On Friday we welcomed members of the Muslim community, representatives of other faiths and civic dignitaries to an Iftar meal, the breaking of the Muslim fast during Ramadan. The event took place outside the west end of the cathedral on the green. As predicted it has drawn a bit of fire from some who are either angry or upset about this. Some thought we had lost our minds in allowing this and the Muslims were being insensitive, though they were there at our invitation and welcomed by the Dean. For some it presses buttons around inclusion and integration. Would Muslims welcome us to celebrate Easter outside their mosque? It is not quite the same thing. The party was a community event for all, though clearly with the Ramadan celebration it carries a narrative around their prophet Muhammad that is not ours. So there are legitimate cautions around this, but there are also bridges and hands of hospitality which proclaim love and friendship. One of the Imams quoted Bishop Michael Curry from his high energy Royal Wedding sermon when he spoke about the transforming power of love. What’s not to like?
Later today we will welcome 900 fairies outside the cathedral. Life here is varied to say the least. This is an attempt to beat the world record for the number of people dressed as fairies in one place and of course 900 is the iconic number this year as we celebrate our Christian heritage here. Fairies do not appear in the Bible, but we are again offering hospitality to a cause that aims to promote compassion, generosity and wishing the best for people. Anna’s Hope, the charity, was set up in memory of a 3-year-old girl who died tragically of a brain tumour. She loved to dress up as a fairy, as many small girls do, and so this carries her childlike delight in a magical world where all is possible and good triumphs over evil. The good fairy godmother of pantomime and Disney cartoons is there to protect and promote wellbeing. It is a dream of things being better in the transforming power of love. What’s not to like?
Celebrating 900 years here takes us back to our roots and those are set firmly in the Benedictine Rule that the monks here followed. One of the guiding principles of this was and continues to be hospitality to all who come. As the Rule of St Benedict says, ‘Let all who come be received as though they were Christ’ (Chapter 53). We are to greet them with love, honour and blessing in the name of Christ and we do that to all. Every event begins with a prayer, which one of us leads. And the Dean on Friday used my 900th anniversary prayer to welcome the Muslim community and others who had come to be together as they broke their fast, to delight in the transforming power of love. It is a prayer that talks of awe and wonder, new life, love and care for all.
There are differences in how we celebrate and the story we tell, and these matter. We don’t try to pretend that we are not really Christian and our Muslim brothers and sisters would not want us to do that. In fact I find contact with them reminds me to be confident in my faith as they are confident in theirs. It is when we are confident that we are better able to greet with hospitality and love and welcome. Confidence and commitment breeds hospitality and enables us to be generous because it is not threatened by the others existing. So to receive those who come as though they were Christ is to be firmly rooted in the heritage of our faith, the gospel of love, new life and transformation which this ancient holy place sings at the top of its voice – at the top of our voices. So be under no illusions we do not forget who we are and with George Pace’s enormous gilded crucifix hanging in the centre of the nave here, with its Latin tag that the cross is the still place while the world turns, we’d have to screw up our eyes pretty tightly to try to do that. The transforming power of God’s self-giving, hospitable and sacrificial love shines out to all who come here.
Our gospel reading had its critics and those who were concerned that Jesus had lost his mind (Mark 3:20-end). This follows on from last week’s reading where Jesus breaks the Sabbath restrictions on preparing food by helping himself and his disciples to a snack while walking through a cornfield. A strict interpretation of the Hebrew religious law would not prepare food during the Sabbath rest. And Jesus responds to his critics by breaking this law further in healing the man with a withered hand. Again that could be construed to have been work and the surgery should have been shut. This man Jesus doesn’t seem to know when to stop! He clearly must have a demon – which may seem quite a leap in logic to us, but it shows how off-beam they thought he was being. Jesus restores rationality by pointing out that Satan can’t destroy Satan otherwise he destroys himself! It’s a nonsense claim that they are making. In effect he replies that they need to get a grip, or the more diplomatic among us might suggest they get this into perspective, restore balance. (But in my head I prefer ‘get a grip’.)
And Jesus goes on to reflect on what it means to be part of his family. Sometimes I think he puts things in a deliberately provocative manner to get the attention and make us think. So he is not being insulting to his mother and siblings, but using a Rabbinic shock tactic to say ‘listen up’. He says something which makes them say ‘what?’. And then goes on, ‘Now you are paying attention here comes the real point’. ‘If you do the will of God you are not merely disciples or followers, but my closest relations – even my mother, and my brothers and my sisters.’ And ‘sisters’ is in the Greek, so the embracing goes further than just a band of brothers – everyone is included here, which is a quiet radical inclusion, more transforming power of love. In years past welcoming Roman Catholics to celebrate a Mass here would have been radical, and we did that the other day too. We too just don’t seem to know when to stop because the radical love we see in Jesus doesn’t either.
Doing the will God being a mother or brother or sister has echoes or hints and is extended in other passages and themes in the Bible. St Paul had to struggle with how to be hospitable and accept hospitality. A question he wrestled with in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 8) was whether or not to eat food sacrificed under other religious practices. Halal wasn’t around then, but it is relevant. He argued that it was important to remember who you are and not pretend that what is important to you is not important. So if you are asked to affirm something that goes against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or denies him, then gently decline. But food is food, so don’t over worry. Hospitality is good and to be delighted in. And on Friday the hospitality was the overriding presence. Later in Mark’s gospel (9:38-41) Jesus talks about those who are with us being not against us. When we are building bridges, strengthening bonds and looking to proclaim light and hope in a world of darkness and hatred, then welcome all friends wherever you can find them. Everyone who works for good is not against you! When we welcome and share hospitality and fellowship, we have an opportunity to relate, to engage, to grow in understanding. There is an opportunity to testify to the hope within us. If we erect barriers and refuse to meet, then there is no discussion or opportunity to grow.
Crucial here is the remembering who we are and not denying the light and hope of Jesus Christ. And have confidence in God who came among us in Jesus Christ. So anyone who shines light and hope is connecting at a deep level with the love of God let loose in the world. For as we remind ourselves at every wedding, “God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16). So there is a deep point at which we connect and share a common currency as fellow, beloved creatures, bearing the image of our creator. This is hardwired into creation and it comes from God. So we can join with others. But, and there is a ‘but’, don’t fall into the trap of thinking everyone thinks the same really because narratives matter and they carry all sorts of implications and allusions. And that is where dialogue becomes real when we tease out together just what that means. Sometimes, though, it takes someone who comes at things from a different faith tradition to remind us of aspects of our faith we have forgotten – in this case fasting to delight in goodness, to experience what it is to be hungry to truly empathise with the poor, the importance of simple and humble living, and also of being thankful. Such dialogue won’t happen though unless barriers come down, hospitality is shared and the hands of friendship extended.
So we welcome lots of different people into this place, just as has happened through the west doors for 900 years – and on this site for much longer. They have been and are a diverse group with different backgrounds, outlooks and identities. Some agree, some don’t agree. But all of us are welcomed by the true host, who is enthroned in gold, suspended on the cross from the ceiling, showing just how much love matters and costs. At the heart of this service is the sharing of a meal, in bread and wine, as we break fast together and celebrate the foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people. When we affirm this love, this transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ extending to everyone, we become Christ’s mother and brother and sister. It’s a big house here, for a big family.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 10th June 2018