Sunday 12 February 3 Before Lent by Katharine Rumens
Ecclesiasticus 15: 15 – end and Matthew 5: 21 – 26
If you were wondering what secret of a successful life is, we got the answer last week: Tim Cook chief executive of Apple was speaking to students and advised them not to fall in love with profits or revenues and instead to concentrate on finding something that they felt passionately about.
We are not told what the students thought about that – how else are they going to pay off their student loans unless they get rich – isn’t passion a bit of a luxury when there are bills to pay?
Tim Cook said, ’My advice to all of you is: don’t work for money – it will wear out fast, or you’ll never make enough ever to be happy. You have to find the intersection of doing something you’re passionate about and at the same time something that is in the service of other people.
Interestingly under Cook's leadership Apple has increased its donations to charity, and the philosophy of the company is to leave the world a better place than when we found it. Good virtuous stuff.
What do we know about Tim Cook? Very little really - he is by nature a solitary and Wikipedia tells us that he was baptised as a Baptist – that is as an adult not as an infant. Baptists explain that baptism is a very special moment on the journey of faith. It is a moment when God's presence and blessing meets us – we agree with all that – but for them it is a moment when we make our personal commitment of faith in Jesus as Lord. Not the parents and godparents speaking on behalf of the child, but the individual speaking for themselves. That’s what Tim Cook has done. He has made the conscious choice to stand on God’s side.
‘If you choose’ says the writer of Ecclesiasticus – one of the wisdom books of the bible. Prophecy had come to an end, the revelation of God was now recorded in a series of sayings. We very rarely get to hear a reading from this or any other book in the Apocrypha on a Sunday morning which contains books enticingly called Susanna or ‘Bel and the Dragon.’
The author of Ecclesiasticus sets down the choices that face us all. You choose, life or death. And don’t blame Eve, or the snake when you mess things up. It’s your choice.
In the collect we prayed:
Eternal God, give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.
Don’t fix your heart on money - it will wear out fast, or you’ll never make enough ever to be happy. Choose to fix your heart on true joy.
We’ve got a bit of a breathing space – two and a half weeks before we really need to get down to the heart-fixing time of Lent. Our preparations for Lent may be just be a couple of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday if we have remembered to buy the lemons. The weather is grim and grey – we’ve had too much sofa. Life is a bit pan-cakey - fatty and a bit flat. Do some early spring cleaning, have a clear out - make some choices.
Up the mountain, Jesus put it this way. You shall not murder – that’s the law, but I say to you… and he makes it harder. As a theologian provocatively says, Jesus comes across as a fanatic having a rant and as a consequence has been ignored by Christians ever since.
When Jesus called his society together he gave its members a new way of life to live. He gave them a new way to deal with offenders – by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence – by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money – by sharing it. He gave them a new way to deal with problems of leadership – by drawing upon the gifts of every member – however humble. He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society – by building a new order, not smashing the old. He gave them a new pattern of relationship.
And a new way of following the law which begins with the attitude that can lead to appalling actions. Anger can lead to murder, road rage can kill. Desdemona dies because Othello is eaten up with the anger of a jealous husband.
I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow. (William Blake)
So stop now. Name your anger. ‘When you are offering your gifts at the altar’…..The duty of reconciliation takes precedence even over duties commanded by God in temple worship. Meeting the one who has wronged us, or the one we have wronged is far harder than just following the letter of the law. Those difficult conversations as the ones managed by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa twenty years ago. Difficult conversations which need to go on the whole time if wrath is not to grow out of control; if reconciliation is going to be possible.
Anyone can follow the rules – that’s the easy part to offer turtle doves, a bull, a sheep or a goat – as required by the law. Anyone looking on would assume I was a good and devout believer doing the right thing. They are not to know I have unfinished business. It wouldn’t show. Who would know?
Jesus challenges members of the church to confront those whom we think have sinned against us. ‘If you are angry.’ He does not say that if we think we have been wronged we might consider confronting the one we believe has done us wrong. Jesus tells us we must do it because the wrong is not against us, but against the body, that is, the whole holiness of the church is at stake. ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’
As is revealed almost weekly in the press: holiness is at stake because of the abuse of children and young people, because of violence against the vulnerable, and hidden lies lived by those in positions of power. Distressingly the list goes on.
And for ourselves? If you choose. As we look ahead to Lent, perhaps a question to ask ourselves is what can I do about what makes me angry? Which is probably quite enough to keep us going for 40 days and 40 nights.
