der Welt – oder von der Welt entfernt – ist. Ja, er befindet sich jetzt beim Vater, aber der Vater ist nicht weit von der Welt entfernt. Wie in der Offenbarung Kapitel 21 kommt der Himmel auf die Erde, so ist Gott in Jesus zu uns gekommen, und so wird Jesus eines Tages den Himmel und die Erde wieder zusammenbringen.

Bei der Himmelfahrt geht es nicht um den Abschied oder die Abwesenheit Jesu, sondern vielmehr geht es um die Anwesenheit von Jesus dort, wo wir sind, und nicht nur dort, wo sich sein Körper befindet. Bei der Himmelfahrt Jesu kommen Himmel und Erde auf eine neue Art und Weise zusammen – mehr verkörpert, nicht weniger.

Die Himmelfahrt sagt, wer Jesus ist. Er ist der Herr des Himmels und der Erde, identifiziert und unmittelbar verbunden mit Gott, dem Schöpfer, dem Liebhaber, dem Erlöser, dem Vergeber, dem Retter der Welt. Und die Welt steht nun vor einer Herausforderung. Während die Seelen der römischen Kaiser sichtbar in den Himmel aufstiegen (damit sie nach ihrem Tod als Götter betrachtet werden konnten), steigt jetzt Jesus mit Körper, Geist und Seele auf – diese drei identifizierbar und klar in einer Einheit miteinander verbunden.

Dieses Ereignis bietet uns eine neue Art, die Welt und die Menschlichkeit zu begreifen. Jesus ist in der Welt, aber er steht auch vor der Welt; hier spricht er immer noch in die Widersprüche und Verwirrungen der Welt, und bietet den Menschen einen neuen Weg, Gott, die Welt und andere Menschen zu sehen, und in der Welt zu leben. Viel mehr könnte hier gesagt werden, aber es genügt an dieser Stelle, dass die Mächte der Welt – und Annahmen über die Macht – grundsätzlich von dem auferstandenen Christus herausgefordert werden – von dem Christus, der über den Tod in ein neues Leben hinausgeht, um die Welt zu einer neuen Hoffnung und die Kirche zu einem neuen Glauben aufzufordern.

Und wie sollte die Kirche die Himmelfahrt verstehen? Und wir? Schauen wir uns die Geschichte noch einmal an.

Als sie sich auf dem Berg versammeln, hören die Freunde Jesu, dass sie nicht mehr Beobachter sind, sondern Akteure, die an der verwandelnden und anspruchsvollen Arbeit Gottes in der Welt teilnehmen. Jesus hat gelebt, ist gestorben, ist auferstanden und hält nun den Himmel und die Erde zusammen. Es ist jetzt die Verantwortung, die Pflicht und die Freude seiner Freunde, auf die Bühne zu kommen. Vorher waren sie ein bisschen wie das Publikum im Theater; jetzt aber sollen sie die Akteure auf der Bühne werden, die die Geschichte erzählen, die das Drama kreativ leben, die die richtige Sprache und den Blickwinkel finden, mit denen man diesem Publikum – diesen Zuschauern – die Möglichkeit anbieten kann, selbst in das Drama hineingeholt zu werden und selbst Akteure zu werden.

Natürlich können wir nicht einfach neue Charaktere erschaffen, oder die Geschichte mit einem bequemeren Ende erzählen. Wie alle guten Künstler müssen wir uns Zeit nehmen, um die Geschichte zu erlernen, ihre Linie und ihre erzählerischen Lücken zu erforschen, die Sprache auszuprobieren und die richtigen Worte und Sprachbilder zu betonen. Aber wir müssen auch mit den Charakteren und der Erzählung übereinstimmen, die wir geerbt haben. Wir müssen im Bild bleiben – “im Charakter” sein.

Das ist dann die Berufung der Kirche: Zeugen zu sein unserer Begegnung mit dem auferstandenen Jesus, der die Art und Weise verändert hat, wie wir die Welt betrachten, wie wir die Welt sehen, wie wir über die Welt denken und wie wir in der Welt leben. Wie die römischen Herolde, die die Nachricht vom Beitritt eines neuen Kaisers in die Weiten des Reiches getragen haben, ist die Aufgabe der Kirche, der Welt zu sagen, dass Cäsar nicht Herr des Himmels und der Erde ist, sondern dass Jesus Christus der Herr ist. Nicht der IWF, die EU, die Brexiteers oder Donald Trump. Jesus ist Herr, und soll angebetet, geliebt, nachgefolgt und gehorcht werden. Wir sind die Menschen, deren Verstand verwandelt, deren Herz befeuert, deren Wollen gestärkt worden ist und deren Fantasie eine Farbexplosion erlebt hat. Wir sind die Jesus-geformten Menschen, die nicht mehr von Angst getrieben, sondern von der Hoffnung gezogen werden. Wir können nicht umhin, der Welt zu sagen, was wir in Jesus gesehen und erlebt haben – in dem Jesus, der lebte, der gestorben ist, der auferstanden und aufgefahren ist, und der mit dem Vater und in der Kraft des Heiligen Geistes herrscht.

