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.
Sunday 28 May 7 Easter by Katharine Rumens
Ezekiel 36: 24 – 28
God is missing. God has gone away, God on earth has abandoned us yet the police urge us to go out and enjoy ourselves this bank holiday weekend. People of Manchester have been left comfortless. The Coptic community in Egypt have been devastated by the fourth attack on them since December. I tell you God is not here.
Last Thursday was Ascension Day when we read those final verses of Luke’s gospel. Jesus absented himself by lifting up his hands and blessing his friends. Then he was carried up into heaven. The account in Acts – our second reading – tells of low cloud covering the mystery of the ascent – it was not as spectacular as the account (2 Kings 2:11) of Elijah ascending in a whirlwind into heaven. But it’s the same idea: Jesus wipes off the dust of the world that clung to his feet and vanishes upwards out of sight.
Do we feel elated as the eleven and their companions did at Jesus’ leave taking when friends and family leave us? It’s a tricky story to get our heads around. Luke’s account had the recently bereft returning to Jerusalem with great joy; and were continually in the temple praising God. It is almost as if they were glad – or ready - to see him go….
The account we heard from Acts doesn’t tell us about their state of mind. The two men in white do not allow for happiness or sadness. They tell them not to hang around – ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ He’ll come back. A bit like the police moving members of the public on after an incident. There’s nothing to see – go home now. And the apostles did.
God may have gone away, but God will be back. Hang on in there till Pentecost.
Monday night in Manchester and children and young people among the dead. The perpetrator – who when he was 16 joined his father in Libya during the school holidays to fight against Colonel Gaddafi – perhaps he was exposed to the horrors of the battlefield. A former school friend reported that the experiences made Salman Abedi more and more religious – if we consider what he did on Monday night the actions of a religious person.
We have seen the scenes in Albert Square, heard commentators and politicians and religious leaders condemn the violence and the bereaved pour out their grief of ‘It doesn’t seem fair for two kids to go to a concert and only one return…how in God’s name could this happen’…… The head teacher said it was important for the school to remain open – terrorists cannot and will not stop us living our day-to-day lives.’ A journalist acknowledged the importance of the spirit of defiance but believes that consolidation lies in the many stories of courage, assistance and solidarity. ‘All is sorrow, but we still have kindness and pity.’
We still have kindness and pity. ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’
The prophet Ezekiel was tasked with calling the people of Israel in exile to order. They couldn’t make head or tale of what was happening to them. They’d been deported to Babylon – why us? They were a long way from home and a long way from the temple. Ezekiel looks towards the day when the people can return home and the temple be rebuilt. God’s people would be renewed. They would be new hearted – which in Hebrew Scriptures usually means mind or will. They will turn from their old ways. Out of the ashes of disaster God can raise new life.
For the Israelites in exile it was as if God had been defeated. We hesitate – rightly so – to say that God tests us with personal tragedy in order to show us who is God – we would not make ourselves popular if we took that line. But we know – as reports from Manchester in these past days that it is as such times that we discover the depths of God’s love in friend and neighbour.
Who is my neighbour? Baroness Warsi has written that ‘Right now, for many British Muslims, it feels dark, certainly the darkest I’ve known it to be.’
Perhaps our fear is that this darkness will affect how the people of this country will vote on 8 June.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written that we are facing perhaps one of the strangest General Elections in many years. ‘Opportunities to renew and reimagine our shared values as a country and a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only come around every few generations.
We are in such a time.’ Faith has a central role to play in politics and this general election.
They urge us to set aside ‘apathy and cynicism’ and draw new inspiration from the ancient Christian virtues of "love, trust and hope".
At a time when political differences may be felt more intensely than ever, the Archbishops insist that Christians' "first obligation" during the election and beyond is to pray for those standing for office and recognise the personal costs and burdens carried by those in political life and by their families. We know this: it will soon the anniversary of Jo Cox’s death.
In her first parliamentary speech as a MP Jo Cox said, ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.’ Her anniversary is being marked by the Great Get Together in June, there will be over 100,000 get together events including 90,000 big lunches. Out of the ashes of disaster, God can raise new life.
The Archbishop’s letter was long: some of the final points are these:
To highlight major concerns over
poverty, housing and the dangers of "crushing" debt.
To call for a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants but also warn against being "deaf to the legitimate concerns" about the scale of migration into some communities.
