Saturday, 10 August 2019

Where your treasure is...

Trinity 8 - Year C – Eucharist – 11.viii.2019

(Genesis 15.1-6; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40)

          Few possessions: a chair,

          A table, a bed…

That’s the start of R. S. Thomas’s poem, At the end. A year ago, instead of going away, I spent much of my summer holiday period looking for a residential care home for my mother - visiting four different homes with her, wondering how much persuasion she’d need to go, and then having the decision taken away when yet another of a series of falls landed her in hospital with the emergency doctor saying, “Here’s your answer!” I still think of the day she finally went into the Care Home where she still lives. An ambulance was to take her from the hospital. I went via her house and faced the question: What are the things that you can take with you, salvaged from a long life? The answer was: the clothes I could fit into the two suitcases she would use to go on holiday, her Bible and a couple of magazines, her television, and a few pictures. There would be no room for anything else.

At the end, what can we take with us?... what do we need?

A year after my Mother went into care, I still have the problem of what to do with my parents’ house. When I used to visit my parents in their home, one of the things they would ask me would be to take away “all those old records of yours.” Nearly 40 years after I left home they still thought of them as mine to take away. I finally did and now they sit unplayed in carrier bags in my dining room – in fact except for a couple of Beatles records on 45rpm vinyl, I don’t think most of them ever did belong to me. They’d already had me remove piles of sheet music which I suspect were simply dumped on us when I was learning to play the piano – and those piles now languish on my piano in the Vicarage, unplayed. I have a fear of what I’d find if I ventured into their loft: there’s probably a lot of my childhood stuff – old issues of Look and Learn and The Eagle and a lot of ancient school reports and exercise books. The thought of them still waiting to be cleared, I find rather oppressive. But I doubt anything is of any great monetary value. Why didn’t my parents just get rid of them, if they didn’t want them there? Even worse, why have they allowed accumulations of other possessions elsewhere in the house? A garage full of stuff that’s no longer fit for purpose – tools that just don’t work, a bike that might be too old even for Beamish Museum. A bedroom which hadn’t been usable since my brother left home over 35 years ago, because it was full of his old books, clothes, records and other things. I tried tidying the room with a friend a couple of months ago - and when my brother was back in England last month I showed him what we’d picked out. He wasn’t interested in any of it. He’s left it all behind. He doesn’t need it. It was even, perhaps, holding him back. But they had hung on to it all those years.

What do we cling on to? What do we really need?

It’s a natural thing to accumulate possessions. But then what do you do with them? That’s a question that was beginning to trouble Abram in today’s Old Testament reading. He’s just won a great victory in battle. He’s been honoured by the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek. He’s seeing the fruits of God’s promise that he would lead him into a land of plenty where he would have riches, flocks and many servants. But what is he going to do with it all? Who can he leave it to? He’s got no children and his natural heir is the otherwise unmentioned Eliezer who lives far off in Damascus. Abram is thinking about his “things.” You can’t take them with you – and he’s not very happy about who might inherit them. But God has different ideas. God’s promise is not about the material things he wants Abram to have – it’s about his purpose for Abram’s life and about the purpose he has for his descendants, the lives that may be touched by God’s presence in them.

Abram is anxious about his stuff. Jesus addresses the anxieties of his followers in today’s Gospel:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

What we read today follows on from what Jesus tells his followers about their worries concerning life’s daily needs. Just, don’t worry! Look at the birds of the air which find their food day by day. Look at the flowers in the field which are beautiful just as they are. So consider your priorities. What do you really need in the way of possessions? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

I don’t think Jesus is saying everyone has to go out and sell everything they have. He’s talking about calling and purpose in our lives, not advocating a course which would lead to economic meltdown if everyone took it literally. But if you’re going to hear the call of God, you need to ask what should I do about it? – what do I really need? What action is God calling me to take?

Much of what Jesus says to the disciples seems to tie in with the life they are called to lead. His first words to them are, “Follow me…” And theirs is a life lived on the road – following Jesus, going out on their own with a mission to proclaim his Kingdom. It’s a calling which I find a challenge. I love being a follower of Jesus, but I also love living in that wonderful big, inconvenient Vicarage of mine. Stuff accumulates. I have to ask if it holds me back from doing the things I should. How many pre-occupations do we each have which get in the way of listening to God in prayer, even before we try to make our response to his call? What are the things that might be holding you back on your journey?

