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?
During Lent members of the congregation are invited by the Rector to preach a sermon entitled 'God at Work'
Sunday 2 April by Dawn Runnicles
‘Sing unto the Lord a new song.
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord’. Psalm 98
The constants in my life have been church and music. We were the Powell Family and we lived in Beckenham. The area was leafy and peaceful. There was my mother and father, my big sister and my little brother. Another very little brother was too young to remember this period. My father and I met for the first time when I was three, on his return from the war. Some years later, into our parish of St Paul’s, came a team of evangelists. They held prayer meetings and bible studies and it was during this time that my father answered God’s call and became converted to Christianity. He took up the reins of Christian leadership with vigour and soon became a respected and much loved pillar of the church. He set us all a lifelong example of faith and worship. It was he who gave us our spiritual wisdom. We were, where we were, by God’s grace. We used to gather for family prayers, in our pyjamas, round the big bed, the old gas fire whirring away and our school clothes laid out on the fender warming through. We were chilly on our knees and I felt envious of my mother still snug under the bedclothes. We had a reading, a hymn and prayers. I remember choosing hymns from Golden Bells and the Billy Graham songbook. We enjoyed singing together, and, as St Augustin said ‘in singing we pray twice’. It was a happy, bonding start to the day. God was at work in our lives.
We went to Matins on Sundays mornings, as a family, which was very important to my father. Then it was Sunday School. That was the routine. My only bone of contention was that girls were not allowed in the choir. My mother, sister and brother were all choir members and I had to sit in the pew, longing to be singing up there where it was all happening. I did once sing a solo at Christmas. I had always loved my father’s bendy bible, with its smooth, gold-edged pages and was thrilled when I was presented with a similar one at my confirmation. I treasure it. Confirmation classes were powerful. Texts were abundant. Whenever I say to myself ‘I don’t know how I did that’, I quote Philippians 4:13 – ‘I can do all things, through Christ, which strengtheneth me’. That is my faith.
We loved St Paul’s, with the beautiful white angel font, where we were all christened, and the enormous William Holman-Hunt masterpiece,’ I am the Light of the World,’ John 8:12. It was so big it felt life-like. The door represents the human soul, which cannot be opened from the outside. There is no handle on the door and the rusty nails and hinges overgrown with ivy, denote that the door has never been opened and that the figure of Christ is asking permission to enter. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hear my voice and open the door I will come in to you and will eat with you and you with me’. Revelation 3:20
I asked a friend for his memories of our household and he said he looked upon his times with us as his introduction to Christian life and values, which have stood him in good stead all his life. Our memories of St Paul’s bind us together and formed a valuable foundation for our lives. God was at work. We had continuity, stability, friends and much love.
One summer, we went to a Pathfinder Fellowship houseparty in Shanklin. Families enjoyed the fellowship, fun and laughter of other Christians on a similar spiritual journey. The Powell family happened to overlap with the Runnicles family. Thursday evening, was concert night. I played a prize-winning piano piece and I remember Alan Runnicles in his little shorts and school blazer singing ‘Oh, for the wings of a Dove.’ He was a chorister at Southwark Cathedral. We were 10. God was at work when nearly 20 years later we met up again. When I told my mother I was getting engaged, she said, ‘how many times have I heard that before, dear? And then, in her worldly wisdom, ‘Now, are you sure? The Runnicles are ever so churchy, you know, ever so churchy’. By that time, I had been 9 times round the world.
When I had landed the highly sought-after post of purser’s officer in the Merchant Navy, 50 years ago to the day, reception of the news had been mixed. My boss frowned, breathed in deeply and said ‘do your parents know? I would never ever let any daughter of mine go to sea’! My parents were delighted. I would have the opportunity to travel the world and use my languages. So, Oriana became my 42,000-ton home for the next three years. I had a first class, outside cabin, with porthole and cabin boy ‘Alright for some people’, said my mother. I had a fine view to sea or land – ever changing – but God did not change. The round world voyage took three months. Oriana held the record for the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic, Southampton to Sydney via the Suez Canal in 21 days. However, we were the very last ship to pass through the Canal before the war broke out in 1967. The entire east bank of the Suez Canal had been occupied by Israeli forces and Egypt immediately imposed a blockade, which closed the canal to all shipping. As a result, 15 cargo ships were trapped in the canal for over 8 years. God was at work in our escaping that fate. So we were re-routed via the Cape, thus becoming P & O pioneers to South Africa.