Als meine Diözese vor drei Jahren neu gegründet wurde, musste ich eine Vision artikulieren. Ich formulierte eine einfache Aussage, die erklärt, was immer die Berufung der Kirche war: Wir wollen eine Kirche werden, die zuversichtliche Pfarrer ausrüstet, deren Auftrag es ist, zuversichtliche Christen wachsen zu lassen, deren Auftrag es ist, die gute Nachricht von Jesus Christus in unserem Teil des Nordens von England zu erzählen und auszuleben. Wir haben dann diese Aussage auf drei Begriffe konzentriert: Überzeugte Christen, wachsende Kirchen, verwandelnde Gemeinschaften. Später haben wir unsere Werte als: Loving, Living, Learning artikuliert. Wir lieben Gott, die Welt und unsere Nachbarn wie uns selbst; wir leben in der realen Welt und sind der heutigen Welt verpflichtet, Körper, Geist und Seele – eine Inkarnationskirche. Manchmal richten wir ein Durcheinander ein mit unserer Berufung, also müssen wir Demut und die Freiheit haben, zu lernen.

Das ist nur eine Möglichkeit, zu tun, was die Himmelfahrt uns bietet.

„Du siehst mich.“ Und jetzt siehe ich, dass Gott mich liebt.

In den Worten von Paulus im Römerbrief Kapitel 12: “Ich ermahne euch nun, Brüder und Schwestern, durch die Barmherzigkeit Gottes, dass ihr euren Leib hingebt als ein Opfer, das lebendig, heilig und Gott wohlgefällig sei. Das sei euer vernünftiger Gottesdienst. Und stellt euch nicht dieser Welt gleich, sondern ändert euch durch Erneuerung eures Sinnes, auf das ihr prüfen könnt, was Gottes Wille ist, nämlich das Gute und Wohlgefällige und Vollkommene.”

Amen

Yesterday my dad was 86 years old. Today at least 22 families will wake up to a world in which their own children will have found their life ended young. The loss can only be indescribable. Life will never be the same again; the sense of injustice will not be comprehended.

The cowardice of the perpetrator is striking. Isn’t it brave and principled to target unwitting children and young people?

The emergency services, along with ordinary people who responded heroically, represent the best of a society that refuses to regard such events as ‘normal’. It is shocking, a crime and a sin beyond words.

The words that haunt me come from a poem written three thousand years ago:

How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13:2)

The depths of human perversion are evident. My prayer is that those whose lives have been torn apart by this atrocity will be drawn by a profound hope and not devastated by fear.

May the crucified and risen One shine light into this darkness and bring some peace.

Well, it’s probably pushing it a bit to describe the current same-old-same-old game as feverish. The bandying around of numbers remains as tedious and pointless as ever – as we learned from the EU Referendum last June, nothing promised will matter for one second past the result being announced.

It is this sort of sense that sparked the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to publish a pastoral letter to the Church of England yesterday, rejecting both apathy and cynicism, and encouraging Christians in particular to be responsible citizens and vote. Many of us are experts at complaining endlessly about government, politics and politicians whilst not actually bothering to engage in the democratic process.

The text speaks for itself, so, for those wondering what it says, here it is:

The season of Easter invites us to celebrate and to renew our love of God and our love of neighbour, our trust and hope in God and in each other. In the midst of a frantic and sometimes fraught election campaign, our first obligation as Christians is to pray for those standing for office, and to continue to pray for those who are elected. We recognise the enormous responsibilities and the vast complexity of the issues that our political leaders face. We are constantly reminded of the personal costs and burdens carried by those in political life and by their families.

Our second obligation as Christians at these times is to set aside apathy and cynicism and to participate, and encourage others to do the same. At a practical level that could mean putting on a hustings event for candidates, volunteering for a candidate, or simply making sure to vote on Thursday 8th June. The Christian virtues of love, trust and hope should guide and judge our actions, as well as the actions and policies of all those who are seeking election to the House of Commons and to lead our country.

