Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Sunday Evening: The smell of Easter

I’m not going to say much this evening, partly because I have preached something approaching 5000 words over the last three days already, and I think enough is probably enough, both for me and for those of you who have followed through the whole lot.

But I did want to just draw out some thoughts from the poem I’ve just read and the readings we’ve heard today, thoughts which are triggered, in a sense, by the way in which words can sometimes sell us short, no matter how many of them we use. The problem is that words are a poor substitute for real experience. Real experience of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ would have been made up of so much more. It would have been known in all our senses – the sights and sounds of the events, of palm leaves ripped from trees, of nails being driven into wood and flesh, of crowds jostling and shouting, of the stone being rolled across the mouth of the tomb to seal it, of weeping in grief and then in joy on Easter Day.  Then there would have been the taste of Easter, of bread and wine at the Last Supper, or the sour wine offered to Christ on the cross, of fish shared in a meal on Easter evening when the risen Christ appeared to his disciples in the locked room where they were hiding. The thing which struck me most though, from our readings and poem tonight, was what Easter might have smelt like. Smell is one of the most evocative of the senses, almost impossible to describe, but unmistakeable and powerful in its ability to bring back memories, and conjure up moods and associations. What did Holy Week and Easter smell like? It started perhaps with the smell of a donkey, that animal smell, not unpleasant, but sharp and pungent. There was the smell of that night time garden of Gethsemane too, full of the scents of springtime, of blossom heavy in the air. But that was soon overwhelmed by the smell of fear – almost everyone in this story was afraid it seems to me; Christ himself as he wrestled with what he knew was coming, his disciples as they saw their dreams of him turn to dust on the cross, but the fear of Pilate and Herod and the Jewish authorities too, who saw Jesus as a threat so dangerous that only death was the answer to it. Then there was Golgotha, the killing field outside Jerusalem – we can barely imagine what that must have smelt like. The Romans normally liked to leave the bodies of their crucified victims where they were to rot; it was a powerful message to anyone else who might be inclined to cause them trouble.

It is important to bear in mind these smells as we imagine the women coming to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning on Easter Day. They come, we are told with spices and ointments, the ones usually used to anoint bodies at the time of burial. They hadn’t had time to do this for Jesus on Good Friday, so they were doing it now. Those spices and ointments were designed to mask the stench of death, to overpower it so that it would be possible to come close enough to mourn. But these women knew quite well that by now, on the third day after his death, decomposition would have thoroughly set in. All the spices in the world probably wouldn’t be enough. As they walked to the grave they were frightened of what they would find, not just of what they would see but of what they would smell. They knew the reality of death. As in most cultures it was usually the women who did the physical business of preparing bodies for burial. But still, it had to be tried for this man whom they had loved so deeply.

But when they got there they found that instead of the stench of death there was an empty tomb, smelling just of good clean rock, with graveclothes neatly folded and two angels announcing the resurrection.

In the Old Testament when Isaiah wants to speak of new hope and a new beginning for the people of Israel after their long exile in Babylon, he proclaims that on the day when God delivers them they will be given “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” It is this idea which Gerald Manley Hopkins poem picks up and links with Easter. “Beauty now for ashes wear/ Perfumes for the garb of woe.”
Resurrection isn’t just an intellectual idea, something to be grasped with the brain. It is something which affects the whole of our lives, which is known through our actions and attitudes, in the depths of our being, perfusing us like a scent, getting into every part of our being. The life and love of God, undefeated by all the hatred and destruction the world can throw at it, changes everything for us when we have discovered it. Life smells different from death. We may not be able to put it into words, but we know it when we find it.

But in order to discover that new life God promises, the new hope, the new beginning that we long for, like those women at the tomb, we have to be brave enough to go to the place we fear the most, the place we are sure will stink of death, the places in our lives where we have failed, the places in our world where people suffer. Like that tomb in Jerusalem, these are the places where God chooses to work, first, foremost and most powerfully , the places where he is needed most yet least expected. If we stay in our locked rooms, in our comfort zones, then we will never know the fullness of Easter joy, that Christ is risen indeed, not just in Jerusalem, but in us.

