11th November 2018 - Remembrance Sunday by Katharine Rumens
Remember Robert Borwick, William Brown, George Conway,Francis Durbin, W Etherington, Arthur Jordan, S Nightingale and CEPJ North.
Was Robert Borwick the same R Borwick listed as a sapper royal engineer who died in 1914? There are too many names listed - tens and sometimes hundreds of the same surname, many with the same initials, others, possibly members of the same regiment. I know no more than their names and that they were local boys from St Luke’s Old Street. They were listed on a board formerly part of a side altar in the church which we used here at St Giles’ over a number of years. The memorial is now at LSO St Luke’s and in the absence of the named dead of Cripplegate - I assume the war memorial was destroyed in the blitz, I name them here today.
Communicant members of St Luke’s who would have sat on these pews where you are sitting now, who would have listened to the main organ, recognised this altar, been baptised in this font - all as being from their church. The ones who did not return; who never came home. Today, we mark their presence among us by the art installation “There and not there”. Perhaps George and his family always sat in the third pew on the left, Francis preferred to sit at the end of a pew at the back and Arthur sat on the very pew you are sitting in now.
And over the course of the four and a bit years their names would have been read out on Sunday mornings - Arthur, George, William when week by week, month by month, as the families got the news of their deaths.
We have ten figures cut out of Perspex, a phantom presence, in churches and cathedrals up and down the country. Simple and yet heart breaking, the figures have been in church all week. Arresting, still, silent - occupying the space - and so very there - and not there.
11th November 1918.
Vera Britten was nursing in Millbank and wrote, “When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11.00am on November 11th 1918, the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: “We’ve won the War!” They only said: “The Wars is over.”
She went on automatically washing the dressing bowls in the annex outside her hut. Because that is what we do when trying to deal with what we cannot cope with, we fall back into routine.
She wrote: I thought with what mockery and irony the jubilant celebrations which will hail the coming of peace will fall on the ears of those to whom their best will never return, upon whose sorrow victory is built, who have paid with their mourning for the others’ joy. Shall I listen to the merriment with a heart that breaks?
In Trafalgar Square impromptu bands had bust into life drumming on biscuit tins. Public rejoicing while Vera Britten is left with her private thoughts.
As I dried the bowls I thought: “It’s come too late for me. Somehow I knew, even much earlier, that it would (come too late).
Why couldn’t it have ended rationally, as it might have ended, in 1916, instead of all that trumpet-blowing against a negotiated peace, and the ferocious talk of secure civilians about marching to Berlin? It’s come five months too late - Edward, (her brother) at least, would have been saved!
All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone: not one remained to share with me the height and depth of my memories. For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.
At 11am on 11th November Wilfred Littleoy - a Quaker working in Dorchester Prison was moved to hear German prisoners of war in a nearby cell playing very slowly and obviously from memory the hymn “Now thank we all our God”.
It was such a relief to know that our men would be coming back, then frustration set in. The way in which human life was chucked about. War never made anything better: men who could not settle back into ordinary life - and no-body wanted to know.
A VAD nurse nursing in France reported: The sound of gunfire just rolled away like thunder you hear in the distance - leaving an eerie silence. We wept because the silence was so awful: we’d heard guns all day long, all day long, and it was remarkable how - of course we were pleased naturally - but it was so strange to have silence.
A soldier reported: we met lads coming out who said you don’t have to go back up there, it’s finished. So we came back and we buried our dead. They fell back on routine.
Having saved up for three years, in 1921, Vera Britten went in search of her brother Edward’s grave. The local taxi driver drove her high into the Dolomites - in the middle of the forest they came across the remains of the old Austrian lines, the rusty ruins of tin cans and barbed wire entanglements, dug outs and shallow trenches. They knew they were approaching the graveyard.
She wrote, “How strange, how strange it is I reflected, my memories, my shared childhood should be buried in this grave on the top of a mountain, in the lofty silence, the singing unearthly stillness of these remote forests. How can the future achieve through us the solemn majesty of the past? Oh Edward you are so lonely up here.
When at last I came down from the cemetery, the taxi driver’s child who had been playing with his father near the car, ran up to me holding out a bunch of scabious and white clover that he had picked by the roadside.
For the little signorina he said. In the lofty silence, the singing unearthly stillness a child gave the one who grieved a handful of wild flowers.
What will you do with your two minutes’ silence at 11.00am in a world that may think that public silence has had its day? Silences are not always well observed, there may be thought to be too many of them now, they’ve lost their significance. In an increasingly talkative, noisy, shouty world, there is still a time for everything. A time to speak and a time to keep silence.
A powerful reminder of the silence of the public square, a silence that fell when the guns had stopped, a silence that can be eerie and potentially heart breaking.
Sunday 21 October 2018 - 21 Trinity by Katharine Rumens
Mark 10: 35 - 45
Whenever a friend succeeds a little something in me dies, wrote Gore Vidal.
From primary school onwards a little something in me died whenever greatness was thrust upon Margaret Harper - not her real name. She wasn’t really that popular among her peers but the teachers liked her - she never violated the rules about school uniform and always did her homework. Aged 10 at primary school I found her elevated to being chosen as Head Girl and then again in the sixth form at secondary school. This serious, diligent young woman - popular among the staff, again became Head Girl. Another fancy badge and more special privileges. Of course, we were delighted when word went round that she had dropped out of Cambridge and taken up the hippie trail. There’s a word for that sort of satisfaction - schadenfreude.
I tell you this sorry story about Margaret Harper in response to a question in study notes about this passage in Mark’s gospel. The question: Who was your greatest rival or competitor at school?
And as nearly everyone goes to school, nearly everyone has a Margaret Harper buried in the backgrounds. The one who was always that bit better at sport, that bit more popular; that bit more at ease with exams. The Marjorie Majors in the lives of Shirley Valentines.
For the third time Jesus reminds his disciples that his journey to Jerusalem will end in trial, ignominy, torture and crucifixion Meanwhile James and John, the Zebedee brothers, demonstrate once again the degree to which they have lost the plot. The came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ Not, we want to ask you a question, or even, Rabbi do us a favour but, ‘Whatever we ask of you.’ One of us intends to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the other Foreign Secretary. You know the deal Jesus - a fancy office, a large staff and a big car. That’s what we want you to do for us.
They were on the road going up to Jerusalem. Chapter 10 in Mark’s gospel is a long one - it takes us from the Transfiguration in Chapter 9 to the entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Chapter 11. The mood should have changed, but not with this gang. ‘You don’t know what you are asking’, says Jesus. The brothers who, with Peter, had climbed the mountain had heard the voice of God saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved: listen to him’ are clearly not listening now. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink? asks Jesus. ‘Yep, they say, no problem…. we are able.’ ‘Fine,’ says Jesus but I am not in the business of handing out cabinet posts.
All hell is let loose in the discipleship camp. When the ten heard this they began to be angry with James and John. I have always wondered if they were pretty angry any way - with the exception of Peter, none of them had been invited into that inner circle to experience the Transfiguration. They had stayed at home, down the mountain. Of course Margaret Harper would be there up the mountain and cornering Jesus for special favours. She who had greatness and power and glory thrust upon her for most of my school days. Who was your greatest rival or competitor at school? Who was invited up the mountain leaving you at the bottom?
We are with the ten every time. Of course, all hell is let loose, ‘They began to be angry with James and John.’ Everyone wants to be first! The favourite child, the preferred colleague, one of the popular ones.
With a weariness born of much misunderstanding, Jesus calls for order and tells them yet again that such ambition is for world rulers who lord it over the people in order to make their authority felt. We are not without examples of world rulers who exercise tyrannical power.
A world in which persistent critics of corrupt regimes are brutally and sadistically murdered and prisoners of conscience disappeared. We are appalled - and fearful of the repercussions when repressive authoritarianism is enthusiastically wielded as the principal means of sustaining power. And the eyes of the world watch as mops, bin liners and assorted containers of bleach and floor-cleaning fluid are delivered to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
This is not my way says Jesus, and it is not to be yours either. To be great you must become a servant, whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. It’s not glamourous, don’t expect to be thanked; there will be no privileges, no favourites. When you come together to break bread you’ll all get exactly the same as everyone else.
Jesus will oppose the system, but not by force. He will not yield to the temptation offered to him in the desert to become a world leader by any means other than by living his life - to paraphrase Ghandi - ‘with utter disregard for the consequences to himself.’
The servant of Isaiah, the first reading today, is often taken as a foretelling of the sufferings of Christ. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities…. although he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth.’ A reminder is there for Jesus’ disciples, should they care to remember it, of what it is to die for love.
Jesus is not the Messiah of the disciples’ imaginings. Jesus stands for no force, no status, no power - save that born out of self-giving love that gives regardless of cost. Are we envious of this too - others’ self-giving love? I leave that to you to decide.
Sunday 14 October - 20 Trinity by Katharine Rumens
Mark 10: 17 - 31
For he had many possessions.
Don’t I just know it - having done phase two of a house clearance a very few weeks ago. So many possessions - and back in June we thought we had made great strides having tamed the books, the pictures, bits of crockery and the stuff that people wanted like the nasty old grandfather clock and a bedroom chair.
Not so - many possessions still remained. Three fish slices, 9 casserole dishes and 24 assorted tea plates in the first cupboard on the right. Boxes and boxes of stuff - either to the charity shop, free cycle or off to the tip with it? Goods in working order must circulate; my rubbish is your treasure.
Municipal tips are in the news this week - Michael Gove has been down to his. We have too much stuff and we create totally unnecessary waste. There was nothing else to be done with them - these final possessions at the end of days of clearing out when we were hot and cross and tired. The charity shop would not take the 1967 - 68 Crockfords so it had to be recycled as cardboard at the tip and the shop had no use for the egg saucepan either. Possessions from my childhood home, Crockfords that lived on the shelf in the study, and the egg saucepan which lost is original handle years ago now too battered for further use. Only possessions, it was only stuff - but I did have a moment of sadness tossing them away. Perhaps I have too deep an attachment to inanimate objects.
Possessions furnish our memories and as we know Giorgio - dear friend of Lucia, spends a happy morning dusting his bibelots. It can be a full-time occupation caring for the things we love.
Some of us are back from the high central plateau of Spain - the scrubby, harsh landscape, scorched by the sun in summer and frozen in winter. The cities of Avila, Segovia, Salamanca. Erudition and holiness notwithstanding the climate. On our final evening together, we shared our thoughts. A Roman Catholic in the group - clearly better versed in her observation of the saints than us Protestants, spoke of Teresa of Avila’s fierce discipline and determination in this unyielding landscape. No hot water, no heating, and still they said their prayers and showed others the way to God. No gentle rolling hills, no sound of the sea, and no soft pillow to sleep on. Teresa insisted on using a block of wood instead. Another Roman Catholic and I disagreed about ostentatious piety - with which I have little patience.
We can visit the church built over the house where Teresa was born or the convent where she spent 27 years. She and her community are brought to life by their stuff - and there is a lot of it. Teresa has never fallen out of fashion, thus objects from her life have always been looked after. Visit her reconstructed kitchen, the cushion she knelt on to make her profession, a bone from her finger, peer at a fragment of her habit……Even Wesley’s museum up the road has its relics - a lock of John Wesley’s hair and his tea pot and that funny chair he sat on.
Somehow possessions connect us, they help us understand one another - and in the case of those long dead, help bring them alive.
Perhaps we rightly fear that, as Isaac Watts wrote, we will fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day if we are not rooted and grounded in physical objects, possessions - and we would like to be remembered by a letter we wrote, a bit of furniture we were fond of or even a casserole dish we used to use? Or the few spoons, the prayer book and bible those emigrating to the USA packed in their small trunks, some of which are now on display in Ellis Island. How little they had, we exclaim, they came with virtually nothing. And we feel compassion and marvel at their resilience.
A man stopped Jesus as he set out on a journey. Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, this road will take him to his death. A man ran up to him - briefly their very different paths cross. A rich man - yet he didn’t behave like a member of the elite. What’s the urgency? Real men did not run, slaves and women yes. That’s what is unusual about the father in Luke’s story of the prodigal father and the prodigal sons - he ran.
As the man in today’s portion of the gospel ran - and knelt and spoke to him. That’s what wealth does, it gives you confidence. Jesus prevaricated - ‘Why do you call me good?’ Perhaps the man had been opting for an easy answer - inheriting eternal life is ours for the asking and Jesus on his way to his death would tell him he was doing just fine. Instead of which, Jesus quoted from the commandments - but this law-abiding man had followed them all - even the one inserted here by Jesus about defrauding - fiddling, tax evasion, cooking the books, money laundering. He’s followed them all - and yet he still behaved like a peasant and ran to Jesus. There had to be something more: Jesus looked at him and loved him.
Go sell what you own and give the money to the poor. The poor who are always with us.
What changed after that for the man? Did he go out on a spending spree? Move away to a better address, become even more devout?
What happens to faithful living when we are challenged? When we are made uncomfortable or told that more is required.
The man would have been in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover - was he in the crowds on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday did he shout for the crucifixion of the man who had asked too much of him? In old age did he look back and wonder at the turn his life could have taken - if only. If only he was not weighed down with the weight of his possessions.
As we pray for those who lack the basic essentials of life so too do we pray for all who are in captivity to greed and waste and boredom, whose harvest joy is choked with the things they do not need.
Sunday 9 September 15 Trinity by Katharine Rumens
Isaiah 35: 4 - 7a and Mark 7: 24 - end
My heart sank. It was last Wednesday evening and from the rectory I could hear the brass band practising in church. They were playing ‘As with gladness men of old’. Oh help, I thought - here we go again Christmas is coming. I know that the Royal Academy does a roaring trade in Christmas cards during the summer exhibition - but really - must St Giles be gearing up quite this early when we are only just back from our summer holidays.
We can’t get away from the coming of Christ, today’s first reading from Isaiah is resonant of that great poetry we hear at carol services - Comfort O comfort my people - speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Chapter 40. Today in Chapter 35 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ a chapter in which the writer anticipates a coming time when all creation will be restored to wellbeing and the faithful will be healed. The coming governance of Yahweh will transform both bereft nature - and disabled history: the before and after of the transformation. God is about to begin again.
The picture of the before is of a fearful heart, of the blind, the deaf, the lame and the speechless. It is wilderness and desert - the sand is burning and the ground thirsty. The after - now there is seeing, hearing, leaping, singing. There are streams and pools and springs of water. The dry emptiness of nothing is turned into an animated place of sound and song. Paradise is regained.
A world that has languished in despair but now by the power of Yahweh is raised to new life. The jackal lands - the place of scavenger animals now has adequate water holes and comes to new life.
The people - disabled humans - or more precisely - enfeebled Judaism. This is poetry and promise for those in exile - the Jewish people in their life-denying situation. Those immobilised by despair. Those who are unable to function and live according to their God-given potential. God has been absent to Jews in their weakness, as God was absent to creation in its aridity.
God will come - so of course Christmas is on the way and Wednesday evening is carol practice for the brass band as it is for the choir of lawyers who come and practice carols during their lunch hour.
God comes into this place of disability and drought. God will come to right wrong, to order chaos, to heal sickness, to restore life to its rightful order.
A prophecy we see in action in today’s gospel when Jesus away from home raises a girl to new life - raises her from demon possession - whatever is meant by that. We have to guess what the ‘before and after’ was like in that household - what demon possession does for a child and how have her parents managed? Was she crippled by anxiety and self-harming?
Jesus, born for Jews, heard a Gentile mother’s request for healing for her daughter. This story is found in Mark and Matthew. In Matthew the woman - identified as Justa in an early text, is described as Canaanite - the traditional identification of Israel’s enemy. Here is Mark’s gospel she is a Syrophoenician - a Greek, a Gentile and part of the known world. One story - two variations.
In this story she came to the house where Jesus was and bowed at his feet - a serious faux pas. In the honour culture of that time and place an unknown, unrelated woman would never approach a man like that. A man bowing down showed respect, but a woman brought disgrace on the person to whom she bowed. But that is what desperation does to you when your child is sick - it makes you reckless; you forget your manners and another person’s religious sensibilities. She should never have been pleading in public - but there is no mention of a husband who could have pleaded as Jairus did for his daughter.
