We are here today to recall the ministry and martyrdom of three men: Nicholas Ridley was a chaplain to Henry the Eighth and eventually the Bishop of Rochester. He was part of the group who drew up the first English Book of Common Prayer. Hugh Latimer was the Bishop of Worcester, a reformer who resigned under Henry the Eighth and was tried for heresy and sentenced to death under Mary. He was burned with Ridley on the 16th of October 1555 and assured his immortality that day with the line: "Be of good Cheer, Master Ridley,…. For we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace will never be put out."
Thomas Cranmer, in addition to be being the chief architect of much of the Prayer Book we use today, was the Archbishop both under Henry and Edward his son. The accession of Mary put him in the difficult position of obeying a monarch who reigned, he believed, as ordained by God, and who commanded him to return to a Roman Church. he could no longer serve. The path he traveled took him in the same direction as Ridley and Latimore, but because of his political acumen, it took a bit longer, and perhaps enabled him to do more lasting work. As one historian writes: "The extreme prudence of Cranmer, his timidity, his want of decision, his pliability, deplorable in certain cases,preserved him under the government….and thus saved, with his own life, the work for which he was required." He was burned on March 21, 1556.
Now this is no longer that world. You might get fired from a job, be on the hot seat from a boss or a committee, you might even have to jump through hoops in the various processes of the church, but it is unlikely you will have to go through fire. We now live, as T.S. Eliot writes, in "an age of
moderate vice and moderate virtue, when men will not lay down the cross because they will never assume it." And here in Berkeley, at the start of the 21st century, we reside in a calm and tepid climate and a lukewarm, post-Christian world, on the left margin of the prevailing power structure; a place where it is easy to overlook the fact that the church is more than a voluntary organization; that it is necessarily born out of, takes its place in, and is constituted by repeated onslaughts of life and death, flesh and blood, water and fire.
The fiery business of living and dying has come to be an invisible strata of modern American life, something hidden and often a little shameful. Lenny Bruce, the sixties comedian, called death "the last great obscenity in America." And yet it is death that calls to be reckoned with, that is at the heart of our spiritual life. the heart of living and dying. Death. Whether with the family gathered around the bedside, alone in the board and care, or with assembled crowds at a noisy bonfire; as well as the subtler deaths, the death of relationships, convictions, or love, or faith, or hope. Death is also, perhaps, the locus of something else. But my question is, how do you do
death? Where do you catch fire?
A year and half ago, three months before I came to CDSP, I became a short-term resident of the San Francisco Zen Center, partly because of my love for Thomas Merton, partly because I am so noisy for a contemplative, and partly, because of the death of several close family members and a brush with cancer (a melanoma that was contained), I was going a slow healing from tough wounds. And I thought that two hours of zazen meditation a day would hasten healing, calm me down. Fix me up. Major wrong move. Meditation is a cool way to allow the spirit to warm your heart, but it isn’t easy. All the pain jumped into the silence and the stillness and claimed allegiance, made noise, asked to be heard,. But after a time it got a little better and one day I was sitting there with a measure of peace, alone in the silence facing the wall in the morning silence of the Zendo when it hit me: this might be the way I meet my own death, death would be like this, I was facing the blank wall of my death. But it was also the same as the moment of birth, a vast opening, a breath of fresh air. And I knew that God is in either place, up against every wall and every threshold. at all times, in each death, peeling away the evasions and burning away all that is superfluous, abiding in all that is eternal, so that finally all that is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
So as every martyr’s death is a point of new creation is well as a kind of death in the old order; so every holocaust of the old, is a sort of Pentecost, a fire-work in which the spirit continues to brood over and refines creation;. a flaming birth of new possibility.
Cranmer writes this at the end of his life. "I have learned by experience that God never shines forth more brightly, and pours out the beams of his mercy and consolation, or of strength and firmness of spirit, more clearly impressively upon the minds of his people, than when they are under the most pain and distress."
We come here to taste death and learn life, to be warmed in the light of the saints and the martyrs. To catch fire for the kingdom .So come in further this morning, live and dwell into the deepest contradictions of your life and times, and combust there by the grace of God. And bring it all to the table, so that you may be reborn, again and again and again.
In the name of Christ.
The Feast of Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, Thomas Cranmer.
Bishops and Archbishop, 1555,1556
All Saints’ Chapel
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
October 16, 2000
Robert Whalley, Visiting Chaplain