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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter morning sermon.

Last Friday I followed in the Queen’s footsteps.

On Thursday she opened the new lion enclosure in London Zoo. On Friday Ruth and I were among the first members of the public to visit the new attraction, as part of a special preview for zoo members

We did get more than a glimpse of the lions- we actually saw them running and heard them roaring, which was first for me in nearly 50 years of visiting. As you know, lions, in captivity tend to pace or sleep!

I will never forget that.

But just before we joined the queue for that feature something, even more unforgettable happened.

I had my closest ever encounter with a Blue Morpho butterfly.

I was just about to leave the butterfly house when someone said ‘you seem to have a friend.’ And pointed at my coat.

There indeed was a large butterfly with its wings closed; so all I could see was the grey parchment- like, owl eyed exterior of the wing.

And then it opened its wings for a second and I glimpsed the iridescent  blue inside. If you haven’t seen a Blue Morpho, the effect-  produced by the refraction of light- is a kingfisher’s wing crossed with a summer sky- or the cloak of the Virgin Mary for those of you who know your medieval art!

As I knew I had to leave soon, to see the lions and I couldn’t let my hitch-hiker come with me, as the cold would kill it, and you are rightly forbidden to touch such fragile insects, I had a problem.

So I just stood there, waiting for it to take wing of its own accord.

But it didn’t budge, but just stayed their flashing its wings.

At which point the peace of the butterfly house was shattered by a troop of Primary school children. Most of whom were either nervous or terrified of the butterflies zooming around their heads- because of  their unpredictable flight paths , speed, and size- some about the same size as this hymnbook.

So the children wanted to get out as quickly as they could.

Seeing that some were waving their arms about and were in danger of swiping the fragile insects, I gently remonstrated with them.

As I did so and turned, my Morpho opened its wings and the last group of the class saw it and stopped dead. The fear was immediately replaced by wonder. And they remained entranced, until I, having to get to the lions, coaxed it on to my finger and transferred it safely to a flower.

Here on Easter morning, we are at a moment when the terror of Holy Week, is eclipsed by the wonder of Easter Morning.

Jesus Christ, unjustly condemned, betrayed, abandoned by his friends, is put to death on a cross.

There are flashes of the butterfly’s wing too, of God’s and man’s glory- for example, Jesus washing his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper, as a great sign of the power of service for others, and the faithfulness and compassion of Jesus’ women followers, who don’t abandon him.

But it is only on Easter morning that the true wonder is revealed. The women are first at the tomb, and they are terrified. St Peter is next, and he is duly amazed. Which in the Greek has a much stronger sense than it does today.

To re-appropriate Yeats’ century old phrase about the Easter Rising;

the Resurrection has a terrible beauty.

Which is what we would expect- if we understand it as the decisive flashing forth of God’s glory in the world, which points towards the ultimate fulfilment for all creation of God’ loving purposes.

For centuries butterflies have been taken to represent the Resurrection, because of their beautiful transformations- as have flowers!

And candles have long been lit to help the faithful get their minds around the dazzling glory of Easter morning.

But such things were not originally seen as merely symbolic reminders of theological truths to tickle the mind. They were perceived as direct accessible examples of God’s power to transform, mend and enlighten.

God’ s glory was seen as all around- in nature, and the everyday stuff of human life. All that brings forth wonder and love.

I want to conclude with the powerful Easter prayer, written by one of the great Fathers of our Christian Church Gregory of Nazianzus, nearly 1700 years ago.

Let us pray.

Today we rejoice in the salvation of the cosmos.

Christ has risen; let us arise in him!

Christ enters new life; let us live in him;

Christ has come forth from the tomb;

The gates of hell are open,

 And the powers of evil are overcome!

 In Christ a new creation is coming to birth;

Alleluia!

Lord make us new,

 Alleluia. Amen

 

 

 

 

St Paul 2016

I don’t imagine that Jane Austen ever thought that one day there would be a sequel to Pride and Prejudice called ‘ Mrs Darcy versus the aliens.’ But there is- as one reviewer put it’ ‘ it is much funnier than the original and has a lot more aliens.’

Jane Austen’s popularity is such that fictional films are made about her life, all sorts of sequels are written- such as the one above, but also by detective and mainstream writers- and even self help books have appeared drawing on the wisdom of her novels.

I recently read an academic book about her which compared the way her books are now treated to the way the Bible used to be.

