Sermon April 2017

35 years ago I spent a day in Florence.

And I was dazzled, by the brightness of summer sun, by the intensity of the light reflected off the marble on so many of the buildings, and by the luminosity of the paintings of Botticelli in the Uffizi gallery.

I knew at the time that most of the beauty of the city owed its existence to the patronage of the Medici banking family, but what I didn’t realise was how that patronage worked. I had imagined that the relationship was primarily a financial one- between paymaster and artist.

But it wasn’t.

Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and other luminaries of what came to be known as the Renaissance were regular dinner guests of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and for periods of time actually lived in his palace. They also participated in the meetings Lorenzo organised when scholars discussed the political and philosophical ideas of the Greeks and Romans, and how they squared with Christianity and the challenges of contemporary life- which then were every bit as complex as they are now, with civil strife and international instability ever threatening.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it was the community of scholars, artists, philosophers and theologians- such categories were very fluid then- that Lorenzo- astute banker and shrewd political operator-  drew together which changed history and culture forever.

We talk easily these days about communities, when we often seem to mean groups or categories of people united by one defining characteristic only- communities which have real impact are usually smaller and have more in common; are able to meet, converse and break bread together.

Today we have 2 overlapping communities present, Oscar’s family and friends and the St Barnabas church community which he is about to enter at his baptism.

Due to the slippage of language it is easy to forget that a church is not a building but a gathering place- a place of meeting.

This is put so emphatically in the words on the order of service when we get to the baptising part of this morning.

First the whole congregation is invited to welcome Oscar, on the assumption that he is not here by whim; Hattie and Chris having  thought deeply about why they are bringing him, and because ultimately God is calling him- as Christians we are committed to the idea that God cares for all his children and welcomes them at any time they  turn to him.

But next the parents and godparents are addressed.

Parents and godparents, the Church receives Oscar with joy.

And your role is to pray for him, lead by example, and help him to find a place in the community of faith,

 To walk with him in the way of Christ.

So the church is not only the meeting place between Oscar’s family and friends and the congregation, but the place where we hope God in Christ can also be encountered.

That is where the responsibility shifts back to all of us who are regular members of the church. How do we do we ensure that is the case- honestly and truthfully? By our actions, our words and our ideals?

A few weeks ago when George Dillon performed his brilliant one man play inspired by St Matthew’s Gospel here, he portrayed the disciples, particularly St Peter, as being a dense bunch, inarticulate and very, very slow on the up-take.

His view was that Christ is the central character and the disciples are merely dramatic foils.

I would argue that they are not mere foils,; they are blundering human beings.

Like we see in the readings today. The one from the Gospel of John, when they simply can’t get their minds around the implications of the Resurrection, and the one from Acts when they are struggling to understand the continuity between what happened before and after Easter.

When St Peter, the erstwhile blunderer in chief begins, for the first time to find his voice.

There is an election coming up a bit sooner than expected. One of the questions that will be rightly raised by politicians and commentators alike will be ‘What thought of society do you want?’ But I think we all know that the party political system can only play a part in answering that question.

It will be, as it always has been in our communities, whether families, or churches or neighbourhoods, interest groups, or even businesses , where we connect in a meaningful way that the donkey work is done.

For the church with our certainty that there is continuity between the good news of Easter and all that Christ meant before, we need to pay particular attention to the kingdom of God; that aslant way of living and set of priorities that Christ pointed to  again and again in parable and action.

Put so powerfully into words by the poet R S Thomas over 30 years ago.

It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on:

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured

 By life.

 

 

Sermon on Thomas Aquinas

In the wake of the rise in numbers of people who are homeless there has been an increase in the numbers of people begging on the streets; in response there has been pressure in some circles to fine people for begging. To drive such unwelcome impoverished people further out public view.

Imagine though what you would think if one of your own children or a sibling made the voluntary decision to become a beggar.

The much admired St Francis of Assisi appalled his father when he did exactly that in 1207

Voluntary beggardom reached almost epidemic proportions over the next few decades, as the Franciscan and Dominican movements caught fire across Europe.

That was part of the deal for all those who joined movements we often see now as charming and admirable, if a bit eccentric.

At the time parents and families were horrified, by such appalling, counter-cultural behaviour.

Entering a monastery was seen as a perfectly acceptable career move. It provided warmth and food, an opportunity to become a scholar and pursue, in its purest form, the religious life.

It was what we might now call an aspirational decision.

To become a friar- a Franciscan or Dominican, was regarded for many decades as down-right scandalous.

So when Thomas Aquinas, aged 19, in 1244 decided to join the recently formed order of Dominicans, his family were so horrified that they kidnapped him and locked him up for a year.

Yesterday was the day the church remembered this particular drop out saint.

For those brought up within the Roman Catholic fold or who have studied philosophy at any level Aquinas is a familiar name, but otherwise he has become a bit of a blank.

So here are some good reasons that this medieval man who died over 700 years ago should still be celebrated.

The first reason is Reason itself.

We often think of Aquinas’ time as a benighted era- hence the dismissive term’ The Dark Ages,’ often applied to it- but it is becoming more and more apparent that it was actually the time when many of the building blocks that founded the modern world were first laid.

Thinking hard about the world and trying to understand how it works and has coherence, were all things that Aquinas endeavoured to do.

He was the first major Christian thinker to draw on the philosophy of Aristotle rather than Plato, which meant that he drew attention to the material world in which we live and the uncertain way in which we probe it via our senses and hazily get a grip on it through our experiences; and he constantly looked for causes- being certain that although everything ultimately had its origin in God, all the causes along the way were worthy of study.

He was convinced that anything that was observable as true in the world owed that truth to God, its ultimate source.

Truth really was for Aquinas sacred!

But my next good reason for attending to Aquinas is that he was clear about the limits of reason to.

We like to believe that we personally apply logic and the scrutiny of evidence and fairness when we go about our business; particularly when we make moral or political judgements.

The give-away should be that we frequently suspect that people who disagree with us have not thought things through properly or have suspect motivation.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done an enormous amount of work to show how out intuitions and other unconscious factors actually take the lead- my favourite anecdote of his being that if you interview college students about their political opinions and moral concerns they veer in a conservative direction if standing near a water cooler.

There seems to be some subliminal effect caused by water’s association with purity and cleanliness.

I wonder if I should try a similar experiment next to the font!

Having studied cultures around the world and interviewed thousands of people he has concluded that factors such as purity, attitudes to family, notions of freedom and tradition, and religious outlook have far more influence on all of us than what we consider as rational decision making.

Which is not to say that thinking and sifting evidence is not a good; just that it is not as automatic to us and straightforward as we would like to think.

Aquinas would have agreed completely.

My final good thing to celebrate about Aquinas is that he was not essentially a philosopher, he was a saint and a theologian, whose main concern was how to be a faithful Christian.

No one joins a religious order, especially one like the Dominicans, dedicated to begging, poverty and preaching-  to align oneself with the fundamentals of Christ’s life- unless deeply committed to following in His footsteps.

And one of his great convictions, which connects with what I have just said about how the irrational plays such a large part in our lives was that love was at the bottom of everything.

Absolutely immersed in the Scriptures such praise of God, as heard from the psalmist just now, would have filled his consciousness.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,

 Your faithfulness to the clouds.

 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,

 Your judgements are like the great deep…

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

All people may take refuge in the shadow of their wings.

Bringing that exalted image down to earth; here a number of things he  wrote, which are worth chewing over and give a flavour of his character.

The things that we love tell us what we are.

There is nothing to be prized more than true friendship.

Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over it drives compassion out.

We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have laboured in the search for truth, and both have helped us find it.

The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays his head against us.

 

 

Midnight Mass sermon 2016

Sermon Midnight Mass 2016

One thing that unites all of us here tonight; is that we have all cried.

Tears can burst upon us- When we experience, personally, moments of  great sadness, or witness scenes of horror and injustice from afar; or indeed when we hear a heart-breaking song.

Even if you are particularly stiff-upper lipped you will have cried at least once.

For we all cry within seconds of being born.

We have to get air into our lungs to start re-configuring our bodies for existence outside the womb, and we need our mother’s immediate attention, because from the very beginning our lives depend upon her.

We cry therefore we are.

There is no mention of Jesus crying in the Gospel passages that allude to his birth, and the children’s carol, ‘Away in a manger,’ paints the highly improbable scenario of the infant Christ waking up and making not a sound, ‘no crying he makes;’-  a model for how Victorians thought children should behave.

But there is no doubt that like the rest of us Christ entered the world with a cry.

It is worth remembering that when hearing the grand and abstract way that St John puts it in the prologue to his Gospel; that I read just now.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory.’

Christmas is the time when we celebrate both the beginning and the magnitude of that event.

God entering decisively into the world he created through a human life.

It all begins in Bethlehem; but it certainly doesn’t end there.

Christmas happens near the beginning of the church year- the rest of the year we reflect upon what happened afterwards, and its continuing significance for us and God’s world.

