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Glory with holes in it

Sculpture from John Maine's exhibition SANCTUARY, at Salisbury Cathedral
Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 25th May 2014

Sunday 25 May Sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor The Sixth Sunday of Easter Lections of the Day

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

There was a wonderful moment in the Cathedral School Chapel last week. I was leading the Tuesday morning chapel service with the senior pupils of the school. We were singing ‘Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven’. The hymn went over onto a second page. As we got to the end of verse four, almost the entire congregation closed their hymn books and adopted the slightly resigned look that they adopt as they prepare themselves for Canon Tom to vent his spleen at them again. And the organ struck up the final verse. With panic and confusion they fumbled for their hymnbooks, not of course remembering the hymn number, and as we arrived at the end of the verse, which I sang as a solo, they collapsed into their seats. I asked them to open the hymn books up again, and to read out to me the rubric at the bottom of the page. “Turn over for verse five”, they said. “Good”, I said. “Now, put your hands up if you are taking a Common Entrance exam later this morning?” Again, most of the hands went up. “Well, God is good”, I suggested. “Because there’s a reminder about the importance of reading the instructions carefully before doing anything else!”

 

What had confused them was that the version of the hymn we were singing had an extra verse. Let me read it to you:

 

Frail as summer’s flower we flourish,

Breathes the wind and it is gone,

But while mortals rise and perish

God endures, unchanging, on.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Praise the high eternal one.

 

Now my colleagues and I probably represent a fairly healthy theological spectrum as to our approach to how changeable or unchangeable God is, and I don’t want to preach another sermon on the impassability of God this morning, but I do want to say something about promise. It seems to me that that verse of the hymn which tripped up the Senior pupils last week, and the readings this morning, and indeed this joyful Eastertide through which we continue to travel, is shot through with promise.

 

In many ways it is so simple. The events of Easter change the world. “If there was no resurrection”, writes St Paul, “then our faith is in vain - but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead”. But the nature of that change is tricky to discern sometimes isn’t it? How has the world changed? Can we quantify that? Can we point to it, and say, there’s some resurrection. Is there a Key Performance Indicator for that? How much resurrection do we see at face value in Ukraine I wonder, or in the eyes of those Nigerian schoolgirls photographed by Boko Haram for publicity purposes last week? Or indeed in the mournful sight of the floating hull of that upturned sailing yacht, and its undeployed life raft on yesterday morning’s news? What is the promise with which the resurrection equips us in the instances of deep worrying dread which sweep upon us all from time to time? Threats of unemployment, experience of bereavement, dissatisfaction with work, family breakdown, illness? You will, most of you who worship here regularly have observed that over the past six months I have struggled with increasingly limited mobility. A lot of the time at the moment I can hardly walk. That is distressing and concerning for me, and I am grateful to you for your prayers, for your patience with me, and indeed for your concern – though at this point I think if you wouldn’t mind I’d be pleased to continue having the prayers and the patience, and rather fewer of the questions! But I don’t know quite what’s happening to me, and that is deeply unsettling. And I am so very aware of how many other people all across the world contend with far more serious disability or tragedy or radical brutal intervention in their lives. “Frail as summer flower we flourish.” Even as the light of the resurrection cascades upon us from the risen face of Christ. And it’s easy to collapse resurrection into happiness – you know to believe that Christians who really believe in the resurrection ought to suddenly become grinaholic, bionic believers who wake up in the morning, do a double back flip into their trousers and shout Hosanna! And there is a problematic tradition in certain strains of Christianity which does get quite close to suggesting that sometimes. You know that Christianity promises ‘happiness’ in that face-value, superficial kind of way. But I don’t think that’s what the resurrection is about at all. We need to dig rather a lot deeper than that.

