Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

Remembrance Sunday 2020

Sunday, November 8th, 2020

Remembrance Sunday 2020. The Rector, Fr Simon.

This Sermon followed the gospel reading : Matthew 25: 1-13, The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

The parable is a call to readiness; a summons to live not in fear, but in anticipation of the arrival of the bridegroom. The only thing to fear is of not being ready and missing the bridegroom – who is of course Jesus. This parable is about being ready to welcome and receive Christ- whether in the flesh as he was 2,000 years ago, at his return at the end of time, or as he shows up to us in the faces of those we encounter in our daily lives. But parables rarely have one application and within this parable lies a warning which,I think, we can apply to many circumstances about the need to be vigilant and ready, both for the things we might reasonably anticipate and the things we might not. As the motto read on my cub scout badge ‘Be Prepared’.

Someone recently pointed out to me that when the Church of England revised its worship books at the end of the 1970’s, unlike all previous prayer books, it contained no prayers to be used in a time of plague or national sickness. It was assumed that the days of such things were over. That particular and unwelcome Bridegroom had not come for a generation and was considered unlikely to show up now. Well, how wrong that has been proved to be. It reminds me of the Roman general Vetegius who famously wrote “in peace prepare for war”. Vetegius’ observation was that, before the fall of the Roman Empire and during a long time of peace it had ceased wearing its protective armour. This made them vulnerable to an enemy for whom they were unprepared.

Vegetius therefore concluded that the time to prepare for war is not when war is imminent but rather when times are peaceful, and indeed a strong peacetime army could signal to would-be attackers that the battle may not be worth trying to fight.

I’m not suggesting that if the Church of England had been armed with one particular prayer, or the NHS stocked with sufficient PPE the coronavirus would have seen us and fled, but we would have been better prepared to face it. But,  we had come to imagine we were immune to such things. As in times of peace we should prepare for war, so in times of health we should prepare for sickness.

Today we remember the sacrifice of millions of men and women who responded to the call of a nation that seemed to live alert to the possibility that war could shatter peace-time. Women and men who were prepared: prepared to give themselves for the sake of their country, to fight against evil, to try and secure peace for the loved ones whom they bravely left behind- prepared for the unthinkable reality that they might never see them again. They understood the reality of the threat and were quick to respond in huge numbers; how differently we in our day, have been slow to respond to the threat imposed on the world by this virus, whose approach we were unprepared for and slow to respond to, and which some still need persuading of its danger.

Reading a book about London in the blitz a few years ago I was astonished to read that even as bombs fell across the West End, one of which destroyed the interior of this church and another the fire station on Shaftesbury Avenue, even as the bombs fell buses still trundled along the Strand. The theatres were closed, as they are now, with the exception of the Windmill which famously ‘never shut’, but much of life continued, as people lived afraid but not in fear: alert to the dangers but not paralysed in terror. Those who could, stepped up to fight the enemy, though it must have felt like a very invisible enemy to the Shropshire farmworkers who put down their pitchforks in peaceful countryside to bear arms; whilst those who could not, simply took the precautions they could to protect their neighbours and families, volunteered in their communities and carried on as best they could.

It strikes me, and the omission from some prayer books maybe reflects this, that we no longer live with any sense of things either beyond our expectation or beyond our control. And when I say ‘our control’ aren’t we often working on the expectation and assumption that it is someone else’s responsibility to take control of the situation for us? Those whom we remember today, we do with sorrow at their deaths and also great admiration and gratitude that they did not leave fighting the foes to others, but stepped up themselves to face the horrors of war in the hope of peace for us.

Yes, in peace we should be prepared for war, in health be ready for sickness and I would add in life be prepared for death. But, as before, not fearfully. Though in our youth we may feel immortal and invincible, we know that, in time, death will come to us all – and at a time as uncertain as the bridegroom’s arrival in the parable. We may discern signs of its approach – some bridegrooms after all are very heavy footed- but for many it may creep up unawares. One of my favourite prayers in the long sequence of prayers called the Litany asks that we will be ‘prevented from dying unprepared’. It does so, not just in the hope that we do not leave this world with things left unsaid, amends unmade, or untidy affairs for our next of kin to untangle. It does so because the gospel, the Christian faith, the good news of Jesus Christ assures us that, if we live truly prepared for it, then we need not fear it.

We should, as the line of the hymn puts it ‘live this day as if thy last’. It is an invitation to be prepared (there’s that word again!) fully, not fearfully, making the most of each day, relishing each face, each flower or autumn leaf (each raindrop) as something of life-giving beauty, whilst making peace with any with whom we have been at war. Living each day as if our last, unsure which one actually will be, we will be ready for night to come, and trust that because Christ died and was raised again, we too will see dawn in a new and everlasting morning.

The names of those who fought and died in the ‘Great Wars’, as they are called, are engraved on granite monuments and written on family trees across this country and indeed across the world: for people of diverse colours, faiths  and countries joined in the fight for good .

They live on in our appreciation and the collective memory of this nation, even when the individual names fade, obscured by the weathering of stone. They, and all they were prepared to do, live on- our liberty is their living and lasting legacy. But the Christian faith is not only of names engraved on fading stone, but of souls- our essence- living on in the presence of God where each are remembered, known and loved, each name engraved on the palm of God’s hand, as the prophet said. And in a place, as Jesus said ‘prepared for his followers’. Yes, God is prepared… prepared  to receive us.

May all whom we remember this day, rest in that place prepared for them …and let us live this day with our lamps lit, in faith and hope and at peace with others, prepared, in time, to feast with the bridegroom in the place prepared for us.

Amen.

The authority to serve

Sunday, October 25th, 2020

Proper 21 Year A 2020

A sermon preached by the Rector on the day after our curate Paul Gurnham’s Ordination as a Deacon. Gospel : Matt 21. 23-32

 

Through a peculiar, happy or Spirit led co-incidence one of the reflections we read at Morning prayer this week included the words with which I had planned to open this sermon. It is that Scripture is a gift. Scripture is a gift.

Earlier you heard Fr Paul affirm his allegiance to the faith revealed in Holy Scripture. To be ordained he had to accept one of the historic, and defining, documents of the Church of England, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Agreed in 1562, one of the articles states that Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary for salvation. No wonder then we can say that holy scripture is ‘a gift’. It’s why at ordination the newly ordained deacon is given a copy of the New Testament and when Paul is ordained priest next year he will be given a Bible; just as I was twenty years ago.  Though this caused great amusement to one of my friends who asked “could you not ask the bishop if you could swap it for something else, as you already had one?”.

Scripture is a gift because it contains all things necessary for salvation, it tells us the story of a creator God and his relationship with humankind and his ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus Christ for the hope and salvation of the world. Now why would you want to swap that for something by Richard Dawkins or a box of Ferrero Roche? The best gift in the world. Not that it hasn’t been abused or its message distorted to suit certain political agendas; not that bits of it aren’t a bit tedious or hard to understand, but it still has the power to speak to us and connect us to the magnetic character of Jesus Christ. But this is not just a book about him (as if that weren’t good enough) it’s a book about us, too. We find all life in the pages of scripture and we can recognise ourselves in there too: both in the diverse characters of the stories, and in the questions and comments put to others thousands of years ago that are also addressed to us today.

Two sentences addressed to others leapt out at me from today’s Gospel as being also addressed to us. Let’s remind ourselves of the scene: Jesus has been healing people in the temple and teaching, but the chief priests and the elders rather than rejoice that the blind regain their sight and the lame are walking again ask “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority”. Now putting their apparent churlishness to one side, authority is important- if someone in the street tells you to do something isn’t your natural reaction to ask why this person has the right, the authority, to boss you around. One of the issues with the artist Banksy is that he paints on buildings without permission – he may be a clever and valuable artist, but he has no authority to paint on my wall, not without my permission (not that he’s tried to, by the way!). And no matter how much we all may be equal in the sight of God there needs to be some order to the life of the church, it’s why from the very beginning as Scripture attests, there were orders in the church of deacons and presbyters- priests and bishops.

