Awe and Wonder, Generosity and Hospitality

IMG_1708It feels to me that there has been a change of atmosphere around the cathedral over the past two or three months and it has come from space. Tim Peake’s space craft and exhibition has proved to be phenomenally popular, with thousands coming to see it, to ponder on what it means to be a planet in the universe and on the fragility of human beings hurtling back to earth in what looks like a burnt tin can. Just as we are getting used to the questions and wonder, which that has brought, we have a giant model of the moon hanging under the central tower. It looks much better at night when its internal lights are not competing with the sunlight. People are coming in even greater number to see it, lie under it, take fun photos of it in their hand or propping it up. Again it makes people go ‘wow’ and everyone is enjoying walking round it to examine sides of the moon not normally visible from earth.

The chaplains on duty are reporting lots of questions and conversations which touch on faith and wonder, awe and delight. This has changed the story that we are tending to tell and for the better. For a cathedral that has been through several years of trauma it is so refreshing to be able to tell a story of wonder, of awe and of the majesty of God’s creation. And the people who come are ready to talk; these two features from space are fantastic icebreakers, opening up the conversations. That has made them transformative, even if they bring pressures on paid staff and volunteers coping with numbers far in excess of those we are used to here. Every day is a major event day and so please remember those looking after our guests in your prayers, that they will have the grace and strength they need to be the public face of our hospitality and inclusive welcome.

There is also a third initiative which is and will have a transformative effect on us, but much more subtly. This is the opening up of Garden House to be a centre to work during the day with homeless people in the city. It is not providing food, it is not providing shelter – those are available elsewhere. But it is providing a space where those whose lives have become unstuck in a major way can find some grip to help them get back up again. Housing officers, foot care and haircuts, primary medical services, benefits advice and help with filling in forms are on offer. They need some computers to help with accessing online claims, job searches and registering for housing and benefits, so if anyone has access to several desktops and laptops, we could do with them. This means that the Cathedral, which has itself known what it is to become unstuck and need to find some grip again, is reaching out to help those whose lives have also hit rock bottom by making this space available. It is a pilot scheme and we have yet to see where it goes. But the compassion, the deep faith and the praying heart there, displaying Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, I believe will seep out and change, certainly challenge our priorities. This is when we really do become a place where light, joy, peace and thanksgiving are let loose.

So two stories from around the precincts which are changing the story we tell. The first is about life, the universe and everything; the big questions springing from awe and wonder. This is giving us a joyful story to tell and telling it is uplifting and rejuvenating. The second is much closer to home, it is about the grit of living in all its messiness and complexity, moments of holding on and losing grip, moments when we need to give a hand up for the most vulnerable around us. And as we bless the poor we find we are blessed right back. This was expressed well in a prayer for Christian Aid week back in May:

Holy God,

in your Kingdom

the strong need the weak,

the rich are transformed by the poor,

the fortunate are welcomed by the homeless.

Your Kingdom is built by those

who expect their God to come.

The strong need the weak, the rich are transformed by the poor, the fortunate are welcomed by the homeless.

To our readings then. The first was from the 8th century BC prophet Amos (5:6-7, 1-15). He rarely minces his words and is direct in his challenge. Turning justice into wormwood and trampling on the poor are contrasted with establishing justice and seeking good. Someone who displayed this was the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was shot while presiding at Mass in 1980. He spoke with prophetic passion against oppression, using similar challenges to Amos. He told the government troops that they were killing their fellow campesinos and to stop it. This was not received well by the ruling military junta and he was murdered to silence him. He has been remembered as a martyr in the Church of England’s calendar for over 20 years and today he will be acknowledged by our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church as he is recognized as a saint by Pope Francis. We are to live the awe and wonder that we see, the hope that is inside us. In doing this we not only become agents of transformation in the world but are ourselves transformed.

The hapless questioner in the gospel reading (Mark 10:17-31) found that seeking eternal life, to be righteous, would cost him far more than he thought. The comical image of a camel trying to get through a small space – be it a real needle or a nickname for a small gate – the point is still the same, it won’t fit. And trying to live in a way that grasps up treasures for ourselves and is mean rather than generous, hostile rather than hospitable, means we fundamentally miss the point of what living in hope and justice means. This doesn’t fit either. Those who saw blessing in terms of material goods get the shock of their lives when Jesus shows up. And when we come up with all sorts of excuses we are told ‘for God all things are possible’ for those who really live in hope and trust. Or put another way, when we are generous and sit lightly to possessions we find that we have far more than we thought we had and can make a far greater difference to others and also to ourselves.

As we ponder these things the awe and wonder was rooted in the Epistle reading from Hebrews (4:12-end). The word of God is living and active, and in Christ has made known the ultimate hope that we have. That hope spills out, won’t be contained and won’t be sidelined. Grace and mercy are given in abundance to match whatever the need. Just as the universe is beyond our calculating, this planet is blue and green, lush with life, where the moon is grey and dead, the majesty of God is awesome. The wonder of life is the glory of God.

If we are struggling with any of this the Post Communion prayer keeps the prodding going – you will find it printed on the opposite page to the gospel in the Sunday sheet. The holy mysteries of bread and wine – staple foods – are to open our eyes that we may know the way of life and walk in it without stumbling. In the context of our readings, that way of life brings challenge and hope. The eternal is to shift our perspective so that the generosity of creation is reflected in our generosity and grace. In the Collect, which we used at the beginning of the service, as we share the joys of eternal life the Spirit equips us to live it, to live the gospel of Christ.

Today, then, the story we tell in the cathedral has been changed by events bringing awe and wonder, and a project to help the poorest. As we bless them, so we are blessed right back. Hospitality receives in turn a blessing beyond money. We are being transformed in God’s grace. We are to live the awe and wonder that we see, the hope that is inside us. In doing this, we become agents of transformation in the world and find ourselves change and blessed in the process.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 14th October 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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