Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

Remembrance Sunday 2018

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Remembrance Sunday 2018.

Rev’d Simon Buckley.

What have the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and the author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy- got in common? Apart from being writers of course, it is that they both became pacifists after fighting in the Crimean war of the mid 19th century. For them both it was a reaction to the futility and carnage of war that they had witnessed when combined with the vision of the new world order set out by Jesus in the beatitudes- the sermon on the mount- that provided their motivation and inspiration. Shaw was to write at the outbreak of World War I “Unless we are all prepared to fight Militarism at home as well as abroad, the cessation of hostilities will last only until the belligerents have recovered from their exhaustion”. If this was a University seminar I guess I’d now say “discuss” !

As we look back one hundred and four years since he wrote those words, and exactly one hundred years since the ‘war to end all wars’ drew its bloody conclusion, it does feel as though we only have times of peace while the war-mongers are gathering strength for another, or a different, fight. Has there been a moment in time when, whether on this shore or another, there hasn’t been some war or conflict being waged? The end of one war can feel like an interlude before the next.

Trawling the resources for commemorating the Centenary of the end of the First World War for today’s service I failed to find the glorious words of celebration and victory, that I just could not feel or manufacture on my own. Perhaps because others felt a similar unease and even a hundred years on the end of WWI is best marked with grateful silence.

After all how do you mark-

Ten million soldiers dead. Perhaps twenty million maimed. Perhaps twenty million children without fathers. Perhaps thirty million families bereaved, handicapped, distressed as a direct result of the fighting. Thousands of homes destroyed, land ruined. Mass deportation into slavery. Hundreds of thousands dead of starvation. One million Armenians massacred by the Turks. Triumph no-where. Human dignity, self-respect; torn to pieces. A monumental failure for humankind – a failure to speak and listen, to find common ground, to negotiate. A futile, illogical and mindless reliance on the use of force which devastated the user and victim alike, illustrating the fact that no other species is capable of causing horror and distress on such a scale. Humankind had created powers that collectively it had neither the intelligence nor the morality to control.

One hundred years on we cannot celebrate the end of that war and simply mark as a footnote that:

More than a hundred million people have died in wars since then. The twentieth century became the century of war; to which the First World War was merely an overture.  Nor can we ignore the fact that those who ordered their nations into action, and less still, those who so willingly obeyed the call to war had no clear concept of what it was meant to achieve. They fought frequently for crudely nationalistic and personal reasons.

Once the British people had committed themselves to war to save Belgium (and Britain) from the German invasion they accepted extensions of the war without a murmur of protest. Women and Men found themselves fighting and dying in other parts of the world for reasons that probably made very  little sense.

All they could do was “pack up their troubles in their old kit bag and (through gritted teeth) smile, smile, smile”.

The poet Carol Ann Duffy captures something of the futility, the anger and hopelessness that a war, even one called ‘Great’ can leave us feeling:

(The Wound in Time: Carol Ann Duffy)

It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.
Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;
the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching
new carnage. But how could you know, brave
as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?
The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air.
Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love
you gave your world for; the town squares silent,
awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

Every war is another ‘wound in time’ that scars humanity and the world it inhabits.

It is, I think, the reading of the names that are engraved on our war memorials that is most poignant on Remembrance Sunday- when the ‘ten million’ victims become recognised as individuals and are named as residents of Soho, our neighbours past. Naming them is important- it turns them from statistics into people and restores their dignity: the very opposite of swapping a name for a number tattooed on the arm at the entrance to Auschwitz. As the prophet Isaiah records God say “I have called you by name, you are mine”. We are precious individuals not nameless statistics to God.

There are two accounts of Jesus calling groups of disciples to follow him: There’s the group of seventy-two unnamed recruits sent out on his mission, but it is the smaller group of twelve named individuals who put down their fishing nets or left their homes and followed him who inspire our admiration and capture our attention more. Their names read like a roll-call of enlisting soldiers in some of the gospels, falling into line in response to Jesus proclaiming the Good News of God’s coming kingdom; just like those farmers who one hundred and four years ago put down their scythes and left their fields to enlist and fight an uncertain cause.

Did either, or both groups, give their lives in vain? God’s kingdom is both present and yet far from fully realised; and we continue to have only outbreaks of peace in a world that feels as dangerous, if not more dangerous- albeit in a different way- than it did a century ago.

Perhaps peace, like justice or healing cannot be achieved and ticked off like an item on a shopping list, achieved by one generation in a single window in history, but are things that must be continually striven for, rediscovered and maybe even fought for afresh in every generation. Like space travel- the moon that was once the goal has been discovered to be almost a landmark to a greater unseen world. Like a marriage in which the wedding is both the consummation of the couple’s love and the beginning of a daily process of falling more closely in love. So, the quest for peace will, inevitably, be a timeless one.

We must not only learn from those who have gone before, but recognise we could not be -even where we are– without their courage, their sacrifice, their willingness to respond to hearing their name called. Without Peter and James and John and others like them there would be no church. Without Charles Ablewhite, Harold Allen and Sidney Appleby and all their comrades whose names we read from our war memorial earlier, there would arguably be less peace than we have known. For all the apparent futility of war, their sacrifice need not have been in vain.

(In Flanders Fields- By John McRae)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Whether their deaths were in vain really lies within our hands: Whether we continue their work – their ‘quarrel with the foe’ and hold high the torch they throw to us, working for peace in our own lives, community, nation and world. The ‘war to end all wars’?

Christ calls each of us by name to each play our small part in making it so.

Amen.

 

 

 

Highlighted text in italics and poetry from :

http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/end_First_World_War.html

“Do not be like the Gentiles…”

Monday, October 8th, 2018

A sermon preached by the Revd Simon Buckley

19th Sunday After Trinity (BCP Lectionary)- Ephesians 4:17, Matt 9:1

 

Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the gentiles live.

The opening verse from today’s first reading from one of the letters of St Paul.

Paul, though now a Christian following his conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, still regarded himself as being a good Jewish boy and a Pharisee at that, so he had a pretty low opinion of the gentiles: the non-Jew. And on his travels spreading the gospel throughout the Mediterranean he saw all manner of behaviour amongst the Gentiles that appalled him and he wanted there to be no possibility that Christians could be confused with them. The lives of the Christians, he knew, should be distinctively different to the pagan gentiles. For Paul one way to do this was to keep the Jewish traditions- and you may remember that there was much discussion within the early church as to whether Gentile converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised according to the Jewish law.

The Council of Jerusalem, which we read about in Acts Chapter 15 was the very first church council and called to resolve this very dispute between the apostles – how much ‘Jewishness’ it was necessary for the Gentiles to practice once they’d become Christians. In a wonderful compromise (that demonstrates why the Anglican middle way is always right!) Paul says, ok- no need for circumcision just avoid fornication, eating any meat bought in the market that has been offered to an idol- a false God- and don’t eat meat with blood still in it (blood being understood to be the life and essence of another being). But even in that, Paul sets out these standards with some equivocation: in his first letter to the Corinthians he says it was only necessary to avoid meat offered to idols if eating it would offend someone else at the table. The Christian is given freedom to act and his or her actions should be carried out with consideration of others. An equivalent might be to say that whilst it’s fine for Christians to drink alcohol, if you’re out for dinner with someone who goes to AA the Christian thing to do would be to avoid the booze and have an elderflower cordial!

So, Paul in this regard, and indeed others, is not the absolutist that he sometimes appears to be. Yes, a man of principle and absolute conviction: he didn’t repeatedly risk his life and finally die a martyr out of some wishy-washy values based on an ‘anything goes’ religion. Far from it.  There was a fundamental difference between how he lived and the gentiles lived that transcended him continuing to observing pharisaic practices. That fundamental difference is found in that opening verse from today’s epistle: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live in the futility of their minds. That was the difference. They thought life was futile: how we live makes no difference because we’re all going to die anyway; whereas for the Christian life is not futile – it has meaning and purpose even though and supremely because we will die (and of course the early church thought that -through the second coming- death for all was immanent).  For the Gentile life had no meaning– itwas pointless, so you may as well just enjoy it in any way you see fit, the “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” mentality; but for the Christian life has a point beyond mere existence that gives life worth and which recognises the dignity of others who we share our lives with.