So as Fr Paul, as a regular baptised member of the church, assumes the role of a deacon to serve this community we can ask ‘by whose authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’.  To which he can answer: Sarah, by divine permission Lord Bishop of London. Which under normal circumstances many of us would have witnessed at the cathedral yesterday, if its usual two and a half thousand capacity hadn’t been reduced to thirty, to comply with the government’s authority to limit the numbers of people gathering for ‘life events’.

Now we all know how people can get carried away with authority. Give someone a title, a uniform, a badge or a peaked cap with ‘security’ printed on it and suddenly it, quite literally in the case of the cap, goes to their heads.

But this is where scripture is so often a gift. Here is Paul: resplendent in his new white alb, over the crispest, blackest, fresh -from-the-ecclesiastical-outfitters clergy shirt and bright white collar; set apart by the church, with a new title ‘reverend’ , at the start of a new ministry after his gruelling and learned studies at Wescott House in Cambridge and what does scripture say to him and us today?…..  “truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”.

I said scripture was a gift.

Scripture is a gift because it contains all things necessary for salvation. We cannot receive it with pride that we’re worthy of it, but rather with humility because we need it. We cannot earn it and no matter how hard we may try we never deserve it, we can only receive it as a gift.

Authority, as I’ve mentioned, can be seductive, but that’s when it is confused with power. The authority to shine as lights in the world which we are all given at baptism, as Ellie was two weeks ago, and to preach and teach as Paul and other deacons were yesterday are not given as power but by permission. And whatever any of us do in church whatever our role, title or position both gives us authority but recognises we are under authority: parish clergy can only function with the permission of the bishop, to whom we are answerable and with whom we are all answerable to God.

The key to understanding this is to be found in our first reading: one of my favourite passages from St Paul. It’s also one of the most challenging of all- not because it’s hard to understand, like some of St Paul, but because it’s overwhelmingly demanding. “let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus”…. Just let that phrase sit with you for a moment. Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus.

The passage goes on to explain the mindset of Christ we are called, baptised or ordained to share:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be exploited but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death- even death on a cross.

Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name….

That’s what it looks like to be given and to live under authority. It is because of Jesus’ total humility under God that God could then highly exalt him.

Jesus models for us the way to the kingdom of God, to that exalted place beside him and it is through genuine and costly humility: that’s why clergy must wear the trappings of their office both seriously and lightly. They should be a reminder that any authority we have is authority that is given by one whose authority we are under.

The paradox of the gospel is that the first shall be last and the last first. That to become great we must become servants. That even those who gave the right answer to the question Jesus put to them would enter the kingdom of heaven behind the tax collectors and the prostitutes.

So why become a Christian, let alone an ordained one in full time ministry? It seems from what I’ve been saying that the higher up the ladder you climb, the further you get from the top. Don’t we, in all sorts of ways, want to climb the ladder- not just materially or professionally but spiritually too? Well, the fact is that Jesus identified with those at the bottom of the ladder and those who couldn’t even get a foot on the bottom rung of the metaphorical ladder; and so to know our place, to be at the bottom of the ladder, is to be in the place of Jesus who came not to climb the ladder but to hold the ladder for others. If that’s the position taken by Jesus, if that’s where he is, isn’t that the place we should long to be, to find value, purpose and dignity in?  In the place of the one who came to be served but to serve.

The role of servant is fundamental to the role of a deacon, right back to the Acts of the Apostles where the role of the first deacon, Stephen, was one of distributing alms to the widows and the needy.  Even today that servant role, after the servant hood of Christ, is characteristic of a deacon who still wears their stole- which is a symbol of authority- diagonally over their shoulder and tied at the hip, just as a Roman slave would have worn his or her towel to wash the feet of those who came to their master’s table. Under authority and with authority to serve.

Today we rejoice that Paul has been made a deacon by one with authority to do so, under the authority of God. We pray for him in this new phase in his life and ministry, which seems like a funny progression from university graduate to Barrister, to theological student to…. servant, at the back of the queue behind the tax collectors and the prostitutes.

But the Christian way, which is to have the mindset of Christ is not for those looking for prestige or for the faint hearted, for it can end in crucifixion as it did for Christ and stoning as it did for Stephen. But it is the way of Christ, of life in all its fullness, of service to others, the way to the Father, the way of salvation. This is the pattern revealed in scripture- the gift placed in all our hands by one who says “come, follow me… I will be with you”.

Holy Week 2020

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

With Public worship suspended the Rector has included a short reflection each week to accompany the service that people are being encouraged to use at home. Here are the reflections for Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Day:

PALM SUNDAY (The Rector)

I was listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury the other day reflecting on the fact that on Palm Sunday Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem as a stranger, just one of thousands of pilgrims arriving for the Passover festival. I thought this was odd, having always had a picture of Jesus being welcomed by a huge crowd whose allegiance was changed by the end of the week. But Matthew’s retelling of this event makes it clear: a crowd may have greeted him outside Jerusalem, but once inside the ‘whole city’ (which is maybe a bit of tabloid exaggeration) was asking “who is he?”. We forget the distances between places, the difficulty of travel and that communication didn’t arrive with the speed that even our grandparents were used to. All this meant that Jesus was very much a provincial and ‘local hero’ of whom news was yet to filter through to the ordinary inhabitants of the great city. In his own day most people didn’t have a clue who he was.

The Diocese of London has an ambition to ‘make Christ known’ to every Londoner by 2030…. which is ambitious indeed. However, all Christians should share this ambition- it’s one of the reasons we sent out Christmas cards from St Anne’s to 1800 households in December. Cities, and especially capital cities, can simultaneously be places at the forefront of the latest news and activity whilst also being places of intense loneliness, quite disconnected from and behind the reality and experience of the majority of the country’s population which live outside it.

One of our challenges is to make Christ known in ways that connect with diverse people’s lives and experience, whether they live in a country village, urban sprawl or a gleaming metropolis. We may feel ill-equipped as evangelists, nervous or even reticent to be thought of as ‘pushing our faith on someone else’. But each of us has a part to play in simply inspiring others to ask of Jesus “who is he?”, just as the city was roused to curiosity by the reaction of a smaller crowd to this enigmatic man on a donkey. How does our response to Jesus as a small crowd (and individual members of it) occur to others? What questions does it make them ask – not so much about us- but about Jesus? We can only answer that question for them if we can answer it for ourselves: What it is about Jesus that has us cheering him on Palm Sunday, rather than joining in with the scoffers and those who saw him as an inconvenience later in the week…… “who is he?”.

Holy Week helps us to answer that question, though we may miss the celebrations that articulate it. “Who is he?” he is the one who came from God for all people: those who cheered and those who jeered. He is the one who set us an example by washing the feet of others. He is the one who out of love for humankind laid down his life. He is the one who was raised to life and who we trust is with us now, even now.

GOOD FRIDAY ( Rev’d Dr Canon Keith Riglin)

In the midst of the current pandemic, with so much suffering, and not a few dying, it can seem odd to turn today to a tale of yet another person suffering and, indeed, dying. It’s often said that this strangely named day is all about inevitable human suffering (balanced by an inevitable, yet divine, resurrection at Easter). However, the thrust of the Gospel seems to be the reverse – that on Good Friday (God’s Friday) we see what God is really like, about God being on our side.

So, if you want to know what God is like, consider today. The Word of God has become flesh, says St John. St Matthew says that, at the moment of Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” – for God has bridged the gap of sin, of all those things (our sins of negligence, weakness, and our own deliberate fault) – those things which have destroyed our natural created relationship with God and with creation. Good Friday is God’s Friday – here is God.

During this current crisis we’re not able to gather together to celebrate the sacrament. So, especially during these days, we can remember that Jesus is God’s ultimate sacrament, Jesus is the outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual (that is, really real) grace. And Jesus’ action, which is God’s action, on the cross, being the sacrament it is, accomplishes what it symbolises.

