The Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
Let us pray. Lord, whose steadfast love brings us courage, draw close to us that as we explore your word and your will, our hearts may be lifted in hope in Jesus’s name. Amen.
Thank you, Mr. Dean and the Bishop for being permitted to speak in this extraordinary cathedral. It’s a great privilege. And one of which I’m very, very conscious.
Almost forgotten the midst of the pandemic, the greatest movement of people in human history continues to grow. In 1945, around 20 million were displaced. In 2015, it was 60 million. Today, it is in excess of 75 million from the poorest and the most desperate comes the cries. From the burning refugee camp comes the weeping of the helpless, which rises into the unhearing air. From the dusty roads, with the trails of belongings, abandoned children, lost women, violated men, humiliated bodies and buried. There are only the aftermarkets of horror beyond horror from Dover in England to Queensland in Australia, the tides rise and fall on innumerable beaches and only the groan of the shingle testifies to the lives lost at sea.
The causes of movement vary. Poverty, ambition, fear, war, all play a large part. Some flee modern slavery. Some run from family or clan disorder. They flee for any and every reason. They may have illusions about their destination and their reasons for fleeing may be more or less understandable. Yet, they flee. And the cries also rise from the poorest communities among us in our own nations. They are the cries of those who find their neighborhoods changing. for the refugees do not normally come to the wealthy areas, but to the poorest. As they always have, since the United States was founded, since the pilgrims’ 400 years ago, since the words of Emma Lazarus, sonnet on Lady Liberty were inscribed. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. These are the words that have made the USA admired across the world. Yet when they came, they too often had to continue to yearn.
They came to poor areas. And as in London’s East End in the 19th century and many parts of the UK today, they brought change. Those already in the areas where people arrive say, “We’re not cruel. We’re not antagonistic, but you in the richest parts of the land recognize that taking so many strangers in and sharing the inadequate resources we already struggle with, why, that is almost impossible.” Like the travelers, the displaced, they are often not heard until, in the latter case, of course, for those in our own nations, until they vote, until their voices are channeled so loudly that they can no longer be ignored.
The complexity of this people movement is extraordinary. The social complexity in our own nations is dramatic. But as Christians, we do not resolve problems by their oversimplification. That is the broad road with much good company of those whom we can find who will agree with us, whatever view each of us chooses. The path of the cross of, following the crucified God in his journey is one that tells us to embrace the complexity of suffering and walk alongside those with whom we disagree passionately, bearing our crosses and helping each other. That is ever more true in this time of pandemic, where fear is as prevalent as the virus and causes us to turn inwards.
The readings of this day confront us with that complexity for they are about movement, refugees and home. We began with a lonely victim of self-imposed family trauma. Here is Jacob, the narcissistic con man. Found out, thrown out, down and out. He has cheated his father and his brother, yet God’s grace and love are greater than his sins and failing. He is in great danger, hot pursuit, his coast behind him, wild animals all around him. Yet God, the God of his ancestors, is with him. In Jacob’s ignorance and sin, God draws near. Rescues, blesses, sets him on a new course. His future is a blessing received and given. There is no simple solution. Virtue is not rewarded nor sin punished. There is no comfortable sense that because he is blessed, he was therefore right. God’s grace is lavish, but it also demands that we give all that we are. Before Jacob, in his future, as well as a blessing of 14 years of growling and underpaid labor, he will live by his which he will cheat again. Yet God’s grace remains lavish.
Politics is the art of enabling good and flourishing communities. But its materials are the bent and twisted forms of human beings. Human beings like Jacob. His complexity of action and motivation is met in God, not by simplifying or by condemning, but by calling. God calls him to be faithful and obedient. And when we see the refugee and when we see those who fear the refugee, we must not compromise with full simplicities, but we must, as Christians, channel the abundant grace of God.