Sunday 5 February 4 Before Lent by Katharine Rumens
It is probably not a good idea when being sized up for a job to risk being witty. The archdeacon, the rector and I were the kitchen sorting out coffee before the interview. There was general chat about holidays – and I said I thought that camping was a cry for help. I did not know at the time that in the summer holidays the archdeacon’s and rector’s families regularly went camping together in France.
The wisdom of the campers’ lifestyle choice was confirmed this week by scientists who maintain that a weekend’s camping can improve your health. Almost one in ten of those interviewed said they went camping to get some ‘alone time’. I thought that was interesting – not ‘me’ time - going to the gym, having a pedicure, catching up on a box set with a bag of crisps. But ‘alone time’.
Out there watching the seasons change and the sun set – alone – perhaps in the company of others – but not crowded out by distractions. Withdrawing to make space for ‘Alone time.’ As that line from the Desert Fathers: sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. It’s finding the grace to stay still and letting the Holy Spirit reveal everything to you.
On each of these four remaining Sundays before Lent the gospel reading will take us up a mountain. Three extracts are from the Sermon on the Mount, as today, and the Sunday before Lent we are on the Mountain of the Transfiguration. Mountains – encounters with God, places of revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the temptations of Jesus, ‘Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world.’ (Matt 4:8)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and began to speak…you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.
The previous chapter of Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus should have been going – was it really in the scheme of things for him to be hanging around. Didn’t he have a job to do? Just as he was about to get going, news reached him that John the Baptist had been arrested. Not good news, if this is what happens to the one who goes before, what will happen to the one who follows? What does Jesus do? He withdraws to Galilee. Alone time big time. Since the beginning, since a star rose in the east for the magi there have been constant withdrawals in this story. The magi withdrew and returned to their country by another way; Joseph withdrew with his wife and child to Egypt and later to Nazareth. Now Jesus too must withdraw. He won’t escape suffering, but he will not seek it.
Jesus withdrew to Galilee – there he began to preach proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. His fame spread. Great crowds followed him. ‘When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;’ which should – according to scripture - be the place of solitude – when Moses climbed Mount Sinai he wasn’t followed by a mob demanding his attention.
And the first verses of the sermon are the famous blessings: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn…. then ‘You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world’. You are, you know.
Peter Hall’s autobiography is called, ‘Making an exhibition of myself.’ We can imagine this is a misquotation of what an exasperated grown up said to him as a child. Don’t make an exhibition of yourself. Stop showing off. Simmer down and read a book quietly, otherwise I shall get cross.
Only rude, badly brought up children want to be the centre of attention. Ironic really that for much of his life, both professionally and privately, Peter Hall was in the limelight.
Jesus tells the people to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world - not for their personal need for attention and affirmation – perhaps nothing more than showing off which even grown-ups are capable of. This is about our participation in God’s work in the world. That is the glory; that is what give life and light through and to ourselves and others.
Jesus does not say to the crowd, do remember to put your lamp under a bushel basket. On grounds of health and safety alone we don’t want you to dazzle us by your brilliance. No, says Jesus. Shine out. Bathe the world in light.
On Monday, the PCC revised our Mission Action Plan – we’re still working on it. It’s on the website – have a look at it, let us know if there are things to be added, or changes to be made. We have lit our lamp. Now for that lampstand. One of our five points is ‘We look outwards’, and we mainly do so through supporting charities – like the foodbank collections four times a year. We do not stand outside Waitrose with a big sign saying ‘Members of St Giles’ putting the gospel into action – look at us and be impressed’. We do not put a sticker on every tin donated saying ‘from a collection organised by practising Christians.’ That would be making an exhibition of ourselves. We just do it.
Being the light of the world is not about tagging a spiritual tract on at the end of an action. Those who need foodbanks are not preached at, given a bible passage to learn, told to repent. Being the light of the world is communicating the good news that shapes our thoughts and words and deeds – sometimes this will be explicit. More often it will be implicit – actions that communicate that God is love.
Sometimes the food bank collections go to the Dunloe Centre in Haggerston run by St Saviour’s Priory. Once a week people who live on the streets and refugees are given a hot meal and a supply of food and toiletries. Sister Elizabeth runs it. She was asked by one young man why he felt so much love when he came to collect his ration of food. Elizabeth is a Godly and wise woman. She said you have to remember it was bought in love, collected in love, sorted in love and we give it to you in love. There is a chain of love making all this possible.
“Prayerful lives, deeds of mercy, gentle listening to the needs of others: these are God’s beacons, a chain of light across the world which human eyes may see and as a result be lifted above the doubt and despair which can engulf us”.
Perhaps we need alone time to think about all that.