I do find it interesting at times the things people expect me to do, or not do, as a priest: as a ‘card-carrying’ Christian. I’ve had someone express surprise at seeing me in a short-sleeved shirt- “oh I thought you’d need to keep covered up”,  assumed I’d be offended when they’ve sworn in front of me (though they’d not given a second  thought to the number of times they’d used the name of Jesus as a swear word), some expect me to be tee-total and others assume that, as a member of the clergy, I must be a secret alcoholic. As Jesus commented – people were repulsed by John the Baptist’s life of extreme austerity and equally appalled that Jesus was happy to have a drink with the local riff raff. The life of a Christian should have a distinctive quality – discernible to those with eyes to see it- but it should not rest on simply what they eat or drink.

What makes the Christian’s life distinctive is that it does not believe that life is futile: to quote Paul, they are not alienated from the life of God and they have not lost all sensitivity to their neighbour. As St Paul goes on to say in rather more florid language than I’m using now the Christian is different from the gentile because their ‘new self’ is lived in relationship to God in whose love life is eternal, and with other people whose lives we recognise as having as much worth as our own. Life’s not futile, it has purpose; and every day, every moment is an opportunity to live more fully and help others be more fully alive.

What makes the Christian identifiably different- it is that the word ‘pointless’ isn’t in our vocabulary (unless we’re referring to a popular tv quiz show). Life isn’t futile, we are filled with power and potential and opportunity and everything we do- no matter how small it may be can have a positive impact, it can have real meaning for them and for us. Of course, we are surrounded by situations that we look at and feel utterly powerless to transform. The heart-breaking pictures on television again this week of the vast swathes of plastic polluting our rivers, oceans and shorelines with its tragic and devastating effects on wildlife can leave us thinking what can I do? The sight of people sleeping in cardboard boxes on the streets of this neighbourhood, the irritating people who even at 7.30 in the morning are hassling me for money you know isn’t for a hostel or breakfast but for a £10 wrap of crack waiting to be collected behind McDonalds; the pitiful plight of the people of Sulawesi who have lost everything. The list could go on and on…

None of us can individually clean up the oceans, rid people of their addictions, house the homeless or rebuild the lives of Indonesian people. I often joke to people that at my ordination I wasn’t given a magic wand but a plastic collar (and I had to buy that myself). We can’t suddenly change the world, but what as Christians we absolutely cannot do is say ‘there’s nothing to be done’, or worse still, ‘it’s not my problem’. Christians do not pass by on the other side of the road: they recognise that there is value in trying to do something. Not because they have superior levels of compassion to the gentiles, nor because they are they necessarily blessed with super powers that can turn cardboard boxes into new build homes, but because they believe that life isn’t futile and so it’s worth doing something and no act of kindness, no matter how small, is futile either. Something as small as swapping plastic for than paper drinking straws, as we discovering, can make a genuine difference to our environment.

I absolutely believe that trusting that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour of the World should make a difference to the way we live our lives as Christians. It won’t make us perfect, not by a long shot. It doesn’t guarantee us lives free from pain or misfortune. It won’t even stop us from occasionally looking wistfully at the other side of the road when the cares of the world feel overwhelming. But after an occasional slip across the road for a walk in the shade, knowing others haven’t crossed over, we will return again -not out of guilt but out of love for a world so full of hope, of worth and rich in meaning.

I believe too that just as the Christian faith makes a difference to our individual lives this church- which is each of us gathered ‘en masse’ (or you could say ‘at Mass’!) should make a difference to this community. It is significant that people still turn to the church, this church, when there is no-one else to turn to. When everyone else has said ‘there’s no point…. there’s nothing to be done… life is futile’. The church- we– still stand as sign that life’s not hopeless, just difficult at times; and whilst our acts of kindness may not always send those who come here walking away exactly carrying their beds, it often leaves them sitting up in bed a little more upright. People frequently thank me, not for completely changing their lives round- as we generally don’t achieve that- but for some small gesture, deed or word through which they were treated as humans. Nothing we do is ultimately futile and together, by the inspiration and grace of God we can live differently and we can make a real difference in our world.

So those are the thoughts of your Rector this morning at the end of another very full week, as many of yours will have been too… and on the brink of another when we wonder what will come our way.

Let me return to St Paul,

Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart…. As Christians clothe yourselves with your new self, created according to the likeness of God and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Amen.

In Word and Deed

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Proper 17 year B 2018

James 1:17-27

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Rev’d Simon Buckley.

There are occasions when the connection between the two readings set for our Sunday service can be rather tenuous. However, that can’t be said of today’s readings which hammer home to us that true faith results in good actions. Belief should blossom into righteous activity.

From the letter of James we heard:

Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves… they’re like people who look in a mirror and going away forget what they saw. Don’t be hearers who forget but doers who act – those who do will be blessed in their doing.

And then in the gospel we hear the Pharisees berating the disciples for not being doers… for hearing the law of Moses (including the detailed rituals about washing up) and not following it.

And Jesus kicks the proverbial ball right back to the Pharisees team by quoting the prophet Isaiah back to them:

This people honours me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me teaching human precepts as doctrines.

The Pharisees were doers, but of the easy bits of their religion: the overtly religious practices and observance for all to see. Doers of man-made rituals (and there it is accurate to use gender specific language!) rather than doers of what God really longed for. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is exposed.

Back to the apostle James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.

These were not new injunctions made up by James in the light of his understanding of God revealed through Jesus Christ, but direct quotations from the books of Moses themselves, from Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the prophet Isaiah too [1].

The Pharisees thought they were in control of the ball, but they’ve dropped it badly, the Christians have scored, the game is over and we (the crowd) go wild!

But of course this isn’t simply a game of football (though I’m reminded of the Liverpool manager Bill Shankley who quipped “football isn’t a matter of life and death- it’s much more serious than that!”). What we have here is genuinely a tragedy. Because the great sadness was that the Pharisees, who had spent more time than any others on studying the scriptures, on reading what God wanted them to do and how he longed for the whole people of Israel to live, either failed to see it or had lost sight of it. They who should have been best equipped to live righteous lives were amongst the least righteous, and they who should have been the first to recognise the righteousness of Christ were of course the last. Even the centurion at the foot of the cross was to be ahead of them in saying ‘truly this man was the Son of God’ and didn’t Pilate dither and said he failed to see the evil in him that the Pharisees claimed to.

It is easy though to read the gospels and demonise the Pharisees, who weren’t intentionally nasty but just blind to their shortcomings, partial in their reading of scripture, selective in their hearing of God’s call on their lives ….. just, indeed, as we can all be. Sometimes deliberately (like kids ignoring their parent’s instruction to tidy their bedroom) and sometimes innocently or ignorantly.

The charge of hypocrisy is one that is thrown at religious people all too frequently. It’s often an easy way to dismiss all people of faith and the faith, usually by those with no faith- who in doing so assume a moral superiority that no truly religiously person would ever claim for themselves. But it is the case that – and I realise that as I say this I set myself like a coconut in a coconut shy in the village fete, ready to be knocked off its pedestal- it is the case that those who claim to take their religion seriously (clergy amongst them) should be seen to take that religion seriously, though there’s a strong chance they will practice it imperfectly. But their seriousness will be seen not by the sentences they craft to deliver in church on a Sunday morning but by the things they do on a Monday afternoon. When not as hearers of the word or reciters of the word they are revealed to be doers of the word.

It is both a cliché and a truism that actions speak louder than words, which is why it’s unsurprising that, for all Pope Francis’s warmth, humility and humanity, those who have suffered abuse at the hands of clergy, have said they’ve had enough of even his words and that it is time for them to see action- not least amongst the clergy (who like the Pharisees of whom better should have been expected). And they don’t just want religious actions: prayers of penitence or acts of fasting can simply become the washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles for the present day. They want real root and branch change. As the Archbishop of Dublin has said, “saying sorry is not enough- the structures in the Roman Catholic Church that permit, facilitate or cover-up abuse must be broken down and broken down for ever and everywhere”. Actions are needed that prove the words are sincere.