That is an interesting thought, particularly if you think, for a moment, about the characteristics of this contemporary reverence.

It sometimes takes the form of a nostalgic wish to live in a world, mistakenly believed to be hers, which is ordered, parochial and safe. The dirt, the dangers of disease, the foul characters seemingly fair, and the truly evil manifestation which is Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, all carefully excised.

Or more commonly her work is taken to be about romance, featuring Mr Darcy ,of course, as the dark and brooding hero.

When one of her persistent themes was the folly of a sensational view of the world, which is mocked most severely in Northanger Abbey, but gently teased in every other.

To her the gothic and the romantic were types of delusion; which is why when it comes to marriage sympathy, compatible social status, and freedom from delusion are so lauded by her.

The love between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy only flourished once the pride and prejudice withered, and they could see each other clearly.

Not quite getting Jane Austen is thus one of the main drivers in appreciating her.

Which I would argue is a good way to come at that seemingly totally different literary figure, St Paul.

Those who we conveniently call conservative Christians look to him for inspiration when they protest at a world where conventional sexual norms are being over-turned. His disapproval is taken to mirror God’s.

But those often labelled liberals also look to him when they seek inspiration for the over-turning of conventional social distinctions. Innovation is an initiative launched by God, and St Paul agrees- so there.

In his letter to the Galatians he writes of the sort of things that will exclude a believer from the kingdom of God- most are nothing at all to do with sex,- such things as strife, in-fighting, jealousy, anger, quarrels are included- but top of his list is fornication, impurity and licentiousness.

But then, 2 chapters earlier he wrote these clarion words, which have inspired all sorts of changes and new ways of thinking in the church.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer Jew, or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

But of course there are not 2 St Paul’s. Neither is he just being muddle headed- a conservative one minute and a liberal the next.

Just like with Jane Austen- to appreciate him is to not quite get him.

About a decade ago the acclaimed biographer Claire Tomalin, who had a track record of rescuing the reputation of neglected women, such as Dickens’ mistress Nelly Ternan,

managed to produce a life of Jane Austen, which almost entirely ignored her intellectual and religious hinterland.

But we know that Austen had access to the well- stocked library of her clerical father, and from hints and references in her letters and novels, that she was steeped in the best Anglican thought of her day- philosophers such as Earl of Shaftesbury, John Locke and Bishop Berkeley and her great favourite Samuel Johnson.  That was her world- her context- she thought and breathed it.

And Claire Tomalin hardly engaged with it at all. She doesn’t seem to be able to tune into the right frequency.

Which I think echoes the problems we have today with St Paul. We Christians are likely to cherry pick his words to suit what we already believe on other grounds, and people who are tone deaf to faith just tend to gravitate towards all the things he wrote which are inimical to the modern point of view and ignore everything else.

Maybe the comparison to Jane Austen is helpful here again?

Although the purpose of each writer was totally different- I do think it would be hard to claim that St Paul was in any way seeking to amuse anybody- both were storytellers.

Austen wrote entertaining fictions for publication from her home in Hampshire, whereas St Paul, travelled the world founding new and encouraging already established Christian communities, argued in market-places, endured ship-wreck and imprisonment, and poured forth his thoughts and advice in letters.

But he was still a storyteller.

The Gospel- in the form that he delivered it- was much more complex than is sometimes thought. Too often, as I said, he has been seen as a marvellous sound- bite and doctrine generator.

‘ But the greatest of these is love.’ 

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.’

We hold that a person is justified by faith.

Just 3 of a host of phrases which have brought comfort and controversy to millions.

But St Paul had a much bigger over-arching story to tell. It was part autobiographical because it was shaped by what had directly happened to him- by the journey he had taken.

It was historical because it drew on the prompts of God’s grace found in the lives of such as Moses and Abraham.

It was cosmological because it addressed again and again God’s purpose in creation. The night sky and the unfolding of the future were seen to communicate meaning.

Christ was the focus of everything- his love and sacrifice.

And St Paul was trying to tell this multi-layered story, from within, and into a diverse variety of contexts.

This man, who was Jewish, and thoroughly immersed in the culture of his first language, Greek, was also Roman citizen. In all he did and wrote we can see him trying to come to grips with the fresh experience of God that he had received.

I think that is vital point- he was not just passing that story on, but was in the story himself and well aware of that.

He might be convinced that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God.’

