Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church becoming a partner in the Community of the Cross of Nails. Canon Sarah Hills has travelled to Berlin to preach on this occasion, you can read the full text of her sermon below:
Sermon Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church January 2017
Baptism of Christ
Isaiah 42: 1-9 Matthew 3:13-17
‘Where hope and history rhyme’
I would like to thank you for your very warm welcome here this morning. It is a great privilege to be with you to celebrate the 30th anniversary of your becoming a partner in the Community of the Cross of Nails, and the special relationship that Coventry Cathedral shares with you. It has been particularly poignant over the last weeks as we have prayed the Litany of Reconciliation to focus our prayers here with you in Berlin, following the awful attack just outside this church. Our hearts have gone out to you all.
There is a poem by a Northern Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, a part of which I want to share with you in response to our reading this morning. It’s called ‘Doubletake’ and is part of ‘The Cure at Troy’. Here is an extract.
Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing,
The utter self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
And lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is listening
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
and hope and history rhyme.
‘That justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme’. Our reading today on what is known as the baptism of Christ in the Anglican lectionary, speaks of hope and history. And hope and history are what we commemorate today on this anniversary of your receiving the cross of nails, as a symbol of your and our joint commitment to work for peace and reconciliation, for taking note of God’s history and our history, of who and what we have been. Of whom we are in God’s kingdom, in God’s heart. In our ministry of reconciliation at Coventry cathedral we deal daily with hope and history. One of our core values in the CCN, is ‘Healing the wounds of history’. And St Michael’s House, where we deliver our reconciliation programme, bears the strapline, ‘making space for hope to flourish’. Healing the wounds of history and making space for hope. History and hope. These buildings themselves, the ruins of the old, and this beautiful new church delineate history and hope. As do the ruins and the new cathedral in Coventry. The history of bombing – here in 1943 and in Coventry in 1940 – and the destruction of the old churches, and the hope of new, transformed, reconciled life embodied in these new buildings. The many stories we hear of conflict and reconciliation, of wounding and healing, are about history and hope. These two words are easy to say. History and hope. But how do we actually live them?
How do we really give ourselves to this work of making peace and reconciliation? How do we make the words we say in church congruent with our actions when we go out through the doors at the end of the service? The start of this New Year is a time to reassess how we live. How can we, how do we take part in God’s kingdom?
The day after the bombing of Coventry cathedral, into the arena of tangled metal and emotions walked Provost Howard and said two words, ‘Father, forgive’. This was an acknowledgment that we are all in need of God’s forgiveness – victim and perpetrator alike, and so our work of reconciliation and peace began. It is equally imperative today that we respond to darkness with light; despair with hope; conflict with reconciliation. Today, we celebrate 30 years of your receiving the Cross of Nails, a sign of your commitment to work for reconciliation and peace.
Provost Howard gave Coventry and the world a prophetic and radical message. He prayed, ‘Father, forgive’. In 2017, the recent and appalling violent events here, and in Istanbul, Aleppo and elsewhere once again remind us of the depravity of which humanity is capable.
I was very struck recently by a translation by Erasmus I had never come across before of the prologue to John’s gospel. Instead of, ‘In the beginning was the word’, Erasmus translates this as ‘In the beginning was the CONVERSATION’…
In the beginning was the conversation. Exactly. Because how can we live in isolation? How can we live without dialogue? How can we live out the gospel message of reconciliation if we do not listen to each other? To God?
At its most basic, reconciliation is about conversation, about whether and how we converse, about how we do relationships. It is how we, whether we, have the conversation. We face, in the world, and in the Church, many challenges – violent conflicts abound; globalisation means we are more connected and yet struggle to really converse and understand each other; we have a multiplicity of ways of communicating through social media, twitter, blogging, and so on…but we need help to really hear each other’s stories.