To stand up for those suffering persecution on grounds of faith around the world.
That faith has a unique role to play in preventing extremism and religiously motivated violence.
Political responses to the problems of religiously-motivated violence and extremism, at home and overseas, must also recognise that solutions will not be found simply in further secularisation of the public realm.
One of the strangest General Elections at a dark time for the Muslim community. Baroness Warsi writes, ‘Belief for me is not a stagnant position, it’s a journey not a destination, evolutionary not revolutionary and ultimately a source for daily reflection, self-evaluation at time of great success and a source of strength at times of distress.’
We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us. Let us think and pray about these things.
Sunday 21st May 2017 – Christian Aid Week All Age Sermon by Catherine Shelley
The Gospel reading (John 14: 15-21) says… ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’.
So what is a commandment and how many commandments do we have?
Generally in Christianity we refer to Ten Commandments – what do they tell us to do? Shall we see if the adults can tell us what the Ten Commandments are?
Here is the full list:
Have no other God
Have no idols instead of God
Do not worship any other Gods nor make wrong use of God’s name
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy
Honour your father and mother
Do not murder
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not bear false witness
Do not covet your neighbour’s wealth
So far so good, does anyone know how many commandments the Jewish people have?
There are 613 Commandments in Judaism – or mitzvot, which is the Jewish word for commandment. I am not going to ask you to name all 613 or we’d be here all morning…. but I will ask if you can think of some of them. What other commandments or ideas might there be for living a good life or for developing a good society? Shall we look at some of them?
I’m going to ask the children to hand out a few copies of a list with some of these other commandments on and I’m going to ask the adults to read out the commandments listed, as follows:
No.41 – Not to stand idly by when human life is in danger
No.47 – to relieve a neighbor of his burden
No.53 – Not to afflict an orphan or widow
No. 55 – To leave gleanings for the poor
No. 57 – To give charity according to one’s means
No.59 – To love the stranger
So although Christianity only officially has Ten Commandments we could probably also sign up to some of the other 613 Commandments that the Jewish faith observes, all of which are also ways of living out what Jesus asked, that ‘if you love me you will keep my commandments’.
Now, we are coming to the end of Christian Aid week and today is the Christian Aid Ring around the City sponsored walk, calling at this Church and other city churches. Can anyone tell me what Christian Aid is and how and when it started?
It was founded just after the Second World War so this year Christian Aid is celebrating its 60th year and they have a story from a man called Theodor, who tells this story:
British churches founded Christian Aid in 1947 to support refugees who had lost their homes and possessions in the Second World War. Theodor was one of the many refugees who fled his country in search of safety. He was from Serbia – in Eastern Europe and he was left a refugee after the Second World War. He was in Refugee camps, living in tents for over 2 years and in the camps he was given food parcels from the churches in Britain. Eventually he came to Britain to start a new life and to say thank you to those who had helped him he began to collect for Christian Aid too in Christian Aid week. He says: ‘Your Christianity is not only to pray and sing hymns but it is to put your beliefs into action, helping somebody that needs your help.
So what does Christian Aid do today? It still cares for refugees and nowadays it also fights global poverty and the causes of poverty like famine because of climate change and poverty and migration caused by war. So we have another story from Christian Aid about a lady called Nejebar; could you read it for us?
Nejebar is from Afghanistan; her husband is Noor and he used to work for the government in Afghanistan. The family had to leave Afghanistan because the Taliban rebels threatened to kill anyone who worked for the government, like her husband, Noor. Noor says, “When I went to work, my heart was beating harder. I didn’t know if my family were going to be alive when I got back.” So the family fled to Greece – and are still living in a tent in Greece – they have been there for 6 months. There’s no school for their children and their five year old is ill with a bad tummy problem. Nejebar is the rock at the centre of her family, holding them together throughout all this uncertainty. She hopes they will get a long-term home and that her children can go to school
So, like it did 60 years ago Christian Aid helps that family with food and to help her get to that future. But Christian Aid also does something else…. and we had this word in our Gospel reading too….
The first line said, ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments…’ and the second line said… “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever…” Now the advocate God promised was the Holy Spirit – which is still with us today but do you know what an Advocate is?
