Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter
Sunday 14 May 2017
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Acts 7.55–end, 1 Peter 2.2–10, John 14.1–14
Tomorrow morning at 09.30 we’re going to have a media event in the light of our application to the HLF. I tend not to call such things when there is bad news! Our project Leicester Cathedral Revealed will focus on the development of this building. Whilst in the popular imagination, a cathedral is primarily a building; I hope that most of us know that a cathedral is primarily a community sheltered in a particular building which symbolises something very important about the whole church.
Today buildings materials connect our three bible readings. First, we learn about the danger of stones as they are used to kill Stephen, the first Christian martyr. In the gospel we learn of God providing heavenly dwelling places – buildings to offer shelters of welcome and hospitality amidst the dire experience of separation and grief which are inescapable with death – ‘in my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places’!
Sandwiched between these in 1 Peter we heard much more about stones – in particular stones which function in a structure as the corner stone bearing and exacting the complex set of mechanical engineering forces which enable a structure to be safe and to stand. Yet the very thing which gives this building its strength is rubbish, discarded rubble – ‘the stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’. I hope our forthcoming builders don’t do that yet it is what God does. This stone is crucial for a new building which is ‘chosen, holy and priestly’ – in other words to do with the mediation between earth and heaven; enabling the free flow of divine love. This building creates something new shaped by mercy. Scattered and isolated individuals will have a new identity which means they can be identified as a people. And the thing which identifies them for all to see, the type of stone that people witness in this building is a stone of mercy.
This would have had deep resonances for the people to which the apostle Peter was writing. This was a persecuted community who like Stephen knew what it was to suffer. David and I glimpsed a little of this at midnight mass just past December when we were in Mumbai. We went out from the church at about 2am in the morning to find the building surrounded by police because they feared violence against Christians. There are some streams of far right Hindu nationalists who believe that to be Indian is to be Hindu. So Christians sometimes know targeted persecution. We felt the fear.
Peter’s audience were probably mostly Gentiles. But it would have been impossible to live anywhere in the Middle East without knowing about the great Temple in the heart of Jerusalem. To quote someone else presently – it was ‘strong and stable’. I’ve been to Jerusalem four times. Every time I have visited and even with relatively little of the temple still standing is to be awe struck at the scale and majesty of the building. That place made Jerusalem. It was at the heart of worship, learning, politics, the economy and the place which said more about Jewish identity than anything else. So when Peter says to Christian converts who could not look to their family or national pedigree for a sense of status, who sat outside the circles of power that they were living stones being built into a structure of mercy which was every bit as significant as the great temple of Zion – that would have been mind-blowing.
At theological college, one of my fellow students (Ronni Lamont) had been a contemporary dancer before becoming a priest. Once when we had this reading from 1 Peter in chapel, rather than a sermon, we had a dance. Ronni had worked with the women in the community, some of them students and many more also the wives of students. Many of them were deeply conscious and ambivalent about their bodies which mostly did not conform to the status of the ‘body beautiful’. So for them to dance in public was a big thing.
With a very few simple steps they formed a chain moving across the chapel and adding one by one new members to their company until nearly half the chapel were on their feet included in the dance. Then the music stopped and they said in unison – ‘Once you were not a people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy’. We wept.
So to be persecuted and to know what stones can do to harm is in the DNA of what it means to be a Christian. To be rejected and a no-one having lost identity and place and purpose is part of what it means to be a Christian. To be one such and to be built together into something new which has dignity, belonging and identity is what it is to be Christian. To build such a community characterised as a dwelling place of mercy is certainly what it is to be a Christian church.
Seventy years ago when Europe faced the biggest refugee crisis prior to the one we are currently in, following the impact of the Second World War, church leaders in Britain and Ireland came together. They pledged to work with those who had experienced hatred or persecution or who had fled their homes because it was no longer safe. They formed what was called ‘Christian Reconstruction in Europe’. Christians reconnected with their DNA and acted to build new places of safety and belonging. This then became Christian Aid.
We are in a terrible situation where the word refugee has almost become an insult or swear word in our culture. We know that associated issues were part of the referendum. All our politicians are fearful of talking about this. It has become too toxic. Yes there are sensitivities and much to be considered carefully (far more than can be said in a sermon) but care of refugees is core to any credible understanding of British values. We cannot speak about British values without speaking about care of refugees and asylum seekers.
Part of the problem is that there is a muddle in understanding the differences between legal and illegal economic migrants with those who are asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are those who apply to be considered to come under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the grounds that if they are returned to their country of origin they have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. They remain an asylum seeker for so long as an application or an appeal against refusal of an application is pending.
Getting that far is a whole administrative mountain to climb which takes years when it is not possible to work. We have skilled people in our midst who cannot work. Our systems are slow and people can be marooned in no-mans land for years. Then when refugee status is finally granted a whole new set of challenges emerge – imagine trying to get a job, a home, imagine mastering another language whilst being outside all the systems which those of us within those systems even find baffling. This is the journey of many in Leicester and increasingly the journey of members of this congregation.
This year Christian Aid reminds us of our DNA and of our long and honourable traditions caring for and learning from refugees. We didn’t fail them then and now we mustn’t now. We are being rebuilt as God’s people having received mercy. We now build our futures together with the bricks of mercy.
© The Very Reverend David Monteith