One of the things Pope Francis did after his election was to call on Christians to be a “Church of the Poor.” What does that mean in a Church which is so evidently wealthy? The Pope has given something of an example in the way he lives. He’d already refused to live in the Archbishop’s Palace in Buenos Aires – and he’d travelled not in a chauffeured limousine but by public transport. Now he lives in a simple room of a hostel for clergy and gets driven around in a small car. I wondered what it had been like for him as he found himself stuck in Rome with only his travelling bags. Wouldn’t I want to go back home to be given a few weeks to pack everything up? Instead he simply went back to the Casa del Clero on a bus with some other cardinals, picked up his suitcase, paid his bill and got on with his new job.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where is your heart? Where is my heart?

That’s a question that faces us in our own Church… in our own lives, in our priorities, in our readiness to hear what God is saying to us and discover where he is calling us to go.

However we answer, Christ calls us always to be ready for him. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…” Be like the servants waiting for their Master to come back from a late night banquet. They couldn’t just leave the lights on so that he could let himself in. Oil lamps needed to be kept topped up and their wicks trimmed. Elsewhere Jesus asks just what you can expect of the relationship between a servant and his master. But today’s Gospel has a twist. The servants wait up, the Master finally comes home – but then he gets them to sit down, and he serves them, bringing food himself for them to eat. We are called to do the work of proclaiming Christ’s Kingdom. But it is a Kingdom like no other, where the King himself is the servant to his people.

Jesus calls us to follow him. Christ commissions us to go out and travel light in proclaiming his Kingdom. And Jesus Christ is the King who serves his people, who sits us down to eat and nourishes us with his love.

What more do we need?

Here’s that poem with which I began: At the End…

Few possessions: a chair,
a table, a bed
to say my prayers by,
and, gathered from the shore,
the bone-like, crossed sticks
proving that nature
acknowledges the Crucifixion.
All night I sit at
a window not too small
to be frame to the stars
that are no further off
than the city lights
I have rejected. By day
the passers-by, who are not
pilgrims, stare through the rain’s
bars, seeing me as a prisoner
of the one view, I who
have been made free
by the tide’s pendulum truth
that the heart that is low now
will be at the full tomorrow.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Proclaiming the Kingdom - Being the Church

Trinity 3 - Year C – Eucharist – 7.vii.2019

(Isaiah 66.10-14; Galatians 6.7-16; Luke 10.1-11,16-20)

When I read today’s Gospel passage - Jesus sending out 70 disciples in pairs to go ahead of him - I find myself thinking of some words of Alfred Loisy, a French priest who lived at the end of the 19th and into the middle of the 20th Century. They’re words that translate roughly:

Jesus appeared proclaiming the Kingdom of God, but what came about was the Church.

Go proclaiming God’s Kingdom - and what do you get? - the Church! Is that supposed to be some sort of let-down? - a big anti-climax following on from the mission Jesus had set himself? Does it tell us that we’re simply not up to the task which Jesus gave his followers? It certainly says something about the original urgency in what Jesus sought and a process of institutionalisation which followed. So was the mission of Jesus - proclaiming the Kingdom of God - in the end a failure?

From the outset I want to say, No! Proclaiming the Kingdom of God is good - it’s the calling of the followers of Jesus. And being the Church is good - that’s how we continue the work of Jesus. The two go together. We need to remind ourselves that this is a situation of not one or the other, but both / and. We need continually to be reminded of our initial calling - to proclaim the Kingdom and recognise the urgency of the task; but also to see how its message may be consolidated and made real in people’s lives - and that requires urgency.

I don’t think Alfred Loisy was being cynical when he made his observation. His thinking took him into conclusions which saw his writings banned, and eventually he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. He had problems early in his ministry with the authorship of the Scriptures, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and doubted that God was revealing the reality of his being and nature in Jesus. After his excommunication he continued as a lay intellectual and taught a humanist system of ethics separate from any divine revelation. Yet nevertheless I think we owe him a lot for his single sentence observation that Jesus’ mission was to preach the Kingdom of God, but what we find ourselves dealing with is the reality of the Church.

