A Strange Story : Easter Day Evensong sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral.

West Doors

“What are we to do with this strange story? This strange story that seems to us to come from another world. A world different from our own. This strange story about a child born of a virgin, conceived of God; a child whose birth is heralded by singing angels, shepherds and kings; a child whose birth is foretold centuries before it happens; this child who in his youth teaches his teaches but is always obedient to his mother and father. What are we to do?

What are we to do with tales of water being turned into wine; of people born blind being given their sight again; of the paralysed being animated; of the lame walking; of the sick being healed; of leper’s being made clean by a touch; of the dead being raised to life again? It seems to us from another world. A world very different from our own. What are we to do?

What are we to do with the claims of this child, now a man, that he was there with God in the beginning; that he is God among us, Immanuel; that it is he that placed the stars in the places they occupy; that it is he who decided the numbers of hairs we would have and at which point some of us might lose a few? In a world with pictures of black holes, science and modern medicine, what are we to do?

My suggestion this day is that we follow the evidence. We start by asking why a fire in an old cathedral is a tragedy? If all we see is all there is then why lament the smoke? Perhaps there is more, perhaps that world from which our story comes isn’t that distant after all.

If the story-teller is the same one in the beginning as is at the end, if He is Alpha and Omega then maybe in the corridors of history he might direct Isaiah – a prophet in exile – to speak of the day when the true rules of this universe would be revealed; to ask whether when that day comes, people would understand the gravity of what they witnessed.

If He is who he says he is, maybe he might allow humanity to throw their best at him. Beat him, force him to carry a log up a hill, nail him to that log and mock him as he dies. Maybe he might allow those who think death is the best weapon to bury him in a tomb and sleep soundly in their success: enjoying the grief written on the faces of his friends, soundly in the knowledge that the rules hadn’t changed. Soundly in the knowledge that might was right; you survived if you were fit or lucky enough; the sword would always win and bombs in churches would silence heaven.

Medicine tells us that blood and water from a pierced side only flow from someone who is dead.

History tells us that A Roman guard would never fall asleep on duty because it would cost him his life.

Science tells us that more than one person can hallucinate at the same time. But for two to have the exact same hallucination is extremely rare.

Where does that leave us when it comes to the three women at the tomb; or the 11 or more in a room they had locked from the inside; or the 500 who saw him alive; or the billions who have since encountered him in person by his spirit.

Today we strongly celebrate the reality that the rules did change. The tomb sealed to keep a dead man thrown wide open by a God who for compassion had come to the dust of the earth to make of them his children. The swords placed in soldiers hands to ensure he stayed dead were scattered by the display of what might really looked like. The earth shook. The way was paved for the women, considered the least, to come and find hope instead of continuing grief.

Death has lost its sting, evil its greatest weapon. Humanity has gained victory.

Ye though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil. For our shepherd – the good shepherd – has gone before us. Laying a table for us in the presence of our enemies. Giving us shalom, peace with God – the only sure foundation for joy.

Alas its is indeed a strange story, but not from another world. Granted perhaps it is a collision of two worlds, God’s plan for heaven and earth. A plan so that the eternal song of heaven, the song of the saints persecuted to death is “Sanctus! holy! Holy! Holy!”. For they see the tapestry completed. And the song of the church on earth, “Allelujah, Our Saviour is risen!”; of victory over death is sung with a hope unquenched and a joy everlasting.

Perhaps as we depart this day. Let us in the power of the death conquering spirit, confident in this strange but true story, participate in this seditious and rebellious song of a church united in heaven and militant here on earth.

Sanctus! Sanctus! Allelujah! Allelujah

May God bless his word to us today.”

‘Stone Altars’ (Part 4)

I asked for your hearts, but you built these stone altars for yourselves

Under the spell of the Bishop’s hat, which towered above the crowds now gathered on the steps of the Cathedral, we listened as the canon read from the book of Moses the story of how God delivered and led the Israelites through the parted sea and away from the pursuing Egyptian army. He, the Bishop, then began the service and marched us – crowds and candidates – into the huge cathedral doors, stopping by the font where the waters waited. With vigor and verve, he blessed the water and began to baptize the candidates. Each name was spoken with a deep sense of passion and enthusiasm, this man celebrated each face the drops touched, pronouncing the blessings surrounding the choice to pass into death and emerge into life with Jesus – Him for whom we were gathered.

(It is an interesting thing, that the church chose to have baptisms and confirmations on easter Saturday. I will cover this in a further reflection. For now I must return to the issue at hand).

I was impressed by the manner in which regardless of the number of people being baptised, the Bishop’s enthusiasm and sense of privilege never waned. Once the baptisms were done, He invited the rest of us – the confirmation candidates – to renew our vows before God by symbolically drawing the cross upon our foreheads with the waters from the font. When this was done, he led the procession down to the front, underneath the great dome. Candles in hand we all sat – the crowds joining in the scramble for good seats.

