Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (5)

Good Friday Sermon

Once upon a time there was a little boy. He was precocious and wanted to get the better of his aged teacher. One day he caught a butterfly and ran to the wise old mentor, seeking to catch him out. ‘I have a butterfly here – I bet you can’t tell me if it’s dead or alive!’ If the old teacher said that it was dead, he planned to release it to fly away. If the old one said it was alive, he would squish it to death. The old man gazed long and hard at the young boy, until he became uncomfortable. ‘It’s in your hands, my son.’

We hold much in our hands.

Take a moment to gaze at yours. The lines on your palms, the veins. Nails, cuticles, scars. So familiar, holding so much. They tell the story of your past; the years of care, of work, of labour. The times of holding – the hands of others, bodies, children, parents. The times when hands are midwives, when they bring things to birth, carrying; soothing and gentle. Our hands shape and mould. Sometimes they do bad things too. They hit. Or steal. They write cruel words. They bear the scars of mistakes, of worse. They kill butterflies.

Jesus stood before Pilate, silent, hands hanging uselessly by his side, a passive victim who also is the Truth, which cannot be dominated by force or power. Pilate can do nothing against him.

Pilate washes his hands of him.

Thomas could not believe. Unlike Mary the Magdalen, whose heart was ready to receive her Lord, Thomas is clouded, muddy with doubt. He needs to reach out his hands, even into the wounds of Christ, into the reality of what lies beneath the surface of the events that have happened. Until he meets his Lord and his God, he will not, cannot see more deeply into the love and new vision that is offered.

We wash our hands of goodness. We are clouded in our faith. We do worse.

The poet Elizabeth Jennings captures this, in her poem Friday.

We nailed the hands long ago,
Wove the thorns, took up the scourge and shouted
For excitement’s sake, we stood at the dusty edge
Of the pebbled path and watched the extreme of pain.
But one or two prayed, one or two
Were silent, shocked, stood back
And remembered remnants of words, a new vision.
The cross is up with its crying victim, the clouds
Cover the sun, we learn a new way to lose
What we did not know we had
Until this bleak and sacrificial day,
Until we turned from our bad
Past and knelt and cried out our dismay,
The dice still clicking, the voices dying away.  (Friday by Elizabeth Jennings)

Throughout this Holy Week we have considered our responsibility as stewards for the natural world, God’s creation. The future is in our hands: we can seek to bless the earth, rather than curse it. We can choose to use our hands to destroy or heal. To relinquish what is not needed; to restore the world around.

Jesus was not so concerned about whether his disciples washed their hands before eating; he wanted them to use their hands to touch the poor, the blind, the crippled. As he used his. His held the power to heal, to help people move from darkness to light. In all times, he brought a holy touch, whether the time was to be born, or to die; to break down or to build up.

Our hands are his hands in the world today. They are required to heal the world, this fragile earth.

This Holy Week we have considered the gardens, as a metaphor for God’s creation, now so under threat.

We have recalled that first garden, the garden of innocence, the garden tended by Adam and Eve before their fall from grace and banishment, where God walked in the cool of the evening.

On Tuesday we were in the garden of Gethsemane, remembering how Jesus reached the place and said to his disciples: ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial’. Jesus, in extremis, contemplating what lay ahead. As he retreated to the garden of Gethsemane, what did he go to find? This was no wilderness, no place of fasting, but rather a place where he could know again the strength that sustained him. A garden for the prayer of anguish, watered by his sweat that fell like great drops of blood down on the ground. We were with him in the darkness of our fears for the future. Remembering how, as the poem goes,

Into the woods my Master went,
Clean forspent, forspent.
Into the woods my Master came,
Forspent with love and shame.
But the olives they were not blind to him,
The little grey leaves were kind to him:
The thorn-trees had a mind to him
When into the woods he came.

Out of the woods my Master went,
And he was well content.
Out of the woods my Master came,
Content with death and shame.
When death and shame would woo him last,
From under the trees that drew him last:
‘Twas on a tree they slew him – last
When out of the woods he came. (A Ballad of Trees and the Master Sidney Lanier)

We have been in the garden of the tomb, and watched as Mary stretches out her hands to touch, although now is not the time. Noli me tangere, she is told.

She takes him to be the gardener, up early.

The first time the risen Christ is encountered is as a gardener.

Christ, the saviour of the world, a gardener. Indicating God’s care for the natural world, delight in beauty, concern for the smallest flower, the largest tree.

The gardener-Christ entranced Julian of Norwich. She wrote:

Outwardly, he looked as if he had been working hard for a long time, but to my inner understanding he seemed to be a beginner, a servant who had never been sent out before. Then I understood: he was to do work that was the hardest and most exhausting possible. He was to be a gardener, digging and banking, toiling and sweating, turning and trenching the ground, watering the plants the while.

And by keeping at this work he would make sweet streams to flow, find abundant fruits to grow; he would bring them to his lord, and serve them to his taste … I thought that in the Lord there was everlasting life and every goodness, except the treasure that was in the earth. And that treasure, too, had its being in the wonderful depth of his eternal love.

So, Julian of Norwich, speaking of the sweet fruits of life in Christ. The Christ who is gardener. Who seeks us to respond and nurture the natural world around us. To live within a new heaven, a new earth. A new vision, everlasting life, the treasure that was in the earth.

This time of the year is the time to be in the garden, pulling weeds, digging, planting out geraniums, snapdragon, forget-me-not, flowers to enjoy now and in the months to come.

