|6:00pm||Passion Sunday Organ Recital - Simon Johnson|
Sermon preached on the Third Sunday after Trinity (2 July 2017) by the Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor
On the Third Sunday after Trinity, the Chancellor calls us to 'look and love...To be attentive and to believe that your life may be for others as well as yourself.'
Research has shown that churchgoers, like yourselves, when asked what it is they most want from a church service, always reveal that in the top three of things looked for is a ‘good sermon’. Research also shows, however, that when churchgoers are asked what the most disappointing things are about going to church, there in the top three, is the sermon. This makes this business I’m engaged in at the moment both full of exciting potential and scary too. To encourage preachers and maybe congregations, we can remind ourselves that even Jesus seemed to get B- from his hearers on occasion, asking what on earth he was going on about. His disciples too had to ask him in private from time to time. Jesus was persistently figurative, hard to pin down.
However, on other occasions, Jesus makes relatively plain sense: ‘whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’. Now, for all those who prefer it if Canon Oakley didn’t wonder lonely as a cloud in the pulpit and get too vague and allusive, today I’m going to make one plain point for you. It’s this: whatever religion can end up making us concerned about, faith is only concerned about two things: to look and to love. To look and to love. To be attentive and to believe that your life may be for others as well as yourself. And both these vocations of the Christian, to look and to love, are part of the sacred invitation to welcome.
Some of you will know of Dennis Potter. He was a great writer of TV screen plays, edgy, truculent, a teaser of Establishment and on Valentine's Day 1994 Potter was diagnosed as having cancer of the pancreas and it had spread into his liver. He was told that realistically he had only a few weeks left to live. He was 58 years old. As time passed he grew weaker and needed more liquid morphine to see him through the day. About eight weeks before he died, Melvyn Bragg asked if he would give an interview on Channel 4. He said, yes, as long as it was early in the morning when he had his strength, and as long as he was able to call it a day when the pain got too much. The interview begins with Potter talking about the discovery of him having cancer and how he initially felt.
“Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying "Oh that's nice blossom" ... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance...The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.”
If you can see the present tense, the sacrament of the present moment, the gift of what is... Christian faith is an invitation to welcome life, to welcome, to see the things that are in their beauty and potential and goodness and not to be submerged or simmered down by illusions, fears, lies that sound plausible. Christians must never avoid truths because they are uncomfortable. But to welcome truth, to welcome what is, to welcome, to distil, to discern and be distilled by the things that matter by taking a bit more time and willpower to be attentive. Even the difficulties of life – maybe especially the difficulties of life - because as poets and artists and scientists and lovers and therapists and friends all know, it is the difficult times, the difficult blocks, the hurts and shut downs that all have the most potential to change us and reveal more of us and the world to ourselves by contours being pushed. We don’t know why there’s pain in this world, or cruelty or disaster. But we do know that deep within they can often have a seed of renewal, a seed of goodness stronger than evil, seeds of hurt can have harvests too. To be welcoming of life, rather than defensive, protective, fearful, is, let’s be honest though, to be vulnerable as well as strong, as Christ, welcomer of life, showed.
When it’s over, writes the poet Mary Oliver, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
To look – and to love. The Christian faith is unapologetic in a belief – that you will be most yourself when not so selfish, that you were made for welcome, you were made not to be self-contained but to hold out your hands and your heart.
Maria Skrobtsova was an unusual woman. A single mother from Russia and a divorcee, she came to Paris in the 1930’s and became a nun, starting with the permission of her bishop a small religious house. She was an unusual nun because not only a single parent and divorced, the neighbours kept complaining about the noise of her parties. But she was making connections because the Nazis had taken control. She began hiding Jews and then making false baptismal certificates for them to protect them from arrest. She became known as the saint of the open door. Eventually she was arrested, taken to Ravensbruk concentration camp and eventually offering herself instead of a frightened woman she was led to the gas chambers in 1945 just before the end of the war, indeed the liberators of the camp could be heard in the distance. Mother Maria wrote: ‘Either Christianity is fire or there is no such thing’. She died protecting people of other faith to her own. A woman more accountable to her ideals than to her interests. A saint of the open door that said welcome.
To look and to love. To welcome life again, to read the love between its lines, to see its gift - and to love the human where forces in this world work to erase the dignity that is ours by being children of the same creator, forces too often of know-alls and no-nothings, to understand at last that the best things in life are never things…To welcome really is to welcome the source of life and love. To welcome is to have the compass placed back in your hand through a dark journey. To welcome is to hope, to see what might yet be by this new relationship you’ve just allowed in. The welcomer, says Christ, never loses their reward. Because to do this reflects the grace of the one who made it all, the one who made us, who made you. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart, but to welcome is to open its window.