This is a summary of Al’s sermon on Sunday 8th May – the day of our (Hodge Hill Church's) Annual Meeting. The readings were taken from Wil Gafney's "Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church" (Year W, Easter 4):
Acts 2:22-24, Psalm 9:9-14, 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 and Luke 7:18-23
It’s not often we get four readings to reflect on, but today there’s an important thread running through them, which I want to help us explore together: what does it mean to be ‘held’?
Being ‘held in the power of death’
Beginning with the reading from Acts chapter 2, we have a little snippet of a much longer sermon that Peter is preaching to the Jerusalem crowd at Pentecost.
“This Jesus… you crucified… but God raised him up… because it was impossible for him to be held in [death’s] power.”
Here ‘being held’ means being trapped: Jesus is literally pinned down (in crucifixion), sealed up (in the tomb). Death is all-encompassing, overwhelming, a brutal, vice-like choke-hold.
We have seen and heard of far too much of this kind of deathly holding. People trapped in war zones, hiding for fear of their lives. People fleeing death and destruction, seeking safe refuge, and instead being locked up in detention centres. The choke-hold on a black man’s neck, squeezing out the last gasps of breath. The hold of the slave ship, stripping human beings of their dignity, reducing them to mere cargo to be transported, or thrown overboard if deemed ‘dead weight’.
We have known personally the choke-hold of grief at the loss of a loved one. We have all lived through the confinement of ‘lockdown’, with its restrictions on what we can and can’t do, the way it cut us off from each other, trapped inside those who were ill or physically most vulnerable, and trapped us too in the tensions of impossible decision-making: what should we do, and what shouldn’t we?
And we know too, if we look a little further within ourselves, how fears and anxieties about the future can hold us in their grasp. When we fear change, feel like we have to defend our own agenda; when we’re tempted to dig our heels in, stick up our defences, or return to what’s most familiar to us, just as Peter did, going out fishing after the overwhelming tragedy of the crucifixion.
Yes, we know something about being held in the power of death. And to this grim reality, Peter preaches resurrection as liberation: the stone rolled away, the tomb broken open, the scarred, breath-less body raised up and breathing with new life. This is the good news of Easter: that the power of death could not hold Jesus, doesn’t have the last word, isn’t the end of the story – not for Jesus, and not for us and our world either.
Being held – as loving safety
In Psalm 9, we hear a totally different kind of ‘being held’:
‘The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.’
Here, when everything feels like it’s falling apart, when we feel like our life is in free fall, it is God who holds us together, upholds us in her strong and gentle hands.
I’m sure we’ve all known something of this kind of ‘holding’ too. In our times of crisis or grief, fear or despair, we’ve been held. Held by God, and often held too by friends, family, neighbours, our church community. Held in love, and care, and prayer. And this kind of holding, too, we’ve known through the hardest times of the COVID pandemic. We’ve known ourselves as a church community here, held together as we’ve cared for one another, on the phone or on the doorstep; as we’ve prayed, together, apart; as we’ve held one another in prayer even when we’ve not been able to see each other, or hold each other in a great big hug. And in all of this holding, we’ve been held by our loving God.
But being held by God is the complete opposite of being trapped, stuck, choked. Being held by God means being free, it goes hand in hand with seeking God – a bit like (if you can imagine it) playing hide and seek with a ‘hider’ who both manages to be mysteriously hidden, and yet also sticks tight by your side the whole time…! And so as God has held us together through the challenges of the past couple of years, God’s Spirit has also led us on a journey, of ‘going deeper’ into the mysterious life of God, through our Trees of Life resources, and through everything else that we’ve encountered and discovered and learnt along the way.
Being sent – with good news
The gospel reading from Luke talks not of being held, but of being sent. John’s disciples come to ask Jesus if he’s the one they’ve been waiting for, and Jesus responds not with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but with a question back to them: “what have you seen and heard? Go and tell John those things.” When we seek God, when we open our eyes and ears and hearts to what might be happening around us, we have caught glimpses of the kin-dom of God springing up, we’ve sensed the Spirit on the move, the good, resurrection news of life and love and liberation taking flesh.
And over the past couple of years, we’ve seen and heard plenty of that: in our own lives, within our church community, in our wider neighbourhoods and the wider world. Very often, these things have been small, and fragile; they’ve come slowly, not quickly. Maybe some of the glimpses have been fleeting, and others longer lasting. But just reflect, for a moment, on where you’ve seen and heard life and love and liberation happening in or around you…
So Jesus sends John’s disciples to ‘go and tell’ what they’ve heard and seen. And he sends us too. To tell the stories, share the glimpses, with others. This is what has sometimes been called ‘evangelism’ – however misused that word has often been. Discovering the good news together. Sharing what we’ve seen and heard, and naming it as the movement of the Spirit, the springing up of God’s kin-dom, the taking-flesh among us of Jesus’ resurrection life. And we share this treasure, not because it’s good news for some ‘them’ out there – but because it’s good news for all of us, together. We share in places like the Pantry and the coffee morning, the Open Door drop-in and the Community Iftar, not because we just want to help others, but because we know, as the saying goes, that my liberation is bound up with yours – that what is good news for you, is good news for me, that when we share together, we are all fed.
A treasure held – in ‘clay jars’
The golden thread running through our readings finishes with the 2nd letter to the Corinthians:
‘we have this treasure in clay jars… so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.’
Sharing the good news of life and love and liberation is absolutely not a ‘we’re alright now we’ve met Jesus’ kind of story. The treasure we’ve discovered, received, is rarely big and shiny, robust and ‘successful’. And that, thank God, is not what we’re called to be, either – whether individually, or collectively as a church community.
If we’re called to be ‘signs of God’s kin-dom’, then we’re called to be imperfect, broken signs – what Paul here calls ‘clay jars’. Because we’re human, and limited, and fragile, and cracked. Because our flesh, our bodies, are fragile – and so are our lives. And that is how God made us. And God has called us ‘good, very good’.
We’re not called to be a big, shiny, robust and ‘successful’ community. We’re called to be a community that is in touch with our wounds, our scars. A community which is honest about who we are, and how the world is, in all its messiness. And that it’s only ever in the midst of all of that, that God’s light and life and love and liberation comes to dwell. In the midst of all of that, in us.
Many of you have seen the cracked communion dish, that we’ve used every Sunday since the beginning of Lent this year. It was broken in the break-ins last December, and has been mended by an artist who used the Japanese kintsugi method: not sealing up the cracks so that they can’t be seen, returning the dish to how it was before; but filling the cracks with shiny gold cement, making them more visible, not less, bringing out a new beauty in the dish that it didn’t have before, and that it can only have because of the cracks. The communion dish is a symbol of who we are, and who we’re called to be, each of us, and as a church community together.
I want to finish with some words from the Jewish song-writer Leonard Cohen:
the bells that sill can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
(from Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’)