Bishop Graham's farewell sermon in the Cathedral21 Jul 2019 By Bishop Graham
‘Finding Wisdom on the M5’: Bishop Graham's Leaving Service, Worcester Cathedral, 20 July. Job 28 and Hebrews 11.32-12.2
I did a calculation last week about how much time I have a spent on the M5 in the last five and a bit years. I worked it out as 858 hours, plus or minus a few hours. That’s just over five weeks. That’s five weeks of my life that I’m never going to get back! And in all that time there have been no roadworks between junctions 3 and 7 for exactly, yes, you’ve guessed it, five and a bit weeks!
Those who know me, know that I mostly listen to Radio 4. It’s a good run if I can get down the M5 between the racing tips and Thought for the Day. And my choice of CDs in the car is somewhat limited. To my embarrassment, when Jeremy Vine was given a lift in my car following his interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, he went through my CDs. Apparently he was impressed with my Runrig CD (think niche, Scottish, 1990’s), was indifferent to the Gregorian Chant, but was somewhat amused to notice a well-played copy of the Mamma Mia sound track! I blame my daughter.
As I’ve travelled down the M5 listening to ‘I have a dream, something good in everything I see’, I’ve found myself asking, with Job in our first reading, where wisdom can be seen? Job sits, scraping at his sores and tormented by his friends. His is a life where he has lost family and wealth and herds and home and now his health. Wisdom, he discovers, is not to be found down a mine, or the depths of the sea, or in a marketplace, but is only to be found in a new deep way of seeing. This is the type of seeing that we need in our nation at this time as we face divided communities, growing intolerance of minorities, threats from overseas – from friends and foes - and emerging technology where we have yet to fully work out its consequences. I hear the words of T.S. Eliot, in the chorus of his play ‘The Rock’:
- ‘Where is the Life we have lost in Living?
- Where is the Wisdom we have lost in Knowledge?
- Where is the Knowledge we have lost in Information?’
The answer can only be to ‘look to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith’ and then look out on the world with his eyes; to look and then to look yet more deeply again.
The early verses of the Job passage resonate with the story of the Black Country with its history of mining ‘in gloom and deep darkness’ and harnessing the fire from the bowels of the earth, which led Queen Victoria to close her carriage curtains when travelling through the area, so offended was she by the sight of the industrial landscape. In 1862, the American Consult to Birmingham described the area, in a diplomatic memo leak of his day, as ‘black by day and red by night’. Junction 3 of the M5 is my gateway to looking more deeply and seeing God’s wisdom in the people who have laboured in the factories and furnaces and call centres of the Black Country; the honest warmth of folk. And I’m grateful for God’s wisdom that I have gleaned from those of the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities, often over delicious meals, looking at holy texts together, and building bonds of friendship so that we stay strong during times when those who want to divide us shout their obscenities through megaphones.
Junction 4 makes me look towards Bromsgrove and Redditch and the farming communities to the south, much featured in The Archers. God’s wisdom that we glean from nature, from the plough turning the soil, the hedgerow folklore, and the rhythms of the seasons, that warn us how we need to tread more gently on this our island planet home.
Junction 4A, unlike the mines of Job, is ‘a path that the bird of prey know and the falcon’s eye has seen’, as I usually have a couple of kestrels or buzzards keeping sentinel overhead as I pass.
Junction 5, the turning to Droitwich, and I see more deeply the salt that our churches add to our communities, the light that is generated by them, the yeast that’s kneaded into the dough of life. I see these communities as treasure troves of wisdom, of generation passing on to generation the faith that comes to us from a great cloud of witnesses, many of whom, like Christians today in places of persecution, faced mocking, flogging, chains, imprisonment, and the sword. But they were alert to the wisdom of faith, kept the rumour of God alive, fanned the flames of the light of Christ, which means that we are gathered here today knowing the joy of faith in Jesus.
Junction 6, and I look towards the Malvern Hills, south to Bredon Hill, from ‘whence cometh my help’, and eastwards to Malvern and Pershore from whence cometh plums and asparagus. Beside junction 6 is a stand of Silver Birch which, in a low autumn sun, is simply stunning, and always reminds me of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ words, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil’.
And Junction 7 brings me here, to this fair city, and fine cathedral. Wisdom seems to permeate the stones and hang in the air. Here, I’ve witnessed women and men being licensed as Readers, and answering God’s call to be ordained deacon and priest in the Church of God. Here, I’ve Confirmed people with the words, ‘God has called you by name and made you his own’. Here, I’ve thought of the people of our link dioceses of Magdeburg, Peru and Morogoro and God’s wisdom that I have found through these companion links, knowing that in Morogoro Cathedral tomorrow there will be 8 ordinations to the diaconate, and 19 ordained priest. Here, I’ve sat in the silence of prayer and the prayer of silence seeking God’s wisdom with many of the intractable aspects of ministry. Here, I’ve pondered time and again what it means to join Jesus in running a different race. Here, where the Word is spoken, the bread broken, and wine is a token of divine love, I’ve tried to look deeply, reflecting on how I’ve seen that divine love played out the length and breadth of the diocese.
To a close colleague who has faced unbelievable personal difficulties, I’ve seen how God whispers “there is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it”. (John 1:5)
To a refugee whom I confirmed, amidst huge fear of deportation that he would be sent back to Iran where he was persecuted for his faith in Jesus Christ, I’ve seen how Jesus whispers “Come to me, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
To the woman living in the refuge in Dudley, her whole world collapsed around the children clinging to her knees, I’ve seen how the Holy Spirit whispers, “Nothing shall separate you from the love of God.” (Romans 8:39)
So, all this travelling up and down the M5 – what has its purpose been? I like to think that those five and a bit weeks of my life have been, in the words of the Welsh priest poet, R.S. Thomas, time not ‘not to arrive but to return home, laden with pollen you shall work up into the honey the mind feeds on’. It’s been about collecting the pollen of wisdom and having the time to work it into honey.
We have much to be thankful for in this second best diocese in the Church of England after Norwich! I have much to be thankful for in having served here.
I am hugely grateful to Bishop John and his team, colleagues in the bishops’ and archdeacons’ offices, and all of you, for how you have shaped me as a bishop. I came with much to learn. I leave with much to learn about the next step in this bizarre journey that God is calling me on as I seek, simply, to seek out the pollen of wisdom, ‘looking to Jesus’ in all that I do and am. Returning to the CDs in my car, in the immortal words of Abba, you took ‘a chance on me’. Thank you.