Jesus himself makes only one direct reference to an institution which might be called the Church, when he tells Peter and his disciples: “You are Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church.” And scholars have asked whether Jesus really had any sense of such an institution in mind - couldn’t this simply be Matthew in his Gospel writing with hindsight? Would Jesus be disappointed with what his followers have become?

The answer is, I think, Yes and No.

Yes, because we always fail to live up to our calling. The life of the Church is far from perfect. Jesus calls his first disciples to leave their fishing nets or their tax desk - to walk away from their comfortable ways of life for the sake of proclaiming Good News to any who will hear: to bring justice to the oppressed, healing to the sick, hope for the poor.

Go on your way,” he tells the people he sends out ahead of him. “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”

But we can so often feel stuck in the doldrums of faith. We haven’t the energy for the urgency. We have responsibilities which we don’t feel we can shirk. We need money, clothes, footwear - and homes to live in. So we simply can’t respond in the way Jesus asks.

Yes, Jesus would find there are very few who these days can live up to the urgency he asked of his first followers. But there’s also a No.  “The kingdom of God has come near.” That’s what Jesus wants people to know. But the task is to bring it near to people where they are. After preaching the Good News of the Kingdom we have to get on with the task of living it. And that’s what it is to be “the Church.” That’s something we have to do in the here and now, in the places where we live, with the structures we need to enable that way of life - and when it comes to being the Church, that means the structures of buildings and the structures of organisation,… each of which can get us down, but at the same time necessary to enable us in our mission.

In the last eight days, our diocese has celebrated the ordination of eight new deacons and eleven new priests. This is the time of year that makes me look at my own ministry - the response I made to my own calling nearly 40 years ago. I make the time to read again the Ordinal - the words spoken by the Bishop to those he is about to ordain - and feel the enormity of the task: “to proclaim the word of the Lord, to call his (or her) hearers to repentance, and in Christ’s name to absolve and declare the forgiveness of sins.” The Bishop tells the priest: “Remember the greatness of the trust now to be committed to your charge… Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure… entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross.” Am I really up to it? - I ask myself.

This year I’ve been moved to be with a number of those who have in the last few days been ordained - some of them very young, they seem (though in fact none of them as young as I was!). So much that many of them are giving up, and I’m in many ways daunted on their behalf at the thought of what they may go through and have to deal with in the Church over the coming years and decades. But as I’ve been reminded myself, we pray to God, “you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” And the Bishop reminds those who are to be ordained:

Because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God, pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit. Pray that he will each day enlarge and enlighten your understanding…

Jesus tells his followers to go out proclaiming the Kingdom without purse, bag or sandals - we need to be equipped only by his grace. But then we will need to build on the fruits of that task. Baptise people of every nation - he will tell his disciples before he leaves them. Take bread and wine, he tells them at the Last Supper, and they will be for you my Body and my Blood - do this in remembrance of me, and I will be with you.

This is how we build the Church - not in bricks and stone, not in man-made organisational structures; but by celebrating the sacraments, by faithfulness in prayer and study, in service of others and sharing of the Good News. Jesus himself is the Word made flesh. Proclaim the Kingdom - and pray that what we will get is the Church, which is truly his Body, living out his ways.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Reboot: switching off and then back on…

Increasingly these days I find myself watching television on “catch-up.” I use a device which plugs into the side of the television - and somehow it allows me to watch programmes I’ve missed through a collection of various “Apps” ranging from BBC iPlayer through All 4 and My5 to Netflix for which one of my sons has kindly shared his subscription. It’s especially useful for watching programmes which I can “pause” in order to nip out to the kitchen - or which can be rewound when I fall asleep in the middle of them.