I became interested in this conversation, in this attempting to live better together, in forgiveness and reconciliation firstly through my upbringing in South Africa and then Northern Ireland. I was born in South Africa, and my parents were both involved in anti-apartheid activities. We left when I was a young child. In Northern Ireland, where we moved to, I grew up rather confused. About whether my hair was so curly because I was African; about why, when we went back to visit my grandparents, only white people could go to the beach, or sit on public benches; about why my old nanny lived in a house with no running water. And then, as a medical student I spent time working in a rural hospital in South Africa. While there, I found myself joining in protest marches with thousands of other South Africans, demonstrating against apartheid – and taking bullets out of people who had been shot while demonstrating: singing freedom songs with the others – ‘Viva Mandela!’, ‘Amandla!’ Mandela, then coming towards the end of his twenty seven years in prison, was the inspiration, the name on everyone’s lips. In the years following, Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation lived in my mind, in stark contrast to rumours of the vengeful tarring and feathering of two teenage sweethearts who lived near my family home in Northern Ireland. She lived in our village, which was Protestant, he from a farm in what was known as ‘IRA’ country. Questions couldn’t help but form. After qualifying in medicine, I worked as a psychiatrist. These questions about the nature of reconciliation, retribution, forgiveness, and justice were fuelled by that work.
As Christian people, whatever our own story, wherever we work and live, we are all called to take part in God’s world. Christ joins us here and becomes one of us. We cannot just sit back and wait in comfort – we have to take that step towards the drafty stable, towards the fearsome angels, towards the strangers from the East, towards God’s marvellous gift. Because the world is not a comfortable place today. For many, it is cold and drafty, baby Jesus is not the only one without a proper bed, the three Kings are not the only ones who have to journey to distant lands, and Herod is still a familiar figure.
Today must be a time for deep reflection on our lives with God and with each other, a God given time to reassess how we think about and act on our story. What do we as Christians mean for the world today? How do we open ourselves up to the servant Isaiah tells us about – the one in whom God delights? The one who will bring justice to the nations, who will not be broken or bruised? And the potentially costly life changing decision that John the Baptist urges us to make in baptism?
Because as we know, the evidence in front of us is not appealing. The reality of the history of the 20th and now the 21st century does not seem at first sight to be hopeful. Conflicts abound and new political eras here in Europe, and in America, the middle east and the global south are being levied – Seamus Heaney even in this poem says…
‘History says, Don’t hope On this side of the grave’ A pretty gloomy message, if we just stop there. So how do we live with history and hope in these often dark times? Can hope and history rhyme? Now is the time to decide. Do we stick with the world’s answers, or do we believe that the God who is always with us, who makes his covenant with us, who gives a light to the nations, changes everything? The poem goes on, “Believe that further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.” So what do we believe about history and hope today, at the beginning of a new year, as we seek to respond to the violence and conflict in front of us?
In the CCN, we pledge to work for reconciliation, for peace and justice. The God who created the heavens and the earth, who gives us breath and spirit invites us into a new way, which is both costly and joyful. Jesus died on the cross, and yet was resurrected. If we are to repent and be cleansed in the water of baptism and the Holy Spirit, and follow this little child who is Christ, our Saviour, our lives will be full of his justice and mercy and love. Hope and history can rhyme. The resonance of this rhyming, of giving ourselves again to Christ as he is baptised, is indeed very good news! Good news that truly dispels the gloom and the darkness. If we are not to be paralysed by fear, by hopelessness in situations of conflict, of broken relationships, of worries about money or loss of independence or any of the messes we find ourselves in, we need to listen again to Isaiah’s words, and allow ourselves to be filled with the glory of the one who is righteous, just and light.
So let’s pray that justice can rise up. Let’s believe in the hope that prisoners will be brought out of the dungeon, that the nations will be lightened, that God takes us by the hand and keeps us. Let’s invite others to share in this hope. And let’s find and embrace and practice the new possibilities of being the people of God in this place, in this time, in this great church, with all its history and its hope.
I want to finish with a story about Steve Biko and his mother Alice. Steve Biko was a well-known anti-apartheid leader and in 1977 was brutally murdered while being held by the South African police. Steve and his mother Alice were talking shortly before his death, and she was telling him how much she worried about him – she couldn’t sleep at night until he was home for fear of him having been arrested and put in gaol. He replied by reminding her that Jesus had come to redeem his people and set them free.
“Are you Jesus?” she had asked impatiently. Steve had gently answered her,
“No, I’m not. But I have the same job to do.”
And so do we. Amen.