An impossible situation.
She broke the purity laws on several counts - she was a Gentile; her daughter had an unclean spirit - and so she is unclean from having touched her child. She lived in Tyre - a prosperous port and epitome of unfaithfulness and pride.
Meanwhile it is not a good day for Jesus. According to Mark he doesn’t was anyone to know that he is in the house. The woman is an intrusion. He says - more or less - Get in the queue and take your turn. The children get fed first and if there’s any left over the dogs get it. The bread of the children of Israel - the scriptures - cannot be given to the Gentile dogs. Dogs was a pejorative term often used by Jews to refer to Gentiles. Dogs do not have the rights of children. But in the order of feeding, Jesus uses the word ‘first’, suggesting that the time will come after his Passion and resurrection when these blessings will be extended to the Gentiles.
The woman - let’s call her Justa - proves to be a better theologian than Jesus. She has defended the rights of people to eat from the table, a term used to describe the provision of God for all creation. God does not have favourites, there is no queue. The woman - insistent, demanding and unafraid to state her claims. She defies Jesus to be free from cultural restraints to do good - and thus his ministry on earth be can opened up - perhaps further than he envisioned it. She is the only person in Mark’s gospel to refer to Jesus as Lord, translated in our version as Sir, and the only person in the scriptures to get the better of Jesus in an argument. An enlarged vision is necessary if there is to be a new order; a new beginning. The before and after. Think big.
Sunday 2 September 14 Trinity by Katharine Rumens
Mark 7: 1 - 8, 14, 15 and 21 - 23
Bedtime reading for those who relish sleepless nights. Roald Dahl’s short stories about the nice young man falling in to the clutches of the landlady with a taste for taxidermy; the mediocre antique dealer who callously sets out to swindle villagers; the man who makes a massive bet which he can only win if he falls overboard causing the ship to slow down and rescue him. Evil intentions, murder, avarice, deceit, envy, folly - are all there to read about both for those who relish sleepless nights and for those who don’t.
The nice young man will be stuffed like the other lodgers; the antique dealer will see his greatest treasure chopped up for fire wood, the ship will sail on leaving the man to drown. What got in to them? These hapless characters who contain the seeds of their own destruction.
There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. These verses take a bit of understanding - we know the kicked about child may well kick others about when big enough and strong enough; the child of the addict grow into addiction; the unloved child find her or himself ever unable fully to give or receive love. In this context Jesus is making a point about religious disposition, about handwashing. The disciples have failed to wash their hands - and according to the Pharisees it is by handwashing that we know God’s faithful people. All Jesus is saying is it’s not handwashing that shows us a person is on God’s side, rather how she or he reflects God’s love in the world by what they do. We contain the seeds of our own construction.
The scribes and Pharisees gathered round Jesus and he attacks the foundations of their faith. Who does he think he is? This pesky peasant from a rural backwater; who draws large crowds; who is popular; whose teaching is deceptively dangerous and which undermines the faith that you as a religious leader try and try so hard to uphold. This man who lets his followers tuck in to eat with dirty hands.
This stuff really mattered - it tells you who you are individually and collectively. It separates you from the sordid underbelly of humanity. Ritual purity and dietary restrictions are fundamental to the ethnic and national identity of the people. They are not option extras to be practised at whim.
What was the mood like at that gathering? Could you feel the anger, or was it that the scribes and Pharisees were hurt? We can think that the Pharisees deserved all they got when Jesus started laying in to them - but perhaps they really were hurt and upset. They firmly believed that they were keeping and upholding the Law and Jesus accused them of making up their own laws and imposing them on others in a way contrary to what they professed as God’s chosen people. To paraphrase those immortal words in the Life of Brian - they were making it up as they went along.
Mark depicts the Pharisees as downright annoying - all that attention to detail. They are nothing but pedants. Which of course puts Jesus on a collision course with them. The Pharisees could not be faulted - they are good Jews, there was nothing wrong with their intention to live absolutely by what they believed that God wanted of them. But they had lost their perspective - and keeping the law had become an idol, an end in itself - their only guarantee of security with God. It was difficult to have the bedrock of your faith blasted to bits by a pushy peasant.
Sunday 12 August, 11 Trinity by Katharine Rumens
Ephesians 4: 25 - 5:2
It took me to well into adulthood to realise you were allowed to say that you came unstuck with bits of the bible. In the days of the St Hilda community the sermon time meant everyone joining in sharing their thoughts on the readings - a do it yourself flat-pack self-assembly sermon.
One Sunday, a member of the congregation who was a priest said he got fed up in all those Sundays after Easter (this was in the days of the ASB). 6 Sundays of Jesus’ I am sayings: “I am the bread of life, I am the true vine, I am the door of the sheepfold, I am the resurrection and the life…. Was there no end to them? What was there new to say?
Not quite fed up, but this is the third of five weeks of John Chapter 6 with its 72 bread-based verses. Perhaps the Dean of St Paul’s, when he is with you next week, will continue the challenge. John and food for the journey; pack your sandwiches and come along for the ride.
A friend said, forget bread - try Ephesians. Ephesus the city of magic, of demons, of the goddess Artemis. We know - from Luke’s account in Acts - that Paul’s presence in Ephesus caused agitation. You could argue that teaching a non-Christian community about Jesus was always bound to cause agitation.
Jesus the Messiah is eternally and tirelessly bringing everything and everyone together - and that we are participants in this most urgent work. The verses from today’s reading are all about talk - who is saying what to whom. Talk threatens the internal harmony of the community. Lying and anger - these are the main forms of talk that are destabilizing the church. What have they been saying to each other and about each other in Ephesus?
Paul teaches the importance of speaking the truth, by not letting the sun go down on our anger, by putting away all bitterness and wrath - and being kind to one another.
We are called to live Godly lives - and ourselves express the goodness and kindness of God. How can I speak to you of a God of love if I withhold friendship and love from you? A message not just for the church in Ephesus but for all time: if we cannot build strong community there is no point to us at all.
At this time of the year there is a whole clutch of greater and lesser commemorations and feast days. I want briefly to consider three of these: Mary Sumner founder of the Mothers’ Union died 9 August 1921; Florence Nightingale nurse and social reformer died 11 August 1910, and Octavia Hill social reformer died 13 August 1912
Mary Sumner married George a clergyman. What did she make of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus on the days when the congregation at Old Alresford were not being kind to one another, or tender hearted and were failing to forgive one another? As congregations have done since the very beginning.
Becoming a grandmother reminded Mary how difficult she had found being a mother. Though presumably there had been servants - motherhood can be isolating.
She called a meeting of mothers to offer mutual support. Her plan was quite radical in its day: it involved calling women of all social classes to support one another and to see motherhood as a real job. Mary was so nervous at the first meeting that George had to speak for her. She soon found her voice. I don’t know if this is the sort of building up that Paul had in mind but nine years later she was giving an impassioned address about national morality and the importance of women's vocation as mothers to change the nation for the better. 24 years after the first meeting in the rectory the Mothers' Union had grown to 169,000 members.
Now a global movement of 4 million women (and men), the Mothers' Union runs social outreach projects and is an international campaigning charity particularly concerned with the plight of women in the world, including literacy and development, parenting, micro finance and campaigning against violence against women and the trafficking of women.
As Paul in Ephesus, you could say that Mary Sumner and the Mothers’ Union has caused agitation and continues to agitate since that first meeting in the rectory.
Florence Nightingale probably needs no introduction.
In spite of being born posh and privileged Florence felt called by God to give her life to the service of others. We don’t think of the downright posh given to lives of sacrificial giving. When she was 32 she wrote to her friend the Dean of Westminster, ‘I would have given the Church my head, my hand, my heart, but she told me to go back and to crotchet in my mother’s drawing-room. “You may go to the Sunday School if you like”, she said. But she gave me no training even for that. She gave me neither work to do for her, not education to do it.”
Florence came to prominence while serving as a manager and trainer of nurses during the Crimean War and, in 1860, set up her nursing school at St Thomas' Hospital. Her reforms included improving healthcare for all sections of British society, advocating better hunger relief in India and helping to abolish prostitution laws.
Agitation all round when it comes to Florence Nightingale. She and St Paul would have had much in common.
Octavia Hill was different. She had no formal schooling yet had the fortune to be born into a family with a strong commitment to making a difference in society. From the age of 14 she was involved in the welfare of working people. As both Mary and Florence, she was motivated by a strong Christian duty to serve others.
Especially those who lived in cities, above all London and the development of social housing. John Ruskin was a friend who helped her financially put her theories into practice. She believed in self-reliance and made it a key part of her housing system that she and her assistants knew their tenants personally and encouraged and supported them.
Another of Octavia's concerns was access to open spaces for the poor. She helped to save Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on and was one of the founders of the National Trust.
On her death the educationalist Henrietta Barnett commented, “When I read obituary notices of her, crediting her with the commonplace virtues of kindness and unselfishness and gentleness, it annoyed me because those were not her virtues, and enumerating them gave the wrong impression of her character. She was strong-willed – but the strong will was never used for self. She was impatient in little things, persistent with long-suffering in big ones; often dictatorial in manner but humble to self-effacement before those she loved or admired.”
To live in love doesn’t mean we are a pushover; I am sure she and St Paul would have got on just fine.
Sunday 5 August, 10 Trinity by Katharine Rumens
Exodus 16: 2 - 4, 9 - 15
Mona and I both, at different times, were in Kampala visiting the Help 4 Hurting Children Project managed by Judith and her team. On the Saturday we went out to lunch on to the shores of Lake Victoria with Happi the driver and Andy our allocated police officer. We ordered small tilapia and chips at a kiosk. A small tilapia merely filled the huge platter instead of jutting out over the edge of the plate. They brought us napkins but no cutlery. When I asked for knives and forks Happi and Andy told me that you eat fish and chips with your fingers. That’s OK out of newspaper but surely not when in company sitting down round a table. By using your fingers you can feel the bones and pick them out, and you only put into your mouth the amount of food that your fingers can hold. No stuffing of huge forkfuls shovelling it in - but bite-sized portions only - proportionate eating as part of proportionate living - which we are made for.
That reading from Exodus is harsh teaching - food just for today, no more - in a harsh landscape to those ungrateful, complaining Israelites. This is what freedom from slavery has done for them - on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt - that’s all. They are new to freedom and they hate it.
Living with freedom takes getting used to: the freedom that some of our young people will experience having done their GCSEs - and they encounter the new freedom of 6th form college; from there the freedom of University and having graduated - the freedom and the terror of the workplace. And a lifetime later the freedom of retirement - and as Christians that death will be liberating when our bodies are worn out or damaged.
The Israelites look back to Egypt and the fish from the Nile and the cucumbers, the melons, leeks onions, and the garlic that grew plentifully on the irrigated land. We remember they chorused, remembering the food but forgetting the oppression.
God understood their predicament, ”I will rain bread from heaven.” God’s grace was expressed pretty confusingly. “gather as much of the bread that God has given you to eat as each of you needs, an omer to a person….and Moses said to the people, ‘let no one leave any of it over until morning” Some left part of it till morning and it bred worms and became foul.” He told you so.
Daily bread - not a day more. 1.5 k of manna per person. The word manna is thought literally to mean ‘what is it?’ We may well ask what it is, a form of lichen? Or the crystallized honeydew of certain scale insects? In the desert, such honeydew rapidly dried out becoming a sticky solid, and later turning whitish, yellowish, or brownish. Or possibly it was turkey oak manna, formed by aphids and appearing white. When dried it could be pounded and made into bread. You can see why they looked back to leeks, melons and garlic with longing.
Manna not only to feed the Israelites but also to help them understand that they lived not just by bread alone but by every word from God (Deut 8.3). Food signified something much more wonderful - God was sustaining them - they would be cared for on their journey.
Living sufficiently - rather than extravagantly - has been an integral part of the religious life. In 5th Century Benedict wrote the rules for holy living which include in Chapter 39: The Proper Amount of Food. Holy living is a not a headline-grabbing concept, probably today we would find it more acceptable if it were called mindful living.
This is how it was for the Benedictines - I don’t know what the rule is now, only ever experiencing Benedictine hospitality as a guest, so I put the rule in the past tense. Normally there was only one noonday meal except at Easter time was there a second one in the evening to celebrate the Resurrection.
Two types of food were provided: those who might find one type of cooked food impossible to eat would find in the second cooked dish something that he could eat. There was choice. Fruit and vegetables could be added. Saint Benedict gave the abbot the authority to change the diet, when that was necessary. The real concern was that overindulgence should be avoided.
Gather as much of the bread that the Lord has given you to each as each of you needs. An omer to a person. Benedict’s teaching probably reflects that of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Each monk must find how much he needed to eat - appetites vary. It was important to know yourself; and in knowing ourselves, having only what we need and learning how to say “no” to anything that is superfluous to our wellbeing. No second glass of champagne, no to a fourth or a fifth course. There would be riots round the Livery Company dining tables of the City.
The film Apostasy is on over the road. The writer-director Kokotajlo’s was brought up a Jehovah’s Witness. The film tells the story of a mother and her two daughters wrestling with the rules of their religion. Power is wielded by the all-male elders who decree that when one of the daughters becomes pregnant she is “disfellowshipped”.
It’s a loveless monochrome film - brown clothes, brown furniture, brown wallpaper. The visual drabness imitates lives drained of pleasure. When did it happen? So called sufficient faithful living made joyless? A critic comments that the film angers us. Not because it shows the way in which dogma has the power to rewire the moral instincts of its devotees, but for the sombreness with which it acknowledges that the devotees allow this to happen. If they had been as full of character and complaint as the Israelites they would all have been disfellowshipped.
Give us this day our daily bread. There is bread, there is sufficiency and there is freedom. Glory to God for colourful living, and the food, the people and the faith that feed us.
Sunday 29 July 9 Trinity by Katharine Rumens
John 6: 1 - 21
I lack commitment when it comes to crowds and joining a march or rally. Some of us don’t have to make that much of an effort - we live in a democracy, we live in central London. Catch the bus down to Trafalgar Square or the tube to the House of Parliament. Take a banner, wave it around and you can be back home in time for tea.
On banner waving days I tend to keep quiet about where I live. I haven’t had to take the overnight coach from Newcastle to save money or sleep on a friend’s sofa in order to be there in time. I can be humbled by the efforts others have gone to demonstrate or celebrate as part of a crowd.
And it’s not as if you are ever near enough the front to hear the speeches or properly know what is going on. How can you feel fully engaged? Out there on the half-hearted fringes it is very much blessed are the cheese makers - which as we know refers to any manufacturer of dairy products. And what Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it's the meek who are the problem. Every time. The meek and the sick.
In John’s gospel we read that a large crowd kept following him - because they saw the signs that Jesus was doing for the sick. I suppose I would turn up to find out what the Jesus event was - led by what? Curiosity, a fear of missing out? A need I did not know I had? Desperation? But what was there to distinguish him from every other wandering rabbi?
A theologian writes about the spaciousness of these first verses across the sea to the mountain. It is a vast stage for a large crowd. That puts us in our place and keeps things in perspective. The crowd keep following him because they saw the signs he was doing for the sick- or weak - the Greek asthenountes - is the same for both conditions. The signs Jesus is doing for the weak - suggests that what was done for the weak was done for each member of the crowd because each one of them suffered from some form of weakness. It’s not just the office worker who sits at the back of the church in their lunch hour and weeps who needs help, we all do.
The great crowd reflects a universal human need - a panorama of pathos.
Just as the strong think that the weak lack self-discipline, the weak think the strong are all façade. The healthy think the ill are malingering, so the ill think the healthy haven’t yet recognised their own symptoms; the old think the young desire their wisdom, the young think that the old covet their youth, the rich that the poor wish to be like them, the poor that the rich are like them, only rich and less happy. That’s what we think about other people.
What was done for the weak was important for everyone present because they too suffered from some form of weakness. The weakness of the human person, the human condition.
