Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Truth by Which we Live and Die – and Live.

During Holy Week, the Bishop told us to pay attention to nature. So here goes. This daffodil is from the Deanery garden. As you can see, it is past its best, and that is important. The last time I saw a preacher take a daffodil into the pulpit was on Easter Day 25 years ago. He said: you will always remember this sermon because of this daffodil and what I did with it. He went on to eat it – all of it. For the next two days he felt extremely sick. That much I remember, as he said I would. I made a mental note never to consume a daffodil. What I have forgotten is what the point of it was.

So this daffodil: forget ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. Here’s a poem that dances where (as an unkind critic said) Wordsworth plods:

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;                                     
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain'd his noon.                                  
Stay, stay / Until the hasting day    
Has run / But to the evensong;                               
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.  

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay
As you or any thing.
We die / As your hours do, and dry
Away / Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.

Robert Herrick loves the spring for its freshness and beauty, but how quickly it passes! Carpe diem, he says, seize the day! When Easter is late, the wilting daffodil is a sad symbol of something precious we have lost too soon. And this is the point: ‘we have as short a spring’. Four centuries ago poets didn’t flinch from such thoughts. You never knew when the grim reaper would come harvesting; nature’s births and deaths were a reminder to be ready. Daffodils grow, they flower, they wilt, they die. Just like us.

Holy Week makes us face this fact of life because of its focus on pain and death. It asks us to follow a man to his execution and watch him die. It takes us to his burial place where we linger, waiting for whatever may happen. Early next morning, this morning, we are back among the tombs with the two disciples and Mary, and there is a great mystery. The tomb is empty, the beloved body is gone; ‘they have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him’. So much that is unknown and that discomfits us. Read St Mark’s resurrection account if you need convincing.

And although John’s Easter story is very different there is a shadow across it too. Mary comes to the tomb, and bafflement quickly turns to tears. ‘Mary stood weeping outside the tomb’: you can hear how her throat catches as she says ‘they have taken away my Lord (not the Lord, any more but my Lord) and I don’t know where they have laid him’. It takes the well-loved voice speaking directly to her – how do you do justice to what she hears, to all that is poured into the way he speaks her name? In that moment of recognition new worlds open up. The tears belonged to ‘before’; now it is ‘after’. ‘I have seen the Lord!’ Three short words in Greek re-launch her life and the whole of history.

What difference does it make that Christ is risen? I’m not asking what difference we would like it to make: I guess we want resurrection to be the answer to our questions, the happy ending to all our doubts and fears. I’ve spoken about ‘before’ and ‘after’, but I don’t mean that Easter is closure. Far from it: it pulls us into new journeys whose end we can never predict. So how does Easter change everything?

What it doesn’t do is to wind back the clock, as if this wilting daffodil could somehow regain its freshness and vitality. It’s the opposite. Easter winds the clock forward to the time where there will be a new heaven and a new earth, where everything we know is transformed. The Easter garden where Jesus comes to Mary and calls her by name – this is the paradise that an ageing, hurting world has looked forward to since time began. She thinks he is the gardener, and of course he is, exactly that, the divine Gardener who by rising on the first day of the week has begun to re-make creation and bring beauty out of ashes. And this new Eden is our destiny as human beings caught up in the renewal of creation that is Easter. Our first reading said: ‘when Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory’.  It is coming, yet it has already begun: with Mary in the garden, with the disciples Jesus greets, with those who have not seen yet believed, with all who worship and love and follow him on this Easter Day.

For Easter takes our fear away, and gives us back our lives. We might think that the only honest response to the pain of the world is despair or at best helpless resignation. But Easter shines a fresh light on all that is wrong in life, all the suffering, all the agony, all the oppression, all the loss, all the pain, and then says: never lose heart, never lose hope, for in the resurrection of Jesus life begins again. This is Easter’s gift to humanity, to each one of us. We place ourselves in the garden where Mary stood; there among the tombs we place our churches, peoples, relationships and communities. And where we were once afraid, we hear a voice calling us by name, announcing that everything has changed, hell is vanquished, death has lost its sting, the last enemy is defeated, a new day is dawning.

