Isaiah 43.1-7; Romans 8.35-end
The Very Rev'd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark
Can you remember the days before mobile phones, when you didn’t have this thing in your pocket which means you can be contacted at any time, any where, that gives you access to everything, that replaces maps, bankcards, books, camera, every possible thing. Can you remember what it was like? And of course, when we don’t want to call we can text.
Carol Ann Duffy, the former Poet Laureate wrote a lovely poem called ‘Text’.
I tend the mobile now
like an injured bird
We text, text, text
our significant words.
I re-read your first,
your second, your third,
look for your small xx,
The codes we send
arrive with a broken chord.
I try to picture your hands,
their image is blurred.
Nothing my thumbs press
will ever be heard.
But long before text I remember buying my first telephone answering machine, setting it up, recording the message, switching it on as I left the vicarage and getting excited when it was blinking at me on my return, with a number there registering the messages, 1, 2, 3 4 – often garbled messages from people who didn’t quite know how to use it. Can you remember what it was like?
I don’t know how it happened, but I was in my vicarage in Leeds on two occasions when the phone rang and I was there to take the call. They were two calls that changed my life.
The first was from the Vicar of Leeds! That was a grand ecclesiastical title if ever there was one. The then vicar was someone called Stephen Oliver, who ended up first in that barn of a place across the river as Precentor and then as Bishop of Stepney. But he rang me because – and it’s a long story – when the rebuilt Leeds Parish Church was being rededicated in the mid-19th century under the leadership of the great Dr Hook, the then Bishop of New Jersey was present. The current bishop of New Jersey had contacted Stephen because of this historic link. Did he know of a priest who’d like to come on placement to his diocese, all expenses paid? ‘Would you like to?’ he asked me. ‘Yes’, I said without much hesitation – I’ve always suffered from a bit of wanderlust as many of you know!
The second was from a friend, Rob Marshall, who you often hear on Saturday on Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’. He’d worked with Bishop Roy Williamson in Bradford. Roy was now in Southwark and was looking for a new Chaplain. ‘Do you know of someone from the catholic tradition who might make a good chaplain?’, Bishop Roy asked him. Rob thought of me, rang me and asked me to ring the Bishop of Southwark – which I did.
My friends, always answer the phone. Angels can be on the other end! Two calls, two massive life changes – the opportunity to work in the States and in doing so to gain what I can only describe as my second family; and the opportunity to move to the Diocese of Southwark and to end up in this most wonderful place and this incredible role.
‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah. However, the call arrives, the call comes, and we shouldn’t avoid it, we can’t afford to miss it. God calls you because God knows you and God loves you. God knows you by name, knows you intimately because creating you was one of the proudest moments for God – and when God calls you, because God knows you, God will never abandon you but see you through fire and flood.
St Paul knows this, and this is the point he’s making to the Christians in Rome. He says that nothing
‘will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
‘Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation’ none of it can separate you from God, because of the love of God that we see in Jesus.
There’s something very special about the Diocese of Southwark. We’re still young in ecclesiastical terms – we may be fast approaching our 120th birthday but we’re still a teenager at heart. We still have that passion for doing the right thing – we may not always agree what the right thing is – but we want to engage with the issues of the day, with honesty and integrity and with a real belief that In God all things will be well – even for those who society excludes, even for those who are too often excluded by the church.
My experience in Camden, New Jersey, prepared me to come here. The church I worked at had a feeding programme, ran a food bank, was dealing with people on the edge on the other bank of the Delaware from the bright lights of the centre of Philadelphia that stood at the end of Market Street where the church was sited – but a river separated us.
Crime levels were the worst in the States at the time, drugs and prostitution, homelessness, grinding poverty, AIDS. I had seen nothing like it but the church was engaging with it all, with every bit of it, with people facing their own versions of fire and flood.
What I love about Southwark is that the church here engages with it all – and we’ve caught up with much of what was happening there almost thirty years ago. We know that none of this separates us from the love of God, because we find God, encounter God in all these edge places of society, that when we want to find Jesus we’re most likely to find him where the fringe of his garment is being caught hold of by the most needy, the most excluded, and where those blessed with wealth stand behind those who have the greatest need.
I want to tell you a very personal story that for me typifies what this diocese – at its best - is about. I had come down for my second meeting with Bishop Roy, it was crunch decision time for both of us, could he work with me, could I work with him?
I was a freehold vicar, so very secure in Leeds; I didn’t need to come down here. He was a northern Irish, Belfast-born evangelical Anglican, did he really need the likes of me. He took me to lunch in Wimbledon village. As we left I knew I had to be honest, the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass him.
I said to him, ‘You need to know I’m gay and I have a partner.’ He stopped, put his hand on my shoulder and looked straight at me. ‘Is that a problem for you because it isn’t a problem for me.’ It was the kindest thing that I think had ever been said to me, in the church. I knew I would be at home in Southwark, and safe, and loved for who I was, for who I am.
‘You are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you’
says God – and God is saying that to you, and to me, and to every person and every part of his creation and that is the fundamental thing that this ever young, passionate, vibrant, diverse, eclectic, exciting, difficult, demanding, annoying, wonderful Diocese of Southwark is all about.
Nothing about you can separate you from the love of God, for you are precious and honoured and named and known. There’s nothing greater to say, nothing greater to be but to be those who know it, who live it and who testify to it.
In 1961 Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the United Nations, died in a plane crash. Posthumously they gave him the Nobel Peace Prize, but he gave to us one of the simplest and most beautiful of prayers
“For all that has been, thanks, for all that will be, yes!”
Bless you and thank you and to God be the glory. Amen.