Pentecost 21- sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 17th October

Isaiah 53.4-12; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45

One of the glories of this Cathedral building, something close to the heart of the vocation it embodies and enables, is the fact that it stands open, day after day. Open to people’s prayer and desire for sanctuary; open as an antidote and response to the bustling world around; open to their need as well as their curiosity and wonder. Of course that means that all sorts of people pass through those doors, seeking to satisfy a variety of needs. For those of us who work here that can be both a delight and a challenge. Inevitably those needs include the need to talk, to be affirmed, to seek counsel, and to ask for money to sort a problem. To be open to all that, to navigate our way through those needs and find the appropriate response is an ongoing challenge, but it’s also a small window on to the needs which press in on people day after day, the stresses and strains we live under.

Now I don’t want to claim too much in that – others are far more intimately and daily involved in the stresses and strains of life, in seeking to serve the needs of others, and they know a lot more about the costliness of that. NHS workers, for example, particularly through the pandemic, are challenged daily by pressing needs, and by the challenge of navigating, prioritising, through those. This Cathedral exists also to resource and strengthen those people – you – in that service of others in our healthcare, and many other, settings.

And that brings us to Sir David Amess, and his shocking death on Friday. For he died in active service, in the process of serving his constituents through the public surgery he, and many other politicians hold, week after week, to meet the public that, in all their needs, they are called to serve. His shocking death, without indulging the need to speculate on the particular motives of his killer, must make us wonder if the effort to serve is worth it, or at the very least if there are different ways to organise ourselves; insulate ourselves from those needs in what seems an increasingly fractious, hate-filled world.

Our Gospel reading for this morning offers a jarringly appropriate text to contemplate: You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Jesus’ response to the disciples as they argue among themselves, about who is the most important, who will get the best seats in the house. Jesus turns our usual way of thinking on its head. And we continually need to be reminded of that truth: David Amess’ death, and the manner of it, reminds us that that service lies at the heart of a functioning democracy. But that reminder is trumpeted by a media that simultaneously exalts the lifestyle of the rich and famous, those who lord it over others by their very manner of life. The supposed freedom of not being beholden to anyone is so often vaunted as the highest good, and so we need the continual reminder that, as Jesus, puts it, it shall not be so among you. And democracy, in all its messiness and challenge, embodies that service, our boundedness, one to another, so that we are not subjects of rulers and tyrants, who lord it over us, but participants in a common life over which we have some say and responsibility.

The final words of Jesus go even further however, in addressing how we might react to death, and suffering – both Sir David’s, but also that in life more generally. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many.

A ransom is that which is given to gain release, freedom, for many. That terminology and language has given rise to much metaphysical speculation about to whom that ransom is paid, and how that is effective in giving freedom to many. If the statement is taken literally, you get into a debate about whether the ransom is paid to God – in which case, why does God need to be paid, especially when the price is the life of God’s Son; or the devil – but how does that work, that this life, somehow pays off the devil, and releases the rest of us.

As is often the case, especially when dealing with religious language, the literal reading can be the enemy of what is being offered as a metaphor, an imaginative understanding. For beyond the immediate question of what is being paid in this offering of a life, and to whom, is the bigger question of the senselessness and meaninglessness of suffering and death.

For the disciples, and the early church, this question is focused in the figure of Jesus Christ. The impact, the startling insightfulness and effectiveness of his life, bring the question of the meaning of his brutal, senseless death, into even sharper relief. What sense can be made of this death, and does it not render everything that went before meaningless. His short life is brutally brought short by the rulers and tyrants of his age – is that not a final statement about where power truly lies, so that what preceded is rendered worthless?

Christ’s resurrection begins to turn that despair around; it shifts the disciples’ faith and perception, so that the previously meaninglessness and futility of Christ’s death, is suddenly seen in a new light. But they still have to make sense of it, find the words to describe that faith, and experience, that his shameful death by the exercise of brute power, is not the end. And that takes them back to one of the oldest human questions: why do we suffer? They find that question explored in their own scriptures – Isaiah 53 that we heard as our Old Testament reading is a classic articulation of the possibility that suffering might be the working out of redemption, an offering toward that good which is our final end and salvation.

I am not suggesting that David Amess’ death is on a par with Christ’s. But Christian faith, after the crucifixion and resurrection, sees suffering and death in a different light; sees the possibility that such suffering participates in that which frees us. And inasmuch as Sir David’s death brings into focus the centrality of service to our common life; as it displays that what we have in common is far more than what divides us; as it enables us to celebrate, even, that life of service, then it reveals that that is what endures, and begins to answer the senselessness, and the nihilism of the brutal act that led to his death. Such violence will not define us; instead suffering and even death can contribute toward our freedom from the rule of violence and force; and lead us into that service which binds us, and completes us, one with another.

In a moment we will participate in an act that week by week, recalls, remembers, the death of Christ – his sharing of his body and blood, himself, for the life of others. We are drawn into that resurrection faith, which knows full well the depth of suffering, of cruelty and hate. And yet, through participation, we are re-made as the Body of Christ to offer our service to the world – to be open to the transformation of suffering in resurrection life. Amen.

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