Being on the first row, my confirmation came and went quite quickly – I’m certain there is still a lot of processing to take place of what went on within me during those brief moments, what you are getting here is what I have been able to digest so far and feel is relevant to the issue of stone altars. As I mentioned in the preceding post, I was privileged to have been sat next to a young lady who was being baptised and confirmed on the same day. It was an honour to explain some of the liturgy and symbolism to her and see the effect of her grasping the depth of the steps she was making, even sharing her first journey to taking holy communion. This, and the long list of names that – like me – were called up to be confirmed, gave the occasion a sense of grander that surpassed all sense of ego that had developed within: leading up to the service, I had grown to believe in the speciality of my place but seeing and feeling my name vanish into a list that seemed endless was humbling. It was at this that the statement rang again.

I asked for your hearts, but you made these stone altars for yourselves

Yes, there was an altar made of stone (a hardening) that I had built for myself. Not to give God glory or even to lead me to a place where I could, but rather to keep myself in an elevated place. It was an altar well concealed in the sentiments of radicality and difference: in the desire to be set apart, to be distinctive. All these things in and of themselves aren’t bad, it is the secret edifice that they had allowed me to build without my noticing that made me shudder. As the names were called out, I realised that this vow that I was making wasn’t being done just by me. In fact, I was joining a whole host of people: becoming one of many. I was disturbed by the fact that I wanted the service to end quickly so I could go out and celebrate. The other names had began to make uncomfortable listening. The arrow to heart was the fact that for all his pomp and age, the Bishop remained enthusiastic about each name he read and blessed each one aloud and with such favour.

Skirted by a sense of self-righteousness masked in good intentions, I had erected my name, my reputation and adorned it with many things – words of affirmation, prophecy, and works, I had built myself into a tower overlooking the city so much so that in many ways I despised the Cathedral, trying to depose it.

A friend had asked me how our worship made God feel. This in an attempt to understand how to worship God in ‘Spirit and in truth’. My response was to say that our drive to worship shouldn’t be one that seeks to affect God, for he is suited in Glory already. Worship, and all it’s acts, were there as responses to God in all his splendour. This is right I think as it focuses our lenses onto the heart, which turned out to be the most important part of the sentence I heard.

I asked for your hearts, but you built these stone altars for yourselves

The heart is the most important word in that line because it canvases everything else. If the heart is correct, then the pieces of bricked up stones cease to be altars for selfishness but tools for mission and service. God doesn’t need beautiful buildings in order to be glorious or reveal his Glory. Neither does he need the pomp and ceremony of religiosity to touch the heart. It is in the heart – like that which I saw displayed in the Bishop’s sense of privilege in service – that God dwells and affects hearts. The real cathedral was in the heart of the man serving within it.

When we attach a deeper Spiritual essence onto the bricks and mortar, and beautiful artwork, we elevate what is architecture into something that it isn’t. On the other hand, though it isn’t the house of God, it is the house of God’s people and where they are (two or three) there He is also. I had walked into Chichester Cathedral thinking that God would speak to “me” there because “I” had gone into “His house”. I forgot that he could speak to me at any point and at any time thus the rebuke I think (and the rebuke was word from God spoken to me – I believe – inside the Cathedral: chew on that).

I asked for your hearts, but you built these stone altars for yourselves

I come from a continent that isn’t adorned with many cathedrals and churches. The church there is very much carried within its people. The many Church buildings that Britain, and Europe, are blessed to have are, and will always be reflections of the people within the church. They carry the sense within us of God’s grandure and hospitality but can be stumbling blocks to the development of faith within the heart. Like the dinner table for sunday roast, or Christmas meals, or Easter turkey, these spaces provide avenues for us to celebrate with each other the deep sense of hope that our faith gives us. It gives us space to share that hope with guests to our family. These things however, like the faith, do not require the space the buildings provide in order to be done – as I have experienced in Africa and is documented in many places. God is preached on streets, in homes, in fields and felt in hearts.

We cannot escape the privilege however of having these beautiful buildings and must, like Peter and the boat, cease to see them as means of surviving on the water but rather tools from which to preach the possibility of walking with Christ. We can only do this once we, internally turn our eyes heavenward, and not to fresco’s and domes. Remembering out own brokenness and folly in repentance (destroying the architecture in our hearts that keeps us from humility). Only then can we respond to the call the heart in true worship.

I was reduced to tears after sharing the peace with my family and friends who had journeyed to take part in the service with me. The joy they had in their eyes, having watched what had taken place, humbled me. It reminded me of the call to serve and invigorated me with a passion for them. It was their eyes, handshakes, hearts, and hugs that broke the bricks that supported my internal dome.