It’s Passover time - one of the three references in John’s Gospel. The first is John 2: overturning of the tables of moneylenders, and the third in 11.55 at which point the chief priests and Pharisees are looking to arrest Jesus. This is not an incidental feeding of the crowd. Even in moments of companionship, the way will lead to the cross.
The weak are hungry, and we learn how the hunger was met. With the interaction of the divine and the human something of surpassing goodness in accomplished. We know - as the miracle teaches us that there is plenty to go around, we live in a society with the competing scandals of food waste and food banks. Global food loss and waste amount to between one-third and one-half of all food produced. Loss and wastage occur at all stages of the food supply chain. In low-income countries, most loss occurs during production, while in developed countries - like us - much food – about 100 kilograms (220 lb) per person per year – is wasted at the consumption stage. I hate to think what the collective weight of our food waste is - who wants to eat up that old banana? And I bought more potatoes than I needed - I shall have to throw the rest away because they are beginning to sprout.
Meanwhile there are over 400 foodbanks, giving emergency food and support to people in crisis across the UK. Here thirteen million people live below the poverty line. In 2017 food banks distributed nearly 1.5m three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis.
The crowd don’t want to hear statistics - they are hungry and there is one small packed lunch to feed everyone. That would not arouse much hope. There’s not a lot to life the spirits here.
The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is found in all four Gospels which makes it a unique narrative. John’s Gospel sometimes uses memories and stories that clearly come from different sources from the ones used by the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke. From this we can deduce that it must be one that was widely told among the early Christians communities. It’s everyone’s story. It may have been told in Eucharistic settings as the way Jesus breaks the bread and gives thanks would be a good way into teaching about the Eucharistic meal.
It would seem that we have a real memory recorded here - little details - like the boy and his fish. Perhaps it is a story the child repeated time and time again into old age. The day when he offered his picnic to the man everyone was listening to up there on the mountain.
God’s grace, God’s bounty is not only sufficient but overflowing - leaving more to be gathered up at the end than there was at the beginning.
We can so easily miss out on God’s blessing through failing to gather up the fragments scattered around in daily life. Possibly 100k of blessings per person per year.
Sunday 29 April Easter 5 by Katharine Rumens
John 15: 1 - 8
They thought it was like the golf club. It would appeal if you were the right type, and turned up with your kit. You played a round or two with like-minded people and at the end of a game packed up your clubs and went home. What happened on the golf course or in the club house wasn’t reflected in the rest of your week. Your neighbours didn’t see you driving balls in the local park; you didn’t carry the shopping home in your golf bag. They only knew you played golf because one day they happened to see you loading your clubs into the car.
As from time to time throughout the year when the neighbours happen to see you coming home on a Sunday morning with a palm cross, or a polyanthus on Mothering Sunday, or an order of service. They might deduce that you’d been to church - which is one way of passing the time on a Sunday morning, if you like that sort of thing.
There was a fire in a flat in City Road. The young family were unhurt, but their possessions are water-damaged and their clothes stink of smoke. They have been living in temporary accommodation and they are worried and fed up. They said that the only people who have shown them any practical kindness have been Christians. Our friends at Wesley’s Chapel have done their washing and been a listening ear.
The family had seen the church as a remote life-style choice. All very well in its way, but what happened in church stayed in church. The revelation that practicing Christians hear the word of God and try to do something with it, something about it - was news to them and has made them curious about faith and Christianity and ways of life.
The Annual Report - or what we did at St Giles’ last year - tells our story for 2017. Deanery Synod, the local Credit Union, our carol services, the Sunday Club. There are pictures reminding us who was involved in the Food Bank appeal on a cold day, who came to supper on Maundy Thursday, of those who staff the Book Fairs. Week by week throughout the year we get out tables, dust the pews, welcome visitors, listen to the lonely, pray together, share ideas in the study groups. Worship together Sunday by Sunday, welcome babies at their baptisms, couples on their wedding day and grieve with those who grieve at funerals. Not a life style choice but a way of living as disciples of Christ.
A theologian looks at the word diakonia - usually translated as ministry as in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when speaking about God’s gifts given to us… to equip us for the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ as followers, disciples of Christ.
Diakonia - dia meaning through and konis meaning dust or grit. The original image behind Christian service and ministry is activity that takes us through the dust. Lancelot Andrewes, bishop and divine and a somewhat daunting former vicar of this church, always insisted that every kind of office in the church is a form of deaconing, “on foot and through the dust, for so is the nature of the world”. Ministry refers to something close to the ground, a continuous journey through the grit and grime of the everyday. The word contradicts everything grandiose, lofty, or even sublime we might associate with it. So churchwardens put that in your pipe and smoke it. These days we don’t require you to sit for your portrait in your best wig, walk round the parish with gravitas or even prod members of the congregation who look to be falling asleep during the sermon. Whoever we are, whatever our ministry, we have our feet on the ground and deal with the nitty gritty that being a Christian entails.
So much for Greek, if we turn to the Latin root of the word ministry we remind ourselves that its root is in small things - as in miniscule. A minister is someone who is involved in small matters. It is our magisters who are responsible for the big, responsible stuff.
I realise that, in this way, some of you do have big professional lives and occupy spheres of influence. Others of us, not so.
It can be that our lives and our ministries seem to deal with such ordinary things that it is often difficult to grasp their lasting impact. Like showing kindness at a time in someone’s life. Remembering a special date, offering encouragement, taking time to ask how a difficult day is going. The ways that we touch each other’s lives are often fleeting and unnoticed - we may never know if something we said or did was in any way helpful.
In John’s gospel God the gardener- the vine grower is dressing her vines. Remember the image. When we think that we are doing rather well by ourselves, when good deeds become their own justification, when divine grace comes to be thought of as a helpful - but not essential force in our lives - think of that branch which cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine. Today’s gospel is an extract from the long farewell discourse at the Last Supper in which Jesus returns again and again to theme of ministry - and the little actions and gestures that mainly comprise our ministry.
The lasting reality of works of ministry, their eternal worth as gifts that are actually building up God’s eternal household of faith. May our faith flourish in the garden of God’s love, and may we bring forth the fruits of the spirit in the small matters of our lives. Amen
Sunday 8 April Easter 2 by Katharine Rumens
John 20: 19 - end
At one point - I hasten to say - as a much younger adult, I was asked on an application form to name my greatest failure. In the greater scheme of things, my named failure was not that big a tragedy. But I was not pleased to be asked the question and I was certainly not going to tell the truth. As my failure, I wrote that, as a child, I had failed Grade 2 piano. At the time, what I minded was that a) I had never knowingly failed anything before in my life and b) no-one else had failed their piano exam that wet spring day. I was on my own in my failed state. My mother took me to one side and talked to me - she told me about the girl in her class at school who had never failed anything, who had passed everything with little effort and flying colours. She was not, as my mother explained, a very nice person. She was not kind because she had no understanding of what it could mean when things did not quite work out as you hoped they would.
Is this the only way we can learn empathy, compassion, kindness and a sense of perspective? By failing, by knowing from experience.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side.” “Put your finger her and see my hands Thomas. Reach out your hand and put it in my side Thomas. Do not doubt Thomas but believe.” The story of the one who had missed out on being there with everybody else - Thomas - a story that belongs only in John’s gospel.
Jesus marked for eternity by his cruel death. Presumably, Jesus could easily have come back from the dead wholly remade, without blemish, like a young Apollo or Adonis, but this is not how it was. Jesus still has his scars, even after the resurrection. God clearly considers his wounds important.
Jesus could not have been among the disciples as if nothing had happened. Even without visible, physical scars, we can be noticeably changed by the death of a loved one or by bad news. She never smiled again; he was a broken man; she’s lost so much weight. As we are changed by tragedy, poverty and ill health, so we are transformed by happiness, love and success. We can be seen to blossom.
Jesus among his disciples. Time has moved on, it is eight days since the other disciples first saw the risen Christ: reach out and touch Thomas.
In the painting Christ as Saviour and Judge by Petrus Christus painted around 1450 now in Birmingham - Christ is depicted showing his wounds. It’s a tiny painting, smaller than a postcard - I assume it would have been held in the hands of the one at prayer. Wounds for private prayer and reflection, they are not meant for the public gaze. We see Christ’s upper body, the wounds in his hands and side. Nothing else is wrong with him, no marks made by whips, no distortion or dislocation caused by crucifixion. The risen and transformed perfect state of Christ, except for his wounds which are still livid, still bleeding. The spear-wound was considered to be the most important of the wounds, devotionally, as being closest to the heart of Jesus. This is the wound he is showing to the viewer alone at prayer. Reach out and touch.
From there we look forward 50 years or so to Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam up there on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel for all to see. God floating in his drapery; Adam reclining. The reaching out and touching back in the beginning. Here it is God who is still reaching out in touch to Adam although, as Michael Angelo depicts it, the action has just been accomplished. The right hand of God at full stretch letting go of the one he has created. The index finger of the hand of God and the index finger of the hand of Adam, who represents us - humanity - just no longer in touch. The hand of God upon us, letting go of us. Touch - one of the ways in which we absorb feelings from each other and how we plant life into one another.
Jesus rose from the dead, but the scars did not disappear. It is our wounds of that make us important in God’s eyes. The wounds that show us compassion and love.
I was reflecting with my Spiritual Director on the honesty of the Lent sermons this year - no that in other years they have lacked honesty, but I was struck anew by your openness when you stand up and speak. You don’t have to; you could pretend life was all absolutely hunky dory and always had been. But you tell of the times of failure and unhappiness as well as the good times for these too are part of your stories - your wounds. This is who we are, and we are not afraid to say so.
Like: As a child, ‘Our world was turned upside-down,’ That a project supporting refugees hasn’t been easy, that not everyone was in favour, risks were taken and difficult decisions made. Or, there were times when, ‘My faith was fraying, worn thin by my own inattention and starved by a lack of Christian companionship.’ A marriage falling apart and the person whose parents’ marriage had offended both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide.
I considered with my Spiritual Director how this reflected on the community at St Giles’ - a community that is trusting enough to speak to one another of sadness as of joy and know we will be listened to. That we can pick ourselves up and try again, that others will encourage us and show us compassion. Through the Lent sermons we can reveal our wounds, if we choose to, and in invite others to reach out to us and touch. In this way we gain confidence in our ability to speak the truth to one another and, by the inly touch of love, to grow in the grace of God
Thomas story - don’t lose touch
During Lent members of the congregation are invited by the Rector to preach a sermon entitled 'God at Work'
Sunday 18 March Lent 4 God at Work by Daniel Gerring
“When Mosul fell to ISIS I fled back to Syria but I couldn’t go back to Aleppo because I would have had to go through ISIS territory. So I went to Turkey, phoned a smuggler and crossed the Mediterranean to Greece... I bought a fake passport and flew to Marseille, and then took the train to Calais.”
From there Ahmad ended up paying a smuggler who put him in a tank full of bread flour with 70 other people and told him it would take two hours to get to London. After 11 hours Ahmad and the others were let out near the Italian border. The tanker had gone the wrong way.
“I jumped on the back of a lorry to go back to Calais, ended up in Germany and, after a few nights and more smugglers, arrived in the UK in Hull, where I applied for asylum.”
This is just a small part of the story of Ahmad, one of the several hundred refugees and asylum seekers who have now been housed by Refugees at Home – an organisation that I helped to help set up and which forms an important part of my charitable work.
How did this happen?
I grew up in a tiny village in rural Buckinghamshire. I was christened and, when I was small, my whole family attended the local Church. When I was 12 my father left. Our world was turned upside-down, Church fell by the wayside for a while and neither my mother nor my twin sisters ever really returned.
But, after a while, I did return, eventually going on to be confirmed. Somehow God made that happen and got me through my father going and much worse in my teenage years.
I went on to study History at Cambridge and, before I knew it, it was time to think about a job. Law sounded interesting and came with the promise of two more years of being a student. My thinking was: “I’ll do this to get a professional training – five years max… and then I’ll do something worthwhile – something Jesus would approve of…
Well, nearly 20 years later – guess what – I’m still a lawyer in the City. And I am pretty happy at work. But, would Jesus approve?
I’d like to think that he would - of most of what I do at least - including my work with people like Ahmad. After all, the bible is full of stories involving refugees – starting with Jesus himself. Matthew tells us the familiar story of Jesus’ flight:
“an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up’, he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt”.
To Egypt - of all places - the very country where Jesus’ ancestors had been enslaved for over 400 years - surely a pretty unattractive option.
But then refugees are seldom flush with options.
I remember the day that I first started working on what would become Refugees at Home. A random appointment in a calendar filled with meetings with paying clients and colleagues, as well as on all manner of the charity, community and pro bono projects which I was then looking after as the partner at my firm charged with leading on Corporate Social Responsibility. Not massively out of place, but random nonetheless. I remember power-walking to the meeting room and asking my colleague, Charlotte, who had set up the meeting, what this was all about.
Sara, Timothy and Nina answered my question. They seemed an engaging and impressive bunch and they told me about their idea: “Loads of people have a spare room, or more than one. We all do and we’ve each been using them to host a refugee. Now we want to give others the chance to do the same”.
Sounds easy, right? Yes… and maybe no. “But we’re worried about breaking immigration law, what about insurance, can we ourselves be liable for the acts of others, is it ok to advertise, what about governance?” – those points raised by my visitors, and loads of others, swirled around my mind.
We had a good chat and I promised to go away and think about this and talk to others in my firm. My main thought initially was that this was way outside my comfort zone – what do I know about refugees and housing? But I also thought – what a great idea.
I slept on it and I prayed… and then I prayed some more and talked to some like-minded friends and colleagues… and something gave me courage and conviction… so that, before long, I was in the office of David, our Managing Partner, hearing him say: “Great idea. But what do you know about refugees, Daniel?”. Happily it didn’t take that much to persuade him – I think the clincher being “if we don’t do this what other City law firm will?” and he has been a staunch supporter ever since.
So we did it – a team of corporate (mainly pensions) lawyers – we set about helping the group get going: twisting the arm of my firm’s external branding people to help create a name and a logo, setting up what then became Refugees at Home as a Company Limited by Guarantee, researching all sorts of interesting and, at times, quite terrifying areas of the law and translating them into something intelligible about which the new board, with our support, could make informed decisions.
And soon the hosting started. The website became inundated with visitors, more and more people signed up and the trustees and all our volunteers were running to keep up.
Scroll forward 2 years to Refugees at Home’s second birthday party, just down the road at my office, last month. Over 100 people there – guests, hosts, our two employees and our trustees, journalists and all manner of supporters – celebrating over 65,000 nights of free accommodation.
Guests and hosts told their stories. What a variety – people from all over the world, from all manner of faiths and none, facing all manner of different challenges – but all brought together by one common thread: love for our brothers and sisters.
This has not been an easy journey. Not everyone is in favour of doing all this for refugees and we have had to take risks and make difficult decisions. But throughout the journey so far, I have had an enduring sense that this is right, that it is indeed what God would want, and that he is right behind me all the way. That has given me courage, not to mention strength when I wondered when on earth I would fit this in amongst the sea of other things to deal with. And the bible has been a source of constant inspiration – from the good bits of Leviticus where we are told to look after and feed foreigners in our land, to the New Testament stories exhorting us to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Now I am about to go onto the next step of my journey by hosting a refugee myself. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about sharing my limited space in this way. But I also feel sure that it is the right thing to do at this time when I can do so with relative ease.
Later, we will sing When I Survey the Wondrous Cross – a hymn which sums up why I believe this kind of work has always felt so right to me.
May we all, in whatever way we can, offer our love and our service to God, and to our brothers and sisters on earth. Amen
Sunday 4 March Lent 3 God at Work by Susan J Royce
Last autumn, after a gap of some 30 years, I went back to university. I am studying part-time for an MSc with our neighbours the Cass Business School. My degree is in creativity, innovation and leadership and has a strong element of reflective practice. When I came to think about how I might talk about God at Work, I used one of the tools we had been introduced to. It involves drawing a life map showing the ten best, high points of my life. When I looked at the map I had drawn I saw churches, everywhere.