But where does that leave us who will hear the words of scripture again today to be not merely hearers but doers: we who know we can be slow to listen but quick to anger, to those of us who are yet to recognise let alone banish any ‘sordidness and rank growth of wickedness’ as James put it, or who struggle to control any of the list of sinful, destructive, desires that Jesus recognises people frequently experience within themselves. Is our religion ‘worthless’ if it doesn’t somehow make us perfect? Do we abandon the Christian faith and the church because we don’t see it making us or others perfect?

A letter in last week’s edition of the Tablet articulated the dilemma that many Catholics have faced as their faith has been dashed by the behaviour of those in whom they had previously put their trust:

Every day it seems, reports emerge about the wickedness of clergy, men who would claim to be called by God….l. The average catholic is bewildered and ashamed. We ask ourselves, do we give up on our faith? ….The answer must be no. The tempest tossed church will survive. Jesus Christ came for sinners and we are all sinners. Our faith is not in sinful men (sic) but in Christ Jesus.[2]

 And to put faith in Jesus Christ is not only to believe words about him, but to seek to live like him. To live that true religion which is not about doctrine and ritual but about growing in love, real costly, self-giving love for our neighbour- the orphans and widows in their distress amongst them. That’s what putting our faith in Christ calls us to accept: a different way of life where we do try and keep ourselves unstained by the world (to quote the letter of James again) because the world tells us me that I am the most important person in it, whereas the faith of Jesus puts the other at the centre. And what a different world, what a truly religious world it would be if we each put the other before ourselves: their needs, their experiences, their difference, the image of God as it uniquely resides in them, before ourselves.

Is such a world one to genuinely strive for- I would hope so. Is it achievable? Probably not. As my college principle quipped one day when he saw two ordinands, priests in training, simultaneously holding doors open and each refusing to budge before the other; “Ah” he said “what has four legs and four arms but can’t fit through a door? Two Christians”. It is perhaps both an unattainable and maybe impossible ideal for everyone to put the other first, but nevertheless we cannot shift concern and care for the other from being at the centre of our faith- if we are to be holy doers. And if neither of those ordinands had bothered to hold the door open for the other then I think we would have all said ‘they’re not very Christian are they?”.

Like those ordinands, we won’t always be able to win. And perhaps what is most important is that we never try and fool ourselves that we have won, that we fall into the trap of the Pharisees of believing we’re in the first division when in truth we’re in the bottom of the league table.

Rather we need to recognise that although we’re lousy players, by faith in the grace of Christ we are on the winning team and every day we are called to practice.

To return to the new hymn we sang earlier:

Walk with our God, humbly each day,

Help us to do all that we say.

Justice and mercy should crown all we bring

This, this, is the worship we offer our king.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Ex 22:22, Deut 10:18, Is 1:17

[2] Neil Tully. The Tablet 1st September 2018. P. 24

Mary Magdalene

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

St Mary Magdalene

22nd July 2018

I’m very pleased that the Church calendar which gave us the opportunity to celebrate the lives of two of the greatest male Saints two weeks ago – Peter and Paul, this week gives us an opportunity to celebrate one of the most important female Saints- Mary Magdalene. But mention her to many people and you will get the response- “was the one who was a prostitute?”. To which the answer is “well, probably not” and, in fact, the considered opinion now is generally “no”.

But not wanting to lead you astray and keen to get my sources right I turned to volume three of my Butler’s lives of the Saints, that most authoritative encyclopaedia of Holy people, hopeful that there the whole ‘was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?’ question would be knocked on the head…

St Mary Magdalen, the illustrious penitent woman was by her perfect conversion and encouraging example a model of penitence to all succeeding ages. She is called the Sinner, to express her pre-eminence in guilt. This epithet seems to imply that she led a lewd and disorderly life. The scandal of her debaucheries had rendered her infamous throughout the whole city. Galilee seems to have been the chief theatre of her disorders (which) took their rise from small beginnings- for no one becomes so proficient in vice all at once.

Okay, so no mention of prostitution but we get the picture!

Mary Magdalen clearly had quite a past, and though countless writers like Butler, have written about how shameful that past was no one is really sure what it entailed. Was she the women caught in the act of adultery in John chapter 8?… we don’t know. She was almost certainly the woman who anointed Jesus with oil and wiped his feet with her hair in Luke chapter 7 and named Mary in a similar incident in John 12.  We know she had a history of some complexity and a colourful reputation because she is identified as the one from whom seven kinds of demons had been exorcised (Luke 8:2). But her whole story is neither confined to her past and neither was her past to dictate her future. In her encounter with Jesus she, like so many others, found that she was able to move on from her past, and put it behind her. In her encounter with Jesus she knew herself to be forgiven and so was able to start again, not simply to repeat the past but to live newly in the present.

There are several encounters with Jesus that could have been the turning point for her. The moment when she anointed his feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair at the house of Simon the Pharisee, Butler describes like this…

Our Lord’s bowels yearned over her spiritual miseries and he spread upon her soul a beam of his divine light which penetrated her understanding of her heart so effectually that…. she saw the abominable filth and miseries in which she was plunged, she was filled with confusion and horror at them and conceived the most sincere detestation of her ingratitude and baseness.

Ok, we may find the language a bit florid and melodramatic but Mary Magdalene, at the feet of Jesus becomes a female version of the prodigal son. He, you will recall, when his wastefulness brought him to his senses recognised his sinfulness and returned to his father and, by doing so, was described as if he had ‘come back from the dead’. In the same way Mary, in the face of the forgiving love of Christ, is overwhelmed with remorse for her past sinfulness- whatever that past sinfulness was- and begins a whole new lease of life.

And it was her love for Jesus – her response to his forgiveness and the new life he gave her- that kept her faithful to him: standing nearby him as he hung on the cross and sending her to his tomb in the darkness of both grief and the night, as today’s gospel reading began.

In that reading we heard Jesus’ warning to Mary not to cling to him, perhaps a reminder to us that at times we too must be prepared to let go even of the best of our present, if we are to move into a new and even better future. And who, I wonder, could have foreseen Mary Magdalen’s future? Certainly not those who would have hurled abuse at her in her past, probably not even the other close companions of Jesus whose company she then joined and definitely not herself. And yet she was to become the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection, the one who would be commissioned by our Lord to tell Peter, John and the rest that He was risen from the dead. The Apostle to the Apostles. Who could have imagined such a future role for someone with such a past.

So, is Mary’s story just one of someone with a difficult past who turned out to have an astonishing future? I believe it’s more than that. Her transformation is not down to personal willpower, finding a good therapist, winning the lottery or luck. The transition in her life came about through knowing the love of Jesus Christ. Mary’s past became, in her encounter with Jesus, not just history but forgiven history, a past from which she was freed and which was truly put behind her. Her past was not forgotten but, more importantly forgiven. And receiving that forgiveness opened up the gateway of her future.

There’s no evidence that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute, but every bit of evidence that to Jesus it wouldn’t have mattered if she was. But how interesting that Butler, the 18th century biographer of the Saints, could weave such a colourful and imaginative picture of her ‘obvious’ sinfulness from a few verses of scripture that refer to her past life, and yet in his commentary, skip so lightly over the climactic verse where Jesus extraordinarily makes her the ‘apostle to the apostles’ and tells her to tell the male apostles that he is risen from the dead. What a shame that his reflection and study of her life hadn’t led him to understand this great commission and its Christ-given implication for the place of women in the life and leadership of the church.

But maybe Butler has just fallen into the all too common trap of wallowing or revelling in the past rather than receiving the gift of the present for the future.

We Christians should be the first, but sadly too often are the last, to be freed and not be held captive by the past, to allow the past to become part of our history and experience the new creation that ‘in Christ’ is open to us. We have done this with Mary Magdalene (wasn’t she a prostitute?), we’ve done it too with Thomas (insisting on calling the him Doubting Thomas, even though he proclaimed ‘My Lord and My God’ and died because of his rock-certain faith); we do it with our neighbours (you know, the one that had the affair with so-and-so) we do it with ourselves (I don’t have the qualifications, I’ve never been able to do this or that, I’m not good enough… ) and we do it sometimes unquestioningly with the church (we always used to do it like this or that ) and we do this too when we think we can’t stop grieving for the loss of a loved one and are afraid to live ourselves . Of course, there’s comfort and re-assurance in the familiar, but how comforting really is it when we continually hark back to grief or loss, to the negative, to past failings, shortcomings or limitations of others or ourselves? One of the speakers at an event here the other week which explored the history of Christianity and HIV, was from group called Positive Catholics, a title that connects cleverly and playfully to people’s HIV status. He joked that whilst ‘Positive Catholics’ was a new group, negative Catholics had been around for years, and there are some in every church.