Easter Gerald Manley Hopkins

Break the box and shed the nard;
Stop not now to count the cost;
Hither bring pearl, opal, sard;
Reck not what the poor have lost;
Upon Christ throw all away:
Know ye, this is Easter Day.

Build His church and deck His shrine;
Empty though it be on earth;
Ye have kept your choicest wine-
Let it flow for heavenly mirth;
Pluck the harp and breathe the horn:
Know ye not 'tis Easter morn ?

Gather gladness from the skies;
Take a lesson from the ground;
Flowers do ope their heavenward eyes
And a Spring-time joy have found;
Earth throws Winter's robes away,
Decks herself for Easter Day.

Beauty now for ashes wear,
Perfumes for the garb of woe.
Chaplets for dishevelled hair,
Dances for sad footsteps slow;
Open wide your hearts that they
Let in joy this Easter Day.

Seek God's house in happy throng;
Crowded let His table be;
Mingle praises, prayer and song,
Singing to the Trinity.
Henceforth let your souls alway
Make each morn an Easter Day.

Easter Sunday: Real resurrection

“But these words seemed to the apostles an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24.11)

I am very tempted when I hear these words from the Gospel to roll my eyes, give a heavy sigh and say “it was ever thus…” The women who proclaimed the news that Jesus had risen weren’t the first in human history to find their words dismissed as mere chatter by the men in their lives, and they wouldn’t be the last either. And that is an important part of the point Luke is making here.  All the Gospels give unusual prominence for their time and culture to the women in the story of Jesus, but Luke in particular underlines it again and again. In his Gospel Jesus is often seen honouring women, healing women, affirming women as they follow him. In the culture of the time that would have been seen as revolutionary, and it is one of the things that shaped the early church. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” said St Paul (Galatians 3.28). Creating a new community where the old dividing lines of ethnic identity, social status and gender no longer defined people was a struggle, but it was central to the message of the Gospel, so it’s not surprising to find the role of women emphasized in the Gospels, or that some of the characters in them find this hard to take.

But let’s cut these apostles a little slack today. It surely is expecting a bit much to think that anyone would have instantly believed this story, whoever it came from. After all, would we believe it if someone –male or female – came rushing into church today saying that a dead person had returned to life? I doubt it.

The people of the first century wouldn’t have thought it was impossible for the dead to live again – they didn’t have our scientific understanding of the boundaries between life and death; as far as they were concerned, life and death were in God’s hands, and if he chose to raise someone from the dead it was perfectly within his powers to do so. But that didn’t mean they expected it to happen.

The possibility of resurrection was the last thing in anyone’s minds on this first Easter Day. That goes for the women as much as the men. They’d gone to the tomb with the spices and ointments that would have normally been used for burial. There hadn’t been time on Good Friday to anoint Jesus and prepare his body properly, so they were going back to do it now. They were expecting death, not life, as any of us would have done. But when they got there they found that nothing was as they’d thought it would be. The stone was rolled away and “two men in dazzling clothes” were standing there. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they ask. “He is not here, but has risen”. Jesus had said this would happen, they say, but clearly the women hadn’t taken it in at the time, or hadn’t thought for a moment that he actually meant it. It is only because they are here at the tomb, having the experience, that it becomes real to them. They would have been no more likely to believe this tale than their male counterparts if they hadn’t been.

But if we can understand, and forgive, the apostles’ disbelief of the women, the way they deliver their verdict is still a bit painful. They dismiss it as an “idle tale”. Ouch. Most of them don’t even think it is worth checking out. It’s only Peter who makes the short trip to the burial ground to look for himself. 

