This is weird. This is difficult. One of the things I love about our gathering in our wonderful Cathedral on Maundy Thursday is looking out and seeing all your faces. Wardens and congregation members accompany many of you. They come to support you as you renew your vows. Together you collect the oils for use in ministry over the coming year. So not seeing your faces is hard. I can imagine you smiling back at me, looking quizzically at something I have said, and raising the occasional eyebrow. Some are robed, others are not; that really does not bother me. You are there, that is what matters. I really look forward to when we can gather again. We will do so. When the circumstances change and we can gather once again we will come together to give thanks to God, probably to do some grieving too, and to commit ourselves afresh to whatever church is going to look like after the upheaval of these months.
This is painful. There are always some I see for whom it is their last service before retirement. This would have been so again. I am sorry that the ending of your formal ministry in your parish is closing so raggedly. I hope there will be opportunity for you to return for a proper farewell in due course. I feel for you in the un-satisfactoriness of the ending.
It is painful too because together this year we would have gathered at St Oswald’s and processed up to the Cathedral at the close of the first of the new Pilgrimage Walks. The Way of Life, from Gainford up through Ingleton, West Auckland, Escomb, Witton, Bishop Auckland, Byers Green, Whitworth and Sunderland Bridge would have been completed. Together then we would particularly have given thanks for the ministry of our retired clergy. We still will today, but it is not the same as being physically together.
Therefore, in this strange way, let me say an enormous thank you to you all. The way each and every one of you has risen to fresh challenges has been wonderful. Chaplains, you are serving in Hospitals and Prisons in very challenging times. You are supporting staff and students in Universities, Colleges and Schools in tough situations. Parish clergy, you are trying new things; you are embracing technology. You have established pastoral care systems by phone and WhatsApp. You are recording and live streaming. You have Facebook-Lived and You-Tubed. You have used websites in new ways and delivered paper copies of materials. You are ensuring community groups are supported. You are keeping foodbanks going. You are praying, loving and caring. Bishop Sarah and I along with the whole of my leadership team are enormously proud of you and want you to hear loud and clear – THANK YOU!
THE GOSPEL STORY
Thank you was what the unnamed woman in our gospel reading was saying. She clearly did not know much about social, or physical as I prefer to name it, distancing. She is very close up and personal in this story. For many of us embarrassingly so. It was also clearly more than embarrassing for Simon the Pharisee and his other guests. It was utterly scandalous.
We know nothing specific about the nature of this woman’s life that leads to her being branded ‘a sinner’. I am personally unpersuaded by those who argue this is Mary Magdalene. Luke names Mary just a couple of verses later. This may infer she is the same woman but I note the contrast between Jesus sending the woman away and Mary being with Jesus; so I think they are different people. Some of you will disagree. Well then we are in good company with the various commentators. What is clear is that this woman was well known for her sinfulness. Yet here she is expressing thanks to Jesus for the forgiveness she has found. She expresses it in the way she knows how; with extravagance and physical action.
One of the things that our current physical distancing is highlighting is just how important actually social relationships and physical presence and proximity are to us all. Our physicality matters. We are who we are because of our bodies as much as our souls. The use of our bodies to express worship is significant. This woman has discovered a depth of forgiveness, and therefore new life and hope, in Jesus that is so transformative that she simply has to express her thanks and her love. She does it with extravagant use of the perfume. She does it with physical actions that have many layered deep overtones. It is hardly surprising Simon reacts in the way he does. I have to say I have every sympathy with Simon. Yet I have to hear Jesus above Simon. I have to hear his critique of the failure to offer basic hospitality and friendship to a guest. I have to hear that this woman’s expression of love and worship is appropriate and accepted by the Son of God, however much I want to say, ‘Jesus, Simon has a point.’
As we renew our vows together, today, I want to draw your minds, and hearts, back to some key words used in the ordination services of bishops, priests and deacons
You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that you may be conformed more and more to the image of God’s Son, so that through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit your life and ministry may be made holy and acceptable to God.
Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The good news story of this woman transformed by Jesus, coming at this time when we are unable even to be in the same physical space, let alone share physical contact in the peace, or generally greeting one another, reminds me afresh that I cannot fulfil this ministry in my own strength. I regularly forget this and try to serve as bishop in my own strength. I thus become like Simon the Pharisee; I fail to see grace and love and worry about form and practice. I can even miss the very basics of hospitality. Forgive me when I do so. I can only fulfil my calling to be your bishop by the grace and power of God. The same is true for Bishop Sarah. You can only be the priests and deacons serving wherever you are called to serve by the grace and power of God. You need this as much in retirement as you did when in full or part time roles. You all need this every day, and every moment of every day. Together we need the grace of God, and when that grace overwhelms us may we be freed to express our love and thanksgiving as extravagantly as this woman does.
My dear sisters and brothers the specific demands on us all, and on all our people, are very tough at present. The challenges are many, and they will not become easier in the coming weeks and months. Exiting this time and recovering from it will be extremely costly and demanding. We will only journey through it together by the grace of God.
So let us together, this day, throw ourselves afresh onto the God of all grace. May we hear him call us, like Samuel, by name. May we again say, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then by his power and grace may we hear him say to us afresh, personally ‘Your sins are forgiven; Your faith has saved you; go in peace’. Then in that experience and knowledge of grace may we continue to serve. The God of all grace be with you.
We hold a few moments in silence together.
Gracious God, we cannot bear the weight of our calling alone; forgive us when we try to do so. Send your Holy Spirit upon us afresh that we may be conformed more and more to the image of your Son, so that through the outpouring of your Spirit our lives and ministries may be made holy and acceptable to you. We pray through Jesus, the friend of sinners, Amen.