There was St Mary’s Saffron Walden where I had been christened age five with my two-year-old sister after we had moved down south from Scotland.
Then there was St Mary’s, Comberton where I worshipped with my family through my teenage years. St Mary’s stands on a hill above the village – one of the few hills in the flat county of Cambridgeshire I have wonderful memories of walking up the medieval droveway with my parents and sister to the small, beautiful C13th church. Both of my mother’s parents are buried in the churchyard.
At university I exchanged the familiarity of the medieval for the glorious red brick modernity of the chapel at Robinson College. Robinson is the newest college in Cambridge and the chapel was founded as an ecumenical place of worship. There, in a place far removed from the traditional spaces of my childhood, I learned to love music and to explore faith through the words of preachers from many Christian traditions. And I could listen, learn and worship whilst marvelling at the beauty, power and skilful construction of John Piper’s wall of stained glass.
I remember the warm wood and candlelight of the chapel of St Catherine’s College where I prayed with others on the night before I was confirmed. And, on the following day, I had the amazing privilege of being confirmed in a splendid, awesome service at Kings full of music and learning.
After university I moved to London to begin my training as an accountant. My fiancé and I bought a flat not many miles from here in Clapton. Here I found more red brick, this time in the shape of the mid-Victorian church of St James the Great where I found the warmest welcome from a congregation more diverse than any I had yet known. Again, I was learning, this time about lives very different to my own.
Eventually the charms of London became less compelling and we moved out to north Essex. Here my memories are of the church of St John the Baptist with our Lady and St Laurence in Thaxted. A long and august name for a most imposing and beautiful church, also on a hill. Here I heard wonderful concerts during the annual music festival including a series of Beethoven recitals by John Lill that still haunt me. But, beyond the musical memories, there are few recollections of worship beyond the high days and holidays of Christmas and Easter and few memories of friends. My faith was fraying, worn thin by my own inattention and starved by a lack of Christian companionship. My marriage was falling apart and - in my pain and shame – I choose isolation in preference to awkward conversations and well-meant questions I didn’t want to answer.
I stopped going to church, but I still kept walking round churches, visiting them whenever I could as my work as a management consultant took me all over the UK and beyond. I planned routes from client appointments to railway stations via interesting places of worship. Hotels were booked to be within easy walking distance of cathedrals.
When I moved to the Barbican almost ten years ago, of course I came to have a look round the church, to explore its history, to listen to the organ music I had first learnt to love at Cambridge. I passed the church every day, just as I had walked past my college chapel and St James’s in earlier years. St Giles became part of my world many years before I came here to worship.
I think my love of churches is inherited. My mother’s father died when I was a teenager but his influence on my life has been profound. Henry Charles Percival Leach, HCP for short, came from a family of master stonemasons. He spent much of his working life restoring old buildings here in London and further afield. He worked on both Grays Inn and St Bride’s Fleet Street after the War. As a child I loved hearing his stories and wandering round old buildings with him learning how they had been built by men such as him with their hands, their eyes and their minds. I can still see his powerful hands showing me how buttresses and arches transferred weight to keep walls upright. I learnt to see beyond the beauty (and the damage) to the people who had laboured to build such glories.
Through the years of unbelief, these Houses of God from great cathedrals and modest parish churches to college chapels and everything in between, kept me connected, however tenuously, to the faith of my younger self. When I was able to pick up the frayed and disordered threads of my faith, to begin again a conversation with God in prayer, to embrace rather than avoid the idea of being part of a community, these buildings were my way home. Built by people whose names were rarely recorded, they speak to me of a faith made real in stone, brick, wood, glass and even concrete. God at work indeed.
At the beginning I spoke of my studies, started almost exactly one year after I first came to worship at St Giles. The timing is not a coincidence. From the first day, I was made welcome, healing a deep hurt whose existence I had scarcely acknowledged. In our worship together, I have found a peace and a joy I had not expected to know again. In prayer I have found a forgiveness that has freed me to rethink my life’s direction.
Through the darkest days of my life, the peace, the beauty, the music and the holiness of God’s houses kept me connected to a faith I thought lost. And, when I was ready, God’s house was waiting for me.
Sunday 14 February Lent 2 God at Work by Michael Gibbon
When Katherine asked me to deliver one of the “God at Work” sermons, I started reflecting on what the phrase might mean in the context of my daily life as a barrister. But very quickly, I put aside my initial thoughts.
The thing is, I had to face up to a niggling sense that the Bar isn’t real work. My realisation was that, despite over 30 years of working life spent in London, part of me looks at the world through the eyes I had as a child. To that child, real work, Work with a capital W, is coal-mining.
In order to explain that, I’m going to invite you to join me in a short journey back half a century or more to the industrial Valleys of South Wales. Some of you may know the area. My parents were from twin mining villages either side of the River Taff, both under the shadow of the Merthyr Vale Colliery winding gear: my mother from Merthyr Vale itself, my father from Aberfan.
Let’s start with Aberfan. When I was born, the name Aberfan wasn’t yet synonymous with tragedy. It was typical of dozens of working class Valleys communities. Increasingly English speaking in the streets, but still profoundly Welsh. Men worked in the mines; rugby was the only sport of importance; rugby meant singing; and singing meant, above all, singing hymns.
And that was because central to the life of the community were the Chapels, of every hue of protestant non-conformism. Chapels like my father’s where they addressed God in Welsh. Chapels where the Word of God was declaimed. Chapels where congregations were harangued for their sins, but were fervent in their expectation of salvation. Chapels where the congregations sang hymns in minor keys speaking of struggle and suffering.
Even leaving aside the language barrier, the powerful combined effect of words and music is surprisingly hard to capture. Many Welsh hymn-tunes are little known outside Wales. But we have a couple of familiar ones in today’s service, to help us with the soundscape of the Chapels. First, we are singing Charles Wesley’s words “Jesu Lover of My Soul” to the tune Aberystwyth by Joseph Parry: the Welsh sing Wesley’s words in translation. And we’ll shortly be singing the Creed to the tune “Tôn y Botel” (Ebenezer). But the Welsh words paint sombre colours.
The following translation comes close:
Who amid the swelling billows
Can sustain my sinking head?
None but that divine Redeemer,
Who upon the cross hath bled.
If He through the stormy current
O'er the wave my head will bear,
If a gracious look vouchsafe me,
I will praise Him even there.
I’ve talked about a journey. It is tempting to stop the journey there. God at work through the Chapels helping bind people in adversity, the physical danger of work and social deprivation. And when in 1966 the tip tragically slid and took away the lives of so many children, it was people of the Chapels who were central to efforts rebuild from sorrow and devastation.
But I can’t stop there, because it wouldn’t be the whole story. For a start, I wouldn’t have made clear that most of what I have said is about the Valleys in the 1960s as I now perceive it. That working world that profoundly influenced me as a child wasn’t my home. I was there every couple of weekends to see family, but I was born near Bristol, a year after my parents escaped to England. And I can’t now disentangle my true recollections from what I have learned since.
It’s also not the whole story because of what was already going on in the 1960s. One of the things my parents’ generation did was not just leave behind the collapsing coal industry; they left behind the Chapels and their strict morality.
I feel genuinely torn about what to think of the calamitous collapse of the Welsh Chapels over the last half century or so. Much of real value has been lost. Non-conformism was at intertwined in people’s lives and a powerful sustenance. But people were at odds over God. There was a dismal strand of prejudice. Not everyone was non-conformist. Many non-conformists particularly disapproved of two things, Alcohol and Catholicism. My mother’s village, Merthyr Vale, had a substantial Irish community, which (let’s say) took a much more positive view of both. My mother was half Welsh and half Irish: she therefore didn’t attend any service on a Sunday. Her parents in getting married had offended both sides of the religious divide.
My parents weren’t sorry to leave prejudice behind. They brought me up in England as culturally Christian, but neither church not chapel. They were allergic to denomination.
But journeys take you to unexpected places. The path away from one form of worship took me to another. I enjoyed singing, and became a choral scholar, first at Magdalen College Oxford and then at King’s College Cambridge. High liturgy, a lot of Latin, exultingly beautiful music, heavy doses of incense and even quite a few bells. It was an immense privilege, and I loved it. It was while I was at Magdalen that I decided to get confirmed. That form of worship has remained a big part of my life ever since. You might think, a world away from Chapels.
But there are two powerful threads which tie those worlds and different generations together, as I see more clearly with age.
First, the power of music – particularly the physicality of participating in singing – in a religious context to channel and heighten our awareness of things spiritual.
Second, the core of the Christian experience is the Christian teaching, for all that it may wear very different clothing in different contexts, and for all that because of our own and society’s imperfections in each age we fall short of the Christian ideal.
And it’s that second point which brings me back to where I started. There is no single manifestation of real work, whatever I thought in my simplicity as a child. Similarly, the style of worship which was urgently relevant in the Valleys of the past may have passed its ebb. But the teachings of the Christ remain eternally relevant. On our individual journeys, we must do the best we can to follow them in the here and now.
Sunday 18 February Lent 1 God at work by Katharine Rumens
I have the same brief - that everyone who takes part in the God at Work sermons has. To speak about a growing awareness of God in your life - perhaps you have always gone to church. Were there people or events that made a difference? Tell us your journey. And/or what can you express of God in your professional life now - do your colleagues know you go to church? What part does Sunday morning have in the pattern of your week?
I am a child of the vicarage and rectory - it not uncommon for clergy children in their turn to become clergy. Following in the family footsteps shows as distinct lack of imagination or enterprise - or so I thought. If anyone was, it was my brother (the boy) who was destined for ordination - not his sisters.
I didn’t find it a strange upbringing because I had nothing to compare it with. Big cold houses: you wear lots of layers and are summoned by bells. Financially, a modest way of life. Everyone in the congregation always knows who you are. We were taught how to answer the front door: “I can’t give you any money, but I can give you something to eat.”
I liked going to church. You didn’t have to pay much attention to what was going on - apart from listen to music, have a sing and daydream. I wouldn’t say I was keen on church, it just was a family habit.
As a young adult I’d been working abroad - in Italy and Portugal and came to live in London to do fashion and because I thought London would be edgy and going to church here would be edgy. Church was quite stodgy.
I joined the Movement for the Ordination of Women. Three of us inadvertently shut down the Kensington Branch - Helen Goodman now a MP, Monica Furlong the theologian and me. Monica said we were too outspoken - we didn’t have that much in common with deaconesses whose greatest ambition was to be put in charge of the toy corner.
This was the 1980s before women were ordained deacon. It didn’t enter my head that I might end up in the church. I didn’t need to: I was good at my job. I was waving banners and holding placards on behalf of other women and discovering experimental liturgy and that the rules could be changed.
I carried on going to church on and off but was pretty fed up with it. I asked if to meet the vicar for lunch and found myself suggesting that if I did a selection conference (for the ordained ministry) I would find out if the Church of England and I had a future together. He sent me to meet the Diocesan Director of Ordinands for Women. It was not a success. I was on my way to see my pattern cutter and was dressed professionally. I was told I was too sophisticated, had too much chutzpah and she couldn’t see me fitting in at any theological college. That was that.
Except it hadn’t sorted out the growing unease. I was at my parish church, it made me unspeakably angry - there were no women up at the front, never a woman preaching, lots of prayers about men and being sons of God. There was a wide gap between the inclusive liturgy of St Hilda’s community on Sunday evenings - where women ordained overseas presided at the Eucharist - and Sunday mornings. I felt I belonged nowhere - not in the pews - no-one seemed to share my disorder - and there was clearly no place for me at the front. It was incredibly lonely - wilderness, if you like.
Still stuff happened, I was on the PCC, a school governor, training the intercessors, managing the parish visiting. One July I met with the vicar who told me I would start at theological college - either Oxford or Cambridge the following September. This appalling news surprised no-one but me - others wondered why it had taken me so long to get there. Although getting there meant being recommended first by the Director of Ordinands Richard Chartres and sponsored by Bishop Graham Leonard who left the Church of England over women’s ordination. Selection was a bizarre and bewildering experience.
“Following you is not as easy as it may seem at first, God; Getting your ways into our hearts is not a matter of just reading a few verses of the Bible or singing a few hymns. No to get your law inscribed on our inmost beings takes some wrestling.” John van der Lear
Things got better at theological college.
As a curate - learning how to pray with Helena who was housebound and had virtually no sight; she couldn’t see to read or watch the telly. Her body was getting old and tired. What was there to give thanks for? I opened the window and we held hands and listened to the birds. Sometimes, as Helena showed me, it is in simplicity that we find the grace of God. Or the recently bereaved widow who asks through her tears - where is Peter now? Making mistakes, sorting out brides when there are weddings on the hour and a bridegroom hasn’t turned up. The laughter and support of colleagues.
And then the legislation going through, and women could be ordained priest. The bishop told us we had to be interviewed again as we had been selected to be deacons not priests. I made meringues to offer the unfortunate archdeacon who came to discern my priestly vocation. I watched with satisfaction as he had to pick the crumbs off his clerical black.
Being able to preside: Helena coming forward to make her communion and wanting to weep because her faith humbled me.
Working in Waterloo where the remaining inhabitants of cardboard city camped on the church steps. ‘Call yourselves Christians’ shouted at me and my colleague by passers-by as Gary and his dog settled down for the night. (Coming here was a surprise - no-one telling me to eff off as I unlocked the church for Morning Prayer). Discovering that it is worth getting up at 4am on Easter Day to mess around with firelighters to light the Easter fire. An experience both utterly prosaic and holy. That faith grows on estates where the drains stink. That Gary and I met a few years later on Clapham Station and were pleased to see each other. This strange and wonderful business of God at work.
Being a priest is the most privileged work on God’s earth. The world turns though the church year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost. The feasts that feed us - as we are fed by sharing bread and wine. I can serve you as a priest because you open your hands to receive the bread. I can serve you because you allow me to serve you. It is God at work in your lives that enables me to fathom and make sense of God at work in my own.
11 February Sunday next before Lent by Katharine Rumens
Mark 9: 2 – 9
It’s all downhill from now on till cream eggs on Easter Day. Today, the Sunday next before Lent. Before us stretch forty days and forty nights of no cigars, no champagne, no chocolate, no comforting cups of coffee or tea and no lobster or rare steak: get ready to suffer in silence, or not so silently if that is how you prefer to go about things. I tell you, Sundays will be drab affairs with gloomy music and lashings of guilt. Lent is almost upon us.
Today we in the company of Jesus and Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear, up the mountain catching a glimpse of the dazzling glory of God. From the Transfiguration - this point in Mark’s gospel - it will be going down the hill to be confronted by the great crowds, the clamour for attention, the desperation for healing, the spiritual hunger of the people; and on the other hand the road to Jerusalem will bring incomprehension, indifference and the outright hostility of the authorities.
Usually feast of the Transfiguration, celebrated on 6th August, falls within the week of the RCO summer course.
Many of the students come year after year and know each other well. By the end of the course everyone has shared tuition, master classes, heard each other practising and playing for the daily service and concerts whatever level they are - from beginners to advanced. There’s lots of encouragement and support and then they pack their cases and go home – back down the mountain.
Playing the organ week after week in a country church can be lonely. Why couldn’t it be companionable all the time? Sharing a passion for music making with like-minded people who understand wrong notes and dreadful vicars? The leave-taking on the Saturday after the final concert is always quite prolonged and poignant.
Daniel Tammet, who is a Christian, was identified with Asperger syndrome when he was a young man. He ends his autobiography ‘Born on a Blue Day’ on a high point.
‘Everyone is said to have a perfect moment once in a while, an experience of complete peace and connection…. I do not have many such moments, but that is OK because being rare is what makes them so special.
All of a sudden, I can experience a kind of self-forgetting and in that brief, shining moment all my anxiety and awkwardness seemed to disappear.
I imagine these moments as fragments or splinters scattered across a lifetime. If a person could somehow collect them all up and stick them together they would have a perfect hour or even a perfect day. And I think in that hour or day they would be closer to the mystery of what it is like to be human. It would be like having a glimpse of heaven.’