That sets a pattern for the accounts of all the other resurrection appearances in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has to make all the running himself. Later that day he appears to two of his disciples as they trudge back to Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. They’ve heard rumours of his resurrection, but somehow they can’t face the possibility that it might be true, and they don’t recognise this stranger on the road with them. It is as if they are fed up with the whole business, as if they have decided to have nothing more to do with it. It is only after he has walked seven miles in the wrong direction with them, away from Jerusalem where they really need to be, that the penny drops.  As they share supper with him they realise who he is. They rush back with their news, to find the disciples still in hiding. At that point Jesus again takes the initiative, appearing in the room, sitting down to eat with them too.  It’s not just that they can’t believe Jesus might have risen; it is as if they think that even if he has, it is nothing to do with them.

When the apostles describe the women’s announcement as “an idle tale” that says it all. Something that is idle isn’t going anywhere, isn’t getting anything done, doesn’t really make any difference. The Greek word which that phrase translates can also mean a “trinket” or a “bauble”, something decorative, glittery, appealing in a superficial way, but not really worth anything much. As far as they are concerned the resurrection might have happened, or it might not have happened, but either way it’s someone else’s story, not theirs. It is only as each of them meets the risen Christ for themselves that things change. At that point, the idle tale, the trinket, becomes a life-changing event that goes to the deepest part of them and transforms them utterly.

The early Christians who told these stories of resurrection, and in many cases died because of their commitment to following the way of Christ, only had the courage and strength to do so because they had found in Christ something so precious that nothing, even the threat of death, would induce them to give it up. We don’t know exactly what they saw on that first Easter Day – the Gospel accounts all differ and they are full of things unsaid and unexplained, loose ends and mysteries. But whatever happened it changed those who were there completely. It convinced them, to use the words of Desmond Tutu, that “Goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death.”  Time and again they found they were encountering the risen Christ in one another in those new communities where there was no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. Light dawned in their lives, and they found acceptance, forgiveness, reconciliation, a whole new purpose and meaning to life.

So what about us? My experience is that establishing the facts of the resurrection story – what we think we'd have seen if we'd been there - is often the least important factor in Christian faith. In fact when we get obsessed with trying to pin down what “really” happened, we can end up robbing the story of its power, because there is no way we can ever answer those questions. It becomes an absorbing academic puzzle, or a bone of contention to argue over, but it makes no difference to us. It is something long ago and far away. In a sense, we turn it into an “idle tale” ourselves when we treat it like this. What really matters is not that we understand the resurrection, but that we experience it. And that can only happen as we dare to live Christ’s message of love, when we seek reconciliation instead of revenge, when we carry on working for justice and doing what is right, despite the knockbacks and the disappointments. When we do that, we start to find life in unexpected places where all we thought we’d find was death.

I’ve known this in my own life, and in the lives of many others I have met. I think of a friend of mine – some of you will have heard me talk about him before. He’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, who used to beg for money on the streets to fund his addictions, but has now been clean and sober for well over a decade. The drugs and alcohol have done their damage though, leaving him with all sorts of physical and mental problems which he will never be free of, and life is a huge struggle for him. But he keeps on, day by day. Sometimes he phones me up and says, “Anne – I’ve just got a mustard seed of faith today, but it’s enough. God is with me, and I still haven’t had a drink…” He is giving help to others now too, giving back something in gratitude for the help he’s received. That’s resurrection. That’s what it looks like and feels like – not an idle tale, a trinket, an extraordinary story from long ago, but the essential food and drink for someone on a very hard journey. My friend has never, to my knowledge, worried about how exactly a dead man could come to life again, how he could appear in a locked room, or suddenly be walking along the road to Emmaus. All he knows is that somehow, from somewhere the strength he needs seems to appear when he needs it, and that is the miracle that matters to him.

I see the reality of resurrection often in the course of my work in people like him, people who have gone through horrific experiences, who have every reason to let hatred and suspicion swallow them up, yet somehow find the power to love instead, people who face what seem like insuperable odds in life, yet still have hope for the future, and a concern for others too. I see it in people like those women at the tomb, people whom the world might have written off, but who discover that they are precious in God’s eyes, with gifts to give and a message to share, despite what others might think. That’s resurrection – not an idle tale, but the knowledge of God’s presence and God’s love, light in the darkness, strength in the suffering, comfort in the loss, hope in the hard slog, where we are, here and now. The most important question for us this Easter day is not whether we believe that God raised Christ from death 2000 years ago, or, if we do, how he did it, but whether we are prepared to let God raise us from death to new life now.


