Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 28th May 2017, at Ss Peter & Paul
‘Leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us’
At last, we have been enjoying the first really warm days of the year giving a glimpse of the joys of summer that await! And as I endeavoured to garner my thoughts for this morning, I did so with the doors open onto the garden, enjoying the warmth of the early summer sunshine drifting in, and looking out on to the garden in glorious bloom, birds singing. All it seems, is warm, peaceful and contented.
Except that it is not. Because just as the days were warming and sun began streaming in through the windows, news came late on Monday night of a blast ripping through the foyer of an Arena filled with young people and their families. In an instant, the young, vibrant life that was coursing through that happy crowd turned to death. 22 people, including children and teenagers, were killed, many more suffered life-changing injuries. The lives of countless families were devastated, ripped apart by the deliberate and premeditated actions of a young man barely older than some of those whose lives were taken from them, a man driven by a grossly distorted vision of what it mean to be a Muslim, driven by an ideology fuelled at least in part by hatred.
The people of Manchester, the people of our nation, the people of cities and countries across the world have been shocked once again by the breathtaking inhumanity of such a callous and barbarous act. In the midst of life, there is death. And for a moment there was a pause in our national life. There is a sense in which we need to stop, to absorb insofar as we can, what has happened and what it means – what it means for the families most deeply affected and for all of us; what it means to say ‘Alleluia, Christ has risen!’ when for many people Good Friday is a real and present experience. What can we draw from the story of the Ascension that we hear again this morning; how does it speak to a world that is both utterly glorious yet painfully broken.
Last Tuesday evening, Tony Walsh joined the people of Manchester as they gathered in Albert Square – people of all faiths and cultures, people from across the spectrum of Mancunian society – people gathered in a sign of unity and solidarity – to remember people who had died, people who were injured, people who were watching, waiting and weeping. Tony read his extraordinary poem ‘This is the place’. His words spoke when we were lost for words. Poetry does that – gives us back the words we need. As Janette Winterson noted: The poem becomes part of what had happened as well as a way of talking about it.
Poetry and poetic language gives depth to our story-telling, able to convey intensity, truths that might otherwise have eluded us.
The theologian and writer Paula Gooder notes that the authors of the books in both the Old and New Testaments draw naturally on the language of poetry and poetic imagining ‘to give depth to language about God, who by his very nature defies description.’ Such language, she says, challenges us today ‘into an act of poetic imagination which takes seriously the reality of God and the reality of a realm beyond our own, governed not by the principles that so easily drive us, but by a different way of being ruled by love, compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness’.
Such a challenge faces us as we hear again the story of the Ascension in the light of the events of the past week.
During his earthly life, time and time again Jesus encouraged the people to widen their imaginations, their understanding of how they saw themselves, how they perceived God, and how they perceived their relationship with Him. Jesus challenge is as real for us as it was for the people of Palestine 2000 years ago. Can we in the light of our faith re-imagine who God is and who he wants us to be in the care of his world and its peoples?
Can we imagine the amazing truth that humanity and divinity are not like oil and water – remaining completely separate – but inseparably bound together – for that is what the story of the Ascension affirms. That story makes absolutely clear that the humanity which God assumed at the incarnation is not something temporary – God became fully and completely human in Christ; and that humanity, with its astounding beauty and capacity for goodness and gentleness, and in all its ugliness and brutality, that humanity, flawed though it is, is now taken into the very heart of God. The ascended Christ remains both fully human and fully divine, and where Christ is, there we may be also.
There may be times in our lives when, like Jesus as he hung on the Cross, we feel the absence of God rather than His presence; there may be times when, in the face of the awful cruelty, the brutality and indignity human beings inflict on one another, we are tempted to despair; there may be times when we cling to our faith in a just, loving and compassionate God by the skin of our teeth. But year by year, as we explore the story of God’s relationship with his people; as we reflect on the wonder and mystery of God revealed in Christ, we are reminded that God in Christ is no longer restricted by time or place, but is with us always, no matter what, no matter where, no matter when. And He will take our flawed lives, our stumbling and imperfect efforts and transform them in the building of his kingdom. How? Through the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. He just asks that we open our hearts to that gift, widen our imaginations and dream. Then the impossible will become possible.
The giving of that gift, celebrated by the Church in seven days time at Pentecost, strengthened, encouraged and emboldened that group of fearful, flawed and hesitant disciples to become the effective dynamic witnesses to Christ ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’. It is the beginning of that work, with its joys, their dreams, its challenges and its hardships that Luke recounts in the Acts of the Apostles. The fruits of that work we experience here today, and see in the life of communities across the world! The fruits of that work we have seen in a very powerful way in Manchester:
· The people working for our emergency services who responded immediately – coming from their beds, their days off, their holidays – to give help care and support to the injured, the dying and the bereaved
· The taxi drivers who offered their services free of charge to take people to their homes or places of safety.
· The homeless men – Chris Parker and Steve who had been sheltering in the foyer of the Arena, could have turned and run for their safety but instead stayed to help the injured and the dying; Chris holding a young woman who died in his arms; Steve helping to comfort, to ease the pain of children caught in the blast. ‘You had to help’ they said.
· People who came to give blood.
· People who opened their cafes to provide free drinks to the emergency workers.
· People who took to the hospitals across Manchester food and drink for the staff.
· People who opened the doors of their homes to strangers, offering all that they could to comfort and support.
· People who prayed for healing, unity and forgiveness in the Churches, Temples, Mosques and homes – not just in Manchester but across the cities, towns and villages of our country.
The story of the Ascension as told by Luke in Acts moves not only outwards from Jerusalem, but also downwards from the mountain. The story of Acts begins in a place where Jesus is visible, angels speak clearly and the veil between earth and heaven is momentarily thinned. From this moment, the challenge of discerning God’s purpose will become harder!
It is through the power of the Holy Spirit always and everywhere at work in our world – that we are strengthened to continue that work of discernment; and having discerned, encouraged to dream and imagine extraordinary possibilities, then to act. And so we discover deep within the courage and capacity to respond to the pain and suffering in our world with something of Christ’s love and mercy, justice and compassion, actively at work to make a difference in the world, the kind of difference love makes, the kind of difference that really builds the kingdom for which we long, hope for and pray for, day by day, week by week.
In the words of Rowan Williams: “If we are challenged as to where God is in the world, our answer must be to ask ourselves how we can live, pray and act so as to bring light the energy at the heart of all things – to bring the face of Jesus to life in our faces, and to do this by turning again and again to the deep well of trust and prayer that the Spirit opens for us”.
Re-imagine what God can and will do; lets widen our vision to re-imagine the world through God’s eyes, to see those around us through God’s eyes; to see God in the people we meet; lets dream and re-imagine what we can do to ease the pain and suffering of His broken yet glorious world!
‘Leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us’
Tony Walsh concluded the reading of his poem with the words: Choose Love Manchester.
As we await the celebration of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, may we – today and in all the days and weeks of our lives – Choose Love. For we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!
Alleluia, Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia