Rowan Williams’ sermon at St Dunstan’s Church on July 27, 2008:
All three of our Bible readings this morning show us people who suddenly find themselves helpless and threatened. Jesus’ friends on board ship are at risk of drowning as an unexpected storm hits them. The woman dragged before Jesus is not only at risk of being lynched, her shame and guilt are exposed in front of everyone – and this in a society like many that still exist today where ‘social death’ is almost as frightening as literal death for women who lose their honour. And Mary and Martha are left stranded and disoriented by bereavement – probably for most of us the experience that is most likely to knock us sideways and leave us, like Mary and Martha, lost for words, tempted to look around for someone to blame, maybe none too sure about what we believe.
And in all these stories of threats and insecurities, Jesus doesn’t instantly solve all the problems as if with a magic wand. First he simply tells people that he’s there, and the fact that he’s there begins to make the difference. Even before he opens the grave and brings Lazarus back to life, he tells Martha, ‘Where I am, there is always new life’. When the sinful woman is brought to him, he initially says nothing; when the woman is left alone with him, she only has to look and listen, and she knows that there is hope for her: the hostile, merciless shouts have fallen silent, and in that silence her heart can expand and her soul come back to life. And for the disciples in the storm-tossed boat, the first thing they hear is, ‘It is I’: I am here, and as long as I am here there is something greater and deeper than your fear of danger.
So much of what we’ve heard about in our service this morning has been about situations of threat and helplessness; and we’ve heard from some of our brothers and sisters who witness in these places as part of a church that is by no means powerful. It may be a minority in a non-Christian setting, or it may be a tiny presence in a much bigger Christian spectrum, or it may be harassed and deprived of resources and security. These are not churches that can solve problems by their wealth and influence – though it’s extraordinary just how much these small or poor churches do achieve in reconciliation and empowerment. But all of them seek simply to do and say what Jesus did –He’s here they say. ‘We’re here to tell you that he’s here; and if he’s here, then whatever it may feel like, you’re not alone and you’re not trapped.’
This Conference is a time when we can tell each other – and tell the world – about this first and most important job that Anglicans, like other Christians, do: being there, so that they can say ‘Christ is here; you’re not alone.’ They say it where there is daily terror and death, where large communities know levels of daily bereavement we can’t imagine – in Sudan and Zimbabwe and the Philippines and Sri Lanka; where populations starve or are driven from their homes, where those who struggle for justice and honesty may be abducted and killed. They say it where generations are being wiped out through the HIV/AIDS pandemic – where many, especially women, bear the load not only of poverty and disease but public stigma as well. They say it where Christians are threatened by storms of prejudice and violence among non-Christian neighbours. And they say it too where people who seem to be comfortable and at ease begin to face their own inner chaos and wonder what they really believe and whether there’s anything or anyone they can trust.
Last week, at one of the morning services at the Conference, one of our African bishops spoke powerfully about how Jesus himself is the gift, even before he does anything, heals or feeds anyone, and, he said, we have to ask, ‘What if the Church itself is the gift, the sign of something new and life giving, even before it solves any problems, brings peace or prosperity or education or medicine?’
It’s a very good question. And if we want to answer that, yes, the Church itself really is the gift, then the Church has to look like a gift. It has to look like a solace where people don’t seem to be alone or trapped, anxious and fearful: a place where people seem to live in a larger more joyous and hopeful atmosphere, and where they are treasured and nourished as precious images of GOD.
Churches that are divided and fearful and inward-looking don’t easily give that message; and our Anglican family badly needs to find some ways of resolving its internal tensions that will set it free to be more confidently what GOD wants it to be. Part of our agenda at this Conference is to do with this. But our willingness to work at it constructively has a lot to do with hearing good news from our own members – the sort of good news we’ve heard something of this morning.
As our brothers and sisters from these places of conflict and crisis remind us of how they daily try to be a real gift to their neighbours, assuring them that they’re not alone and not trapped, they remind all of us in the Anglican family that when we feel helpless, storm-tossed or bereaved as we think about our Church conflicts, Jesus is here with us too, saying,, ‘Where I am there is life. I don’t condemn you. Don’t be afraid. I am here.’
We’ll be praying, then, that GOD will help us sort out some of our tensions as we listen to this good news – so that we can go on saying it with joy and conviction to the world around. Men and women here and worldwide live in different kinds of helplessness –it may be through poverty and disease, it may be through personal loss or doubt or pain or shame. But in all these circumstances, the one thing we know is that the life and the love of GOD in Jesus are never absent. We may not see it all at once, but there is a door out of the prison into a new world, a holy world, where healing and mercy can hold of us.