Saturday, 30 March 2013

Good Friday: Simon of Cyrene

As you will have seen, this afternoon there are several displays in the church, reflective stations, where you are invited to explore different facets of the stories of Holy Week. If you haven’t done so already, please take some time to do so after the service, or come back later in the day – the church will be open until Compline at 8pm. There’s one station in the Lady Chapel, and a couple at the back, but is this one here by the pulpit that I want to focus on.

It is about one of the bit-part players in the passion story; Simon of Cyrene, the man pressed into service by the Romans to help carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha. We don’t know much about Simon except that he came from Cyrene, obviously,  a city in modern day Libya. There was a thriving Jewish community there, and his Jewish name suggests he was part of it. If that’s the case he was probably in Jerusalem for the Passover, as many other Jews from around the world were. Perhaps he came every year, or perhaps it was a once in a lifetime trip. But what is certain is that he hadn’t come expecting to be caught up in a crucifixion, let alone to find himself carrying a cross. He had probably never even heard of Jesus. Cyrene was a long way away; why would anyone have taken notice of stories of an obscure Galilean prophet there?

But here he is, caught up in a tragedy that is not at all of his making, made to bear a burden that is none of his business, none of his fault. What does he feel? We aren’t told. He might feel compassion or a sense of solidarity with Jesus, a Jew like him, suffering at the hands of an unjust occupying force. He might, though, feel revulsion too – this cross is probably already blood-stained from Christ’s bleeding back. He might feel shame; what if people think that he is the one who is being crucified? He might feel fear. It was a dangerous thing to come to the notice of the Romans; far better to keep your head down. He might feel anger and resentment both at the soldiers and at Jesus – why should he have to do this? There’s a lot left unsaid in this story, a lot we don’t know, but perhaps because of that Simon of Cyrene can become a very rich focus for reflection for us.

The fact is that there are times in our lives when we all probably feel like Simon, carrying the burdens of others. Some of those burdens might be willingly shouldered; supporting someone we love through illness or a difficult time in their lives, perhaps. But the fact that we love them doesn’t necessarily mean those loads don’t feel heavy, and it is only human to find that tough at times.

Other burdens might be landed on us against our will, though, as this one is on Simon. We might find ourselves dragged into the mess others have made, with loads inflicted on us through their thoughtlessness or downright evil, having to try to sort out problems we had no part in creating.

Victims of abuse or other crimes may suffer the effects of what has been done to them for a lifetime, although they had done nothing to deserve it. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Simon. Whatever the root cause of the things they have endured, it wasn’t their fault, not their burden, but they are the ones left bearing it.

There are also many whose professional life brings them face to face with the pain of others, and sometimes with the worst of human nature too; doctors and nurses, police officers and fire-fighters, social workers and teachers – and priests too, among others. The fact that it is a job, or even a vocation, doesn’t make it any less challenging or exhausting to confront that suffering.

I came across a story told by a hospice chaplain, Tom Gordon*, which seemed to me to capture this perfectly.

 "The door of Sam’s room had been left open by the nurses. His family’s distress was obvious – his wife holding his hand, his daughter with her arm round her mum, his son staring out of the open window – as they waited for Sam to die. I wanted to go in and meet this family in their sorrow. But I had nothing to offer, no clever words to say. I only glanced into the room as I passed, a spectator of their pain and grief.

It could not and would not last. Eventually, I felt compelled to go in. I was scared, ill-equipped, tongue-tied, out of my depth. But for a moment or two, and on two or three other occasions through the day, I offered what I could -  a stumbling word, a shared silence, a comforting touch – each time overwhelmed by the pain of it all and my uselessness to make it any different.