When St John really gets going with his Gospel he fills it with details- of parties and conversations, of conflicts and life changing moments- of Jesus, confronting, challenging and loving.

But St John begins with great images.

Another evocative one being Christ as the light of the world, which is another way of expressing the notion that Christ flashes out the glory of God into the world.

the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’

Try to imagine a real fire.

Of coal or wood.

The glowing embers provide some warmth and a little glow of light. Add more fuel, and the watch the flames burst upwards, and see the light cast across the room and feel the warmth upon your skin.

I can’t help but think that the light St John had in mind was fire light- providing illumination and warmth; – rather than the beautiful but cold light of stars.

A source of light which can be felt, and can be comforting, but also can burn.

St John made some philosophical claims in poetic language at the beginning of his Gospel.

That the God who creates, sustains, but transcends the world, is also capable of entering into the messiness of its materiality- something very much doubted by many of his sophisticated contemporaries, and by billions today.

And that Christ had always at work- other philosophical schools and religions were taken by St John to contain at least glimpses of truth and wisdom- they weren’t all wrong in his eyes.

But his over-riding conviction was that in Christ God has become not only visible, but present; fully involved in human life.

From the first tears to the last.

Something smouldering and precarious had burst into flames in the world; transforming the entire landscape.

The invisible had become visible and has in some sense driven back the darkness. Not through a text or a manifesto but through a person.

It is the grown up Christ who according to St John, drew in the sand and forgave when a mob wanted to exact summary justice against a vulnerable woman,

and who took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples as a sign of the immeasurable value of service,

and who stood face to face with a Roman Governor who had a slippery concept of truth,

and who on every occasion that he performed a breath-taking act, described as a sign, but often since termed a miracle, brought new life, spiritual refreshment, and hope; from a God of exuberant passion for all that he had made.

That is the message of Christmas. All of us who cry alone or together are precious to God; who loves all of his creation; which he loves from the inside as well as the outside.

His fire always flings back the darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A week at St Barnabas: some highlights!

  • It began with the admission of 7 children to first communion on Sunday. A joyous landmark in their journey of faith.
  • On Sunday evening we had a concert with music and reflections centred around the Sufi philosopher Rumi- with a chance to hear an oud; the ancestor of the lute.
  • Riversdale Primary featured a lot this week.St Barnabas has long had links with our local school- both my predecessors, David and Bertrand, having been governors- and on Monday I took an assembly there and chaired the Governors’ meeting in the evening.
  • The next day I accompanied Amy, the head-teacher, to a meeting with Wandsworth councillors, where the progress of the school and Amy’s leadership were widely praised.
  • Meanwhile Claire was busy in the office and planning for the first evening of the Night Shelter on Friday.
  • Tom Tillyard’s team were hard at work restoring the church, with Mark Kennett doing some amazing masonry repairs. Meanwhile Steve from R&S roofing was investigating the recurring leak from the parapet above the vestry window.
  • Just before 9am on Thursday The Mayor and Royal Marines joined about 200 students from Southfields Academy for the annual Remembrance Day event around the war Memorial. This is always a moving community event; which is then followed up by a further act of remembrance at the Academy. It is always good to hear about the ambitions of the students too.
  • Later on Thursday there was a meeting of the clergy representing the 4 churches, where future plans were discussed and Joy’s leadership of the Youth Group was commended. We also picked up the mince for Friday’d chilli, kindly provided at a large discount by The Village Butchers.
  • On Friday we welcomed staff from Glassdoor Shelter for the homeless, and at around 6 pm our first guests arrived, although some found it very difficult to find our church! Thanks to the team- Claire, Caroline,Jane and Helen. We confidently left the Night Staff to it at about 10 pm. All went very well.
  • Saturday morning saw our annual All Souls Service, with about 60 people in attendance. Thanks to Charles who played the organ and Margaret for organising the refreshment team.

Sermon on Bible Sunday

It might become one of those questions which children one day ask their parents.

Where were you when you heard the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel prize for literature? I was in my car, nodding off slightly- don’t worry I was only the passenger- but I did bang my head against the window when I heard the announcement!

The woman who announced the winner didn’t sound totally convinced either- or she might have been influenced by the Australian habit of making statements sound like questions- when she read out- the winner of this year’s Nobel prize for literature is Bob Dylan? The world at the moment seems perfectly divided between those who are hurraying and those who think the world has taken another peculiar turn.

At the heart of it is a question of genre- does Dylan write great songs or does he write poetry?

Today is Bible Sunday- and that means we have to consider questions of genre too?

