In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Let me first respond to Dean Baxter’s warm and affectionate welcome and greeting. It is, for me, a wonderful thing to be standing in this pulpit, in this particular Cathedral, with all its architectural echoes of my own Cathedral in Canterbury. And I want to bring enormous and affectionate greeting from every section of Cathedral life in Canterbury to every department and section of Cathedral life here in Washington: to the Choir from the Choir, to the Vergers from the Vergers, to the congregation from the congregation, to all who work for the welfare of the Cathedral church throughout the week, from the many who do in England, and of course, from Dean and Chapter to Dean and Chapter. It is immensely important that the ministry of these great Cathedrals learns from each other, and it’s but a year since Dean Baxter and a party from here came and shared our life. And we remember that with great joy. And it was wonderful to make some friendships up again yesterday with the National Cathedral Association. So, thank you for this opportunity.
Whenever I walk through the nave of Canterbury Cathedral, even in mighty procession, I have to cross at about “this point,” the compass rose, which is set in the floor of the Cathedral as a sign of the center of the Anglican communion to which we all equally belong. And as I walk across it I’m conscious that the Gospel words engraved in Greek on that compass rose are “the truth shall set you free.” And it gives me encouragement.
Even more, should I feel encouragement standing in this pulpit this morning, for I see written beneath my feet here, “the Church of England shall be free”? And I take encouragement from that.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langshon (sp?), is shown saying those words to King John. We’re always told, as children, that King John was rather a difficult and mischievous King, and there’s a rhyme we are taught in our nursery by A. A. Milne which some of you will know, which runs, “King John was not a good King. He had his little ways. And sometimes no one spoke to him for days and days and days.” But here, the Archbishop is speaking to him, and he’s speaking a message of freedom, that God’s kingdom means freedom.
Jesus is pictured in the Gospel this morning walking and teaching in the outer courtyard of the great Temple in Jerusalem. We read the story from the Gospel of Matthew. We could equally have read it from one of the other Gospelers because that particular day in the life of Jesus is very well attested. And it seems to have been a very busy day for Jesus.
If we take Mark’s chronology, which is the easiest to follow, it is the Tuesday of Holy Week, two days after his entry into Jerusalem. And where does he go? Again and again, he comes to that great holy space where people come to search for God, to worship God, and to bring all of themselves to set before God in self-offering. The first he had ever come there, he had been brought as a tiny child by Mary and Joseph on the 40th day of his birth.
And now, here he is again, in the Temple courtyard, and he’s teaching, teaching people who have ears to listen to him. They want to hear the message of love and freedom, of God giving himself to them, which had been spoken by Jesus from his first coming into Galilee when he pretends the words, “the Kingdom is upon you, even now.” God’s Kingdom is yours.
And, by story and by precept, by ethical teaching and by acts of healing, he proclaims that to people who have a hunger and thirst for that Gospel message of Good News. The Kingdom is yours. God’s free gift.
And we find on that day that there are many who have a vested interest in keeping that message from the ears of the people. And one after the other, if you read through that Chapter — best told in Mark, Chapter 12 (exactly the same as Matthew, Chapter 22), one after the other, Pharisees, the party of King Herod, Herodious, Sadducees (another religious party), come up and try to distract the people from that message.
Do you remember how, when we were at school, some of you still there, you would be clever enough to be able to divert the teacher by sending them up a particular alley with what sounds like a serious question? You would ask, “Sir, what if, what if”—and the clever teacher would answer the question seriously, but briefly, and gradually divert back to the lesson that was meant to be being given. Woe betides the inexperienced ones who were led down an alley for the rest of the lesson to the glee of those sitting in the back row.
This is what those Herodians, Sadducees, Pharisees, are trying to do with the message of Jesus -—because they fear it. They fear him. But Jesus’ message of God’s Kingdom and the freedom which God gives is not to be diverted.
Two questions are asked which in our lectionary, which I think is the same as yours, were told out in the previous weeks. But now, here’s another. A more serious question. And in Mark’s Gospel the questioner is counted by Jesus to be more serious. “Master, what is the most important commandment of all?” And Jesus answered, in words that have become part of our liturgy, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And the second is like it. Namely this: You must love your neighbor as yourself.”
And the Scribe answers, “Well said, Master, for those are the greatest commandments of all.” And Jesus turns to him and says, “You are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Wonderful words. But for the Scribe’s life, not wonderful enough. For to be “not far from” is not to be there. And yet being there is God’s free gift, even now, if only he will accept it.