But he didn’t expect the road forward to be painless and smooth. And others would be sure to have their say.

I find this helpful when I am tempted -which is very often- to despair and agonise about the state of the church today.

Because we are part of an unfolding story too, our own and God’s.

There are bound to be conflicts and failures of understanding along the way- as there always have been.

If understanding St Paul is difficult- the man who has been called the second founder of Christianity- and a fellow member of our own church such as Jane Austen, who lived barely 2 centuries in the past can be so baffling- no wonder we have so much trouble with our contemporaries.

Perhaps some more of St Paul’s words will bring us some comfort and perspective, as they have many times before to people in much worse circumstances than ours. The story is still not ended. Romans 8.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation awaits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God .

If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Patronal Service 2015

Sermon St Barnabas 2015

In his most famous speech Martin Luther King said

 I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation when they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

Last week a much lesser known figure from American evangelicalism but one who has been hugely influential in his own land and over here made a declaration which would have come as an equally profound challenge to many.

The preacher Tony Campolo, now 80 years old, announced that it was time for all the churches to fully accept gay couples.

Part of his argument for what in his circle is a radical change is that marriage is about far more than procreation, and indeed has a strong spiritual dimension.

You will remember St Paul’s list of fruits of the Holy Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self- control. Campolo argues that marriage is an ideal place for such qualities to be practised and developed- the Church of England agrees about this spiritual dimension, putting it this way in the marriage service, with an invitation to the whole congregation.

We pray with them that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen them, that they may fulfil God’s purposes for the whole of their earthly life together.

Campolo sees the very same process at work in gay couples so asks why the disapproval?

Martin Luther King and Tony Campolo can be seen as examples of progressive or inclusive movements within Christianity, but I am wary of both terms. One reason for that is that both smack of the secular humanist myth that the church is doing well when it catches up with the rest of right thinking society. An opinion that can be expressed with hostility or in a slightly patronising manner like a 10 year old being struck with wonder because great grandma has mastered emoji.

I know it will never catch on- but I prefer the word expansive to capture this movement within Christianity. This opening up of horizons and boundaries.

Not only because it is more accurate than inclusive and progressive but also because it can remind us  – and Tony Compolo gets this- that it is not a recent development within Christianity, but of the very essence. An act of recall.

For all its emphasis on remembering and connecting with the wisdom of Christ and the Bible- at the heart of every act of eucharistic worship is the phrase.

Do this in remembrance of me.

The church is terribly prone to forgetting its core vision.

It is often stated very solemnly from pulpits that the point of the church season is to give shape and pattern to the Christian Year. Maybe it is more basic than that.

We just need a hell of a lot of reminders about what our faith is all about- ones that stop us putting everything in little boxes- like race, sexuality, gender.

In recent weeks we have celebrated Pentecost- the fire of God filling the disciples with Vision and energy to proclaim God’s love in word and deed. Then came Trinity Sunday, when we are forced to contemplate the profound mystery of a God who creates, redeems and sanctifies. A God expansive and generous indeed, who knows no barriers to his love.

And today we have our Patronal festival. Not only do we remember St Barnabas- mentor of St Paul and missionary- because this church is named after him.

We remember him in gratitude for who he was. Someone who was caught up in that expansive vision himself. A man of generosity and courage, with a well earned reputation for giving encouragement. Remember those fruits of the Holy Spirit again?

Love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, truthfulness, gentleness and self-control.

And that beautiful passage from the book of Job was so well chosen to illustrate St Barnabas’ character.

When the eye saw, it approved; because I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper… my justice was like a robe and a turban.

 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.

I was father to the needy and I championed the cause of the stranger.

Not bad yard-sticks to live our lives by.

And think of all those examples of Christian forgetting which would not have happened if the expansive God who inspired such insights had been brought to mind?

The God of our Gospel, John 15- whose greatest commandment was to love.

But we mustn’t neglect the other side of the patronal festival- We don’t just celebrate our patron saint but the church and that is us. We have to recollect and celebrate ourselves.

One of the other fundamental aspects of our Christian Vision is that we all play a part. The Greek word translated as church means assembly. It’s the people- all of them who come in response to the generous invitation of God.

Remember the parable of the Father who rushed to meet his errant son as soon as he saw him coming home. Think of the crowds on the Galilean shore who just wanted to get close enough to catch a glimpse of Christ.

So that means all of us. The newly confirmed, the established, the very young, the old, the sure, the hesitant. All who find themselves drawn by the generous, overflowing and expansive heart of God.

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on St Anselm of Canterbury

Apparently there is a pelican in St James’s Park which objects to Selfies. If he is part of the background of someone’s old fashioned photo he is content, but if anyone tries to co-opt him into a picture of themselves he takes umbrage and runs away.

The novelist Howard Jacobson told this story on the radio last week as an intro to a diatribe against modern varieties of egotism, which targeted all those who wish to plaster their own mug-shot across the nation to publish later on face-book( his words not mine) and those readers who grumble about novels which have characters in them who are too strange or different from themselves.

It is not all about me was his heartfelt cry.

Now consider these words, which come from a meditative prayer written, well I won’t say at this point how long ago.

Come now, you ordinary  person,

 Turn aside for a while from your daily employment,

 Escape from the tumult of your thoughts.

 Put aside your cares.

Leave your heaviest worries to one side,

Make space for a time for God

Enter the inner chamber of your soul,

Shut out everything except God,

And that which can help you in seeking him,

 And when you have shut the door, seek him.

Now, my whole heart, say to God,

 I seek your face,

 Lord, it is your face I seek.’

A bit of a contrast to a world which people are very anxious to locate their own face.

I have every sympathy with that Pelican, and I think St Anselm, who wrote those words about 1000 years ago, would have too.

There is a huge amount of good in our world today, much of which we don’t notice because of the way bad news grabs our attention. Between 1990 and 2010 , for example, the number of people living in absolute poverty on our planet reduced by 50% and during the same period the number of children who die every day fell  by 16,000.

Imagine that news reversed and we would be horrified-16000 extra children dying in a tragedy everyday- so why aren’t we rejoicing?

Aid, trade, medical science, political activity have all contributed to an unprecedented improvement in the lives of millions around the world in 2 decades and yet we still easily fall into despair , cynicism and nostalgia in the face of small challenges and immense ones ( such as Climate change and terrorism).

Maybe filling the world with pictures of ourselves is just one more symptom of fear and anxiety? If we only gaze transfixed at ourselves we won’t notice all the troubling and challenging reality out there.

But if we don’t look away from ourselves we can miss much.

We won’t for example pay any heed to those such as St Anselm who lived so long ago. They are so utterly different from us- what can they possibly have to say?

Well I have already given one example with that quotation. We can contemplate the possibility of turning away from our own obsessions, habits and activities, for a moment and go looking for God. Listening, paying attention, being mindful.

All ways of closing the door, however temporarily, against gazing at our own reflection.

When I was reminding myself about St Anselm last week I found myself smiling inwardly.

This man who was born in Italy, 33 years before the battle of Hastings, into a world far more horrid than ours, in terms of violence, want and suffering; who because of the prevailing world view spent even more time worrying about the wiles of the Devil than we do about the duplicity of politicians, is a heart -warming and admirable figure.

In an age when it was a convention that anyone appointed to high office in the church made great protestations of unworthiness- however keenly they may have preened themselves for the post before-hand- St Anselm seems to have been genuine in his lack of ambition.

When he was made, and I do mean made, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093- at the age of 60 – so he was for those times already a very old man- he had to be ambushed at Gloucester by the then king, William Rufus, who thrust the Archbishop’s staff at his closed fist. If Anselm opened his hand and gripped it that would have been a sign of acquiescence.

When he eventually accepted that he was now Archbishop he soon found himself exiled for not knowing his place. It being a feudal society he was  vassal now to the king. As his lord, William Rufus was entitled to demand £1000 from the Archbishop so he could go and wage war in Normandy.

Anselm refused to hand over more than half that sum because he didn’t want to put financial pressure on his tenants. It didn’t help that Anselm also criticised the king’s life-style and the corruption of his closest allies. I am sure some recent political leaders wished they could so easily get annoyingly critical archbishops out of the way.

But the most striking thing about St Anselm is that he was fundamentally a spiritual man. He had become estranged from his father decades earlier because he wanted to ask questions and dig deep into things.

His father would have been happy for him to become a monk at a nearby monastery where he could become a man of status and distinction. But Anselm felt that he could not follow that path and so spent the next few years wandering north in the search for wisdom and a teacher who he could respect.

Eventually he found that person, Lanfranc, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy. It was that geographical accident that resulted years later in his being dragged into power politics. He wanted to do nothing but pray, and think and write. How was he to know that William of  Normandy would soon set his heart on conquest?