Life at sea is all about teamwork and living in a tight community with no means of escape. I worked for the Commodore of the P & O Fleet. It was glamorous, but tough, being a woman at sea in a man’s world, but even in this environment, God was at work. Each Sunday, when at sea, the captain would lead a service. I would gather together for a hymn practice any colleagues or passengers interested in taking part in the worship. We would form a small, enthusiastic choir to enhance the service and, however small the group, we were not singing for ourselves, or for the company but were singing for the Lord. It was not a spiritual memory that I took away from the sea, but treasured moments like these of peace, fellowship and bonding. In a world, out of touch with the real world, I needed God, to remain constant in prayer and faith.
On retirement, we built a villa in the South of France. We located a perfect plot in the Esterel hills with a view across the terra cotta rooftops, stretching beyond Frejus cathedral and down to the sea. There was the mystery as to how it would all turn out. There was the faith that it would be a rich blessing for us all. Indeed, it was. We soon discovered the English-speaking Church of St John the Evangelist, which was to be the centre of our lives in France. During the war years, and the occupation of Provence, the church was closed and most of the British residents evacuated. After the war, St John’s was re-consecrated and it is now the only Anglican church building in the Var. On our first visit to the church service, the church warden welcomed us, saying to Alan, ‘you look like a bass, here’s the music, go and stand there!’ We were in! We joined the choir. Much work was needed to the fabric of the building, inside and out. Alan had an immediate vision for St John’s and spent the next three years, dramatically refurbishing the church. I had set about fund raising, organising concerts and piano recitals, in hilltop chapels and churches throughout the region. It was music to the glory of God. The church went from strength to strength and we were the first church in France to become affiliated to the Royal School of Church Music. We were in the right place, at the right time, to make a difference. God was at work.
Returning to the Barbican for the third time, in 2011, was the continuation of my journey along the holy path. I felt well acquainted with the City. I remember, age 10, coming up from Beckenham in fancy dress to the Mansion House to attend the Lord Mayor’s Children’s party. It was room after room of delight. Before joining my ship for standby duties in dry dock, I had done my company training in St Botolph Street. Petticoat Lane, Leadenhall Cheese Market and Houndsditch Warehouse (sounds dreadful!) were my favourite lunchtime haunts. My father had been a Pikeman and Musketeer in the Honourable Artillery Company, a member of the Worshipful Company of Innholders and was a Freeman of the City of London. My husband had won a Heritage Year Award for his refurbishment of Simpson’s Tavern, at 38 ½ Cornhill, established in 1757 and frequented by Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys.
A haven of peace was awaiting me at St Giles with a focus and sense of belonging. God’s will for our lives has reason and purpose. To play a part in the festival choir and be able to sing joyously is uplifting. It has been rewarding to help organise events, welcoming outsiders into a friendly, caring place of worship. I am very blessed with my gifts from God of family, friendship, focus and faith, and God has helped me not to waver, when faced with adversity. ‘All things work together for good to those that love God.’ Romans 8:28.
I was simply overjoyed to discover St Paul, and St John the Evangelist, standing, side by side, with St Giles, in the East window. The three saints, from the beloved churches on my journey, united, here, in harmony. How great is that?
The organs, choir, bells, concerts and music abound at St Giles and fill God’s house with glory, enabling us all to come together in worship and fellowship. And to see my little grandson, Christian, aged 3, cradling the very large bible, down the aisle, on Christmas Day, was, truly, God at Work.
Sunday 19 March by Malcolm Waters
I had a late start as a churchgoer. Neither of my parents went to church while I was growing up and so I didn’t either. Later in his life, however, my father did become a regular attender at his local parish church, St Barnabas in Purley.
Sadly, my parents died within 36 hours of each other around the turn of the year 2003-04. My father had asked for his funeral service to be taken by Revd Yvonne Davis, an assistant priest at St Barnabas, whose ministry he much admired. So she conducted what turned out to be a joint funeral for both my parents. The comfort which she provided both to me and my wife, Setsu, was a great help to both of us. With her gentle encouragement and support, we started attending my father’s old church and were both confirmed in the following year.
A particular sermon has stayed in my mind from those early days at St Barnabas. It was preached by the honorary curate there, a retired art master. In it, he told how a vicar at another church had read out the Nicene Creed, inviting the members of the congregation to stand up for the bits they believed in and to sit down for those they didn’t. Apparently, the congregation were bobbing up and down like Jack-in-the-boxes.
To my relief, no one has ever done that at any church service which I’ve been to. But I’ve often wondered which parts of the Creed would keep me on my feet, and which parts would have me sitting down or hovering indecisively between the two.
A line in the Creed which would leave me uncertain whether to sit or stand, but which nonetheless resonates with me because of my job as a lawyer, is the line about the Last Judgment, where we say that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”.
