A blog for Holy Cross Day

Last Friday, sitting in a small office that could have been in any voluntary sector/public sector building, I heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard in my life and then we prayed.

There were just two of us in the room, and the young man with whom I was meeting as part of my work with Near Neighbours did not claim to have a strong religious faith. He is part of a group of young men who have left the world of gangs to enable reconciliation and peace on the streets of Birmingham. Their story is part of a documentary which I hope to watch in the next couple of days. The film and the organisation are called One Mile Away.

Joel talks about the day he and Simeon decided to found their organisation and sat down to count the cost. He can remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday. He said to me: “Me and Simeon were talking about doing something to end the violence and hatred and Simeon said to me we could get killed doing this. I said we could have got killed gangbanging and we could get killed stopping it but I am not running away from this.”

Never before have I so clearly understood what Jesus meant when he said to save our life we have to lose it. Hatred can kill us, great love can kill us: only living a life of mediocrity, living in hiding or running from the challenge is safe. But Jesus called us to pick up our cross and follow him. In that little office it made perfect sense.

I really enjoyed studying Rowan Williams’ writing on Church when I was at Queens and one of his phrases that has stayed with me now for several years is that there is no-one inside or outside of the Church who cannot help us read our Bible better.

I agree absolutely with him and I think there are particular people who have learned not to cling on to their life, not to prize security above everything, not to put safety first who can help us live our Bible better.

Our conversation moved on to peace and the need for self-awareness and acceptance before trying to be a peacemaker. As we ended our meeting Joel read this prayer aloud. It was a prayer that had been used the day before as Faith Leaders in Birmingham remembered the anniversary of 9/11.

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbours.
If there is to be peace between neighbours,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
chinese philospher – lao-tse – 6th century bce

We can only find peace when we have decided, like Joel, that serving a God of love is more important than keeping safe. Jesus showed us that by his living and dying, the central narrative of the Christian faith, the cross and resurrection, remind us that love is stronger than death and death will never have the last word. We find our life when we are no longer terrified to lose it because our understanding of the love of God has permeated to the core of our being.

In a small office in Aston last week I learnt that again. Last week we heard the story of the Syrian woman who understood the breadth of God’s love. Her words of faith led to the healing of her daughter. It’s not only in church that we hear good sermons if we have the ears to hear them. And it’s worth asking ourselves how our words and lives help others read the Bible better.

Matthew 16:24-28New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

To arrive where we started

“If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all…..

…You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid….

….With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Extracts from Little Gidding, The Four Quartets  by T S Eliot

This weekend I arrived where I started. Leaving the rough road, I came past that same pig-sty to the dull facade and the tombstone. I arrived where I had started my Christian journey.  Past the  house where I learnt to play and share and discovered hospitality, through the garden where we fell off climbing frames, picked horseradishes and, later, celebrated my sister’s wedding, to the little church where I was baptised in 1970, where I first felt the presence of prayer as a young child, where sacred stillness was etched into my soul over months and years.

We lived at Little Gidding as a family from 1973 to 1977, when my parents started a community there which modelled a life of prayer, hospitality and care for creation. I remember this time as filled with people, animals, singing, shared meals and laughter. It wasn’t a perfect time but it has shaped me deeply.  For another four years we lived in the neighbouring village of Great Gidding where my father was  vicar. And so the Giddings were like a faded canvas, the backdrop to my childhood memories until 2005 when my parents moved back to the same house in Little Gidding for another three year stint as wardens of the retreat centre there.

During that later spell, my children in turn played on the lawn, some of my friends experienced this strange end-of-the -world  place and I had once more the chance from time to time to allow the rhythm of prayer to soak into my soul.

Then this weekend, taking a break from a hedonistic, noisy and vibrant music festival,  I arrived at Little Gidding as a deacon to preach while my father took evening prayer.  This was an immense privilege for me. Not only is the place full of poetic and personal resonances but I was also standing in the footprints of Nicholas Ferrar, one of the most famous deacons in the Anglican church who, with his household, lived a life of prayer, service, faith and compassion. And it’s Nicholas Ferrar who is buried in the tomb outside the church which mentioned by Eliot in the poem.

My texts were the Passover and the Beattitudes, texts core to the identity of Jews and Christians respectively.  And in a place that formed me I talked about the observances that form us in our faith.  In a place where communities of people  have put their faith into practice over 400 years I had the chance to talk about corporate memories of liberation and the promise of God’s blessing for those who practice vulnerability, those who visit places of powerlessness and those who live in solidarity with the poor.

In front of my parents and the gathered saints of that congregation I felt barely able to preach to those who  have lived for many decades in the shadow of Little Gidding and know the truth of living long faithful lives. But what I said seemed to matter little – in that place it was so clear that my sermon  and my service is merely a drop in a wide river of faithful Christian witness that spans centuries and runs so deep that it appears to have no end.

“There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.”

Little Gidding