RENEWAL OF VOWS & CHRISM EUCHARIST
Maundy Thursday 2021
2 Corinthians 3.17-4.12 & Luke 22.24-30
Leading this service from home last year is one of the Covid pandemic experiences which will remain firmly in my memory. Watching thumbs up and heart symbols rising at the side of the iPhone was bemusing and affirming all at once. I had never Facebook Lived before so was rather wondering what was going on. I consecrated 3 small bottles of oil. They sit in my study unused.
A year on at least a limited representative number of us are able to gather in the Cathedral. Oils will come out to the parishes. I hope they will be well used in the months ahead as we seek to offer God’s healing to those who have suffered in such diverse ways over this past year. I hope too that you will have reason to baptise many, and Bishop Sarah and I hope we will be confirming again very soon.
Thank you so much for all you have given in ministry this extraordinary year, as priests, deacons, Readers and lay leaders. +Sarah, the Archdeacons and I have been honoured to serve you throughout a period of ministry that none of us had ever anticipated. Thank you for all the willingness to learn, experiment, discover, care, pray, and stick with it. It has been deeply challenging, especially these past 3-4 months. Thank you feels insufficient to express all that is in my heart, but simple words sometimes have to suffice. So Thank You.
As you know on Monday and Tuesday this week, with Rosemary and David Pott, I walked the Way of Life as the first of the new Pilgrimage routes. The service in Gainford churchyard on Palm Sunday felt like a launch into the emerging future. We were able to sing since we were outside and distanced. My eyes filled with tears as we did so. Being able to undertake the Pilgrimage, and to be accompanied by a small number of others felt like beginning the journey of emergence.
I had begun to reflect on this sermon before the pilgrimage but decided to write it after completion so that I could incorporate observations which occurred in the providence of God. In that early preparation it was Paul’s words that had most struck home, ‘But we have this treasure in clay jars … we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed …’ Paul was writing of a very different personal circumstance but afflicted, perplexed and struck down, in particular, seem to describe much of the past year for so many.
As we emerged out of Bellburn Woods we had the joyous sight of a field full of sheep and their lambs. As we drew closer though one ewe stood set apart from all the others; lying at her feet was her dead lamb. A mother simply stood over her young unable to do anything to revive her offspring. It was an image that I found myself taking to heart. Loss, the grief that goes with it, and the uncertainty of knowing how to handle it. We are only clay jars ourselves.
This past year in so many ways we have been people dealing with affliction. There has been the personal affliction for some of being seriously ill with Covid; some now living with long Covid. If not ourselves then family members have been afflicted. Some have lost loved ones. As Christian leaders we have been supporting many afflicted in all kinds of ways. The affliction of losing jobs; the impact on mental health; lost schooling; loneliness. You could name a whole range of ways in which people we know in our communities and our congregations have been afflicted.
For many, sometimes for long periods, it has felt crushing. All we have felt able to do has been to stand with, not knowing what words might be said; worrying that silence was not enough, yet knowing words might be futile.
It has also felt in some places that the very life of our church has been crushed. The loss of the use of our buildings, not simply for worship and prayer but for community groups in our halls, has crushed our engagement with others. Finances have been dealt what has felt like a crushing blow. We have been corporately put under intense pressure. That pressure remains, and we know that it will not suddenly disappear, for the impact of the pandemic goes with us into the coming years.
So we are afflicted. Yet because of the treasure of God’s mercy; the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; we are not crushed. Afflicted and feeling the crushing of that affliction, but not crushed. Unlike the lamb I saw the life has not been squeezed out of us. We still breathe.
Walking through the woods towards Mount Joy on the edge of Durham, David Pott, our wonderful Pilgrimage guide, had strode ahead with one of our companions. Rosemary, I and our final companion had dropped behind and could not see them. Suddenly we came to a crossing of paths; the way to take was not clear. David was nowhere to be seen. So I called loudly; no reply. I recalled at this point that David has a significant hearing impairment and that at times along the way he struggled to hear when walking side by side. So the odds on him hearing me shout seemed slim. I still shouted loudly again. Fortunately the companion heard and called back. Quickly the perplexity of which way to turn was resolved. No need to despair. But for a few seconds there was real perplexity.
There have been times in this past year where we have all been perplexed. However loudly we have cried out in prayer it has seemed that God has gone deaf on us. Perhaps God has stopped caring; perhaps God is not there at all. When the challenges of Black Lives Matter, and those of the continuing wrestling with the church’s past, and present, failures in regard to protecting the most vulnerable from abuse, have hit home it has felt crushing sometimes. It has also been deeply perplexing. It has been hard to think straight. What does the renewing of our minds look like when faced with the challenges of a global pandemic when once again the poorest suffer most? Where is God in this perplexity? Does it never end?
