Sermon preached at Mattins on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (22 April 2018) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Canon Pastor

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12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Mattins on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (22 April 2018) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Canon Pastor

On the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence's death, Canon Tricia Hillas asks "Where do we go from here?" and "Who does God call us to be?"

So, where do we go from here…?

A question of direction, of priorities, of values.

A question faced by two disciples walking away from Jerusalem where Jesus had been killed.

A question facing the people of Israel at the point in their story captured in our first reading. Where do we go from here?

A little background to that first reading. The kingdom of Judah had been conquered by the neighbouring superpower Babylon. Judah’s capital, Jerusalem, destroyed; the leading citizens deported and exiled.

70 years later when Babylon itself was conquered, a new king gave permission for the Jews to return home. Despite strenuous efforts the returnees, struggled to survive. Nehemiah, a great motivator is appointed as their governor. He leads the rebuilding of the city walls and enacts policies to secure a fair deal for the poorest and most marginalised.  

The day comes when the walls are rebuilt, the city secure. Then the people come together and ask Ezra the priest to bring out the Book of God’s Law and read it to them…which brings us to the description in our reading of their weeping at the recognition that they have failed to live according to the measure of God’s standards. They saw themselves in the mirror of God’s Word and it was deeply disturbing.

In this country, at around 10:40pm, 25 years ago this very evening, Stephen Lawrence a black teenager was stabbed to death in a racially motivated assault. Following a number of other racist killings, Stephen’s murder shocked the nation. The response to it from the authorities and especially their treatment of Stephen’s family led to a report which exposed the roots of institutionalised racism, causing this country to examine itself closely and ask, where do we go from here? That question has not gone away. 

For in this week of the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death, our parliament was confronted by the scandalous treatment, by official government bodies of people invited to come to the UK in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.

This week our parliament also held an unprecedented debate in which a number of our representatives spoke about the abuse they’ve received because they are Jews or because they challenge anti-Semitism. Speaking of the rise in anti-Semitic incidents Former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said, “This is not the Britain I know and love”.

There are moments; a murder, a report, a debate, an anniversary, when we are faced with the question: Where do we go from here? What sort of people are we? Who does God call us to be…? 

The two disciples had been hurrying away from Jerusalem – the Jesus project seemed over and they were done. But then, the encounter with one whom they come to recognise as the risen Christ – and the disciples hurry back, making a 180 degrees complete about turn. 

Many centuries earlier Nehemiah’s people recognised how far they had departed from the call of God. Most immediately this resulted in public sorrow. But it didn’t end there. Recognising what God has done, they dedicate themselves to new way of being –with great rejoicing.

There is an ancient Greek word for such radical re-orientating; ‘Metanoia’. A breaking down, leading to a building up. Within theology, it’s understood to come from repentance – recognition of having gone in the wrong direction and resolving to change. A transformation which brings the opportunity for grace, for hope, for divine rebuilding and healing.

As societies and as individuals such healing only comes with the recognition that we’ve been heading in the wrong direction. That requires courage to acknowledge and takes commitment to act, not once but over and over again. But it is the beginning of the path towards a hopeful future.

On this anniversary, in this week, there is opportunity for us as individuals and as societies to respond, before God, to the question ‘Where do we go from here?’ Praying that God’s Spirit will breathe over us with challenge and bring us to a place of healing, we end with a variation of a Franciscan blessing:

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and the exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger and war, so that we may reach out with hands to comfort and to turn  pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world and can do what others claim cannot be done.