This election is being contested against the backdrop of deep and profound questions of identity. Opportunities to renew and reimagine our shared values as a country and a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only come around every few generations. We are in such a time.

Our Christian heritage, our current choices and our obligations to future generations and to God’s world will all play a shaping role. If our shared British values, that is, what life in Britain has taught us to appreciate most, what we see as fundamental to one another’s happiness and prosperity, and what we believe ourselves called as nation to stand for in the world – if these values are to carry the weight of where we now stand and the challenges ahead of us, they must have at their core, cohesion, courage and stability.

Cohesion is what holds us together. The United Kingdom, when at its best, has been represented by a sense not only of living for ourselves, but by a deeper concern for the weak, poor and marginalised, and for the common good. At home that includes education for all, the need for urgent and serious solutions to our housing challenges, the importance of creating communities as well as buildings, and a confident and flourishing health service that gives support to all – especially the vulnerable – not least at the beginning and end of life. Abroad it is seen in many ways, including the 0.7% aid commitment, properly applied in imaginative ways, standing up for those suffering persecution on grounds of faith, and our current leading on campaigns against slavery, trafficking, and sexual violence in conflicts.

Courage, which includes aspiration, competition and ambition, should guide us into trading agreements that, if they are effective and just, will also reduce the drivers for mass movements of peoples. We must affirm our capacity to be an outward looking and generous country, with distinctive contributions to peacebuilding, development, the environment and welcoming the stranger in need. Our economic and financial systems at home and abroad should aim to be engines of innovation, not simply traders for their own account. The need for a just economy is clear, but there is also the relatively new and influential area of ‘just finance’, and there are dangers of an economy over-reliant on debt, which risks crushing those who take on too much. Courage also demands a radical approach to education, so that the historic failures of technical training and the over-emphasis on purely academic subjects are rebalanced, growing productivity and tackling with vigour the exclusion of the poorest groups from future economic life.

Stability, an ancient and Benedictine virtue, is about living well with change. Stable communities will be skilled in reconciliation, resilient in setbacks and diligent in sustainability, particularly in relation to the environment. They will be ones in which we can be collectively a nation of ‘glad and generous hearts’. To our concern for housing, health and education as foundations for a good society, we add marriage, the family and the household as foundational communities, which should be nurtured and supported as such, not just for the benefit of their members, but as a blessing for the whole of society.

Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief. The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives. Parishes and Chaplaincies of the Church of England serve people of all faiths and none. Their contribution and that of other denominations and faiths to the well-being of the nation is immense – schools, food banks, social support, childcare among many others – and is freely offered. But the role of faith in society is not just measured in terms of service-delivery.

The new Parliament, if it is to take religious freedom seriously, must prioritise working with religious leaders, the media, and the educational profession to address the improvement of religious literacy. More immediately, if we aspire to a politics of maturity and generosity, then the religious faith of any election candidate should not be treated by opponents as a vulnerability to be exploited. We look forward to a media and political climate where all candidates can feel confident that they can be open about the impact of their faith on their vocation to public service.

Religious belief is the well-spring for the virtues and practices that make for good individuals, strong relationships and flourishing communities. In Britain, these embedded virtues are not unique to Christians, but they have their roots in the Christian history of our four nations. If treated as partners in the project of serving the country, the churches – and other faiths – have much to contribute to a deep understanding and outworking of the common good.

Political responses to the problems of religiously-motivated violence and extremism, at home and overseas, must also recognise that solutions will not be found simply in further secularisation of the public realm. Mainstream religious communities have a central role to play; whilst extremist narratives require compelling counter-narratives that have a strong theological and ideological foundation.

Cohesion, courage and stability are all needed in our response to the continuing national conversation about migration and refugees. Offering a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants is a vital expression of our common humanity, but it is not without cost and we should not be deaf to the legitimate concerns that have been expressed about the scale of population flows and the differential impact it has on different parts of society. The pressures of integration must be shared more equitably.

These deep virtues and practices – love, trust and hope, cohesion, courage and stability – are not the preserve of any one political party or worldview, but go to the heart of who we are as a country in all of its diversity. An election campaign, a Parliament and a Government that hold to these virtues give us a firm foundation on which to live well together, for the common good.

We keep in our prayers all those who are standing in this election and are deeply grateful for their commitment to public service. All of us as Christians, in holding fast to the vision of abundant life, should be open to the call to renounce cynicism, to engage prayerfully with the candidates and issues in this election and by doing so to participate together fully in the life of our communities.

