Pentecost 11: a Kingdom that cannot be shaken

May the risen Lord Jesus bless us. May he watch over us and renew us as he renews the whole of creation. May our hearts and lives echo his love.  Amen

The secular world has been struggling in the last few weeks with the desire of the church – and Norwich Cathedral in particular – to reach out to the great world outside it: some of you may even have visited Norwich Cathedral’s Helterskelter by this time: it has been part of their campaign called ‘Seeing it Differently’. It has been meant to give visitors a chance to start conversations about the architecture,  and then possibly to lead on to a conversation about belief.  The Telegraph headlined: ‘Norwich Cathedral accused of treating God like a tourist attraction ’. The BBC – more middle-of-the road - gave us:  ‘Norwich Cathedral helter skelter offers new experience’. Metro told us it ‘gives a better view of the roof’ and Premier told us that ‘choristers and canons get first rides on cathedral helter-skelter.’

And then the Bishop of Lynn, Jonathan Mey, was invited to preach by the Dean of Norwich.  The Mail on line reported that, instead of using the pulpit,  he climbed to the summit of the helter skelter, delivered his sermon and slid down the helter-skelter to the ground.

It’s a great story. As far as I know – but what do I know – Brutus has no such proposals for us. But his aim with the Tuesday playgroup,  and with the open door of the church whenever possible, has been to encourage people to step inside: to become comfortable with the building and to begin to enjoy what’s on offer – from a decent cup of coffee to a well-planned service – to be able to hear the good news. Baptisms and weddings and funerals, concerts and carol services and Sunday school are all ways that we are drawn in. Many of us may well be here because something like that drew us in - even if not always with a helter skelter.

Because, how is God to reach out to her world and offer the hope and healing, the vision and energy for the future that is always so desperately needed? Our three amazing readings today show a reaching out through prophecy, and in discussion, and in action: three visions of a new world.

Isaiah was prophesying more than 700 years before Jesus and Jesus knew his words well. He describes how to live generously: ‘if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness… The Lord will guide you continually… you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water.’

In words that so many must long to hear today, he goes on: ‘Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt’ and he says this will happen ‘if you call the Sabbath a delight…if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests.’ Not to point the finger, not to lay burdens on others, not to serve our own interests – this is a demanding code to live by, but it makes for reconciliation and justice – living at peace.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is contrasting the experience of the Lord God that Moses had, and all the Israelites, long before Isaiah,  as they struggled through the wilderness,  with the revelation of God’s kingdom brought by Jesus: ‘You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them…but you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem….’ He is building on the same understanding of God as Isaiah.  Here the city has been built and is eternal – a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Luke’s story puts us in the everyday world: Jesus is teaching in a synagogue one Sabbath.  A woman appears who has suffered for 18 years from a crippling ‘spirit’ in her back. Jesus spots her and calls her over. Perhaps he knew her. ‘Woman you are set free from your ailment,’  he says, and then lays his hands on her.

This reading  has a special poignancy for me. Some of you will remember Phyl Cameron Johnson. Phyl was an active good neighbour and an adventurous traveller around the world, in Christian work. She was American and she and I shared a home here in Putney for many years.  I was the closest thing she had to family here. After her English husband died, she was firm that her home was in the UK and not back in the States. 

In December 2006, she was massively disabled by a stroke and she died in November 2010. In the four years in between, she had made an extraordinarily generous life out of her time at Ashmead Care Home: she took a great interest in all the staff; she had a wide correspondence and visits from friends. When she finally became fully reconciled to the fact that she would not walk again, she said to me, ‘if God wanted to heal me, he could – so he wants me to be here.’ Then, one night, I had a call from Ashmead at 1 in the morning. Phyl had been rushed to Charing Cross Hospital. 

As I left the house I grabbed a copy of Luke – Luke the doctor, the gentlest of the gospel writers – I wanted something with me in case she wanted to be read to. She was conscious when I arrived, and, while we waited, we chatted and I reached for the book. This was the passage where it opened –  it seemed so appropriate to her. A woman who has been so disabled for so long, meets Jesus – and she is healed. ‘Immediately she stood up and began praising God.’ I read it to Phyl. Soon after she was taken to a ward. When I saw her later that morning, she was unconscious and she died the following morning. I was sure she was praising God, freed from all disability.

But there is, of course, more in this story even than a wonderful healing. The healing is an act of compassion and love, and it fulfils what Isaiah says: if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable, if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own  interests…. then you shall take delight in the Lord… It gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Jesus – a young man of just 30 - notices and calls to this older woman: the fear of many older people –and certainly of older women – is of being overlooked, not cared about, being alone. Jesus calls her with complete respect, a daughter of Abraham  – and he heals her.

We have just sung ‘amazing grace’ – the hymn written by that battered old slave ship captain, John Newton. Newton’s life was changed in a different but equally startling way during a terrifying storm when he was a young man, crew on a slave ship. He had an experience of God’s presence and grace in those first moments. His beliefs and behaviour immediately changed.  He gave up swearing and drunkenness and exploiting women for sex. Like the person in the Isaiah prophecy, he stopped serving his own interests and going his own way.  But it was years before that worked into the rest of his life;  eventually  he gave up slaving altogether. Then he became ordained, and, then, as an older man and a priest with both the experience of the slave trade and the vision to end it, he played a key part in inspiring his friend, the young, rich and successful William Wilberforce,  MP for Hull,  to stay in Parliament and fight to end the slave trade. 

Our three readings bring together visions of the new world, the kingdom of heaven which is here and within us, which Jesus lived and died to bring. No longer is it like the ancient world of the Exodus from Egypt, and Moses’ encounters with God, where we need to be terrified of God.  No longer a God of terror and fear. But one who loves us and wants to heal us. The writer of Hebrews warns us that to refuse him is to place ourselves in danger of being ‘shaken’ and destroyed – but, he says, ‘since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.’ 

Jesus shows us in action that kingdom that cannot be shaken: ‘Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’ he asks the worshippers in the synagogue. The leader of the synagogue is indignant with him but the people round him are ‘rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.’

Words of hope, stories and prophecies of inspiration – that can stand beside us in difficult times. Our God, as the Hebrews writer says, ‘is a consuming fire’ – a fire that will burn up hypocrisy and treachery, selfishness, all kinds of sin – yes  – but a God who offers us – all of us – healing, hope, love, respect, and the certainty of ‘a kingdom that cannot be shaken.’ We can be like a spring of water. We can restore streets to live in. We can rejoice. 

Thanks be to God.

Laura Giffard