Sunday, 9 March 2008

Passion Sunday at St Marys.

This week has been very busy with a course in Manchester then preaching for the Mass at Saint Mary's this morning. St Marys was once one of the biggest parishes in Manchester, the Rector of which enjoyed a very confortable life indeed, and controlled parishes from Manchester to Oldham. It is still one of the more beautiful and ancient Churches in Manchester. It was a great pleasure to preach in their fine pulpit built half way up the rood screen and to stand by the High Altar under their beautiful stained glass. There have been sermons every Sunday in Lent on the Acts of Mercy from Matthews Gospel, mine was 'I was naked and you clothed me'. Here it is...
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I am not particularly bothered about nakedness. I will happily sit in the Turkish baths in Harrogate as the Lord made me, reading the guardian and chatting about the weather with nothing but a flannel to wipe my face. I have no hang ups about this, nor do I have nightmares that I am shopping in Tesco suddenly to discover that I am naked. I once disported myself around in the German snow naked before running in to a log cabin for a sauna and found the whole thing exhilarating. However, much as I have no inhibitions about being naked in appropriate places, I have no wish to be inappropriately naked. I would hate to be stripped naked and tied to a lamppost for example on a stag night as someone once was near my house when I lived in London. I do not belong to any nudist societies nor do I hanker after a more liberated society which would make clothing unnecessary. I am fond of my Italian vestments and I am comfortable in my cassock. If I am naked, it takes more time to choose what to wear and remove the articles from my wardrobe and drawers than it does to actually put them on.

So why have I come here today to talk to you about being naked and then being clothed? Of the last things in Matthews Gospel with which you will now be familiar, this is the simplest to understand, I think. We all have ample opportunities for this, be it clothing a baby or small child after a bath, or sending our old clothes to charity or taking a more esoteric slant, doing our best by one another, acting humanely and with kindness. But we do not need Jesus to tell us not to hurt each other, do we. We do not need Jesus to tell us to be full of compassion, for all we need to do is to think ‘how would I like people to act towards me in this situation?’ and then do that for others. This compassion is hardwired into our soul as flying south for the winter is for geese, it compels us and if we do not heed the call it will only lead to being abandoned by the flock and left behind.

So how is it that we clothe the naked? What does Jesus teach us which is not easily brought down to a lowest common denominator of fluffiness and cartoons of a man in a big gown smiling at people?

Since the beginning of time, from when the spirit of God moved over the waters and God first placed his beloved children on earth, since we first drew breath as a race, we have yearned for that which we do not know, we have yearned for God. Even though we think that we do not know him, our lives and world are ordered towards him and we orient our souls towards his undeniable pull. That force which shows us the true, pure love between our father and his flock. To show his love for us God sent word through His prophets, so readying the chosen people for His coming, these people who expected a mighty war leader and who, in the end, got salvation and life in Him. He was born of the virgin in poverty, naked and vulnerable, a man like us in all things but sin. As he lived his life, wandering the land, breaking social taboos and bringing his twelve men to him as his disciples and to serve as his first priests, he became beloved of men and women and here in today’s Gospel we see the summation of His life so far. Mary and Martha chide him for not being there when Lazarus died, for if he had, they say, ‘he would not have died’. What faith! They had seen enough of him by this point to know that he was truly the Son of God and he walks into this arena to demonstrate His saving love.
The god for whom the people had been waiting since he led his people out of Egypt, the god of Jacob and joseph, the god of Isaiah, who saw the flaming wheel, this god, made man, weeps for his beloved friend and shouts out to him to come out of his tomb. He demonstrates his power over life and death finally, for his friends and his family, because he loves them. Lazarus comes out, of course, clothed in the rags of the grave, almost naked in the sight of his friend and his Lord, with no shame, but only joy.

Jesus performs this miracle just before he rides into Jerusalem. He goes away now, to a quiet place to be with his heavenly Father and to prepare himself for the trials to come, which we will live with him over Holy Week.

Over the next fortnight, we are all to be changed. We are all called to follow the way of the cross, to shoulder the burden with Christ as he carries his own instrument of death up Calvary until, reaching the place of his death, with what agony after being stripped and beaten for our sins, for that is what he is beaten for, because he loves us enough to show us the way to salvation, reaching that place he is stripped once more and laid down on the cross as the sacrificial lamb. This is where He changes from Jesus son of Joseph, the troublemaker, to what He promised at the last supper. This is where He becomes, visibly and clearly, the naked sacrificial Lamb of God, who is to take away the sins of the world. He is becoming clearly the Word made Flesh, and although the storm clouds are gathering and the gates of Heaven are surely straining at the seams, as the banners of darkness ready themselves for a final assault on Him, we know that the light of the world is being prepared for His most glorious shining. The darkness, even here, on the hill at the end of time, as the clouds gather and the veil between eternity and us almost rips, even here, the darkness is not able to master the light. The Lamb of God is stripped and laid down and we, spiritually here on the holy mountain, we also must change here. This is where we all are stripped down to our most elemental figure, that of body, soul, salvation and damnation. This is where He chose the sacrificial path of life, in obedience to his own commandment to hold Love paramount. This is where we must make that decision as well, or we may as well turn back, walk down the hill, go into the tavern and sit forever at the end of the bar, a perpetual observer and malcontent.

This is where he and we are naked, stripped of any earthly pride we may have because all that matters now is the salvation of the world and the consummation of the great act. This is how it is to be able to clothe the stranger. To have such understanding of ourselves that we know that Christ, the king of kings but the stranger to the strangers, the naked, stripped king of love, is to be sacrificed for us. And before that blessed day, when early in the morning of the third day he is to rise and break the curse of death, to exchange the kiss of death for the kiss of life, before that, he calls us to follow him. And that means you and me, here in your church and my church. This is where to start. This building stands for the worship of God, of he who stands before us naked by the cross, ready to die for your sins. To worship him without following his example is futile, to use the church as a place of propaganda, or power, of ego , of catching up with your neighbours, of gossip and position is to withhold your help from the least of all strangers, and that is to withhold your help from the Lord. Week after week you come here naked in the sight of God and others come here, vulnerable, naked in their minds, abused and violated, out there is as much hurt as was encountered on Calvary tree, out there and in here is as much potential for forging a better life for others, to live again in Christ, as there was to st john and our lady as Christ commended them into each others care in one of his last acts before he died.

Before he died, naked on the cross for our sakes, he looked after those who were around him. He turned to the thieves and forgave them and to his friends and made sure they would be looked after. If people are suffering here then we are not clothing the naked and this is not the acceptable year of God. If people bear guilt and are not absolved, if people bear the weight of oppression and are not relieved, then we do not clothe them and this is not the house of God. If we do not strive for equality and justice, peace and an end to warfare, then this is not a community of God.

This Passiontide, walk up the holy mountain and look around you with love and compassion. Do not fall into the trap of ego. Look to Christ for your example and look to the cross and early in the morning, on the third day of the week as the sun rises you will be ready to see Christ as he truly is, in a place fit for his service. Clothe yourself in penitence for the Lord is coming, clothe others in Joy and liberation from the word of the Lord and you will be his sons and daughters and be numbered among the sheep and not the goats..

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.