It reminds one of another conversation between a rich young man who comes to Jesus and says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said, “You know the commandments. What are they?” And the young man recites those commandments which I’ve just reiterated. And Jesus said, “Well, there you are.” And he says, “But I kept all those from my birth and still I feel there’s something more.” And looking into the eyes of one longing for a particular type of discipleship, Jesus says, “Yes, there is, for you. Sell all you have. Be free, and come and follow me.” For it was clear that the young man was wanting to be one of that little band following Jesus in freedom.” There were other ways of following Jesus, the way of Mary and Martha at Bethany, where their households provided warm hospitality for Jesus and the traveling Disciples. But this young man wanted more, and when he heard what it cost, he went away with a heavy heart, not far from the Kingdom, but not there.
Our great Cathedral churches, like the courtyards of the Temple, see thousands of people wandering in day after day with questions on their hearts. Questions about life, about humanity, about the joy and suffering, about God, and the human potential to reach for and become the Divine. And to all of that there’s only one answer: The Kingdom is already yours. Receive it. It will take you, in this human pilgrimage, through all those emotions of sorrow and joy. And yet it will be your possession, the truest pole that God could give to anyone. And the opportunity is now, to receive that gift.
Yet words can’t always say that. And those who have responded creatively to God in our Cathedral church have known that. They have responded their gratitude to God’s free gift in the creation of this sacred space, in architecture and stone, in wood and glass, in music and beautiful liturgy and words, in the opportunity to be in these places and relate in an atmosphere of community and hospitality. And the many people who serve our Cathedral churches, as you will know and I know from Canterbury, must never treat any question, however strange it seems, however simple it seems, however foolish it seems, as anything other than possibly the first step to discovering that God’s Kingdom is his gift to us now.
These great churches, like any holy place, like the Temple in Jerusalem, inspire awe in people, and make them vulnerable to God. Thank God for that. For in our modern world, there are many devices to shut people down, to close them in, to make them invulnerable to the Divine. Yet here, as on a mountain top, or as in the presence of suffering, or great love, or human self-giving, here people experience something quite different. And we who worship here are hosts to that searching.
Jesus found when he went to the Temple in Jerusalem a lack of true spiritual fruitfulness, and he used the image of a fig tree not bearing fruit, to say this place without spiritual fruitfulness cannot survive. It will whither.
For us, our coming together and receiving Jesus, ensures that fruitfulness continues. We receive him in Gospel and Sacrament. We receive him in the love of those we know well, worshipping with us at the altar. But the awareness we cease to receive him in the tinniest or oldest or frailest person who walks through the door because Christ may be in the question or the desire that they put in front of you. And he wills everyday to give us new gifts of himself.
This is Reformation Sunday. And we give thanks for the ability of Christ’s Church to regenerate in reformation or counter-reformation, in new ways of finding Christ in our worship. We give thanks for the ability, from time to time in our history, to see what is simply clutter and what is the truth, to clear aside everything that stands in the way of our focus in Christ, to receive the message of that Kingdom, and restore purity.
An English bishop, Bishop Gore of the early 20th century, likened it to a great river, flowing from a clear stream, flowing perhaps through Europe towards Switzerland. This is the image he uses; but you can find many in the United States in the same way. …..A river which on the way, through towns and villages and communities, gets wider and picks up more and more silt, and becomes less and less pure until suddenly it empties itself into a great lake. And as it stills in its process, that which is impure in it, settles. And when it reemerges from the other side of the lake, his image of the Swiss lake, a purer stream comes forth. That we could count as reformation, regeneration.
And it’s not just something for church history. It’s something for our daily life. For Christ’s presence in bread and wine and gospel, and in the eyes of another human being, in love or in suffering, cleanses us from that which would clutter our life, and brings us once again, often through pain, for get rid of those things involves suffering with us, to a new clear stream which will refresh those who drink from it in relationship with us.
Jesus, at the end of the chapter where all this has happened — Mark 12 — sits by the treasury and, as I saw yesterday, watches many, many people moving through the Temple. The Disciples eyes are always for that which is glittering and important, even in the Temple stones. Jesus focuses on self-giving, self-giving to God, self-giving to neighbor, and he sees a poor widow, unnoticed by most, coming to the Temple and place into the treasury the tinniest coin. And he says to the Disciples, “Look! She has given more than anyone, for what she gives has cost her deep, and it comes from the well springs of love.”
He would cause us in Canterbury, in Washington, in all the great Cathedrals of the world, to glory in God’s majesty and know that that majesty stoops low in love to point to the smallest and frailest as a sign of Christ. For each time we receive him we experience a reformation and the well springs of our love flow more freely.
What is the greatest commandment? “Love God with heart and soul and mind and strength” . And the second? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says to us, “and they are very similar, for God and humanity, incarnate God, are found in both, and have the power to transform and make us eager to accept God’s gift of his free Kingdom here and now.”