Today we know the extent of God’s love, for here is the depth of God’s passion with and for us – God’s compassion – here is the fullness of that desire to bring about something new. Here God changes the old ways of religion – if only I was good enough, if only I hadn’t said that or done that or thought that, maybe God will love me. It’s not like that. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” champions St Paul. Today is the day when the Gospel says, Enough! So, don’t blame God – God has acted, and here, on the cross, we see and know what God is truly like. And if you want to know what we humans are like, or, rather, what we, all of us and each one of us can be like, stay with us to Easter Day, and learn of your true destiny.

EASTER DAY (The Rector)

It probably doesn’t feel much like Easter to many people today. But it didn’t feel much like Easter to the first disciples on the first Easter either. Though John and Peter raced to the tomb in response to Mary’s news that ‘she had seen the Lord’, the rest of them ‘locked indoors’ (oh the irony!) had to rely on their testimony. I’m sure some of Peter and John’s excitement must of rubbed off on them, but it wouldn’t have been the same as if they’d seen Jesus for themselves that day, or it had been safe for them to gather together at the empty tomb.

It’s easy to be a fair-weather disciple, to give thanks to God when life is good- much harder to do so when life is challenging. And yet much of the Old Testament was written by the Jews when they were exiled in Babylon and trying to make sense of God’s special covenant relationship with them there. Similarly, most of the New Testament, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, was written by Christians facing persecution and trial: think of St Paul writing to the church quite literally whilst chained in a prison cell. Faith is forged in times of difficulty and adversity rather than prosperity or ease. Listening to people in some ‘churchy quarters’ agonising about not being able to get to church on Sunday, a priest friend of mine quipped- they should try being a Christian in Iraq or Syria … this is the norm for them. Our current experience and the restrictions upon our lives should give us all a new appreciation of those who have kept or found faith in circumstances of hardship: whether caused by persecution, war or pandemic.

Our gospel tells us that on that first Easter day Mary went to the tomb while it was still dark and it was there she encountered Christ- the light in the darkness. Well, we may feel as though despite the light of day having dawned, the light of Christ is yet to break upon us; on this muted day when we cannot gather as we normally would to celebrate the resurrection we might fail to feel his presence. But look around, the risen Christ is present and with us – though like Mary we may mistake him for a gardener… or a doctor, a nurse or a care worker, or a neighbour doing shopping, or a church member checking in on you. Christ remains risen, present and triumphant, even today. Christ is risen, he risen indeed.

 

 

First Sunday of Christmas 2019

Monday, December 30th, 2019

I haven’t counted the exact number of Christmas cards that I’ve received this year, but there are an awful lot of them. Some of them were from some of you- so thank you very much!

I’ve noticed several trends amongst the Christmas cards I’ve received in recent years. Firstly, the rise in personalised ones- photographs on the front bearing pictures of people’s children or dogs (Not guilty- the picture of my dog was on the back this year!), secondly an increase of cards with a religious theme (well it’s what Christmas is really about isn’t it?) and thirdly a drop off in pictures of Dickensian Christmases- with snowy London streets and carol singers gathered beneath a gas lamp outside bow windowed shops.

I’m not surprised by any of these developments. It’s so easy to print your own cards now, a religious card is the obvious choice to send the Rector and the Dickensian Christmas is a bit of a myth. Not once in 56 years have I walked through the snow to church on Christmas Day, and the more familiar group of carollers (singing Frosty the Snowman in the underground station… and in November) is a world away from the romantic imagery of the Dickensian card. Christmas is not like that today – if indeed it ever truly was.

But the religious Christmas card… now that gets us back to the heart and truth of what the birth of Jesus was like doesn’t it? Well, does it? Setting aside the fact that in Christmas cards Mary never looks exhausted after giving birth or shocked to find herself surrounded by shepherds, the nativity stories themselves are riddled with ambiguities: How many wise men? Stable, cave, shed? Not even the essential character of the donkey is attested to in the Biblical account) so much has been pieced together in the popular imagination across the millennia since it happened, that for all they help us picture the scene of Christ’s birth they can’t help but mythologise and romanticise it. And whilst I’m not averse to a little romanticism (though sadly when it comes to romance I’m more familiar with the theory than the practice!) It’s not helpful when it actually obscures or detracts from the awesome event of the incarnation Christmas celebrates.

For our carol service this year I chose a poem by Malcolm Guite[1] called Refugee which I want to reflect a little on now:

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font.

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up an on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the lamb upon the throne.

As the sentimentalised images on our Christmas cards begin to curl as they hang above the central heating radiators, on this Sunday when many of us will sing our last carol, and on the day after the feast of the Holy Innocents when the church remembers Herod’s frightful massacre, this poem feels particularly appropriate.

It can also feel poignant when after one day of indulgence and bon-homie, the world seems to return so quickly to its dangerous normality, with a plane crash, 85 killed in a terrorist bomb in Mogadishu, three members of one family drowning on holiday, a rabbi stabbed in New York…. the list could go on.

The truth behind the glittering Christmas cards is that the world into which God chose to be born was then, as now, fraught with danger and menace. Indeed we cannot understand the light that shines at Christmas if we remove the dark backdrop from the world against which it shines and into which it breaks. It was into a scarred and wounded world that Christ was born, it is to a scarred and wounded that he will continue to be relevant, and it is in a scarred and wounded world that he will continue to be found. That’s the message of the God born in the chaos of a stable, rather than the comfort of a palace. A child at the mercy of adults, a child like those slain by Herod and countless thousands who today find themselves ‘fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel’. The story of the flight into Egypt seems utterly contemporary: and if God emptied himself and became as human as we Christians believe then we must acknowledge the experience of the Christ child as being the same as that of the disturbed and bewildered children we see being carried by their mothers in desperation out of war zones. The Christmas card may show the holy family plodding steadily across open sand dunes towards the pyramids, but the reality is a child who is regarded as an enemy of the state being smuggled out of the country.

And Matthew, the gospel that gives us the story of the slaughter of the innocents under Herod, also records two vital sayings of Jesus. They come towards the end of his Gospel: firstly that “whatever you did to the least of these who are my brothers and sisters you did also to me” and “I am with you always to the end of time”. With the first we can make an obvious connection to the story of the slaughter of the innocents: what Herod did to them he was indeed trying to do to Jesus. And whilst Jesus may have escaped Herod’s sword, he was scarred by the slaughter of the innocents and so we see his life being one of championing the innocent, the vulnerable, those abused or downtrodden by the power of the state or of religion: you could say that he gave his life to their cause. And it is not fanciful to make the connection that when Jesus said to his disciples that he would be with them to the end of time, that we should see in the face of every child refugee, child factory worker or abused child the face of Jesus himself. They are who Jesus was. They are Christ today.

But far from being hopeless this means that we can still meet him and help him in his need. And- as the poem reminds us- for what we do, or don’t do, like Herod we will be judged by the lamb upon the throne: the God who became man, the shepherd who became the paschal lamb, the judge who has been the victim.

The astonishing, shattering, beauty of the scene that adorns so many Christmas cards and which stands beneath our altar, is not just that God was born among us to share our life, our humanity; but to do so from the dirt of the stable floor through to the rough wood of the cross. Unafraid and most present where life was hardest, unfair, painful and dark. It is into the utter darkness that the light of Christ breaks- that’s what we celebrate at Christmas a truth that is not cosy or romantic but challenging and bloody and real. It’s what makes it Gospel- good news- that people have been willing to die to proclaim rather than a fairy story for children at bed-time.

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font.

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up an on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the lamb upon the throne.

 

Christ is with us, may we be where he is this Christmas and in the year to come.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Guite,M. Waiting on the Word. (Canterbury Press, Norwich; 2015) p115

The Blessed Virgin Mary

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

Feast of the Virgin Mary with Admission of Churchwardens.

8th September 2019.