We still have Anselm’s prayers, and his theological writings, which were probably the most influential in the whole of the western church before the Reformation apart from those of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.

We owe to him one of the most searching reflections on why God had to enter fully into the human realm to redeem it,; a big part of his answer being compassion- God not being a wise bystander but a seeker after the lost in all the mess of life.

He also wrote many loving letters of spiritual advice to other monks and anyone else who wrote to him. Much of it probably far too stern for our taste, but because of that more likely to give us pause for thought; Like in Hindu culture to this day, in his time, many married couples who had seen their children to adulthood wanted to enter religious communities- now freed from parental responsibilities. He counselled them.

Above all was his focus on God, and his love and majesty and our littleness in comparison. He didn’t seek his own face but God’s.

A final prayer which was written for friends might be helpful, as it also acknowledges our own inability to feel the right emotions and find the required words.. Think of someone you know or one of those stories of suffering that move us so powerfully- kidnapped children, people risking their lives in fragile boats to escape war zones, persecuted Christians: Your choice

My prayer is but a cold affair, Lord,

Because my love burns with so small a flame,

But you who are rich in mercy

Will not give them what they need

According to the dullness of my energy

But as your kindness is above all human love

So let your eagerness to hear

Be greater than the feeling in my prayers.

Do this for them and with them, Lord,

So that they may thrive according to your will, and thus guided and protected by you,

 Always and everywhere,

May they come at last to glory and eternal rest,

Through you who are living and reigning God,

 Through all ages. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on St Anselm

Sermon Anselm 2015

Apparently there is a pelican in St James’s Park which objects to Selfies. If he is part of the background of someone’s old fashioned photo he is content, but if anyone tries to co-opt him into a picture of themselves he takes umbrage and runs away.

The novelist Howard Jacobson told this story on the radio last week as an intro to a diatribe against modern varieties of egotism, which targeted all those who wish to plaster their own mug-shot across the nation to publish later on face-book( his words not mine) and those readers who grumble about novels which have characters in them who are too strange or different from themselves.

It is not all about me was his heartfelt cry.

Now consider these words, which come from a meditative prayer written, well I won’t say at this point how long ago.

Come now, you ordinary  person,

 Turn aside for a while from your daily employment,

 Escape from the tumult of your thoughts.

 Put aside your cares.

Leave your heaviest worries to one side,

Make space for a time for God

Enter the inner chamber of your soul,

Shut out everything except God,

And that which can help you in seeking him,

 And when you have shut the door, seek him.

Now, my whole heart, say to God,

 I seek your face,

 Lord, it is your face I seek.’

A bit of a contrast to a world which people are very anxious to locate their own face.

I have every sympathy with that Pelican, and I think St Anselm, who wrote those words about 1000 years ago, would have too.

There is a huge amount of good in our world today, much of which we don’t notice because of the way bad news grabs our attention. Between 1990 and 2010 , for example, the number of people living in absolute poverty on our planet reduced by 50% and during the same period the number of children who die every day fell  by 16,000.

Imagine that news reversed and we would be horrified-16000 extra children dying in a tragedy everyday- so why aren’t we rejoicing?

Aid, trade, medical science, political activity have all contributed to an unprecedented improvement in the lives of millions around the world in 2 decades and yet we still easily fall into despair , cynicism and nostalgia in the face of small challenges and immense ones ( such as Climate change and terrorism).

Maybe filling the world with pictures of ourselves is just one more symptom of fear and anxiety? If we only gaze transfixed at ourselves we won’t notice all the troubling and challenging reality out there.

But if we don’t look away from ourselves we can miss much.

We won’t for example pay any heed to those such as St Anselm who lived so long ago. They are so utterly different from us- what can they possibly have to say?

Well I have already given one example with that quotation. We can contemplate the possibility of turning away from our own obsessions, habits and activities, for a moment and go looking for God. Listening, paying attention, being mindful.

All ways of closing the door, however temporarily, against gazing at our own reflection.

When I was reminding myself about St Anselm last week I found myself smiling inwardly.

This man who was born in Italy, 33 years before the battle of Hastings, into a world far more horrid than ours, in terms of violence, want and suffering; who because of the prevailing world view spent even more time worrying about the wiles of the Devil than we do about the duplicity of politicians, is a heart -warming and admirable figure.