Sam died that night. Next morning, the door of his room was still open. But there was no patient or distressed family, only the empty bed and the stillness of the aftermath of death. I was relieved it was over for them – but also for me, for I needed no longer be burdened by the weight of my inadequacy.

Later that morning, the family came to collect Sam’s belongings and the death certificate – and asked to see me, to say thank you for my help during yesterday. My help? I murmured some words of protest. But Sam’s wife persisted: “No, you did good yesterday. All the family have said so, because you came into the room – and I know how hard that was.” The ultimate had not been possible – I could not stop the journey to death. My own inadequacies had been transparent – I would rather have been anywhere than be a part of the pain and sorrow. But with the compulsion to go in and the fearfulness of being there, in the transitions from spectator to participant, something good – of God – had taken place. “

I expect we would all like to feel that we could be heroic and wise in situations like these. But the truth is that what really matters is just that we should “go into the room”, be there, and look steadily at the pain, the mess and the anger alongside those who suffer.

I’m sure if Simon of Cyrene had had a chance he would have turned and run rather than carry that cross, but he didn't, and there is an intriguing hint that he might have ended up glad of that. Mark’s Gospel tells his story like this.

 “They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry Jesus’ cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.”  

Why does Mark tell us the names of Simon’s sons – they don’t come into the story at all, and they are never mentioned again? The only possible reason is that they were part of the Christian community Mark wrote his Gospel for, people Mark’s hearers would have known.  That little clue tells us that Simon saw something in this man whose journey to the cross he was sharing and it changed him, and he in turn passed on his faith to his sons. Perhaps it was the realisation that just as he was carrying Jesus’ burden, there was a sense that Jesus was carrying his too.
Sieger Koder

Jesus died because the world in which he lived was a mess, just as ours is. He died because the people who had the power to kill him were too greedy and too afraid of losing their status and position to let him live, preaching his message of equality, love and dignity for those at the bottom of the heap. And if he came today we would almost certainly kill him all over again for the same reasons. Yet he had willingly got tangled up in that mess, a mess that we are all part of, all partly responsible for creating. Yet Jesus preached his message anyway, and even when he got to this this terrible, inevitable end of the journey, he didn’t turn back. He saw it through, not with vengeance in his mind but with love and forgiveness. He “came into the room” with us. He stayed in the room with us, and that is what made the difference, to Simon, and all who have found the courage to “come in the room” and be with those who suffer ever since.


 *Tom Gordon – Hospice Chaplain – in “Lent and Easter Readings from Iona”.Neil Paynter (ed)

Maundy Thursday: Real Water

 Last week I was down in Seal School, as I usually am once a fortnight, leading a school assembly. In our assembly plan we were gradually working through the story of Holy Week, ahead of the end of term service where each year group tells a different part of it. We had got as far as the Last Supper, and I decided to focus on this story we have just heard, the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. I reminded the children of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, of the way his disciples and the rest of the crowd expected that he would overthrow the Romans and be a great leader. The disciples were thinking that this would be a great thing, because surely the glory would rub off on them, his right hand men. But Jesus knew it wouldn’t be like that. He was heading for death, and in any case, the kingdom he had been preaching was not about power, but service.  But how could he convince his followers of that?
Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles
by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475
So I told the children how Jesus had gathered his disciples on the night before he died, produced water and a towel and washed their feet. I told them how horrified the disciples had been, and how Peter had refused at first, but had been persuaded by Jesus telling him that this was the only way he could be part of Jesus’ work, by learning to serve and to be served. As I told this story, I produced a bowl and a towel myself, and put them on the hall floor and knelt down beside them. The children thought this was all very peculiar, but when I asked “so, who wants to come and have their feet washed,” there was no stopping them. A forest of hands shot up. 

I have always found it works like that with children. Adults will try very hard to make their pews swallow them up if you suggest washing their feet, but children, especially small children, don’t bat an eyelid. They are used to their mums and dads washing them; it is a hazard of life as a child that someone is always coming at you with a damp flannel. So I wasn’t surprised to see so many volunteers. I was surprised, though, that some of the Year 6 children, the top class, 10 and 11 year olds, sitting at the back of the hall, had their hands up. Usually they feel far too grown up for this.