Perhaps Mary Magdalene is one of those saints who can inspire us all to be positive Christians; people who, rather than cling to what is negative or are constrained by their histories, look instead to the future in hope and confidence, trusting in the forgiving loving power of Christ. Yes, Mary went to the tomb while it was still dark…. But light dawned and it has for us all.

As we had the beautiful poetry of the Song of Songs as our first reading, with its echoes of Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter Day, I’m going to end with another poem. This one a sonnet by Malcome Guite- Easter Dawn.

 

He blesses every love which weeps and grieves

And now he blesses hers who stood and wept

And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s

Last touching place, but watched as low light crept

Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs

A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.

She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,

Or recognise the Gardener standing there.

She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,

Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light

That brightens as she chokes out her reply

‘They took my love away, my day is night’

And then she hears her name, she hears Love say

The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.

Amen.

 

The Woman at the Well

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

The Samaritan Woman at the Well.

15th July 2018

(Adapted from a sermon I preached at Westminster Abbey. 8th July 2018)

Rev’d Simon Buckley

The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well is a particular favourite of mine. It doesn’t have the drama of Jesus calming a storm or healing someone of a lifelong illness, it lacks the spectacle of the transfiguration and it contains nothing that might be traditionally considered a miracle. But for the woman herself this chance meeting was miraculous, it was as incredible, unexpected and as life-changing for her as any of Jesus’ works of healing had been for those who received them.

Jesus was on his way from Judea to Galilee, a journey that took him through the territory of Samaria – a despised place inhabited by disreputable people from which respectable Jews kept a safe distance. You probably know the sort of place because every country, county or city has it’s equivalent Samaria, even today. Growing up in Merseyside, Toxteth was the place everyone shunned, when I lived in Birmingham it was probably Handsworth or Lozells. It’s the same the world over: in Sao Paolo there are the favelas, in Cape Town Long St, the list could go on and on. In Samaria’s case it wasn’t that the place was poor or run down, or that the homicide rate was high – it was just that the people had some traditions and ideas about God that marked them out to the Jews of Jesus’ time as being unacceptable, their district as one best kept away from.

And there’s the first miracle. That Jesus goes quite naturally where others fear to tread.

And near a Samaritan town in the heat of the mid-day sun Jesus, as we heard, sits down to rest and asks a woman who comes to draw water to give him a drink. She is utterly taken aback that a Jew should speak to someone like her, wouldn’t she, after all make him ritually unclean by using her own jar to give him the drink he’s asking for? Who is this man who would risk such contamination? No wonder that when the disciples see them together, later in the narrative they are shocked to see him talking to her- but they don’t say anything, they probably just looked at each other and rolled their eyes in despair “now whose he talking to?”. He was often seen with the people others shunned, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes.

You see that’s the second miracle. That Jesus would cross any barrier of gender, class or religion and simply speak to anyone.

And Jesus and she begin to chat, and very naturally in the course of the conversation Jesus suggests she bring her husband to join them. She winces at this, “oh no, it was all going so well”, so she just says she’s not married and hopes to move on. But Jesus both knows and is unfazed that she has actually been married five times and is currently living with someone she’s not married to. We don’t know why they’ve not married – maybe she feels she’s had quite enough weddings and can’t face another one (after all- how many sets of bath towels does anyone need?), or perhaps her current gentleman friend has looked at her track record and thought that “any man she marries doesn’t seem to live very long –I’m keeping things as they are”, we’ll never know.

But there’s a double miracle in that: firstly, that Jesus knows this stranger’s history and secondly, knowing it, takes her totally unconventional, to some scandalous life in his stride and they carry on talking.

As she spends time in Jesus’ company she becomes aware that he knows her as well and maybe better than she actually knows herself and so she invites her friends to meet the one who she is wondering might just be the Messiah. And coming, they too, recognise Jesus as the Saviour of the world- not just because of what the woman has told them but through the conversations they each shared with this man who crossed all barriers to engage with them just as they were.

It’s a remarkable story and it is one that continues to speak clearly to me and it has strongly informed my ministry and the mission I believe we at St Anne’s are  called to live out.

Because when I told many people that I was coming here as Rector, the response of those who didn’t know Soho but had only heard of it, was often to recoil- Soho isn’t that a seedy place full of slightly dodgy people? Well maybe that’s why the Bishop of London thought I’d fit in, I don’t know. But Soho has consistently been a place with a ‘bit of a reputation’ and a place throughout history in which people who haven’t been welcomed elsewhere have made a home- Huguenots in the 17th century and later Jewish tailors fleeing antisemitism, next prostitutes, artists and bohemians, and then the LGBT community. Soho was for many years one of those areas regarded as London’s Samaria. An unhealthy place inhabited by suspect people that respectable people avoided. Now of course the once disreputable is fashionable and popular and Soho as we know too well is now neither as edgy (or dare I say, as much fun) as it once was! But the point is that the places and people that ‘respectable’ people- and often those who call themselves Christians view with most disdain or even disgust, are the very places and people that Jesus was drawn to like a moth to a lightbulb.

And Jesus goes to them, just as he did to the woman at the well, not to denounce them or challenge them with placards, as some Christians held up beside the Pride march last week. Jesus goes full of openness, understanding and compassion; without judgement but ready to hear unflinchingly the reality of each person’s life story: their past and their present as he loves them into their future.

You see, I believe this story tells us exactly why the Gospel is good news for everyone. Because Jesus Christ to whom the scriptures witness went and gave himself to all people without distinction, choosing to sit with the ones the most religious people said were least deserving, worthy or upright. Isn’t that good news for us that there is nothing in our lives: nothing we’ve done, nothing about where we’re from or indeed who we are that need stand in the way of us encountering Christ for ourselves and sharing the honest reality of our lives with him and being fully accepted as the Samaritan woman was. Our God is one who, as Psalm 139 reminds us has intimately known and loved us since before we were born, who knows and understands our every thought, word and movement.

The gospel is good news and good news for all, but that doesn’t make it easy news. So don’t get too comfy!

Because if we who are baptised are to live Christ-like lives, then this story also challenges us to think about how we interact with others.

It asks us:

What are the personally convenient barriers in our lives that Christ is calling us to break through?

Which groups in society who are demonised by the media or popular opinion do we need to meet without judgement and get to understand?

Who are the people that it’s easy to fear that Christ would rather we came to know and love?

How do we relate to those people whose life experience, culture, sexuality, faith, skin colour or politics are different to our own?

At a time when our world is becoming increasingly segregated and polarised, with the rhetoric of hate being legitimised by world leaders resulting in groups of people being irrationally stigmatised in the cause of national or self-preservation this gospel which is ultimately good news for all, will also be very uncomfortable and challenging news for some.

The capacity to love all people across boundaries and without distinction can only come from us knowing that we ourselves are unconditionally loved and accepted by God first. That was the miraculous experience of the Samaritan woman at the well, I pray that it may it be our understanding too.

 

Amen.

The Trinity

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Trinity Sunday Year B 2018- Rev’d Simon Buckley

Isaiah 6: 1-8; John 3:1-17

The first of the readings set for today –  the one from the prophet Isaiah – happens to be a favourite of mine from the Old Testament. I heard it again only a couple of weeks ago at the installation of Bishop Sarah as she became the 133rd Bishop of London and the first of them to be a woman. It’s a reading that, as some of you may have heard me say before, was pivotal to my own journey of faith and to ordination.

I think I was in my early to mid-teens when I first read it aloud at a service in church and the words where God asked “who shall I send, who will go for me” and the prophet Isaiah said “here am I, send me” leapt out at me. I remember feeling, deep inside me, that God’s words were addressed to me and my response was the same as Isaiah’s:

Who will go for me?  Here am I send me.

 A response, I’ll admit, delivered with a mixture of eagerness and anxiety: part “please, please sir, can I go?” and part “well if no one else is offering ….. I’ll give it my best shot!”.