Whilst Mary, the mother of our Lord does get a special mention on one of the Sundays in Advent it struck me that we hadn’t routinely observed an annual feast in her memory here at St Anne’s. We’ve given Jesus’ granny about whom there is no scriptural information more prominence over his own mother for whom there is plenty. Of course, whilst some Christians swoon in adoration of her, others get twitchy at the mention of her name.

But the Book of common prayer provides for today, 8th September, as her principle feast day- The Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it seems to me the better date on which to pause and honour her than the 15th August which has rather overtaken it.  That day is usually called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is when, some denominations believe, like our Lord she ascended body and soul into heaven, but is called in the Orthodox tradition, the Dormition of Mary – her falling asleep. So whilst Christians may be divided about how her life on earth ended, we can be united in celebration that it began. We can be sure she was born!

And having been born, what titles she has accumulated over the years: Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, Star of the Sea, Mystic Rose (which does make her sound like an astrologer in the Daily Mirror), Morning Star, Queen of Heaven, Mother of the Church…. She seems to have held every title other than Churchwarden.

And yet…. And yet… it strikes me that on a day when we formally admit Mark and John as our Churchwardens at St Anne’s – one of them thankfully having got here without falling off his bike again- there is something about Mary which provides them and us with a model for what it means to be a church warden and indeed for all of us to be members of the church.

The first is perhaps an obvious one: Just as God had a plan for which he needed human co-operation and was reliant on Mary saying ‘yes’ to God, so Mark and John have responded to the call to serve God and this church through the particular ministry of being Church warden. And, of course, like Mary, thoughts went through their mind about being honoured to be asked by me to take on this role (probably the only time I’d compare myself to the Angel Gabriel!) and perplexed as to why they should be asked and whether they were good enough. In John’s case too, like Mary there was the thought of “how am I going to I break this to my other half?”. But both, like Mary, said “yes, I’ll give it a go, I’ll give it all that I can”.  For all of us our relationship with God begins with us saying ‘yes’:

  • ‘Yes’ in spite of all that seemingly points to the opposite I believe that God exists.
  • ‘Yes’ there is something about the person of Jesus that makes me want to try and follow him even though I’ve a feeling I won’t do it very well and I’m not even quite sure where following him will lead.
  • ‘yes’ I am going to set my alarm to get up for church on Sunday morning.
  • ‘Yes’ I can see there’s a need and a job to be done and so I’ll step up for the sake of others.
  • And perhaps most importantly ‘yes’ I believe my life does have a purpose, and often it is others who can identify that purpose for us, better than we can for ourselves.

The angel didn’t call Mary ‘full of grace’ as a compliment or accolade for responding positively to God’s call, but because he recognised God’s grace within her from the start: her divine potential to be uniquely useful to God. Well, Mark, John, you and me… do we not have some God-given unique potential? The question is whether is whether like Mary, we’re prepared to take a deep breath, say ‘yes’ and find God’s meaning for our lives.

The second thing is that Mary occupied a critical and central position in the life of Christ and yet one that never sought to be centre stage. Her humble ministry was one of support and encouragement to Jesus, of unwavering faithfulness but also not without a willingness to be a questioning presence when needed. Mary courageously stuck with Jesus right through his ministry and the one who catholic piety often shows with dewy eyed tenderness (along with the palest skin, bluest eyes and blondest hair ever seen on a Middle-Eastern Jewish mother) when in reality she was a gutsy woman of steel who stood by her son as he hung on the cross when all the men, bar one, couldn’t be seen for dust. Mary models for churchwardens and for us all what our saying ‘yes’ to God should look like. What making a commitment and sticking to it means: not for personal glory, prestige or power but as a servant of Christ and his church. Yes, the churchwardens are given staves of office, topped with royal and episcopal insignia, to represent the authority they carry as officers of the bishop, but they do so as servants who will spend vastly more time dealing with the unglamorous work of ensuring the building is functioning, maintaining the fabric and to quote my favourite one of the declarations they will make “co-operating with the incumbent”. That’s the role they’ve said ‘yes’ to and for which the staff with which they will escort dignitaries into church is not a reward but an honour. The highest place at God’s banquet always being the place of service. Mary invites us to consider whether our place in the church is one in which we seek to serve or be served, where we must each ask “if God has a purpose for me, what might it be here?” Just being here as part of the body of Christ is crucial, but we must always ask whether we are fully playing our part.

And whilst we may think that Mary was spared the work of looking after a church building and contents, which is so often viewed as the primary responsibility of churchwardens, she undoubtedly had a pivotal role in holding the church- the Christian community- together. At the cross Jesus put the disciple he loved into the care of his mother and her into the care of the disciple, and Mary –that most faithful of disciples- was there with the eleven, praying on the day of Pentecost when the spirit descended. She is like the backbone of the early church, just as Peter was the mouthpiece. And there is something about being churchwarden that is about being the backbone of this church. John and Mark will accept their duty of representing the laity, of encouraging the rest of you in your faith and ‘promote unity and peace among you’ as the declaration says.  You might think that’s my job description, or Father Keith’s job, and to a large extent it is. But whilst I have absolutely no plans to leave St Anne’s, we all know I won’t be here forever, and that’s fine. Because this is your church and when the time does come for me to leave, move on, retire or just go doo-lally, it is the churchwardens (whoever they will be) who will be the ones who will remain as the core leaders of this church community. Churchwardens are the Mary-like backbone, when the Peter like mouthpiece (which is the incumbent) goes. And really if someone wants to know what St Anne’s – your church – is like they shouldn’t look to me, but to you and principally to the churchwardens who are those you elected as your representatives. The Christ-mandated exchange of care we see at the foot of the cross between Mary and John, the beloved disciple, is something that the church wardens should exemplify but one that we are all called to imitate. So, the other question that Mary poses to all of us is “do I accept my duty of care for the other members of the whole body of Christ: of which I am a part?”.

  • Saying yes to God’s purpose.
  • Being faithful in service.
  • Caring and holding one another together as the Body of Christ here.

This was Mary’s calling. It is the Churchwardens’ calling. It is the calling of us all. It is a high calling and so it is unsurprising that many Christians call upon her in prayer to help them fulfil that calling in the same way that she undoubtedly did. Today we give thanks for her example, we give thanks that Mark and John will follow her example, but we remember too that – and this is probably one of the best churches to say this in – what are we called to be here…. is ‘a great big bunch of Marys’!

May we all find our potential and purpose and fulfil it in the service of God and of one another.

To God be the glory, this day and for ever. Amen.

The Good Samaritan

Monday, July 15th, 2019

Fourth Sunday After Trinity (14th July 2019)

I think that every sermon I have heard on the subject of the parable of the Good Samaritan has begun with the question put to Jesus “who is my neighbour?”. That is the question which the  story seems to address. But the parable is actually told in order to explain an earlier question, “teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” . And it is easy to rush past this question and Jesus’ answer about loving God and loving neighbour to get to the well known, and in some ways over-familiar, story. But I just want first of all to pause at that first question, because it is critical as to how we then understand the parable that follows it.

The man’s question was “what must one DO to inherit eternal life?”, not “what must I believe, but what must I do”. Salvation, eternal life, rightness with God- may be God’s gift generously and undeservedly given to his imperfect children, but if we are to meet the gift giver ‘half way’ as it were, we do this not only by what we believe but by what we do.

Jesus said to some who gathered to hear him that “not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my father in heaven”.  It’s very easy to profess a faith – but to live it is another matter. Of course our relationship with God is important and without faith, prayer, study of scripture and sharing in the sacraments that relationship will not grow, but it is how we act which proves that our faith, however much or little we may think we have, is actually real and also through our faith develops. It is often rather surprising news to those with a very deep faith that the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that believing alone won’t save us.

Of course, other passages of scripture might pop into your mind to question what I’m asserting here. Because you might think, well hang on a minute  didn’t St Paul say that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” ? and you’d be right (Romans 10:13),  but that doesn’t mean faith is all that matters. Because what do those who call on the name of the Lord hear in response but “when I was hungry did you feed me, when I was naked, did you clothe me, when I was in prison did you visit me?” to quote Jesus  in

St Matthew’s gospel. Faith and deeds are not fighting or competing in opposition, but the opposite ends of a scale and we are spiritually balanced when we give both faith and good deeds equal weight and we are held at the mid point . That’s where we meet, to use my phrase from earlier “the gift giver in the middle”.

