Easter sermon for St Francis High Heaton

Sutherland, Graham Vivian, 1903-1980; Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen (Noli me Tangere)
Sutherland, Graham Vivian; Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen (Noli me Tangere); Pallant House Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/christ-appearing-to-mary-magdalen-noli-me-tangere-70518

Today the clocks went forward so that we could have longer
days. The days are in fact no longer, we simply change the
framework which structures our day. It’s funny how we treat
time as if it were a commodity that could be manipulated…
we talk of saving time, wasting time, time is money…. the
notion of “quality” time… whereas time is a human
construction onto nature so that we can measure our
passage through life and record or anticipate it… where
would we be without clocks and calendars?! But the decision
to make a minute sixty seconds and an hour sixty minutes
and a day 24 hours… well, the day bit was partly decided by
the time it takes the earth to revolve… and likewise a year is
the time it takes to circumnavigate the sun…. last week was
the equinox, the moment when the day is as long as the
night, and since then the days have become longer… except
that each days is 24 hours as usual… an arbitrary number
pasted onto a given length. All of our existence is shaped in
this way. A past archbishop of York, John Habgood was a
scientist, and he talks about how humans make sense of the
world around them… there are two ways, he said of “making
sense”: one is trying to discern the sense that is already
there, investigating the structures, understanding the physics
and chemistry and biology that makes everything exist…. but
alongside that are the frameworks we create to interpret and
use what we observe, we both make sense of what is given,
and make things into some kind of sense. Time is a good
example, another is the miracle of making maps…. before the late 17th century, making maps and finding your way around
was notoriously difficult to do, because maps were largely
unreliable for their lack of accuracy. In the reign of Charles II
people began to apply themselves to this problem, and it was
the invention of lines of longitude that made it possible to
find your way round because only then could maps be
accurately drawn. In maps, lines of latitude are a given…. the
equator is always the widest point of the globe and if you call
that zero and divide the rest of the globe into four quadrants
(having decided that a circle is made up of 360 degrees of
measurement), then you get ninety degrees north, south,
east and west. But how should you make lines of
longitude…. from where should they start? Charles chose
Greenwich, which he could see from his breakfast room… it
took until 1884 for some 30 different meridians to be sorted
into one… the Greenwich meridian… but by creating an
arbitrary line into an existing pattern it is possible to create a
framework which enables you to draw accurate maps and
find your way around. It has always seemed to me that
religious faith is a similar exercise. The natural order is a
given, but somehow we have to construct an order to
interpret and navigate our way through this, and the
emergence of religious sensibilities in human beings from
earliest times, are the way in which we have striven to do
this. Whether it has been superstitious belief in gods of
nature, or of spirits and other forms of supernatural
existence to fill in the gaps in our understanding. In the evolution of religious faith it was the people of Israel, who
first conceived of the notion of a single unassailable
expression of divinity at the heart of all creation, beyond
human reckoning and beyond any kind of human constraint,
so beyond us that his name could not even be pronounced….
to the Roman and Greek philosophers, atheistic at heart, this
was insulting, because it meant that ultimately you believed
that there was a transcendent power in the universe, beyond
the laws of physics, and (more importantly) beyond the
authority of other humans. Isaiah records an event in the
reign of king Hezekiah, when God signals his forgiveness of
the repentant king by reversing the passage of the sun as
seen on the sundial of Ahaz… an extra hour in bed! What
this story is indicating is a growing religious consciousness of
a human understanding of a power which is at the heart of all
things, cosmic in scale and yet also minutely present in every
organism of being… and yet also related to our human
consciousness. During Lent on Tuesdays we’ve been
exploring the Canticle of Brother Sun, the song by our
blessed St Francis, who at start of 13th century wrote a poem
which is celebrated in our beautiful glass screen, which
includes praise of God in the cosmic elements, the sun and
the moon, as well as the earthly elements wind, fire, earth
and water, and then the human experience of forgiveness
and death. These are linked together by a consciousness of
the divine which is both intrinsic, but whose intrinsic nature
must be discovered by the creation of an external point of reference.
For Christians, this point of reference is of course
Jesus Christ, God become human. The events of the passion,
the description of this man’s betrayal, arrest, trial and
execution are recorded by four writers, in a level of detail
and difference that indicates a wealth of source material that
indicates the reality of the events, and alongside that is the
testimony that follows that this human killed on one day was
experienced as living and talking three days later. This
arbitrary (and to our knowledge, unique) event is what
makes the Christian faith unique and which also gives us the
framework for negotiating the crazy world of violence and
suffering in which we find ourselves. The mystery is why
some suffer more than others… and whilst we each have our
own personal thresholds for understanding this, the fact of it,
or simply the possibility of it, is what draws us to worship
together today. The event we celebrate today is a subversion
of the natural order. Dead things don’t come back to life…
and whilst we remain pretty sure of this solid fact in our own
experience, we take for granted something altogether far
more miraculous and yet also utterly so common and
mundane that we don’t notice its impact… which is the way
in which love subverts nature. On Maundy Thursday we
recalled Jesus commanding his disciples to love one another,
and he acted this out in the subservience of foot washing,
real love is the utterly humble, self-offering to our
neighbours… and as we know from our gospel of the year, St
Luke, our neighbour is the person in need whom we least hope it might be… our capacity to do this goes utterly
against the grain of nature and is a miracle that is taken far
too much for granted, and not practised enough in our world
either because we allow cynicism or fear to prevent us from
loving as deep in our hearts we know we could or should.
Love practised in a selfish world transforms our nature and
reveals the divine spirit in all things, and it gives meaning,
and shape and purpose into a world that would otherwise be
difficult to navigate. In John Jesus calls the washing of the
disciples feet as a pattern to follow… the word used is the
same word in Greek for a dress pattern… whatever the cloth,
whatever the fabric, the pattern is always the same, the
shape and scope unwavering in its miraculously beautiful
design. When Mary Magdalene sees the risen Christ in the
garden she reaches out for him and tries to grab hold… he
says to her (almost in rebuke), don’t cling to me… we can’t
hold God down, we can’t shape him to our own needs…
although we do try…. but if we simply allow this possibility to
flow in us, that not even death is a barrier, then the cynicism
and fear that stalk human existence wither, and we can love
as God intended us to love when we were shaped in his
image at the dawn of time, and because time is a human
construction on a natural given order, why should we be
surprised if faith is too? The Resurrection is both the
simplest and the hardest thing to believe, but if we have had
any hint of the reality of love in our lives, the miracle of love
which is an utter subversion of the natural order, the reality
of life outside of time, unbounded by death, will give us
meaning beyond measure, hope beyond hope and joy
beyond words.


The Canticle of Brother Sun

Canticle of the Sun

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, yours are the praises, the glory, and the honour, and all blessing;

To You alone, Most High, do they belong, and no human is worthy to mention Your name.

Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day and through whom You give us light.

And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour; and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather, through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water, who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom You light the night, and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin.

Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks and serve Him with great humility.