An advocate is someone who argues for a cause – and there are some people in our congregation today whose job is being an advocate in court; you might have seen people like them on the TV wearing clothes like this barrister’s wig and gown; but advocates are not only found in court. Christian Aid is also an advocate for the people it helps and we are all called to be advocates for causes like Christian Aid and for the commandments we read out earlier:
No.41 – Not to stand by when human life is in danger
No.47 – To relieve a neighbor of his burden
No.53 – Not to afflict an orphan or widow
No. 55 – To leave gleanings for the poor
No. 57 – To give charity according to one’s means
No.59 – To love the stranger
Happy Christian Aid week.
Sunday 14 May, 5 Easter by Katharine Rumens
Genesis 8: 1 – 12
I believe that children should be allowed to run around in church. Within limits: not during the service, especially not during the quiet bits. After the service, they are welcome to dash around but note: no screaming, no shouting, no skateboards, no bikes, no scooters. Keep out of the pulpit and remember biscuits are for everyone to share. Ration yourselves.
Oh yes, children are very welcome in church and I firmly believe that children should be allowed to run around in their church.
When I was a somewhat elderly child of 12 I was allowed to run around the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral. It was getting on for evening when the cathedral was shut to the public and we had the space to ourselves. We would then go into the darkening cathedral to rehearse our opera. I was second bear with my best friend Mary. The production was Noyes Fludde performed by local schoolchildren with professional singers taking the adult roles. Naturally God was also a professional.
I had a sense that it was OK to do that stuff in our cathedral. Unlike the other times I had been there, you didn’t have to be serious, bewildered or bored.
It was a turning point. Although withstanding God’s wrath for forty days and forty nights had its own solemnity and fear – even as a second bear.
We sent invitations for today out to those of you who were married here or have had relationships blessed. We do this each year. We have fun choosing the music – listen out for Land of Hope and Glory on 2 organs at the end of the service. However, the readings are not fun today – they are the set readings for Easter 5 and are being read not just at St Giles’, but at all churches of all denominations who use the Common Lectionary – in this country and across the world.
Welcome to the first reading which tells of the end of the flood: Noah opened the window and sent out a raven and then a dove to bring tidings of the external world. What has been going on out there? A raven will land on anything including dead matter. It found carrion in abundance – all those carcasses both human and animal floating on the waters. Feasting on the unsaved, the raven did not need to return.
Noah next sent the dove, who returned to him. Welcome back dove. He waited for seven days, and then sent the dove off again. It returned with an olive leaf in its beak and thus the olive branch became the symbol of peace. A sign of a new beginning. A turning point in the fate of humankind. Things could only get better. After seven days more, Noah sent the dove off for the third time. And it returned no more.
Welcome back to a reading about letting go and separation. A turning point about not looking back. We must move on, we say.
Our second reading describes a brutal execution and introduces us to a young man who positively wants to see another stoned to death. Stephen – an elected leader of the community - was killed for speaking out against the high priests. The young man was called Saul – to be renamed Paul. This is a turning point in his (Saul’s) life – but Stephen had to die.
Welcome to the cost of discipleship.
Welcome to the third reading – today’s gospel from John which is a poplar reading at funerals. Jesus was speaking to his close friends on the night before he was to die. He told them not to worry, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ The one with a very troubled heart was comforting those who had been closest to him. It’s a complex reading – but it can bring comfort and reassurance to those who mourn. We will be made welcome in the next life – however we understand that.
What we say now matters because our words may well be remembered after we have died. Words are precious: we must use them well.
Welcome back, but don’t expect to be uplifted by what you hear.
A month ago, to the day it was Good Friday. The pews were in the side aisles, the church empty of furniture except the chairs we needed for the service of 3 hours. In the middle of the nave on the floor was a spilt chalice from our supper on Maundy Thursday, the red wine stain splashed over the white paper cloth. Nails, dice - symbols of the story we had read together. And silence.
We had all those weeks of Lent to enter into the darkness of the cross and Easter morning is such a sudden turning point – Alleluia, Christ is risen we say – and continue to repeat on the following Sundays. We are people of the resurrection – we believe that death` is not the end but a new beginning.
Everything can be transformed: the life and death in our stories and the stories we hear in the news – even death. The church has been described as the community of the walking wounded. Perhaps we know our need to be transformed.
A woman who lost a leg in the Boston Marathon reflects that it is when her spirits are low that she doubts everything she does. It is then that she is called back to what matters most in her life: that she is created and loved by God, loved by her family and friends who, in turn, she dearly loves. Love never ends, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Let’s not forget that.
