Lent 5: Passion Sunday

7 April 2019

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 43: 16-21

Psalm 126

Philippians 3: 3-14

John 12:1-8

In 1968, as the protest movements in the United States for civil rights and against the Vietnam War swept across the country, bringing draconian, often right wing and racist reactions, a Jewish American song-writer, George David Weiss, wrote these words.

I see trees of green, red roses too;
I see them bloom for me and you;
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

Worried about the antagonism within and between different segments of society, including attacks on Jewish-owned shops, Weiss and producer Bob Thiele hoped that the song might bring people together. They needed a singer who already had popular appeal, and could reach across the racial divides of the day. They found the right man in the already legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong. By then his lungs were giving out, and Armstrong recorded the song crooning in that wonderful gravelly voice that many of us know so well.

The recording itself was not without controversy and Armstrong, Satchmo, was criticise by many black Americans for being a sell-out to his people. His response, which is worth listening to, was to say this:

“Some of you young folks been saying to me: ‘Hey, Pops – what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place, you call them wonderful?’ But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby – love. That’s the secret.”

The words of the song are simple – some would say simplistic and naïve. But they hold a certain charm because of that simplicity, bringing people back to the basics of human life, things we can all, no matter what race, class or creed, appreciate. In some ways, what Weismann and Thiele were trying to do, through this simple song immortalised by Satchmo, was remind people of the commandment that Jesus emphasised so often: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12: 30)

Through the song they hoped that people would begin to reimagine what life could be like – a life where people did shake hands in the street, look at the green trees, notice the red roses, hear the babies crying and watch them grow. There’s something of this reimagining going on in today’s reading from Isaiah 43. Through the prophet God says to people they should stop harking back to the old ways and days – those days of division, of war, of sadness – because God is about to do something new. This new thing will be as radical as water in the wilderness or rivers in the desert. Impossible for human beings, but not for God!

St Paul understood this ‘new thing’ God was doing when he wrote to the Philippians. All his past achievements, great and noble as they were, counted as little once Paul had caught a glimpse of Jesus and the Cross. Paul knew that, in dying on the cross, Jesus changed everything. From that point onwards Paul had a new purpose and would spend the rest of his life “press(ing) on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3: 14) This called for huge reimagining on the part of Paul, undoubtedly influenced and guided by the Holy Spirit of God. It is this cross of Jesus that we recall today – sometimes known as Passion Sunday – as we move rapidly and inexorably towards Holy Week, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

Where Weismann and Armstrong wrote and sang about the colours of the rainbow drawing attention to the wonderful world in which we live and all share, St John chooses to make mention of an equally beautiful and moving encounter between Mary of Bethany and Jesus: the anointing of Jesus feet. Such a simple thing to do – but such courage to do it! In Judas’s outburst we hear something of the shock and horror with which that action was met. Mary had the courage to reimagine her response to God in Jesus.

A few weeks ago people gathered in this Cathedral and at mosques and holy places throughout the city and our world, to try and come to terms with the shootings in Christchurch. The world watched fascinated as Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of NZ, reimagined what sort of response to make to that outrage. Fifty people killed and many injured. One of the first things the Prime Minister did was to don a head scarf and move among the shocked, bereaved and utterly frightened Muslim people of Christchurch.

Today we will gather for our annual Vestry meeting. The reports that have been written and provided for you show a Cathedral community in celebration mood. It is, after all, our Festival 150 year – and we have so much for which to be thankful and proud as e celebrate the past. My own formal Dean’s report is included in the booklet – and I am not going to read it out either at this service or at the meeting. I am, of course, very happy to answer questions about it.

What I am much more interested in today is the second half of our Festival 150 tagline – ‘Imagine the Future.’ This is the real challenge to us – to imagine what being Christian, Anglican and part of St Peter’s Cathedral will be like in a year’s time, in twenty or a hundred years – and what we can do to ensure that happens. The more we pray the Festival 150 Prayer the more I find myself drawn to the last line and praying that we will indeed be given ‘imagination, purpose and grace to step into the future with (God).’

That future begins with you and me, drawn together at the foot of the cross, as we begin, or continue, to reach out to others, to see the red roses bloom for me and you, shake hands and say ‘how do you do’, anoint the feet of the Christ in our midst, imagine and begin to live the new thing God does today and tomorrow and all the tomorrows that follow.

Enjoy the music.

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world

Festival 150 Prayer

God of all time:

Alpha and Omega,

beginning and end.

We praise and thank you

for what has been,

what is and

what is to be.

In this year of celebration

we give you thanks

for those who have gone before us

in faith, courage and generosity.

Give us

imagination, purpose and grace

to step into the future with you,

our Creator,


and Life-giver. Amen.