|6:00pm||Passion Sunday Organ Recital - Simon Johnson|
Sermon preached on Easter Day (16 April 2017) by the Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor
At the Easter Day Sung Eucharist, the Reverend Canon Mark Oakley says "death is dead and hope has taken his place...make this day the beginning of your new life."
Ok. I did it. I began Lent as usual with big plans. No meat and no alcohol and more exercise. And as usual on Ash Wednesday I took comfort in those words of Quentin Crisp that ‘if at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style’. But I did it, no meat and no alcohol and quite a bit of swimming. And there have even been some physical benefits. I’ve lost a bit of weight. I can now actually fit into this pulpit. And, in fact, a priest of the diocese noticed this on Thursday and said I’d obviously been on the Resurrection diet. I looked at him puzzled. ‘The Resurrection diet’ he said – ‘you know, three days and the stones just roll away!’
Well, you heard the resurrection story just now. Three days and a stone does indeed roll away. Just what kind of story is this? A made-up tale to stop us worrying about death? A spiritual narrative, like poetry – aimed for the head but via the heart? Or an historical account laying out the facts just as they happened? Well, every preacher knows that if you’re preaching to a hundred people there are always going to be a hundred different sermons being heard – and not one of them is the one you’re giving. So, with the resurrection story. The richness of John’s account means we know that it has just been heard here in over 2000 ways, resonating, perplexing, beguiling, inspiriting. I’m sure the author, John, wanted it that way, a rich diverse response. John, of all people, knew that fundamentalism and literalism are to Christianity what paint by numbers is to art.
And today let’s not forget something about John and all those who first wrote down these resurrection stories, faithful and imaginative people, those who first shared them, passed them on, put them down on parchment – by doing this they were all making themselves, in the world’s terms, less powerful, not more. They were walking out into an unmapped territory, away from the safe places of political and religious influence, away from traditional religion, at odds with Roman society and the law. They were putting their lives, and those of the people they loved, in danger, at risk of losing everything, even life itself. These stories, for them, were not made up tales, not something to have on in the background for an hour on Anglican FM on a nice Spring morning. These stories were a matter of life and death – and they took the risk, the risk of being the story keepers and we thank them.
But why? Why on earth risk so much for a story? Because the story was the best way they knew of sharing an unfamiliar experience they had and were still living through, an experience that if only they could tell us about it, if only they could show it’s shock to them and its effect on them, an infusion of hope in ordinary complex lives, well, it might just help us too, more than we ever bothered to imagine. This story is nothing less than a glimpse into a new world which they were discovering, a way of being at last, to breathe.
The story is telling. There are tears in this story. Mary is crying. She is there for all of us for there is so much to weep about. Where do we begin? For the beauty of the world groaning under pollution and plastic, for those whose life will end in parts of the world most of us will never see while we sit here because they have no food to give up in Lent, they are starving, now. Or will we cry out of fear for a nuclear war between the US and North Korea and where that will take the world, or tears of anger for the demise of truth in public debate, tears for those seeking refuge who are more like us than we like to admit, tears for the gay men being rounded up and tortured today in Chechnya and more tears for all the dignity power has diminished and bred fear and executions; or will it be tears for our own life, the one we have lost, the bed we can’t manage to get out of because the day ahead feels unbearable, the tears of the West : having enough to live with but not much to live for? Mary stood weeping. She understands. And tears are a gift. Good things often begin when we let ourselves cry. The question that begins the spiritual life is asked by Jesus: tell me, why are you weeping?
Upset, Mary seems to want everything as it had been, to take hold of the one she loves, to put everything together as it once was. Again, we understand. ‘If only I could be back there, as it used to be, it was all good then’. That’s us too. But Jesus is teaching Mary, and us, the next step in the spiritual adventure of life too. He teaches us that too often we would rather keep him with us where we are, than let him take us where he is going. It is better to let him take hold of us. In other words, if you’re serious about your tears, about the hard full-stops in you being turned into commas, then align your life to the journey of an unpredictable God and not to places where you feel safe but half dead. He gave us a prayer to help us: thy kingdom come, that is not, my kingdom stay. There will be no resurrection to celebrate if, just as he reaches out his hand, we bury ourselves rather than him. Unless we dare to let go of who we are we will never become what we might be. God’s gift is your being. Your gift back is your becoming, who you become. And it always takes risks to become you. It often hurts before we can hear our own name spoken with love, like Jesus saying her name ‘Mary’.
Her name heard, Mary is lastly given a mission – to go into the city. She is to go into the centre of religious and political life, where decisions are made, where the poor look for help, where neighbours don’t know each other so well, where a lot of foreigners pitch up, where you can feel very important or very ignored. And it’s there where resurrection faith, that is the faith that we shout about today, must find its way through. As the poet Manley Hopkins prayer: May he Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us. Breaking open the tombs of human living, shattering the closed doors of people’s hopes, smashing down the walls that have made us and them, breathing life, a life for all, wherever life has become a system, a masked and compromised existence of heartless, atomised, competitive, self-justifying lives. People spending money we don’t have on things we don’t want in order to impress people we don’t like. Exhausting. What can little you do in such a big city and world in need of serious repair? Well, start resurrecting hope one person, one relationship, one day at a time. Cynicism is the enemy. I’m always inspired by Martin Luther’s comment that even if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my little apple tree.
So, tears in a world of murder and grief. Fear about change or courage for a totally new way of being me and you. Cities and towns longing for fresh vision to arrive – probably in women rather than suited boys. Hmm. And some say this story has no relevance. Nothing could be more urgent. Faith in the resurrection is not a story that we tell to see if you like it or not. As John and those first story keepers knew, it was a story that was only just beginning, to be continued in you and me. Can we use the gift of tears and with heart’s release follow Jesus Christ as our new compass as we migrate towards a more trustworthy life? And because we now see his love is stronger then darkness, will we fight indifference, cruelty, thoughtless abuse of our resources and each other and power-mad prejudices in the name of God who longs for all creation to be awakened with the new life of his Son? If you believe in Christ’s resurrection then it’s time to stand up in this faith, out of your tomb, to stand for something not fall for anything. Or else, what’s the point?
I want to end with a story. When I was in the United States in 2015 there was a young unarmed black man shot dead by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. His name was Michael Brown. A makeshift memorial was built up on the street where he died and there was a cardboard box, painted black but with gold letters written on it. They simply said: ‘They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds’. Those words had been used by indigenous people in Mexico and were originally written by a Greek poet marginalised through his life : ‘You did anything to bury me’, he wrote, ‘but you forgot I was a seed’.
Today Christ speaks these words and speaks them still wherever there is oppression. The story is clear. He hugs us with an embrace we don’t really deserve but his love is deathless and for us all. Death is dead and hope has taken his place. And so you now are a messenger of resurrection, with a story in your heart: dry the tears, get ready to renew the purpose of your life, because there’s a city and a world out there longing for you to arrive with your strange rumour of God and some notes from a gardener on how to love better, a story for which people gave their lives and which began one Sunday with the breeze of an early morning when it was still dark but dawn was beautifully, unstoppably breaking in. The tomb is empty. Make this day the beginning of your new life.