We listened to the story of Noah. The great flood subsides in order that a new creation can emerge. The stoning of Stephen is a significant turning point in the story of the relationship between the early church and Judaism. Thomas – don’t laugh at him – asking the basic question. What is God like and how can we get to God? Disciples are called to grow in understanding.
In all this God gives herself, God gives himself into the world – and we should throw ourselves into the business of living and loving. Whether it’s been days, weeks, months or years since you last stepped inside St Giles’, you were invited back because you chose to celebrate a turning point in your lives here. May you run wild and free – but not during the service - as you continue to grow in faith and hope and love.
Sunday 7 May, 4 Easter by Katharine Rumens
John 10: 1- 10
A kindly critic of the church writes that clergy are trained in waist-high pulpits and so use their arms a great deal while speaking. The two most common arm movements are the great enfolding gesture – large symmetrical circles which demonstrate an urge to gather and include and the wide arm span to demonstrate the enormous distance from the extreme conservative evangelical to the extreme Anglo-Catholic wing. And this is just the Church of England. My arms are not long enough at this point to begin to include other denominations in my embrace.
Take your pick of the flock that appeals to you:
The evangelical is well scrubbed – the self-conscious, even smug, heir to the traditions of the Reformation and, before that, to the early Church. They worry that many Anglicans are Christians in name only and like the idea of evangelising them.
Anglo-Catholics are scented rather than scrubbed and the clergy elaborately robed. They would be a Roman Catholic in Italy, or Orthodox in Greece. Liberal-minded on the bible, nit-pickingly precise on details of liturgy and vestments. Love the church; less keen on outsiders.
The liberal – those of us who would consider that we sit – stand – kneel in the centre. We are relaxed in dress and manners; open-minded to a fault; see the central tenets of the faith as dearly held but hard to believe – symbolic rather than literal. We may find evangelising distasteful and worry that other Anglicans make the church look off-putting.
Who is in and who is out of the sheepfold? And who gets through the gate?
In his poem Lycidas Milton laments the death of his great friend Edward King who was going to be ordained but tragically died in a shipwreck. Milton believed that King would have made a good priest – and uses the sheepfold imagery to contrast him with those who “for their bellies’ sake Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!” Worldly and ambitious, their interest was not in pastoral ministry, and “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed.” A good line that.
My heart sank when I read in Church Times this week about GAFCON – the organisation that was formed from The Global Anglican Future Conference in 2008 to address the growing controversy of the divisions in the Anglican Communion. This organisation has agreed to provide a missionary bishop for conservative evangelicals in UK.
With the increasing influence of materialism, secularism, and the loss of moral foundations, our people – I’m not sure who they identify at their people – face dangers that are subtle, but spiritually dangerous.
“The move has been made without the approval of Anglican leaders in this country.” A nice episcopal Anglican understatement and a move which many of us would see as contributing to controversy. After all John wrote that “God so loved the world” – both what is secular and what is spiritual - not “God so loved the church,” and I believe that God has never stopped loving the world.
However, this sense of the intruder – or thief or bandit to use the images in today’s gospel, pales into insignificance when we read that Isis has warned Egyptian Muslims to stay away from Christian gatherings as well as government, military and police offices, suggesting that the militant group will keep up attacks on what is referred to as “legitimate targets”. Last month, two Isis suicide bombers killed at least 45 people at churches in Alexandria and Tanta, one of the bloodiest episodes in the country in years.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
The context of Jesus’ teaching is a simple story; the door of the sheep fold is opened by the doorkeeper, a shepherd comes in, calls those who are his own sheep, and leads them out.
It’s not very clear who Jesus the storyteller represents: the gatekeeper or the shepherd.
Since the 3rd century artists have represented Jesus as a shepherd. Perhaps it is an easier image to understand – we find the metaphor of shepherd and sheep in the psalms – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and in Ezekiel: God the true Shepherd, or Isaiah – all we like sheep have gone astray.
It is probably not just the metaphor of the shepherd, but also the context. As we need to find space in our lives, we need to put space and peace in our understanding of God and of Jesus Christ. The shepherd in a simple rural landscape speaks to us of the spaciousness of God.
This was nothing new - images of shepherds were used in pagan funerary monuments to symbolise the peace of the afterlife. It was easy for the Roman sculptors who made the C3 and C4 monuments we can still see today in the catacombs to adapt their patterns to the demands of the Christian clientele. A shepherd holding a sheep, with a tree or two beside him spoke of a belief in the afterlife spent in the company of Christ himself.