In an age when it was a convention that anyone appointed to high office in the church made great protestations of unworthiness- however keenly they may have preened themselves for the post before-hand- St Anselm seems to have been genuine in his lack of ambition.

When he was made, and I do mean made, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093- at the age of 60 – so he was for those times already a very old man- he had to be ambushed at Gloucester by the then king, William Rufus, who thrust the Archbishop’s staff at his closed fist. If Anselm opened his hand and gripped it that would have been a sign of acquiescence.

When he eventually accepted that he was now Archbishop he soon found himself exiled for not knowing his place. It being a feudal society he was  vassal now to the king. As his lord, William Rufus was entitled to demand £1000 from the Archbishop so he could go and wage war in Normandy.

Anselm refused to hand over more than half that sum because he didn’t want to put financial pressure on his tenants. It didn’t help that Anselm also criticised the king’s life-style and the corruption of his closest allies. I am sure some recent political leaders wished they could so easily get annoyingly critical archbishops out of the way.

But the most striking thing about St Anselm is that he was fundamentally a spiritual man. He had become estranged from his father decades earlier because he wanted to ask questions and dig deep into things.

His father would have been happy for him to become a monk at a nearby monastery where he could become a man of status and distinction. But Anselm felt that he could not follow that path and so spent the next few years wandering north in the search for wisdom and a teacher who he could respect.

Eventually he found that person, Lanfranc, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy. It was that geographical accident that resulted years later in his being dragged into power politics. He wanted to do nothing but pray, and think and write. How was he to know that William of  Normandy would soon set his heart on conquest?

We still have Anselm’s prayers, and his theological writings, which were probably the most influential in the whole of the western church before the Reformation apart from those of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.

We owe to him one of the most searching reflections on why God had to enter fully into the human realm to redeem it,; a big part of his answer being compassion- God not being a wise bystander but a seeker after the lost in all the mess of life.

He also wrote many loving letters of spiritual advice to other monks and anyone else who wrote to him. Much of it probably far too stern for our taste, but because of that more likely to give us pause for thought; Like in Hindu culture to this day, in his time, many married couples who had seen their children to adulthood wanted to enter religious communities- now freed from parental responsibilities. He counselled them.

Above all was his focus on God, and his love and majesty and our littleness in comparison. He didn’t seek his own face but God’s.

A final prayer which was written for friends might be helpful, as it also acknowledges our own inability to feel the right emotions and find the required words.. Think of someone you know or one of those stories of suffering that move us so powerfully- kidnapped children, people risking their lives in fragile boats to escape war zones, persecuted Christians: Your choice

My prayer is but a cold affair, Lord,

Because my love burns with so small a flame,

But you who are rich in mercy

Will not give them what they need

According to the dullness of my energy

But as your kindness is above all human love

So let your eagerness to hear

Be greater than the feeling in my prayers.

Do this for them and with them, Lord,

So that they may thrive according to your will, and thus guided and protected by you,

 Always and everywhere,

May they come at last to glory and eternal rest,

Through you who are living and reigning God,

 Through all ages. Amen.

 

Messy Church Sermon

I was sitting on a train to Wimbledon last week in a soporific mood when I suddenly jumped into a state of alertness due to an information announcement.

Earlier a typical one ‘ the next station is Wimbledon, where this train will be terminating’ had hardly penetrated my train journey sleepiness, but this one was much more arresting. It began normally enough’ The next station is Wimbledon.’ But then it took a dramatic turn which dragged me into a state of attention.

Where this train will be terminated.

That seemed a bit drastic. It didn’t seem to be ailing in any way. And I asked myself how were they going to be able to do that anyway? Is there a giant crusher, hidden at the back of the station somewhere for killing trains.

But I did get the message. The eccentric fashion it was delivered made it all the more memorable.

Jesus’s had a way of getting his message across by using verbal shock tactics. When we take a closer look at St Mark’s gospel, the one that predominates during this church year, you will notice that odd ways of expressing himself were for him the norm.

He talks a lot about the kingdom of God.

Well, his contemporaries would have known all about the Kingdom of God. It would be the state of affairs when God took over.

No more wars, or sorrows, no more endless wrangles over right and wrong, and no more Romans running the show. A perfected world with God in charge.

So when Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is like the smallest seed you can imagine, or a treasure trove hidden in a patch of scrub, people would rightly have wondered what on earth he meant. They would have been jogged into attention by the oddity of the expression, and asked themselves ‘ maybe God’ plans are different then?’