29 January 2017 Candlemas by Katharine Rumens
Luke 2: 22 – 40
I had Mary by the throat and one of the magi by the feet. A North American visitor in church last Saturday afternoon looked bewildered as I set the figures in place in front of the altar. ‘Why have you still got it out? We take ours down on 6 January (clearly indicating that that is the correct time to do it). I have never seen a crib left in place for so long.’
He gave me that look of pity and despair that other parts of the Anglican Communion reserve for those of us who live on Planet Church of England.
I said the figures which journeyed along the window sills in Advent would be in position till Candlemas – today – when we celebrate the presentation of Christ by his parents in the Temple. A good conclusion to the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. Unlike the world which is happy to move onto winter sales and Easter Eggs on 26 December we hang on in there for the full forty days.
By now he admitted that Christ Church Oxford and also St Paul’s Cathedrals have still got their cribs out – perhaps we are not all wrong. He then asked if there was anything interesting to see in the church: not our easiest or most appreciative visitor.
Candlemas, one feast day and several names: the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus.
Purification which derived from the book of Leviticus: a woman was considered ceremonially unclean for forty days after the birth of a male child, and for eighty days after the birth of a female child. The astonishing events surrounding the birth - angel song and stars, all that treasure in her heart and yet Mary conforms in a down to earth way to the requirements of her religion. She didn’t say, ‘I don’t think I’ll bother with all that.’
And the Presentation only goes to show at one level, how dead ordinary Mary and Joseph were. An ordinary Jewish family doing what everyone else did. Two modest, humble parents from lower down Judean society come inconspicuously into the Temple to perform their duty according to the Law of Moses. They did not try to use their angelic messages as a way of getting round their religious duty.
Today we mark two Jewish ceremonies which in the past 750 years have been associated with Candlemas – the Christianisation of Imboic, the Celtic celebration of the end of winter in honour of Bigid the goddess of purification and fertility. Peasants would carry torches and go through the fields in procession, offering prayers to purify the ground before planting. May the harvest not fail this year.
Tame that by bringing it into church and the torches were replaced by candles symbolising Christ the light of the world. The people would then take the candles away to bring protection to their homes.
We wouldn’t buy that now. Mere candlelight - which so easily flickers and goes out - as protection, when what is needed is good insurance, a burglar alarm, security gates, shutters, padlocks, locks and keys, and of course a high fence. Then we are protected. Then we feel safe.
The trouble with great art is that it gets in the way of how we are able to visualise Bible stories afresh. I can’t get rid of Rembrandt’s depiction of the presentation of Jesus – great sweeps of shadow in huge architectural space. Real drama. Mary, Joseph, Anna and Simeon holding the baby are bathed in great light. Behind them a crowd on steps – some praying, some tourists, giving the feel of an immense building. A small patch of light in the immensity of the darkness.
It is a bit like Luke’s narrative – flicks of paint, hints of highlight; look carefully into the shadows to see what is going on here. An ordinary ceremony marked by strange happenings. Hints about Simeon and Anna, they are not clergy or even religious leaders. Two small cameos in the momentous events. Devout old people who found new wonder in the familiar setting of the Temple. All that patient waiting. (Hang on in there all you who despair at the slow – oh so slow revolving of Planet Church of England). Did the voice of doubt ever whisper in Anna and Simeon’s ear, ‘It’s waste of time you know, you’ll never live to see it.’ Give up and go home – everyone will understand.
Two more people give their evidence that the birth of Jesus was of exceptional significance. At least they make more reliable witnesses than shepherds down from the hills. It is an odd collection of people who notice the possibility of what’s going on.
Simeon is ready to die. He has made his peace with the idea of dying ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace.’ I trust when my time comes I too will have the faith to make my peace with my death.
All those years spent looking forward to fulfilment in ways that we can measure: exams taken, career prospects explored, a comfortable income with a lifestyle to match. There gets a point when it seems rude to ask, what are your plans now? Do we expect nothing more of the elderly than that they look back over their lives and share their memories of the past – when they were healthier, more energetic, more powerful – more like us?
In the darkness do we see the inner light of old age? The glory that is hidden in the human soul and surpasses death. It is never too late to see the glory of God. We believe that death is not the end but a new beginning.
In the Temple Simeon finds a tune and Anna’s lyric ecstasy sings out as the shadowed colonnades fill with the bright melody which all nations will come to sing. (Mary, Zechariah, the angels and shepherds and Simeon: they just can’t stop singing their hearts out in these first two chapters of Luke.)
You could say that all leave taking has an element of dying. Going away and saying goodbye can make us sad. Will we meet again? How changed will we be next time we see each other? Today we say goodbye to Jennie as our Assistant Priest – as on Thursday we say goodbye to Richard our bishop. We do not expect to see you again. Our paths will cross and we look forward to your visiting us from time to time during the year – of keeping in touch. We look back over the journey we have shared together these past six years with great thanks. Jennie, as you go on your way may the glory of God shine through you and Amy to lighten the world.