And in this morning’s passage- as is usual with this reading- we stopped at verse 8; however, it’s only from verse 9 that Isaiah hears what it was that he had signed up for, what he was being asked to go and do. Isaiah agreed to go before being handed the job description: one which included a rather bleak picture of the challenge ahead and the fact that Isaiah would need to be committed to it for the long haul. God does this regularly in the Bible- he just has the power to get people to co-operate with his plan before fully revealing the plan to them. If you recall, when Jesus called the twelve disciples he didn’t tell them what they were going to do in any detail either, he just said “follow me” and they did. And I think I too, when hearing in that passage from Isaiah God’s call to do something didn’t know precisely what it would involve. I just knew I had to say yes to it.

As a teenager I automatically assumed it was a call to ‘be a vicar’, naively thinking that’s what people who wanted to serve God had to do. But God doesn’t only want people to be clergy, and it was probably at theological college I acme to understand that we all, as members of the body of Christ exercise a ministry as ‘ambassadors for God’ in a multitude of ways, and sometimes clergy do that least well! But as I look back with the benefit of 40 years of theological reflection, I think at its heart I thought I was being called to share the story of God’s love and to be a sign of that love to others.

I certainly didn’t think that it was a call to fill out complicated Diocesan faculty forms, or taking on church school governance, health and safety checks in the kitchen learning about employment law and data protection… or even about wrestling with the inexplicable doctrine of the Trinity. Which, I know, it being Trinity Sunday you’ve all been dying for me to get to!

I thought the call to which I was responding was simply to reflect to others something of the picture of God I had glimpsed, and just as Isaiah had actually seen – though in technicolour and with six winged angels, to boot!

And at its heart the doctrine of the Trinity is people’s attempt to put into words something about God which they have glimpsed and do not fully understand. A God which no one picture can fully illustrate, which is why we end up talking about one God who is only fully portrayed when seen in three different ways:

  • as Father- personal, loving and creative;
  • as Son- sharing our humanity and able to identify with what it’s like to be us,
  • as Holy Spirit- moving amongst us still.

Put those three together and you certainly have one God who is nothing less than Almighty.

But trying to explain how they fit together – how they categorically are not three Gods is another matter; and often the harder people try to explain it the more difficult it becomes to understand. Sometimes we just have to go with it- just as Isaiah responded without understanding the ‘hows, whys and wherefores’ of his calling. He and I were urged to respond and – logically or not- we had to go with it and see if it was right, or true.

And any thought we give to the doctrine of the Trinity is only helpful in so far as it enlightens and enlarges whatever experience or belief about God we already have rather than confuses it. I’m indebted to the novelist and writer Sarah Maitland for a piece she wrote in The Tablet, a Roman Catholic weekly paper, last year which I found really helpful.

A new way to think about God as Trinity dawned on her thanks to a slogan she saw on someone’s tee shirt regarding a Triathlon he was running; and the triathlon, she realised offered a dynamic, lovely and theologically complete image of the Trinity.

A triathlon is, as the name suggests, a sporting event made up of three different disciplines (it’s something my niece enjoys energetically doing and something I’m quite happy lazily reading about her doing on Facebook!). It consists of running, cycling and swimming. But it’s a single race. Three parts: one event. You don’t ‘win’ separate bits of the event and then get averaged out. The clock runs from the beginning to the end- even whilst you’re stripping off your wet-suit and looking for your bike. There is a unity to the whole, despite the three clear constituent parts of it.

Now the early Church fathers put great effort into trying to explain that when thinking about God – we should recognise the unity of the whole of God but recognise the three clear constituent persons of it. We should neither confuse them, nor divide them.

Firstly, we shouldn’t confuse them because they, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are different. They are separate and distinguishable from one another- despite their similarities and common root.  That’s why the three- leaf clover is actually a poor image for the Trinity -because on a clover all three leaves look more or less exactly the same as the other. The Holy Trinity and a Triathlon each have a unity made up of individually unique and identifiable parts: not three Sons, nor three bike rides.

Secondly, we should not divide the Trinity because taken away from God the father, then Jesus Christ ceases to be God’s son, just as if you take the swimming out of the triathlon and just embark on that heat on its own you’re no longer competing in a triathlon, but something else entirely: a swimming gala. Take one of the persons away from the Trinity and each part and the whole is diminished.

And, of course, for most athletes when taking part in a triathlon there will be one of the events they find comes more naturally and another at which they have to work harder. To be good at a triathlon means working most hard at the part of the event which comes least easily. And isn’t there a parallel there – some of us find the incarnate humanity of Jesus, Son of God, easier to relate to than the huge ‘immortal invisible’ creator God; but equally there are those who experience the Holy Spirt or God’s immanence most directly, most intensely, most meaningfully. We may need to put more effort into understanding one part of God’s nature than others.

All three elements matter and add up to one race, or one God. I hope you may find that ‘triathlon image’ helpful.

But if you’re still baffled, then take heart from Nicodemus in our gospel reading. He had glimpsed something of who Jesus was and came to him by night wanting to know more, but he struggled with the God-talk and couldn’t understand how people could be ‘born again’. However, Jesus didn’t say to him “look, if you find that difficult- just wait till I try and explain to you about the Trinity!” neither did he say “until you understand this intellectually, there’s no point you being here”. No, he simply states God’s longing that people should come to salvation through encountering him – the Son of God- and receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus doesn’t insist he understand theology that doesn’t resonate for him, he just offers him himself – the one to whom Nicodemus was instinctively drawn to respond.

Unlike Nicodemus we are drawn here by day rather than night, for a variety of reasons and by seemingly different forces: We may have glimpsed something of God’s glory in some way, or just feel that there’s more to life than what we see around us, perhaps we have heard the words of Jesus and felt their magnetic pull. Whether on Trinity Sunday or anytime, when we come together to explore what God is like we do so not to be clever and certainly never to make God more difficult to understand either than God already is or our little minds are capable of accepting. ‘The Trinity’ – like all church doctrine- is there to help us understand more of what we each have glimpsed of the love of God for this world, in order that we might each respond to God’s call and play our part in sharing that love with others: To help us speak of the God we have glimpsed.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.  God calls us all so that we, in our different ways, will go for him to share this good news and spread his light.

 

The Gift of Diversity- Talk to Deanery Synod 24th April 2018.

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

The Gift of Diversity.

A Talk given to Westminster (St Margaret’s) Deanery Synod

24th April 2018 in the Speaker’s House of the House of Commons.

 

I’ve been asked to say something about diversity from the local perspective – that of St Anne’s Soho. Let me begin in 1895, or there about. The Rector was John Henry Cardwell a man who did something that, if they’d been broadcasting Round the Horne in those days would have had Julian and Sandy exclaiming “ooh, in ‘e bold!”. What did he do? He invited the Roman Catholic Priest from St Patrick’s Soho Square and the Rabbi from the Synagogue on Dean St (now the Soho Theatre) to join the vestry, the PCC of St Anne’s. It was I believe a radical, daring and far-sighted ecumenical and inter-faith gesture. Cynics may say “the lengths some people go to, to get someone on their PCC who might stand as Deanery Synod Rep”, but I disagree. It was a courageous act which reflected the hospitality of Christ and that peculiarly Anglican vision of the parish church existing for all people within the parish: the ‘cure of souls’ not just of those who were C of E, or regular worshippers, but really for everyone. As Archbishop William Temple was to say fifty years later “the church exists for its non-members” a shocking phrase drummed into me by my RE teacher at comprehensive school.

 

The vision of the parish church existing for all was of course much simpler in the past: those halcyon days when everyone, with few exception, was Christian and almost all were C of E. But, as Karl Rahner wrote in 1985, “our present situation is one of transition from a Church sustained by a homogenously Christian society and almost identical with it, from a people’s church, to a church made up of those who have struggled against their environment in order to reach a clear, explicit and responsible decision of faith’[1].

 

The landscape in which our churches operate is not only completely different to that of Cardwell’s time but changing more rapidly than ever and in a secular direction. Christ’s call to the church to be in the world and not of it, and yet for the church to be able to speak of Christ to those from whom it is becoming increasingly estranged requires not just ‘Reform and Renewal’ but courage. Dare I say ‘the courage of Cardwell’.

