Farewell sermon of the Bishop of Liverpool – February 2022

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Preached in Liverpool Cathedral at the farewell service of the eighth Bishop of Liverpool, February 12 2022.

So there’s this door.

It’s a simple door but it’s well made, because it was made by a carpenter. The guy who made it is a poor man, but he’s generous. He’s given one to each of us, to open and close as we wish. He’s given one to you. 

It’s a door made for people who come and go, who come in and go out, who come out and go in. Listen! The poor carpenter stands at the door and knocks. If you hear his voice and open the door, he will come in to you and eat with you, and you with him.

For Christians the Bible comes to us, and God’s voice in the Bible. I didn’t choose the readings today. They came to me. They are from those set by our lectionary for this evening. In those readings, this comes to you:

In the Psalm it says: “The King’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold.” (Psalm 45:14)

And in second Chronicles, Solomon says, “Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people”. (2 Chronicles 1:10)

And in John’s Gospel the disciples say to Jesus, “Now you are speaking plainly”. (John 16:29)

For Christians the world comes to us, and God’s love in the world, the world God so loved. We don’t choose the world today. The things we face come to us. If you open the door you’ll see them. Glory and love and joy. Poverty and pain and prejudice. Minorities pushed to the side. People frightened of difference. Exclusion and ignoring and hurt. Violence and damage and death.

And the Son of God sees it all. He sees us all, with our thin arms held out to the bare tree, wanting to live more abundantly. Let me go there, he says.

In this world the poor carpenter has given you a door, so that if you wish you can go in and come out before this people. Come in to the glorious presence of God who loves you. Go out to the disturbing presence of the world that God loves as well as you. 

Open the door: come in. The Son of God has prepared a place for you, you are the King’s child, all glorious within. Go out; speak plainly of Jesus and of justice. Go out and come in through the door, with the wisdom and knowledge God gives.

God has given you a door that closes, so you can go into your room and shut the door and pray to God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will give the reward, God’s real presence and God’s blessing. It’s a door for closing so that you may dwell within and know yourself to be all glorious, robed in wrought gold, clothed in bright raiment of needle-work, seeing yourself as God sees you.  

But the Son of God goes out and comes in. And before He comes in, He knocks. And the door is not a door for closing when the poor carpenter knocks. Because it’s only if you hear his voice and open the door, that he will come in to you and eat with you, and you with him. 

And do you know what? He will not come in alone. He will bring his friends with him, they will all come crowding in, to the table that the poor carpenter made, the table which reaches into your own room, your own heart. And at that table you will sit with the ones who were shut out, and who are now included, as you have been included, all coming as they are, all robed in bright raiment of needle-work, all glorious together.

This line of scripture has lived within me for forty-two years: “The King’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold”. The first time I heard anyone preach it was in Sheffield in 1980, at the installation of David Lunn, Bishop Pete’s predecessor as Bishop there, now three bishops ago. I have never forgotten it. Bishop David, whom I knew as a curate, used the text to lift the heart of his Diocese. He proclaimed to a poor Northern Diocese, to the Sheffield Diocese, that God saw them as precious – glorious and richly dressed, within. 

And I proclaim that to you today, to this poor Northern Diocese, this Diocese which does not seek to be at the top of the Church but which has always sought to be at the front of God’s mission. 

As COVID continues to beset us, as the church is pushed to the edge, as we work and pray and discern to find a way to be God’s people in a new world, to make ourselves fit for the mission to which we are called, I remind you, you are all glorious within. God loves you. The King desires your beauty.

And I give you a charge today. I charge you to live in the security that comes from knowing that God loves you as you are, for your beauty. I charge you to remind one another that God sees you dressed in wrought gold, in bright raiment of needle-work. 

That is the same God who stands at the door and knocks, and in the security God gives you, you need not be afraid. You can open the door to Christ and to Christ’s friends, and welcome them all, and eat with them. 

The poor carpenter will always bring his friends along. Among his friends will be those you would rather keep out. But the door was made by the poor carpenter, and it opens very wide, and it has a special threshold.

The world knows about thresholds. If you go on the Screwfix website it will tell you about the world’s thresholds. It says “door thresholds are there to stop draughts and to protect against the elements such as rain and wet and cold weather from entering the indoor environment”. Screwfix thresholds are made to exclude elements. 

But the poor carpenter’s threshold is not there to exclude any element. It is there to help you welcome and bless. It is not a step. It is like the ground around the bare tree on the bare hill where the poor carpenter died. No one is special at that threshold, and no one is excluded. All you need do is hold out your thin arms.