8 January Epiphany by Katharine Rumens
Matthew 2: 1 – 12
In Alan Bennet’s play The History Boys a bright young teacher arrives at the Grammar School to teach the small group of pupils preparing for the Oxbridge entrance exam. They have been thoroughly taught, their essays are competent but predictable and so dull. The new teacher tells them their work must stand out – surprise the examiners. Argue that Stalin was sensitive, Hitler was home loving, Mussolini was misunderstood etc. Tell it a new way see it through a different lens. Be different. Make it interesting. Shine on paper. Then you will be accepted and get a place – as we know they were. It worked.
In the time of King Herod. His father Antipater had appointed
him governor of Galilee in 47 BCE, when he about 25 or 28 – that is he was a bit younger than when Jesus began his ministry at the age of 30. 7 years later he was unexpectedly appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. Which would make him about the same age as Jesus was when he was crucified. Jesus who they also called king. ‘Over his head they put the charge against him which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’ A death which, at the time means nothing to Rome.
Herod is king only because it pleases the Romans to have him rule over this troublesome region peopled by equally troubling Judeans. He is useful to Rome. He would be very used to getting presents from those in search of favours and of disappearing those who caused him trouble. Lots of people bowed down to him every day of his life. It comes with being king.
Modern scholars agree Herod suffered throughout his lifetime from depression and paranoia. This is not a healthy combination in our leaders. He introduced security measures to supress the contempt his people, especially Jews, had towards him. It has been suggested that he used secret police to monitor and report the feelings of the general populace towards him. He had a bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers.
At the end of his reign, anger and dissatisfaction were common amongst the Jews. It is so easy to create a climate of fear. Fear of the other. Fear of the unknown. So says Herod: if you do not like my rule, if you do not obey me, you will find you like the direct rule of the Romans even less. Better the devil you know. Jerusalem fears. Herod’s rule is made possible because the fear of those he rules makes Herod’s rule seem necessary. ‘He is the only one who has got what it takes to be our leader in these troubled times,’ they said. The historian Josephus stated that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho, and he gave an order that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place. It didn’t turn out like that - not so much grief as violence – riots followed Herod's death in many cities, including Jerusalem. All the built-up grievances against him were unleashed. The injustices and fears of all the years were met.
The magi – most unwisely – happen to be travelling at the very end of Herod’s reign. They enter a country of angry and dissatisfied people. Herod’s fear of a mere baby reveals how precarious his rule, how fragile his authority.
History does not record that in private Herod displayed a completely different side to his character. He liked fluffy kittens, embroidering pin cushions and writing romantic poetry. The fact that his is considered a despot who, incidentally, killed his wife and two of his sons is an indication of the stress he under as he tries to reconcile the demands of Roman authorities with the needs of his people, the Jews.
Jesus, the eternal son of the father, is born in Herod’s time – a time of political cynicism. The people are frightened, they are frozen. It is a dark time.
There are no prizes for seeing darkness. Deadlines, debts, depression – January is here. Blue Monday is coming up. All those New Year resolutions so quickly abandoned.
Some days it seems as if darkness covers the whole earth – like it did right back in the beginning on the first day. Terrorists, tyrants, the global economy hanging by a thread, the rich getting richer, the poor paying the price, refugees pounding on doors locked against them, racism so entrenched we don’t even notice it.
Arise! Shine! Who can spot the light? The Epiphany story tells of these unwise travellers. Are they completely clueless? Do they learn nothing from the countries through which they pass? Have they listened to no travellers’ tales round the campfires at night? Has no local guide warned them to watch out for Herod – a nasty piece of work if ever I saw one, and the people scared silly?
It would appear that they have lived charmed existences removed from reality by wealth and privilege; those who remain oblivious to their surroundings and ignorant of the country find themselves in. So caught up are they in their star gazing, they don’t see the ground under their feet.
It is not good news for Herod that strangers appear believing a king has been born. He is no fool. He is an experienced leader – he has a reputation for being crafty – intrigue is a way of life – plot and counter-plot. With those bodyguards to make sure things go his way. He is frightened, but he knows what to do.
Add that to his list of better qualities – Herod is resourceful.
He calls together two groups of people who don’t always get on. The chief priests and the scribes: the intellectuals of the day educated to serve those in power. They tell him – quoting from scripture, ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah….from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ Jesus of Bethlehem has been born.
