Sermon: Sunday 19 July
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6. 30-34, 53-56
So there I was, on my day off, bringing a very physical seven year old, quite possibly high on sugar too, into the Cathedral. What was I thinking of? Christopher’s not just a very physical boy, totally in the moment and unreflective, but one quite fascinated with how things work. I think he might end up in construction. He’d spent ages watching the workmen on the road outside my house. Well, I’m glad someone enjoyed it! Once inside the Cathedral, first of all he wanted to spend some time clipping and unclipping the ropes. Then when I finally got him to look at the tomb, within milliseconds he was climbing on it, just like the children during the week whose parents had written complaining that they’d been told off for doing so, in no uncertain terms. Joy.
The helpful connections between those experiences and these passages have taken me a long time to find. Believe you me, I’m a lot keener to dwell on the verse which says, ‘And they went away in a boat to a deserted place by themselves.’ And to linger on what it might mean that Jesus has compassion on me, being like a sheep without a shepherd. And I suspect you might too. Don’t worry, I’m not planning to forget about them.
But I do think it’s helpful to see, since the lectionary puts together this extraordinary passage from Ephesians with the theme of sheep needing the Shepherd, some wider connections with the situation we find ourselves in as a Cathedral. Because, like Jesus and the disciples, we are in danger of suffering from crowd fatigue. Now that the school holidays are upon us, an average weekday afternoon might bring the Cathedral nearly 500 visitors – so that might be 800/900 during the week and 1,600 or so on a Saturday. Perhaps we can see in a new way why the disciples might have wanted some ‘us’ time with Jesus, and not have been overwhelmingly happy about the great crowds joining them. Perhaps they wondered whether they were going to get what they needed from the good shepherd. And there he was, having compassion upon the multitudes. Isn’t there a conflict of interests here for the disciples?
In the story of the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus not only provides the resources for everyone, spiritual and material, but in the process enlists the disciples in finding them and making them available, when they think they have hardly anything. It becomes rather tantalising by its absence from today’s reading – isn’t that what we need to hear now?
Instead that is squirrelled away for next week, and we are taken straight back to the urgency of the need of the crowds, like sheep without a shepherd, and who, like the woman with the haemorrhage, have such a sense of needing the healing which they sense Jesus can give that they reach out too to touch the hem of his cloak. And they are healed, it says.
Now there is something very powerful about being allowed to touch, especially when it is in a holy place. We have made a policy of allowing people to touch the tomb of Richard, despite the fact that it leads us into these tricky situations. And let’s note the potential for confusion with a shrine or a relic. We don’t see numbers of people staying for the touch involved in the laying on of hands and anointing in the healing service we offer on a Tuesday lunchtime. People are not on the whole connecting this specialness with Jesus – taking the journey from the King to the King of Kings – very quickly, but I do suspect that there is lingering sense that they are in a holy place and a whole set of semi-buried assumptions that go with that experience. I think the Ephesians passage helps us to uncover some of them.
First of all, we are given a picture of how the Jews had seen the Gentiles – and it’s not a pretty one. Without the mark of belonging, circumcision (and straightaway all the women Jewish or Gentile are out of the place of belonging we might note) and then ‘remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.’ Without any kind of the resources that might make a difference.
When people are seen as being literally beyond the pale then of course a process begins of internalising that as a self-understanding. I’m not pure enough to go here, I don’t deserve it. This is at the heart of why it is so difficult for any group which has felt excluded, whether on the grounds of gender, race, sexuality, disability or something else, to develop a true sense of full belonging and inclusion. And in the temple Gentiles literally were beyond the pale, a 1.5 metre wall which told them to keep out of the most holy parts of the temple on pain of death.
The Jews had of course been struggling with the question of how you keep the holy place holy, only available to those who understood its full significance, kept the purity laws, paid God due dignity and honour. But they had erected huge barriers to the presence of God in the process.
As soon as we rope off an area of the Cathedral, someone tries to get round it, or under it. Sometimes it’s simply the desire to go to the forbidden place. If you tell someone off in what looks like the holy place, it could easily touch all sorts of half buried ideas about whether they are good enough to enter the holy place.
Of course we see in the passage from Ephesians the move to understand that God’s love radically includes all which knocks down the dividing wall of hostility and makes the two one. It shifts our view of our belonging in God’s sight, through what Jesus has done for us on the cross, but also this shifts how the Jewish people are to see their Gentile brothers and sisters, and how any of us are to stop seeing ourselves as mediated through other people’s second class citizens’ lenses.
This has all sorts of reverberations and ramifications. What a witness it would be to world politics if the Christian international community could model this change in attitude between different peoples, genders, sexualities etc. And yet often we are the stumbling block and the place which has theologised slavery, or the oppression of women or apartheid. Sometimes we’re in the vanguard, as with the abolition of slavery, but it’s usually against institutionalised resistance. All fine until it’s a group we find really difficult and challenging.
So there are three big points here. First of all: Ropes and barriers, do not touch. How do we communicate that the dividing wall of hostility has been brought down and that as people come in to the Cathedral they are not seen as second class citizens by the religious, or even themselves, but that there is a saving offer in Christ which has made the transformation possible?
Secondly, how do we start to enter in to the compassion of Christ for the masses, a compassion which will enable us to welcome them, and to be secure in knowing that we have the resources to ‘give them something to eat’ from the bread which Jesus multiplies for us and not to fear the waves when we’re in the boat in the storm?
Thirdly, how do we move from our life experience of poor shepherds – the Ezekiel passage is talking about poor shepherds like King Zedekiah, whose name means righteousness but is false, against the promised king who will bring true righteousness? How do we make the shift from feeling like sheep without a shepherd ourselves – which might be at some level increased by having just lost our long serving and much loved Bishop – to those who are confident in the good Shepherd, who can come in and go out safely ourselves, able to abide in the rest and the compassion that the good Shepherd offers us? This is given for us ourselves, for our own sakes, but it is also true that without this experience we will struggle to live and speak that offer genuinely to others. It’s hard to take Jesus’ words about coming away and resting a while when we see his time with the disciples be instantly interrupted by the need of the crowds, but with it we see his transforming provision, his abundance and at a deeper level his voice echoes true:
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.’
© Canon Rosy Fairhurst