If we didn’t have faith, we wouldn’t trust Jesus as being the one to turn to and ask what we must do to inherit eternal life; but hearing what he says we can’t say “that’s lovely” and ignore it.

This is the what the prophets had wailed about centuries earlier. They were intensely critical of those who proclaimed a faith and carried out all the rituals of that faith and yet failed to behave in a way that was really pleasing to God. Criticising the ritualistic keeping of fasts, the prophet Isaiah declared that God said “ Is this the kind of fast which you think is pleasing to me? No, the fast that I choose is to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo those tied to the yoke, to release those who are oppressed. to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your house: when you do this and call upon the Lord, then I will answer; you will cry for help and I will say ‘Here I am’” (Is 58: 6-7,9).

No matter how well intentioned, or how devoutly offered the rituals of the churches in the catholic tradition may be, or what emotions are stirred by the choruses in a pentecostal or evangelical church service, God tells us that he comes closest to us when we serve others, and work to release them from injustice, oppression, hunger or homelessness. The restoration of dignity to another human is the worship that gladdens God’s heart most: God is truly adored when we serve and honour the humanity of our neighbour.

And it is this understanding which then prompts the man in the gospel to ask “but who exactly is my neighbour?” and then the familiar narrative  begins. Again, over familiarity with this parable can make us unreceptive to the revolutionary understand of the term ‘neighbour’ which Jesus holds out.

It is so easy for us to want to give ourselves a pat on the back for being neighbourly- nice to those around us who we know, kind to those we know

and like who live in our road, block of flats or work place, and think that, like cub scouts or brownies we have earned our ‘good neighbour badge’ and the job is done. And whilst such behaviour is good and right, in this parable Jesus tells us that true neighbourliness has no boundaries but extends beyond the local, familiar or friendly : we are to be neighbours to those who’ve never been nice to us and even to those who we do not know. The story of Jesus healing ten lepers, of whom only one returned to give thanks tells us we are to help those who won’t even thank us for doing so.

In the explanation of this  parable it is often suggested that the priest and the Levite were hypocritical: either uncaring towards the injured man or that they were so obsessed with preserving their own ritual purity that they neglected this poor soul lying in the dusty road. But another understanding of this is that Jesus is using them to illustrate the point that true neighbourliness means going that extra mile, even at times at the apparent expense of our own principles, beliefs and practices. God would rather have the needs of a complete stranger met, than have a religious ritual observed. All our religious practice is in order to lead us to God so that we may truly learn to love him and serve him: but the ultimate worship that we offer is the service of our neighbour. Perhaps then this story invites us to hear God say to us at times something like “get your nose out of your prayer book and go and feed the hungry”. Not that it’s an either /or situation – stop coming to church on Sunday and go and support a food bank instead. But if our coming to church doesn’t lead us to some act of charity towards others beyond our immediate friendship circle, we practice our faith partially and selectively.

But there’s another and more surprising sting in the story for Jesus’ original audience. It was that the Good Samaritan was someone completely unlike them. The person Jesus holds up as the ultimate neighbour is the last person they thought he would hold up as an example. Jesus holds up this Samaritan, just as he would hold up the prostitute, the tax collector and the child as being closer to the kingdom of God than those who thought that they held a golden ticket to heaven. Never let your spiritual privilege or pride blind you to the goodness- the holiness- of others.

The Good Samaritan isn’t just a parable that tells us to put our faith into action, but to recognise through the truly neighbourly actions of others the poverty of our faith. To humbly accept that the one who technically shouldn’t be, is living a life closer to what God longs from us: whereas we who technically should be, so frequently aren’t. The neighbour is not simply those around us we know, it is not those who are like us, or who we like, and not those of the same faith or race: he deliberately chose someone from Samaria- a group of people despised by the Jews as unorthodox, unclean and best avoided.

The parable of the Good Samaritan may be familiar, and feel like a heartwarming story with a happy ending, but actually it is an uncomfortable reminder to us all that God calls us to actively care more widely than we naturally want to; and that others who may even reject the notion of God offer, through their active compassion for others, worship which is more pleasing to God than many of us who come reverently in church on Sunday may do in the following week.

The lawyer asked “ what must I do to inherit eternal life”? Jesus told him this parable and says to us all, “go – and do likewise”.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday 2019

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

Mountains have been in the news a lot recently, or rather one mountain in particular – Everest. This year an unprecedented number of people have died trying to climb it. In one sixteen-day period eleven people died trying to reach the 8,849 metre-high summit. Indian officials have denied that giving too many passes out to climbers has resulted in over- crowding causing the excessive queuing which, at that altitude, is extremely dangerous. But one photograph I saw recently showed a huge line of people queuing along the ridge to the summit as if waiting for a ride at Disney World. Mountains are not amusement parks but beautiful and dangerous places which need approaching with reverence.

The lure of mountains is understandable. The feat of endurance, the physical challenge, the change of air and the breath-taking views which give a quite literally different perspective on the world, are unrivalled. In the Bible mountains are frequently holy places of divine encounter – Moses on the Mountain received the Ten Commandments; Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured on Mount Tabor. And as the psalmist said I lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help. Your eye can’t help but be drawn to their peaks.

Mountains are elevated places to which people look for inspiration and in which people find elevation themselves. They represent the out-of-reach, the potentially unassailable and, especially when the top is shrouded in cloud, the speak of  beauty and mystery. I understand why people risk their lives to climb them.

Descartes, the French philosopher, mathematician and scientist wrote in the 16th Century that “we can touch a mountain, but we cannot get our hands around it”. Mountains are simultaneously right here on earth and simultaneously out of reach. So near and yet so far.

I think it was possibly seeing the Sound of Music as a child that awakened me to the magical lure of mountains (along with nuns, puppets and leiderhosen! Actually the latter was cured when a German friend of the family gave me a pair that their son refused to wear. I think the double fact that a. I was unsurprisingly the only child wearing them in Birkenhead and b. they were made of the thickest, creakiest most uncomfortable leather, combined to put me off them for life!).

But back to the mountains! And to 2008 when I climbed Kilimanjaro, three thousand metres lower than Everest at just under 6,000 metres and the toughest, most exhilarating five days of my life.  At first, I was worried we weren’t going to even begin to reach the base of the mountain. Three times the Land Rover I was in blew tyres on the rough, crater-strewn tracks that counted as roads as we left the plains of the Serengeti with its giraffes and elephants behind and drove towards the beginning of the mountain trail. And from that moment on it really didn’t get any easier: even seeing the mountain ahead of us and knowing that plenty of others had climbed only gave us so much hope.

For the first few days we trudged slowly up dusty paths, clouds of dry orange dust coating every inch of us it could find, and later we would scramble over loose stone slopes. Beyond, waiting up the peak were glaciers 30 metres high, though a fraction of the size they had been ten years before due to climate change. From sea level you could glimpse the rocky mountain peak, but once on the side of it, whilst never getting our hands around it, we realised there was so much more to it than the enormous mountain we had set out to climb: To touch this mountain meant contact with soft warm dirt and sharp hard rocks and snow, scorching heat as well as the bitterest of cold.

On the final ascent it was touch and go as to whether I would actually make it. Around 50% of climbers I gather don’t manage it to the peak. A week before a Premier League footballer had been stretchered off with altitude sickness (hardly encouraging!) and several people in my party had been taken back down to base camp due to horrendous pounding headaches, as well as the bad stomachs which accompany the acute breathlessness, aching limbs and often bleeding toes from the exertion of the climb. But I made it…. and somehow at the top from I don’t know where came the effortless energy to smile the biggest of smiles for some photographs and then to sob my heart out at the enormity of the whole experience- not least that I can never fully convey just what it was like. But I made it to the top, I’d reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Even reaching the mountain summit whilst I’d certainly touched it I hadn’t got my hands round it. One person in my party had done it twice before – via different routes. There are four or five, and each year he intended to go via another route: each had the same destination Uhuru peak, but each route gave him a different perspective of the same mountain and from its different sides different countries were more clearly in view- across Kenya from one side and the whole of  Tanzania stretching out on the other.  But no matter which path he touched the mountain on, his hands could never contain it.