As you read this, please do place me in your prayers as the journey towards a truer understanding of my place in God’s kingdom continues. I know that within me is the urge to shy from addressing my own brokenness so desperately I ask for your intercession as I try and tear down the boulders within.

Finally, think on the statement and feel free to converse with me on your reflections.

I asked for your hearts, but you built these stone altars for yoursleves

‘Stone altars’ (Part 3)

I asked for your hearts, but you built these stone altars for yourselves

A strange nervousness and anxiety began to take hold of me the closer we got to London. My wife and I had spent the morning in Gloucestershire celebrating our God-daughter’s first birthday party. It had been an early drive and my nervousness had ensured that I volunteered to do both legs of the journey – to and from Stonehouse: I needed some sense of control in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the, and I thought at the time, unnecessary excitement. Each mile that I conquered seemed to amplify the rumble at the pit of my stomach, increasing the thump of my heart while drawing it closer to my throat. I couldn’t admit the extent of my turmoil to my wife, but rather soldiered on: if I crumbled now, we might not make it to the Cathedral.

Slowly the roads got busier and so did the frequency of buildings and traffic signals. It seemed as though the 100 miles or so between the beautiful young lady and the huge edifice – concealed by its modern counterparts – had sailed by. Right onto the A501 – Southampton Row, then Kingsway. Left onto Fleet Street by Bush House. I finally convinced my wife to turn off the satnav, I knew very well where we were and the most important thing then was providence: we needed to park.

There had been a bit of a rush added to the journey as, unbeknown to me until the night before – as always – I had to be at the Cathedral an hour and a half before the service to rehearse. This meant leaving the party early and putting my foot down for most of the trip. Had we been aiming for 7pm, the day would’ve been less stressful and – maybe – the journey less anxious.

She – the Edifice – pushed the rest of the quite tall building aside and lay the skirting of her dress around the space she had made. Standing tall she proclaimed her majesty and magnificence, highlighting the exquisite stonework in the pillars that held her court. We drove round, I in awe again, and were lucky to find parking on Paternoster Row. In haste we made our way toward the nearest tea place in order to sit and top up on caffein and food before going in – we had clawed back half hour which we intended to use ‘wisely’. Somewhere between parking and walking, I lost my appetite. The first tea place was full, and so was Starbucks. The cafe inside the Cathedral Crypt was also closing. M&S was our only hope.

As we emerged from the crypt, at whose doors a well built gentleman was ushering patron’s out, we spotted Azariah – my presenting Clergy and friend. He had his robes in the bag he carried. Unnervingly for me, he seemed aware of the depth of my anxiety – at least it seemed to me he did; with a hand on my shoulder he silently said what was needed to cement my walls of self assurance until the next onslaught. I downed the mango, pineapple, and passionfruit smoothie he bought me in one go and followed the calmer two, my wife and the vicar, into the Cathedral.

I had never been inside St Paul’s and almost expected pixie dust to fall. Following Azariah but keeping close to my wife, I gazed at the different works of art and genius that formed the inside of this beautiful monument (I do not use that word lightly: all connotations are apt methinks). He found my seat where my service order was waiting and after a few conversations with other candidates and clergy, I settled down for the rehearsal. (My wife must have been bored stiff).

Two things – that I retrospectively reflect on here – happened. The first was that I was placed beside a young lady who was due to be married. She hadn’t been baptized or confirmed and needed to be in order to marry in the church she was a part of. This was interesting as I wasn’t confirmed in the Church of England when I got married, a statement of the breadth within the Church. She had no idea what was about happen – I realized when I joked about the pool beneath the floor infront of us in which she would be dunked that nerves overcame her.

The second was the care with which the Chaplins and deacons took to prepare in order that the Bishop wouldn’t have any unpleasantries: their honest diligence was inspiring. Would I happily dedicate my life, and time, in the service of another man – He would have to be a great man (as it turned out this Bishop was).

After running through the important aspects of the liturgy with us, we were set free for the half hour or so before the service. The charm of the building had began to be lost on me. My nerves were vanishing quickly and the cocky side of me was slowly increasing the number of ill timed quips and jokes: my mind was beginning to disengage with the vows I was about to affirm.

The crowds began to gather outside the Cathedral where a fire had been lit by the vergers. I had been saying hello to the friends and family that had come along to the service in support and thus missed out on the prime spots. ‘How religious’ I thought when I saw the two lines of clergy in file along the steps from the Cathedral doors down to where the fire burned. Imagining the laughter of an athiest at the sight of the robes, and the Bishop’s hat, I chuckled – missing part of the reading; a nudge from my presenting Vicar and friend began to knock me back into the proceedings…