The magi are helped by this most unlikely of sources. Herod gives the travellers the answer. Not Jerusalem but Bethlehem. Yet Herod doesn’t get on his horse and gallop down there to see for himself. It’s only 5.5 miles – he could be there in an hour. He trusts them. The travellers will return.
Without Herod the magi might not have found the one they were looking for.
Magi – schooled in the complexity of the world – see the mother and child – the timeless simplicity of new life and love. And then they go home – right back to where they came from.
A theologian writes: I think that religious people are often too good at sorting the good from the bad, the joy from the sadness, the beautiful from the ugly. We sort and separate, control and organise so as not to muddle or contaminate.
This is not Matthew’s way – nor his way of drawing us into the story. The crafty, the frightened, the intelligent, the naïve involved in the coming of the magi. We know life is wild and uncontrollable – it will go pear-shaped without warning. The light shines in the darkness. When we see it together, we see it whole.
4 December: 2 Advent 2016 by Katharine Rumens
Matthew 3: 1 – 12
This past week I have learnt more about Advent calendars and have discovered you can get them for grown-ups too: at the basic end with 24 scented candles, or the mid-price range - £12,500 will buy you the Wedgewood Advent House with an ornament behind every door; or at the extreme end - the super swank companies make advent calendars to represent their brand. Last year Porsche created a $1m monster, stuffed with watches, 18-carat gold sunglasses a yacht and other vulgar nonsense. As a journalist observed: There seems to be a dedicated advent calendar for every tedious individual you know.
How about putting advent back into advent calendars? It goes like this: the graphic designers have been brain storming and make a presentation to their clients. The clients’ brief is to throw out bling and return to the simplicity of robins and snow scenes, toy trumpets and a few stars. Perhaps even, to make it religious.
The designers have been thinking outside the box and come up with distinct weekly themes: so for week beginning 2nd Sunday of Advent they have hit upon John the Baptist. The graphics show their clients are: a view of a wilderness; a cameo of some camel’s hair clothing with a leather belt. The clients look confused. Some locusts: the clients look more confused – they are not a zoo; some wild honey – is there some Winnie the Pooh connection? a brood of vipers – that will not do at all; an axe at the root of a tree. Worse and worse. This is not what the clients had in mind at all. It is not on message. The designers are sacked.
We cannot even allude to the story of John the Baptist in the Advent Calendar – even for adults. It is not Christmassy at all.
You can see why. The end of the world is near, this conviction has driven John away from a world that is doomed to destruction. He chastises the people: ‘You brood of vipers.’ Don’t suppose that baptism is a magic ritual by which you can safeguard yourselves against God’s anger. Something will have to change inside – and people know trees by their fruits. Bad trees bad fruit. Chop them down, they are rotten.
The kingdom of God has come near, says John – bringing with it a new citizenship, a distinctive way of life.
It all happened in those days. Such a vague beginning. What days? All those questions: How long is it since Joseph moved the family to Nazareth? What has it been like for John and Jesus to grow up? What brings Jesus to Judea? Why might Jesus consider undergoing the baptism of John?
We are not told; these details are not interesting to the authors of the gospels. The sudden appearance of John the Baptist reminds us that in those days is God’s time. The world evolving in God’s time. Our lives unfolding in God’s time.
God’s people had to face death as they walked across on dry land between the walls of water. John calls the people to face death – look at the axe at the root of the trees – they must face death in order that they might live. Repentance is about the life and death of the people of Israel. Repentance the call to live again as God’s holy people. Repentance is not to feel bad but to think differently.
I got a message from one of the canons at St Paul’s. For the first time in 20 years the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt was to be displayed at the cathedral at the end of November. She was looking for churches willing to display one or more of the panels on the first weekend in December. Were we interested? I said yes.
The quilt tells the stories of more than 300 people who died in the early epidemic of the 1980’s and 90’s. “Behind each panel is a profoundly moving story of the courage of each person who died in the early years of HIV/AIDS in this country, and the enduring love of partners, families and friends who continue to remember them. Amongst the lives remembered are writer Bruce Chatwin, artist/film maker Derek Jarman, actor Ian Charleson and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
"As we honour their memory, may we continue to work and pray for those worldwide living with HIV/AIDS today, for their right to treatment and care, dignity and respect.”
Yesterday Judith and I met with a team from the Memorial Quilt project making a film for churches and congregations. Judith was able to speak about the work of Help4HurtingChildren and society attitudes in Uganda and the devastation of communities by the disease. I said that I had agreed to hang the panels because St Paul’s is our cathedral and it is good to have tangible links between the cathedral and its churches, there was not too much going on this weekend, we might learn something from having them.
