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Sermon: A death in the family

In his Sunday sermon, Dean Frank Nelson reflects on the decision of Bishop Tom Brown to leave his marriage and hand in his licence.

Frank Nelson  |  28 Aug 2012

In the following sermon, Dean Frank Nelson reflects on Bishop Tom Brown's decision to leave his marriage and hand in his licence. Dean Frank will leave Wellington Cathedral of St Paul in September to become Dean of St Peter's Cathedral, Adelaide.

“Anglican Bishop gives up priesthood”.

The headlines in yesterday’s Dominion Post will have come as a shock to many, and something of a relief to others.

For those who have known, it will be a relief that it is now public. For those who did not know there will be shock and, for all, a range of different emotions running through our heads.

Among them that marital death happens to politicians, film stars, ordinary people – but not a bishop and his wife, not people we know and love as part of our church, our cathedral community!

But of course it can and does, for bishops, like the rest of us, are human too. It is not for me, and certainly not in the course of a sermon, to pick over the story. Our task surely is to offer support and prayer where we can, knowing that that is what our Lord would both want and do.

It’s a funny old world, this religious world of our beloved Anglican Church.

We rightly have high expectations of our leaders – whether bishop, dean, vicar or any of those called to ordination; just as we do of those elected to be church wardens and vestry members. None would want it any other way.

Yet when we get the news of a marriage break-up, under whatever circumstances, it is, in a very real sense, like a death in the family. And it is not easy to deal with – either for those directly involved, or for those who looked to the particular person for leadership.

In a brief note to the clergy of the diocese, alerting us that the story was about to break in the news media, Bishop Justin wrote this: “Jenny and I have reflected that one biblical approach we can take at this time is to pull the log out of our own eyes. So we are reaffirming and strengthening our marriage bonds at this time.”

Christine and I have been thinking along similar lines. It’s a positive thing to do – to reaffirm and strengthen our own marriage bonds.

In fact, the principle can be applied to all our relationships – whatever they are – along with a reminder that good relationships don’t just happen of themselves; they require frequent, intentional and usually quite hard work.

I have found myself thinking back to some words I said at the funeral of the three little triplets who died in Dohar, and were buried from this cathedral:

“If there is one thing each of us here, each one watching or listening, can learn and do from this service – it is to cherish today’s precious moments of life with those we love.” 

It’s an interesting word that – cherish. Not one we use every day. It appears in the marriage vows – “to love and to cherish” – and I wonder what it means to you?

I sometimes think of someone who has only one pot-plant on their window sill. It needs constant attention and care; water, light, food and plenty of healthy conversation. Others may think of cherish in the context of the vulnerability of a new born.

However you understand it, to cherish and be cherished speaks of a dynamic relationship.

It may be helpful to delve into the Bible, that source of story and wisdom that informs God’s relationship with us as the church.

Over and over again we find God in a covenant relationship with people. These are real people – warts and all.

One doesn’t have to read very much of the Bible to see this. The extraordinary thing about God and both the Jewish and Christian story (and remember they are the same story for much of the time) is that God, in God’s cherishing, works with very ordinary everyday people.

Our readings today, set down in the Lectionary, point to this reality. Solomon prays before the altar of God recognising his own weakness and that of the people he leads. “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.” (1 Kings 8: 30)

The passage from John 6 suggests that even those very close to Jesus had difficulty in accepting his teaching. “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6: 69) And Paul, who sketches out those majestic words about putting on the whole armour of God, knew what it meant to fall well short of God’s measure.

Christianity is a religion like no other. Nowhere else do we find God entering so completely into the human world.

At the very heart of Christianity is the belief that God became a human being, the Word became flesh, incarnate. And that means having to deal with relationships – between God and people, between people and people.

It’s all very well to speak about high-sounding principles – love, justice, truth, faith, peace. It’s another thing to live them out in our relationships with one another.

At times, and this may be one of them, we may feel overwhelmed by the raw emotions of grief: sadness, anger, rage, bewilderment, disappointment, betrayal even.

The psalmist frequently expresses these emotions, not shying away from naming them. And Jesus, surely, must have known them all in his dealings with those close to him. The liturgy of the church, invites us to be honest before God, not pretending things aren’t as they are.

Well before the story in yesterday’s paper broke, I wrote the words on page 3 of the Today Sheet.

I had intended to speak mainly about Ephesians 6, and Paul’s urging to put on the whole armour of God in order that we may be able to withstand on that evil day.

I wrote them with a number of events in mind: last weekend’s boating tragedy near Petone; the broken oar that cost our Olympic rowers a medal; the all-too-frequent mention of people killed in motor-accidents not wearing seat-belts; my lending of jump-leads to a recent visitor from the Wairarapa stranded in our car park.

It’s about being prepared, thinking ahead, doing the best we can. And even then, things can go wrong.

I am very conscious of the concern expressed in another article in yesterday’s paper – by the father of a NZ soldier in Afghanistan.

Ben Thomas, whose concerns for the safety of his son were the focus of the article, was a verger here some years ago, one of his sons a junior chorister here. Despite the very best of equipment and training, in war bombs explode, people are killed and in life, relationships end.

Paul’s imagery of the well-equipped soldier may not be the most helpful in our day, but it underlines the need to keep focused on the important things in life.

Among those are to cherish our loved ones and the relationships we have with each other.

The Very Rev Frank Nelson is Dean of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul. This sermon was preached in St Paul's on Sunday, August 26.