5th Sunday after Pentecost

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 24, Psalm 45: 10 – 17, Romans 7: 14 – 25, Matthew 11: 15 – 19, 25 – 30

This past week has unravelled in a carefully planned, yet still quite shocking, sort of way. Despite all the preparation in the Cathedral – removing all the hymn books from the choir stalls, packing up the shop, taking out of the sacristy the sacred vessels, vestments, wine and wafers – I was not really prepared for the invasion on Monday morning. Trucks taking up all available parking, sheets of plywood, heavy metal scaffolding, plastic wrapping, men in high-viz safety vests, steel capped work boots – this was an invasion of sorts. In no time at all the beautiful worship space of our Cathedral – so admired by visitors and loved by those who call it home – had become a worksite. Banging, clanging, non-stop radio in the background and signs at the entrances proclaiming: Danger – No Entry!

As someone used to starting the working day in the quiet gentleness of the Lady Chapel, where one focuses on the altar, the stained glass window, the statue of the Madonna or a flickering candle, I found it something of a struggle to be in the hall, sitting on ordinary upright chairs in a semi-circle, nice to be warm (true) but the ‘sacred’ seemed hard to find. Nor was that all, for, although the Cathedral Office has been open the phone has gone strangely silent, as has the email and foot traffic. Such a strange contrast with the frenetic activity happening inside the Cathedral as organ pipes began to come down; boxes, filled with piping of all shapes and sizes, carefully wrapped in protective material, have been packed; sand and cement carefully mixed to get colour and consistency right before being plastered over long-chipped cracks. The inevitable pile of dirty coffee cups, empty food wrappers and finger smudged work drawings grew like topsy. Busy but empty is how I described the Cathedral in one conversation.

Oh for the gentle rhythms of ‘normal’ Cathedral life, the welcomers waiting to welcome tourists and pilgrims, those wanting to pray and light a candle, yet others happy to chat about their travels and place a pin on the map to mark their home town. And that’s it isn’t it? Our ‘home’ has been destroyed; we are a people in exile – at least temporarily.

Exile is a dominant theme in the Bible. The word itself usually refers to a lengthy period of time spent in Babylon by survivors of the devastation wreaked by Nebuchadnezzar and his armies on Jerusalem in the early part of the 6th century BC. This period is well chronicled, particularly by the prophet Jeremiah. It was a time when, so it seemed, everything that made a people who they were, disappeared. They were left with their lives but little else. The markers of their identity as God’s People, God’s Chosen People, were gone – king, temple, city, land. All four were symbols of something else which was much more profound. King, temple, city and land symbolised for those Jewish people of 587 BC the presence of God, and their special relationship with God. It was those four things that both ‘proved’ to them the existence of God, and that they mattered in the sight of God. With one terrible sweep Nebuchadnezzar removed it all. No wonder Psalm 137 was composed: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and wept when we remembered Jerusalem.”

Strip away the trappings of faith – king, temple, city, land – or, in our case, altar, font and pulpit, stained glass windows, uncomfortable but familiar pews, soaring arches and beautiful reredos – and what do you have left? Take away the organ, the choir in the ‘normal’ position, ‘my’ seat which is always on this side, behind that person and two in front of those people I see each week but have never spoken to – and what do you have left?

I have found myself thinking back to January 1991. We had made the decision to leave our home, our families, our country and move to another place. Saturday after Saturday we watched as people filed through the garage where all that we counted precious, and around which we had built our lives, was fingered and tested and commented on by people eager to buy at bargain prices. There is a feeling of nakedness to stand there as people haggle over your marriage bed, the table and chairs inherited from a grand-mother, books that had become friends. Yet it was our choice to do this – to sell all to pay for the airfares to travel to a new country, and start, we hoped, a better life. What must it be like for those who flee their homes in war, who arrive as refugees with nothing, having escaped the trauma of Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia – these three countries, according to the UNHCR, accounting for more than half of the world’s 62 million refugees? http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/publications/reports/state-nation-2017/

I’ve deliberately not tried to unpack today’s readings, nor tried to choose special readings for this 2nd in the five-part preaching series under the title PATRONAL TO PLANNED GIVING Through exile, hymns and theology: a journey into discipleship. But there are some resonances with the sense of displacement brought about by exile. What was it like for Rebekah to be taken away by Abraham’s servant so that she could marry a man she had never met? And not only that, but know she would never see her own family again and would have to find and make a new life for herself in Isaac’s family? Or St Paul who, following his dramatic conversion, had to come to terms with becoming a disciple of the very man whose followers he had hunted down? While not exactly exile, nonetheless Jesus’s presence among the religious people of his day upset the norms, overturned the accepted values, forced the people to choose. It’s all very well to lift out the so-called ‘Comfortable Words’, beautiful and reassuring as they are: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28) But how comfortable are they really when Jesus calls his disciples to leave their nets, their homes, their profitable financial careers, their obsession with political liberation?

The Gospel has never really been about ‘comfort’. It is about making choices, about change, renewal, moving on. And that begins when we start to look carefully at our lives and what we hold dear to our hearts, what is, or has been, so important in our lives that it gets in the way of a relationship with Jesus. I come back time and time again to the questions put to us at baptism:

Do you turn to Christ?
Do you repent of your sins?
Do you renounce Satan and all that is evil?
Will you strive to live as a disciple of Christ, loving God with your whole heart, and your neighbour as yourself, until your life’s end?
APBA pg 56

Those are big questions – life-changing in every way. We are used to them and we probably don’t often think about them. But we should, for they are at the heart of being Christian.

How then might we use this time of enforced exile? We could lament the loss of the familiar, yearn for the 30th July when we will return to worshipping in the Cathedral. Or we could do as Jeremiah urged the exiles in Babylon to do: accept the situation as it is; pray for the welfare of the place in which we find ourselves; grow in relationship with God and with each other. Doing so invites us to focus on a word, a concept, which is not readily found in the Old Testament, but is frequently found in the writings of St Paul – that of grace. Grace can be defined in various ways but the understanding I like best is that grace is the undeserved, unexpected, unwarranted gift of God’s love to us.

This, I think, is what Fred Pratt Green, whose hymn I quoted last week, was on about when, in the second verse of the hymn, he talks of the symbols that remind us ‘of our lifelong need of grace’.  (God is here…) Turn to Christ, open our lives to God’s grace, be renewed by the Holy Spirit – there is the opportunity to do this in a time of exile. Exile may be a time when we lament the loss of the familiar – whether that be king, temple, city, land, or altar, font and pulpit, stained glass, uncomfortable but familiar pews, soaring arches and beautiful reredos. But it can equally be an opportunity to grow in grace, to turn again and again to Christ, to find in the basics of our faith the newness and renewal that comes to each from the Spirit of God. And, strangely enough, because we are displaced from our normal routines and normal patterns of seating, we might even meet and be able to speak to one or two different people – and find that they too, like us, are in lifelong need of grace.

Let me finish by reading the 2nd verse of Fred Pratt Green’s hymn.

Here are symbols to remind us of our lifelong need of grace;
here are table, font and pulpit; here the Word has central place.
Here in honesty of preaching, here in silence, as in speech,
here, in newness and renewal God the Spirit comes to each.