Tomorrow lunch time I will attend a service at the former Anglican Chaplaincy to the University in Bangor where a sanctuary and a light is to be extinguished. I’m tempted to go in purple, in mourning. It was the place where I and so many others were nurtured in their vocation, either to the ordained ministry or to other forms of work for the kingdom of God – not necessarily for the church. It was a ministry on the edge, a cutting edge. An edge so sharp at times, that it cut through the establishment who either didn’t understand it or didn’t see its relevance to their lives. It was relevant to those who needed it, and there were so many who did. In everything that happened there I see the marks of the ministry of the Christ in Jesus’ earthly life. (Yes even in the parties.) To be specific a verse from the reading for today will do, though there are many others. Mark 6.56 The hem of the garment. Those who are brought to Jesus, we read, reach out and touch the edge of his garment for healing. This image appears earlier in Mark 5.28 (also Matthew and Luke) where the woman bleeding for many years pushes her way through the crowd to touch the hem of his garment with the faith that this small act will free her from her affliction. Reflect then on the image of the Hem of the Garment. If the church is often termed ‘the body of Christ’ then the outer garment is perhaps the place at which folk interact. Be it gatherings at church buildings or other places. The hem of the garment reflects those ways of being church that are often on the very fringes or the edge of the establishment. These can offer a touching place for those who are in need of a Sanctuary and a Light. They can be a place of healing. Often our church institutions are so very alien to folk that they do not know where to begin or how to even ask questions of faith and a spiritual life. How often do we hear, I’m not religious, but a spiritual person. That is, I might suggest, a reflection of Jesus, who embodied the Eternal Christ and challenged the man made religious institutions of his day. This is hem of the garment stuff. It is powerful, it rocks boats. It happens at the margins, where I might argue that the very best and most radical work of God always happens. To mention but a few: Communities such as Larche, Taize, Iona, Corrymeela, The Greenbelt Festival, Amelia Trust Farm. All these, and so many others challenge the establishment. They, to use a word of Bishop Andy from my licensing to this parish, ‘Controvert’. I ‘controvert’ the suggestion that this place which acted as ‘Hem of the Garment’ for students and staff at the university is no longer required. Why? Not simply because countless students before now have found it to be that Sanctuary and Light. Not only because it nurtured or sparked to life the vocations of so many who are now ordained or working for the kingdom, for peace, justice and reconciliation. Certainly not because I and others have sentimental attachment to the place itself – to be honest, the building itself is not what is important, they are as Justin Welby suggested, decorations. So why is such a place needed? Why not pitch ones tent as Abraham did and invite in those who need shelter? Because, not least in times of austerity, cuts and a culture of downsizing generally, when we cut off the hem of the garment we remove the very thing that connects us to those who need and cry out for what is at the core of the church. That is, in words of the church, the Love of God shown to us in the death of Jesus on a cross. In the words of Richard Rohr – God is crucified love. It doesn’t get any more simple than that. And in the words of Dante carved on a slate that sits in the peace and memorial garden at the Chaplaincy: ‘The love that moves the sun and the other stars.’ There is a desperate need for places of Love and of hospitality and of healing and of wholeness. A need for places to come and go from. To be sent out, but to be welcomed home once again. But also a need for ordinary places that can be marked out as those which become a sanctuary and a light. Sanctuary, because they offer shelter, warmth, hospitality and love. Light, because they show us a path to walk to the beat of a different drum. The hem of the garment is the point of contact, it is the touching place.
Words by John L. Bell:
Christ’s is the world in which we move;
Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;
Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,
and Christ is the one who meets us here.
To the lost Christ shows his face,
to the unloved he gives his embrace,
to those who cry in pain or disgrace
Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place.