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Archbishop's sermon at Maundy Thursday Chrism Service

Thursday 17th April 2014

Archbishop Justin preached the following sermon at the Maundy Thursday Chrism Service at Canterbury Cathedral this morning.

1 Samuel 3: 1-10, Revelation 1:5b-8, Luke 7: 36-50

Having done two family weddings in here in the last three months, my instinctive reaction is to ask you if you know any reason in law why ........?

The diagnosis of fear is straightforward. There are all sorts of signs that might lead us to declare God’s people as fearful.

In all our readings today, one context is fear – 1 Samuel repeats several times ‘how the word of the Lord was rare in those days’, fear comes from the sense of the absence of God in our lives and ministry. It is a fear that all suffer, because the more we bet our whole lives and meaning on the reality of God the more space there is for fear and doubt. We had a gathering of Religious [communities] recently, one of the reasons they are so special is that, almost above anyone, they take a bet on God's existence and love more than most people.

The background to the Revelation of John is the massive challenge facing nearly all the churches in the region: the persecution which drove John into prayer on Patmos. Fear was prevalent, of their own weakness, of the authorities, of judgement, of culture and of the corruption of wealth and security blinding them to reality. Many clergy have similar fears, longing to act pastorally and full of love and compassion for those in the parishes, yet fearing that the church has fallen into the trap of being like everyone else, has become an NGO with fixed practices and old buildings.

In the gospel, we see repeatedly and in particular focus in Luke 7 how the Pharisees, in their defensive fear, by seeking to uphold religion undermine it again and again. They seek to keep their religious practice pure and in so doing cannot recognise Christ. In so many of our disputes, we become defensive, preferring tidiness to love.

I suspect we can all relate to these issues – to the apparent absence of God in the daily grind, to the longing for God to intervene dramatically in this world now and sort everything out, to the religious posturing in which we are often cast by dramas and stories, usually wrong – or function – like Pharisees.

The reality is that ministry is hard work, all of the time. Clergy and lay ministers and leaders – particularly in sector ministry or parish - take the risks and take the blows, working long hours with often inadequate resource and often voluntarily. There is a struggle too with institutional expectations and yet to keep our own faith real. We are determined to feed the hungry yet wonder how we ourselves will manage the domestic heating bill. I want to acknowledge how tough the work is. Please hear it loudly and clearly from today: THANK YOU. I don’t know many of you yet, yet so much of what I know and get to see is deeply stirring. As I engage with you out and about in this diocese I am resourced and inspired. THANK YOU.

Yet the issues remain and the fears lurk in many of us.

In 1 Samuel 3 we hear, that ‘Eli’s eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see’. In this passage this is a spiritual statement… about the High Priest. The one whose job it was to lead the people – to release their faith, to empower their ministry, to train others to see – could not see. The wider context describes a leader who is not simply fearful but asleep on the job – he’s lost his edge, he’s lost his hunger for God and any vision for change… yet he’s holding on to his seat and won’t let go. The perfect recipe for a control freak: here is someone who is invested against change because the system conveniently props him up. Someone who is so fearful of God’s judgement that he’s paralysed, personally and professionally. He can’t even come clean with God about his own faults and those of his family, let alone enable others.

What is the cure? For Eli it is the boy Samuel and recognising the call of God in a surprising place, and then not quashing it but nurturing it. It is openness to God at work in others even when God is not seemingly at work in you (although of course he is). It is allowing the systems and structures to flex for the sake of a fresh expression. It is taking a risk with an unproven, untrained, unfinished, too-young-to-be-ordained newcomer, even and perhaps especially when she has the potential to knock you off your perch, when he has the insight to name all the problems that you have tried to deny, when she carries the threat of redefining leadership structures in less priestly and more prophetic directions, as at this particular watershed in history. The rise of Samuel marks a whole new era for Israel. Just imagine if Eli had clung on and resisted…

The seven churches of the Revelation needed both reassurance and insight. They had to know that Jesus was in charge, and that they were accountable to Him and that He knew them. Fear was dissolved in the face of prayer and vision, of accountability and assurance.

And when it came to a choice between the righteousness of the graveyard and the warm heat of repentant sin, Jesus was without hesitation. He does not pull his punches, but takes the risks of being anointed and loved by a sex worker. No wonder there was shock. Unwise? Only in human wisdom, this is the folly of the Cross, and it must be the folly of the church.

 What it will take to turn our church around where it needs to turn, to spur us on where we need spurring, to strengthen and reinforce us when we are tired, is something that stands us all on our heads, that turns our institution inside out, that breaks us out of our self-referential world of churchiness (and certainly our particular brand of it) to remind us that we are not here for the sake of ourselves and our corner but for the world. The question for Eli, for the churches of Roman Asia, for Simon the Pharisee, and the question for us, is what is God doing with and through the people of God for the world? And of course, the blindness of Israel then and blindness of the church today is in some places much the same: to assume God’s salvation is a gift for us alone, the insiders.

God’s salvation makes sense to us and to the world when we become a risk taking, outward facing church. Fear corrodes us, the adrenalin of risk draws us close in to Christ and also to each other and we find truth and courage afresh. Risk is justified when it springs from the Samuels in our church mediated through the wisdom of Eli, from the visions of a John on Patmos, mediated through a church recognising their divine origin, when the risks are utterly non self-referential, but are part of bearing the cross. We are transformed when we are to each other a people of love not cursing, and to the world a people of risk-taking generosity not defensive fear.

What that looks like practically will vary in every place and every time, and with every person. Whether it is happening will be seen in our diaries, our spending and our prayer. Are they about us and the church, or about the world around and us taking Christ's love? That is a discipline for each of us: it is a responsibility for the institution to be simple enough to makes time for people to reach out and to be safe enough for risk taking. The church is to be a safe place to do risky things in Christ's service. Parishes and sector ministers bear the brunt, Bishops and offices and administrations must make it possible, as often the church has not. But together we must choose to be outward looking and risk taking, so that fear has no place, so that in acting as one we see Christ before us, Christ at work, that we see the vision of his glory that we are called to be part of, that we embrace the untidiness that Simon the Pharisee rejected. A church like that gives one many nervous moments, but draws us into the presence of God whose perfect love casts out fear.

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