 

When I moved to St Anne’s people said one of two things to me – either “there’s a place with a lot of souls who will need saving” or “good luck with that one- you won’t find many churchgoers in Soho”. Both suggestive of a gulf between church and community. However, what immediately struck me when I arrived was that whilst numbers in church had fallen very low – for particular, understandable and well documented reasons- the desire of the local population and community to have a church and a priest there for them again was still strong. There were people and organisations keen that they should be relevant to the church, and that the church should care for them and speak both to them and at times for them. Diverse groups from the local school, the Collective of Prostitutes, Kingsway College, The Soho Society the Police and Samaritans all came knocking on my door. As a colleague from a different parish observed a while ago, “Most clergy are desperately trying to find ways to connect with their communities, you seem to spend half your life trying to fight them off!”. It’s quite surprising.

 

So, let me root this in some examples, a few brief snapshots if you like, of life at St Anne’s Soho. These are initiatives that have emerged in the last five years that I’ve been there as Priest-in-Charge and then Rector. Ventures I’ve supported, encouraged or taken on – whether courageously or naively, only time will tell.

 

1: Next door but-one to us is 56 Dean St the largest and busiest sexual health clinic in Europe, and they approached me to ask how St Anne’s could support them, not least in helping their clients whose sexual dis-functionality was often related to their religious upbringing or a result of a disconnection between their faith and sexual orientation. This has opened the door, not just to one-to-one pastoral engagement with clients and clinic staff, but also to a rolling programme with the lead psycho-sexual therapist specifically aimed at enabling gay men to integrate their sexuality and their spirituality: to live lives characterised by wholeness rather than fragmentation. The conversations in this series are honest and, taking the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well as a biblical model, work on the basis that there is nothing in anyone’s past or present that need stand in the way of an encounter with Christ. Jesus is big enough to cope with who we are, whilst we are led to a fuller understanding of ourselves through that conversation, just as the Samaritan woman was.

As more than one person has said after these sessions, “I never imagined I would be able to have this kind of conversation in a church with someone in a clerical collar”.

 

2: The church building of Henry Cardwell’s day was very different to the building of which Bishop Richard handed me the keys. Reordered by the Luftwaffe in 1940 the new church interior is prayerfully simple, but the main entrance opened in 1990 was a disaster, bland, dark and easy to miss. So, my vision for a new front- which resulted in us having the church’s name in neon lights- required imagination and a lot of fund raising. When it was suggested that we would have a fund-raising a cabaret evening I was surprised that a young and quiet member of the congregation should ask to be able to host it. Noticing my surprise he said “not as me of course, but as Lady Lambrini”. Trust me, you never know which member of your congregation might secretly be a drag queen. Fast forward two years (with the new entrance well and truly open) and our Quiz Suppers hosted by Lady Lambrini have raised nearly three thousand pounds to support our work with homeless and vulnerable people who turn to the church for help when they don’t know who else to turn to. But just as important as what these events have helped us do for others is the fact that well over half those who attend each time are not church goers. They’ve seen the night advertised on Eventbrite, or know Jacob (Lady Lambrini) through the advertising agency he works in. We celebrate that this is an event of St Anne’s not just in it, and in my opening words each time spell out that all are equally welcome in this, their parish church. We normally begin with a prayer but for Lady Lambrini’s Harvest Ho-down I gave out hymn sheets so we could all sing ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’-which they belted out- but I always end by emphasising that the church, the gospel and I are here for them- whoever they are. We’ve been slow on making the most of the contacts we’ve made, but I have no doubt that we have given all who attended a very different experience of a church community to what they perhaps had imagined or feared…. if they’d thought about it at all.

 

Then finally, let me just say something about Sunday mornings. I hope we characterise that ‘generous orthodoxy’ through the liturgy and preaching which touches all to some degree and excludes none. We are fortunate that the rebuilt church gives step free-access throughout and accessibility (in every way) is essential to embracing the diversity of people who associate with Soho and enabling that diversity to come in and feel at home here. In some ways we are liturgically traditional and yet the atmosphere is informal, without being casual: a ‘relaxed dignity’ which connects with a diverse range of experiences of what for some church was, or they never thought would be. Where word and sacrament, worship and welcome are open to all. For a diverse regular congregation who really do try to live out the “all are welcome” sign – offering a worship experience that is a combination of the expected and the surprising seems to me to be a gift to those coming for the first time to a church they didn’t realise was in some way already ‘theirs’.

 

I could say so much more, but I think I’ve already failed to keep to the Area Dean’s time limit. Just one more thing- If anyone says to you “St Anne’s- isn’t that the gay church?” please slap them on my behalf. We’re bigger than that- though we are explicit in our unconditional welcome to the LGBT+ community; something we believe is appropriate for the parish church of Soho to do – especially at a time when the C of E is sending out mixed and confusing messages to that section of our community. St Anne’s is far from perfect, and embracing diversity requires us to hold a faith which often values and practices charity over clarity, and that’s not always comfortable or easy. But, in our experience, receiving diversity as a gift has brought innumerable riches and blessings and is central to the vocation of this parish church and imperative to our mission and ministry.

Rev’d Simon Buckley.

Rector of St Anne’s, Soho.

 

[1] K.Rahner. The Practice of Faith: a Handbook of Christian Spirituality (London, SCM 1985) p.30

Can the Christian faith be a private matter?

Monday, April 9th, 2018

Easter 2, Year B, 2018

Acts 4: 32-35 & John 20: 19-31

Rev’d Simon Buckley

 

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”

That verse, many biblical scholars contend, was the original final verse of John’s gospel. Giving as it does the ‘last word’ of the gospel to Jesus and spelling out, very simply, that faith does not depend on having seen proof and that the faith which the first disciples had come to was not for them alone.

As St John’s gospel has come down to us we have words which go on to spell out the fact this book has been written so that we may come to the same conclusion about Jesus as those who ‘actually saw him’ (just in case Jesus’ words about people coming to faith without seeing him weren’t clear enough!). And then, just for good measure, there’s a whole extra chapter after this with other accounts of Jesus being seen by the first disciples which ends with a lovely few verses which – if I may paraphrase them- has the author say  “I’m going  stop here because, quite frankly, there are so many things that Jesus said and did that I could go on writing for ever”( John 20:30).

But the crucial element in the appearance of the Risen Christ to Thomas is that Jesus makes himself known to Thomas so that others may come to faith too. And the faith that the disciples had come to was not just that Jesus was alive, risen from the dead, but that what they seen with their own eyes proved him to be, in Thomas’s words “My Lord and my God”.

That’s true of the other resurrection appearances- remember how Jesus said to Mary outside the empty tomb to go and tell the other disciples that he was raised to new life: That what they’d half understood, semi-believed and at times questioned was true- that Jesus is Lord.

Last Sunday, I debunked the myth that people can say “I accept Jesus as a moral teacher or example of a supremely good person, but don’t accept him as somehow divine”, and quoting CS Lewis observed that anyone who said the things that Jesus did, and said the things he said was frankly either the Son of God, a con-man, or insane. You can’t separate his acts of kindness, his compassion and self-sacrifice from his bold assertions that “no-one comes to the father but by me”, “I am the bread of life”, “I am the way the truth and the life” and it took the manner of his dying for the centurion at the cross to say “this man truly was God’s son” and then his being raised to new life for his followers to confidently call him “My Lord and My God”.

Well today I want to debunk a second myth: that our religious faith is, or can be, a wholly private and personal matter. It isn’t and it can’t. I began to sow the seeds to evidence this when I said earlier that Jesus appeared to Mary with instructions to proclaim this good news to others; notice too, how even the intensely personal and intimate exchange between Jesus and Thomas in today’s gospel happens when all the disciples were gathered together on the first day of the week. Yes, Jesus appears and speaks directly to Thomas, but in the context of the wider group of disciples and in order that others not present may come to belief as he shared his experience with them. Something, tradition tells us Thomas was to go on and do from Jerusalem to India. News he couldn’t keep to himself and for which he was ultimately speared to death near Madras.