If I was to reflect on the whole Bible, as I have done many times in the past, I would remind you of the songs, the poetry and the literature- as well as the history, theology, comic sketches, law, ethics, letters etc which we find across the whole Bible; which, of course is a library about the human quest for and encounter with God.

But this year I want to concentrate on only one part of the bible- well actually 4 parts. The Gospels.

Hold up.

Pictures on the front in gold. Have you ever noticed them?

What are they and why are they there?

Matthew = Human with wings.

Mark= Lion.

Luke= Ox

John= Eagle.

This association of the 4 gospels with 4 creatures can be traced back to the middle of the C2nd century, and has a fascinating story behind it- much of it guess-work!

And what it tells us about the nature of the Bible is significant.

And here is a link with what I said about Bob Dylan and genre earlier. Only Mark’s Gospel actually calls itself a gospel.

John and Matthew self- describe as books.

While Luke calls his version an orderly account of events- all those which have shaped the Christian community so far.

The earliest description from outside the gospels themselves comes from Justin Martyr, in about 120 AD, where he calls them the memoirs of the Apostles.

But Gospels was the collective title which stuck; and I think for good reason.

The’ 4 orderly accounts’ was never going to catch on and neither was the 4 books; because that does not really say anything, and they are ,despite what  Justin Martyr said, quite clearly much more than biographies or memoirs-, even though they do contain quite a lot of such detail.

The word Gospel – is a translation of the greek evanggelion. The word usually translated as good news in the New Testament, but also used in the Greek world for a public proclamation made by a king or other person of power, and therefore carrying with it a sense that a life changing message is involved.

One of the most popular one man translation of the Bible is called ‘ The Message.’

I am sure that Gospel caught on because it not only describes the type of book referred to, but what it is and what it does.

These four gospels are where we can encounter Jesus Christ. They include information about him, but also much more. They do announce and proclaim a vital message.

They contain meaning, and questions for us. They contain comfort but also profound challenges.

They confirm what the Old Testament also tells us, that our relationship with God is a blessed one, but not easily encapsulated- in a system of rules, or doctrines or beliefs.

It is something, if you like, that we get caught up in but never entirely get! If we had one Gospel only we might have had it easier, but I think we would have been much more likely to miss the richness of what theologians have termed the Mystery of God.

Having 4 Gospels, each with its curious symbol, paints a much fuller, more tantalising and rewarding picture.

Matthew’s Gospel has this man symbol associated with it. This seems to have happened because it begins and ends with humanity; specifically Jewish humanity.

It begins with long genealogies about Jesus’ ancestry.

In doing so the point is made that the culture Jesus inherited shaped him and was a fundamental part of who he was. In Matthew we read of things now long associated with the rabbinical tradition. Jesus gives practical guidance on how to lead a righteous life, how to root that in self- awareness and how to re-configure your motivation. It is the Gospel which allows no escape from the practical application of religion and should have made Anti-Semitism unthinkable.

The symbol for Mark’s Gospel is the lion- because Mark begins his story in the desert- the domain of the wild beasts.

The place where people are most vulnerable; and most aware of their need and who they are.

The guiding theme of Mark’ s Gospel instantly becomes apparent- that the starting point of discovering that you are beloved by God is to be honest about your frailty and faults and terrors.

In the gospel Jesus offers hope and forgiveness, but never a cure all. If it begins in the desert it in ends with the women outside the empty tomb, who are afraid.

It is the Gospel which above all spells out that humility is the root of faith- not something to be banished as you become more proficient but something to be nurtured.

The Ox became associated with St Luke’s Gospel because begins with John the Baptist’s father Zechariah in the Temple at Jerusalem- a place of animal sacrifice.

What happens to Zechariah is something initially terrifying and impossible to assimilate turns over time into a source of rejoicing. Actually again and again in this Gospel God is shown to work through a series of ambushes which at first disconcert but then when light dawns turn out to be transformations. It was CS Lewis who coined the phrase ‘Surprised by Joy,’ to describe those experiences we have which echo this picture.

To me this is a great reminder that faith is not about self- denial- but about the heart and mind being opened up and discovering new horizons; over and over again.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus’ opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads it out, but immediately makes the claim that this is no old text, no ancient wisdom- profound as it is- no, here and now, he will give sight to the blind and set the prisoners free!

And finally John- with its symbol the eagle. John’s Gospel simply is the Gospel that soars. There is a wonderful psalm, which we often say together at Night Prayer- psalm 91, which has the verses.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High:

 Who abides under the shadow of the Almighty…

 He will cover you with his wings, and you shall be safe under his feathers:

 His faithfulness will be your shield and defence. 

