Krista Ovist

Advent Sermon 2021 from Ian Tattum

Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

When people drown in the sea off the Kent coast, there really are people who rejoice in the loss of life, because their sense of what England has been is threatened by desperate human beings who are different from themselves.

And at a much less serious level, nostalgia can cast a golden glow around the past, which can make us all overly uncomfortable with the present and fearful of the future. When I talk to my mother about the 1970’s, for example, we both have to work hard at reminding each other of what it was really like for both of us, and remembering the huge challenges as well as the flashes of good memories which often spontaneously come to the surface.

The run-up to Christmas is a naturally rich season for looking back with a golden glow. We were not a churchy family, so for me the season began with Blue Peter Advent wreath, and I inescapably came to see the weeks before Christmas as a type of countdown period to the great day itself: a day for family and familiar TV programmes on which we could all hope for a few precious parcels under the Christmas tree and, in those days, actual snow.

The church’s season of Advent lands with a crash into such cosiness, if we are paying any attention to it! The end of the world and the uncompromising teaching of John the Baptist overshadow most of it, for a start. One of the readings set for the First Sunday of Advent is from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 51, and is a classic of the good news/bad news genre.

First the bad news.

‘Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath;
For the heavens will vanish like smoke,
And the earth will wear out like a garment,
And those who live on it will die like gnats.’

Now the good news.

‘But God’s salvation will be everlasting, and his salvation will never cease.’

And, whereas in last week’s Gospel we heard John the Baptist announcing that Christ will be coming after him and will make the crooked straight, this week we hear John the Baptist preparing Christ’s way by doing exactly that himself – putting the crooked straight: greeting those who come to him with the words ‘You brood of vipers’ and then telling everyone that real repentance demands a serious shift in the heart. The very first thing that John the Baptist demands of everyone is that if they have two coats, they must give one away to someone who has none, and if they have food they should share it with those who have none.

It is tempting to let our minds skip over these words, especially at a time of year when we might be hoping for yet another coat for ourselves and planning lavish entertainment and consumption. But we can’t unhear them.

One of the traditions of this time of the year is that some clergy and preachers get very grumpy. They complain that no one realises that Advent begins on the First Sunday of Advent and not the first of December; that Advent calendars have been replaced by countdown calendars and are more about confectionary than the nativity; and that no one, especially other churches, or other clergy, or people in the pew, really appreciate or pay any attention to the message of Advent any more, or even know the symbolism of the Advent wreath. Often this culminates in the proclamation to people who have bothered to come to church at Christmas that most of what they cherish about Christmas is beside the point.

I am not sure that any of this carping is useful or wise

The season of Advent is, I would suggest – like the entire Christian Year – a time for a particularly rich kind of nostalgia. That is, if we take nostalgia to be, not just a looking back at an edited past to make sense of the present, or a means to bring comfort and enchantment into our lives – which we so often need — but a looking back to get inspiration and encouragement to brave the present and what is to come.

Our faith is rooted in constant acts of remembering and retelling, of the story of God’s love for the whole of creation and the impact of the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ – from the Beginning to the end of all familiar things. We are remembering and bringing these things to the forefront of our minds whenever we pray or read and think about the Bible, alone or together, and whenever we celebrate the Eucharist or recite the Creed.

The Church Year is an amazingly beautiful and enriching invention; but invention it is, because, in one sense, every day is Christmas, and Easter, and Lent and Advent.

The Church’s seasons provide moments when, in different ways and with various moods, we seek to approach that great mystery of God for the world, and at loose in the world, and present in our lives, on every single day of the year.

When those of us called to preach fail to use our pulpits for wagging fingers we are still sometimes expected to tie up all the loose ends in a neat theological bow, but perhaps our main job is to point to those hanging threads and invite you to follow the one which helps.

So here are three distinctive threads of Advent.

Firstly, that John the Baptist did not just announce Jesus’ coming, nor just baptize him in the river Jordan – which are both marvellous things in themselves and therefore should never be diminished by the word ‘just’ – John was more like the opening movement of a symphony, who in turn drew on a tradition much older. When he challenged the crowd to lives of radical generosity he was re-iterating not only the insights of the Old Testament prophets, but reaching beyond that to the original intentions of God.

The second thread is that, if we were all to take forward to Christmas and into our lives the assurance that all humans have been made for kindness and love, the effect could be astounding. This is how humans were meant to be.

And thirdly and finally, Advent helps us to recall that we, like all humans before us and who will come long after us, are part of a story which has not yet unfolded.