Jesus’s parables have not been forgotten though. They have a way of sticking in the mind.

Hold that thought.

When Libby Lane was made bishop of Stockport, you will probably have heard the heckle from Rev Paul Williamson, who shouted out.

 No- not in the Bible.

The Archbishop of York just carried on in a dignified and authoritative manner. But it would have been wonderful if he had been able to answer the heckle.

Something like.

Not in the Bible?

Ordination is not in the Bible.

 Archbishops are not in the Bible.

 There are no cathedrals in the Bible

 and your employment protection which means you can spend so much time out of your parish indulging in vexatious litigation and being a public nuisance, without being sacked, is not in the Bible.

There are lots of other things that are not in the Bible. Including clear guidelines for the correct use of mitochondrial DNA!

It just isn’t like that. The Bible is not an ikea flat pack.

When I consider the bible and its great variety of books and characters it sometimes seems to me as if it is like a debating chamber with a bank of bureaucrats on one side and a mob of jesters on the other.

The compulsively tidy minded and those messily anarchic.

There are lots of books in the bible which are full of rules and guidelines, and then there are the prophets who tweak the beards of all in authority.

The stories of creation in Genesis provide a good example.

The newest of the 2 has God filing the world into existence.

I will put the darkness over here and the light over there,

 The world here, the planets and stars up here.

Here is my task for day 4.

Now I will put in the trees.

And now the animals.

 

The much older version goes like this.

God grabbed some dust and made a man out of it. Then thinking the man would get lonely, made some animals for company.

 That didn’t work. So he took out the man’s rib and made a woman.

He put them in a lovely garden, but then a snake, with legs, came along and all the trouble started.

The bureaucrat thinks that God worked to a serious 7 day plan, the jester suspects God was just playing or ad-libbing.

This to-ing and froing goes on throughout the whole Bible. And throughout the whole of Christian history.

That’s one reason, I think, that we have theologians and saints. Someone needs to think things through, while others need to test the boundaries, and be, like St Francis, fools for God. Risk takers and experimenters.

Returning to my terminated train story, the main purpose of the church is to get the Gospel out. God’s message for all people. It is easy enough to blame those outside for not paying attention, but it just might be that we, who do come to church, are not as good as we can be at communicating it.

Or, as I prefer to put it, it allowing God’s message to be heard.

I think we need our formal worship. When we break bread together at the Sunday Eucharist, we are doing something fundamental and vital- we will explore something more of that together during  Lent  , which is now not far off- but what about those outside who are uncertain, or maybe even embarrassed because of what they see as their Messy lives?

To get the message out is the whole point of our Messy Church experiment on Saturday March 21st, and I encourage you to get involved. It is a way of letting people hear the Gospel, by telling the story imaginatively, by doing craft activities, sharing food , and by having a simple, more flexible form of worship.

We will be inviting people in the neighbourhood, not just those with young children, but of any age. I have a very enthusiastic team involved who have already done a lot of work- including persuading me- my inner bureaucrat needed working on! The PCC is totally in support.

Over the next few weeks there will be plenty of publicity about it, and there are signing up sheets around today. We really do need your help. Your inner bureaucrat may be rebelling already, muttering, ‘it’s not proper church.’ ‘ Dumming down,’ Maybe even.

Not in the Bible- to which, as I have just made clear, my riposte would be.’ Oh yes it is.’

Above all we need you to come, and invite those people you know who are reluctant to come to ‘ proper church’, but might feel a bit safer with the Messy version.

If it goes well we will be doing it again, but if we don’t take a risk together, we will never know if it was worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on St Paul

Sermon on St Paul. 15.

In the light of what happened 2 weeks ago in France we have all had, or heard, conversations about how people who once appeared to be ordinary and harmless can change so profoundly that they can become murderers. Theories and bafflement abound.

Were they born like that? Were they corrupted by ideology or led astray by people?

Perhaps they were lost souls searching for a noble purpose who ended in committing atrocities instead?

I have never forgotten the experience, of when In Berlin, staring at length at a photograph of a German doctor who in the 1930’s risked his own health to work with children suffering from contagious disease.

I simply could not get the measure of his soul however intently I looked. He looked professional but ordinary.

Next to him were some of the shoes left behind by some of the children he had experimented on in a Concentration camp a few years later.