That’s where the book ends – up there where the air is clear - but it is not the ending of the gospel.
Peter tried to hang on to the dream, “Master let us make three dwellings”. He tried to make the experience permanent. He didn’t want it to end.
Letting go of both people and places can be hard. Saying goodbye. Does it get harder as we learn from experience that life happens, plans go to pot, we have to adapt and perhaps lower our expectations? We might not be able to repeat the joy we shared in that time or place. That was it.
Like the parish weekend at Othona. There is the anticipation, the planning, the journey. On our mountain we worship, discuss, listen, go for walks and sit in the sun. We learn remarkable things about each other. And then it is Sunday after lunch and time to get the mini bus to the station. We finally disperse at Liverpool Station and are quickly reabsorbed back into the familiar. It’s all over – or is it?
Peter didn’t want to move on – he wanted to stay on the mountain with the heroes of his faith and his Master whom he loved. Had Peter had his way there would have been no Passion, no Resurrection, no Church and no martyrdom for Peter himself. Being on the mountain was the preparation not the completion; the empowering – not the final result.
The founder of the Othona community was a former vicar of St Michael’s Cornhill. He established it in in 1946 as a place where young people from across Europe could be in community. Unlike nearly all the other communities set up at this time to bring together those made enemies by war, Othona continues to flourish. Norman Motley insisted that it was not to be an escape from the world but a place where people stayed a while, gained strength and returned to their everyday lives taking some of the glory of the mountain back with them. Mountains are not places to escape to and hide. They are not a permanent solution.
It is as people who are open to change and as changed people we are more able to do what God would have us do. We not to set about making dwellings on the mountains – we are to be out here in the world.
These are my suggestions for an out-here worldly, soft Lent:
Read the air miles and buy carrots from Lincolnshire rather than raspberries from Kenya. Collect up the stuff you no longer use and give it to charity. Get enough sleep. Get in touch with the friend who wrote ‘let’s be in touch in the new year’ on their Christmas card. Go for a walk. Stop checking messages. Create silence in your day. Identify yourself as a Christian: wear a cross. Fly a kite up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear. Unclutter. Live more simply.
I end with words for Ash Wednesday from ‘Dust that dreams of Glory’ by Michael Mayne
When the Empress Zita of Austria/Hungary died aged 97, her funeral was held in St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. When the cortege arrived, the doors of the church were closed. The Chamberlain knocked three times with his staff and one of the friars inside called out, ‘Who requests entry?’
The reply was: ‘Her Majesty, Zita, Empress of Austria, Crowned Queen of Hungary, Queen of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia and Illyria, Archduchess of Austria, Grand Duchess of Tuscany…’And so it went on, ending with all her orders.
The friar replied: ‘We do not know her. Who requests entry? ‘Her Majesty Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary.’ Again, the reply came, ‘We do not know here. Who requests entry?’ This time the Chamberlain replied: ‘Our sister Zita, a poor, mortal sinner.’ ‘Let her enter!’ And the doors were thrown open.
Sunday 4 February Candlemas by Katharine Rumens
Luke 2: 22 – 40
Presumably Penelope Lively knows what she is talking about as she slots scenes from the past into the fabric of her narratives. I direct us to one of the scenes from late 17th Century and one of the people from the past - our proud pirate Martin Frobisher - buried in this church. In her novel City of the Mind she relates how on his second voyage Frobisher brought back to London an Inuit taken from Baffin Island
I quote, ‘Many people came running, and were astonished by the savage, and indeed thought at first that he was some brutish monster, half man half fish, until the sailors pulled him from the boat and stood him on his feet. Whereupon they marvelled at his features, and at his garments made of skins and furs, and mocked him that he would not speak.’
For from this time on the captive was silent, who before had spoken and chanted in his own outlandish tongue…..
They set him upon a cart and paraded him about the streets….Speak he would not. The captive made no resistance to this pantomime, then …..All of a sudden he rose up, and stood, and began to sing with his own tongue. He looked upwards to the sky, and sang with a great voice, and shortly after that he expired and died.
He sings to the world of which he is part, and from which he was snatched but to which he now returns.
If he follows the faith of his forebears he is an animist – believing that all living and non-living things have a spirit, he sings to the world of which he is part to which he now returns – that is, the spirit world. He sang with a great voice and then he died, alone in a foreign land. His great voice silenced.
Today we give thanks for the life of Ken Thomas – a man who sang with his heart and soul. He died on the shortest day of the year just before Christmas. Today we are marking Candlemas which fell on Friday; finally we are at the end of the Christmas cycle and can shut up our carol books for another year. Traditionally, at Candlemas a whole year’s supply of church candles was blessed. As a Methodist, Ken would probably be wary of such popish practices – or perhaps it is merely pagan so he wouldn’t mind at all.
The Feast of Presentation of the Lord, brackets Candlemas, when Mary and Joseph and their child – an ordinary family go to the Temple to fulfill the necessary religious rituals in the ordinary way. There are two encounters, one with Simeon, described as righteous and devout, the other with Anna, a prophet. These far from ordinary encounters mean that Joseph of Nazareth and his family are not ordinary people after all.
The meeting of the old dispensation and the new, of Simeon and Jesus. The elderly man takes the new-born child in his arms and gives thanks. He asked no more from life. He was ready to die, ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.’ He could die knowing that God’s act of divine love had come into the world. Now the time is fulfilled, the duty performed. For forty days we have celebrated the Incarnation, let’s not linger here – the curtain is falling on the infancy of Jesus and we are looking ahead to Ash Wednesday and Lent groups.
We don’t forget his words. Simeon praised God – saying – but it is hard to hear his hymn of praise merely as spoken words when we are so familiar with musical settings of the Nunc Dimittis. Simeon’s vision remains, sung with a great voice, at evening services and at funerals. May not just our last song, but the songs we sing now be ones of praise and thanksgiving – not ones of complaint and blame.
Listen to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas describe The Reverend Eli Jenkins in Bethesda House, “who gropes out of bed into his preacher’s black, combs his bard’s white hair, forgets to wash……opens the front door, stands in the doorway and, looking out at the day and up at the eternal hill, and hearing the sea break …remembers his own verses and tells them softly”……His song of praise and thanksgiving for his town, the countryside, the day itself ended, “The Reverend Jenkins closes the front door. His morning service is over.” His hymn of praise has been sung.
I suppose it is possible to be Welsh but not particularly musical, to come from the land of song and still be tone deaf. Perhaps even, not to belt out Cwm Rhondda with the rest of the crowd before a game of rugby.
In 1198Giraldus Cambrensis observed that the Welsh, "When they make music together, they sing their songs not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in parts....so that in a crowd of singers....you would hear as many songs and different intervals as you could see heads; yet they all accord..." A tradition that still epitomises what we think of as Welsh singing. There was a great blossoming with the rise of non-conformity in the 18th century with the introduction of new hymns, the addition of oratorio choruses, and often even the sermon became a musical hwyl – a stirring feeling of emotional motivation and energy. (I point out we are thoroughly conformist and very restrained. No hwyling here thank you).
Ken has died, a Welsh Methodist born in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, who Sunday by Sunday sang from the bottom of his heart to the glory of God as we will shortly sing in the offertory hymn. ”All for Jesus All for Jesus, this the church’s song must be, till, at last, we all are gathered one in love, and one in thee.” Thank you Ken for the years you were among us lifting up your heart to God in praise and song.
21 January 3 Epiphany 2018 by Katharine Rumens
John 2: 1 – 11
We now have a Minister for Loneliness. Two journalists comment on this:
Bel Mooney wrote in the Daily Mail. It was heart breaking to read this week of an increasing number of “pauper funerals” – when the deceased has no family members in attendance.
According to that definition – where no family members were in attendance - we held a pauper’s funeral here on Friday. Lena never spoke about her childhood or family, or time in service. She had estranged brother in France – and we know there were sisters back home in Portugal who only let her know her mother had died after her funeral. Somewhere - in France, Brazil, the USA or this country - there must be nephews and nieces, great nephews, great nieces, cousins and so on. Those who have a shared DNA, some a shared childhood history and family likeness. Yet none attended her funeral. We didn’t have addresses for them to be able to get in touch.
Every year, local councils around the UK carry out thousands of public health funerals, it’s their statutory duty to make arrangements for these so-called ‘pauper’s’ funerals when a person has died in circumstances where the family is unable to be traced, or funeral arrangements have not been made.
Lena had made arrangements for her funeral – and it was attended by those whom she had helped, been kind to, looked after and worked for over the years. She was not poor in the loyalty of friendship and, in her own private way, she was part of us – the St Giles’ family. We her non-biological family attended her funeral.
Bel Mooney writes that visualising the loneliness of a pauper’s funeral for ourselves, when our time comes, should be a wake-up call to us all.
Deborah Ross in The Times considered that in the pre-industrial age people lived in small villages. She writes, “I do not have a bucolic image of this time, but its societies did fulfil one of the most basic human needs: the need to know and be known.” Perhaps Kipling’s phrase on the gravestones of unidentified servicemen, ‘Known unto God’ is not enough. We need to know our neighbour as we are known by our neighbour.
On the same page of the paper was the obituary of Thomas S Monson, the President of the Mormon Church
He said, “I’ve always followed the philosophy, ‘Serve where you’re called, not where you’ve been or where you might be.’” He filled his public addresses with folksy parables that emphasised humanitarian service and care for others, an outlook that he said was rooted in his Depression-era upbringing. An outlook that reflects one of the most basic human needs: the need to know and be known – for Christians through the life and example of Jesus Christ.
Let me try a folksy anecdote. On Thursday last week the clergy from the two cities were invited to meet our new Bishop. There was a bible reading, prayer and then Sarah spoke about her career as a nurse. She said her ministry then as now is one of service – and it is a ministry that involves us all. How we help each other through service to bring about the Kingdom of God.
As clergy gatherings in this diocese go, it felt very different. Our new bishop is a comprehensive-educated former nurse. She is not public school, nor an academic; she is not known for writing books or stirring things up at General Synod. She is not a man. From her installation on 12th May at St Paul’s we will have a woman as the focus for unity in this diocese whose life experience has been one of service.
After the intercession I will commission those who with me serve at communion by administering the chalice. A liturgist comments: “Although there should be no hierarchy of ministries, there are some ministries in the Eucharist about which a little more needs to be said. In some ways it is unfortunate that the distribution of Holy Communion needs a kind of episcopal permission that makes it different from others” – being a sidesperson, leading the prayers and so on. “It tends to mean that fewer people share in this ministry than could do so…It is a ministry for which people require careful preparation and practice, and a ministry that people need to exercise sufficiently regularly to become confident about it.”
Today’s gospel is the Wedding at Cana from John’s gospel. This time last month we heard on a daily basis in the carol services the opening words of John’s gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ Living among us looks like this. Jesus calls his disciple and then goes out to a party, as at the end of his ministry on the night that he is betrayed he will sit down to party.
Jean Vanier – theologian, puts it like this. “Another religious leader might have led new followers into the desert for a spiritual experience or given some teaching to deepen their knowledge of scripture. Were they that unlikely to get a spiritual experience at a wedding?” A week of feasting in an obscure Galilean village surrounded by other people, noise and the rules of hospitality?
I learn that although many residents of Galilee were involved in the production of wine, they could afford to drink it only on very special occasions. Running out of wine at your wedding was one of the most powerful ways in which poverty became a cause of shame. A pauper’s wedding to match the pauper’s funeral. The shame of it.
Jesus’ actions – turning water into wine – quietly transform the situation for the family. He restores to dignity a family, who as many, lives in the shadow of scarcity and shame. Who knew that disaster had been averted? Jesus, Mary and the servants. The servants – those who had drawn the water and now found themselves serving wine.
This miracle at Cana in Galilee both echoes and foreshadows the Last Supper. The revelation of Jesus – at Cana, and at his last supper, as in the celebration of the Eucharist, Jesus reveals himself in deeds as well as in words. To which we bear witness – as all of us, from the youngest Sunday Club member and visitor, to those adults with recognised ministries. Whoever we are, wherever we are. Serve where you are called, not where you have been or where you might be to bring about the Kingdom of God in a world still held captive by scarcity and shame.
Sunday 29 October by Catherine Shelley
“For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
So we begin our readings today with that great apocalyptic book, the Revelation of John of God; it is not a style that is usual in today’s society but it does include some fantastic poetry; and that sentence that I began with, about Jesus, God incarnate, the Lamb upon the throne who will guide us to the springs of the water of life, to the God who will wipe away all tears, is what I would like you to keep in mind as the framing of this sermon.
In two days’ time we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s alleged posting of his 95 theses on the door of the Church at Wittenberg, the minor university town in which he was a Professor. I say ‘alleged’ because many Luther scholars now think that event did not actually happen. There is evidence that Luther posted copies of his theses to the Archbishop and the Elector, the secular ruler of that bit of Saxony. But the gloriously dramatic picture of Luther hammering a nail into the door of the church is probably later historical addition, with particular force given that it was not just knocking a nail into the door of that particular church but a huge rift and schism into the church across Christendom.
We have also just passed an anniversary related to William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English responsible, though often unacknowledged, for 95% of the King James Version as we have it today. On 27th October ie on Friday, it was the anniversary of the burning – in 1526 - of as many copies of Tyndale’s English Bible as could be found because it was heretical. The burning was ordered by the then Bishop of London and took place just up the road, outside St Paul’s. In due course Tyndale himself was arrested in Antwerp where he was in exile – and was executed, also by burning.
Given these two anniversaries of people labelled heretic for translating the Bible into languages that their fellow citizens could read or hear and understand it seems fitting that the Church today celebrates Bible Sunday…. The Book of Scriptures at the heart of our faith and for which people like Tyndale – though not Luther - gave their lives
It is easy to forget 500 years on that until the Reformation – that is for three quarters of the church’s life - the Bible was only encountered in Latin, the language of the empire yet given a sacred status. It was only read and translated by priests and scholars – and, if the anti-clerical propaganda of the Reformation period is accurate – many of the clergy couldn’t read it either. It is also easy to forget that for the Roman Catholic church the Bible was still being read – and worship was still happening - in Latin, until the 1960’s – 50 not 500 years ago. Though as someone who started off as a Roman Catholic I can confirm that there is today as much attention paid in Roman Catholicism to scripture in the vernacular, as in most Protestant churches.
It is also extraordinary, 500 years on, in a more tolerant age – and an age of universal education - to think that people died for the Bible and for daring to suggest that people, ordinary people, anyone could read it for themselves. The sacrifice that certain people made so that everyone could read the Bible is surely worth celebrating. But you may say, it says on our pew sheets that we’re celebrating All Saints day today, so what is this about Bible Sunday? A rival celebration to the more catholic, in the sense of universal, celebration of All Saints.
It creates an interesting contrast… for there are those at the evangelical end of the church who will not be celebrating saints, as a terrible Catholic invention and those at the Catholic end of the church who will not be celebrating Bible Sunday as an evangelical invention. The contrast gets to the heart of the Reformation arguments and many of today’s debates about which comes first, the Bible or the Church? The Word or the Body of Christ? Scripture or the Eucharistic Community that gathers for Communion?
I still remember the rehearsal for my ordination as Deacon. We were all standing round the altar, feeling somewhat self-conscious in our cassocks, being told what would happen at which stage of the service. We would receive a Bible from the Bishop and then our training incumbents would place our stoles around our necks. The man to my left – who I knew from theological college to be at the catholic end of the Anglican spectrum – started objecting that we were getting the Bible first and then the stole as symbol of the Church and priesthood second. It’s a good example of the continuing tensions.
For the Reformers, at least at the beginning – the Bible was pre-eminent and stood alone from the Church which should not be allowed to assert its power by limiting who could read the Bible. For the Catholic end of the Church it is the Church that comes first; it was the Church – in around 325CE - that decided which bits of Scripture would become the Bible. Yet, it was those scriptures, not only written down but recited and narrated and read out loud that formed the Church; for scripture, the stories and the laws of a community revered as the word of God, were and are vital in gathering and creating the community that became and is the church.