Firstly ‘having faith’ demands some interaction with another, because it involves trust and we can’t really trust in something that we have just made up on our own. Thomas Aquinas, the great mediaeval theologian, said that of faith and hope and love, whilst St Paul said the greatest is love, in his opinion the most important is faith – because the others spring from it. Think about it: our hope comes from the faith we have, and it is from our faith that we learn what love truly is. So, faith lies at the root of our hopes and our loves- the way we live and in what we trust. Aquinas quotes Aristotle that ‘every learner must begin by simply believing other people’; we begin from a position of putting our trust in another person from the minute when as babies, we look into our parents eyes and hear them tell us to eat our vegetables because they’re good for us, to the teachers and lecturers at school or college who give us what we must trust is a reliable basis- whether in history, physics or biology for our own further learning, through to the doctor who advises us on the best cancer treatment for us or our loved ones. And even if we question that advice and seek a second opinion it is to another person (even if the faceless, nameless person who posted something on the internet) to whom we turn. John the evangelist says to us “trust, put your faith in, what I’ve written; not just because they’re my words but because they record what people evidenced for themselves – a truth they were willing to die for because they couldn’t deny it”(John 20:24).  Faith and trust demand interaction with others.

And the second reason that I think we can’t keep our faith as a private matter is that, as we have already heard, sharing the good news of the Gospel- that not even death can keep Jesus down, giving us hope of new life for our lives – is something that all Christians are called to do. We must share that faith not just with those who’ve already glimpsed it to encourage them (though the importance of that shouldn’t be under-estimated) but to share that news with those who have never heard it or understood it. Now this is the moment of course when any self-respecting Church of England congregation begins to squirm in its seats and feel uncomfortable and mutter silently “oh no, he’s talking about evangelism and next he’s going to be asking me to stand outside Comptons shaking a tambourine and asking people if they know Jesus…. quick get me outta here!”. Well, ye of little faith! I would not ask you to do that, for three reasons:

(a) that’s way too embarrassing, (b) it’s ineffective as a means of evangelism- no matter how well intentioned such efforts might be and (c) because the gospel calls us to something far more challenging and demanding than that!

At the last supper Jesus said “by this people will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another” (john 13:35). It is by how we interact with others that we live the gospel and proclaim the gospel as Jesus told us too. It’s easy to use words, to trot off a formula of belief or to quote passages of scripture at people; far more difficult, eloquent and converting it is to show Christ-like love: to give time, care, attention to, or show respect for those who it would be easier to ignore as ‘not my problem’. Jesus said “it’s not those who call me Lord all the time who enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do my father’s will” – and he showed us what God willed when he knelt and washed the feet of those who gathered at the last supper(John 13:5) , just as he had embraced the leper, the outcast, the despised, the disreputable the least worthy or deserving. The profession of faith becomes empty words unless backed up by actions of charity and kindness towards others.

Our faith can never be simply a personal private matter between an individual and God, because actually we speak to God most honestly through our interactions with others and God so often speaks to us through them too. Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles painted in just a few verses a picture of the ideal church- a people united through their faith in Christ’s resurrection: resulting in love for God and love for one another in equal measure. I wonder how long that ‘perfection’ lasted and to what extent we mirror it here in Soho 2,000 years on. I certainly see intimations of it at times and at our best it’s rather wonderful, but we’re a long way from ‘fulfilling everyone’s needs’ as the picture of the early church describes, and so -despite our reputation for being ‘friendly’ or ‘a lovely and diverse group of people’ we have absolutely no room for complacency and none of us- least of all me- can ever, in a quiet moment of private prayer, ask God for a personal pat on the back.

The good news of Christ is for us to know as individuals but to share and proclaim through our life as a community. It was St Francis who said “preach the gospel at all times- use words when you absolutely have to” by our deeds more than our words do we glorify God and share the good news, news that is simply too good to keep to ourselves.

Jesus asked Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. By our life together here may we witness to the risen Christ that others may see and believe what we have heard and in what we trust, and so share our faith that Christ the Lord is risen, Alleluia!

Easter Day 2018.

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

Easter Day 2018

Acts 10: 34-43 & John 20: 1-18

Rev’d Simon Buckley.

“Who do people say I am?” ……No, your Rector is not having a senior moment and forgotten who he is (though the frequency with which I walk into rooms and think “now what did I come in here for?” has increased recently!). I’m simply repeating the question Jesus put to the disciples whilst they were walking between villages in Caesarea (Mark 8. 27) “who do people say I am?”-  their response to which was varied “some say Elijah, or one of the prophets, and some John the Baptist -raised from the dead”. You see there were conspiracy theorists even back then.

But today, Easter Day is a day when the penny drops as to who Jesus is for one person in particular and hopefully helps us in our response to the question: “Who do you say Jesus is?” and I’ll return to that person in a minute.

I’ve recently been reading C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity which, though written in 1952 when he was an English Tutor at Oxford University and had just started writing his famous Narnia books, remains a classic of English Christian Theology. In it he says that the most foolish thing that people say about Jesus is that they accept him as a great moral teacher, but they don’t accept his claim to be God. Lewis argues that someone “who was merely a man and said the things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher….Either Jesus was, and is, the son of God or else he was a madman or worse” he adds “let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to”.

Because many people, even some who may call themselves Christians, feel more confident talking about Jesus’ goodness than they do about his divinity. And whilst within our Church school stressing Jesus’ value as a great moral teacher who exemplifies goodness, self-sacrifice and every virtue imaginable makes the person of Jesus more accessible and relevant to those of different faiths and none, if I did not proclaim who the church believes him to be ultimately would be to sell the children and the Gospel short.

Not that Jesus’ teaching, his parables, ministry of healing, critique of religious leaders and passion for the poor and marginalised etc. aren’t important. Of course, they were and are. They are, after all, the very events that frequently made people not simply marvel at what he did or said but ask “who is he?”; “This can’t just be the carpenter’s son from Nazareth surely?”, “who is he that even the weather obeys him?”. The stories about Jesus we read in the gospels are not there just to tell us about his life but, and especially in Marks’ telling of the life of Jesus, to help us answer for ourselves the questions of “who is this guy?”. [And remember we’re not called to believe those stories as true simply because they’re in the Bible – as the old Sunday school song ran “Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so”, rather, those stories made it through into the Bible because they were known to be truthful to the person of Jesus that the early church knew].

The church began as a group of fisherman, ex-tax collectors and admiring women that had gone on a journey with him, wandering round in awe of all that he was saying and doing, people who were intrigued by the suggestions he gave as to who he might be, but then who were completely confused as to how someone who they were beginning to think might just be  ‘who he said he was ‘ could talk about being arrested and killed. And yet, and yet, the event that would definitively mark Jesus out as not being simply a miracle worker, great story teller or moral teacher would be his death. St Mark’s gospel, written only thirty years after that death, records a shattering moment at the crucifixion that ‘when the centurion saw how Jesus died he said “truly this man was God’s son”’.  There was something in the manner of his dying that testified to who Jesus was to this most toughened of men- more conclusively than anything miraculous or profound Jesus had said or done in his lifetime.

Whilst on Good Friday Jesus’ executioner is moved to faith, for most of the disciples the same realisation takes a little longer.

“Early on the first day of the week while it was still dark” as today’s gospel began “Mary Magdalen came to the tomb”. Darkness that was literal- it’s early in the morning, but of course in the Gospel writer John’s hand the darkness is metaphorical too, the darkness of grief and of lack of understanding; Mary goes to the tomb ‘before the dawn of faith’ if you like. Mary had been faithful to Jesus, more faithful than most of the disciples of whom only John had not deserted him as he hung dying. Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume while he was alive and now she comes to the tomb to finish the burial ceremony that had been put on hold by the Sabbath. But the tomb is empty and in her distress and confusion she runs to the others who come to see what she’s talking about. Peter and John race to the tomb, are convinced that the tomb is inexplicably empty but still don’t know quite what to make of it. But Mary stays sobbing by the tomb and it as this point we get to a remarkable detail that I hadn’t registered before.

Jesus calls Mary by name to which she responds “rabboni” – teacher. He tells her not to cling to him and instructs Mary to go and tell the chaps that he’s ascending to his father. But what has caught my attention is not that Jesus commissions a woman to tell the men that he’s been raised to new life: in the year in which we will have a woman as the Diocesan Bishop of London– recognising a woman as ‘apostle to the apostles’ has, I hope, been familiar to us all for some time. No, what I had never registered before was that having called Jesus ‘teacher’ in the garden by the empty tomb, by the time she gets to the disciples what she says is “ I have seen… the Lord”. Jesus is no longer just a great moral teacher to her, she recognises him as the Lord- the Son of God.