When I was at school, I took part in what must have been one of the worst ever performances of Mozart’s Requiem, with every instrument in the school orchestra out of tune in a slightly different way. In the text of the requiem mass, the Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath) takes up the idea of the Last Judgment. A verse which sometimes comes into my mind in those anxious minutes when I’m sitting in court waiting for a case to start is the one which speaks about the trembling as we wait for the coming of the Judge: “Quantus tremor est futurus …” – “How great will be the quaking, when the Judge will come, investigating everything strictly”.
That quaking is all too understandable when we consider the powerful images of the Last Judgment that have come down to us from the middle ages. One which I’ve seen a couple of times on holidays in Italy is the vast mosaic which covers the west wall of the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, a small island in the Venetian lagoon. The mosaic dates from around 1100. It shows Christ seated, in readiness to perform his role as Judge. Below him, the angels sound the trumpet to summon the dead from earth and sea. In the next tier down, we see, on Christ’s right hand side, those who have been resurrected to glory and entered eternal life in the new earth. And on Christ’s left hand side (the bit we’re all interested in), we see those condemned to eternal torment being energetically pitch-forked into the lake of fire, with special chambers of Hell reserved for particular sins committed by the damned. As one commentator puts it: “This Hell is a Paradise for Byzantine art lovers”.
Back to my humdrum world of work. My practice is mainly to do with the supply of financial services to consumers, which means that any trials I get involved in are in the civil, rather than the criminal, courts. In fact, as I act mostly for financial institutions, my clients’ priority is normally to keep well clear of a court. Usually, the last thing they want is to get into costly and unpredictable fights in court with their customers or regulators.
When cases of mine do end up in court, the trial process tends to be painstaking rather than dramatic. Often, the law is complex and technical, there may be long and obscure documents to interpret, inconsistencies in the evidence to be resolved and ambiguities to be stripped away. As the US Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, once remarked dryly: "The main business of a lawyer is to take the romance, the mystery, the irony, the ambiguity out of everything he touches."
At the end of the trial comes the judgment – often the Judge will reserve judgment to allow time to consider the decision, carefully weighing up the evidence and the rival arguments made by each side at the trial.
Despite all its checks and safeguards, this is a human process and so of course things can, and often do, go awry – though, if the Judge’s decision is wrong, the losing side can normally get permission to appeal to a higher court and try to get the judgment overturned.
But the reach of human justice is limited. For all sorts of reasons (not least cost) many cases where the law could provide a remedy never get to court. And, more generally, there are whole areas of human conduct which lie outside the province of the law, so that the law is powerless to provide redress even for actions which we may believe to be profoundly wrong.
So, given the limitations on earthly justice, I don’t find it difficult to believe in a final judgment on all of us, however high or low, by a perfectly just judge “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden”. That would answer a powerful need for justice which all too often is unsatisfied in this world.
But what I do find extremely difficult is the appalling fate which, on the traditional picture, awaits the condemned – all of whom face the unimaginable horror of everlasting, conscious torment in Hell. That is a fate which strikes me as unthinkably cruel even for the worst evil-doer, let alone for those who, as it were, just miss Heaven by a hairsbreadth.
So my closing thought is a wish that we could move to an understanding of what the Bible has to tell us about the Last Judgment, which, alongside the radiant hope it offers to the saved, has room for a less horrific fate for the damned. Then I for one could stand with greater assurance to affirm my belief that Jesus will indeed “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”.
Sunday 12 March by Wendy Ellis
We moved during the bright April of 1995 to a village in Kent. Our new house was called Church View. I was 8 months pregnant with my daughter Shelby. We were moving because we needed more space for our growing family. The view of the church was visible from the upstairs bedrooms. Once Shelby was born, I arranged for her baptism at St Mary’s. I found out that there was a family service every month, and a Sunday School during term time. I thought that I would start taking my new baby and toddler Chloe along. We had no direct neighbours, and I wanted to make friends and meet new people. It was only a short walk to St Mary’s, across a green recreation field. It seemed to me that I had to find out what was going on at the church that my home was named after.
It proved to be a great way for the children to make friends. They were so young we would stay for the sessions and learn the Bible stories too. They loved the stories and would listen carefully to find out what happened to the characters in the end. They would ask what happened to the man let down through the roof? or did they rebuild the walls of Jericho? As we met, week by week, the other parents and I thought that we should look towards being confirmed. We had got caught up in our children’s faith journey - and it seemed we had been baptised, but none of us were confirmed. We decided to take the Emmaus course, and were duly confirmed by the Bishop.
