Sermon: Sixth Sunday of Easter
Sunday 21 May 2017
The Revd Pete Hobson, Director – Leicester Cathedral Revealed
A beating heart for city and county (Acts 17.22–31, 1 Peter 3.13–end, John 14.15–21)
Did you see the poster as you came in? On Monday we were finally able to announce Heritage Lottery Fund support for our Leicester Cathedral Revealed project. But what exactly is it our Cathedral aims to reveal?
“A beating heart for city and county” is the strapline of our Cathedral’s current strategic plan, adopted by Chapter last year. Like every such document it works at many levels. There are broad strands of energy – in our case three commitments to renewal – of our congregation, of our response to God’s mission, and of our buildings. There are values and principles with layers of detail below that; there are SMART objectives, and there are accountabilities, not least for the clergy and other key leaders.
But at the top level comes that strapline: “A beating heart for city and county”. Fine words, no doubt. But what exactly do they mean? And how can you and I be part of that?
On Friday night we held the 6th Annual Guild of St Martin Dinner. Some of you will have been present. Our Cathedral looked rather different to how it does this morning. The choir-stalls were pushed way to the back; the nave floor was filled with banqueting tables (the Dean’s was on the plinth!); there was feature up-lighting and a bar in the south aisle. Though the girls’ choir did feature singing grace, and we also had a rendering from one of our song-men of ‘Come into the Garden Maud’ it was a Victorian themed dinner!
A dinner like that – which by the way raised several thousands of pounds for our general work – attracts many people who might not normally come into the Cathedral for other reasons – but they live in our city or county, and it is still their Cathedral too. Part of the heartbeat is to speak to them, and to help them understand how they too are part of the rich diversity of communities we serve. All of us, whatever our background, can get a bit awkward when plunged into unfamiliar cultures or with people who appear to be ‘not like us’. We can respond in different ways to those differences – indeed we see those different responses all too frequently around us. We saw it in last years’ Brexit referendum and we see it in the current general election campaigning. You might call those responses variously – Rejection, Avoidance or Engagement.
What do I mean by that? Let’s take a look at our first Bible reading today, which tells us about a time when Paul was in Athens, amidst an unfamiliar people, with unfamiliar customs and ways of thought. He found himself on the Areopagus – the market square – more or less the clock-tower of Athens, with all sorts of people around him, from all sorts of cultures and faiths, and peddling all sorts of views. What would you do in that situation? What would you expect the church’s first great missionary preacher to do?
He could have spent his time condemning them for the error of their ways. Be sure your sins will find you out. That would be the way of Rejection.
He could have been so overwhelmed by the diversity and difference that he simply kept his head down. Said nothing. Looked for the people like himself and kept to their company. That would be the way of Avoidance.
But instead he opted for the way of Engagement. He stood up to speak – as was the custom in the Areopagus, it might be said. Perhaps more Hyde Park Corner than Clock-Tower? And what he said is really instructive. He started exactly where they were. He praised them for their good attention to matters of religion. Then he noticed something they had done – the altar inscribed “to an unknown god”. And then he went on to build on that to bring them something more than they knew. “What you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you”. If you read on in Acts 17 later, you will see that people responded in different ways. Some didn’t want to know. But others were curious – and from them a church began in Athens, the very centre of diversity and cutting edge thought of its time.
The detail of how Paul preached Jesus is perhaps more than we have time for just now – though it’s worth noting his words took in what they understood of history, of poetry and the arts, and of common sense – before bringing the unique and particular Christian claim that God has done something in Christ that requires our response.
Now how does that relate to Friday night’s dinner? Or to our desire to be a “beating heart for city and county” here in Leicester and Leicestershire? I think it reminds us that we ought to start where people are – which is many different places, and so will require many different starting points. Not everyone will get that. Some will love it that we’re staging Shakespeare’s Richard III in the nave for two nights in July. Others, we know, really can’t stand the thought. Some find a black tie Dinner a great way to engage with the Cathedral and what it stands for. Others think it’s not what we ought to be about at all. But as Paul says in another place: “I become all things to all people that by any means I may reach some.”
But when all is said and done, when we’ve engaged rather than avoided or rejected, what do we have to say. And what is unavoidable, it seems to me, is that we do have something to say and that is something that requires a response – whether of rejection, or thought, or of fully embracing. And that something is that God has acted in Jesus Christ, decisively and ultimately. And that we are seeking to be a community that witnesses to that fact, that tries to live by it, and seeks to embrace what it means for others.
That won’t always be popular, or be understood. 1 Peter 3 reminds us it can lead to suffering – which should be for doing what is right, not for what is wrong! And Jesus’ promise in John 14 of the Spirit of truth who will be with us is also of one whom the wider world “neither sees nor knows”. So it’s not always easy, and it’s not always possible to be in everybody’s good books. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or can’t aim to be who we should be. The “beating heart for city and county” is a reminder of that.
And in a world which increasingly sees Christian faith as different, for many as outdated, and for some as plain wrong, it’s important we hold our nerve, and stand ready not to Avoid that world, still less to Reject it, but to Engage with it, to serve it, and also to offer it that of God which has gripped us in Christ.
That is what Leicester Cathedral has to reveal.