I’m not saying it is easy to sustain resurrection joy on days when we are close to the tears of things. But as we renew our baptism promises today, why not start living by the New Testament where it says: ‘always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you’? That’s not blind optimism, for we know that crucifixions go on even after Easter. But it is to face the reality that even in the darkest of times, we can trust in the good purposes of the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who brings life out of death. Easter gives us the reason to say ‘yes’ to life with a new hope rising within us.
I became a Christian 50 years ago because I glimpsed in the lives of others something touched by – I didn’t know at the time, though now I see it was the Easter truth of Jesus’ cross-and-resurrection. It rang true. It always does. It gives us the courage to strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the afflicted and love humanity in a thousand different places and ways. It cheers with hope the gloomy day, and sweetens every bitter cup. It makes the coward spirit brave and nerves the feeble arm for fight. It takes its terror from the grave, and guilds the bed of death with light. It opens our eyes to the new creation and our ears to its new song. It’s the answer to the transience of daffodils and life’s passing shadow: we sing alleluia even at the grave. For today we cross over into a great new Beginning, Easter’s glorious springtime that will never end. From today, Easter is the truth by which we live and die – and live! 

Easter Day at Durham Cathedral 2014.
Colossians 3.1-4; John 20.1-18

Monday, 14 April 2014

Jesus and the Psalms

At evensong in Lent we are offering short reflections on the Psalms. In the Hebrew text, both of tonight’s psalms, 61 and 62, are attributed to David. We should not read too much into this. However, it may preserve an ancient memory of how the psalms had a close relationship with kings of Israel as songs that depicted them in many aspects of royal life: coronation, wise leadership, facing the threats of invasion or famine, leading in battle and knowing either defeat or victory. If we put the psalms on to the lips of the Israelite king, we shall not be far wrong.

Psalm 61 clearly has a royal character with its prayer to ‘prolong the life of the king’ so that his throne will be protected by God. This is a lament in which the king is seeking a bigger defence than any army or fortification can provide. He looks for a place of safety in ‘the rock that is higher than I’, ‘a refuge, a strong tower against the enemy’. We don’t know what has induced this sense of helplessness: it may be the onset of war, or the imagery may be a metaphor for some other threat he faces. But there is no mistaking the ‘certainty of hearing’: he already knows that God has heard his plea, and at the end, looks forward to a good outcome for which he will thankfully be able to praise God.
The second psalm is so close to the first in tone and imagery that I see it as another song of the king. The rock of salvation, the trusted fortress is there again in contrast with the unstable tottering wall on which you lean at your peril. ‘On God rests my deliverance and my honour; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.’ So this psalm is like the 23rd, ‘the Lord is my shepherd’, a restful song of confidence in God. It is the answer to the lament of Psalm 61: God has indeed heard, and has done all that the king had hoped for. For this is his character: not only power but steadfast love belong to God, says the psalm, God’s covenant loyalty to his people especially as they are held in the person of the king.

It’s natural as we read the psalms to place ourselves within them and make their prayers our own. But before we do this, we might reflect on a very ancient way of reading the psalms which harks back to the idea that it is the king’s voice we are hearing. I mean thinking of the psalms as the songs and prayers of Jesus himself, for in the gospels, he quotes the psalms, and they are quoted of him, more than any other book of the Hebrew Bible. This is especially true of the passion accounts we read during Holy Week. So if we try to hear the voice of Jesus in this afternoon’s two psalms, what do we find?

On Palm Sunday, we recall how Jesus comes into his city as the king who is hailed as ‘the son of David’. We know that he is destined to die there, and also to be raised from death. So let us think of this pair of psalms as songs of the dying and rising king. In the first psalm he yearns to know that God has not abandoned him, in the spirit of St Luke who has Jesus pray trustingly, ‘into your hands I commit my spirit’. In the second, he finds deliverance from death, knowing that his victory comes from the one who has been with him all along. And if we read them in this paschal, death-and-resurrection way, they remind us how we walk the via dolorosa with Jesus, are crucified with him, are buried with him in baptism, and are raised with him to newness of life. In Christ there is a new creation. So we tell our own story of how God has indeed proved to be our steadfast rock, the one who is higher than we are, to whom we can safely entrust our lives for time and for eternity.