At this year's Chrism Eucharist, as clergy reaffirmed their vows and the sacred oils were blessed, Bishop Viv spoke of the incarnation of God's word and the incarnation of Good News:
The eyes of all were fixed on him.
My parents lived in a parish where the vicar was intensely shy. One day my mother looked out of the window to see the vicar crawling up the drive, then painfully reaching up to pop his visiting card trough the letter box.The card read the vicar called and was sorry to find you out. He wasnt the first or last minister to duck out of sight.
The eyes of all were fixed on him.
The words, with their probably deliberate echo of Psalm 145 - the eyes of all look to you and you give them food in due season, set the scene and create the anticipatory tension for a word from this local boy made good, this new rabbi…or was he something more?
And at first it seemed that the congregation think he had got the words right. Luke tells us: 'all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words which came out of his mouth.'
As ministers, those who gather around us need us to get the words right. And that is both a privilege and a burden.
You may know Anne Stevensons poem about a funeral couched in, I suspect, deliberately gendered language:
Were going to need the minister
To help this heavy body into the ground.
But he wont dig the hole;
Others who are stronger and weaker will have to do that.
And we wont wipe his nose and his eyes;
Others who are weaker and stronger will have to do that.
And he wont bake cakes or take care of the kids…
Womens work. Anyway what would they doat a time like this
If they didnt do that?
No, well get the minister to come
And take care of the words.
He doesnt have to make them up,
He doesnt have to say them well,
He doesnt have to like them
So long as they agree to obey him.
We have to have the minister
So the words will know where to go.
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words which came out of his mouth.
Jesus, speaking in the power of the spirit of God, that same spirit who blew over the chaos at the beginning of all things, and which carried God's people through the chaos of the Red Sea, now blows on and through a human agent. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me - to bring, to bind up, to proclaim, to release, to comfort, to provide, to give. All these are transformative gifts for the weak , the powerless, the marginalised, restoring them to full participation in a community of well being and of joy. The good news is not just a matter of words.
For this is a proclamation of the reorganisation of the whole of public life in its allusion to Jubilee, the cancellation of debts along with all ownership rights in order to recreate a community of justice. High flown vision which was, scholars think, never in fact realised in the time of the judges or the prophets.
But in the hearing of this Nazareth congregation, Jesus does speak about the realisation of the vision. Expounding the Isaiah prophecy, using the examples of rejected prophets, he warns that the people of Nazareth may think of themselves as insiders, but they fail to understand what God is now doing. For the outsiders are moving, being moved, to the inside. Nazareth isnt as exceptional as it thinks. Change is afoot. This is the year of the Lords favour.
Hearing those words the congregation responded in rage. Those who had been so proud of this new preacher now turned on him as a betrayer, drove him out of town and threatened to throw him off the cliff, to lynch him.
Anne Stevensons poem concludes:
We have to have the minister
So the words know where to go.
Imagine them circling and circling
The confusing cemetery,
Imagine them roving the earth
Without anywhere to rest.
Jesus words do come to rest, and disturb profoundly as they do so.
You have, I am sure, tried to find the right words for your sermons, the right words for your your annual reports and meetings; you have tried to find the right words to implement the Diocesan Vision. And so you have brought God's Word down to Earth, and at the same time you will have discovered where the resistance to God's calling lies:
- Chairs instead of pews
- 1100 worship instead of 1000
- Looking outwards instead of inwards
- Including instead of excluding
- Christ instead of the devil
- Good instead of evil
- Holiness instead of sin
For the prophet Isaiah that word instead was the crux of our first reading:
- A garland instead of ashes
- Gladness instead of mourning
- Praise instead ofa faint spirit.
The garland and gladness and praise are wonderful concepts. But the garland and the gladness and the praise only become good news gifts when they are brought to earth, when good news is incarnated. And that means change, metanoia, for individuals and communities, on the surface and deep, deep down too.
That change has been, is and will be constant. I was ordained with clergy who expected to spend their lives in pastoral and spiritual ministry in fairly settled communities where there would be a general understanding of what the vicar was for. It hasnt happened. Instead my peers have found themselves developing ministries far beyond the dreams and visions they had in training. Some have, indeed, specialised in pastoral and spiritual ministry, and moved into chaplaincy in hospitals the armed forces, prisons. More have stayed in communities and have become leaders, trainers and enablers of large teams of clergy and lay people. Some, working in areas where the rumour of God is scarcely ever heard, have developed as evangelists. Others, working in areas where faith is widespread but Jesus is little known, have become adept at answering for their faith amongst Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and other communities. Still others, working in areas of high deprivation, have emerged as social entrepreneurs, builders of faith capital, creating community where there was none. And some have found it too much. They have felt unprotected or underesourced in the face of the resistance they have experienced and have been overwhelmed.
And at that point, at any point of crisis, words fail. As we know so well from the last hours of Jesus life. As we saw in Paris on Monday night. There were prayers sung and said as Notre Dame burned. But mostly there was silence. And some hours later, the first images were released of a scene reminiscent of Rembrandt, of the great cathedral crossing space lit by a shaft of light, falling on the cross standing apparently pristine on the altar. . And below that cross, the Nicolas Coustou sculpture of Mary holding her son, our Lord, taken down from the cross.
Or another image -f oil for anointing, for healing and for baptism and for priesting
Or another image…… of bread and wine taken and blessed and broken and shared.
Or a final image
Like lots of kids, I did caterpillar at school. We fed the poor things until they were bloated, then we watched them build their cocoons and we drew cute pictures of sweet little caterpillars busy growing wings and lengthening their little stubs into antennae, ready to pop out.
But it is not as easy as that. Truly horrendous things happen inside a cocoon. First there is total disintegration. Everything that was caterpillar breaks down into chaotic matter into primal ooze. Only once the caterpillar has consented to that annihilation can the butterfly be constructed. The caterpillar has to risk all for the sake of new life. Thats why the butterfly used to be a symbol of new creation, of resurrection: you have to die, to be destroyed first, even if you are the Son of God.
We are called to bring good news. Not just to speak it, but to incarnate it. To make clear in word and sacrament the significance of instead, the instead which brings garlands and gladness and praise, the instead that brings new life.
Knowing as we do, living as we do, the story of the one we worship and adore, we cannot avoid being scarred, marked for life. But we are marked to bring life. Today we pray for each other as we travel with Christ this Holy Week. And cherish each others wounded beauty, that through it individually and together we may reveal, in word and in sign, new life to Christs world.
Collected Poems 1955 - 1995 Bloodaxe