In the Name of our Risen Lord,

+Justin Cantuar +Sentamu Eboracensis

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show.

It’s funny what floats up to the surface of the memory when you’re bored. I was stuck on a train the other day and the words I couldn’t get out of my head were the repeated cry of a poet three thousand years ago: “How long, O Lord, how long?” Now, I guess his plight was more existentially challenging than mine; but, they were the words I couldn’t shake off.

A bit like the blues, really.

I well remember sitting in my car on holiday listening to Eric Clapton’s album Pilgrim. I was haunted by one song in particular which went by the miserable title of River of Tears. That perfect combination of weeping guitar and a voice wrenched from the depths of the heart tore through my soul. It still does nineteen years later.

What is it about the blues that cuts through the rubbish and distractions of a busy mind and brings tears to the eyes?

The other day I was driving through the Yorkshire Dales on a gorgeous sunny day – someone has to do this job – listening to the new Imelda May album, written after her divorce and coloured by the sadness of loss. Where did my tears come from?

I think what’s going on here is quite simple – and common. Life is a rollercoaster of joy and sadness, hope and despair, creativity and loss. We all know what it’s like to run through the daily routine only to have it disturbed by unwelcome news or worse. We discover that we are not in control after all and that we are more fragile than we thought we were. It’s as if the veneer of self-sufficiency is stripped away and the rawness of reality exposed.

And that’s why the blues get straight through the skin and move the heart. It’s why the words of the poet, the Psalmist, offer a vocabulary for when words fail us: how long, O Lord, how long? And, I think, we can find amid the pain that we are never alone in this experience – that it isn’t to be feared – that even God cries out in cross-shaped grief.

Or, in the words of Imelda May: “I’m damned if I show it but I can’t shake this feeling away.”

This is the text of this morning’s sermon for Easter Day at Ripon Cathedral:

Acts 10:34-43 & John 20:1-18

Language matters. Describing the latest military attack on Afghanistan as the ‘mother of all bombs’ is shocking in its ‘boys’ toys’ trivialisation – or glorification of extreme violence. And it does not bode well at a time when nuclear war seems more likely than at any time since the end of the Cold War – especially given the unpredictability of the President of the United States and his predilection for changing his mind quickly and inconsistently. To say nothing about the Great Leader of North Korea.

An unusual way to begin a sermon for Easter Day? Maybe. But, this is the world we now live in at Easter 2017, and Christian worship cannot be an escape from it. But, rather than dropping high explosives onto other human beings, Easter explodes something different and more challenging into the world we know: Easter drops into the dark violence of the modern, sophisticated, scientific age the subversive light of resurrection.

And that is what we are here for this morning. We do not simply memorialise an event that happened two thousand years ago somewhere far, far away. We do not merely cross our fingers and wish for a deus ex machina to intrude into the insurmountable problems of human living and sort it all out. Nor do we rush with relief to resurrection before we have properly looked the cruelty of Friday and the horrifying emptiness of Saturday in the eye and lived with our mortality.

No, we are here this morning to have our lives transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ; anything less and we have missed the point.

It reminds me of the story of the bat that flew one night into the bat cave, hung itself upside down (as, apparently, bats are wont to do) and closed its eyes, blood dripping from its mouth. The other bats smelled this and said to him: “You’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” “Leave me alone,” said the bat, “I just want to go to sleep.” “Noooo,” cried the other bats, “you’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” In the end the bat gave up and said, “OK, follow me.” He flew out of the cave, followed by thousand of eager bats. They flew down the valley, around the hill, up over the crag and down into the next valley before rounding a wooded outcrop and turning into the next valley. As they approached a forest the bat stopped and hovered in the air, thousand of bats hovering behind him, full of anticipation. “You see that forest?” said the bat? “Yeah, yeah, yeah…,” hissed the bats. “You see that rock to the left of the forest?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…”. “You see the tree next to the rock?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” “Well, I didn’t!”

You see, there is a difference between looking and seeing. And sometimes we see, but don’t understand. And sometimes we don’t understand, so we turn away and look somewhere else for we know not what.

So, consider the first evangelists: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple. Mary, a woman – significant in itself – sees the disturbed grave, but doesn’t venture in. Instead, she goes and fetches the blokes. They come running – probably suspecting a criminal religious or political plot – and Peter goes first into the empty tomb, followed eventually by the other friend of Jesus. Mary waits outside, distraught. And none of them suspect resurrection. According to verse 8, the friend “believes”, but this can only refer to believing Mary’s story that the body is missing. Mary, herself, just looks in and is distressed.