It is John who assures us that God has been upholding the world since the very beginning and proclaims that his love has no limit and no end.

Each of the Gospels, of course has far more to say than these summaries suggest; but my point is that they complement each other, and help fill in the picture. And together proclaim to us and offer to us the good news God has given- and it is very rich, challenges and eye-popping fare.

 

 

Sermon on Blessing: September 4th 2016

When you attend a church service like our main service, to paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis ‘ there’s a whole lotta blessing going on.’ Incense is blessed before the service, twice more during it, and that incense is then used to bless the altar, the bread and the wine, the cross, the people etc,

And of course the service always finishes with a verbal blessing of the congregation by the priest.

But although in the main service everything is more dramatic and explicit in the way it highlights blessing, obviously, it does not follow that the early service and those who attend are somehow less blessed-second rate worshippers with their second rate service- in both senses of the word.

It would be very odd to think that there is something inferior about an incense free service.

How we understand blessing is key.

Our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy is all about blessing. Moses is addressing the people of Israel as, after years of wandering in the wilderness, they stand on the margins of the promised land. But his message is not one of undiluted triumph and optimism- ‘ you’ve made it at last.’ His words are hopeful but have a warning attached.

God he says has set before you.

Life and prosperity but also death and adversity.

Blessings, but curses to.

Moses’ message here repeats itself again and again throughout the Old Testament- it is that God has made you- all people- for good- for life- for compassion- for fulfilment etc. but you don’t always choose that path- you will make the wrong choices.

The same message is there in the story in Genesis of the creation of Adam and Eve.

In the Old Testament- First chapter of God’s dealings with humanity-The Law and the prophets provided the guidelines and the wisdom that help people return to the straight and narrow.

But at the root of everything is the fundamentally good creation gifted by God- the original blessing, as some have called it.

Christianity took that idea on.

Turn to page 5 of your order of service.

We find it expressed on page 5 of the service- right at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, and where we also explicitly use the language of blessing; because our existence and nature is something which we are grateful to God for and therefore wish to express our praise to Him. To lift up our hearts and to give thanks for.

Blessed are you, Lord God,

 Our light and our salvation;

To you be glory and praise for ever.

From the beginning you have created all things and all your works echo the silent music of your praise. In the fullness of time you made us in your image, the crown of all creation.

Unfortunately, that crown just keeps on slipping.

Which is why that great prayer shortly changes gear, from the blessing of the gift of life to our need of God’s steadfast and active compassion.

As a mother tenderly gathers her creation, you embraced a people as your own. When they turned away and rebelled your love remained steadfast.

And then moves on to Jesus. Another, decisive gift from God; a blessing which enables true reconciliation and salvation; what we can’t achieve for ourselves or by ourselves.

The rest of the Eucharistic prayer recaps how this happens which is why we all respond at the end of that prayer with the words.

 Blessing and honour and glory and power be yours for ever . Amen.

It can be a bit confusing at times but blessing clearly is a 2 way street. It describes  what God has done for us and continually offers to us, and also what we feel in response. As He blesses us, we wish to bless him in gratitude.

But a third element needs a mention too. I referred to it when I preached a couple of weeks ago- calling or vocation. What we are for- what something is ultimately for. That is one of the reasons that we can bless incense and people.

Let me try to explain?

Unseen by most people in church we bless the incense in the vestry before the service begins. There are different ways of doing this. Joy and I will make the sign of the cross over it and pray internally something like this- Be blessed by him in whose honour you shall be burned.

The incense we use in church has been made by monks and nuns from the gum of various trees- frankincense is a key ingredient.

When it is harvested in Asia or North Africa it is already destined to be used as scent, but its exact purpose is not fixed.

When it falls into the hands of the incense makers its purpose becomes more defined, but its ultimate destination is not known.

But when we use it becomes special for us- as it helps us honour the good news of the gospel, celebrate the bread and wine and all the people here in this community. So its purpose is refined.

When we bless it we don’t fundamentally change it, but we do set it apart for a special and exalted purpose; and one which ultimately has its source in God as it is part of creation.

Isn’t that the way it is for us when we come together to worship?

We come to reflect on the blessing we receive from God, and express our blessing in praise and thanks, but we also come to receive the blessing of becoming- refinding, rather than refining, ourselves; to go back into God’s world as a blessing to it. – quote prayer after communion- both of them.

Send us out in the power of your spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.

We who the spirit lights give light to the world.