SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST,
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
ORDINARY SUNDAY 22
(6th September) 2015
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
“Yet he could not escape notice”
I’m not normally one for the old technique of taking a text, yet these words of Mark scream out to be cited. Yet he could not escape notice. For we who are the body of Christ of Waiapu Cathedral in Napier, is this true?
It is worth experimenting from time to time. Have you ever tried walking down Napier’s Hastings or Emerson’s streets and asking a local the direction to the cathedral? Many and by far most times out of ten the answer is a variation on a theme of “the what?” There are of course two issues here: there is now one adult generation for whom the word “cathedral” is as close to meaningless as the words litotes or metonymy. There are a handful of people for whom the word is meaningful, but as vast majority for whom it is not. There is a handful for whom the word might mean something like “bloody big church in Europe,” which is slightly more than metonymy might convey, but even that handful is depleting. For two generations the likelihood of knowing that there is such a thing as a cathedral in New Zealand, let alone Napier, is slim. For two generations the likelihood of caring is slimmer still.
Now I am not naïve about the manner in which the biblical narratives came to birth. Jesus was not headline material in the first century, and church noticeboards of the “kid born in stable saves world” genre miss the point that nobody really noticed the entrance of the Incarnation into human experience. The gospel writers even used some tools of embellishment to beat up their stories, using the tools of the religious “trade” of their day to compete in a market place of religious discourse. But their stories would have gained zero traction on the consciousness of the world around the story-tellers if they did not resonate with the experience of those who encountered the presence of Jesus in worship, fellowship and storytelling. The Syrophoenecian woman was not the last person to hear tell of the one who could transform darkness into light, and reach out accordingly in desperation.
Yet are we the vehicles of that same Christlight that first rumoured hope to those in the vicinity of the Incarnate Word in the first centuries and then encountered Christlight in the ministrations of God’s church, enflamed by God’s Spirit, in the centuries to come? We know of course that much that this institution subsequently did was not Christlight but the darkness of Christlessness, and we are deeply sorry for that, but are we going to allow that weight to crush our ability to bear Christlight into the community?
Neither you nor I will change the world. The challenge to carry Christlight into the world does not expect us to. But it does not take an entire solar furnace to light a small darkness. A single candle is a start – the old bible song it only takes a spark to set a fire going was a vehicle of much truth. It is, in any case, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
When the community garden now forming outside the north walls of the cathedral was first mooted by a handful of caring Christ-bearers, a lot of nay-sayers muttered “I don’t think a community garden on the north side of the Cathedral is actually going to carry on the good links we had with the city council and the business community.” I agree. Yet as that garden began to take shape yesterday I had no fewer than a dozen people – strangers – compliment the cathedral on its new initiative, however small; an initiative of vision and compassion in the community. I must confess that fraternising with the council or the business community is not entirely my aim; I hope instead a few people may in months to come pull a carrot, munch on it, and even wonder why the users of a big and foreign and seemingly impenetrable building bothered to put a garden there.
In the last several days the tragic sight of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach began at last to change the narrative about the world’s refugees. Aylan was neither the first, nor will he be the last to drown in the waters of desperation. His brother Galip and mother Rihan and innumerable others have died, are dying, and still will die, disguised by political speech-makers as parts of a “swarm”, “marauders,” “migrants” and in Australia “queue jumpers.” But even (outside Australia) the politicians’ language is changing. Since Aylan died there has been a groundswell of sorrow and anger, and the darkness that has been most of the international community’s response to an immeasurable human tragedy has begun to be penetrated by tiny sparks of light.
A community garden won’t change the world. A single letter to a politician by Icelandic activist Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir won’t change the world. A single action by Jesus in showing compassion for a Syrophoenecian girl didn’t change the world. Slowly though the actions of people who care can begin, as we say in the evening collect, to lighten our darkness, and we blossom enough to become the answer to our prayers for the world and its suffering people.
“Yet he could not escape notice.” If we dare to act a little more like Jesus and for Jesus in the community it could well be that our cathedral ceases to be a big and foreign and seemingly impenetrable building on the edge of the CBD and becomes instead a place where the resurrection is rumoured, and where light and hope are midwifed.