In other words, they look and they see, but what they see makes no sense. So, the men leave and go back to their homes. Back to their homes? Not even to their other friends to tell them the bad news? Not to the authorities to ask what they have done with the corpse? Not to the newspapers to report the scandal? No, they go back home – to the places where they know their place, where life is ‘normal’, where they have some control, where there are no surprises.

It is only Mary, the woman, who, having had her weird encounter with the characters in white and the supposed gardener, is given an even weirder message to convey to the friends of Jesus, and goes to find them: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” But, when she finds her friends she actually says to them, “I have seen the Lord.”

Now, this is not a merely incidental detail of a far-fetched story. Had I been Jesus I might have said to Mary, “It’s me … I’m back again!” But, Jesus gives her some theology to be getting on with. And he will not let her hang on to him like some sort of shrine god.

When we think we have grabbed hold of Jesus, we soon discover that he will not be contained or controlled – even by our most powerful need for comfort or resolution or healing from grief. He moves on … as we, too, must move on, taking responsibility for what we do with the – often unbidden and unwelcome – experiences we have had visited upon us.

But, back to the point: what we are doing here this morning.

Mary did not go back to church. She did not write a book about her self-fulfilment. She did not simply reflect on what some theologians call ‘the Christ event’; rather, she became an articulate witness. “I have seen the Lord.” And only having put her own credibility on the line did she then go on to tell the friends what the risen Jesus had said to her.

And for us? We cannot simply come this morning to celebrate a notional event, to worship a good idea, or to maintain the edifice of a credible faith. We come together to encounter the risen Christ, and then to go out into the world in the light of this and tell the good news: that contrary to Hollywood, the news and the rumours of what is normal, death, violence and destruction do not have the final word. Christian faith is rooted in the fact that Jesus who was fully alive before being fully dead is dead no longer. Not that he sprung back to life like some sort of zombie, but that, as the Apostle Paul put it, God raised Christ from the dead. That is where Christian hope lies: that God raised a very dead Jesus of Nazareth and brought new life – life that still bears the wound marks of human suffering and doesn’t simply wipe out reality – to a very confused world.

I just wonder how we respond to this story? Or, perhaps putting it a little more sharply: not to the story, but to the content that the story conveys? The reality of a surprising and world-shattering encounter with the risen Christ who shows us the face of a God who will not be defeated by the misery of pain and loss, but shines light where even eyes are closed and darkness is at least familiar. Where we look, but don’t immediately see; where we see, but don’t understand; where we are surprised and confounded, but still go away and become articulate witnesses of how the risen Christ transforms our living and our dying.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Meeting the risen Jesus in the garden of death and decay becomes the impetus for challenging death and decay wherever we see or experience them. On Good Friday we were compelled to look death and destruction in the eye and not look away. No romanticism; no religious escapism; no convenient spiritual comfort; no relief from all that the world can throw at God and us. No. We were offered the gift of staring in the face our mortality and the immense power of death – living with the loss and the emptiness and the abandoned desolation of seeing our hopes and faith bleeding into the dirt of a rubbish tip outside the city walls – and finding our grief interrupted by the gentle, whispered sound of our name being voiced by the one whose all-too-real death was not the end.

Today – Easter Day – we are being invited to meet this risen Christ and to take the good news of resurrection into a world dominated by too much bad news. To offer the refugee and asylum seeker the hope that there is a future to be lived and a new life to be enjoyed; to question the political priorities of leaders whose vision dehumanises or breaks people down; to challenge injustice and public practices that exalt the mighty and denigrate the meek. After all, the risen Jesus is the same Jesus who challenged the religious securities of Pharisees who were content to use excluded and abused people to make theological points in their petty little power games. The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who healed the wrong people on the wrong day and in the wrong way. (Read the gospels and you will see what I mean.) The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who taught his friends to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, but then embarrasses the pray-er with the obligation to be the answer to his or her own prayer: “Forgive us our sins … as we forgive those who sin against us.” The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who exposes our insecurities and fears, offering freedom in the company of others and the healing that comes from mercy and love.

Do you see the point? We can sing our hymns and pray our prayers this morning and leave as we arrived – perhaps warmed by the experience, but indifferent to the need for commitment and a clear willingness to belong to this risen Jesus who sends us out – like Mary Magdalene – not with a solution to a problem or a heart-warming spiritual experience, but with a compulsion to tell the story of redemption and hope, and to work out in the company of friends what all this stuff means for us and the world in a world that now looks very different.

