Canon Michael Rawson, Interim Dean
The Interim Dean's sermon preached at the Choral Eucharist on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity.
Two years ago when I was preparing for surgery for prostate cancer, Susanne my spiritual director gave me a small icon to help accompany me on what felt like an uncertain journey. It’s a copy of an 8th century Coptic icon of Christ with Abbot Menas. It’s a beautiful icon that I’ve known and loved for many years, having seen the original in the Louvre Museum. Jesus and the abbot stand side by side as though they are walking together and companions, with Jesus’ arm around the shoulder of Menas. When I found it hard to pray, that icon reminded me of God’s untiring love for each of us and a reminder that no matter what we have to face in life we never do it alone. The arm of Christ is always around our shoulder.
This week we have very good friends from Sweden staying with us. When they arrived and opened their suitcases they brough two gifts: a bottle of Oslo Gin which was much appreciated and Elinor had written that same Icon of Friendship for me. It’s so beautiful and something that I will treasure always. For those of you who receive the weekly newsletter or follow the Cathedral’s social media you will have already seen Elinor’s icon. Here it is and I will place it on a table by the altar steps for when you come to receive Communion.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing and I received this icon as I was reflecting on this morning’s gospel reading.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ There is a saying that you can’t do right for doing wrong and that seems to be how Jesus feels in this gospel reading, where the religious leaders are pointing the finger, ‘John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
John the Baptist was misunderstood by the people and so was Jesus. The religious elite lived comfortable and privileged lives, observing the Law with its detailed range of rules and regulations which they insisted on others strictly following too. They laid heavy and cumbersome burdens on the shoulders of others and had no compassion for those who collapsed under the strain. Contrast that with Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, who freely chose to pitch his tent among humanity and share our experience on our pilgrimage of life.
Jesus reveals the transforming love of God to those who in the world’s eyes are insignificant, overlooked and burdened. He is the fulfilment of the prophecy we heard about in the first reading, the messenger who brings peace and relief to the poor and humble. People came to Jesus from all quarters bringing their burdens of sickness and pain and misery. All of them had their loads lightened after encountering him; his presence in their lives brought them peace and hope. By coming into the presence of Jesus, by feeling his arm of love around their shoulder, people were changed, their lives transformed, and their burdens lifted. His presence brought calm and peace and hope to their lives.
As a Cathedral community we are living in a period of change and discernment. Last week we celebrated the huge contribution that Andrew and Mark have brought to this place over the past twenty four years and there will always be a place for them in our hearts.
We now look forward to an exciting future with the arrival of Kathryn our new Precentor in September and God-willing a new Dean at the end of the year. It’s a time of mixed emotions: of thanksgiving and sadness as we say farewell together with uncertainty and excitement as we turn our eyes to the future. I firmly believe that we are in a strong and confident position as we begin this new stage in our life together and that we will flourish and thrive in the coming months. For this to happen we need to be gentle with one another, listening to the needs of each other and imitating that Icon of Friendship, with our arms metaphorically around each other’s shoulders. Each of us will react differently to our situation and there is no right way to feel. Jesus, our companion, puts an arm around each one of us, listening to our stories and gently accompanying us into God’s bright and hope-filled future for us. However you are feeling today, whether you need the arms of Christ around you or you feel strong enough to do the same for others, I hope you will find the Icon of Friendship as helpful as I have over many years.
We also need to look beyond the needs of our Cathedral community and ourselves to others. I wonder how we can make real the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’?
How might we be Christ to others in sharing their load or lifting burdens from them?
It seems to me that the church continues to lay burdens on people rather than easing their load. We wait with anticipation to see what proposals the House of Bishops presents to General Synod this weekend and in November to honour and respect our LGBTQi+ siblings. On a more positive note it is encouraging that the church has stood up to the government with the Immigration Bill in seeking to uphold the rights of those arriving on our shores, especially from vulnerable groups, and honoring the divine image in the faces of refugees. Just the other week we hosted the 75th Anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush generation, seeking to learn lessons and repenting of past and present wrongs and celebrating the amazing diversity of our city and nation. Through local foodbanks, the Borough Food Cooperative and the Robes project we seek to lift the struggles and burdens of everyday life from the most vulnerable members of our local community. These are just a few examples of what we can and should be doing as a church. And there are so many other things that we can be doing as individuals too.
As we move forward into the future together may we commit ourselves to the worship of God in this place and to serve those around us, giving them rest and hope in the arms of Christ who is the companion on our way.