They do make us think: How have attitudes changed in this country in the twenty or so years since the quilt was made? Who is proclaiming what to whom? Who are our prophetic voices today? Who or what changes our minds – perhaps out there in the wilderness? In territory we do not usually go into?
Two of the names on the panels are the actor Denholm Elliott who was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and died of AIDS-related tuberculosis at his home on Ibiza, in 1992 aged 70. On his death tributes were paid by Donald Sinden, Peter Ustinov, Dennis Potter and Virginia McKenna. His widow set up a charity and worked closely with the UK Coalition of People Living with HIV and AIDS.
The other man we know less about. He is named simply as Michael. “Michael, you last name is sewn under the strip. Perhaps one day your family with relearn their pride in you and allow it to be shown. Until then you will be known by these last names: Michael the class act; Michael the kind; Michael the smile; Michael the missed.”
On the second Sunday of Advent we hear again John the Baptist’s call to repentance. Repentance the call to live again as God’s holy people. Repentance is not to feel bad but to think differently as we trust that Michael’s family now think differently and have revealed his last name – although not yet on the quilt.
27 November : Advent 1 by Katharine Rumens
Matthew 24: 36 – 44
It’s Advent Sunday and time to get out your Advent Calendar – not that it works out tidily if you do start by opening the first door today. With the standard 24 doors, you’d get to the last picture a few days before Christmas Day and in calendar time Christmas would be over before it had begun. They are not so much Advent, but rather December calendars – but it is interesting that the name Advent has stuck.
I remember the excitement of getting an Advent Calendar when I was a child. Each day there was a new door to open. I do not remember being that impressed by the pictures that were revealed behind the doors – a star, a toy trumpet, a Christmas tree – they were the same as last year’s calendar although the picture on the front - a variation on the holy family, angels, shepherds and so on were different. All good Christmassy stuff: Advent, after all, is the only great season of the church year that does not have its own distinctive images – although traditionally the themes are the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. But you wouldn’t want to have to have to look at that lot on the front of your calendar in the run up to Christmas.
Rather the delight of the Advent Calendar was the anticipation of what would be hidden behind each day’s door, and knowing that you would spoil the surprise if you started picking and peeping the doors yet to be opened. Opening a new door each day – almost worth getting up for.
We now have the year-round crème egg, but I don’t know of any other countdown calendars on the market. It seems that an Advent Calendar is just for Advent – and for some reason appeals to wider audiences, not just people who go to church.
For quite a few reasons I am relieved not to be a late 5th Century Christian. Bishop Perpetuus of Tours, ordered fasting three days a week from the day after Saint Martin's Day (11 November). The following century local councils extended that to fasting on all days except Saturdays and Sundays from Saint Martin's Day to Epiphany - a period of 56 days - 40 days of which were fasting, like the fast of Lent. It was called Saint Martin's Lent and later Advent. We are no longer required to fast but it is retained as a season of penitence – or perhaps more realistically a season of reflection (if we make the time.) Traditionally dancing and similar festivities were forbidden as the days shorten which would put a dampener on the office party.
Not dancing, but today’s invitation in Isaiah is to come on a walk: ‘Come let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his path.’
There is a determined steadiness about this. To be walking, we have to have at least one foot on the ground at all times. Otherwise we wouldn’t be walking – but running – which we will come to next week. Walking involves keeping on keeping on, covering the ground steadily and rhythmically, staying in touch with the world. A metaphor for discipleship.
But plodding on does not make the headlines in a fast world.
On Friday, around £2bn is thought to have been spent in what has been described as the UK’s biggest-ever Black Friday. The future looks uncertain, time to buy a vacuum cleaner. I am apprehensive about world events, I’ll treat myself to a new TV and an iPad.
The spending on Friday was described as frenetic. Footfall in Oxford Street was up by 16% on last year; online retailers reported peak numbers of transactions between 7 and 8.00am as people were on their way to work. A building society said that customers spent around £85,000 per minute between midnight and 2pm. Black Friday kickstarts Christmas. Let’s not try to play catch up. Can we persuade ourselves to be different and take things slowly?
Rowan Williams writes: Advent is a good time to ask ourselves what we most deeply hope for, and also to ponder what God’s hope and purpose for us and our world might be. We can use it as a time to look inwards at our hopes and fears; to look outwards at a world in need of hope; and to look God-ward, confident in God’s love and commitment to the world.
If we are able to slow down, we can use Advent to anticipate Christmas with pleasure rather than panic. Although we may not impress our friends with our ready, steady slowness as we unwind our way through December – they might find it a bit too odd. Being busy is more easily understood.
Over the next weeks, we will be lighting candles – as later this afternoon at the Christingle service. Candlelight slows us down: I have quoted this before – it is a favourite passage from the novel Electricity by Victoria Glendinning.