But today - trying to catch up on a “soap” for which I shouldn’t waste my time - I could get a picture but no sound. I tried several times. I tried different apps on the same device. I pulled it out and plugged it into a different port in the back of the TV, but still no joy. Then I tried out the DVD Player - and discovered that wouldn’t work. But the main television channels would work - through the aerial and those satellite channels which haven’t lost reception due to the hedge at the back which has grown too tall. I was mystified - and the cables at the back of my telly were getting quite mixed up. Would I know where to plug back the ones I’d removed? It has to be said there’s a Playstation (probably obsolete) still plugged into the TV from the time both boys lived at home - such is my ignorance as to how I can remove it without technological failure.

The answer in the end was to switch the TV itself off at the plug, wait a few moments and then switch it back on. Suddenly everything worked again. No apparent reason why some things had stopped working and others hadn’t - and none of those bits had responded to any of the solutions which should have fixed them. The solution was literally to pull the plug, cut the power, and start again.

That’s a bit like life. I found myself preaching recently about a Collect (a prayer for a specific Sunday of the year) in which we admit to God: “You see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves…” It’s to recognise that there’s stuff we simply can’t tackle on our own. It doesn’t mean we lack ability or intelligence or skill. It might simply be something we were never intended to do, or for which we are not suited. Or it might be that we are simply overloaded with so many tasks that they start to work against each other. I think that’s what often happens when a computer crashes - or when a television won’t function as it should. But then you switch it off, pause, switch it back on again - and it works.

We need those times when we can switch off, reflect and then come back to the task renewed. It’s why I try to take a day off each week - and to factor in a Quiet Day (or even better, a retreat) every so often.

I’m writing this on the 37th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. That’s not a particularly special anniversary - but just getting to the day makes me stop and reflect. I picked up the book by George Herbert that my Training Incumbent gave me when I was ordained. It’s a 17th Century classic about priesthood: “The Country Parson is exceeding grave in his Life, being holy, just, prudent, temperate, bold, grave in all his ways…” That chapter ends with the admonition: “The Parson’s yes is yes, and nay nay: and his apparel plain, but reverend, and clean, without spots, or dust, or smell; the purity of his mind breaking out, and dilating itself even to his body, clothes, and habitation.”

High standards indeed (and it is time again for me to reach for the vacuum cleaner)! Do I live up to them? At this time of year I’m always impressed - but still more importantly moved - by the faith stories I read of those who are being ordained as deacon and priest. This year the ordinands of our diocese range in age from 26 to 69 - with backgrounds including academia, industry, single parenthood, a working front-bench peer and a former fast-track civil servant. I can’t help but ask myself - how do I compare? But actually it’s not past or even present achievement which counts. Those being ordained now need our prayers for all that they will encounter in their new callings - and in all the years of service which lie ahead.

“We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves...” But at my ordination the Bishop spoke these words: “Because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God, pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit. Pray that he will each day enlarge and enlighten your understanding…” We do this remembering “that the treasure… entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross.” For which I’m thankful - and humbled.

From the July-August issue of our Parish Magazine - click this link or visit our Magazine and Homily Page

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Receive the Spirit - Keep my commandments

Acts 2.1-13; John 14.15-17, 25-27

Today we celebrate Pentecost - the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost is sometimes called “the Birthday of the Church.” It’s the Holy Spirit coming upon ordinary men and women like us that makes the difference. The rest we might say is history. But also something to be lived now. On the first Easter Day the risen Christ had come to the disciples behind locked doors and breathed on them with the words, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Fifty days later, ten days after the Ascension of Jesus into the heavens, the Holy Spirit comes as if with tongues of fire - and it makes all the difference to those disciples. The Spirit is the very breath of God, the life of God breathing in us. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” St. Paul tells us. That means to each one of us - and to each one of us now! At a Confirmation the Bishop prays for those who are confirmed:

Let your Holy Spirit rest upon them:
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding;
the Spirit of counsel and inward strength;
the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness;
and let their delight be in the fear of the Lord.

That’s a prayer which asks of each of us who has already been confirmed: How can God’s Holy Spirit work in me? Am I ready for him to make a difference to the way I live? Am I ready to be delivered from despondency and the feeling that things can only wind down? Am I ready to allow the Spirit of God to breathe in me with his life? – to deliver me from staleness and direct me beyond my expectation?

