mardi 26 février 2008

Sermon preached by Paul Oestreicher

This sermon was preached by Paul Oestreicher in Coventry Cathedral on the Sunday of Christ the King when he was made a Companion of the Community of the Cross of Nails

Sermon preached at Coventry Cathedral, Christ the King 27 November 2007

To preach and specially to preach here is an undeserved privilege. To dare to do it in God’s name is a fearsome challenge. Today is very special and for several reasons. It warms my heart that old and new friends from our twin city of Dresden are here. [Geliebte Freundinnen und Freunde aus Dresden, seid umarmt und verzeiht mir, dass ich nicht gleichzeitig Sächsisch und Englisch sprechen kann.] But most specially let me embrace with deep gratitude our Bishop on this his last Sunday as shepherd of this diocese. I cannot say My Lord, that would not be you, dear Colin. You have served us with humility, grace and humanity, and mostly with a light heart. Thank you. That you and Dean John have offered to make me a Companion of the Community of the Cross of Nails leaves me with a gift and a task. I shall try to deserve it.

And now, may my words, if that is possible, reflect the mind and the heart of Jesus.

A greater Paul than I, though we are told he was small of stature, wrote these words to the Christian Church in Philippi:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: who being in the form of God did not cling to divine status but made himself of no reputation, came as a servant, sharing our humanity.
[Philippians 2: 5-7]

In its wisdom, or possibly its lack of wisdom, our Church has made the last Sunday of the Christian calendar into the Feast of Christ the King …the king of our hearts and minds, if we have the courage to follow him, yes, yes, yes but ruler of this world as most people understand kingship, exercising power over us, no, no, no. Jesus stands and falls alongside the weak, the poor, the rejected, the exploited, the victims of every kind of inhumanity, Jesus, the suffering servant, then and now.

This young and disturbing Jewish rabbi from Nazareth, in whom some people, like us, glimpse God, God the otherwise unknowable mystery, this Jesus rejected power, wealth and influence and left us , astonishingly, as emancipated and free, free to make of the gift of life what we will, for good and ill. We do plenty of both. Yes, the prophets and saints and martyrs, Christian, and of every other faith and none, have given us a vision of what the good life is like, the hidden Kingdom that Jesus personifies. He preached it, he lived it and he lives it still, the risen Lord, risen in our hearts, but – and this we must never forget - not the triumphant victor over those who killed him. He did not return to humiliate Pilate and the Chief Priests. He appeared mysteriously only to those who loved him.
The crowned monarch over this world? Forget it … forget it, whatever some of the hymn writers might have done to give us false comfort. The King of the Jews was written in irony over the dying Jesus by his enemies. The irony was not a mistake. As men and women understand the term, ruling the world or even Israel as many had hoped was not his chosen role. Our God does not reign, is not responsible for the humiliation and rape of women down the ages, the Christian persecution of the Jewish people, the degradation of the people of Darfur, our murder of thousands of Iraqis…the list in all the yesterdays of history until now is endless. But just as real is the compassion and love of those who heal, of those who feed the hungry, tend the sacred earth, of those who teach, of those who care for friend and foe alike, of those who make peace. Jesus suffers with the world’s victims and rejoices with those who share God’s love with others.

Let this mind be in you that is also in Christ Jesus, but what is the mind of this Jesus who calls us his friends? Honesty compels me to face up to the fact that we fail to agree. What would he say and do now? We often come up with opposite answers. We can appeal to the Bible. We can appeal to the Holy Spirit. We can use our God-given intelligence and still come up with opposite answers - and hold them sincerely. The Bible has been used to justify slavery, the oppression of women, putting offenders to death, racism, anti-semitism, ethnic cleansing and genocidal war. Yes, they are all in that great compendium we call the Bible. Then what about the Holy Spirit leading us into the truth? Charismatic inspiration can also be used to justify almost anything. Even Hitler believed he was serving a divine purpose.

The search for what is right is never easy. I have been convinced by the life and teaching of Jesus and by my study of history and politics that being prepared to kill those who threaten me, my family or my nation cannot be justified, however good the cause. Going to war, is an option that is not open to me as a follower of Jesus. It pains me deeply that on solemn occasions that symbolise our national identity, members of the Royal Family feel obliged to appear in military uniform. Nearer to home, among my former parishioners in Blackheath were officers of the Royal Naval Academy training seamen to man nuclear submarines. Were they less Christian than I? Never, when sharing Communion with these men and their families, was I more aware of the truth of the words that introduce our Litany of Reconciliation: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, soldiers and pacifists together in one boat. The survival of the human race may depend on how that issue is resolved.

I have over time also come to believe with equal conviction that to deny sexual fulfilment to our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers is inhuman and unjust and is therefore also unchristian. I now worship in a highly successful Brighton parish which has had a succession of gay vicars and where about a third of the congregation are gay couples. The parish is part of the relatively new movement called Inclusive Church. I am only too aware of the pain that causes to many other Christians, the sort of pain I feel when I see a chaplain in battledress. I also feel the pain of homosexuals who still bear the wounds of centuries. Many, even today, feel the need to hide their true identity.

