Sermon Easter Day 170422
Christ Church Cathedral
Fr Richard Peers SMMS
I have reached that stage in life that when I look in the mirror I see my dad. The grey hair, the wrinkles, the smile. I am told I have the same mannerisms.
I just hope that I am not guilty of the same jokes …
My dad was not a church going sort of person, he had been brought up in an austere religious household which rather put him off . But he was deeply, what we would now call spiritual. He felt things profoundly, and he had an unshakable moral compass, he taught me that doing the right thing was all that mattered, whatever the cost.
And he loved graveyards.
Many an hour was spent on holidays walking around church yards picking out the interesting tombs, the poetic verses, the humorous epitaphs.
A few weeks ago I called in at Boythorpe Cemetery in Chesterfield where dad is buried, in a grave with my mum and my brother David who died when he was a child. A few graves along are my grandparents, a couple of great aunts and a little way down the hill my great-grandparents, and several other members of the family.
After my brother died we went to the grave every Saturday to place flowers and keep it clean. Some of my happiest memories are from those times playing with my brother and sister. The ice-cream van that would stand at the cemetery gates. Trying to get my dad away from mum so that he would say yes to ice-creams. The oak tree and acorns, the horse chestnut and collecting the best conkers. The sense that the dead are family too. Seeing adults cry and knowing that it was OK for them to do so.
In a time when we are seeing the dead unburied, lying on the ground in Ukraine. Corpses decaying. Sons buried in back gardens: it might seem that I am just adding to the gloom by dwelling on graveyards.
But that is what our gospel tells us the women did. They went to the grave.
This is the Christian life. Not an avoidance of evil and death but a facing up to it. A recognition of it for what it is. An acknowledgement of reality.
There is a self-help book with the great title “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”.
I like that.
Scripture tells us over and over again not to fear “Do not be afraid.” And that is the right aspiration. But the reality is that evil and death are frightening. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is real. His cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, is heartfelt.
There are two reactions to the grimness of the world that Christians take that don’t seem to me be entirely satisfactory.
We could adopt a Polyanna attitude that everything is all right really. celebrating the good and ignoring the bad. I have met people who tried to do that. It is rarely sustainable. Pain and grief and loss must be expressed in the end.
The other is to try and grieve Jesus’ death as if we didn’t know he had risen. There are some dangers in Holy Week and its liturgies for us here. As if play-acting being in Jerusalem in the year 33 would somehow help us to come closer to Jesus.
Some of you might have seen the recent film Don’t Look Up. Whether it’s the destruction of the planet or sending refugees to Rwanda there are many who would rather not see, not look up. But we who are Christian look death in the face every day.
We look up to the cross.2~
We don’t run away from the tomb, we run to it.
As I watch the news from Ukraine, as we have always watched wars and famine, and even, in a small way, as we have faced the difficulties here at Christ Church a great spiritual writer helps me to live this experience.
In my chapel in the cellar of the Sub Deanery is this icon. It shows St Silouan the Athonite. A Russian – and how important it is in these times to remember all that is good and wonderful in Russian history and experience – he became a monk on Mount Athos where he died in 1933.
His writings are full of spiritual depth and wisdom. But it is one of his most well known phrases that sustains me: “Keep your heart in hell and despair not.”
Jesus did not run away. He stayed. He remained faithful.
In the face of death we are to remain faithful.
This Holy Week we have heard sermons from Sanjee Perera reflecting on justice. They are available on our YouTube channel and the texts will soon be available on the website. I hope that you will take time to reflect on them.
Injustice is a kind of death. A destroying of how things should be. A diminishment of the human person.
Injustice permeates the universe, the world as it is.
The kingdom of God, said St Paul, is justice and peace, and joy in the holy spirit.
Some days it feels like there is no justice, some days it feels like there is no peace.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God’s kingdom will come. Fervently. We pray for God’s justice and peace, in the Ukraine, for refugees, in our own lives. And we keep our hearts in hell and despair not.
In this church there are over 370 memorials to the dead. We are surrounded by them, we walk over them, lean on them, place our vestments and service books on them.
They are a reminder to us that the final resurrection of the dead has not come. That justice has not come, that peace has not come.
And we despair not.
We do not despair because the joy of the Holy Spirit is given us.
Because we connect with the living and the dead. Because we belong.
Every single memorial is a reminder of this ‘one precious life’.
Jesus, is the first born from the dead, the pioneer of our salvation.
When I was a child and I visited Boythorpe Cemetery I knew that I belonged, that I was part of something so much more than myself. Those childhood visits taught me, without anyone saying a word, that life is so much bigger than we can imagine. That the dead are close. Sometimes my colleague Philippa brings her son Gregory to Morning Prayer. As we sit around the shrine and say our prayers I love to see five year old Gregory climbing on the tombs. I like to think that Lady Montacute, Prior Sutton and even warrior like Sir George would be pleased were the resurrection to occur and as they sat up to find a little boy treating their graves as a playground.
As we, the living, pray day by day, here among the dead and the memorials to the dead, we find joy.
Joy in the greatness of life. Joy in Jesus who takes us by the hand walks into hell with us and stays with us, he never runs away and in him therefore we do not, cannot despair.
Keep your hearts in hell and despair not for the kingdom of God is joy in the Holy Spirit.
He is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.