“In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one Body…” writes St. Paul. That Body is Christ’s - and at the same time that Body is the Church. It’s a Church in which the Spirit breathes, which is called to look beyond its walls, which can have faith because each day it is given new life.

And there’s maybe some encouragement for us in this. These first Christians who met on the day of Pentecost seem to have nothing much going for them. They could have sat around and reminisced about the good old days with Jesus, but the memories would have faded. They could have gone on in the belief that the twelve apostles had some special understanding for others to admire, but the disciples themselves don’t seem to have been terribly admirable people – even their leader, Peter, keeps blowing hot and cold. 

The difference is made – not by any qualities that those first Christians had in themselves – but by the Holy Spirit. They were together… ‘and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them... and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.’

What can the Church offer people? - we sometimes ask. But Pentecost reminds us the real question is, what can God offer the Church? Or rather what can God offer the world, and will the Church go along with it or get in the way? These first Christians don’t have the time to ask questions like that. They rush out, it seems, to start telling the crowds what has happened. And what has happened is not just that they have had an experience which they recognise as the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. It’s that suddenly it all makes sense! Everything is coming together. Now they see the truth of what they had believed as Jews… that God is at work in the lives of his people, even when they wander from his ways, even when things don’t go well, even when they’re forced into exile by other nations. Now they understand where Jesus fits in – that his teaching, death and resurrection point to God’s work in their midst. And now they recognise that God will go on working through his Holy Spirit, poured out to give them a new boldness, to turn them from looking inwards to share their message urgently with everyone around them.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells the Disciples at the Last Supper that God will send his Holy Spirit upon them. And he reminds them: “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” What are the commandments? At their most simple there are just two - Love God; and love your neighbour as yourself. Receiving the Holy Spirit and keeping the commandments - putting love into practice - go together.

How can we work this out? 

We need to recognise our calling as Christians - to know what it is to be God’s people and to act upon it. How can we show that we are Christians? There are in traditional teaching “seven corporal works of mercy” – seven things you can do which will make a difference to the physical well-being of other people:

1. To feed the hungry.
2. To give drink to the thirsty.
3. To clothe the naked.
4. To shelter the homeless.
5. To visit the sick.
6. To visit the imprisoned.
7. To bury the dead.

They’re practical things – and a good place to start for any Christian. But there are also “seven spiritual works of mercy:”

1. To instruct the ignorant.
2. To counsel the doubtful.
3. To admonish sinners.
4. To bear wrongs patiently.
5. To forgive the offences of others.
6. To comfort the afflicted.
7. To pray for the living and the dead

Where can we make a start? – if we let God’s Holy Spirit move and direct our lives?

I love the story told by Mother Teresa of Calcutta of a visit she made to a lonely old man in Melbourne, Australia: ‘I saw his room in a terrible state, and I wanted to clean his house, his room, and he kept on saying, “I’m all right”. But I repeated the same words, “You will be more all right if you will allow me to clean your place”, and at the end he allowed me. And there in that room there was a beautiful lamp covered with the dirt of many years, and I asked him, “Why do you not light your lamp?” Then I asked him, “Will you light the lamp if the Sisters come to see you?” He said, “Yes, if I hear a human voice I will do it”. And the other day he sent me word, “Tell my friend the light she has lit in my life is still burning.”’

Will we discover that lamp, perhaps hidden away and dusty, which can burn for us? Will we clean it and let it give light? Can we help others to find that light? 

Thursday, 6 June 2019

On with the journey…

It was wonderful that the Bishop of Durham, the Rt. Revd. Paul Butler, was able to join us at St. Cuthbert’s on Sunday 19th May. It was only on the morning that our last issue of the Parish Magazine went to press that I found he was free, so there was some hasty editing and we weren’t able to give much by way of detail. We knew that we wanted him to be able to lead us in worship and thanksgiving as we celebrated our return to using the church with its new heating system - but we hadn’t been able to make an invitation until we had the system installed and knew everything was working. So to find he had a space in his diary less than three weeks after I picked up the phone to his office was quite amazing!