After being confirmed, and this being the Church of England, of course I was encouraged to start something else! It was suggested to me to join the Mothers’ Union. What an off-putting title! - However, I went with the flow and still joined. The MU is a global charity, which engages with issues in society and with church life. It has been providing a support network for families since 1876. You may know that their head office is at Mary Sumner House, in Westminster, so named after the founder. The group met at the parish hall and, as I had now finished the Emmaus course, I did have the time to join the evening sessions. We would have a short act of worship followed by a collection of lively speakers – or we would discuss what we could do to help families in our local community. There was a women’s refuge around the corner, we would try to meet their needs with collecting food and clothing. There was also a great rivalry between us and the Women’s Institute! Our summer fayre stall would have to have the best cakes and jam!
Another responsibility of our group would be to invite families back to church on the anniversary of their child’s baptism. It was wonderful when they said yes, we’re coming, but where some responses were polite others were disheartening as they would say “we are visiting our relatives and won’t be there”. We would do this every year for 5 years, hoping that this would keep a connection for them with their church family. The children would receive a numbered card - presented to them during the family service - with much joy and applause. It is not easy to have children in church. We found some families came along and others, who said they would attend, did not show up. I am reminded of the parable of the sower, where some seed did fall on good soil, where it produced a crop, but some seed fell among thorns which grew up and choked the plants. Family service could be a long hour with young children, but it was always worth making the effort to invite them once a year.
My children were growing fast and still attending Sunday School. I remembered from their Baptism that I had promised to bring them to confirmation. When they were 6 and 9 they were ready to make their first communion. They had a weekly course of sessions, learning about God, the Bible, Holy Communion, the Trinity and Prayer. The admission to first communion was on Easter Sunday, followed by cake! An essential of any good C of E celebration! They were encouraged to worship regularly and to continue in receiving instruction, with the help of lay volunteers who always played a big part in teaching the children. They are truly a group of special people. Both of my girls came to be confirmed as teenagers and I had now fulfilled my promise made at their baptism.
I went to services, if not every week, then certainly once a month. There was no plan and no family tradition of church attendance, but I enjoyed going. I would help with teaching the younger children at Sunday School when I could -teaching is fun!
I decided to go back to full-time work in 2002. My workplace was an International engineering consultancy and multi-faith. I didn’t feel out of place mentioning my faith. It wasn’t odd or different to say that I was teaching Sunday School.
I had learned the well-known Bible stories at junior level, and it was time to move on to more adult study. There were regular home groups, led by members of the congregation with a love of scripture that couldn’t help but rub off onto those of us who hadn’t studied for a while. I had taken Religious Studies at A level, it was just one of my subjects at school, but I had not kept my knowledge growing. I went along on a Monday night, where we would follow a study book, read out loud from the Bible and then answer questions and share ideas. I must say that no-one at St Giles has experienced more Bible study than me! A Level, Emmaus, Alpha and finally home group.
Finishing with prayer points enabled us to talk about our personal lives, and made sure we would bring our concerns before God. Members of the group with health issues found this particularly helpful, as we discovered that persistence in prayer could bring great results.
Having moved to London, I work part-time at a Jewish practice of chartered accountants. A colleague asked if I went to church – she had a Catholic family tradition. I found myself in a multi-faith environment again, but she knew how to cope with my affirmative answer. There is an empathy with people of other faith’s when mentioning God at work. The wideness of God is not confined to one religion or another.
I now live in Roman House. I still have a church view from my bedroom window, and my husband jokes that I can never live anywhere without one. Not such a bad idea in my book, as you will never be far away from being part of a church family.
Sunday 5 March by Peter Woods
Fifty years ago I was at the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, a training centre for pilots and navigators, and for several ground branches too. I was trained in logistics – moving people and equipment to the right place at the right time. I spent 30 years plying my trade wherever the RAF chose to send me. They never sent me to war and I only fired weapons in practice. So my experiences are mostly from flying a “mahogany bomber” – an office desk – in Whitehall, or overseas in warm, sunny and peaceful places where Service personnel were accompanied by their families.
There are about 150,000 people in the armed forces. Statistics show that three quarters of them are Christian. The UK’s larger military units have churches and chaplains who were, of course, especially busy during the recent 13 year campaign in Afghanistan. 456 Service personnel lost their lives and hundreds were wounded, with many suffering life-changing injuries. Some 6000 patients were flown home on aeromedical evacuation flights for hospital treatment. Chaplains travelled widely in Afghanistan to be with the troops wherever they were operating. The Chaplains contributed to the maintenance of morale, traditionally dependent on the 3 Ms: Mail, Meals and Money. Medical is a vital 4th M for those in combat. Knowledge that medical treatment would be there for the wounded, and that there would be a flight to hospital in UK if necessary, was a key factor in sustaining military morale.