As the centurion came to faith as he saw how Jesus died, so Mary came to faith knowing Jesus was alive. Not just back to life as he was before, but raised to new life. His life before pointed to his father, but his new life was taking him back to him.

Jesus went on to appear to all the disciples  – and we will hear those stories in the coming Sundays of the Easter Season- but amongst his followers the first for whom the penny dropped was Mary. Hers was the first domino to fall and from which all the others then came to the same understanding. As Fr Keith said at the Bible study the other week, there is a wonderfully compelling authenticity to Mary’s testimony, because it’s actually a bit of an embarrassment. In those days a woman’s testimony wouldn’t stand up in court unless validated by a man. Now in time it gets validated by more than several men, but the fact that Jesus chose Mary as the first witness to his resurrection – well let’s just say if you were making this story up then that’s the last thing you’d have done if you wanted people to believe it.

The early church, those men and women who risked everything and were willing even to die did so not for the reputation of someone who they thought was a good moral teacher, but one who they were in no doubt was nothing less than the Son of God- who was their teacher and guide because he was their Lord.

“Who do people say I am?” it is because of the reliable witness of Mary and all the other the apostles that we can say “Son of God” just as they did. Today we celebrate that this great teacher, parable teller and miracle worker was all that and more because he was the Son of God.

And if that is our faith then our understanding of ‘who Jesus is’ is transformed, and if we truly call him ‘Lord’ as Mary did then he demands more than just listening to for comforting words or moral guidance, he deserves much more. The Risen Lord who, by giving his life for us has won for us eternal life, stands with arms open still, ready to receive our response to who he is.

Christ the Lord is Risen. Alleluia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good News not Easy News, 2nd Sunday of Lent, 2018

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Romans 4.13-25/ Mark 8.31-38
Rev’d Simon Buckley, St Anne’s Soho

Reading today’s gospel passage reminded me a bit of a scene in a soap opera: a family gathering at some kind of celebration, maybe a wedding or a post-Christening knees-up in the Queen Vic at which someone says something out of turn, lets some cat out of the bag and the mood turns ugly as the event quickly descends from being a joyful party into brawling in the street.

Even without ‘alleluias’ the announcement of the gospel, suggests that you’re going to hear Good News. The passage appointed for today follows on from three exhilarating events: Jesus feeding four thousand people, him healing a blind man and then Peter acclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. So we’re reasonable in our assumption that we’re about to hear something that will lift our spirits and put a spring in our step. But instead of something upbeat what we get is Jesus telling everyone that the Son of Man (a term he frequently uses about himself in Mark’s gospel) is going suffer, be rejected and killed and rise again. Not the good news that everyone had gathered to hear. So Peter pulls him aside and quietly rebukes Jesus, but Jesus then rebukes Peter in front of everyone. If not quite a punch up at the Rovers Return the atmosphere is a million miles from the joyful awe at the miraculous feeding of the crowd with which this chapter of Mark’s gospel had begun.

I quite understand Peter’s reaction. Firstly, this is not what he was expecting either for Jesus or himself. He had responded to Jesus’ call to “come, follow me and I will make you fish for people”, and only now is the plain reality of what this might entail beginning to sink home: “take up your cross and follow me on the path of rejection and suffering” It reminds me of Churchill’s great rallying cry to the chaps of Great Britain to join up with his enticing offer not of glory or the promise of medals but only “blood, toil, sweat and tears”! But for Peter who has seen Jesus work all manner of miracles and wonders the thought that suffering might be part of God’s way for either of them seems unimaginable. And we too might well also wonder why Jesus had to endure the suffering and death that we commemorate week by week in the Eucharist and consider particularly as the days of Lent lead towards Passiontide and Good Friday. Why couldn’t Jesus have ‘miracle-d his way out’ of all the messy stuff. Surely if he was really God’s Son then, as those who were to stand at the foot of the cross mocking were to say “why didn’t he just use his healing powers to get out of here? ”.

There’s a funny thing about the healing miracles of Jesus that Mark particularly highlights in his retelling of the Jesus story. Almost invariably when Jesus heals someone or performs some great wonder he says “don’t tell anyone about this”. For example he heals a deaf man and says “don’t tell anyone”, a blind man and says “don’t even go back to your village so people see what’s happened”, to the disciples who saw him transfigured he says “keep this to yourselves until after the resurrection”.  Though unsurprisingly not everyone did keep quiet, word spread about him and what he had done for people so the crowds around him grew daily. But why does Jesus seem to want to keep his powers slightly under wraps? When prompted by compassion he’ll use them for the benefit of others- yes, that’s fine; but to use them to affirm who he is, he’s more than reticent. If you recall the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness the first two things he resisted was using his powers to prove a point- to prove that he had power to turn stones into bread; and that he had special power as God’s Son which meant he wasn’t subject to the dangers of life experienced by ordinary people- “jump off the temple and God will save you”, said the devil.

Jesus is trying to avoid his ministry being just about the things he could do, and do for the people who gathered around him. Jesus’ ministry was about more than that : it was not about impressing people with powerful actions, by doing things for them to satisfy their immediate needs, but about leading them into a relationship of trust with him. Yes physical healing restores to one man his sight and to another his hearing, but the event that would change everything through which sins would be forgiven and people released from guilt and fear would be achieved by a very different, surprising, nay shocking way.

The event that was to change everything – even how we think and talk about God was to take everyone by surprise. Rowan Williams, in his recent book ‘meeting God in Mark’ notes that Mark’s gospel appears to have been written for a church that was a bit too much in love with miracles, wonderworking and success- a church that was putting too much store on  tangible signs of God’s favour and assistance. At the time when Mark’s gospel was being written what was coming at it thick and fast was persecution and threat and it’s as though Mark – who can’t deny all the miracles Jesus did- is helping his readers make sense of their suffering. Just imagine a Christian reading this gospel today in Afghanistan or parts of Nigeria, rural India or Indonesia, where God isn’t stepping down to solve problems, in a world where suffering and the risk of death are daily occurrences.

Very often we are a bit like the first disciples who would much rather believe in a god who, in a rather exaggerated way, would run the world as we would- if we were god! Like the Jim Carrey character in the film Bruce Almighty, who discovers that using power to solve problems is not what actually makes you God and that a world that is manipulated to go exactly the way you would like it to go is neither real nor ultimately satisfying or indeed as ‘good’ as we might think.

The God who Jesus incarnates- shows in his life- is one whose supreme power is not in removing our painful human experiences but sharing them. One who lives with us and transforms those experiences by his presence, a God who respects our humanity and maturity (even if humans don’t always!) rather than cossets us as children. A God who shares the fullness of our life rather than sanitizes it.

Of course we shall still pray for those in need- ourselves included- for healing and for miracles; but perhaps the greatest miracle has already happened : which is that by Jesus’ experience of suffering, death and resurrection, God is already there with those for whom we pray. This is why St Paul said “we preach Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God”. Ahead of all the miracles that Mark said (in effect) “don’t make too much of these” Paul points us to the cross as the greatest sign of God’s activity- more than feeding 5,000 surprising as that may seem.

We may think of signs of ‘God’s kingdom’ (if we think in those terms) or of ‘God’s blessing’ being most evident through times of prosperity and events that are characterised by happiness, and like Peter, resist the possibility, or should I say the reality, that it is through the apparent opposite of these things that God has worked most decisively.  But that’s what the gospel is pointing us towards: that whilst healings brought gratitude and  joy, it was the cross that elicited – even from one of the group who carried out Jesus’ execution- the reverent recognition that ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’.

That’s why the story of Jesus’ suffering and death remains good news for us- a story of triumph not defeat.  The moment when God is fully revealed as he is in and through Christ who is most fully seen to be who he is, Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us after all as we too are most fully ourselves – most accessible, most loveable, most real – at those moments when we are most vulnerable, broken and powerless, rather than when being the ‘we’ we like to project, hide behind or pretend to be. Of course we’d prefer it to be otherwise but Jesus rebuked Peter and rebukes us when we think we can walk a different path to him.

As the penultimate verse of our opening hymn put it:

Take up thy cross, and follow Christ

Nor think till death to lay it down;

For only those who bear the cross

May hope to wear the glorious crown.


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