And to get the morning organised together with a celebratory lunch and all the invitations which needed to go out was amazing too! Thanks to all who worked so hard - and had the confidence that we could get everything sorted out. Thanks to those who went back to do still more cleaning in the church and decorated it so beautifully and put up special displays - and to those who enabled the service itself to go so well.

Now we have to get on with the job of being the Church. Not that we stopped doing that while “camped” in the church hall. But it’s been hard to be able to plan with confidence or to say, Yes, the church is available for your Baptism or wedding or funeral… And the building is there as a statement of our presence in the community as well as an expression of the sacred. Now we need to be enabling people to see that again.

The Bishop has set priorities of addressing poverty, concern for children & young people and church growth. These are to be explored across our diocese in the coming months with a big conference in which we’ll be involved in October. But these priorities are themselves simply a part of our fundamental calling to be the Church - that is to be Christ’s people in this place; to express that in our celebration of the sacraments, in prayer and worship; to put it into practice by our service of others.

What do people see and expect in our building - and in us? Are we making our faith visible? Where can people see it?                                 

Martin Jackson

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

I was glad...

I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord.
Our feet shall stand in thy gates: O Jerusalem.

These words from Psalm 122 are amongst my favourite verses of the Bible. They’re from a sequence of Psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent - 15 Psalms numbered 120 to 134. If you haven’t read them recently, take a look - none of them is very long. And I think it’s appropriate that the Book of Psalms itself is more or less in the middle of the Bible - it’s at the heart of our faith, at the centre of what we believe, but also reflects so well the human condition and our struggles in the midst of joy and sorrow.

The Psalms of Ascent themselves were probably first used by people on pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. They’re sung by people who love that building, who find God’s presence there and who long to worship in it. It’s a building set in a city: that city of Jerusalem which represents above all others the adversities, tensions and strife of centuries but which is at the same time a dwelling for God - a herald and a hope of the heavenly city still to be established.

How do I feel now that we have “moved back” into St. Cuthbert’s Church? I was glad… It made me want to sing, and I did a little dance once the heating engineers had moved out. Psalm 126 expresses the feeling of God’s people when they return from exile in Babylon:

When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion:
    then were we like unto them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter: and our tongue with joy.

But it’s not easily achieved. “Getting our church back” has been hard work. There are so many thanks due to those who have worked over the last 15 months to bring us to this point. That’s why it will be good to bring all this into a service of thanksgiving led by our Bishop on Sunday 19th May. Not much notice - but now is the right time! We’re so glad he can join us right now! And remember the truth expressed in Psalm 127:

Except the Lord build the house: their labour is but lost that build it.        MJ

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Calcined to dust? Easter Homily

(Acts 10.34-43; Luke 24.1-12)

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.  Sing his praise
                                                  Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
                                                  With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

George Herbert rejoices in the celebration of Easter. And if you wonder what that word “calcined” means, there’s a note in my book which says “Burnt to ashes.” We began Lent with Ash Wednesday - marking people on the forehead with the sign of the Cross in ash, saying to them, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” Whether or not we’ve lived up to the second part of that injunction and kept the resolutions with which we might have set out, the first part remains true: dust we are and to dust shall we return.

And yet listen to George Herbert: “That, as his death calcined thee to dust, / His life may make thee gold.” We know all too well that we are frail, mortal creatures, subject to death. But also we are God’s creation called to new life; and the Resurrection of Christ that first Easter Day is the promise that we shall live with him in glory.

Not that it’s always easy to live with that confidence. It’s not only the limitations of our human frame which we know, the grief we suffer at the loss of loved ones, the sadness we feel at the suffering of others, the pain which comes from relationships which won’t work out right. The days of Holy Week began with a collective sense of loss as millions watched the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burn - and its spire collapse. I felt the loss. Not only was I fearful for its lost treasures. But I’ve worshipped there. The cathedral’s services have been broadcast just about every day and could be watched on the internet. And for me, it wasn’t just watching - it was joining in with a daily rhythm of prayer, something that sustained me when I didn’t have the energy to do the praying alone.

But in that building, so much of it reduced to ash - calcined, to use George Herbert’s word - there’s also a powerful image. An incredible engagement of so many millions of people around the world challenged by the question of what it stood for.