Perhaps the saddest inscription of all in the catacombs is to Aurelius Castus who was just 8 months old when he died. We would consider the depiction of the shepherd pretty crude - more Sunday Club than Michaelangelo – but the shepherd has got a very firm grasp on the sheep he carries on his shoulders. Jesus will not let go of his sheep.
O God who brought us to birth and in whose arms we die, in our grief and shock contain and comfort us; embrace us with your love, give us hope in our confusion and grace to let go into new life.
This is a funeral prayer – the living and the dead held in the arms of God.
During the week, I was introduced to Emil – born on Easter day, cradled by his mother as he slept in her lap.
Rachel, a committed Christian, died on Easter Day. She had been named on our prayer board. She was a journalist and wrote about her approaching death. “When you are ill – or, indeed going through any serious trauma – you can often sense that behind people’s kind enquiries, about how you are coping is a huge unspoken fear: “How would I deal with that.” How will I deal with my dying?
She wrote, “This is when we all – those who are ill and those around them – need to look to God’s love, the charity that abideth above all, and realise that this uncertainty will come to an end. We will be taken up in God. God knows each one of us, better than we know ourselves, in all our anxieties and natural dread. And we are secure in God, in every part of ourselves known by God.”
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
Sunday 30 April Third Sunday of Easter by Katharine Rumens
Luke 24: 3 – 35
When action is in the air, I like to produce a sign-up sheet. Perhaps posterity will prove they have been my most memorable words and they will be carved on my tombstone: ‘Please write your name on the list at the back of the church’. It can help to know in advance who plans to come along with their idiosyncrasies and potato salad. There are currently two lists on the go. One for the PCC supper meeting on Tuesday and the other for the parish weekend at the Othona Community.
What shall we do this year? For a number of weeks there has been a search for a book – I thought one looked promising until I get down to reading it and thought that dualism and duality in Paul was probably not going to make our pulses race with excitement.
Rowan Williams Being Disciples – Essentials of the Christian Life looked to be more our cup of tea. ‘Very popular’ said the helpful woman in the bookshop. That’ll do I thought skimming my way through it. There’s a chapter on holiness.
We know about holiness – that’s why we go back year after year to the ancient chapel of St Peter. It’s a holy place where prayer has been offered for centuries. Outside the salt marshes – the changelessness of the big skies, the smell of the sea, the song of the sky lark. Inside the sense of stillness and peace.
Holy – a place that touches us – perhaps deep within ourselves. A place that we want to return to, it draws us as this church draws people at all times and during the working week to sit and to pray. The Irish poet and priest John O’ Donahue wrote: ‘If your marriage is going bad, your kids on dope, your work is unsatisfactory, you’re really unhappy, maybe the place not to go to is the pub, maybe the place to go to – even if you’ve lost all faith in the divine – is into the church, a safe spiritual place of no judgement. Just go in, and let some of that into you.’
Holy places, holy spaces. Holy people. We know what holy people look like – they can be found in religious communities behind high walls. They wear a habit and are called brother this or sister that, father or mother. They are a race apart and we are a bit in awe of them because, unlike them, we enjoy bad films, swear and do not love our neighbour who throws a late-night party as we should.
Rowan Williams writes, ‘Holiness….is not an extra-special kind of goodness, because somehow it’s not about competing levels of how good you are. It’s about enlarging the world, and about being involved in the world. A holy person is somebody who is not afraid to be at the tough points in the centre of the middle of it all who actually makes you see things and people afresh.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.
Holy people allow you not to see them, but God. You come away feeling not, ‘Oh, what a wonderful person,’ but, ‘What a wonderful world, ‘What a wonderful God,’ or even, with surprise, ‘What a wonderful person I am too.’
The Road to Emmaus. Luke tells the story of two friends who have turn their backs on the city of death and resurrection and are going home to Emmaus.
What are they doing, walking down that road with slow, distracted steps, talking as they go? Are they running away from the strange events in Jerusalem? If so, they are not very logical, because as soon as the stranger starts asking questions, they betray themselves as disciples of the recently crucified Jesus. Just listen to their Galilean accents.
