The community had another chance to say farewell to our priest-in-charge, the Revd Mark Brown, at the noon service today. A wonderful crowd attended and had the opportunity to offer prayers of blessing on Mark for his future. Mark will not be gone from SL or from the Cathedral but he will be more in the background now. The Leadership Team have now taken over the running of the ministry of AoSL.
The topic of the sermon was life and death, something that features highly in our Christian lives and which is particularly relevant at this time of endings and beginnings. The readings were Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Mark 4:26-34. The readings were given by Rev and Bonnie. Thank you both.
Some of you may know that on Christmas Day my husband Phil had to go into hospital with a serious heart problem. It was not a heart attack but an inherited weakness. Nevertheless it was life threatening. Thankfully, due in no small part to the prayers of this community I’m sure, he is pretty much as good as new after open heart surgery.
During the time that Phil was in hospital I decided to redecorate our bedroom. It may seem like a crazy thing to do while my husband was recovering from such major surgery, but there was method in my madness I assure you. I reasoned that there was no way of telling how much time Phil would need to spend in bed once he returned home and I liked the idea of him having fresh new surroundings. Also, I knew that I would actually have more time while he was in hospital than when he was home. Thirdly, I had planned to do the work at that time anyway, and it takes a lot to deflect me! Fourthly, I had my family around me so I knew I would get help.
Anyone who has ever redecorated a room in their house will know the total disruption which follows. There was furniture everywhere and dust and general mess. I couldn’t sleep in the room so had to sleep in our spare room surrounded by the furniture we had taken out of the bedroom. I had just 6 days to do the work and the first three simply seemed to take us further and further into chaos. There was plenty of time to regret the decision as we hauled up carpets, yanked off skirting board, scraped off wallpaper and rubbed down walls. (In between all this we also visited Phil in hospital, of course.) Once over the destructive phase, things began to look better as new paint went on the ceiling, new wallpaper on the walls and a new wooden floor was put down. By the time Phil came home, we had half a floor in place and time to get the rest done that day. We were able to sleep in the room that night and I continued the last bits of work over the next couple of days.
I had plenty of opportunity to regret starting the job. I ached all over and I was pretty sick of still walking round displaced furniture and having to search for clothes. Now, however, when I look around each morning, I am very glad I did it. The room is the same room but looks fresh and bright. Emptying it and looking with new eyes allowed me to see new possibilities for how to use the space, giving me some much needed extra bookshelf space in a place I had never thought of before. To crown it all, I was given a beautiful picture to put in there for my birthday. The old room has gone and the new one is certainly worth all the effort.
Our faith is very much based around old and new; you could say that it’s a matter of life and death. In the gospel passage we hear some parables about what the kingdom of God is like. Smooth, shiny grain which looks perfectly good, is scattered on the ground where it becomes dirty and soft, losing its golden sheen. From that softened grain comes a new plant, fresh and green, which eventually bears new grain to be harvested. The seed died in order for new growth to be born. The new was like the old, but also not like the old. It was transformed and yet still true to its type. The same thing happened with the mustard seed, and there the transformation was even more marked, from a tiny seed to a huge plant with branches. Both were mustard, but they looked so different. If the seed didn’t die the new growth and food for the next season would not come.
Paul tells us a similar story about ourselves when we become Christians. The old self has to die for the new creation in Christ to be born and then we can bear fruit. People who become Christians leave things behind and there may be some regret. Ways of behaving that were acceptable in the past may no longer be acceptable. Friendships may have to be scrutinised to see if they are still appropriate. Things that have been part of our lives have to be lost. The new creation is still recognisable as us, but there have been major changes, much like happened to our bedroom.
Birth and death are messy and painful events. You can understand Woody Allen who said, ‘I am not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ A colleague who died recently from cancer said much the same. She was a Christian and had confidence in her destination but it was the process of dying that worried her. Dying can mean loss of choice, fading of abilities, lack of independence, loss of dignity and control, the experience of pain, inconvenience, fear of the unknown. Those who watch someone die can feel helpless, sad, fearful and angry, even angry at the one dying, as though they had a choice about leaving.
It’s the same with birth in some ways. The baby who is born is forced out of a safe and known environment into somewhere quite different. The process is out of the baby’s control. It may be quite a fearful experience though I don’t think any of us remember it. For the mother, birth is painful; her body seems to be out of her control; she may feel fear and anger. The mildest, politest of women may find themselves swearing while giving birth. When the baby arrives it is messy looking, not like a peachy complexioned baby in an advertisement. A friend’s wife recently gave birth and for hours of the labour she wouldn’t let him near her. He was confused and hurt and felt helpless. In the end they were blessed with a beautiful son and all the pain and mess of birth was forgotten in the joy of welcoming a new life. The baby they had known as a bump and on ultrasound scans was still the same, but so much better now he was born and able to be held.
In the ministry here at the Cathedral we are involved in a matter of life and death. There have been little deaths in the past, people leaving for various reasons, some not necessarily clear. It has perhaps been messy and painful. Mistakes have been made that we can learn from if we don’t forget the past. When Mark stopped leading this noon service there would have been grief for those who were used to his ministry here, who liked his style, who missed his presence. The service is still here but it is different, with Gareth and I leading it. The same is now happening to the Pacific Rim service as Mark hands over to LouiB. There will be sadness, grief, a longing for the familiar even though the service continues. Some may feel anger. The circumstances are certainly not in our control.
We know that in all this transition, the pain and mess of death, we can trust God to bring about new birth. We may not understand it any better than the farmer does when he plants his seeds, but we can relax because God is in charge.
The famous poem by Minnie Haskins called ‘The Gate of the Year’ sums this up well:
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied, ‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!’
So I went forth and finding the Hand of God
Trod gladly into the night
He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east.
So heart be still!
What need our human life to know
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife of things
Both high and low,
God hideth his intention.”
Let us go forward into the future in confidence, facing the pain of change, looking towards new things yet to be revealed, with the words of the Psalmist on our lips:
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They collapse and fall,
but we rise and stand upright.