The American states went to war over slavery, a bitter civil war, Christian against Christian. On the meaning of homosexuality our world-wide Anglican Church is now engaged in a spiritual civil war. Need that really be so? We all believe that we have God on our side. In reality this conflict is not about one issue at all. It is about our differing visions of God. Do we worship the same Jesus? We may use the same language, yet mean quite different things. This is not just an Anglican problem. Even Rome with its centralised authority knows it only too well.

You dear Dean John, are about to honour me by asking me to become a Companion of the Community of the Cross of Nails. You will ask me to continue to serve and to advise this Cathedral in its God-given international ministry. This comes as something of a surprise and a challenge. Companionship then, and I should have known it, is not just an honour. What are its implications?

Given our theological differences, John, and they are not small, I began to pray and to reflect. An inner light began to shine brightly. An inner light, an old Quaker experience. I began to dream.

I have a dream – thank you Martin Luther King for that – I have a dream that this Cathedral with its divine call to reconciliation, born in the heat of war, born in the readiness to forgive the enemy, might become miniature model of what our embattled Archbishop Rowan longs for, a Church in which conservatives and liberals (forgive the shorthand) will embrace, embrace perhaps like wrestlers embrace, and that this Cathedral might be the ring where both are on equal terms but with an open end and no need for a victor, a Cathedral where Alpha which has found a home here and Inclusive Church can engage on equal terms. It will not easy. It will only work if we shed our liberal and our conservative fundamentalisms, our innate self-righteousness, if we are prepared to love each other, even when we find it hard to like each other.

I have a dream that all the Companions – and that will be an innovation – will share in this process and all the CCN centres actively become part of it. Most of them in America, in Germany, in South Africa are liberal in their attitudes but could be enriched by the new evangelical winds blowing through this Cathedral, but only if they are made to feel it is also their Cathedral. I have a vision that this Cathedral’s good friend Desmond Tutu who campaigns on Palestinian rights, black rights, gay rights and women’s rights … all of them derived from the Gospel…will be welcomed here by those who do not use the language of rights. I have a dream that the much needed successor to Canon Andrew and Canon Justin will have the gifts to embrace all people from near and far, to make all the people of Coventry and the rest of the world feel at home here, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and atheists too. Canon Peter Berry, still much loved, had that gift in large measure. Let not one school of thought define his Cathedral but only the all-embracing love of Jesus.

No one event will fulfil this dream. It is a process and an attitude of mind. It is recognising that serving humanity in God’s name, making peace, as Canon Andrew for example is trying to do in Iraq, serving the down-to-earth needs of human beings, matters infinitely more than our imperfect and differing attempts to define the mind of Christ. If we serve the needs of others, we serve him. Whatever our theology, we can do it together.

If we can live with paradox and imperfection and simply respect each other in our diversity and that diversity also finds expression in the Cathedral’s senior staff, then this Cathedral both locally and internationally will continue to be a beacon of hope and of adventure. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism famously said, live adventurously. He did. And so have a succession of Christian saints in the half century’s life of this young Cathedral and of this ancient Benedictine foundation. I think for instance of Allen and Mary Edwards and of Jane and Martin Williams. I hope they will not be embarrassed. There are many others who like them simply get on with it, live their faith, undeterred by our Church’s unseemly disputes.

I dreamed that our Cathedral’s angel has two wings, a right wing and a left wing, that our angel flies to Spring Harvest and to the Greenbelt Festival, to whereever young people look to find Jesus.

Today I venture to think that our long time Cross of Nails friends from Dresden really do feel at home here. Their Cathedral, Dresden’s Church of our Lady, that by its title sounds so Catholic and is so Lutheran has, I think, already become part of us. Anyway, Mary, the Mother of our Lord, belongs to us all.

And how wonderfully fitting that Eberhard Burger, a genius of structural engineering and a down-to-earth and up-to-heaven Christian who has rebuilt one of the cultural treasures of Europe, should have been honoured with a doctorate by Coventry University. Eberhard, it is you who honour Coventry and us this morning by your presence.

Our friendship with Dresden is a symbol of the unity of which we sang as this service began, sang in words written by George Bell, the great Bishop of Chichester who bravely in the midst of war, in the House of Lords, denounced the deliberate bombing of German civilians, the killing of some 40 000 people in Hamburg and
at least 25 000 in Dresden.

Bell’s words:

“So shall God’s will on earth be done
new lamps be lit, new tasks begun,
and the whole church at last be one.”

“Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus”…after all I have said, do I think that is possible? I will let a non-religious Jew who lived as a refugee from Hitler in London, who was one of the most deeply loving people I have ever known and who even refused to hate the Nazis who murdered his father, I will let him try to answer that question. Erich Fried became a cult poet among young Germans in the sixties and seventies. This poem, which I’ve translated, is probably his best known. It throws light into dark places:


it is nonsense, says reason
it is what it is, says love

it is unhappiness, says reflection
it is nothing but pain, says fear

it is hopeless, says insight
it is what it is, says love

it is ridiculous, says pride
it is frivolous, says caution

it is impossible, says experience
it is what it is, says love

With that love in our hearts, we now gather as God’s companions at his table, entering into the mystery of His life in bread and wine, body broken, blood shed to heal a world that is dying to live. We hear the voice of Jesus, saying to his friends: Do this in remembrance of me.

Copyright Paul Oestreicher