It is this experience that led Paul the Apostle to write to beleaguered Christians facing imperial threat that “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain”.

What we are doing here this morning is nothing less than the stuff of life and death, of living and dying. The worst we can do is to be indifferent to it.

Later in this service we will be invited to come forward to receive bread and wine – or to receive a blessing which is freely offered. Bread and wine are tangible and taste-able tokens of all I have spoken about just now – the body and blood of Christ who poured himself out that we might be free to live differently, confounding the depressing narratives of the world we inhabit and promising life out of death. Like Mary Magdalene, Peter and their friend, we come to a place of death and loss and bewilderment – and maybe even hopelessness – and we come with empty hands and opened eyes. We cannot grab or demand or hold onto what we receive. We simply receive what is given – what is gift – and we consume them. They become part of our body – the fullness of God’s promise in the flimsiness of a wafer and a sip of wine. We thank God for them, and for what they represent. But, we are then sent out into the world (in the power of the Spirit) to live and work to the praise and glory of the God who raised Christ from the dead. That’s the deal.

So, I invite you to come with honest hearts and eyes wide open, not hiding behind a fear of being found out, or the pride of thinking that I can’t dot all the Is or cross all the Ts. Come with your fears about your living and your dying, about loss and love and pain and joy. Come with empty hands and a will to live life from today as a resurrection person amongst a community of resurrection people who have the same experience as you, but cannot escape the haunting claim of a God who loves you to death and beyond.

Maybe – for some of you – today might be an Easter Day on which your own transformation might begin. Surely, this is good news. Surely, this can draw from us a Hallelujah of relief and praise – one that means that from this day forward we know ourselves to be a people no longer driven in a threatening and uncertain world by anxiety and fear, but drawn by hope in the God of resurrection who comes to us, where we are, speaks our name, and sends us from the place of death to live life.

This is the mother of all hope – the mother of all mercies.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

I have no idea how I would handle watching children being brought into a makeshift hospital following a chemical attack. Or anyone caught up in war, for that matter. Mark de Rond is an ethnographer who got himself embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in 2012, and his book ‘Doctors at War’ is a raw, honest account of his experiences watching surgeons at work. Two things came over to me: first, the questions raised about mortality and meaning when senseless human brutality is all around, and secondly, the challenge – interspersed with sheer boredom – of not being in control of the dramas when casualties are brought in.

On Good Friday Christians stare into the eyes of helpless cruelty and loss, and are forced to live with it. But, it perhaps shines an appropriate light onto the experience of those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth who found their hopes of liberation and deliverance bleeding from a cross into the dirt.

Good Friday is not for the squeamish – however over-familiar we might be with its story of suffering. Yet, the world is not for the squeamish either. According to the Institute for Strategic Studies nearly half a million people have died in conflict in the last couple of years. Add to them the fact that the world now has nearly 22 million refugees – half of them under eighteen – and you can see the problem.

For a huge proportion of the world’s population life means suffering, struggle, pain and loss. For many there is little or no hope of return or resolution. I have just spent a week with bishops from places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Sudan whose stories sometimes are hard to hear.

Good Friday compels me to look the reality of such suffering in the eye and urges me not to be distracted from the uncomfortable questions it poses. And this is why Christians must not rush from the agony of Friday to the joy of Sunday’s resurrection. We can’t control the pain or the process. We still have to wake up on Saturday with the emptiness of loss and the harrowing recognition that it wasn’t all just a bad dream. We have to live with it and face it.

This isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable. But, it is necessary if we are to begin to comprehend the lived experience of too many people for whom hope has evaporated in loss or suffering. Christians would add that the cross also offers a lens through which to approach the real world where God makes himself no stranger to all that can be thrown at him – or at us. And this is why the forgiveness of the cross is never cheap, never romantic, never merely notional. It asks us not to look away.

Today I will decide how to respond to the challenge to make Friday good.

This is the text of my sermon at this morning’s Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist for the Diocese of Leeds in Bradford Cathedral.

1 Samuel 3:1-10 & Luke 7:36-50
I find this the hardest service at which to preach each year. Not because of the occasion, but because it is powerfully moving to see so many clergy together. I am immensely proud of the clergy of this diocese who exercise their ministry faithfully week in week out, day in day out, usually unseen. I am very grateful.