I could not have climbed it without the expert guides who knew the route like the back of their own hands, and yet even their palms could not hold it. Men and women who loved this mountain and were dependent upon it, who understood how to read the weather and carried the kit that we were not strong enough to. People who ran ahead of us to set up camp and prepare food and who trailed with the slowest making sure that no one was left behind. And there was one, whose name I do not know, who gently walked with me for the last hour in the thin golden dawn with one hand in the small of my back gently keeping me going to the place I so desperately wanted to reach and was struggling to get there on my strength alone.

And Kilimanjaro is just a mountain.

How much bigger is God, who we can touch and who touches us, but who we can never get our hands around. Whose substance, like Kilimanjaro, is more complex than we might first imagine and whose being we can only explore and encounter with the guidance of others: those who know God intimately and deeply, and who can share that knowledge and breathe the essence of God into us.

Trinity Sunday is the day when we recognise that we will never conquer God, never get our hands around him- or her ( see, we can’t even speak of God without using inadequate language), but a day on which we also celebrate that it doesn’t mean that God out of reach. Like Kilimanjaro – God is real and here- but viewed from the plain of humanity is shrouded in cloud and mystery and seems, not only unassailable but unapproachable. But thanks be to God, we can approach him through his Son who has made God known, shown us what this mountain is like – giving us a glimpse of the peak down on earth.

We have in Jesus Christ someone who knows God and who longs to be our guide; who shows us the right route to God because he alone is the way the truth and the life for those seeking directions to the summit. He truly knows God like the back of his hand, because they are one (as St John’s Gospel so vividly describes the relationship as the intertwining branches of a single vine). As the mountain guide has become one with the mountain through familiarity with it, so Christ can be familiar with his heavenly father and ours because he is one with God to begin with. They share the same substance. Christ has come to us from the peak, to lead us up there.

The Spirit of God is the energy which calls us to the Holy Mountain and which on our climb is a biting chastening wind and a soothing breeze, the sun that causes growth and life and which is a searing heart. And mediated through Christ our guide this Spirit is both within us around us: and if we are to even begin to climb this mountain we will need that Spirit of God, which as a creative father he breathed upon the waters to bring life to creation, breathed out by his Son on the early church and on us through the sacrament of baptism: without this Spirit we will surely find ourselves breathless.

But having reached the top…. What then? Is it just all down hill? Like the magi, I ‘went home by a different route’ when I descended from Kilimanjaro, but I certainly took something of the mountain-top with me.

Because on the summit very quickly the sense of achievement gave way to a devastating sense of smallness. Having gone very high I was brought down to earth by the realisation of my smallness in the cosmos and in relation to this mountain which had, of course, looked bigger the closer I had got to it; and only on it was I brought down to size as I recognised its enormity. And the words of the psalmist came to my mind

What are mortals that you, God, should be mindful of them: Mere human beings that you should seek us out?

I wasn’t brought low in a negative way- far from being depressing, this humbling knowledge or insight was awe-inspiring and uplifting: that on an 8,849 metre-tall mountain God cared about me… though I stand barely 1.7 metres tall.

This is the spiritual journey, we all take- with or without going to Africa: It’s not the physical ascent of a mountain, but the approaching of the enormity of God the Father, through the companionship of his Son and the sustenance of the Holy Spirit the summit of which is the discover that in the vastness of our world he cares for us, small as we each are. That knowledge is the destination we are all called to reach ….and from which … well, our view of the world is never again anything less than spectacular.

Amen.

Speaking from the heart…

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Easter 2019.

When I was preparing for ordination I was warned on several occasions about the danger of not preaching a sermon on a Sunday morning but inadvertently of preaching several sermons rolled into one. A veritable dog’s dinner dished up from the pulpit.

As I was reminded at a preaching seminar last year “it’s much better within a sermon to say the same message in three different ways than to preach three different messages”. I know the advice and I take it to heart. Even when preaching a classic ‘three-point sermon’ I work hard to ensure that those three points all clearly point to one message. But today I am, I confess, going to throw all the rules out of the window because there are two different things I’m moved to say.

The first is to comment on a statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury which was released following the resignation of the Prime Minister on Friday. It read:

During the last three years of leading our nation through times of profound change and uncertainty, Theresa May has shown determination, resilience and a sense of public duty that has never wavered. That is a service to us all that deserves our admiration and gratitude.

As Mrs May prepares to stand down from office over the coming months, this is a moment to pause and pray for her and her husband, Philip, whose support has been unwavering, and for all those around them working to ensure a smooth transition into new leadership.

Every day in churches across the country, we pray for our political leaders. We pray that they be guided and strengthened in wise leadership that strives for the common good. We pray too for their protection, safety and wellbeing in the roles they take on for the benefit of our communities and our nation. We also pray for their families who with them carry the burden that being in public life brings.

In these critical times in our shared national life, people of faith should commit to pray for all those who lead, all those who are led, and work together with all of goodwill, especially for those who are vulnerable and on the margins. As Christians we pray that our society would be shaped around Christ’s hope-filled vision of abundant life for every person.

Of course, reading a statement like that on Facebook it is both tempting and dangerous to read the comments that follow. I’m glad that long with a full head of hair I’m blessed with pretty low blood pressure for a middle-aged man! Admittedly most of the followers of the Archbishop of Canterbury – or the ABC as he’s known in church circles- are going to be supporters, but amongst the largely positive comments about his gracious remarks, which were refreshingly calm and devoid of the polarising rhetoric we’ve become used to these days, there was criticism too. Observations that perhaps what he applauded as a determined sense of duty had been actually become an ego-driven refusal to listen to others. And several others noted that many people find it difficult to admire someone who- whatever she may have tried to do in one sphere of public life- had inflicted dreadful suffering in others, notably as Home Secretary. Those of the Windrush generation suddenly finding themselves deported, those genuinely reliant on disability benefits finding their safety net cut, to mention two examples, were not shedding tears.

But which of us, who will be such small fry in the history of our nation, will not leave a mixed legacy of things we failed to achieve or mistakes we made (often with the best of intentions or on the worst of advice) along with a list of things for which we might be applauded? Though, admittedly, our shortcomings don’t have the same ramifications as those of a PM. In public office everything is magnified and I’m sure I’m not alone in having thought at various points over the last few years – ‘why would anyone take on that job…And that particular job at that particular time…?’.

I think Justin Welby understands better than anyone the position Mrs May found herself in; there are clear comparisons to be made between the competing and conflicting expectations that people have of the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Primate of the Anglican Communion.

And so we must, we really must, pray for those who – possibly through motives different to Mrs May- will be standing for office, and above all that they genuinely capture what the Archbishop calls ‘Christ’s hope-filled vision of abundant life for every person’.  And pray that in whatever elections will follow in the months or years to come (as the word  “what another one?” inevitably echoes across the land) we will also make that the deciding factor in our voting: will this person further Christ’s hope-filled vision of abundant life for every person?”. No other vision has a chance of getting us out of the situation we currently find ourselves in. It’s tempting to feel that Christ’s vision is too big, to revolutionary, idealistic or impossible to be realised and so think it’s better to just vote for what will make life better for me tomorrow. But such short term-ism is not a step towards fulfilling the long-term vision. And as Christians our prayer above all prayers, is the prayer of Christ himself which is “thy will be done”. We really can’t be ready or willing to settle for anything less.

And now for the second sermon, which actually is not unrelated to what I’ve just said!

I apologised to Susi during the week for the reading from the Acts of the Apostles set for today and which she was down to read. I thought it read like a couple of random entries in St Paul’s diary. Unfamiliar place names and bits of geographical history, a weird dream and an influential business woman who came to faith and, with her household, was baptised.

