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Sermon for Easter 6 Evening Prayer Zephaniah 3

March 31, 2016

Zeph 3In 1922 64 year old Puccini was dying. He was determined to complete his opera Turandot . He worked on it day and night. When his illness worsened and Puccini knew his death would soon come he wrote to his students, “If I don’t finish Turandot I want you to finish it for me”. In 1924 he went to Brussels for surgery. He died there two days later. Back in Italy, his students met. They gathered the various scores for his opera and completed his final work. In 1926 the world premiere was performed in the La Scala opera house in Milan. It was directed by Puccini’s favourite student, Arturo Toscanini. Everything went beautifully until the orchestra reached the point where Puccini was forced to put down his pen. With tears running down the conductor’s face, he stopped the music, put down his baton, turned to the audience and cried out, “Thus far the master wrote, and then he died.” There was a long silence throughout the opera house. No one moved! No one spoke! After a couple of minutes, the conductor picked up his baton again, smiled through his tears and cried out, “But his disciples have finished his work.” When Turandot ended the audience broke into thunderous applause, there was not a dry eye in the house. What makes this work so great is that it is the work of more than one person. The master and his disciples did it together, and that is its’ glory

 

In today’s second reading, the master goes away and tells his disciples to finish his work: teach people to obey everything I have commanded you. And the chief command? Love. Love people and tell them that God loves them.

 

In our first reading, Zephaniah had the same message. The Lord has taken away the judgements against you, he has turned away your enemies. The mystic Julian of Norwich wrote this in her book of Revelations, ‘I saw truly that our Lord was never angry, and never will be … God is that goodness which cannot be angry, for God is nothing but goodness. Our soul is united to him who is unchangeable goodness … and between our soul and God there is no wrath. .
Sounds good – but people actually feel more secure with a God who keeps old scores, just like Zephaniah’s people felt safe behind their great, strong city walls. Whenever attackers came the people who lived and worked outside would rush behind them for protection. They couldn’t return to their houses and fields until the foe was gone. So Zephaniah urges them: Do not fear, O Zion;…I will remove disaster from you,…
I will bring you home.
We feel safe behind our walls, the walls of routine, our preoccupation with imitating others, our rush to own the latest must-buy. A little later in her book Julian tells a parable. A Lord sent a servant away on an errand. The servant ‘dashes off and runs at great speed, loving to do his Lord’s will’, he is so enthusiastic he falls into a ditch and finds himself apparently without any assistance. Julian says he is so preoccupied with his own condition that he cannot see his loving Lord who is very close to him. She also says that she looked carefully to see if she could detect any fault in the servant, ‘and truly none was seen, for the only cause of his falling was his goodwill and his great desire’.
The reason we fall out of God’s sight, Julian implies, is nothing to do with God, whose gaze is constant, but to do with our preoccupation with our task. We become, she says, blinded in our reason and perplexed in our mind ‘so that we had almost forgotten our own love’ Julian goes on to say that there is a moment when what she calls our ‘spiritual eye’ will be opened. We will turn and see and acknowledge our haste and preoccupation with achievement, our foolishness, and come to see that the Lord was always standing there looking at us tenderly. Nearer than breathing – Matthews p. 76

 

Just as Mary Magdalene suddenly saw the Risen Jesus, we have to stop hiding behind our walls, get used to their absence. We even have to stop hiding behind a nice, warm faith. The disciples had to cope with the ascension, cope with the absence of Jesus. Simon Tugwell wrote ‘All our jockeying for position, striving to get ourselves into a powerful and influential place, is the bluster which comes from a relative emptiness ….We must learn to be incomplete, a space within which God can act . . .‘

 

Langlais, Poulenc and Stravinsky composed some of the most terrifying settings of the mass. The effect of this music is electric but it can leave you empty, stripped out, not full of warmth or a sense of majesty, as you are, say, after listening to Stanford or Howells. After Langlais’ Messe Solennelle you are scrubbed clean, as Eckhart says, ‘without images’. And it is then at that point, when you are emptied, have relinquished all things, that you are, literally, full of joy. You have become a space within which God can act. Nearer than breathing – Matthews p.118-9

 

The angel told Mary, He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee. Let us go to Galilee, the place of our everyday, secular lives. stripped of our security but knowing that between our soul and God there is no wrath and thereby able to love people and tell them that God loves them.

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