And this applies to families on overseas postings too. We were in Cyprus when, one Christmas Eve, a child on a military base had drunk from a bottle that he had found on the sports field. It was labelled ‘Paraquat’, which is a potent weed killer - usually fatal if consumed. The child was dangerously ill. The medics wanted to analyse the liquid. There was no appropriate test equipment available in Cyprus. Early on Christmas Day an RAF aircraft was despatched from UK to Cyprus with the single small package of test material. Analysis showed that the substance was indeed paraquat but, mercifully, it had been significantly diluted. On that Christmas day our prayers were answered and the child recovered. That was God at work for the military community.
My first overseas posting had been to the RAF base at Changi in Singapore. My parents had met in Singapore, and my grandfather had died in Changi Jail after 3 years internment during the war. His grave was in a cemetery on the island. My grandmother had said that I would find it at the Bida Dari, a Malay term for a cemetery. Twenty five years had passed since the war and there were, inevitably, many more cemeteries, including the Krangi war cemetery, with its endless rows of about four and a half thousand graves. I felt that I had a hopeless task and I did not want to disappoint my grandmother. I prayed for guidance. Be persistent. Don’t give up.
Eventually I found myself in a small Christian Cemetery in Upper Serangoon Road. There were few clear markings on the graves but fortunately there was an office with all the details. I found the grave of Alan Ker, my grandfather, and took photos to send to my grandmother. Within weeks, my posting to Singapore was cut short, and I was sent to Hong Kong, but by then my prayer had been answered.
Much of my career was spent in the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. “Whitehall Warriors” are not in physical danger. Their main fear might be of failure to make the right decision or to deliver the right support. Their courage is never tested in the heat of battle. What is courage? It is doing something that you know is frightening. The military work which most clearly demands courage is that of the Ammunition Technical Officer – the bomb disposal expert (either male or female) who has to disarm Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The device is designed to kill but, to save others, the technical expert’s job is to make “the Lonely Walk” to the device, assess it, and slowly but methodically disarm it. They know that there is a high risk that they could be killed and, indeed, many were killed or injured but, in Afghanistan, they did the job daily. They said that they just hoped they would not be ‘the next one’ but many will have prayed too.
For me, I had some scary experiences while working for MoD, but not in the same league as those in the front line of combat. But I experienced the fear of failure. In 1982 the Falklands Island conflict stretched the capacity of our forces to the limit. I was in Whitehall in an RAF team managing the delivery of aviation fuel to RAF bases, including Ascension Island, the remote staging post in the Atlantic en route to the Falklands. The Vulcan bombers, the fleet of Victor refuelling aircraft and the frequent transport aircraft were consuming vast amounts of aviation fuel.
Additional fuel storage was rapidly constructed on the island and tankers were chartered to deliver a constant stream of fuel shipments. At the peak of the operation we suddenly had to suspend aircraft refuelling. The fuel had been contaminated. It was a heart-stopping moment. A specialist was sent from London to investigate. Filters were cleaned and re-fitted and fuel flowed again. A failure in fuel delivery would have been a show-stopper. We had prayed and God was at work.
There is a prayer that I have used since I was sent by the RAF to university for a year to qualify for a particular job. I was about 40, and I was concerned about my capacity to pass the course. This is Samuel Johnson’s prayer for students, but also an ideal prayer to God at Work:
O God, who has ordained that whatever is to be desired, should be sought by labour, and who, by thy blessing, brings honest labour to good effect, look with mercy on my endeavours. Grant that I may desire only that which is lawful and right. Afford me calmness of mind and steadiness of purpose, that I may so do thy will in this short life, as to obtain happiness in the world to come. For the sake of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen
Sunday 12 February 3 Before Lent by Katharine Rumens
Ecclesiasticus 15: 15 – end and Matthew 5: 21 – 26
If you were wondering what secret of a successful life is, we got the answer last week: Tim Cook chief executive of Apple was speaking to students and advised them not to fall in love with profits or revenues and instead to concentrate on finding something that they felt passionately about.
We are not told what the students thought about that – how else are they going to pay off their student loans unless they get rich – isn’t passion a bit of a luxury when there are bills to pay?
Tim Cook said, ’My advice to all of you is: don’t work for money – it will wear out fast, or you’ll never make enough ever to be happy. You have to find the intersection of doing something you’re passionate about and at the same time something that is in the service of other people.
Interestingly under Cook's leadership Apple has increased its donations to charity, and the philosophy of the company is to leave the world a better place than when we found it. Good virtuous stuff.