The best birthday card I got last year was of Satan, fully equipped with horns and tail, reading the Bible in bed and saying, “Bit harsh…”

I know the feeling. Reading judgements about yourself or the church and feeling that you can’t control the narrative, even when the narrative is either simplistic or one-sidedly erroneous – often in the media. It is particularly irksome when the damage is done from within and by those whose vocation n it is to build up and not break down.

A bit harsh?

The story is this. An ancient middle-eastern man called Elkanah has two wives; one – Penninah -has given him children, the other – Hannah – has not. But, in a surprising reversal of expectation, it is Hannah whom Elkanah loves best. In a moment of tender affection, and after yet another long year of barrenness accompanied by the humiliating ridicule of her fertile fellow wife, he says to her: “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

What a question. The answer is clearly “no”. Hannah, deeply distressed, prays that if God will give her a son, she will commit him to a lifetime of no alcohol or grape juice, no shaving or having his hair cut, no hanging around corpses – you can read the full list of Nazirite rules in Numbers chapter 6. My guess is that some of these rules were easier to keep than others. She duly gives birth, weans the boy, then hands him over to the priest. Actually, the text says that she “lent him to the Lord” (verse 28). She lent him.

Now, let’s just step back at this point and notice some of what is going on here. This woman has a hard life: loved by her husband, mocked by her fellow, humiliated in society, and unable to be at peace with herself or others. Yet, she had done nothing to deserve this. Don’t talk to Hannah about justice.

But, the song she sings at this point of blessing-followed-by-loss contradicts what we might assume to be a justified cry for relief from obligation. Couldn’t she break her vow, now that her longed-for son is born? Couldn’t God give her a break – even just to confound the smugness of Penninah? Yet, she sings of hope and freedom, of a God who brings light into dark places and who raises up those who have fallen low. Her song is the one picked up by Mary when her son is about to be born – the deeply subversive song of God’s paradoxical kingdom in which the wrong people are celebrated. The Beatitudes haunt this text, too, like the whispering of melody behind the raging noise of chaos and injustice.

In other words, life is rubbish. Even the good bits don’t satisfy, because other bits keep scratching away like a running sore that won’t stop weeping.

But, then the story moves away from Hannah to the priests at the shrine at Shiloh. If Hannah is the one who appears not to have God’s blessing, then the priests have forgotten what they are there for. The meaning and purpose of the sacrifices have been corrupted to the point that the young priests see the celebration of religious ritual as a means for their own self-fulfilment, power and greed. Religion has become a vehicle for something else. How Shiloh is fallen. And faithful Eli has to hear harsh prophecies about the fall not only of the shrine, but also of his own family. It is a miserable picture that is painted here.

Perhaps the point is rammed home in the reading we read earlier from chapter three. If the old time religion had lost the plot, then God would, as one commentator puts it, simply “bypass the established priesthood and disclose his intentions concerning that same priesthood to a novice”.

A bit harsh?

Well, the picture then looks like this – and I wonder if this sounds a little familiar to us in 2017: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Oh dear. Clearly there were many words spoken and many visions propagated in those days; but, how should the people discern the rare words of the Lord amid the cacophony of the shrine worship, political promises, voices claiming to be God’s voice, and religious allegiances? How are they to discern which of the many competing visions of God and his ways is the right vision? How might they work out whether their eyesight is myopic or dimmed? How do they know what is reality and what is truth?

These are hard questions, and they are made flesh in the person of the old priest Eli whose eyesight began to grow dim. He recognised the decline in some of his own perceptions and made space to allow the next generation to grow and to look and to see differently. The errant generation of young priests are bypassed by a God who will not be played off by religious professionals who have lost their sight of the glory of God that once drew them.

And the young prophet – that is, the one who will see clearly the world as God sees it – finds himself addressed by this God … addressed by name and called out to a new service.

Now put yourself into his ephod (as it were). Your mother took a vow that you had no say over. You take a vocational path that did not come to you via the careers officer. And, if her own life had been tough and contradictory enough, she has now shared the misery with you by bequeathing you a life not of your choosing, but of obligation anyway.

Yet, Samuel accepts this and makes this vocation his own. He chooses to go with it, discovering as he does (and as he grows as a person and as a prophet) that life is pretty messy and that there is no place for the self-indulgence of rights and self-fulfilment. Obedience is not a popular word, but it is one that has a place in the life of those who do not complain about their lot, but choose to make the best of what they have inherited.