Lydia welcomed Paul and Silas into her home – and would also welcome them back after they had been violently arrested and imprisoned and subsequently pardoned and released. Showing herself to be  another one of the many women on whom the men of the early church were dependent. But she opened her doors to the apostles because (in verse 14) we are told that the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to the message Paul preached. The Lord opened her heart. The passage is worth reading for those five words alone.

The heart plays a vital part in our lives as Christians. The message of the gospel is not one that is preached to our ears, but to our hearts. The vision of the gospel, the longing for ‘abundant life for every person’ I cited earlier is not one we can see with our eyes or picture in our minds, but it is one to long for in our hearts.  We will not and cannot work for peace and justice for our neighbour or our planet unless our hearts are moved first. The heart is the ultimate sensory organ which is why Jesus in our gospel reading should say Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid[1]: No matter what we see or hear, think or touch, find peace- connection with him who is one with God- in your heart. This was wise advice to the disciples who would soon have to live without the sight or sound of Jesus that they had come to rely on; and he advises them that he will make his home with, dwell in the hearts of those who love him. He would be present and the place where he would be found and made known would be the heart. For Lydia and Paul or any of the disciples, faith in Christ was not an intellectual exercise or necessarily a rational response, but a movement of the heart.

The openness of heart with which Lydia was blessed is something worth cultivating, though it goes against our instincts of self-protection. And it’s not without risk, as every parent who has watched their teenage daughter fall in love for the first time will testify … “it’s bound to end in heart break!”. The heart is a precious place of encounter. Saint Augustine wrote that when we pray we lend our ear to the inner voice of God something resounds, not to our ears but to our heart. Which is why the psalmist could write in Psalm 19 that the word of God rejoices his heart [2]and in turn his heart sings to God without ceasing in psalm 30[3].  What appears to be music to our ears is so only when it resonates in our hearts.

Our prayers must come from the heart and go to the heart of one who dwells in our hearts if, in our hearts, will are to find hope and peace.

We can change leaders in this country as many times as we like, but without a change of heart we shall simply go around in circles.

As we pass judgement on the legacy of a Prime Minister and as we consider our own relationship to God maybe the words of the psalmist should be our prayer: make me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me[4]That seems to me to be the right starting point and conclusion.

Amen.

 

[1] John 14:27

[2] Psalm 19:8

[3] Luigi Gioia. Touched by God. (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) p.21

[4] Psalm 51:10

Easter Day 2019

Friday, April 26th, 2019

Death, New Life and Hope – Rev’d Simon Buckley

I read the story the other day of a woman who was part of the interviewing panel for a Christian organisation that had a vacancy for an evangelist. To each candidate who sat before the panel she asked “suppose you’re standing at the bus stop and the person next to you says “what do you mean by the resurrection?… and by the way my bus will be here in three minutes”. And she listened as one by one the interviewees tried to give clear, snappy answers about, hope, new life and the empty tomb. After the last person left one of the other interviewers from the panel turned to her and asked “so who gave you the answer you were hoping for?”. “None of them” she replied, “what I was hoping to hear was ‘If you want to hear my answer to that question… you’re going to have to miss your bus’”.

Now I know your bus doesn’t go in three minutes and we usually preach for longer than that here, but even within the time we normally assign to the sermon I can only begin to shine a light on the fullness of what the resurrection means.

But what I have no hesitation in saying is that I have absolute confidence that whatever I say and however helpfully (or not) I say it I’m shining a light on an actual event. The empty tomb is not a metaphor or symbol, I believe the resurrection happened. No-one in the two thousand years since it happened has come up with a more convincing reason for why the church is here. Nothing less than the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead could have turned the disciples from being disillusioned, disappointed people, wondering whether they had been conned into following Jesus for three years; from being locked away, frightened of suffering a similar fate to him and turned them into courageous, outspoken, joyful people willing to die rather than deny the fact that they had seen Jesus alive. So, when it comes to the evidence for the resurrection I need no more: people’s experience that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, the place he was supposed to be, but was instead everywhere he was supposed to be unable to be: in a garden, on a seashore, in a locked room, walking beside strangers, calling them by name, second guessing their thoughts and utterly changing the direction of their lives….. well, let me just say I need no more evidence.

But what does it all mean? For Peter the resurrection meant no longer feeling guilty for denying Jesus: it meant being forgiven and made the founder of the church. For Mary Magdalene it meant knowing the love and friendship she had with Jesus was unbroken and unbreakable. For the unnamed travellers on the road to Emmaus it was to have a new perspective on everything they had understood before.

But what does it mean for us- especially for us who have never heard the story of Good Friday without knowing what was to come? For few of us, I imagine, have ever had a time when we hadn’t heard that the tomb was declared to be empty- the astonishing twist in the story we know so well.

Well I want to say two things- firstly that Jesus is alive and so we can have hope. And secondly Jesus is alive so we can have hope especially in the face of death.

There’s a phrase often deployed in the laziest scripts in disaster movies, just before the plane starts to nosedive, the volcano whose crater is being explored explodes or the missing Tyranosaurus Rex reappears behind the explorers. It is that someone says, “Come on guys, what’s the worst that can happen?”. Good Friday seemed to be- not just for Jesus, but for the disciples, the Jews and arguably the whole human race- the worst that could happen. And yet, it turned out not to be so. And if God could turn that apparent disaster round, doesn’t it follow that he can and does do the same again? Sure, it might not happen in three days, and I don’t deny that some people endure seemingly endless holy Saturdays after the worst has happened, before even a faint glimmer of Easter light breaks through and a new day dawns. But without a hope built on the experience of all the witnesses to the resurrection who had thought their situation was utterly hopeless then we consign ourselves to doom and misery. A misery that may make us unable to see the sun when it rises.

Amongst all the tragedy we see in our world, whether the ravaging and pollution of our environment, the breakdown of relationships, natural disasters, or the destruction of great cultural icons, I’m sure we were all shocked by the sight of Notre Dame on fire earlier in the week. 850 years of a nation’s history going up in smoke, an artistic jewel and one of the most famous places of Christian worship in the world in danger of being utterly obliterated.  As the present members of St Anne’s Soho, we should have a particular affinity with those who have seen their spiritual home being destroyed – though I’m not suggesting our original building, bombed in 1940, ever had a fraction of the splendour of Notre Dame: there have never been flying buttresses on Dean St. But there is a parallel and a parable here. Because the living Jesus and the 1676 St Anne’s which were both presumed to be consigned to history when they were suddenly and tragically cut down, were also both raised to a new life.

Only on Wednesday two visitors said to me, as they looked at the photograph of the original interior of this Church “oh, how tragic, I bet you wish you still had that”, to which I smiled sympathetically but internally thought “and if we still did, we would have no where to do any of the things we are currently able to do- we’d have that a 17th century building too big for our needs, but we’d have nowhere to host our Thursday pensioners’ lunch, 150 people a week would not be meeting here for AA meetings, there’d be no base for the Night Hub which is doing astonishing work… where, for goodness sake, would we put Lady Lambrini to help us raise money to support those who turn to us at times of crisis…” the list could go on and on. The new life of this church was made possible only by the death of the old building.

And the same will be true for Notre Dame. Already there is talk of creating a new spire rather than simply replicating the old one- which was a mere couple of hundred years old and which people who really know about these things regard as having not been up to scratch with the gothic masterpiece it sat on top of in the first place. And I pray that the fire has cleared a space for  rebuilding that will give breathe new life into it as a true place of Christian worship.

The resurrected Jesus was not the resuscitated old one, but the original with extra glory. Just as Peter, after the resurrection, was no longer just the disciple who denied Jesus, but the disciple who knew he was forgiven- his ‘old spire’ of denial toppled as he was crowned with a new and better one. It’s the resurrection that gave him the new lease of life – the new life of Jesus enabling him to have a new life too.