What do we know about Tim Cook? Very little really - he is by nature a solitary and Wikipedia tells us that he was baptised as a Baptist – that is as an adult not as an infant. Baptists explain that baptism is a very special moment on the journey of faith. It is a moment when God's presence and blessing meets us – we agree with all that – but for them it is a moment when we make our personal commitment of faith in Jesus as Lord. Not the parents and godparents speaking on behalf of the child, but the individual speaking for themselves. That’s what Tim Cook has done. He has made the conscious choice to stand on God’s side.
‘If you choose’ says the writer of Ecclesiasticus – one of the wisdom books of the bible. Prophecy had come to an end, the revelation of God was now recorded in a series of sayings. We very rarely get to hear a reading from this or any other book in the Apocrypha on a Sunday morning which contains books enticingly called Susanna or ‘Bel and the Dragon.’
The author of Ecclesiasticus sets down the choices that face us all. You choose, life or death. And don’t blame Eve, or the snake when you mess things up. It’s your choice.
In the collect we prayed:
Eternal God, give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.
Don’t fix your heart on money - it will wear out fast, or you’ll never make enough ever to be happy. Choose to fix your heart on true joy.
We’ve got a bit of a breathing space – two and a half weeks before we really need to get down to the heart-fixing time of Lent. Our preparations for Lent may be just be a couple of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday if we have remembered to buy the lemons. The weather is grim and grey – we’ve had too much sofa. Life is a bit pan-cakey - fatty and a bit flat. Do some early spring cleaning, have a clear out - make some choices.
Up the mountain, Jesus put it this way. You shall not murder – that’s the law, but I say to you… and he makes it harder. As a theologian provocatively says, Jesus comes across as a fanatic having a rant and as a consequence has been ignored by Christians ever since.
When Jesus called his society together he gave its members a new way of life to live. He gave them a new way to deal with offenders – by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence – by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money – by sharing it. He gave them a new way to deal with problems of leadership – by drawing upon the gifts of every member – however humble. He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society – by building a new order, not smashing the old. He gave them a new pattern of relationship.
And a new way of following the law which begins with the attitude that can lead to appalling actions. Anger can lead to murder, road rage can kill. Desdemona dies because Othello is eaten up with the anger of a jealous husband.
I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow. (William Blake)
So stop now. Name your anger. ‘When you are offering your gifts at the altar’…..The duty of reconciliation takes precedence even over duties commanded by God in temple worship. Meeting the one who has wronged us, or the one we have wronged is far harder than just following the letter of the law. Those difficult conversations as the ones managed by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa twenty years ago. Difficult conversations which need to go on the whole time if wrath is not to grow out of control; if reconciliation is going to be possible.
Anyone can follow the rules – that’s the easy part to offer turtle doves, a bull, a sheep or a goat – as required by the law. Anyone looking on would assume I was a good and devout believer doing the right thing. They are not to know I have unfinished business. It wouldn’t show. Who would know?
Jesus challenges members of the church to confront those whom we think have sinned against us. ‘If you are angry.’ He does not say that if we think we have been wronged we might consider confronting the one we believe has done us wrong. Jesus tells us we must do it because the wrong is not against us, but against the body, that is, the whole holiness of the church is at stake. ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’
As is revealed almost weekly in the press: holiness is at stake because of the abuse of children and young people, because of violence against the vulnerable, and hidden lies lived by those in positions of power. Distressingly the list goes on.
And for ourselves? If you choose. As we look ahead to Lent, perhaps a question to ask ourselves is what can I do about what makes me angry? Which is probably quite enough to keep us going for 40 days and 40 nights.
Sunday 5 February 4 Before Lent by Katharine Rumens
It is probably not a good idea when being sized up for a job to risk being witty. The archdeacon, the rector and I were the kitchen sorting out coffee before the interview. There was general chat about holidays – and I said I thought that camping was a cry for help. I did not know at the time that in the summer holidays the archdeacon’s and rector’s families regularly went camping together in France.
The wisdom of the campers’ lifestyle choice was confirmed this week by scientists who maintain that a weekend’s camping can improve your health. Almost one in ten of those interviewed said they went camping to get some ‘alone time’. I thought that was interesting – not ‘me’ time - going to the gym, having a pedicure, catching up on a box set with a bag of crisps. But ‘alone time’.
Out there watching the seasons change and the sun set – alone – perhaps in the company of others – but not crowded out by distractions. Withdrawing to make space for ‘Alone time.’ As that line from the Desert Fathers: sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. It’s finding the grace to stay still and letting the Holy Spirit reveal everything to you.