I just wonder if this text, this story, has anything to say to us here in the Church of England, in the Diocese of Leeds, today? Maundy Thursday, when we re-live that poignant moment at which Jesus confounds convention, kneels at the feet of his friends – and of his betrayer and his denier and his doubter – and washes their feet. Maundy Thursday, when we see Jesus calling his people back from the manipulations and seductions of power and religious game-playing, and asking them to watch and listen and learn and do. Maundy Thursday, when he knows that life is closing in, that suffering awaits, that he could escape it all, but chooses the way of obedience.

After all, this is the same Jesus who, as we heard earlier, has a knack of bringing out of embarrassing dead ends something surprising and new. A woman intrudes into a party at which she is not a guest, and weeps all over Jesus, anointing his feet with expensive oil. The stand-off between propriety and humanity is electric as everyone waits to see which way Jesus would jump. In the end, as Tom Wright puts it, “Jesus keeps his poise between the outrageous adoration of the woman and the outrageous rudeness of the host” and comes up with something fresh and unexpected … and outrageous to those watching whose religion is fairly simple: keep the rules, avoid dirty people, and prioritise your own purity. Read the story: Jesus turns convention on its head and pours out grace where harshness had dominated.

I think both these stories hit on the same point and address us today with hard questions. Do we number ourselves with the religious professionals who have lost the plot, or do we allow ourselves to be outraged by grace … being grasped once again by the power of mercy? Do we rail against the call of God and the demands or privations of an obedient priesthood, or do we deliberately choose life and joy and commitment to an obligation we would sometimes rather throw off? Do we complain about our lot – especially when it seems inherited or not our fault or not by our choice – or do we, like Samuel, accept the choosing of God and get on with it, learning as we grow?

I don’t ask these questions glibly – or miserably. I ask them because I think they cry out from the texts we didn’t choose this morning. There might be much that we find irksome about the Church of England in 2017 – but, we are part of it and called to serve in it as clergy or lay disciples and ministers. If this is the case, then we must love the church as God’s gift and the locus of his vocation. This does not mean that we sit back and let it be; but, it does mean that we pray like Hannah and don’t mock like Penninah. It means that we pray and shape an uncertain future, conscious of our obligation to future generations to bequeath the faith that makes such demands of us. It means that we be open to hear the prophetic witness that questions our priorities, our attitudes and behaviours, challenging us to recover the vision that contradicts the easy visions and learns to listen for the word of the Lord that is – remember – rare, but not absent.

Our readings today invite us to take responsibility for the calling God has given us – to be faithful in our time to the gospel that draws and drives us. Not to blame other people or other generations for what we have inherited, but to take responsibility for accepting what is and helping make it what it might become. We might refer to this dynamic in words such as ‘loving, living and learning’.

Our diocese is nearly three years old. We began with no infrastructure, no governance, no integrated data, no inherited vision, not even the right number of bishops to do what we were being asked to do. We faced many challenges and it sometimes seemed that all the odds had been stacked against us making this work. But, thanks to the hard-won commitment, faith and – sometimes reluctant – persistent generosity of both clergy and laity, we started this year as a single entity. I do not take this for granted.

But, the challenges have not gone away. We face financial challenges and we must address the declining numbers of deployable clergy available to us in the coming decade and beyond. We will face the challenges posed by buildings and structures, and by people who do not want to change. We will see again that people and places thrive when they grasp the opportunity to choose change and don’t see themselves as victims of someone else’s terrible or malign decisions. Remember, Easter chants the mantra that we are not driven by fear, but are drawn by hope.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, if our feet are washed by the Lord who kneels before us in humility, should we not speak well of one another, seek the best of one another, and believe the best of one another? Should we not be generous, even though we know we kneel before our denier, our betrayer, our doubter? Are we not called back to a vision of love and mercy and grace that pulls out of polarised tension something new and fresh and hopeful? Do we believe ourselves invited as a church to shine the light of mercy on the intrusive woman and not just to show our cleverness in embarrassing the Pharisee?

We come today to re-affirm ordination vows and to recover the priority of our own discipleship of Jesus Christ. In doing so we allow the light of his face to shine into the dark places of our own prejudices, judgments and fears, leaking grace like an extravagant ointment onto the tired and dusty feet of our faltering journeying. And we pray that the Lord whose church we are, and whose beloved we are told we are, will anoint us for the next stage of our ministry – as a diocese, as ministers of the good news, as disciples and followers of Jesus.

Here I am, for you called me. Here I am, for you called me. Here I am, for you called me.