Since some of them had had the courage to volunteer, I thought I would honour that by choosing one of them, and called up one of the Year 6 boys. He made his way to the front of the hall quite confidently, but then he looked down at the bowl sitting on the floor. “Oh,” he said, “I didn’t know it had actual water in it… I didn’t know you were really going to do it!”

Being a very good sport, he sat down and took off his shoes and socks anyway, but as he put his feet into the water, he said to me “this is sooo embarrassing!” Fortunately he had a smile on his face, so I could see he didn’t really mind, but evidently it was all a bit of a shock. As I washed his feet we talked about why it felt difficult, and why Peter might have felt that he didn’t want his feet washed either, and by the end, we had really got to the heart of this story, really started to understand together why being helped, being served often felt harder than helping and serving yourself.

The depth of reflection we had only happened though, because there was real water, a real towel, real getting wet involved. If you are starting to get worried at this point, please don’t; I’m not going to produce some water here and make you actually go through this… but the insight my volunteer’s reaction prompted is a very important one. “I didn’t think you were actually going to do it…” he said, and it was only when I actually did do it that this ancient story leapt out of the Bible and into real life. Before that it had just been words. The children could appreciate the story from the outside, theoretically, but they didn’t really get it at all, and perhaps neither did I. We alI became aware in a new way as I washed his feet of the courage it took to let someone help you, and the reasons why we are sometimes so bad at doing so.

The trouble with Holy Week, especially if it is something you have observed many, many years running, and even more if you are involved in helping to make it happen – in music, in serving, in welcoming, in leading worship – is that it can end up feeling like so much handle turning.

We go through the motions, hear the words, sing the hymns, turn up in church, and at the end of it we think to ourselves – well, that’s all done and dusted for another year. The Last Supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection …we know how it goes, we know how it will end. It doesn’t really touch us, let alone change us.

But that’s not how it is meant to be. The story of Holy Week only reveals its power when we let it connect with the reality of our lives. Maundy Thursday can only have a real impact if we bring to it not only the words of the ancient story of the Last Supper, but also the struggles we go through in our own lives and communities to live with one another, serve one another, help and accept help. It has to be about real dirt, real vulnerability, the real service that we need to give and receive. Even the ritual of  foot-washing, powerful a symbol as it is, can end up being a distraction from that, when it is done with pre-prepared adults presenting the cleanest feet you’ve ever seen to have  few drops of water swiftly poured over them, which is why I’ve never pushed the issue of doing it here. What matters is that we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty in helping our community in the ways people really need – which is unlikely to be washing their feet - and that we’re not too proud to accept the help of others either.

The events which followed the Last Supper too, which we will retell over these coming days aren’t just an ancient tale full of puzzling theological niceties and mystical mumbo-jumbo. They are about the real experiences of betrayal and courage, pain and love, despair and hope; things which all of us know in our lives, which we see around us in our world today. As we look into the mirror of these old stories, we should be able to see our own situations in a new light, recognise some incident, some problem, some relationship, find ourselves saying “this is about me, now, not just about them, then.”

However beautiful our liturgies, however well done, they are not what it is all about, they are just a way of opening the door to the real encounter each of us needs to have with a real God who longs to do real work in us.

“I didn’t think you were actually going to do it,” said my Year 6 boy. He soon found out he was wrong. As we retell, yet again, these terrible, beautiful, life-changing stories, perhaps we should ask how often we say the same thing to God, how often we come to church expecting nothing to happen. “I didn’t think you were actually going to do it – to challenge me, reveal me to myself, wash me, heal me, transform me. I just came along for the story, or the music, or out of habit, Lord.” My volunteer discovered something about me last week – that I am dangerously likely to do what I say… I pray that we will be open to finding the same about God, to let him into the reality of our lives, so that Holy Week isn’t just an historical re-enactment but a living experience that changes us forever.