Conversations that matter

Easter 4 

Acts 9.36-43 – Psalm 23 – Rev 7.9-17 – John 10:22-30

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector

I have had the privilege and joy to attend the North American Deans conference in Sacramento, California, last weekend, the first time my colleagues and I were able to meet together since our last meeting in early May 2019.  Our last two dates in 2020 and 2021, scheduled for Winnipeg, sadly had to be cancelled for reasons of pandemic we all know too well.

Like all of us, who have seen plans changed and significant events cancelled in the past two years, it felt like a small step towards a return to some normality, and there was no doubt that airports were busy and that the world seems to sign a breath of relief, even if it might be still a little too early to claim victory over the Coronavirus.

The title of our conference this year was ‘Conversations that matter’, and inevitably there was a lot of comparing of notes about how our different cathedrals have fared in the past two years, what we have learnt in the process, and where we might be heading to.

What I learnt early on from attending these meetings is that – unsurprisingly – Cathedrals across the United States and Canada are all different, we all have our different personalities, size, staff, congregations, financial resources, quirks, joys and challenges.

Nevertheless, in the structures of our respective dioceses – and sometimes national churches – we all have a special place as mother churches, seat of the bishop, upholders of traditions at the same time as creative developers of new approaches liturgical, spiritual or pastoral.  Cathedrals also have the role of providing a space where conversations that matter can happen.  Conversations relevant to us as Anglicans within the wider family of the diocese, but also conversations that matter for the communities in which we are set – including Christians, members of other faiths or none.

This is a challenging role – and one which can often get less attention under the pressures of everything else that we need to do, least of which is maintaining our buildings.  However, this is one of the specific charisms of Cathedrals to which we all need to be paying attention, and to which we all respond in many different ways depending on our history, situations and resources.

And so in the conference, we heard some great examples – such as Boston Cathedral, who during the pandemic continued to express their specific prophetic ministry to their local itinerant population – who normally make up to 1/3rd of their Sunday attendance – by developing worship in which the itinerants were able to continue to attend in person at the cathedral while the housed members of the congregation moved entirely online in order to let them have the space.

There was doubtless an element of safety in this response, but also a visible commitment to the ongoing spiritual support of their unhoused neighbours carried through their Manna ministry.

The keynote speaker to the conference was Sister Simone Campbell, a feisty nun dedicated to work for justice. Sr Simone expressed the call of God in her life by training to become a lawyer and then putting her expertise tirelessly towards the needs of the poor and oppressed, working for economic justice and the protection of immigrants. She came to fame by establishing a project called ‘Nuns on the Bus’.

She punctuated our conference with reflections on what she had heard, commiserating wryly with the many priorities of Deans, raising money to maintain our fabric and ministries being one of them of course.

She had an infectious smile though, one which spoke of someone whose prayer life and contemplative practice underpins all that she does, and allows her to respond to all with gentleness, divine love and a smile.

In her keynote speech, she talked to us about the ‘Nuns on the Bus’ project, born quasi miraculously out of frustration at policies which were blocking access to healthcare for the poor, and through which she and others were able to take their message around the country, meeting people and showing support and lobbying for a better system in which all would be cared for – an aim so self evident in rich western countries that it beggars belief that it should even be in question.

A consummate lobbyist and politician, she spoke of her encounters with senior politicians and being called to speak at hearings in Washington – and the small miracle that happened in having her voice heard because, through all her campaigning and all her encounters, she was able to radically accept the life of the spirit in the other, especially those with whom she disagreed most.  This, she said, was the reason why her relationship with them could be transformed and how she earned respect – attention to shared humanity and shared place in the family of God.

For Sr Simone, touching the pain of the world is at the heart of ministry, one which flows into a ministry of public weeping.  She asked – do we dare to weep for ourselves and our children, when we see the state of the world and the ways lives are disfigured or needlessly wasted.

In her own meditation throughout her encounters as a Nun on the Bus across the US, she heard God’s response straight from the book of Exodus: ‘I am well aware of their sufferings, and so now I am sending you to Pharaoh’.  That was her call to continue her work of speaking truth to power.

On this 4th Sunday of Easter, as we continue to meditate on the resurrected life, our readings today, key into this theme very well.

Our reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles this morning especially links the power of the weeping of those who have seen the death of a dear disciple to a response by another disciple, which in turn produces resurrection.

Tabitha, or Dorcas in Greek, gazelle in English – a beloved disciple who appears to be living in community with others – has died, causing great grief within the circle of those who knew her.   The weeping of the widows who form part of those who had received help from her is all to real, as is the pride they have in showing the gifts she had given them.

The body of Tabitha is all but ready for burial, but her community of men and women disciples have heard that Peter is not far off and so they decide to send for him.  There is no sense of expectation except that his presence might help them with their grief.

Peter, who – having left Jerusalem – is now on a missionary journey around Galilee himself, responds positively to their request.  Immediately prior to this event, He had healed Anaeas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years, a healing that had helped to convert many people of the region to the Gospel.

And in a story that has many parallels and resonances with the healing miracles of Jesus, in particular the healing of Jairus’ daughter Talitha, Peter on arrival kneels, prays, and Tabitha rises again.  This miracle furthers Peter’s mission in the spreading of the Gospel in the region, and we hear that he decides to remain longer in Joppa, choosing to stay with a tanner – a profession that was considered to be unclean by the jews of the time.  It therefore indicates the commitment of Peter to the evangelisation of the gentiles, of bringing the good news of God’s love to all without exception, even before Paul’s ministry had begun.

Peter’s witness in this account links with the witness of people like Sr Simone, the witness of all our Cathedrals and churches, and the witness each and everyone of us is called to make.

As we look around, there is much darkness and death, there are situations that appear unsurmountable, intractable, doomed.  Today we are reminded of the importance of the weeping of the women of Joppa as they allow their grief to break open their hearts, to break open our hearts, and to call us to attention.

And there is indeed much grief around – the death of a dear leader, the pummelling by bombs of scared people in cities at war; the continuing consequences of colonialization and grim discoveries of abuse on the people of this land and others; the extinction of species in our environment and the rising of sea levels threatening human life; the ever increasing polarisation of power; the widening of income differentials where a few rich people get richer, and many poor people get poorer; situations of oppression and marginalisation where one life appears to be worth a lot more than another.

As our hearts are broken by all these situations, as we weep and feel the pain, this season of Easter reminds us that darkness is not the end but there is always light.

Light when we are willing to go where the pain is and there take our prayer, our hope, our love, our faith, faith in God who time and again can accomplish infinitely more than we can hope or imagine despite the odds, a God who out of death brings resurrection.

Whether we are called to respond to the pain of the world by chartering a bus and taking to the road, or campaigning politically in other ways; in setting up schemes that bring fairness and support the work of people near and far equitably; in developing new ways to reduce the world’s carbon footprint and respond to the climate emergency; or in providing prayerful support to the isolated and anxious; or in providing space for conversations that matter, like for instance our own ESJAG, Communitas, Queerspace, we all know that our faith compels us forward.  That the promises made at our baptisms can feel heavy but they are promises that can transform the world.

In a moment, we will restate our faith in the creeds agreed by our forebears.  Difficult as they can be sometimes, they are not simply a formula to go through, but statements that encapsulate the Christian hope.

We believe that Jesus rose again, and we know that this has transformed the world, and with our faithful response, continues to do so, one person at a time.  Amen

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