Sermon: Sunday 8 February 2015
2nd Sunday before Lent
The Revd Canon Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
When I was a kid, an enlightened teacher lent me an intriguing book entitled Flatland. Written as an uncompromising social satire, its more enduring success is in enabling imaginations to take flight in exploring different dimensions. Neatly simple, in conception, its ideas have been borrowed many times and turned into films. Essentially, Flatland is a two-dimensional society, populated by polygons, triangles and lines. Its main character, a square, is visited by a sphere who, because he is three-dimensional, appears to change and even vanish. Which is very puzzling for the square!
One cannot stretch the analogy too far, but I think trying to understand the narrative of Christ is a little like that – trying to fit an eternal limitless God into a world limited in time and space. What we are hearing today in our readings are people’s honest attempts to put into words what is beyond the images and words of us humans in our space-time world. Like our square trying to come to terms with the sphere. The phenomenon of Jesus Christ was just so mind-boggling that human thinking could not hold it. And still is!
Some of the most amazing discoveries in science – ones which have changed the course of thinking – caught people completely off guard at the time, causing at best disorientation, rethinking and even anger and rear-guard action as the establishment felt challenged. Think of Galileo’s plight. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was quite revolutionary and remains quite difficult for normal mortals to understand. Einstein. This is perhaps a surprising parallel, given that we often pitch science and religion against one another.
But with science we generally accept our limitations. We don’t expect to understand what really goes on at Cern in Switzerland, for example. But with faith the world expects to be able to wrap it up and very easily dismisses God when that proves impossible. Jesus as man and God – the Richard Dawkinses of this world and their devotees cannot fully understand all the science – there still remains mystery. So why do they expect to wrap up faith in a few neat sentences?! Permission to sit lightly on what is known as Christology and just to accept that mystery.
It may feel like I’m dismissing our readings today and I’m not. I’m accepting the experience, the evidence, the enthusiasm and drive that lies behind them, and I both enjoy and value the centuries of theological explorations into the personhood and divinity of Christ. But I’m also saying that whatever our best efforts we’ll never contain God and Christ within human language and imagery. The language of Stephen Hawking and others who push the boundaries of understanding is mathematics – should I perhaps be asking ‘can we describe God thus?’ Tongue in cheek!
There’s a serious point there, though. Why is that tongue in cheek? Because God is not a concept or a theorem. And while we might wish to contemplate God as energy perhaps, we also hold onto the experience of a deeply personal God. The God who is nearer to me than breath itself. To any of a scientific disposition who might challenge the existence of that God I would say, ‘Look at the evidence of centuries.’ The Bible is a serious narrative. And the saints, and many others.
Back to Christ. We may take today’s texts as the mystery they ultimately are, even for the keenest minds among us, but we still acknowledge his relationship with and part in the life of God. The Word (Christ) was with God and the Word was God. Christianity presents us, through Scripture and experience, with a relational God – one who is dynamically relational with him or herself (Father, Son, Holy Spirit – as we’ve just sung) and one who is in relationship with us. Scripture presents us with an interactive God, one who both delights in moving over the face of the earth and is moved to heal the individual who cries out to him in distress. Both are the God we know and love.
Let’s journey with that a little – the relational God. This is a departure from the understanding of many at the time and remains outside of how many think about God today. God on a cloud, remotely looking down, is neither attractive nor accurate. Add in a dose of divine wrath and no wonder people back off! But the God we’re actually presented with walked this earth, wept, experienced excruciating pain, anger, made friends and cared. This God drew people to him and empowered them to live one foot in heaven and one in earth. And this Jesus, to quote today’s reading was ‘the image of the invisible God’.
How does that play into our lives today? Well, the same relational God is in relationship with us today, if we let him or her. I’ve been working intensely on issues to do with poverty: the telling definitions of poverty which we, the Bishop’s Poverty Commission, have adopted are ones which speak not only of material poverty, but of relationships and isolation. That a person is diminished if isolated and not in relationship with others. That’s a challenging thought but, particularly in this technological age, where people exist in their isolated bubble, and, while they have Facebook friends, may actually have no community of relationships where they truly belong. I heard on the radio the other day that empathy is in short supply due to peoples’ preoccupation with text and Twitter rather than face to face encounter.
I like the legend of the heaven of Indra, which is an infinite net extending in all directions. At each knot or node of the net there is a beautiful pearl in which every other pearl is reflected. It comes from Hindu (and Buddhist) tradition. Imagine that – we can’t fully because to be truly so it transcends physical dimensions. Back to Flatland et al! But it is a beautiful image for human living. Think of us as the pearls, reflecting one another in love. Each one reflects the others: each one is affected by the others.
This should be a metaphor for global living. The over-used imagery of the butterfly at one side of the world, whose flapping wings disturb the condition of those half a globe away, is no longer far-fetched when we consider global finance, oil supply and demand and even global terrorism. For good or for bad, each one is, indeed, reflected in the others.
But let’s return home. I’m a relative newcomer to Cathedral community life. But I can honestly say this is the best team and extended community that I’ve ever worked in. All of us here this morning, visitor, regular worshipper, Cathedral Friend, clergy… whoever are here because collectively and individually we buy into that relational God who calls us by name and calls us ‘friend’. Which we, as community, try to mirror in our relationships with those around us.
It is really good to see members of the extended Cathedral family among us this morning, in the persons of Friends of Leicester Cathedral. Because, for all that this may be a practical relationship, for it to be meaningful, it should certainly encompass a sense of belonging. Here is a building which matters to all of us, not least because it is more than just a building, but an ikon and locus for loving community in Christ. Here you are not a stranger but truly a friend, in all sense of the word.
A good team building exercise to use in seminars is to give each person a piece of jigsaw and invite them to assemble it. Each piece is unique, some are edge, some are central, but all are needed for the jigsaw to be complete. So it is with all who contribute to the work of the Cathedral, including the Friends: each one of you here today and many others besides, working and contributing so much to the life and mission of this community, are pearls on the nodes of the Cathedral net. And I hope we might see the love of Christ reflected in each others’ faces.
© The Revd Canon Alison Adams