Our second reading from the second chapter of 1 Peter tells us that the largest nation on earth is not China or India. The most powerful is not the United States of America. The world’s greatest nation is without borders, without an army, without passports on paper. It is the nation of God’s people, the Holy nation and the royal priesthood, all those, who having once been aliens and strangers and now transformed into being God’s own people. Aliens and strangers in the world that Peter inhabited were like the undocumented today, no matter how rich they were, they had little or no protection in law and no remedies from the courts. They existed in large numbers because every city and every province in the Roman empire had its own residence and its own aliens. Peter tells the churches that they’ve been changed. That all that they are is new. They now exist as God’s unique people called to be Holy and separate from sin, not a point to overlook. They must reflect the nature and image of God. They are to be Jesus to the world of their day, as we are today – faithful, full of grace, loving one another, loving their enemies, committed to peace, resilient in time of trouble, as we also must be today. Their resilience, faith and grace have a purpose. They have a message to proclaim. God, who is in the transformation business, is liberating people from darkness into God’s wonderful light. Because they, we, were aliens and strangers, we know that God loves the Jacobs. Because we were exiles, we love exiles. How that must change us. If that truth grabs us deep in our gut, as it must, we cannot choose what we’re going to hate. We cannot surround our love with barbed wire, so that only those with the password can be its recipients. We are God’s people. It is God who chooses, not us. God’s country is not a democracy. It is an autocracy of the purest love, the greatest purity. We do not choose to be as citizens. It’s ruler, colder site of helpless, terrifying darkness. Our role is to proclaim. Our joy is to celebrate
Yet, that is not always how we share ourselves. When we treat church life as politics and our way of doing things as superior to all others, when we engage in malicious comments, through social media, when we’re insincere, when we’re cruel, we have been transformed, not by our virtues, but by the grace of God alone. Yet sometimes we behave as though we then had to wage a civil war in God’s church so that our views may prevail. There’s a story of an English vicar who’s called to see his Bishop. He’s been in his parish for a year. And the Bishop says, “Now then how’s it going?” And the vicar says, “It’s going very well”. And the Bishop says, “How do you get on with the other churches in your parish?” He says, “Oh, we get along very closely. They worship God in their way. And we worship him in his.”
It is no wonder that in the global North, we see numbers decline. For the rule of love is so often the rule of self. As Peter says, realistically, “rid yourselves of such things.” Being human and thus failing to be all that we should be, all that we will be, is not just for our times. It’s been the history of the church, but it is to be our daily struggled to be like Christ. And in the gospel reading, we see the nature of home. For our home is not a building, not even one of the splendors of the National Cathedral. Home is the people of God built together as living stones, by the master builder of all creation. Jesus, in the gospel passages, draws all our attention. He casts out the bankers and the money changes and the merchants. We all remember that. We forget that he bought in the children, the blind and lame. The former praised God, the latter found healing. How dare he! They were unqualified to praise in good theology. They were disqualified from being in the temple by their injuries and bodily incapacity. Both groups were the antithesis of those he cast out. Yet he calls them in, showing the reversal of everything of our world. That is the reality of the kingdom of God. And remember this parable is one of the ways in which he demonstrates the kingdom. The kingdom of God is not the church. The church points to the kingdom, proclaims the kingdom. The kingdom is seen in those caring for the outcast and the marginalized. The kingdom is seen in the food bank, where to quote someone in Dover near Canterbury, “I came seeking food and went with a parcel of love.” They’d come a shame. They went restored. The kingdom is seen where people act for others where God’s reign is perceived and we are to see it and proclaim it.
In your great cathedral, in a side, chapel is a Coventry cross of nails like this one, like the one that’s on the altar behind me. It’s been there for very many years. It is the symbol of the worldwide community of the cross of nails started in Coventry Cathedral. Nails that symbolize the horrors of war taken as they were from the bombarded ruins of the medieval cathedral and symbolize the strength of resurrection love sent by the community that rose from those ashes and ruins. In 1940, the provost of Coventry, with the smoke rising round him from his burning cathedral, saw a vision of the kingdom of reconciliation. And these crosses in churches all around the world, point to forgiveness, reconciliation and hope. In your own nation in mine, will we live that out? Will you live that out? Will your symbols become your proclamation? Especially in these times where around the world, injustice is faced, judgments made and hopes flare or fail, depending on your side, your background, your race. Especially in this time of COVID-19. In the Psalm, we heard of the beauty of home, that even the sparrow has a nest and the swallow a home. St. Benedict in the sixth century in his rules speaks of stability.
Stability for him is the sign of home. Stability that is built on fear and exclusion is a fake. Stability is to be in the dwelling place of God. And we know we dream, we long, we pray that the place of stability may be the living love embedded grace abounding, church of Christ in its myriad forms. That it may be the church, that knowing it’s exile loves the stranger, knowing it’s forgiveness has become the home for the spirit of love. May you and I joined in that place of traveling that makes the Valley of Baca a spring, and to be of that company that goes from strength to strength – the people of God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.