On each of these four remaining Sundays before Lent the gospel reading will take us up a mountain. Three extracts are from the Sermon on the Mount, as today, and the Sunday before Lent we are on the Mountain of the Transfiguration. Mountains – encounters with God, places of revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the temptations of Jesus, ‘Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world.’ (Matt 4:8)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and began to speak…you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.
The previous chapter of Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus should have been going – was it really in the scheme of things for him to be hanging around. Didn’t he have a job to do? Just as he was about to get going, news reached him that John the Baptist had been arrested. Not good news, if this is what happens to the one who goes before, what will happen to the one who follows? What does Jesus do? He withdraws to Galilee. Alone time big time. Since the beginning, since a star rose in the east for the magi there have been constant withdrawals in this story. The magi withdrew and returned to their country by another way; Joseph withdrew with his wife and child to Egypt and later to Nazareth. Now Jesus too must withdraw. He won’t escape suffering, but he will not seek it.
Jesus withdrew to Galilee – there he began to preach proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. His fame spread. Great crowds followed him. ‘When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;’ which should – according to scripture - be the place of solitude – when Moses climbed Mount Sinai he wasn’t followed by a mob demanding his attention.
And the first verses of the sermon are the famous blessings: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn…. then ‘You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world’. You are, you know.
Peter Hall’s autobiography is called, ‘Making an exhibition of myself.’ We can imagine this is a misquotation of what an exasperated grown up said to him as a child. Don’t make an exhibition of yourself. Stop showing off. Simmer down and read a book quietly, otherwise I shall get cross.
Only rude, badly brought up children want to be the centre of attention. Ironic really that for much of his life, both professionally and privately, Peter Hall was in the limelight.
Jesus tells the people to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world - not for their personal need for attention and affirmation – perhaps nothing more than showing off which even grown-ups are capable of. This is about our participation in God’s work in the world. That is the glory; that is what give life and light through and to ourselves and others.
Jesus does not say to the crowd, do remember to put your lamp under a bushel basket. On grounds of health and safety alone we don’t want you to dazzle us by your brilliance. No, says Jesus. Shine out. Bathe the world in light.
On Monday, the PCC revised our Mission Action Plan – we’re still working on it. It’s on the website – have a look at it, let us know if there are things to be added, or changes to be made. We have lit our lamp. Now for that lampstand. One of our five points is ‘We look outwards’, and we mainly do so through supporting charities – like the foodbank collections four times a year. We do not stand outside Waitrose with a big sign saying ‘Members of St Giles’ putting the gospel into action – look at us and be impressed’. We do not put a sticker on every tin donated saying ‘from a collection organised by practising Christians.’ That would be making an exhibition of ourselves. We just do it.
Being the light of the world is not about tagging a spiritual tract on at the end of an action. Those who need foodbanks are not preached at, given a bible passage to learn, told to repent. Being the light of the world is communicating the good news that shapes our thoughts and words and deeds – sometimes this will be explicit. More often it will be implicit – actions that communicate that God is love.
Sometimes the food bank collections go to the Dunloe Centre in Haggerston run by St Saviour’s Priory. Once a week people who live on the streets and refugees are given a hot meal and a supply of food and toiletries. Sister Elizabeth runs it. She was asked by one young man why he felt so much love when he came to collect his ration of food. Elizabeth is a Godly and wise woman. She said you have to remember it was bought in love, collected in love, sorted in love and we give it to you in love. There is a chain of love making all this possible.
“Prayerful lives, deeds of mercy, gentle listening to the needs of others: these are God’s beacons, a chain of light across the world which human eyes may see and as a result be lifted above the doubt and despair which can engulf us”.
Perhaps we need alone time to think about all that.
Our nostrils are full of the smoke from historic burnings. 350 years ago the City was still smouldering after the Great Fire. St Giles escaped only to fall victim to the 1897 conflagration in the nearby ostrich feather warehouse and then even more seriously in 1940, the church was devastated by incendiary bombs.
Tonight however is an occasion for celebrating the resilience of London and recovery of nerve on the part of the Christian community in London. Memories and associations cluster thickly here in St Giles and we give thanks for those who have worshipped here before us and especially those who in recent years have brought the church back to life.
Thanksgiving is a creative act which diverts the pressure of the passing
moment and opens the mind and the heart to what lies beneath and beyond the sick hurry of the everyday. John Milton, who is remembered here with particular respect, said “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world”.
