Sermon: Sunday 20 April 2014
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
In the name of God, pain bearer, love maker and life giver. Amen.
What is the connection between your belly button and today, Easter Day? Our belly button tells us we once had an umbilical cord. We had a beginning. We were born!
The site of the empty tomb in the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, is a place of Christian pilgrimage. 90 of us from this diocese visited there last November. For over a thousand years it has been called in Greek the omphalos, the navel, the belly button of the world. This is the place where many Christians believe that the world was born afresh.
Matthew’s gospel, like the book of Genesis, starts with its own ‘In the beginning’. Now on the first day of the week at dawn, in other words ‘in the beginning’, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary think they are coming to a death but instead discover birth. It is like the wise men in TS Eliot’s poem who say, ‘Were we led all that way for birth or death?’
Our belly buttons remind us of birth but also of mortality. Birth and death are very close, just marked by a time gap. The writer Iris Murdoch once said that if you really want to understand another person, ask of what they are afraid. Despite living longer, despite the advances of medicine, despite hospice care, our fears about death have not disappeared. Forthcoming proposed legislation about Assisted Suicide, in my view, is yet another attempt to control this uncontrollable fear.
I am very conscious this Easter morning of those who are confused or angry, and families who are in grief and communities in great shock. So let me speak of facing my own fear, as I recall looking at my younger sister lying in her coffin. A life cut short. An absence. An aching grief. Did I just see pallid death or was there life and birth even there? I saw then how fear is still at work in me. I should have realised that growing up in Northern Ireland during the 70s and 80s in a climate of fear. But having recognised fear, I am discovering I can live beyond it. God’s grace is much more. There seems to be a fearless space already cleared as if someone has prepared it for me. My belly button will decay when I die. Like Richard III’s remains found yards from where I stand, I too will return to the earth. But like him I am also marked with a baptismal cross, a scar of new birth and that will not decay.
John’s gospel tells us that water and blood flowed from Jesus’s side – evidence of death? But where else does water and blood flow? Of course it’s birth!
This morning at 6.30am we baptised 11 people. St Paul says that baptism is a burial into Christ’s death. Our candidates were soaked, drenched like the waters of the deepest ocean. For Christians chaos and the fear of death have to first be embraced.
The Marys go to tomb to face the cold, the slab, the shroud. Instead they met light and life. In stark contrast, the guards were unable to perceive this new thing and are gripped by fear. St Matthew says ‘they became like dead men’. The Marys discover Easter. But the guards also make an Easter discovery. They find that what they took for life is death. They choose to live as frightened people. To both the fearful and the hopeful, the risen Jesus says, ‘Do not be afraid’.
Here in Leicester I have seen that it is possible to move beyond fear to live a life reborn, a new humanity.
Emily is a Pioneer Youth Minister who runs a Youth Church in our diocese. She grew up without faith. There was a bible in her home on the second shelf down where all the fiction was kept. Yet when her dad suffered and died from cancer, fear came to the surface and was met by love as she found herself unexpectedly going to church. She became hungry to know more and read and studied and questioned. Two years later she was baptised and confirmed. Two years on from that she works with young people, many of whom lack self-esteem, carry great burdens for their age and know how debilitating fear can be. Emily says discovering all this was a little embarrassing and very inconvenient, but it has been a rebirth. The world is no longer bleak.
But it is bleak for some. Derogatory headlines about the poor don’t help as demand for Food Banks accelerates. Christ was poor and his Easter people know that God’s new humanity is most especially for those in need. We’ve been here many times before.
In 1753 Charles Wesley, founder of Methodism, said: ‘So wickedly, devilishly false, is that common objection “they are poor, only because they are idle”’. Yet like then, the majority of children in poverty come from hard working households. They are not idle. They just don’t have enough money. Adjacent to the Cathedral, at churches in the city centre, and across this Diocese, those who have been freed from fear reach out in generosity to feed their neighbours and counter fearmongering with the light and grace of truth.
Easter shows that fear is not the last word. Through our baptism we meet new sisters and brothers of every hue. Unlike the stories which speak of the church in terms of schism and dissent, instead I find community. When it comes to living with difference, whether that is race, culture, gender or sexuality, local churches and cathedrals are actually good at living with diversity. We are still learning but we keep discovering a deeper solidarity which overcomes fear. When the English Defence League decided to come to Leicester, we came together in this Cathedral recognising that fearful vitriol aimed at one community was vitriol aimed at us all. Every person finds welcome here as in Christ we discover that difference need not mean fear.
I know fear. The world knows fear. At times the church can be fearful too. Yet our ultimate fear, death, is defeated through the persistence of Christ’s love now revealed in the resurrection. Shaped by this God, a new humanity is born whose song is Alleluia! Do not be afraid!
© The Very Revd David Monteith