Here you can read the full transcript from Bishop Rachel’s Chrism Eucharist sermon, on Thursday 6 April 2023.
Readings: Revelation 1.5b-8 and Luke 7.36-50
Over these last couple of weeks I have had the privilege of being in three different women’s prisons. Each time I have left feeling such a mix of emotions – anger because so many of the women should not be there; and frustration and sadness that as the Church we are not more engaged with the stories and lives of those who end up in our criminal justice system.
And yet I also leave prisons rejoicing – and much of that is because of the chaplains and the women and men who have discovered Christ’s love and forgiveness, and their value.
Last week I sat with a group of women in the chapel in a prison in Cheshire and they told me how they had recently been affected by the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well – and they wanted me to watch a little film of them singing the song of that title, which has the words:
‘… I feel just like the woman at the well, Wondering how someone could love me, When I can’t love myself. But You want me as I am … I guess maybe that’s why grace is so amazing…’
I have no doubt that if Christ had physically walked into that room, several of them would have fallen at his feet and washed them with their tears and dried them with their hair, not least Tracey, who had come into prison for a short time for the twelfth time. She had been living on the streets and she described the effect on her when she recently arrived and a Christian prisoner showed her love, beginning by gently combing Tracey’s matted hair.
In that gathering in the chapel there were women whose offending could make it difficult for other women to sit alongside them yet, as one of the chaplains said, the very fact that those women can sit together is only because of God’s love and grace. So much grace in a world which has such little understanding; and so much judgement, and so much brokenness.
And as I walked out of that prison last week, surrounded by beautiful countryside, I found myself reflecting on that contrast of so much and so little.
Across our country, world and local communities, we are aware of those who seem to have so much and those who seem to have so little, and too often it seems that people who have so little suffer so much.
In our church communities and wider contexts we are always aware of what is scarce and lacking – whether it be money, or people to fill posts, or something else. And when it comes to church buildings, well, the so much and the so many can weigh so heavily in the face of the so little resource.
Sometimes in life that combination of so much and so little can lead to a sense of being out-of-control, and we can find ourselves in a place of fear, or blame and resentment. How do we as the Church and followers of Jesus Christ live authentically amid the challenges and struggles, yet with a different narrative which enables people of all ages and backgrounds to see through a different lens and turn up the volume on so much hope? It’s what we are confronted with in our gospel reading.
Here is a woman who is aware of so much brokenness and mess in her life, and she is moved to publicly pour out tears and expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet. So much. And her story becomes immersed in the mystery of so much mercy and forgiveness encountered in Jesus Christ.
Simon, on the other hand, who seemingly has so much in terms of material resources, he is the one with so little when it comes to his heart. He is not able to lift his eyes to the big picture, and he seems only able to operate within his own diminished frame of reference.
And into all this comes the challenge posed by Christ’s story about debt and love, and the question to Simon: ‘Now which of them will love him more?’ And Simon, (probably rather reluctantly as he perhaps begins to make the connection) answers, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’
And in that moment comes a glimmer of hope – the possibility of an expanded heart. Yet, as an onlooker, I can feel so critical of Simon. It’s so easy for me to equate Simon’s initial response with the so much of the Daily Mail headlines, and the so much of people’s Twitter feeds or Facebook pages, sometimes so full of judgement and condemnation – so often with so little wisdom and love and mercy.
Yet, it is Simon who holds a mirror to my heart and mind, and it is Simon who holds a mirror to who we too easily become as individuals and the Church.
Too often, it seems to me, we want to make everything about God fit our perspective. Perhaps we are too quick to judge each other – our different traditions or practices, and our different theological convictions. And how easy it is for us to become defensive or threatened within our church landscape of varied configuration: parish churches, chaplaincy, pioneering, Sportily, education, social enterprise, and more. We can become defensiveness in the light of that which seems threatening or challenging, even when things have the hallmarks of God’s grace, mercy and love. Our judgment can make us feel safe and less fearful and more in control. Too often, we are Simon.
But the truth is that the way of the Son of God who gave up everything cuts across all of that – so much grace, and more love than we can measure. It’s out of our control and there is nothing to fear.
Here in this diocese we are very aware of words of abundance. Those words of Jesus Christ in John 10:10 are at the heart of our LIFE vision: ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full’. And having that fullness of life naturally implies a call to pour it out. But we have nothing to pour unless we are filled again and again. I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Romans: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.’ (Romans 5:5).
In Simon’s house, we encounter Christ who is about to go to the cross and be left with so little – stripped of everything but who in truth is everything, yet Christ emptied himself of everything in coming to earth. And when those feet, anointed with oil, are nailed to a cross, the so little and the so much will powerfully meet, as the love and forgiveness and grace of God are poured out beyond our understanding.
This is the love which first compelled us, and today we recommit ourselves to Christ in our discipleship and ministry.
Thank you for the ways so many here give so much in who you are and what you do and lead. So much, not least when there are many places of so little, particularly in these times of increased cost of living.
And in all this I do also want to say thank you for the way you are engaging with the deanery strategic plans process. Yes, we need to manage our resources well and make decisions accordingly, yet the deanery plans are not rooted in fear and the ‘so little’ of scarcity, but rather in a desire to respond well to the overflowing grace, abundance and love of God that we have experienced and encountered in Jesus Christ. The process requires us to lift our eyes beyond our sometimes very internally-focused frames of reference, and paint a vision of what kingdom-of-God-transformation could look like for the people and places of our local communities. For example, what difference will our deanery plans make for vulnerable people in our communities at risk of offending?
Once we have painted a picture of transformation, then we can ask what courageous and imaginative decisions we might take to re-shape ourselves. It’s also what our LIFE Together spotlight commitments are about: Outward facing engagement which is about justice and flourishing; Our desire to encourage new and courageous ways of worshipping; Our investment in young people. And to do all this we do need to develop diverse leadership; and we do need to nurture that living-out of faith when people are sent out from gathered worship, because that daily discipleship is what will lead to so much transformation among the people and places of daily life and our local communities.
Yet, the starting place can only ever be our longing to go on receiving God’s generous love and grace, in order to pour it out.
And just before I close, I do want to remind you of your own well-being, not least in those times when you feel so poured out. I am soon going to reissue the clergy with what was sent out in 2018 and I hope it will enable fresh reflection on the rhythm of life, and the support which might be needed at particular times.
As I finish, I am reminded that those of us who are ordained were once charged with words which are apposite for all Christian leaders: ‘You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
Today, as we enter the journey of these next three days and walk to the cross and beyond to the day of resurrection, may we fall on our knees once more before our God who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end – and may we receive afresh the ‘so much’ of love, forgiveness and mercy of the one who came to serve – who was poured out, that our hearts might be continually enlarged, that we might pour out that love for the people and places of this diocese and beyond. Amen