Two things in particular. One, that the building is not merely a symbol but emblematic of western civilisation. Famously, the art critic, Kenneth Clark said that he couldn’t define civilisation - “But I think I can recognise it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.” And he turned and looked across the River Seine to Notre Dame. In our cheapened modern culture with its degraded values and our lack of attention to what really matters, we need to look again to see what needs to be preserved and developed.

But second and still more, the very presence of that building challenges us to ask, why was it built? Not merely as a thing of beauty or an attraction to 13 million people a year, but as a testimony to faith and a place where that faith is worked out in the worship of God. “You can worship God anywhere,” was one of the responses made by an archbishop after the fire. And that is true. The worship which would have been offered in Notre Dame continued through Holy Week on the other side of the river in the church of St. Sulpice. But I could sense the aching hearts. We know God by the places in which we worship. He is always more than buildings, more than worship itself. But ours is a faith which is incarnated, made flesh in Jesus Christ - and bricks and stones also have their place in enabling our faith.

The people of Notre Dame have to find other places to worship even as they plan to rebuild. [Here] at St. Cuthbert’s for the last 14 months with just an interlude during warmer weather, we have had to worship not across the river but across the road in our Hall due to the failure of our heating system. Today we return to the church for our first Sunday together since last October - it’s ironic that we use the new heating system for the first time just as we find ourselves in a spring heatwave! Going back there’s a sense of relief - and also of anticipation. I have to admit to being a bit fearful - things have changed… we have changed through our experience of the last year and more. But hopefully we have learned something through our time in exile - the different dynamic of worship, new ways of relating to each other, the grace of persistence in the midst of exasperation, much hard work and a generosity of spirit.

Always we need to remember that Christian faith is grounded in more than buildings - it’s more true even than the things we learn in adversity. But these together are a start.

And the heart of Christian faith is the Resurrection. An Easter Faith is what we celebrate not only today but every day. “If Christ is not raised, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain…” wrote St. Paul. And when Peter finds himself in the house of the Gentile soldier, Cornelius, the message which he brings is that Christ is risen from the dead. That’s what he says in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

It doesn’t mean that it’s a faith that’s always easy to grasp. Even on that first Easter Day of which we hear in today’s Gospel… The same women who had seen Christ die on Good Friday, who had stood by as he was buried, now come to the tomb - and find it empty. The stone is rolled away, the body is gone. Their response is not faith but terror. Two men in dazzling clothes appear and tell them Jesus is risen. But they only have their word for it - and when they tell the other disciples, they don’t believe them: their words seemed to them “an idle tale.” At least Peter goes to look, finds the grave cloths discarded by themselves and knows the tomb to be empty. But for now, all that the Gospel writer can tell us is that he is “amazed.”

Easter faith grows from an empty tomb. But before that there is betrayal, judgement, condemnation and a death upon the Cross. All these are carried into the meaning of Easter because they are all together rooted in the love which God shows us in Jesus. And that faith needs to grow. Recognition of the risen Jesus will come only later: for Mary Magdalene in an encounter with one she takes to be a stranger; for two disciples on a journey who don’t recognise the traveller who walks with them until he breaks bread for them; for disciples who have gone back to their old life of fishing and then find the risen Jesus telling them where to fish, feeding them and sending them on in love.
In knowing Jesus to be risen, the disciples discover what is truly precious to them - and something so precious that it will determine the rest of their lives.

What is precious to us?

One of the heartening stories in the aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame is that the colony of bees kept on its roof has survived. There have been three beehives on a roof over the sacristy, just beneath the rose window, since 2013. Each hive has about 60,000 bees. The poet Carol Ann Duffy, in her book The Bees writes of the bee as a symbol of grace in the world and of what is most precious and necessary for us to protect. Those 180,000 surviving bees are, I think, a sign of hope as the planning for the rebuilding of that great church begins. Carol Ann Duffy writes:

                                                For this,
let gardens grow, where beelines end,
sighing in roses, saffron blooms, buddleia;
where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
in pear trees, plum trees; bees
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.