Random thoughts from Pencefn

…. an engineer, singer and photographer living in Scotland

Southwark Cathedral – Advent 1 2010 Sermon

Referenced in post Advent 1 2010 – In Memory of Colin Slee

Advent 1 – Advent Sunday

28 November 2010

9am & 11am Choral Eucharist

Preacher: Canon Andrew Nunn, Sub-Dean
Text: Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-end; Matthew 24.36-44

What does it mean to be a Christian? It’s this kind of fundamental question which presents itself to us at various stages of our life, of our living. What does it mean to me to be a Christian? What does it mean that we’re a Christian community, a group of people, diverse, different, people who’ve chosen to follow Christ, who express our allegiance to Christ in this place?

‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’ says Paul to the Romans. When my phone rang in the middle of the night on Thursday and I was told that Colin had died I don’t really know what went through my mind. The middle of the night is never the best time to make sense of anything – problems seem larger, worries deeper, uncertainties stronger when they come to you in the dark hours. I didn’t know what to think and I didn’t know what to feel. Grief yes, of course; relief that it was over for Colin; concern for Edith and the family; fear of what the future might hold; and that overwhelming sense that there was so much to be done that sleeping was the last thing that I should do.

In the literally cold light of day there was not really much more clarity. What could have been a nightmare was of course reality. The thing about drawing back the curtain in the morning is that you see the world outside back in active mode. The buses were going past and the cars and the cyclists and the early risers just as they are every morning – it was the same as ever, but different from how it’d ever been. And the same mix of feelings came back – grief, relief, concern, fear.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Auden’s poem became famous because of ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ but I think it expresses so well what we can feel at times like this. But it’s so wrong in its conclusions.

I suppose it wasn’t until we gathered in the Cathedral that morning for Morning Prayer and the first Eucharist of the day that all of that overwhelming sense of confusion began to clarify. Seeing other people, being with other people, praying with them, sharing in communion with them, hearing God’s word with them, began to put all those initial feelings into some kind of perspective and into some kind of context.

The events of the night were not being absorbed, come to terms with, just by me, but by us. I began to understand that though Colin’s death had implications for me, the me was in the context of the us and the us was in the context of that greater us, the church, the church as it says in the Book of Common Prayer, militant, expectant, triumphant.
Today is Advent Sunday, the first day of the new church year and the beginning of the period of preparation for Christmas. It’s a time when we get ready for new beginnings, for welcoming Jesus as a baby, as the incarnation of the promise of God to be God-with-us. But it’s also the time when we’re looking to the fulfilment of all things, of those divine promises we see alive in Jesus and the fulfilment of all things in Christ, for eternity

We’re going to trace together all that has brought us to this point, all that will find its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus, all that will find its eternal fulfilment in Christ, as we light the Advent candles. We’ll be thinking more deeply about them this evening as we take part in the Advent procession. But this morning we’ve already thought of the matriarchs and the patriarchs of the church, the mothers and fathers, who stand at the beginning of our articulation of the things of God and in their lives pointed to the divine in our midst. We’re thinking of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we’re thinking of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, those who experienced God and knew God and formed a community under God, who pointed beyond themselves to something they didn’t know but they knew they believed in. Jesus was a mystery to them, but he’s not a mystery to us; they longed to know what we know, we know it and we rejoice.

But so much remains a mystery, as the readings for today remind us. We may be thinking about and preparing for the ultimate fulfilment of all things, the realisation of the ultimate victory of God, but the timings and the nature of all this remain a mystery, a secret hidden from us.

All we can do is keep awake and keep alert, ready at all times, living as though each moment was the moment of fulfilment, the moment when we would be caught up in the divine rapture.

Isaiah points to it in our first reading. The people who walk in the paths of the Lord live differently – the weapons they made for destroying, they remake into tools to make things grow, ways of war are forgotten and people live in peace instead. It’s the transformation of the world, the transformation of communities, the transformation of human lives that the prophet is talking about and all because people know the Lord and they walk in his light, for they know as Paul says that ‘the night is far gone, the day is near.’

But what does this really mean, what does it mean when we have to face up to what we’re having to face, when Edith and her family are having to face what they’re facing? What does it mean to be a Christian?
Many words will be said about Colin and what he’s shared with us before he’s laid to rest and many things will continue to be said of him. I know that many of you here owe so much to him, I know that I do. But what I want to celebrate with you this morning is the fact of our being here and the fact of the nature of our community.

Auden brings his poem to a conclusion by saying ‘For nothing now can ever come to any good.’ But for us that is not true.

There are a great many factors that have made us who we are in this Cathedral and not all of them have to do with Colin. We are who we are because of where we’re set, in this wonderfully vibrant and diverse part of London. We are who we are because in the latter part of the last century there was a willingness to embrace on the South Bank a particular form of radical, liberal theology that found a natural home within these walls. We are who we are because we’ve been served by a succession of gifted, spiritual priests of whom Colin is only one.

But, and it is a big but, we’re who we are because Colin Slee with all that made him wonderful and all that made him annoying and all that made him challenging embraced all of those things and took them and us to another place and another level. It’s often said of us that we’re a beacon church and we are, people look to us, they look to this diocese but they look to us as the Cathedral of this diocese because they know that we have something to say and a great deal in which to believe. They look to us because Colin gave us the courage to do and be and say and incarnate the difficult things but the necessary things that would challenge where challenge was needed to old ways, unjust ways, untruthful ways of being. Colin was prepared to bring out into the clear light of Christ all that was good about the church and all that could be better.

What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean for you to be a Christian? In many ways for us it means living up to the legacy and taking it on and taking it forward. The unknown still lies out there – ‘about that day and hour no one knows’ says Jesus in the Gospel – the mystery is always there. What do we do – draw the curtains on the daylight and retreat into the night with all the horrors that can be there, believe Auden that ‘nothing now can ever come to any good’ or live in the light, in the reality of Christ and with confidence in God even though there’s so much that we don’t know the answer to?

Colin has taught us to live with reality, the reality of who you are, the reality of who I am, the reality of who we are, celebrating our difference and diversity, celebrating our ethnicity and gender and sexuality, celebrating our confidence, celebrating our doubts, living confidently the faith and in such an attractive way that people will say

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob.’

On Thursday despite all those mixed feelings and emotions I realised one thing powerfully that we are a community that loves each other and supports each other, that we’re a community that breaks bread together and believes together; that we’re a community that knows how to laugh and knows how to cry. That’s who we are as Christians, that’s who we are as Christians here and we know that God is with us. The clocks may have stopped for a moment but our life and our witness go on.

Reproduced by kind permission of Andrew Nunn (Acting Dean of Southwark Cathedral) from Southwark Cathedral Web Site

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