The six weeks of Lent is a journey we travel together and with God and towards the world. From Ash Wednesday we move through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday travelling from human frailty into the glory of God and the triumph over death on Easter Day.
You will know that many struggle with the journey through the Passion. Some do not want to go there – the pain resonates too much with their own. For others it is overwhelming to face not just the consequence of their own sin but that of others and this Holy Week we walk with the bereaved, wounded, and homeless in Ukraine.
You will have those who worship with you on Palm Sunday for the Hosannas and will be back in church on Sunday morning for the Alleluias without making the journey in between. But there is no joy without taking up the cross daily to follow Jesus and this requires us to walk the road of Holy Week. We hold the cross and resurrection together as God’s people, journeying together as people of the way. And in part we do this by telling and retelling the story of the passion and resurrection.
In Hebrew Scripture, we see the telling and retelling of the stories which belong to a community of faith. As God’s people journeyed from slavery and exile in Egypt through the wilderness then on into freedom in the Promised Land, they would remember. Whilst in exile they would tell and retell their stories of the time before exile, to sustain them and to point them forward towards hope. In exile they needed to remember who they were in order to remember who God was for them, and his generosity and grace. Their continuation as a community was often due to this retelling.
What is important in telling and retelling in scripture is that people remembered not to stay in the past or even in the present, but instead to use their retelling to help them journey forward. They remembered what God had done and brought that remembering into the reality of the present to bring hope and life for the future. We are reminded that he will give to us a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Biblical images of journeys illustrate the faith, trust and dependence that has been an abiding feature of the people of God. To journey is to be uprooted, it is an image of transition – to journey with God ultimately means being transformed from glory into glory. Between promise and fulfilment lies a life of journey marked by trial, uncertainty and dislocation from the world. A life of dependence on God by those who live in the tension between promise and fulfillment.
As we journey out of the pandemic the patriarchs remind us that to look back is to remember who God was for us and who he is for us and not long to go back – because we can’t – but to look forward in hope. To remember that he was sent to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; and to comfort all who mourn.
The challenge for us is not to look back and long for life before the pandemic but rather to remind ourselves who God was for us, because that is who he is for us – and the God who called us is faithful. Don’t long for the congregations you had and the activities you couldn’t sustain and can’t begin again but rather remember who God is for you and look forward as people of hope discerning who God is calling us to be.
After the women had been to the tomb on that first Easter morning and found it empty, Luke tells us that two disciples were journeying to Emmaus in what must have felt like a loss-filled wilderness experience.
But what where they doing as they walked that road? They were retelling the story of all that had just happened in Jerusalem, and when Jesus walked with them and they still did not recognize him, he helped them to see the hope in the remembered story despite the evidence. He encouraged them to look forward, and as they did, they later recognised his risen presence with them in the breaking of bread.
Part of my story over the last four years has been the people and priests of the Diocese of London and I speak of that story with joy and of how you have prayed with the suffering, how you have sung songs of praise with the cheerful, how you have anointed the sick in the name of the Lord, fed the hungry and sat alongside those who have wept. In doing this you have put flesh on the love of Christ.
I thank God for each of you today. I thank God for all of the ministry which has been offered, much of it unseen.
But every single one of us knows we have an immense challenge still ahead of us: to regather the Church lovingly and steadily through pastoral care and the ministries of word and sacrament and to bring the good news of the gospel to those who have yet to hear following the commission of Jesus Christ. In the words of the Old Testament reading to build up the ancient ruins, to raise up the former devastations and to repair the ruined cities. In doing so to offer healing to the world, symbolised by these oils, which we bless and send out today.
We are called to invite those who are hungry and thirsty to come and eat. To call the whole of this hurting world, every person in creation, to lift up their hearts to God’s love and grace and healing. To be His church which is both pastoral and missionary.
Richard Carter in his book ‘The City is my Monastery’ (Canterbury Press 2019) writes about how wary we are of trusting and cynical of putting our trust in anything beyond human power or control. He reflects how we often are bent over, looking down at where our feet may slip or fall, so that we are unable to look up and trust in the presence of God. He tells in his book how Peter Matthiessen describes a scene of Sherpas walking along a narrow ledge in the Himalayas. There the cliff face rises on one side and there is a sheer drop on the other. The Sherpas walk with their heads held high, heads up and poised and gliding along the path. Unlike Peter who bent over his feet fearing each step. He writes that it is our clinging which is our death.
Richard reflects this journey in his poem: Holding fast and letting go with which I will finish:
The less longing, the more presence
The less we bang on the door, the more it opens for us
The less we demand, the more we see the beauty of the gift
The less we expect, the more the joy of surprise
The more selfless, the more self
Clamorous need shuts us off from the needed
‘It is our clinging which is our death.’
The less we cling, the more we embrace
The less we fear, the more we love
All joy reminds us
It is not a procession but leads us onwards
Our love is a taste of things to come
Feel the beauty of balance
A breathing out
A breathing in
a shared breath
A letting go so that we may be held forever.
(The City is my Monastery By Richard Carter Canterbury Press 2019 Page 234)