 

And the clue is in the body of Christ himself. The resurrected body of Christ was, is, disabled. He showed them his hands, and his side. Which had holes in them. When the kingdom of heaven overcomes the frailty, the transience and the complexity of the fallen world - and that kingdom does, and will overcome those things - then they are transformed, they are changed, but not by being expunged and rewritten: they are gathered up, re-formed, glorified. The risen hands of Christ, the man who strides confidently into the darkness as we recalled on Maundy Thursday, and then stands again in the Garden on Easter morning are hands still broken. Feet still pierced. A side entirely capable of, indeed ordained to flow with blood and water for the redemption of the world. For God’s weakness, as St Paul writes elsewhere, is stronger than human strength.

 

The promise of the resurrection is the promise, actually, of company. Of society, of friendship with God. Of incorporation in Christ – in the Christ whose resurrection includes scars. The promise is that we are accompanied. “I will not leave you orphaned”, says Christ in today’s Gospel reading. “I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you.”

 

There is absolutely no possible way in which we are ever left alone. Sometimes it feels like we are, of course. And sometimes, like those Athenian worshippers, perhaps, what we can manage is a vague recognition that there is something out there with which we ought to be concerned, an Unknown God, distant and perhaps even rather austere, who plays with us for his or her sport. The author of the devotional text The Cloud of Unknowing describes trying to pray to God sometimes as like beating the underside of a thick, spongy cloud which seems to absorb all of our prayers and leave us on the other side from God, silenced and alone. The welsh poet, priest and depressive RS Thomas describes trying to talk to God as like “breathing on embers too long cold.” These are experiences of Christians. Not failing Christians, not those of us who don’t pray hard enough, or who don’t live good enough lives to be invited into the inner circle of God’s “crew”. These are, from time to time, the experiences of the resurrection. Glory – with nail holes in it.

 

But RS Thomas in that same poem, goes on to describe the work of the Christian in that context as being to “wrap oneself in the heavier clothing of our calling.” To wrap ourselves in the heavier clothing of our calling. To dig deeper, to dare to believe that this resurrection is not about superficialities, but about becoming more the person we are. For what is that heavier clothing, like a cloak which surrounds us always? “I will not leave you orphaned”, says Christ, “I am coming to you.”

 

The heartbeat of resurrection is as close to us as the beat of our own heart, because we are shot through, ‘warts and all’, pain and grief and fear and doubt and suspicion and all, with glory. And that promise and gift of the Father and Son is the Holy Spirit, whose coming our readings now begin to look towards as we approach another Whit Sunday. Change, at a level far deeper than bone and marrow and nerves and muscles. Change at the level of our souls our humanity, as we become people of promise, resurrected people, people who are accompanied.

 

“Frail as summer flower we flourish, breathes the wind and it is gone, But while mortals rise and perish God endures unchanging on.”

 

And you know that’s the heart of the resurrection isn’t it? That when the world, and the powers of darkness did the very worst that they could do, and usurped the King of Love from his throne, pitching him down into the depths, three days later there he was again, saying, “well, yes, as I was saying…” Life is changed, not taken away, and the scars shine the more brilliantly as a result.

 

But that unchanging nature of God is revealed not only in the cloud of unknowing, and in the heavier cloak, but just as much, perhaps even uniquely truly, in the man in the garden, and on the seashore, and weeping at the graveside of his friend. God’s unchangeable nature is to say to each one of us – “I am coming to you”. In Spirit and in sacrament and in absolutely permanent presence – even if that presence feels more like an impenetrable cloud than the arms of a friend sometimes, “I will not leave you orphaned”. Easter faith is faith that recognises that there is no “knack” to being a Christian. This isn’t an exam - There is no set of instructions which we can follow so as not to fail the test. This is promise and presence. This is transforming fire and transfiguring light entering into all the frail and diseased and complex you-ness of you and me-ness of me and saying, “all of this is risen, because all of this is you.”

 

Frail as summer flower we flourish,

Breathes the wind and it is gone.

But while mortals rise and perish

God endures unchanging on.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Praise the high eternal one.

 

I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!