The big misunderstanding that Advent has sometimes led to is that the world is heading towards a brick wall, that everything will unravel tomorrow. But we are for now in the middle of things. There are many reasons to be afraid, but also many things to cherish and draw hope from. That light we celebrate particularly at Christmas – Christ, the Word – is still coming into the world, over and over again, in acts of kindness, words of truth and lives of integrity and courage…the world over.

‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’ A Reflection for the First Sunday of Advent from Krista Ovist

The Christian year begins, not – as might arguably make more sense – with the Feast of the Incarnation, but with Advent, a season of repentance and preparation that looks forward to the End Times, to the hour when Christ will, as we profess in the Nicene creed ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.’

This curious way of beginning at the end gives me pause, because I have to admit that anticipation of the Second Coming has never been a piece of my piety.  I am confident that ‘heaven and earth will pass away’, as Jesus says in the appointed Gospel text for today, but I have absolutely no expectation that this event will be punctuated by the appearance of a human-like figure coming in a cloud.  I’m simply too much of a modern rationalist for that, and there’s no help for it.

And yet I say the Nicene Creed in this place nearly every week.  I also proclaim the ‘Mystery of Faith’ – ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’ – at every Eucharist.  It’s one of my favourite parts of the liturgy, in fact.  I even have a tendency to say it too emphatically, precisely because it catches – because I know I’m struggling to know what I could possibly mean by it.

Strangely, those words – ‘Christ will come again’ – have become especially meaningful to me as words in need of new possible meanings for me.  They show me where Christianity has, in effect, died back for me – or where post-Enlightenment thinking has taken an axe to it – and where, consequently, there is need – and room – for new growth in new directions, new shoots branching from the old stock.

The part of the old stock that best helps me cultivate a new understanding of the Second Coming is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer.  Although often repeated, this prayer is never the same twice.  It is always a new prayer for a new day – for this day, in which we ask God as sovereign to come again, to feed and forgive us again, and to enable us again to withstand a time of trial.  Our failings of the day before have died; we have risen with a clean slate for this day, and God is with us.  There is everything to hope for, no matter how badly we did yesterday; the love of God returns to us this day.

There is a wonderful assertion attributed to Martin Luther that, sadly, he probably never made.  Attempts to locate it in his works have failed, and no one knows how the attribution got started.  This is what he supposedly said: ‘Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.’

What does this mean?  I like it.  I find it inspiring.  But why?

Here are three things I would be happy for Luther to have meant by this statement, had he made it, which he probably didn’t.

First, I would be happy for Luther to have meant that he knew that all claims to know when the world will end according to the Bible turn out to be embarrassingly wrong, so he would just carry on and plant the apple tree he had in mind for his garden all along.

Second, I would be happy for Luther to have meant that he wanted to be found keeping faith with creation when Christ comes, so that he could ‘stand before the Son of Man’.

But, third, I would be happiest for Luther to have meant that he knew from all those Bible passages we now read for Advent – the ones about branches and shoots and vines – that the end of the world would not be total, that some young sapling growth from the old world would carry over to the next, and that his apple tree just might supply the necessary continuity.

‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’, Jesus is made to say in today’s Gospel.  All written words will pass away with heaven and earth, so what words could we imagine that Jesus might mean?  I can make sense of this saying only by thinking of the creative divine Word itself as that which never passes away.

To that creative Word, that makes us capable, if only for a little while, of a few good things, I say, ‘Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!’

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2021 from Revd Ian Tattum

Remembrance Day 2021

Just a few weeks ago there was a tragically quick withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and now a horrific famine is looming. Whatever our perspective on the deployment of NATO in that country, we can’t ignore the role of the most recent American presidents in what is unfolding now. It has been argued that it was an earlier US president – an ailing Franklin D. Roosevelt – who encouraged Stalin to seize what became the Eastern bloc, not because he wanted a quick and populist political fix but because he trusted an ally not to take advantage of a desperate situation. The rights and wrongs of war are complicated and manifold. We can point to bad decisions and bad people. We can examine geopolitics and the failures of diplomacy. By such we can find satisfactory enough explanations and apportion blame. But such strategies are rarely enough.

We can ask, what do we do now?