Last week I shared in an online retreat led by Professor David Ford. At one point he told the gathered church leaders he had changed the order in which he wanted to say things because he sensed it was right to begin with a simple reflection on Jesus’ words, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ David then added ‘So how was Jesus sent? Well he was sent into the darkness; never forget’, David reflected, ‘as leaders God always sends you into the darkness. The darkness of your own lives; the darkness of the world; and the darkness of the church.’ It was one of those moments where I knew God was reminding me that I am not sent into a ministry that is always full of joy and delights; nor of triumph and success; God sends me, and sends us, to confront the darkness inside ourselves; the darkness of the world and the darkness of the church. The glorious hope is that ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not put it out’.
There has been much perplexity, about so very much, over these past 12 months. These clay jars cannot answer all that perplexity; and there will be times of temptation to despair. But ‘the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ still shines. So we are not ultimately driven to despair; there is hope.
I cannot simply ignore Paul’s reality of persecution. Around the world deep persecution remains a sad reality for many sisters and brothers. We must never forget the persecuted church. We have not been persecuted like them. However there have been points this year where some sectors of society have ridiculed and vilified us. Some criticism, for example over our handling of abuse, and our continued institutional racism, is fully justified. But some attacks have been plain wrong and unkind; particularly personal ones on both our archbishops. Yet when we are attacked for following Jesus let us always remember we are not forsaken; God is with us. Let us pray for our truly persecuted brothers and sisters that they will know God’s presence close to them in the midst of suffering.
When we arrived in Ingleton, our first arrival point on Monday, we were greeted by Ken Steventon, the vicar, and a small group of parishioners. 2 children led the welcome; a painting of the church; some daffodils; a poem read and a verse of Scripture, ‘I am the bread of life’ shared in the windy churchyard. It was a wonderful few minutes where children ministered to me and those walking with me. They spoke for the whole people of God. Children led the way.
One of my deepest concerns of these past 12 months is the cost of the pandemic on our children and young people. They are not a ‘lost generation’; to describe them thus is to write off their remarkable resilience and to under play their future. However for most of the year consideration of the well-being of children and young people has not been at the centre of Government thinking. In spite of a huge amount of input from a wide range of directions children and young people are not at the heart of Government recovery plans. So many children’s lives have been struck down, in so many different ways. ‘Building back better’ really should have children at its centre.
But I cannot express this concern about Government policy without recognising that we too have been guilty as church a great deal of the time of not serving children and young people as well as we could have done. Our schools have been brilliant, as have our Education team. There have been wonderful examples in churches of finding ways of maintaining children and young people’s groups through these past months. Some online worship has been brilliantly inter-generational. But many of us have struggled, and even given up.
Children and youth work has been significantly struck down. But it is not destroyed. Here lies a real opportunity for us as we emerge from restrictions. However well or poorly we might judge ourselves to have done on supporting children and young people through the past 12 months there are now opportunities. Every parish has children and young people. They may not be in any church activities but there are no parishes without children and young people living in them. So how might we serve them well now? Let’s look for creative ways to engage together. Caring for creation locally is one of the best ways of doing so. Team up with local schools, uniformed organisations, sports clubs, wherever there is a connection and ask simply, ‘How together might we help our community’s children and young people have a brighter future? How might together we care for creation where we are?
We could move from feeling our ministry with children and young people has been ’struck down’, even close to ‘destroyed’, to finding fresh life in new soil.
The view of Durham Cathedral from Mount Joy is magnificent. No wonder pilgrims of old stood in awe as they saw their destination for the first time. But in arriving to Durham the 2 images that are living with me most are St Oswald’s Well and Cuthbert’s tombstone. On the steep ivy strewn riverbank at the back of St Oswald’s churchyard hidden away is the ancient well. It is hard to reach. Its’ once grand surrounds have fallen away. But the well is still there and the springs continue to feed it with as much fresh living water as ever.
I had never seen it before. Many of you will not have done so, and may not realise it is there.
Cuthbert’s tomb stone is more familiar, and much more accessible (at least usually). I have always loved its simplicity. Nothing grand, no voluminous words, unlike many of the memorials commemorating some of my other predecessors, just plain Cuthbertus.
My dear sisters and brothers as we emerge into the new era of life and ministry that awaits us all. Let us remember that however hidden away, or dilapidated things might seem; however deep the affliction, perplexing the questions, or struck down that we feel the water of life in Jesus Christ still flows as strongly as ever.
Then in whatever ways our ministry means God is calling us to be those who serve, rather than be served, let us do so in the simplicity and humility displayed by Cuthbert’s tomb knowing that though we are clay jars because of the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ we are not crushed, driven to despair or destroyed for we have the true treasure, the light of Christ.
View the complete service below.