The resurrection, means not only that the worst is not the end, but that what will be reborn- what God will bring to new birth- will be more glorious than whatever we had known (and probably loved) before. Jesus says to Mary in the garden ‘do not hold on to me’, don’t try and keep me as I was, don’t be content with what was before, be ready to change as I am changed. Many churches have been slowly strangled to death by an over-zealous preservation of the fabric of the building by keeping it exactly as they (often wrongly) thought it had always been. Yes, there’s comfort in keeping the status quo, most of us are made anxious by change and find reassurance in the familiar. But the resurrection tells us to have the confidence to let go, not to live in the past as a prisoner to nostalgia, but to live in the promise and hope of gain rather than the fear of loss.

I don’t know how many buses have gone down Shaftesbury Avenue while I’ve been speaking. (Probably none of the environmental protestors have had their way!) And I know there are many people who, just as Thomas did, will continue to say “unless I see for myself the wounds in his hands and the marks of the nails I won’t believe” and be happy to just get on the next 38 to Clapton Ponds as they always do. But the resurrection holds open the possibility of a bus that will take us a bit further, on a route we might not have chosen, might sometimes be bumpy, and with a destination we can’t begin to really imagine. You don’t need me to tell you the name of the driver, but he calls you to trust him, as countless others have over the last two millennia, to let him drive you in this life and, when our time has come, let him take you to the place where he has already gone before us.

Amen.

 

 

 

If Christ is not raised…

Monday, February 18th, 2019

3rd before Lent Year C 2019- 17th Feb 2019.

If Christ is not raised…..

Some churches put a one-line summary of the scripture readings next to the Bible reference in their service sheets. It can be a useful thing to prepare you for what you’re about to hear and, especially, to have when the passage is a complicated one – one with the potential to leave you thinking “what was that about?”. If I was writing a summary for today’s first reading (I Cor 15: 12-20) I’d put: St Paul says that if the resurrection didn’t happen we may as well give up and go home!

In his own words from verse 14:

If Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.

And St Paul goes on to repeat this assertion as we heard David read earlier. It is a crucial chapter in this letter to the first Christians in Corinth, a passage that I think is one of the most important and forceful of all Paul’s writings, if maybe not as lyrical as his hymn to love “If I speak with the tongue of angels but do not have love..” you know the one, which appears a couple of chapters earlier. In this chapter Paul exemplifies what I was told at a seminar on preaching last year – that in a sermon it’s far better to tell your congregation the same thing three ways, than to tell them three different things! So within a few verses Paul writes:

If Christ is not raised your faith is futile…. If it is for this life only we have hoped we are to be pitied….we are not raised if he was not raised.

Everything hinges around the resurrection. Like the principle often employed during strikes of ‘no work, no pay’; what St Paul is saying is ‘no resurrection for him, no resurrection for us’.

Before we think about what that means, let’s just take a moment to register that the earliest preaching of the gospel contained this unequivocal witness to the risen Christ. We heard the preceding verses of this chapter last week, in which Paul named those who his audience could accept as reliable eye-witnesses to the resurrection. A list that began with Peter, continued with the rest of the twelve, then James (the Lord’s brother) and finally Paul himself. Like Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter Day, who went running to tell the disciples that she had seen the risen Jesus, Paul and the others aren’t preaching what someone else had told them about, or a rumour they’d heard, but a unique phenomenon that they had actually seen for themselves with their very own eyes. They might get killed for telling people about it, but they simply couldn’t not tell people what they knew to be true.

I think this is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the truth of the resurrection: that after Jesus’ death, as the disciples sat in shock  thinking ‘well that didn’t go as we expected… that’s not where we thought following this guy would lead us’ rather than go back home to the safety of their families and a return to normal life, they experienced something that instead set them out on a completely different course of action. You can’t even say that they made the resurrection up because they couldn’t face the shame of going back home, having to admit they’d followed a crank preacher, because Paul tells us there were plenty of others who had seen what they’d seen too, others to verify their claim. The only plausible explanation that the disciples proclaimed the resurrection was that it was true.

And it sounds as though in Corinth people had reasonably been talking about the nature and reality of the resurrection, asking all those questions that intrigue us too. Questions such as “So, how could the risen Jesus appear in a locked room, like he could walk through walls, but then have actual wounded hands that he could invite Thomas to touch?”, “was this body actually physical ?” and so on. And it sounds from the insistent and slightly impatient tone of his letter that Paul views these discussions as typical of the Corinthians’ ability to concentrate on inessentials- things that can distract from the truth, rather than illuminate it.

Jesus’ resurrection was important in its own right -for him-  but also because it demonstrates that personal resurrection will also take place (however that will be) for them and the Corinthians are mistaken if the think they can believe in one without the other. They cannot believe that Jesus will rise and they will not, nor that they will have life beyond death but that Jesus did not. The two are inextricably linked: one proving the validity of the other. In fact, Paul takes this as the lynchpin of the whole Christian faith: anyone who denies that they will not experience resurrection after death is denying the whole faith: if there is no resurrection of the dead… your faith is futile.

Without the resurrection Jesus becomes simply an interesting figure with a good moral compass. One who, like many others, inspires people to live according to a ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’ maxim, but who was clearly deluded when by saying things like ‘the father and I are one’ as he so often did, and which was the whole basis of his life.

But of course, there will always be those who will accuse the Christian hope of the resurrection as simply being a comforting fantasy- ‘Pie in the Sky’ as they say. That’s a phrase originated in the song written to criticise the Salvation Army by Joe Hill, the American labour activist in 1911:

            Long-haired preachers come out every night

            To tell you what’s wrong and what’s right

            But when asked how about something to eat

            They will answer in voices so sweet:

 

                        You will eat, bye and bye

                        In that glorious land above the sky

                         Work and pray, live on hay

                         You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

                        That’s a lie

And it can appear that the doctrine of the resurrection and the words of Jesus in today’s gospel give critics and sceptics like Joe Hill exactly the ammunition they need: don’t worry if you’re hungry now- you’ll be full in heaven, don’t worry if you’re weeping now- you will laugh in heaven.

Is that what Jesus was saying? I don’t think so, because if we set Jesus’ words alongside his actions Jesus did not just preach hope for the future in his ministry, instead he fed the hungry, comforted the sorrowful, healed the sick and suffering during his and their lives”. If I was to write a one sentence summary of today’s gospel to print in our pew-sheet it wouldn’t be “Jesus says it will all be better once you’re dead!” Instead it would be “Jesus tells his followers that things are not always how they seem”.

And so, woe to you who think you are rich- because you’re not actually rich in the things that are important. Woe to you who are laughing without a care in the world right now- who think you’re immune to suffering.

But Blessed are you who think you have nothing – you have untold worth and value.

This is not pie in the sky for later, it’s a pie on the table right now. But it might need us to want a different kind of diet if we are to recognise the feast before us.

People followed Jesus two thousand years ago for all kinds of different reasons, and the same is no less true today. Some were after some instant comfort, some wanted words of wisdom or spiritual advice, some were curious, some wanted to know how to live with those who really annoyed them and some simply enjoyed being in the company of others. For those who followed him only up to the point of the crucifixion and then went away disappointed, their following had been futile. For those who hung on, despite their questions and doubts and fears, their following of Jesus was shown to be far from futile: they saw their Lord resurrected, which proved who they had believed him to be, and guaranteed that they too would know resurrection – a whole new lease of life on earth, and yet another when their life on earth was ended.

I want to end with some words I found in a book I was given as an ordination present nearly 19 years ago:

I once read in Bible Commentary that the word ‘Christian’ means ‘little Christs’. What an honour to share Christ’s name! We can be bold to call ourselves Christians and bear the stamp of his character and reputation. When people find out that you are a Christian, they should have an idea of who you are and what you are like simply because you bear such a precious name[1].

And if we share his name, we will and already do share his resurrection.

[1] His Name is Jesus: Compiled by Jean Syswerda. Zondervan, Grand Rapids. 1998. Pg 9.


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