What I do not care for about electric light is that is either on, or it is off. Where now are those long hours of half-light before the lamps were lit, those long, quiet passages between day and night? When, now do we have time to think, and to not think? In the dusk, we used to sit with our hands in our laps, no longer able to sew or read, waiting while the earth turned. Then the lamps were lit one by one, the brightness increasing gradually, leading us over the threshold of the evening. Advent. Today we step out on a journey. Let us tread slowly that, as the world turns, we may ponder the hope that lies within us and the hope that lies around us. God knows we need it. God with us.
30 October 16.00: All Souls’ by Katharine Rumens
Now the nights are drawing in and winter is approaching, it is hard to think back to long summers’ days - birdsong, the heat of the sun, the scent of flowers and the sound of children playing. A vanishing memory.
I took a break in June and went to stay with friends in Rome. Juliet and I have known each other since we were 6. We have a lot to catch up with when we meet. I find it hard to take in all that Roman history at once – if we go sightseeing we do picnics and quite a lot of sitting down.
One day we went looking for the Via Appia. We took a bus to the suburbs and then walked. It is one of the most famous ancient Roman roads. It was 350 miles long and stretched from the Roman Forum to modern day Brindisi in the south of Italy.
I don’t know how many miles of it still remain, but there on the outskirts of Rome we sat down in the shade by the side of the road. The slabs of paving stones, the avenue of trees either side – a straight Roman road stretching away into the distance. We sat down to rest in the shade. Among the tombstones with the skylarks for company.
This is where you chose to be buried, by the side of the road, so that travellers arriving at and leaving the most powerful city in the known world would see you name carved in stone and you would not be forgotten.
Your name lived on. The fact that you had been born, lived and died was on record for all to see. You would not be forgotten. Traveller read my name as you journey.
Today two thousand years later some of those names can still be read, though we have no idea who they were. The only thing we know about them is that they did not wish to be forgotten, their names to disappear from history.
Looking around the Columbarium yesterday I was struck by how often the words on the stones are ‘In loving memory’ – that death is not the end of loving someone. That when the lives of others are ended the loving continues and our memories are loving ones.
There carved in stone are names that toddlers, young children and their parents pass every day on their way to the nursery. I know that when we are placing ashes often you say to me that a name means something – she was a neighbour, a schoolfriend, he was a cousin, an uncle. Names carved in stone: Gertrude, Mary, Charles, Allan and Pam, Hilda, Harry – a loving memory of a loved one. Happily, remembered; always in our thoughts; a beloved father, beloved wife, beloved daughter.
Christians speak of being a journey from birth and baptism till death and eternal life: the nearer presence of God. That the people we meet on our journeys, our travelling companions are important to us – as we are to them. We journey together – sometimes for a shorter time than we would wish. We are given companionship – and love, and we have memories to share.
An ancient paved road on a hot day reaching into the distance – no-one else in sight. A deserted place with just the names carved in stone to show that others had gone this way before us as others will come this way after us when we too are dead.
One of our readings today ended with the words: It is we who are in the darkness. There is so much we do not understand. The dead are not apart – as the reading suggested – they do not leave us; they remain. It is we who are in the darkness. Words written by an American Roman Catholic academic.
Words that may comfort us. God reaching out to us as Tess in the first reading reaching out to the young man who as a drunk driver caused the death of two men. He has no one to love him – the dying woman knew this and asked for her husband to go and sit with the young man – to be with him, to accompany him for part of his journey.
As you have accompanied the dying – those hours, days, weeks, months perhaps, nursing a loved one at home, waiting by their bedside in hospital or the hospice, or waiting for the message, the phone call that will say they have died. We know our loved one is travelling ahead of us through the gateway of death - and yes – we are left in darkness.
And we carve in stone: in loving memory for Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Our nostrils are full of the smoke from historic burnings. 350 years ago the City was still smouldering after the Great Fire. St Giles escaped only to fall victim to the 1897 conflagration in the nearby ostrich feather warehouse and then even more seriously in 1940, the church was devastated by incendiary bombs.
Tonight however is an occasion for celebrating the resilience of London and recovery of nerve on the part of the Christian community in London. Memories and associations cluster thickly here in St Giles and we give thanks for those who have worshipped here before us and especially those who in recent years have brought the church back to life.
Thanksgiving is a creative act which diverts the pressure of the passing
moment and opens the mind and the heart to what lies beneath and beyond the sick hurry of the everyday. John Milton, who is remembered here with particular respect, said “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world”.
