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Sermon: Festival Eucharist, Chichester Cathedral 14th June 2015

Sunday 14th June 2015
Festival Eucharist
Ezekiel 17: 22-24
2 Corinthians 5: 6-10, 11-13
Mark 4: 26-34

It is a tremendous delight to be with you in this beautiful cathedral, set in a vibrant city, as you launch this year's Festival of Chichester.  An exciting and stimulating programme of events lies ahead of you as you celebrate the arts - in craft and comedy; in classical music and theatre; cinema and fine art; in spoken word and rhythms of folk and jazz. 

The dedication of a small committee, City Council and the media draws together local talent and well known names. Today those strands are held together in a cathedral church committed to the arts. All that takes place over the next four weeks will inspire,challenge, excite and provoke many hundreds of people; the impact will flow beyond this Chichester itself.

That's all fabulous stuff; but it still begs a question: why are the arts so important to us? Art and religion are both in the business of telling stories which explore the depths of our humanity with all our fears, desires and regrets. We stretch our forms of expression beyond the rational and verbal into the symbolic, the physical, the creative and the sensual.

Art and religion draw us more deeply into who we are; and they draw us beyond the limitations of our experience towards a deeper truth. We leave the gallery, theatre, bar or church wiser and more humane.  It's all too easy to scorn Saturday night TV: but lest this sounds too highbrow, hospital dramas (my guilty pleasure!) and stand-up comedy also reflect our human nature; or make us laugh at the quirks of our character. In these expressions of humanity we find ourselves afresh. Somehow, the beyond breaks in; something  of God's grace and love transfigures us.

If narratives conveyed in a painting, on the stage or in lyrics captivate us, it's no wonder that Jesus used parables to communicate the love of God. Rather than being cryptic stories, they are means of making comparisons. In Mark's Gospel, Jesus describes God's kingdom in relation to things we already know. To understand God's ways we have to look around us, we find clues in the world.

If we pay attention to the dynamics of growth, we are reminded of the potential of small, seemingly insignificant things. The plant cuttings of Ezekiel become fruit producing trees, with boughs offering shade and nesting places. The seeds of Jesus' parable fall to the ground, die, sprout and bear a rich harvest. The tiniest of seeds contains nutrients, potential and energy; a slow process growth produces a great shrub; a place of sanctuary and rest.

God's Kingdom operates by this subtle process.  In creation, God reveals his love; in Jesus he reveals he desire to forgive; in the Spirit he continues to work in us.   Terry Eagleton, who's taking part in the festival, said in a review of Dawkins' The God Delusion: 'because the universe is God's it shares his life, which is the life of freedom... God is not an obstacle to our autonomy and enjoyment... but the power that allows us to be ourselves. Like the unconscious, he is closer to us that we are to ourselves'.

To be human is to seek after this love in which we live and move and have our being. The writers of the law and  psalms, the prophets, the poets and historians all witness to the promise of God's faithfulness despite our propensity to mess things up. God doesn't give up on us. In Jesus Christ, he dwells with us in our goodness and complexity.

He frees people from mental anguish; blesses children; subverts notions of greatness; heals the sick and restores them to community; he crosses boundaries of social acceptability.  Forgiveness is offered as he responds to the touch of one woman and the pleading of another.

He himself is like the seed in today's parable - falling to the ground, dying and bearing a rich harvest.  He faces suffering, abandonment, humiliation and death. His risen life bursts from the tomb. He pours out upon us the gift of his Spirit. A Spirit of inspiration, peace, joy, creativity, wisdom, kindness. A Spirit who leads us into all truth; its a daring Spirit, inviting us to pay attention in all our endeavours.

The artist Chris Gollon exemplifies such attentiveness. He has an extraordinary capacity to hold moments in stories. He attends to the gaps within narratives - the familiar, the unknown and the unresolved. Having collaborated with him for 18 months, it is wonderful that his work will be in your cathedral during the festival. Perhaps his most powerful image is that of Judas' Wife on display after this service.

Canon Anthony suggested her as a subject based on his theological work on Judas. What Gollon has done is pay deep attention to the words and silences of the biblical narrative; to the cries and bewilderment of our human grief. He coneys the despair wrought by betrayal, guilt and suicide. In her face we see the anguish of disrupted domesticity; the alienation of a heart-break so profound we cannot reach out to her. Nor can we look away.

This woman has lost her husband. This widow faces his complicity in Jesus' death.

And yet: without lessening the personal loss or minimising the horror, Gollon invites us to stand alongside her. The enduring impact of this painting isn't just a matter of human identification - as we see in an unknown woman all that we most fear. Gollon disrupts time: he holds a moment in a story that is ours and God's.

There are two deaths at the heart of the New Testament: Judas and Jesus.  Facing this dark hour, Bob Dylan sang: 'you'll have to decide / whether Judas Iscariot / had God on his side'. In Jesus, God is already there: healing wounds with the balm of love and forgiveness. There is no-longer any place where God is not.

In a violent and untimely death, there is the light and love that we cannot articulate. The graced-ness of Judas' Wife  is not born of naive optimism. Our hope flows from her endurance; her endurance from God's refusal to abandon us.

God's Spirit is at work in us - in our hesitant patterns of art and prayer. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, touches on this. He tells them that at times he is beside himself - perhaps taken beyond his body to that place beyond words; caught up in luminous intensity of God. At other times he is in his right mind - making connections, forming arguments, sharing his hopes, exhorting people to faithful endurance.  We, like him, are caught up in holy mysteries. We are a new creation; abiding in most excellent gift of love.

In this Eucharist, the stories of our lives are held and reframed; here the story of God's generous love is re-enacted. Here time and eternity meet. In bread, wine and blessing we find love, forgiveness and peace. We touch and taste and see how gracious the Lord is. Here we are renewed; transformed. We leave this sacred place to attend to a holy world; to be people who seek God's kingdom of justice, mercy, compassion, hope and love.

Today is a celebration, of art and religion because they call us to pay attention to what is happening around us; to find otherness in the ordinary. They draw us into a new reality; and change us. Rejoice in this festival season; may it enrich, console and inspire. May it bring forth a rich harvest of renewed communities. It is a sign of God's Kingdom; of God at work in human frailty, creativity and imagination.