Our hands, trimming and pruning, tending and nurturing, sore with cuts and blisters.

Our nails dirty with soil. As we throw away the stones, and gather the stones together, keeping and throwing away, restoring and destroying, we seek to return, perhaps, to that first garden of bliss, where God walked with the man and the woman at the time of the evening breeze. A place where we can know ourselves, and be known, as if for the first time.

We are in the garden of Gethesmane, in anguish at the state of our planet; deeply agitated as we contemplate a future we cannot know.

We are with Mary in the garden of the tomb, where Christ cannot be contained.

Richard Crashaw writes of the gift of freedom that is ours, because Christ was bound, hand and foot.

Thy hands to give thou canst not lift,
Yet will thy hand still giving be;
It gives, but O, itself’s the gift!
It gives tho’ bound, tho’ bound ‘tis free!  (Christ Crucified         Richard Crashaw)

We might imagine the hand of Christ holding open the gate to the garden, ready and waiting. Imagine the wounds still clearly there. The stigma, the wound, not healed, still flowing, lifeblood for the world.

Let us remember Christ’s hands, pinned to the tree, from which flowed life, from which rich gifts of grace and joy, through pain and suffering.

He challenges us to risk losing our defences, to stand before God without disguise. The God whose love does not let us go, but demands to prune us of the branches that bear no fruit. Our greed and disregard; our polluting ways; our carelessness and cruelty.

Let us hold out our hands towards God’s grace; empty of all but desire to hold the future of the earth, safe for our children and our grandchildren. Holding out our hands for grace to change, aware of our need to relearn innocence and live in harmony with God’s creation. Holding out our hands that we might allow Christ to garden us, to tend and watch over our souls, waiting for new growth.

Holding out our hands for the bread and wine that sustains us and makes us whole that we might garden the world around as we are gardened by Christ.

One thought on “Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (5)

  1. Hello. I looked you up on the internet after hearing your Good Friday sermon at Carlisle Cathedral, which my wife and I attended on a day trip to the city. What you’re aiming to do at CCL sounds very interesting indeed – brining a disciplined theological approach to Christian engagement with the world. I pray God’s blessing on this enterprise.

    It is in this spirit that I would like to seek discussion on some aspects of what you said.

    “The first time the risen Christ is encountered is as a gardener.” But the text in John explicitly tells us that the risen Christ was mistakenly encountered as a gardener. So I don’t quite see how one could go on to deduce from this text “Christ, the saviour of the world, a gardener. Indicating God’s care for the natural world, delight in beauty, concern for the smallest flower, the largest tree.” Is this not a case of already having ‘gardens’ in mind and trying to read it back into the text?

    Continuing with your garden them, you say, “we seek to return, perhaps, to that first garden of bliss” This surely goes against the grain the whole sweep of Scripture. The biggest surprise in the broad sweep of salvation history is precisely that after the first Garden, the visions in both third Isaiah and the Apocalypse show us neither a return to the old garden or the creation of a new garden, but, shockingly, a new city. Sure, the old city, epitomised by Babylon, was destroyed. But out of the ashes rises not a garden, but a city. It incorporates the tree of life from the first garden ‘for the healing of the nations’, sure; but a city it undoubtedly is. There was no return. That’s not the way of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

    The opening chapters of Genesis, of course, already hint at this. Commentators have long been puzzled by the ‘geographical detail’ of the four rivers. But (as I think is pointed out by von Rad in his commentary) ‘rivers’ speak of culture and civilisation, especially to the ancient Near Eastern mind – the text pointedly refers to gold, onyx, etc. – the ‘stuff’ of art and culture. Sinless men and women were meant to leave the garden to develop such cultural potential. Leaving, not returning, was ‘Plan A’.

    A careful reading of Isaiah also brings this out, but with a new twist to take cognisance of sin. All kinds of things are ‘burnt up’ in Chapters 1-39 – the cedars of Lebanon, the ships of Tarshish, etc. But, shockingly, all of these items are gathered into the New Jerusalem one by one in Chapters 40-66. No, the author was not confused. The cedars of Lebanon could be used to build siege engines; but they could also be used to glorify God and serve God’s people. ALL of human culture must be judged; but all of it can, and will be, be redeemed. Such redemption is uni-directional. Scripture seldom, if ever, speaks of return.

    A parable from Scripture itself might help. The confusion of tongues at Babel was a curse. But on Pentecost, the blessing of the coming of the Holy Spirit did not take the form of a return to a single tongue. God did not make everyone understand Hebrew. Instead, God made the Apostles speak (symbolically) all the languages. The curse becomes a blessing – a polyphonic symphony of praise from redeemed humanity to our ‘God of surprises’.

    All of this is crucially important point for developing a practical theology adequate for today’s crises. The Christian vision is not one of returning to the garden, but one of developing the right kind of ‘city of God’, incorporating all worthwhile aspects of gardens, for sure, but transforming it with all the products of human culture, too. That is why the Book of Revelations pictures the kings of the earth come marching in to the New Jerusalem, bringing their riches with them! Unless and until theologians learn how to affirm all the diverse aspects of human culture and stop speaking of ‘returning to the garden’, we will never even begin to take the first steps towards a Christian contribution to the healing of creation.

    As usual, R. S. Thomas got it right. His poem ‘Emerging’ (‘Not as in the old days I pray …’) ends with:

    Circular as our way
    is, it leads not back to that snake-haunted
    garden, but onward to the tall city
    of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.

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