You may not recall the name Eglantyne Jebb, but she was the main player in the formation of the Save the Children Fund back in 1919. Like climate activists today, she was regarded by many at the time as a public nuisance – handing out leaflets in Trafalgar Square with pictures of starving German children, with a headline: ‘Our blockade has done this – millions of children are starving to death.’ She was hated for sticking up for recent enemies. Like the best campaigners, she not only sought to change people’s minds, but was a doer – ensuring aid was delivered to wherever it was needed, and getting the first declaration of the rights of children accepted internationally.

Save the Children are at this moment very active bringing food to the people of Afghanistan.

But I doubt that on Remembrance Sunday itself our minds primarily focus on doing any more than they do on explaining. Feeling, honouring, mourning, praying and committing to heal and to do better are more of our concern. And in a church setting, appropriately, acknowledging the reality of sin – that we are all imperfect flesh and blood human beings who suffer, make mistakes, fail to understand and are capable of cruelties small and immense, but who are not totally responsible, nor absolutely free.

We carry with us an inescapable legacy of the past, which continues to affect how we think and act. The hatreds and terrors, the greed, cruelties and blunders all ripple down through time to affect us still.

No wonder at the heart of it is a solemn silence.

The neglected book from the Apocryphal section of the Bible, Ecclesiasticus, has some amazing descriptions of the human condition. The author contrasts the eternal and mighty nature of God with that of people.

‘When human beings have finished they are just beginning,
And when they stop they are still perplexed.
What are human beings, and of what use are they?
What is good in them, and what is evil?…
Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
So are a few years among the days of eternity.
That is why the Lord is patient with them,
And pours out his mercy upon them.’

Today is a day for facing up to this through the prism of the tragedy and courage of war, which always draws us back to our need for forgiveness and the hope for restoration.

I chose the hymns today before I paid any attention to how they too share this perspective. They have the power to speak to the experience of most of us – those of us who are bystanders for whom war is a thing of history, or something that happens elsewhere, or else has touched our lives through the experiences of people we know or have known.

And yet they have also resonated with those who have had actual experience of conflict and its agonies.

We have just sung ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’, which for many people immediately brings to mind Atlantic convoys and war at sea but was written by a Quaker who was brought up in Clapham and might never have been on a ship. Another Quaker wrote ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, and there are few hymns that better conjure up a space for prayer and calm in the eye of a storm. Whittier knew those, as an anti-slavery campaigner who endured long years of mob hatred for his campaigning. But the words were written after the American Civil War and was, in part, a lament and a plea for mercy to God for its horrors.

‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Re-clothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence praise.’

Later we will hear the tune of ‘I vow to thee, my country’. That hymn manages to praise and honour those who have served their country in war at sacrificial cost and to look for another country, God’s Kingdom, where a

‘…fortress is a faithful heart…
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.’

Consultation #2 with Dr Ben Wood – James Baldwin and Augustine: Racism and Original Sin

In case you missed it, or were there and want a review, here is a recording of the latest talk from our Consultant Theologian, Dr Ben Wood. Ben constructed a brilliant analogy between James Baldwin’s analysis of structural racism in America and St Augustine’s understanding of original sin, showing how the two pose similar challenges to our modern liberal assumptions about the over-and-doneness of the past and the purely individual nature of transgression, culpability, and repentance. Definitely a keeper for ongoing soul searching and conversation.

Be on the lookout for notices of our next consultation with Ben…

Remembering Marjorie Middlecoat

Another of our faithful elders has passed away. Marjorie Middlecoat died on the evening of Saturday, September 4. Her last words to her daughter, Linda Hawes, were:

‘I love seeing people. Give my friends all my love, for ever and ever.’

All are welcome to attend the funeral service, which will be on Friday, October 8 at 2.00pm at:
St Andrew’s Church, 4 Church Road, Great Cornard, Sudbury, C10 0EL.

Those of us who knew Marjorie will enjoy a chance to re-visit this write-up about her from the December 2012 issue of the parish newsletter. Those of us who know her only by fame as a former bright light at St Barnabas give thanks for all she did to build the community that is now ours.

Hall Bookings

Our halls are open for hire.

We are delighted to be welcoming back regular group activities, both for children and for adults.

As of April 23, 2022, we will have limited availability for party hire.  For the time being, we are prioritizing users who live in the parish of St Barnabas or are church members, as we want to support our local community as we come out of Covid restrictions.  Click here for details.

We run the halls as part of our commitment to the community.  Although they raise revenue for us, they are not profit making, so we ask all hirers to respect them and look after them so that they can be enjoyed by local residents for many years to come.

NB: all hall names are merely working titles, and all prices are open to revision!

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