The City is a very hectic environment and we need accessible places where we can penetrate the surface of things to gain a deeper vision of what is worthwhile in life and a clearer direction of travel. Hats off to you for keeping the church open. St Giles is just such a place as Jacob found at Beth-el, which means “the house of God”. The name Jacob means “the supplanter” he who by his cunning had stolen his brother’s birth right; he was a schemer, a wheeler-dealer so it was only when he went to sleep that he woke up. Those who range over the surface world with avid eye are really in fantasy land those who are shown the world beneath and beyond the surface, awake. Jacob woke from his sleep and said “Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it. How awesome is this place.”
Recovery after disaster depends, yes upon financial and material resources but also vitally on resources of the spirit. A lot of hard work and planning went into rebuilding this church. We praise God for those who had the faith to ensure that St Giles rose from the ashes.
Faith and confidence which means literally “having faith together” are as significant in building and rebuilding a city as bricks and mortar. Here in the City there have been times when faith has been relegated to the leisure sector. Not so long ago there was a crisis of confidence which called in question the importance of maintaining and developing the life of the churches rebuilt after the Great Fire and restored after the war. Plans were drawn up to close all but four of the City Churches but with renewed
confidence in the centrality of faith to the life of the City we have witnessed an astonishing revival. Confidence in Jesus Christ has been turned into compassion and creativity as we seek with every one of good will to serve all Londoners irrespective of their place of origin or world view.
It is important to know the story of a place in a way that fuels gratitude. So often fruitful change happens, when we recover an original inspiration in new circumstances – in truth we remember the future.
One of the things we remember this evening especially in the presence of Mollie Munn is St Luke’s Old Street which was re-united with St Giles 50 years ago. This ancient parish was once upon a time divided into two parts, the area within the City which was called the Freedom and the area which became St Luke’s which was called the Lordship.
John Wesley preached and worshipped in St Luke’s and he had a family connection with this place and I rejoice that this is of the places where the tragic schism between Methodism and the Church of England is being overcome. Leslie and Jennifer are not here as oecumenical guests but beloved partners in the gospel. We have moved into a post-denominational future although some church leaders have yet to get the message. As we remember we need to transcend the broils of recent centuries in order to remember our roots, as people “chosen and precious in God’s sight, called to be living stones being built into a spiritual house in which all may taste and see the Spirit of Jesus Christ”. We remember our roots with a lively sense of the judgement of the end time which will be anticipated, as scripture says, by a time of trial when the strength and integrity of what has been built will be once again tested by fire.
There are those in every generation who imagine complacently that the present reality will endure but the tectonic plates are shifting. The unchallengeable western hegemony of the last 250 years is giving way to a more genuinely multi-polar world in which the countries of the East will resume the place they have occupied for most of human history. We have the privilege of serving Jesus Christ, the hope of the whole world, on this global crossroads which is London and we must be determined to embrace the diversity of modern London. Whatever we do for Jesus Christ in this wired up City reverberates for good or ill throughout world.
We serve by building a diverse community united in the Spirit of Christ to touch and embrace all our neighbours without distinction. London is full of people who live alone and we have a clear responsibility to consider their needs and their contribution. I especially honour the emphasis in your Mission Action Plan on work with young people and St Luke’s school in particular. This will require creativity and I may not be the best guide in this area. I was in one of our primary schools recently and the children asked me – do you remember anything which you did at school. I said, yes, I was the ink monitor. It was a job for a responsible child who had a metal can full of ink with which the china inkwells in our desks were filled every morning. They looked baffled and the teacher came to my rescue saying, we have just done a project on the Victorians and there is one of those cans in the display. We need young people themselves to help us navigate into the new digital world.
So for the past and the resilience of this church after its various fires,
thanks. And for the future in which our work will certainly be tested again,
we ask for the vision of Jacob and the stickability of Mollie Munn.’
Where to visit us:-
St Giles' Cripplegate Church
London EC2Y 8DA
Registered Charity Number 1138077
Services and church opening hours
Communion (First Sunday in the month)
10.00 Parish Eucharist
16.00 Evening Prayer
Evening Prayer may be cancelled on the Sunday after Christmas and on Easter Day or during August. The service may also be cancelled if no key holder is available or it may take place in the Rectory instead.
08.30 Morning Prayer (Monday-Thursday)
Monthly Private Prayer and Reflection
These sessions are held on the first Thursday of the month., from 13.00-13.30.
Future Dates, Thursdays, 5 October, 2 November and 7 December.
These sessions are normally held on the first Thursday of the month from 13.30-15.00. Some gentle cleaning and tea and cakes at the end.
Future Dates, Thursdays, 5 October, 2 November and Wednesday 6 December.
The church is normally open from 11.00-16.00 Monday to Friday.
Parish Office Opening Hours
Tel: 020 7638 1997