St Paul is an interesting figure in his own right, who arouses strong opinions in the church and outside , such as being acclaimed by some as the true pioneer of Christianity and Jesus’ best interpreter, or by others as the fount of all bias against gay people and women.

His impact on history is well known.  It was his reflections on justification by faith which led Martin Luther to launch the Reformation.

And he still provides the words of choice at most weddings and funerals, when people turn to 1 Corinthians 13 to express love or grief.

This man who was an eager participant in a crowd which stoned a man to death for blasphemy!

His moral trajectory was the reverse of the young terrorists we rightly agonise about.

He rejected murderous violence and went from being complicit in murder to an apostle of forgiveness and charity.

Someone who could write, as he did to the Christians in Rome:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

He was not someone who abandoned controversy either, as is made clear by the account we have of him in Acts, and by what we can readily read of his own words.

But there was a crucial difference, in that from the time he changed- the word conversion is not used at all in the biblical account- from someone who thought that those who preached Jesus as Messiah or Son of God should forfeit their lives for blasphemy to someone who proclaimed Jesus as Lord he took all the dangers upon himself.

Whether he was risking the wrath of the authorities for being a rabble rouser, or endangering his life in epic journeys by sea to found or support tiny Christian communities, he was no longer a threat to others, but only to himself.

Something shifted in him which re-oriented his life.

What has traditionally been called the Conversion of St Paul was something much more profound and radical than is often supposed.

He didn’t simply swap one religion for another one, neither did he just stop being a bad guy and start being a good guy, and neither did he, as has commonly been suggested in our sceptical and reductionist age, merely have a psychological crisis due to a bang on the head after falling off a horse.

He became a Visionary.  A word which we might be a bit wary of. But by which I mean someone who saw the world so differently and lived so courageously that he enriched the world, and changed it forever. Who had insights which inspired and niggled then and which continue to do so now.

The story of his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus might be a dramatized version of a process which took years- the crucial point of a dawning realisation rather than a blinding flash out of the blue. But whatever it was it did mark a fundamental shift.

Christ was no more the enemy, but the foundation of his whole life. Christ’s self-giving love and his reconciling work;- between God and humanity and between people- was now for St Paul the centre of everything.

The self righteous anger, the hatred of the other, the strenuous attempt to follow the correct rules and stick to the conventions, just collapsed inside him.

One way of seeing his letters- which make up a quarter of the New Testament- is as evidence of the process of re-building his sense of self and the world, in the light of this crisis.

Those same letters reveal him doing so in dialogue with other early Christians asking many of the same kind of questions, but not being able to go as far as he did in the grandeur and range of his answers.

His fundamental question was what difference does Christ make to my life and the world?

Which, if one considers it for a moment is a big question.

It embraces the categories we now label theology, philosophy, ethics, society, history, politics and psychology.

Which is why I think that St Paul has had so much attention in the past and deserves it still.

Because his context was very different from our own we might find it challenging to always see the connections, but  there are many which still resonate with what we experience.

His writings and his biography not only have the instant relevance of being about a man who turned aside from murderous violence. To  become one who could insist that:

 Faith, hope and love abide, these three and the greatest of these is love.

But they also keep nudging away at all the other implications of what Christ means for the world.

St Paul’s world was stratified in ways and directions far in excess of what we see today. Religion, social class and gender had fixed boundaries. St Paul began to say things such as there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile.

The Greco- Roman world was much attached to the notions of fate and determinism. One could nobly endure or find the flow and go with it. Christ for Paul put a stop to that.

Paul talked about liberty and freedom as alternatives and the Holy Spirit leading to transformation and eternal life. The future opens up as a place of possibility for all humanity. How often do we succumb to the idea that the world is just so?

And the suggestion that it was St Paul who paved the way for such  ideas as conscience and the person, which we now take for granted, by insisting that everyone, irrespective of their social position, had worth, and moral freedom  being children of God, is no exaggeration.   Which isn’t just an interesting historical detail but surely speaks to our attitudes to who matters to us, and what power we have for good.

The accusation is sometimes made that Christians go wrong when they substitute St Paul’s teachings for those of Jesus. Dogmatic types do sometimes make such a mistake, but maybe the philosopher Wittgenstein got the relationship between the correct when he wrote.

The spring which flows gently and limpidly in the Gospels seems to have froth in St Paul’s epistles.