As an ex-Roman Catholic, with a love of the Eucharist, a liberation theologian’s love of Scripture, a curacy in an evangelical charismatic Church and now helping out at a variety of parishes, I cannot understand why people have to make this division for the Bible and Church; the Word and the Body of Christ; Scripture and the Eucharistic Community are inextricably bound up with each other - though I do recognise the commitment that led people to die for their views in arguments which became wars.
Our Gospel reading today – the Sermon on the Mount - is a good example of how scripture, as first related orally, is bound up with Church. As Jesus speaks to the disciples on the mountain the values, hopes and inspiration of his words and his call to live out the values of the kingdom, are heard and absorbed by that initial church community. In turn, the words and the story of their being preached on the mountain, becomes part of the Gospel, the scriptures that hold, shape and inform the community gathered around them over the generations, as God’s word is passed on.
A similar example is seen in the alternative first reading for today, the first reading for Bible Sunday instead of All Saints. In that reading, from the book of Nehemiah, the whole community gathered to hear the Books of the Law read at the Water Gate. It is a holy day, a day of celebration for the words and laws that have fashioned, shaped and brought together this community. Yet without the community those laws and customs would not have been developed, the words would not have been written down and the canon of what counted as scripture and what was just words, would not have been decided. Although it might have lasted longer the recitation of the Hebrew laws would have been something like the recitation of the Ten Commandments at the beginning of a Communion Service or a litany for the saints. Such words are the God-breathed, God-inspired reflections of what that community thinks it is about and holds dear.
The gathering in front of the Water Gate is also a symbolic process – because the Water Gate was opposite the Temple, the most Holy place. There is symbolism in the water gate – the word is washing over them, reviving and renewing them and they need to be renewed, revived, washed and able to start afresh because this is the community of Hebrews that has returned from Exile in Babylon to start life again in the Holy City, Jerusalem. This reading of scripture is a celebration of their survival of exile and the celebration of the word and scripture that has kept them together as a community in exile. The word is never just laws, never just a book, never just words on the page but resonant with symbolism and layers that go beyond the simple first sight meaning – it is the living word of God. And the Bible is not just one book…. It is a whole series of books, 66 of them to be precise and they are the stories and norms, the poems and Psalms, the Chronicles and histories, the wisdom and philosophy of the people who have forged them.
Yet the Bible is not the end of the story as, like all scripture, it is read and interpreted over the ages by the community that holds it dear. The last book of the Hebrew Bible was the wisdom tradition, written around the turn from Before the Christian Era to Anno Domini and the New Testament was all written by the third and fourth centuries CE. Both Jewish and Christian communities are still alive and growing – and need ways to reflect the growth of their communities over the ages – in different places and countries far beyond the geographical locations where scripture and community were first forged.
In the Jewish community, the Beth Din and Rabbis continue to develop halakhah interpreting scripture for the ages and places – often highly inhospitable - in which they have lived and the famous and revered, saintly people in Jewish tradition are those who have been great interpreters and teachers of the law. In more catholic Christian communities it has tended to be named saints who have been remembered for their witness and actions in following Christ and great preachers and teachers are celebrated in the more protestant communities. Those picked out for historical legacy as saints or preachers or Biblical interpreters are the ongoing story of the community; the celebrities, heroes and martyrs of the community over the ages.
The role of such figures in shaping community and personal identify became very live to me whilst at theological college, about four years after my move from being a Roman Catholic to an Anglican. We celebrated the Protestant martyrs, those burned by Queen Mary after the Protestant interlude of Henry VIII and Edward the VI. I suddenly realised that in remembering the deaths of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer I had changed sides – the saints and venerated figures were different. Gone was the veneration of Thomas More and John Fisher, replaced by their Reformation opponents. It really was a seminal moment.
Thankfully, I can now see the contribution of the saints, heroes and martyrs of both sides and even more thankfully, though arguments about Bible versus church, saints versus preachers and so on continue, at least in most parts of the world the arguments are no longer settled by force and blood-bathed violence. There are also some signs that bridges are being built with the Papacy prepared to consider the positive contributions of Luther and the Reformation.
The other helpful insight of getting to see saints and martyrs from opposing sides is to realise that they were all pretty flawed in some ways – as were most of the great figures in the Bible. It is important to recognise that saints and holy celebrities are not perfect, moral human beings, but that they are saints because they were people who gave witness to God in particular ways. They were people who stood up for things in the face of persecution, who contributed through striking acts of service and kept alive important hopes for the community that continues to try to follow Christ and to love God.
Yet the official saints and heroic figures, the ones remembered by name, are only the ones who got remembered in particular circles and there are many, many others not so famous who have nonetheless served in saintly and committed ways. Some are not remembered at all, others are remembered not in the universal church but in their own particular, local church communities, for their contributions in those places. And it is right that as well as honouring the saints and martyrs of the whole church we also recognise our local examples of service like Anne, our organist and director of music’s many years of service in helping people sing psalms and hymns in this community for a few decades.
Yet we also recognise this week the whole church, all saints and all souls, all of whom go to make up the body of the church, the church that is the word of the living God, creating and being created by scripture as we seek to follow Christ. Whilst the arguments and differences that also shape the community of Christ across the world continue let us remember, going back to the line of scripture with which I started, that we follow the Lamb at the centre of the throne, who will be our shepherd, and will guide us to springs of the water of life and to the God who will wipe away every tear from our eyes and heal all those arguments we may have had. Amen.
24 September 15 Trinity by Catherine Shelley
You may have heard, on Radio 4’s “Saturday Live” programme yesterday, of the perils of preaching whilst in the throes of recording “Strictly Come Dancing”… Apparently Richard Coles’ recently had an embarrassing incident of shedding BBC glitter mid-sermon. There is rather less glitter involved in my day job – and even the decoration of pink ribbon to tie up Counsel’s briefs seems to be fading from the scene with the advent of electronic paperwork.
Apart from grabbing your attention with mention of “Strictly” and a feeble attempt at a joke, the point of contrasting my day job with Richard Coles’ work outside his parish, is to highlight just how different what passes for work in our day can be… And both Richard Coles’ broadcasting and my day job look radically different from the work that the majority of the world does, in call centres, programming computers, stocking shelves in supermarkets, pushing paper in various walks of government or business, ferrying parcels or people as couriers or taxi drivers, caring for people in public or voluntary service and so the lists go on…
For a shrinking percentage of the workforce in the western world there is still agricultural work - tilling fields, milking cows, picking grapes and other fruit, as in today’s Gospel reading. Yet despite the different types of work there are nonetheless quite a lot of parallels between the working world of the Gospel and work in today’s world… and perhaps the parallels are increasing.
Those workers standing in the market place of today’s Gospel reading are not so different from the hordes of people standing outside employment agencies in the early hours of the morning, hoping that today they’ll get hired and onto the minibus to the building site. Then there are the people sitting by the phone hoping that the agency will ring to give them some work stacking shelves or cleaning offices… and various other sectors that use zero hours contracts. Or there are those waiting for their break in theatre or film or various forms of journalism.
Yet the narrative still tends to be that those who have the satisfaction of getting work, of getting paid and fulfilling the expectation of society that we contribute to it through work, are good. Whilst those who are left without work, without an income, without the satisfaction and status of contributing their labour, are idle and bad. So, the parallel is drawn – as seen in this week’s Church Times Sunday Readings section – between the undeserving, short hours, late in the day workmen, lucky to get a whole denarius or day’s pay; and the undeserving, late to the party, deathbed converts to the Gospel of the Kingdom, who may nonetheless be graced with salvation just as much as those who have followed Jesus all along.
However, I don’t think that the parallel entirely works, for the workers left in the market place to the end of the day are not idle by choice; any more than the majority of today’s zero hours contractors are idle whilst they are waiting for work. Imagine yourself standing there… throughout the day, caught in the heat of the day just as much as those working in the fields – worried about your family and how you are going to provide for them; wondering what is wrong with you and your work, maybe discriminated against because of size or a disability or lack of family connections – often things that have nothing to do with your own merit
For the vast majority, work and livelihood are totally dependent on the patronage of the labour masters to give them work, to give them the means of earning a living. They wait for the work under the zero hours contract, yet are not able to get on with anything else whilst still waiting, hoping against hope for work.
By contrast, the late converts to Christianity and the Kingdom of God – the death bed converts and nay-sayers, the profligates or criminals and the many others who declined to follow Christ – seem to have made a choice not to follow Jesus. It is not – apparently - that they are not chosen like the unemployed workers but that they themselves make the choice not to respond to God’s call, to question God’s love or even God’s existence or the Gospel message. Those not converting to follow Jesus are making a choice that is not open to the under-employed workers who are dependent on the favour and choice of the vineyard owner or labour manager.
OR are they?
For what this passage is really about is not our choices or our hard work, our merit or what we can earn; it is entirely about God’s grace and God’s love and God’s generosity. God is the generous employer who recognizes the basic value of each and every human being, each made reflecting the image and likeness of God, as Genesis outlines. God is the generous Creator, recognising that each and every human being needs the basics of life to live on and that there is no more merit in those lucky enough to get selected to work than those left waiting for work all day.
The analogy is not that the under-employed workers are undeserving but that the fully-employed workers are no more deserving simply because they have had the chance to work all day. So, what Jesus is really getting at in this parable is that, for those who wake up to the Good News first and leave everything to follow him, there is no greater merit than those who recognize God’s grace at a later stage. He is also – as is so often the case, particularly in Matthew’s Gospel – telling the Jewish people that just because they have been selected as God’s chosen nation, God’s grace is not limited to them, it also encompasses those nations called later to recognize the one true God.
Yet that message of God’s grace freely dispensed to all and the scope for later conversion for the less obviously religious or those seen as beyond the fold of a particular, strict religious interpretation… is still very hard for people to hear. For God’s generosity and grace goes so much against the grain of our society that emphasizes merit and achievement and worth, based on what we earn and the sense of superiority or self-righteousness that goes with it
So, like the full-time workers in the vineyard jealousies arise over what is seen as an easier day waiting around in the market square – or an easier job of queening around dancing on TV instead of doing a “real job” like being a doctor healing people or an engineer or even a lawyer. And it is that same sense of resentment at God’s grace that underlies Jonah’s sulky behaviour in our first reading today.
I love Jonah; he is such a flawed and human prophet… highly relatable or for those of you who prefer more traditional language, easy to identify with. First, he runs away from God’s call, scared of what the fearsome and Godless Ninevites might do to him – only to end up cast over board and swallowed by a whale before getting back on track and going to tell the Ninevites to repent. Then he sits back and watches, which is where we find him this morning, expecting God to smite these Godless barbarians and revenge himself on them.
Instead however, his preaching is successful; the Ninevites get out the sackcloth and ashes and repent; turning to God and mending their ways and God’s generous grace is again at work. God forgives the Ninevites’ godlessness and, welcoming their repentance, refrains from destroying their city. They may be late to the party, like the late converts in the metaphor of Jesus’ parable, but the kingdom of God is open because God is generous.
Yet Jonah is disappointed; he goes into a glorious strop; he was looking forward to the fireworks of righteous destruction sitting under the shade of the tree that God so lovingly grew for him and now here is God forgiving them instead. Jonah completely overlooks the fact that God forgave him for his less than righteous running away and he would rather sulk than welcome the repentant Ninevites and rejoice in God’s mercy.
Both the Gospel passage and the passage from Jonah show the reactions of a jealous child, worried that if God loves the Ninevites or pays the late-employed workers the same or rewards converts, there will be less of God’s love for us. But God’s grace is infinite; bringing in new people to God’s grace does not leave less for those who got there earlier, in fact God’s grace is likely to expand because there are now more people sharing and witnessing to it.
The infinity of God’s grace and forgiveness is also radically freeing… for if we don’t need to earn God’s love – and indeed cannot earn it - then we are freed from the anxiety of trying to do so and can simply get on with loving God and fellow humanity. And we are more likely to be witnesses to God’s love if we are freed from fear and anxiety about salvation, than if we are tied up with trying to prove our own merit and worthiness – whether by hard work or good behavior.
The really important point is that it isn’t about us…. It’s all about God.
3 September 12 Trinity by Katharine Rumens
Romans 12: 9 – end
Paul wrote Rejoice with those who rejoice – which seems easy at first glance, but it’s probably harder to put into practice once we think about it. The American politician and novelist Gore Vidal put it like this, ‘Whenever a Friend Succeeds, a Little Something in Me Dies’. Vidal was born into privilege and success – he had no business knowing about the envy of failure or coming second best. Those little deaths that we live with, those pangs of disappointment we try not to show when sharing in another’s joy.
It’s everyday stuff. Those who seem always to have had it easy: no debt, no difficult relatives, no neighbours who throw all-night parties, no mental health issues – none of the above and more. The popular, livelier, healthier ones to whom we say ‘Well done’ as a little somethings in us dies. How lovely. I’m so happy for you.
One theologian calls it crunch time.
Paul’s letter to the people of Rome – his most important theological legacy – was written around 50 years after the death of Jesus. Busy powerful Rome where no-one had noticed – in that far-flung corner of the empire - the life, execution and resurrection of Jesus taking place. Busy, powerful Rome. Initially hardly anyone read this letter written by an obscure Roman citizen without connections, certainly no-one of influence read it. There are a lot of other things to read instead: Imperial decrees, wonderful poetry, finely crafted moral philosophy. Everyone is too busy and too important.
In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation we now know the great influence of the first chapter of the letter on the life of Martin Luther and the subsequent transformation of Europe and the wider Christian church. The righteousness of God is revealed through faith 1.17. A theology of grace alone, which emphasises our inability to achieve our own salvation.
This is not a get out – we can’t hand it all over to God. Like in that immortal line in Waiting for Godot when one of the tramps says to the other, ‘Let’s not do anything at all, it’s safer.’ We’re not here to be safe. We are not here not to change, not to work on ourselves, not to grow in our faith. There is work to be done on dull days, on difficult days as well as on days when we rejoice.
What does Paul require of the community? Let love be genuine. There is a time for dramatic, heroic gestures, courage in the face of adversity. We thank God for the courage that is given to people of faith and goodwill in such circumstances.
Here Paul is talking about long haul virtues. Love, respect, patience, perseverance…..Day in day out, week in week out, month in month out and no time off for good behaviour. Although I think I would disagree with Paul here and say we probably all benefit from a holiday from each other from time to time. Distance making the heart grow fonder and all that.
Paul knows these are often the hardest and most trying skills to acquire – this would seem to be the voice of personal experience speaking here. He is teaching his community that these life skills do not happen by accident – they have to be worked at.
A couple of weeks ago I was at Mass in a small village church in the Apennines. They wear Sunday best there – the men in clean shirts rather than their vests and straw trilbys, the women in their newest blouses. Sunday is still special. I was surprised to understand the priest to say that Sundays were not that important really – then he went on to qualify it by saying - unless there was a discernible connection with what happened during the week – which in that community is getting the tractor going and cursing the lack of rain. That is the difference that our faith makes, that is how we are distinctive as Christians – we are able to make the connection between Sunday and Monday.
One of my book fair finds is ‘Notes for an Exhibition’ by Patrick Gale who is a Quaker. It tells of a Cornish family – the artist mother is bi-polar, two of the adult children have mental health issues. Not much died in me when I read about them. There is this underlying narrative of the importance the Society of Friends plays in the life of the family. We meet the three generations of Quakers and Sunday Meetings are described as essential places of welcome and acceptance. Hospitality is extended to strangers. At times members of the family can get quite nasty and most of them go off the rails at some point, but they return to Sunday meetings and when there is weeping it is the Friends who are faithful in offering support and friendship.
This is not to say that the Society of Friends is free from the disagreements and surprises that any community has to manage, but an Anglican version of the story would be different – and you couldn’t turn up in a strange town knowing that the community would unfailingly gather at 11.00am on a Sunday.