If they are afraid, shouldn’t they keep their mouths shut? Their most overwhelming need, greater than even their need for security, or space, or whatever it is that set them off on the road to Emmaus, is the need to talk. They have to find some sense in what is going on. They turn to the stranger, and the words pour out. They are past caring whether he is a safe confident. At first they are angry with the stranger. They must have been so angry with each other over the past few days, since the crucifixion. Since the death.
The only way to bear the sadness they all feel is to make sure they know it is shared. Here is some fool who seems not to know of the great tragedy that has overturned all their hopes. But soon they forget their anger and they return to their search. What is going on? What can it all mean?
All their hopes of Jesus confounded, and with them, all they had come to believe about the God of love and his purposes. They turn to the stranger, too perplexed to realise how silly this ought to have been. How could the stranger possibly have the answers?
Into their turmoil the stranger, who is no stranger, speaks his words of rough and humorous revelation.
‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’
The two disciples eventually recognised Jesus – in the breaking of the bread. The revelation of holiness. Suddenly the road to Emmaus is the road home, after all. What a wonderful world! What a wonderful God. What a wonderful person I am too.
Encounters that transform us. When we come away delighting – we had such a good time – it was lovely to see you, to see everyone again. Some years ago I went to visit my elderly godmother who used to talk the whole time. I am sure she found me equally irritating. We had a little outing to the nearest open space – the churchyard – and sat on a bench in the sun neither of us feeling the need to talk.
I had gone to visit her to do her some good – but it didn’t work out like that. She did good to me. Unexpectedly it was a holy time, a holy encounter that made my heart burn with gratitude within me.
The Road to Emmaus, the path to holiness. What a wonderful world! What a wonderful God.
If you want to be holy, look at God. If you want to be holy, enjoy God’s world, enter into it as much as you can in love and in service. And who knows, maybe one day someone will say of you, ‘You know, when I met them, the landscape looked different.’
A path worth exploring, a road worth taking.
Sunday 23 April by Catherine Shelley
Seeing is believing – or is it?
Three extraordinary stories in this morning’s readings… Extraordinary events happening to perfectly ordinary groups of people, just like you and me gathered here this morning.
There’s Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea – guided by God as a pillar of cloud (Exodus 14: 15 – 21, 30 – 31)
Peter, standing with the rest of the disciples, speaking to the people of Israel about ‘this Jesus’, crucified but freed and raised from the dead (Acts 2: 14a, 22)
And then the Gospel story, of that Jesus himself, gliding through the walls to meet with the disciples in the upper room (John 20: 19 – end)
Of the three, the last of them is possibly the most strangely extraordinary.
It is one thing to be told the story of the Red Sea parting to enable the Israelite slaves to escape from Egyptian oppression… A story that scientists over the decades have tried to explain in material terms by various forces of the weather or to hear the preaching about Jesus defeating death, which could be taken at a metaphorical level or something.
But actually to be standing in the room when Jesus slips in, ghost-like, scars and all must have been a very strange experience. You can hardly blame Thomas for doubting it when his friends tell him they’ve seen the risen Jesus. Poor Thomas, nicknamed as “doubting” throughout the ages.
Yet his reaction is entirely understandable; I suspect many of us here would have reacted in the same way, saying “Don't be ridiculous - he was crucified & nailed to the cross; if you say he’s risen again, prove it!” or “I don't believe you & I won't believe you unless I see the scars in the flesh” It's the natural reaction.
A few years ago, whilst working as chaplain at Birmingham University, I was sitting in court waiting for a case, in which I was pastorally involved, to be called on when in walked a barrister that I'd known many years ago, when I was a baby barrister myself. What was so disturbing about the incident is that I had understood that said barrister had died of a heart attack a decade or so earlier.
So to see him alive, fully robed in Birmingham’s criminal courts was a bit of a shock to the system. It transpired that whilst he did have a heart attack reports of his death were somewhat premature! So I know that even when you do see someone in the flesh who you think has died, it can be hard to believe the evidence of your own eyes.
And yet when Jesus did appear, to Thomas & the other disciples, whether it was materialising through walls as in today's reading, moseying along the beaches at Tiberias or on the road to Emmaus and over supper, the disciples accepted and believed...
Jesus turned up doing ordinary things, eating ordinary meals, chatting with the disciples as if nothing had happened. Apparently it's a device used by novelists - make most of your novel so ordinary and believable that when you bring in the unusual and out of the ordinary the familiarity of the backdrop will make it all credible; so much so that often real life can be far more extraordinary than a novel.