In one of his books John Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool, pointed to St Augustine who said this: “When Christ came forth from the Father, He so came into the world as never to leave the Father; and He so left the world and went unto the Father as never to leave the world.” 

The gap between heaven and earth is healed in Jesus Christ. The threshold between heaven and earth is made smooth, and the door is opened. Heaven on earth in heaven, connected. 

Jesus comes from the Father and brings the fulness of God with him; all of it. Jesus goes to the Father and he takes his friends with him; all of them, across the threshold and through the door, into glory.

Here’s another charge, then, from your bishop. Stand at the door God made, the door you open as the carpenter knocks. Stand at the open door and speak for the excluded at the threshold. Stand there and welcome them in.

If you do that, if you stand there and welcome the excluded, you may be open to misunderstanding and to accusation and to struggle. But you need not be afraid. You are all glorious within; your raiment is of wrought gold and bright needle-work, rich and shining, because you are clothed by God. You’re clothed by grace.

In today’s reading Jesus says, I came and went. I came from the Father and have come into the world; again I am leaving the world and am going to the Father. And he says, I will tell you plainly of the Father.

That word, the word translated “plainly”, in the language of the Bible is parresía. His Holiness Pope Francis has commended this word. He has frequently said that only a church marked by parresía, by plain speech, by truthful speech, is a church worth having, and I agree with him. Parresía is the Bible’s word, it’s the Pope’s word, it’s the very the word on which I spoke at our clergy retreat day last year, and it’s the word that the lectionary has given me today. 

It points to a way of speaking, and a way of being. You can see people who live that way. In the life of a man like Desmond Tutu, the greatest Anglican bishop of our times, you see one who lived that way.

In the spirit of this word and of those who live it, I invite you to walk this same way. Speak plainly. Fudge is sweet; but it’s not a nourishing food. Don’t just talk about God’s love if God’s love is not all you mean. Don’t offer love unconditionally if later on there are conditions. Say what you think, and do what you say. Speak plainly and act plainly. May you be a people marked by truthful speech, even as truthful speech in this nation is respected less and less.

So there’s this door and you stand near it, all glorious within. And you hear the carpenter, knocking on the door, and on the other side of the door you hear the murmur of his friends. Will you open the door, and face the draught and the rain so that he and the others may come in? I hope so. If it opens, open it.

In this Diocese of Liverpool we say, we’re asking God for a bigger church to make a bigger difference, and we say “more people knowing Jesus, more justice in the world”. That’s the swinging of the door, that’s the breath of the Church. 

As Solomon did we ask for wisdom to come in and to go out. Wisdom for the inner journey and the outer journey. We close the door, we open the door; we breathe in Jesus, and breathe out justice. 

“To make an option for the poor,” Gustavo Gutierrez said, “is to make an option for Jesus.” And that has been Liverpool’s choice, and the choice of its bishops for half a century. Of Bp David who wrote of the Bias to the Poor. Of Bp James who wrote of Justice for Christ’s Sake. In that tradition I have sought to stand. This going in and coming out. This breath of the Church.

As we breathe we adore our Lord. We say to our Lord and our God, all your garments are anointed with myrrh and aloes and cassia and you are anointed with gladness above your fellows. We say to our Lord and our God, it is your joy that is our strength. And God clothes us with wrought gold and with bright beauty of needle-work, with fragrance and joy, no matter what we wear on the outside. 

Some of us wear bright beauty on the outside, as I did when I was clothed with gold and with raiment of needle-work when I entered this church those years ago. I have worn this bright beautiful raiment on behalf of all of you, as a sign that we are all glorious, as God loves and as God gives. 

But wearing bright clothes, inhabiting a role, is something done for a season. It’s a brief outward sign of a lasting inward grace. And the day has come when I must lay the bright clothes down, as the day will come when you must lay down what you in your turn have been given. 

And when that day comes, when you are divested of your bright and beautiful raiment, and when it falls to you to go out in simple silence as you came in, I invite you again to hold fast to this truth, that you remain all glorious within. The love of God is what has made you beautiful and this love will never leave you, not in this age, not in the age to come. 

And in the strength of that unfailing love I invite you again to open the door and to welcome your poor and lovely Lord, and all the unlovely poor ones he brings with him, to sit at the table with them, to listen to them, to make room for them, speaking plain words of thanks, and of truth, and of advocacy and of love to defend them and to bless them. 

And I promise you that through them and with them and in them you will be blessing and worshipping our incarnate God, the poor carpenter, the one who enters your life through the door he made, the one who sits beside you at the table he made, the one you love, the one we love, the One who is love.

Jesus, may your name be first and last in all we say and do; and draw us to your Father in the power of the Spirit. Bring justice to victory. We ask this in your name, Jesus.