In writing to the community of Christians in Rome, Paul is writing to people who have faced persecution and martyrdom. They are not having an easy time. ‘Do not lag is zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.’ This is a tall order for his readers, given what the Romans have to endure. He warns them that the more they differ from the society around them the more they will be not understood, they will be disliked and persecuted. They must not expect understanding. Your neighbours might think you are slightly bonkers in coming to church on a Sunday morning when no-one is forcing you to. The reading from Matthew tells us how Jesus chooses friends who do not understand him – Peter is a mixed blessing at times. This is God’s way – the unexpected - be prepared for this.
We are proud that our young people – Aine, Olivia, Oliver, Emmanuel, Grace and Evie and other have excelled in recent exams – Aine, and Olivia are off to university for the first time. Oliver will go next year. We have known Olivia and Oliver from when they were very young. Joseph is off to his new school, as are Myles, Grace and Evie. Not everyone they meet will be sympathetic to practising Christians – it’s probably not the coolest question to ask in Freshers’ Week – where in the Anglican Chaplaincy? What time are services on Sunday? (Although as an organ scholar Aine – you probably shouldn’t have to ask.)
What do I suggest you do with this morning’s reading? The more we manifest rejoicing, patience, perseverance, the more we will differ from our neighbours? Not a good move when you are trying to fit in. And the more we differ from our neighbours/our contemporaries, the more we differ from society round us.
Aine we do not want your fellow students to think you are more unusual than necessary. Be yourself. Shine as a light in the world as one of God’s chosen ones beloved and accepted in Jesus Christ our Lord. And may the God of love go with you. Amen
Sunday 20th August 2017 'A woman of humble prayer?' by Catherine Shelley
10 Trinity 2017 Isaiah 56: 1, 6 – 8 Romans 11: 1 – 2a, 29 – 32 Matthew 15: 21 – 28
It is said that it is the victors who write history…. Even before the days of the mass media – possibly especially before the days of the mass media – the victors would have control not only of the means of production – but of the means of telling the story; and usually those who write the histories of saints and holy people include only the positive stories – the ones that show off their holy heroes in a glowingly good light.
Or, if they do include a story that shows something of their saintly hero’s weaknesses, it is simply to emphasise how great they are really. It’s like the question at interview where you’re asked – “And so what are your weaknesses?” The acceptable replies include:
“I’m a bit of a workaholic really…” – which, in our productivity-obsessed culture, is actually secretly seen as a positive.
Or in the clergy world – “I’m not so great at administration…” and so the corollary goes, I’m somehow more holy and open to the Spirit… a misconception of incarnated prayer and the clerical and pastoral life that I have heard from far too many clergy!
That tendency to tell the stories of saints and heroes as if they had no flaws is why there are bits of the Gospels that ring far truer than much hagiography or lives of the saints and heroes. Today’s Gospel reading is a good example; if you really wanted to promote your man you wouldn’t have this story – in which Jesus is astoundingly rude. He ignores the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman to start with – his disciples telling him to get rid of her – and then, when he does deign to speak to her – he calls her a dog!
Yes, he really does say that, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” – he’s only there for the children of Israel, God’s chosen people; Canaanites need not apply…. And Canaanite women doubly so, for women too were lower status – who did she think she was to pester the Master himself? You can hear the sneers of the disciples in that “Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us” – how uncivilised, what a nuisance? In today’s politically correct world – which in my book is all to the good - that sort of response could get Jesus and the disciples charged with both racism and sexism!
However, Jesus has met his woman – she is not going to be put off, she has a sick daughter at home who needs this man’s help – this Messiah or whatever he is. She doesn’t really care, what or who he is in divine terms, she just knows that he has performed great miracles of healing and she wants some of it for her child.
And in that desperate but firm – and quite witty - challenge, “Even the dogs get the crumbs from the table…” she gets Jesus to open his eyes to a bigger picture; to see the humanity of all those around him – the children of God, not just the children of Israel. She gets Him to see that she too, though Canaanite rather than Jewish, is made – as Genesis says - in the image of God. She is a mum with a sick kid…. and boy, does she have faith…
It's the faith that does it… the faith in his divine power, that Jesus sees as commanding his attention and his help. That faith, from those beyond the Israelites that he originally thought he was there for, is something he comes to see in others too – the Roman centurion, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Good Samaritan of His parable, Zacchaeus the tax collector who climbs the tree to see him and changes his life as a result. What they have in common is that they are outside the Jewish faith or, in the case of Zacchaeus, beyond its pale because of his job… So, a lot of Jesus’ ministry happens with people who are not the people of Israel but are, he comes to realise, very much the children of God.
Yet in this morning’s story there is clear evidence that Jesus himself had to learn that bigger picture of his calling and mission. He had to experience what that passage from Isaiah in our first reading foreshadowed, that foreigners would also be called to minister to the Lord God.
Some people read this story as an example of Jesus, the all-knowing God, just playing with the poor woman and testing her faith. It is read as God hidden in Jesus’ human body and testing the Canaanite woman in a way that is not only rude but frankly sadistic. I think, however, that that is a heretical reading – it makes Jesus just God playing at being human, which is the heresy of Docetism.
I think the truer reading of this bit of Jesus’ life is as evidence that he really was human – he was a human being living with the limitations of his understanding about himself, with a limited understanding about his mission – and all the human prejudices about people who are not our own tribe – people who are from enemy territories.
For the Canaanites were one of those tribes and peoples conquered by the Hebrew peoples and taken over as part of the Promised Land, living somewhere to the west of the Jordan. They were seen as an alien and conquered people – and Jesus would have picked up all that prejudice as he grew up.
I would much rather understand this Gospel story as evidence of Jesus humanity’ with all the limitations that involves, a human being growing into a fuller understanding of his mission and the people he has come to serve rather than a sadistic divinity playing at being human and playing with the human creatures He is supposed to serve.
Now some people have accused me of heresy when I say this because how can it be suggested that Jesus was racist and prejudiced and rude if he was without sin?
I think the two square perfectly well… Jesus is not intentionally sinful, he is really, truly human - acting out of lack of understanding, limited cultural assumptions and the worldview in which he had been brought up. When his eyes are opened to the woman’s humanity… when he is challenged by her to think differently and see that it is not only Israelites who have faith, then the scales fall from him eyes and his understanding grows – he is a human being growing into His divine calling. That is surely a far less sinful understanding than a rude, sadistic God playing with his creatures. And the great thing is that it gives us hope….
If even Jesus had to go through the process of realising his divinity, of growing beyond his human limitations of understanding and prejudice, then there is hope for all of us. This evidence of Jesus’ human journey and growth to a greater understanding of the world around him – to a transcendence of the limits of the worldview from his upbringing – is a pattern for both our human – and our Christian life. It is a pattern of growing into the more enlightened, fuller – more Christ-like - lives that God calls us to.
However, that process is not always plain sailing; life is likely to throw obstacles, rudeness and obstruction in our way… So we are called too to the enduring, focused, loving faith and hope of the Canaanite woman who persisted, even when confronted by the rudeness and rejection of Jesus’ first response.
She didn’t get all huffy about being called a dog, all outraged and standing on her dignity – she took on board that perspective and courageously turned it around into an argument that supported her plea in the face of Jesus’ rejection… And in that humble, yet persistent and confident faith she won him around and went down in history as the woman who, though nameless, got the best of Jesus in an argument.
The Canaanite woman is often held up as a role model for humble faithful prayer - if at first your prayer does not succeed, pray, pray and pray again….
But there is more to her than just prayerful humility…. It is the courage of her conviction, the persistence of her faith and requests and the temerity to challenge the person that everyone else was venerating as saviour and miracle worker, that really marks her out.
So I want to finish with a poem in honour of that dogged, Canaanite – but not canine – lady…. It is Maya Angelou’s poem ‘And still I rise…’
i)You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted
You may tread me in the very dirt
Pumping in my living room.
ii)Does my sassiness upset
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
iii)Just like moons and like
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
iv)Did you want to see me
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
v)Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
vi)You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
viii) Out of the huts of history's shame, I
Up from a past that's rooted in pain, I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear, I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise, I rise, I rise.
For if our prayer and commitment to the Gospel is really to survive we need the sassiness and courage and hope of the Canaanite woman not just her humility.
Sunday13 August by Katharine Rumens
9 Trinity 2017 1 Kings 19: 9 – 18; Matthew 14: 22 – 33
It can make you famous. Samir Mezrahi has released a single – the track is number 30 in the i Tunes chart and rising. It is music to the public’s ears. They love it. Except it might not be music at all. Mr Mezrahi’s track consists of 9 minutes and 58 seconds of total silence.
10 minutes of nothingness which allows drivers or passengers to line up the songs they really want to hear when they plug their phones into their cars rather than get the daily repetition of the same opening song. One fan thinks he should be awarded a Grammy or a Nobel Prize or something. This seems excessive for nothingness.
Step in the real musician – John Cage whose own musical silence was only 4 mins 33 seconds. He maintained that, “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” That’s a bit of a challenge – that silence is beyond our capabilities.
The writer and theologian Sara Maitland used to be married to an Anglican priest and live a conventional Christian life in Stepney. In later life she has chosen to live on her own and gone to live in Galloway the middle of nowhere. “An exasperated friend commented when she came to see my latest lunacy – Only you Sara – twenty-mile views of absolutely nothing.” The writer views things differently and describes the great silence of the hills – they welcome her into that silence. I think about how beautiful it is and how happy I am. Then I think how strange it is – how strange that I should be so happy sitting up her in the silent golden morning with nothing in my diary for the next fortnight and no one coming and me going nowhere. I find myself trying to think through the story of how I came to be here and why I want to be here.
I have lived a very noisy life. As a matter of fact we all live very noisy lives.
That was at the beginning. She then had to persuade her family and friends it was not a passing whim, her phone would only be on at certain times, she needed to make space for mediation and prayer, walking, looking and listening to the silence. She wanted to understand why silence is seen as an absence – and a dangerous absence. We all know about a hostile silence, an ominous silence, and of people silenced by being forbidden to speak their mother tongue. The calm before the storm.
In the beginning God spoke – silence is oppression. It is the word that calls forth the world into being and is the beginning of freedom. Silences wait, they wait to be broken.
In search of silence on a Sunday morning? Try the Quakers. Probably not a celebratory service in a cathedral. At the end of one such service the organist began to play a really loud voluntary. A child put his hands over his ears and shouted over the music: ‘Does God have to be so noisy?’
God can do noisy: think earthquakes, thunder, lightning. As when Moses was on Mount Sinai when he experienced thunder, lightning, thick cloud, earthquake and noise like a trumpet. All spectacular – and very frightening - stuff. As the first reading from Kings reminds us, God presence can be accompanied by loud noise and grandeur, but it doesn’t have to be.
Elijah is sunk in misery and exhaustion. He’s been on the run from Jezebel. God does not ask him the most helpful question ever. ‘What are you doing here Elijah?’ His answer was a mixture of fidelity to God, but with a dollop of self-pity. ‘I alone am left.’ God communicates God’s presence in a way that Elijah would comprehend – not in a fanfare, but in the most ordinary, yet profound, silence. Not that silence is that ordinary.
We all imagine that we want peace and quiet – perhaps not the extent that we would up sticks and move to nothingness in Galloway. As a nation, we are seen to value privacy and certainly, in religious terms, think that the solitary and silent person is somehow more ‘authentic’ than the person who can’t stop talking – but we seldom go in search of silence. We romanticise it on the one hand and on the other feel that it is terrifying, dangerous to our mental health, a threat to our liberties and something to be avoided at all costs.
We talk to show that we are alive – and friendly. Coffee after church in silence would be a disaster.
Jesus dismissed the crowds and went up the mountain by himself to pray. Up to the traditional place of wind, earthquake and fire. Night passed and early in the morning he came down the mountain to the lake, the place of chaos. According to an ancient creation myth when God made the world and separated the dry land, God had to combat monstrous forces of chaos that lived in, or were identified with, the waters of the sea. A myth that is voiced in Psalm 8: O lord of hosts – you rule the raging of the sea – you crushed Rahab like a carcass – Rahab the personification of chaos.
We can’t trust the sea. God wrestled with the waters of chaos in Genesis and then in Exodus God went ahead of God’s people to lead them through the chaos, the sea, into freedom.
Jesus chose fisherman to be his followers, they came from the sea – the biblical place of chaos. Can we quite trust people who come from the sea? They have just a touch of chaos about them.
Early in the morning Jesus came walking towards his disciples on the lake. Like the Transfiguration that we celebrated last week, this story too gives us a glimpse of the divinity of God. God, who went ahead of God’s people to lead them through the Red Sea; God who has the power to walk on or through waves.
And God spoke, ‘Be of good cheer.’ Then we need to ignore the bad translation, it is I. The Greek is ego emi - I am - do not be afraid. I am. God said to Moses I am who I am.
Altogether quite exhausting readings, from earthquakes, wind and fire to silence. From chaos to calm. Listen out for the silence; God speaks, ‘Do not be afraid. I am.’
Sunday 6 August -The Transfiguration by Katharine Rumens
Luke 9: 28 – 36
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. 6th August seems a random date for such a significant episode in Jesus’ ministry. Especially with everyone away on holiday – surely nothing much happens at this time of year. Originally there was no fixed date for it – if you wanted to, you just got on and celebrated the Transfiguration whenever you liked – not that everyone did. In 1456 Hungary stopped an Ottoman invasion of the Balkans by breaking the Siege of Belgrade. News of the victory got to Rome on August 6. A victory for Christians; a defeat for Muslims. Pope Callixtus III marked the victory by making the Transfiguration a Feast day to be universally celebrated. Such are the long shadows of war and such is church history.
The transfigured Christ turns his blazing face towards disfigurement and certain death in Jerusalem in the hands of his enemies. The most unambiguous revelation of Jesus as Messiah before the Resurrection. A contemporary collect for today puts it like this: Christ, our only true light, before whose bright cloud your friends fell to the ground: we bow before your cross that we may remember those who fell like shadows and that we may refuse to be prostrated before the false brightness of any other light looking to your power alone.
Today is also Hiroshima Day. It is 72 years since the final stages of World War II when in 1945 the United States dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and three days later on Nagasaki. The bombs were dropped with the consent of the United Kingdom. People on the ground reported seeing a brilliant flash of light followed by a loud booming sound. Some 70,000–80,000 people, or around 30% of the population of Hiroshima, were killed by the blast and resultant firestorm, and another 70,000 injured. Perhaps as many as 20,000 Japanese military personnel were killed.
Today there are permanent shadows in Hiroshima, caused by the intensity of the nuclear blast. The transfigured Christ turns his blazing face towards disfigurement and certain death. 72 years ago people on the ground saw brilliant light – there are uneasy links to be made between the two commemorations. And what they can teach us today – in our personal lives and in the life of our nation.
Last weekend there were commemorations of the start 100 years ago of the 3 months I week and 3 days of the living hell of Passchendaele. 700,000 German and allies dead – fighting for 5 miles of land. Ploughboys, poets and plumbers. The shop assistants and factory workers, the dearly loved, the desperate, the courageous, the terrified. You did not have to be on the winning side to suffer, to drown in mud, to hear the screams of the dying, to carry the wounded to safety, to say the last rites or to collect bodies for burial. And all those who returned but who lived in the valley of death for the remainder of their days.
A cloud came and overshadowed them and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. No voices speaking of love 100 years ago. Clouds of mustard gas used to demoralize, blind, injure, and kill. Once in the soil, mustard gas remained active for several days, weeks, or even months, depending on the weather conditions. Fatally injured victims sometimes took four or five weeks to die of mustard gas exposure.
The bright cloud which caused your friends to fall to the ground – coughing and vomiting. The transfigured Christ turns his blazing face towards disfigurement and certain death in Jerusalem in the hands of his enemies. The disfigurement of war which is brought to mind because of the day of the year – an Ottoman Invasion of 1456, Hiroshima 1945 or the centennial commemorations of the slaughter in the First World War.
Events that may have played their part in our own family history as they have played their part in the history of this country and the world. Dates that lead us back to the Tranfiguration with its dazzling brightness and cloud that overshadows everyone.