Hence the phrases –
“You couldn't make it up...” and “you wouldn't believe it if it was in a novel...”
Yet, strange and extraordinary though it is, the disciples seem to take Jesus’ resurrection entirely at face value; even Thomas, once he has actually seen and felt the scars…
Not that it is normal exactly but the disciples don't ask all sorts of questions about it; they just accept that Jesus their friend is back, scarred but unbowed and apparently full of life. There is clearly something so compelling about Jesus that they don't need to rationalise it, they just see and believe.
So what of us who stand here in church some 2000 or so years later, in an age of scepticism and secularism? I think one of the difficulties our society struggles with is the enlightenment desire for scientific proof - for hard empirical facts.
To convict anyone in a criminal court we require proof 'beyond reasonable doubt'
And yet we, sitting here, are among those whom Jesus foresees, who have not seen and yet who have, at some level, come to believe...
I say 'at some level' because my guess is that there are a variety of views about the resurrection amongst those of us gathered here this morning and amongst our wider congregation dispersed elsewhere this holiday season.
A ComRes survey commissioned by the BBC for Palm Sunday was reported as finding that a quarter of those who identified themselves as Christians didn’t believe in the Resurrection. Even 40+% of those described as ‘active Christians’ – by which I think they meant church going rather than running marathons - no longer believe in the resurrection literally as described in the Bible.
Yet I suspect that survey result says more about the questions asked than the actual beliefs of the people polled. Literal belief in the Bible as a scientific or historical text is to misinterpret or misunderstand the Bible. It is not a scientific text or the sort of apparently objective history that academics write nowadays. Which is not to say that it is not true.
The resurrection is clearly there in the Bible but it remains a mystery; we cannot prove it scientifically, and the opposite of Thomas's doubt is not certain proof but faith. And it is the belief of faith, not belief in certainty, that Jesus is talking about when he says 'happy are those who believe without seeing...'
I actually believe that there is more faith and more wonder in our skeptical, secular age than generally appreciated.... Take this mobile phone, around which an alarming amount of my life revolves. I have faith that when I turn it on in the morning it will work. I have faith that when I type in a little message and text or email it to someone - who may be the other side of the city or the other side of the world - that message will arrive safely. In fact I'm now more confident that my email messages will arrive safely than things I send by the much more tangible postal service.
The reality is that in much of our world we live by faith and hope in what have become perfectly ordinary everyday bits of technology. And yet when I was a child, which is only a few decades ago, the technology that now fits into this phone would have taken up a whole room of mainframe computer, like the ones Alan Turing experimented on at Bletchley Park or that sat in my dad's labs at Manchester University - or what was then UMIST.
In the light of the extraordinary changes and technological shifts in our world we can do things now that would never have been believed possible even a few decades ago, let alone the 2,000 years since Jesus was alive….
And in the light of the huge amount of faith we place in the inter-dependence of our complex society and trust that our technology and services will keep working…
Faith in the Easter mystery of life, death and resurrection – and the hope that brings - may not be so extraordinary after all. But for those who are still unsure I will finish with the words of another doubting Thomas – the poet RS Thomas, who looked but didn’t always see…
I emerge from the mind’s cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and the Lord is in none of them.
I have heard the still, small voice and it was that of bacteria
demolishing my cosmos.
I have lingered too long on this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards the light. To look forward?
Ah, what balance is needed at the edges of such an
I am left alone on the surface of a turning planet.
What to do but, like Michelangelo’s Adam, put my hand out into unknown space,hoping for the reciprocating touch?
Where to visit us:-
St Giles' Cripplegate Church
London EC2Y 8DA
Registered Charity Number 1138077
Services and church opening hours
Communion (First Sunday in the month)
10.00 Parish Eucharist
16.00 Evening Prayer
Sunday 29 April Annual Parish Church Meeting
This will be held in church at 11.30 after the Parish Eucharist
Please bring your colecting boxes to be emptied and returned
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).
Monday 30 April
PCC Supper in the Rectory at 19.30
Monthly Private Prayer and Reflection
These sessions are held on the first Thursday of the month., from 13.00-13.30.
10 May, 7 June, 12 July, 13 September, 4 October, 1 November and 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.
10 May, 7 June, 12 July, 13 September, 4 October, 1 November and 13 December
The church is normally open from 11.00-16.00 Monday to Friday.
Parish Office Opening Hours
Tel: 020 7638 1997