The City is a very hectic environment and we need accessible places where we can penetrate the surface of things to gain a deeper vision of what is worthwhile in life and a clearer direction of travel. Hats off to you for keeping the church open. St Giles is just such a place as Jacob found at Beth-el, which means “the house of God”. The name Jacob means “the supplanter” he who by his cunning had stolen his brother’s birth right; he was a schemer, a wheeler-dealer so it was only when he went to sleep that he woke up. Those who range over the surface world with avid eye are really in fantasy land those who are shown the world beneath and beyond the surface, awake. Jacob woke from his sleep and said “Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it. How awesome is this place.”
Recovery after disaster depends, yes upon financial and material resources but also vitally on resources of the spirit. A lot of hard work and planning went into rebuilding this church. We praise God for those who had the faith to ensure that St Giles rose from the ashes.
Faith and confidence which means literally “having faith together” are as significant in building and rebuilding a city as bricks and mortar. Here in the City there have been times when faith has been relegated to the leisure sector. Not so long ago there was a crisis of confidence which called in question the importance of maintaining and developing the life of the churches rebuilt after the Great Fire and restored after the war. Plans were drawn up to close all but four of the City Churches but with renewed
confidence in the centrality of faith to the life of the City we have witnessed an astonishing revival. Confidence in Jesus Christ has been turned into compassion and creativity as we seek with every one of good will to serve all Londoners irrespective of their place of origin or world view.
It is important to know the story of a place in a way that fuels gratitude. So often fruitful change happens, when we recover an original inspiration in new circumstances – in truth we remember the future.
One of the things we remember this evening especially in the presence of Mollie Munn is St Luke’s Old Street which was re-united with St Giles 50 years ago. This ancient parish was once upon a time divided into two parts, the area within the City which was called the Freedom and the area which became St Luke’s which was called the Lordship.
John Wesley preached and worshipped in St Luke’s and he had a family connection with this place and I rejoice that this is of the places where the tragic schism between Methodism and the Church of England is being overcome. Leslie and Jennifer are not here as oecumenical guests but beloved partners in the gospel. We have moved into a post-denominational future although some church leaders have yet to get the message. As we remember we need to transcend the broils of recent centuries in order to remember our roots, as people “chosen and precious in God’s sight, called to be living stones being built into a spiritual house in which all may taste and see the Spirit of Jesus Christ”. We remember our roots with a lively sense of the judgement of the end time which will be anticipated, as scripture says, by a time of trial when the strength and integrity of what has been built will be once again tested by fire.
There are those in every generation who imagine complacently that the present reality will endure but the tectonic plates are shifting. The unchallengeable western hegemony of the last 250 years is giving way to a more genuinely multi-polar world in which the countries of the East will resume the place they have occupied for most of human history. We have the privilege of serving Jesus Christ, the hope of the whole world, on this global crossroads which is London and we must be determined to embrace the diversity of modern London. Whatever we do for Jesus Christ in this wired up City reverberates for good or ill throughout world.
We serve by building a diverse community united in the Spirit of Christ to touch and embrace all our neighbours without distinction. London is full of people who live alone and we have a clear responsibility to consider their needs and their contribution. I especially honour the emphasis in your Mission Action Plan on work with young people and St Luke’s school in particular. This will require creativity and I may not be the best guide in this area. I was in one of our primary schools recently and the children asked me – do you remember anything which you did at school. I said, yes, I was the ink monitor. It was a job for a responsible child who had a metal can full of ink with which the china inkwells in our desks were filled every morning. They looked baffled and the teacher came to my rescue saying, we have just done a project on the Victorians and there is one of those cans in the display. We need young people themselves to help us navigate into the new digital world.
So for the past and the resilience of this church after its various fires,
thanks. And for the future in which our work will certainly be tested again,
we ask for the vision of Jacob and the stickability of Mollie Munn.’
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)
10.00 Parish Eucharist
16.00 Evening Prayer
Evening Prayer may be cancelled on the Sunday after Christmas and on Easter Day
08.30 Morning Prayer (Monday-Thursday)
Tuesday 21 February at 11.00
Memorial Service for Douglas Woodward CBE
1 March Ash Wednesday
08.30 Holy Communion and Imposition of Ashes at St Giles’
19.30 Holy Communion and Imposition of Ashes at Wesley’s Chapel
Monthly Private Prayer and Reflection
These sessions are held on the first Thursday of the month., from 13.00-13.30.
Dates for future sessions are 2 March and 6 April
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.
Dates for future sessions are 2 March and 6 April
The church is normally open from 11.00-16.00 Monday to Friday.
Parish Office Opening Hours
Tel: 020 7638 1997
Revision of the Church Electoral Roll
If your name is not on the roll please complete a form
Details and forms from Penelope Sharpe