May we refuse to be prostrated before the false brightness of any other light looking to the power of God alone.
We are told that Peter has got it wrong – OK he wants to hang on to the experience, which is not an option, but what has just happened up the mountain is of such important that he wants to mark it. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master it is good for us to be her; let us make three dwellings – or booths – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’ – not knowing what he said.
It’s a more sensible reaction than we are lead to think. Peter speaking out of his religious experience as a Jew. Three dwellings – as in the tradition of sukkot – the Jewish festival of "booths." The temporary huts that farmers lived in during harvesting and reminiscent of the dwellings that the Israelites lived in during their 40 years in the wilderness.
Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven and the angels of God ascending and descending. He woke and early in the morning he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and called that place Bethel – that is House of God. We need to make our mark on the landscape.
There are no booths or stones in Stoke Hammond Bucks, Langton Herring Dorset or Tellisford, Somerset. There are no memorials on the village green to those who lost their lives in the trenches 100 years ago. These are three of the thirty-two Thankful Villages in England and Wales. All those who left to fight in that war came home again.
Put St Peter on the war graves commission. How else will we remember those who turned their faces towards disfigurement and certain death? It is a good instinct. Our memorials are historical touchstones linking the past to the present and allow us to remember and respect those who died, fought, participated or were affected by conflict. That we might remember and learn.
Where Peter got it wrong is that it is fine for history but cannot begin to serve our experience of God’s presence in our lives. The disciples will go down from the mountain, they will travel with Jesus to Jerusalem. We live in the here and now, the ordinary – but lamps do shine in dark places, the day dawns and the morning star does rise in our hearts.
We can’t conjure up monuments to the radiance of God and glimpses of heaven. Amen.
Sunday 9th July 2017, Fourth Sunday after Trinity
– Laying down your burdens…by Catherine Shelley
Zechariah – 9:9-12
Romans 7:15-25 - I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want…
Matthew 11: 16-19 & 25-end – condemnation of John as demon possessed and Jesus glutton and drunk – but come to me you who are heavy burden
St Paul, it is thought, has a lot to answer for in terms of the legacy of the Christian churches and neurosis about the body… and physical and practical things…. He’s been blamed for Augustine's and hence Christianity's alleged obsession with sex – and for other anxieties linked to body and mind dualism – like obsessions with the weight and shape of our bodies and the values that class professional and intellectual occupations more highly than the plumber, the cleaner or the carer. And today’s reading from Romans is a good example, apparently, of that neurosis… that divides body from mind and exalts the mind whilst condemning the body.
Yet it is not entirely fair to blame Paul for he was simply a product of his own upbringing and education system, which was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy’s body/mind and body/soul dualisms. And to be fair to Greek philosophy – they weren’t the only human society or worldview to prioritise the mind and a spirituality divorced from the body – over a more holistic view of human existence.
Hindu philosophy – particularly the Brahminic tradition - created a similar hierarchy with the philosophers and spiritual people at the top of the tree; princes and warriors next, down to the dalits, the untouchables who did jobs like street cleaning.
YET to read today’s passage from Romans as simply a condemnation of the body is to over-simplify it for whilst Paul was formed in Greek philosophy he was also at his core a Jew, with a solid pedigree of upholding the Jewish faith, even down to his initial persecuting of the upstart and dangerous Christians. So this passage from Romans is best understood not from our dualistic Greek-heritage culture but from a Jewish understanding, profoundly steeped in the law.
It is the law that Paul is wrestling with, far more than his body… Paul, like Jesus, has grown up as a good Jewish boy – observing the 613 commandments that govern all aspects of life - the law is what people are judged against and limited by – and Paul finds that a real problem because it means that people who care about their faith are bowed down with trying to be the best observers of the law. They are focused on the law and getting it right – which tends to cause problems – firstly, observing the law takes the place of listening to God.
Observing the law is also observation of how I am obeying the law – the focus on self at the expense of God. Thirdly, because we are Oh, so human – we can get competitive about it – I’m better at observing the law than you are and those who aren’t doing so well are looked down on both those who don’t observe the law because they don’t care and those who do care but can’t afford it. Religion can be expensive, what with temple taxes, tithing and alms-giving which also becomes competitive.
There are also those whose circumstances mean they can’t always observe the law whether that’s because they are shepherds who have to work on the Sabbath or a woman whose marriage has broken down because her husband has gone for a younger model and left her destitute.
Using the law to condemn and look down those who don't observe it to the letter or who interpret it differently is exactly what happened to John and Jesus, as we see in today's Gospel. John the Baptist is condemned as possessed because he observed the law too strictly, 'neither eating, nor drinking' and Jesus is condemned for being too lenient about fasting, a glutton and a drunkard, as well as keeping the wrong sort of company with those beyond the pale and outside the law.
That is a dynamic that applies not just in Judaism or Christianity – but across society regardless of belief – because it is a human trait for ethics to become legalistic and in some senses self-protective or self serving, to draw lines between those who are in and those who are beyond the pale – of which the geography of the city of London and this church, 'without' Cripplegate - is a time honoured example.
However, at its heart the law symbolizes for Paul not just the limits of rules and regulations and the tendency to interpret some people within and others outside the law but also the limits of being human, the limits of being flesh and the limits of our capacity to be good or do good, because no matter our saintly intentions, we suffer from tiredness and lose our temper; or we feel hungry and go overboard by eating too much when we eventually find some food; or we are depressed or feel overwhelmed by work and seek refuge in alcohol as a treat to take our minds off life and its struggles; or we feel skint at the end of the month and so unable to give to the guy in the street who is begging and who we think should be out getting a job anyway – even though when we look in the Bible – as last week’s readings for Ordinations across the country reminded us – it says that we meet Jesus in those who are hungry, homeless, sick, in prison and in all sorts of need.
So Paul struggles, in what is a tussle and not a clearly thought-through, logical argument, with how to be obedient to the law, with how to deal with the limits of being human and yet also how to live fully and listen to God. Exploring – just as Jesus did – how to live in a God-given way and according to the Gospel, whilst also dealing with the practicalities of life that require something by way of agreed norms for living together and practicalities like earning a living, paying taxes, the mortgage or rent and ensuring that there is food on the table.
Neither Paul nor Jesus said ‘get rid of the law’ and neither Paul nor Jesus said ‘get rid of the body’ or ‘forget the practicalities of life’ – what they said - in summary, is that laws and taxes and practicalities are necessary but they do not define us - they are not the whole truth – or the whole of life. For our true life is in God and the heart of our life is God, who didn’t get rid of laws and practicalities but became human and embraced the fullness of life, including all those limiting things that Paul is struggling with. And He invites us, in the words of Jesus in today's Gospel, to come to Him - with our weariness and our heavy burdens - so that He who understands because He too has been there - can give you rest.
For God and fullness of life are woven in and through our burdens and yet transcendent beyond them - putting them in perspective and reminding us that the laws, limitations, practicalities and conflicts of our lives are not the final word, they need not define and limit us – and that can cast the burdens in a whole new light. We can go to God with them in prayer and we can share them within the body of Christ, God’s church and fellow human beings.
And I want to finish with an interesting example from my work this week:
The story involves a parish in which a long-standing member of the church with fingers in all sorts of pies within parish life had started some work to the church, without the authorization of the PCC or the faculty jurisdiction. The gentleman in question was somewhat forthright, to the extent that allegations of bullying have been made and when challenged by the vicar he clobbered him. The police weren’t interested – they are in a part of the country with an overstretched police force thanks to recent terrorist attacks. The Archdeacon sought advice… she and the vicar felt somewhat burdened.
We could have thrown the book at the gentleman with the quick fists – insisting that the law in the form of the police be involved to get him prosecuted or injuncted but that would have taken a while, probably made matters worse and almost certainly driven him out of the church and beyond the pale. In the end we managed to negotiate a safeguarding agreement, to which the gentleman in question has consented and got a Consistory Court injunction to stop the works to the church whilst things were investigated.
The process enabled all parties to share their burdens; the parishioner was passionately concerned for the church he had attended since childhood, he thought the vicar was being legalistic and too slow to get the works done and he wasn’t the only parishioner concerned. The vicar and Archdeacon shared the challenges of overseeing a process that is sometimes long-winded and frustrating but provides necessary safeguards.
That sharing of hopes and fears, burdens and common concern for the church helped all involved to recognize that they were not really at odds but all wanted the same thing at the end of the day – which was to build the church as part of building the kingdom, transforming their respective burdens into something that looked much more like the kingdom than when they started.
Sunday 4 June Pentecost by Catherine Shelley
As some of you are aware I am running for Parliament, so it’s a real luxury to have a whole ten minutes to speak this morning, instead of the hustings challenge of cramming an entire manifesto into 90 seconds and a few sound bites. Don’t worry, I’m not going to regale you with the Green Party manifesto; but instead will be exploring Pentecost, which we celebrate today.
Though the idea of celebrating in the wake of another terror attack last night – less than a mile away – might not feel quite what we’d like to do this morning.
Pentecost marks the feast of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the festival of tongues and fire and a whole lot of strange behavior that might be thought to be very un-Anglican! That it was all a bit weird – people suddenly breaking out into lots of different languages – is shown by Peter’s comment to the assembled onlookers, which I have to confess is one of my favourite lines in the Bible – because it seems so timeless:
‘Men of Judea, and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you….. these are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only 9 o clock in the morning…’
At first sight it must have struck chords with the story in Genesis 11 of the Tower of Babel; the confusion of tongues – a bit like the leaders’ debate that was screened the other evening. The very name Babel comes from the Hebrew ‘balal’ to jumble or confuse. By contrast – despite the surface similarity – in the case of Pentecost, the tale of tongues is one of clarity. For the languages are not confused – and each visitor to Jerusalem, the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, Libyan Cyreneand visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs suddenly heard themselves addressed by uneducated blokes, fishermen and the like, from Galilee of all places – and they were understood.
It is the experience of Pentecost as tongues and fire and dramatic disruption that cannot be rationally explained, which today’s charismatic and Pentecostalist movements are largely inspired by and they have done much good work to celebrate and try to recapture that dramatic Pentecost experience of the Holy Spirit. They are movements and expressions of Christianity that have brought much good in terms of developing Christian fervor and commitment.
I had a little experience of it when still a Roman Catholic through something called the New Dawn movement, Roman Catholic charismatics – partly, I have to confess, because of the involvement of someone I was seriously in love with at the time. I never got the gift of tongues but I have been slain in the spirit – which is a strangely peaceful experience – and all the more spirit-filled for being completely inexplicable in rational terms.
However, that is not the only expression of the Holy Spirit or the only interpretation of Pentecost, for far from being the chaotic, strange tongue that is experienced as the gift of tongues in some circles today – which generally requires interpretation -
Pentecost saw the gift of language transcending national differences – it was a time of communion and of greater understanding.
And it is that understanding of the gift of tongues and the Holy Spirit that I want to explore a bit more. As well as contrasting the day and event of Pentecost with the events at the Tower of Babel, it is interesting to compare the rush of wind, fire and tongues with the way that the Holy Spirit is breathed on the disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading.
It is one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples and he simply commissions them by saying ‘peace be upon you, as the Father sent me so I send you’ and then he breathed on them… It may seem a bit strange to be breathed on but this reflects the fact that the beautiful Hebrew word ‘Ruach” is both spirit and breath just as the Greek “pneuma” is both spirit and breath…
This is a gentler, quieter, sharing of the Holy Spirit – and a reminder that as well as the noisy, dramatic, public arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the spirit also arrives and is breathed on us in much quieter moments of empowering and sending. Jesus’ breathing of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is a commissioning in the gift of the Holy Spirit, something we replicate when we celebrate Confirmation.
As well as receiving the Holy Spirit, we also discern the spirit’s work through its fruits – as described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians – love, joy, peace, forebearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It is this understanding, experience and discernment of the Holy Spirit that is explored by spiritual writers.
We are all called to consider what the Holy Spirit is doing, where the Holy Spirit is at work and play in our own lives and Christian journeys and spiritual writings are the fruits of that exploration by people who have been particularly gifted at discerning what the Holy Spirit us up to in their own lives and often guiding others in that exploration.
So John of the Cross explores the experience of the dark night of the soul… a profoundly spiritual experience of growing more deeply in the trust of God even though the presence of God and the spirit seem to be absent
Theresa of Avila – whose vision of the soul as a castle with many mansions through which it is our task to journey – is a spiritual classic and two of her phrases that I particularly enjoy are:
“Accustom yourself continually to many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul” and
“To reach something good it is very useful to have gone astray and thus to acquire experience”
The 19th CE mystic Evelyn Underhill writes of love as “the "budding point" – the first fruit of the spirit from which all the other fruits come, drawing on 1 John 4:16, "God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.”
But the writer and explorer who developed one of the most extensive explorations of the discernment of the spirits was St Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuits. It is his understanding of the work of the spirit through consolation and desolation that I find particularly helpful. There can be a tendency to equate the spirit with simple emotions and those fruits listed earlier have an emotional component but the work of the spirit is not simply an emotional response – nor do consolation and desolation simply follow the fortunes of our lives.
For we can be horrifically bereaved and yet in our grieving find out more about the love of God and fellow human beings than we ever did in the times when things were going well. And we can be apparently successful and surrounded by the fruits of that success, yet ill at ease and cut off from God and our fellow human beings
So this morning as we recoil from the impact of another horrific, shocking and depressing act of terrorism in London I want to leave you with two examples which illustrate the spirit of consolation and work of the Holy Spirit in the face of atrocity.
The first is an interview on today’s Sunday programme with a surgeon who was involved in operating on children following the Manchester attacks. He talked of the tiredness, the pressure of the work, the horror of the incident and injuries to the children and yet, reflecting on the experience he concluded – ‘I think it has made me a better person….’
The second is what happened as I was walking to church from Blackfriars station this morning. On the train I had met a young atheist, understandably angry about the attack on London Bridge last night. He was ready to pick a fight with religion and seeing my dog collar decided I would do as the symbol of religion to pick a fight with. As we walked from Blackfriars to St Paul’s he continued to rubbish religion and sound off about the attacks, seeking support for his arguments from passers-by.
Walking up Ludgate Circus we came across a young man sitting in the street crying; he had been on London Bridge last night and had seen people stabbed; he was in shock. We listened as he poured out his grief and horror and then irritation with the angry young atheist. He didn’t know what he believed, his parents were Catholic and he was wearing a cross; he was happy to believe that Jesus was a good guy but unsure about God. Yet he was angry with the atheist for blaming religion for the atrocity; alienation not Islam was at the heart of the violence on London Bridge.
As a survivor of the events on the bridge he had the moral high ground; the tone of the conversation changed and by the time we reached St Paul’s tube station peace had broken out and we agreed that the only way to face what had happened on London Bridge and in Manchester was to seek to allow love not hate to win. Love and peace as the fruits of the spirit transcended the anger and the very different viewpoints from which we had started.
These two stories I believe are the fruit of the spirit – that is God at work in our world – even in the face of horror and tragedy and inhumanity. I hope you too can take some inspiration from them and find something of the fruits of the spirit in your life this Pentecost, despite the events of last night.
Where to visit us:-
St Giles' Cripplegate Church
London EC2Y 8DA
Registered Charity Number 1138077
Services and church opening hours
08.00 Holy Communion (First Sunday in the month)
16.00 Evening Prayer
Evening Prayer may be cancelled on the Sunday after Christmas and on Easter Day or during August. The service may also be cancelled if no key holder is available or it may take place in the rectory instead.
08.30 Morning Prayer (Monday-Thursday)
Monthly Private Prayer and Reflection
These sessions are held on the first Thursday of the month., from 13.00-13.30.
Future Dates, 13 December
These sessions are normally held on the first Thursday of the month from 13.30-15.00. Some gentle cleaning and tea and cakes at the end.
Future Dates, 13 December
The church is normally open from 11.00-16.00 Monday to Friday.
Dates of future PCC meetings in church at 19.30
Tuesday 20 November
Parish Office Opening Hours
Tel: 020 7638 1997