Easter Morning 2024. Sermon from Rev’d Ian Tattum

We all know that the Gospels are about Jesus. Most of them begin with the miracle of his birth and end with the miracle of his resurrection. In him, God comes into the human realm as a child to an ordinary family in an obscure part of the ancient Middle East. Jesus teaches and he heals, but not before he has played truant because of his need to ask questions. He fills the world with stories, which continue to shape the way people think about what is right and how to treat one another. Political expediency and religious hostility combine to bring him to a terrible death at Golgotha, bringing us finally to the scene we just heard in the Gospel reading today. His tomb is found empty, and an angel announces that God has raised him to new life.

Such, it is often said, leads to many of the hopes we have that life can come after death, evil can be routed by good, and love can have victory over hatred. Contrary to some of the bleaker messages our society is saturated with, there is much more to life than a struggle for survival, for personal achievement, for self-assertion, or mere bleak endurance in a world infested by dubious politicians and haunted by too much cruelty. Jesus’s resurrection is the climax to the story.

But, in that case, you might ask, why does St Mark’s Gospel seem to have such a downbeat ending?

How different is St John’s Gospel. After some amazing accounts of the disciples’ experiences of Christ, after the resurrection, it ends with the much more upbeat: ‘But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that could be written.’

St Mark’s last words are about the reaction of the women who found the tomb empty: ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’

It might help if we think about St Mark’s Gospel being as much about us as it is about Jesus himself. St Mark gives particular attention to all those who hear Jesus’ message and try to take it to heart. One of the first scenes in his Gospel is the call of the Galilean fishermen, Peter, Simon and John, and their decision to drop everything to see what he is about. But after that we keep hearing about the disciples’ propensity for getting things wrong. St Mark tells us that Jesus repeated the feeding of the five thousand because his followers didn’t get the message the first time. The women at the tomb are the same disciples who have been part of Jesus’ entourage from the earliest days too. They have the greatest honour as, unlike the male disciples, they have not run away or, like St Peter, denied knowing Jesus at all to save their skins. And yet they still react with fear. They can’t even speak about what they have seen.

But one of the things that St Mark’s Gospel emphasises is that fear and failure are baked into what it means to be a follower of Christ. Before he was murdered by the Russian state, Alexei Navalny spoke about how his faith gave him courage to stand up to oppression, drawing especially on Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for thy shall be satisfied.’

Fear can be overcome but can also overcome us. It can stop us doing the right thing or the loving thing. St Peter’s denial of Jesus – insisting to everyone who asked him that he didn’t even know the man, is still ringing in our ears when we hear what the angel in the empty tomb tells the women: Go and tell the other disciples, and Peter. The runaways and the best friend turned denier, Peter, are forgiven. Despite their frailties, they are still part of the story. The Gospel message is that God’s love endures, and forgiveness for those who are willing to turn again is assured.

Watching the world now, I have found the vision of the devoutly catholic J. R. R. Tolkien helpful. As you are probably aware, he fought, and was injured, in the trenches during the First World War, started Lord of the Rings in the shadow of World War Two, and finished it during the Cold War. Consequently, he was no sentimentalist, or optimist, so saw faith, not as guaranteeing safety or happy endings but being about holding to a commitment to truth, love and forgiveness in fellowship with friends, in the face of fear and, at times, overwhelming odds. His fictional universe replicates the real world in which all victories are potentially followed by defeats, but where God’s grace can unexpectedly open up new horizons and initiate fresh beginnings.

I am glad that Easter is celebrated every year. It gives an annual jolt to all our wanderings in the direction of cynicism or false optimism, proclaiming that, beyond the cross, is new life and at the root of everything is God’s love, giving us cause for hope and good reason to sing Alleluia.

Easter Morning 2024. Sermon from Rev’d Ian Tattum Read More »

Midnight Mass sermon 2023

St John’s Gospel is traditionally read at Midnight Mass – the Gospel that doesn’t mention the stories most familiar to us from Christmas carols and the crib scene just to my left. There are no visitations by angels, no journeys from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and no stars to be followed or stables to be born in. Instead, we have the imagery of deep time and the contrast between light and darkness, before alluding to what the first disciples witnessed in Christ, in another cryptic phrase, worn thin by familiarity:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’

When I was a newly hatched priest, I was fortunate enough to have the late actor Tenniel Evans as a colleague. His advice for reading this bit of the Gospel of John makes more sense to me every year. He said, ‘Don’t read as if it is a straightforward factual statement or a piece of dogma from a theologian or a politician, but as St John thinking out loud, struggling to get his mind around what he had come to believe, along with his fellow Christians – a new mind-boggling take on the nature of things.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him’… a light to the world which would change everything and illuminate everything. And for John, this Word had changed everything and shone a light on existence.

But perhaps he wasn’t the only gospel writer to be thinking things through in this way.

Sometimes the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke are seen as the prosaic ones, which give us the details. St John gives us the great symphonic themes and the cosmic meaning. The others bring it all down to earth – to a corner of the Roman Empire made agonisingly real to us by the news at the moment – with their stories of a teenage girl, the birth of her son in a barn full of animals, mundane and exotic visitors, and a dash to Egypt to escape terror.

But, in fact, no one mentions a barn full of animals at all. St Matthew just says Jesus was born in a house, and St Luke says he was laid in a manger because there was no room in any inn in Bethlehem. The crib scene as we have it today evolved from a brainwave of St Francis of Assisi to bring home to the citizens of his city that the message of the Nativity was that God had come fully into the world – including their agricultural realities. It is not beyond conceiving that shepherds startled from their fields might have brought some livestock with them. But I doubt if a fact-check will help us here.

What the first Christians, including all the Gospel writers, were trying to put into words was their experience of meeting Christ, whether as a flesh and blood Galilean carpenter’s son (although the pedantic will throw in here that Joseph was probably more of an architect) or in their personal and communal spiritual lives – being inspired by his words and transformed by his teaching, drawn over and over again to ask what it means to love your neighbour as yourself and to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom in a world with the same predilection for hatred, indifference and power and wealth accumulation as our own.

When the imagination of the artist adds scintillating feathers to the angel Gabriel, or a child adds a cat to the Nativity scene, or a poet asks and answers her own question,

‘What can I give him
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him
Give my heart’

they are continuing a two-millennia-old conversation, working out how to put into words what happened and what continues to be at stake in a fractured world.

St John’s grand philosophy stabbed at the mystery in confidence and hope:

All things came into being through him, not one thing came into being… and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’

A one-time resident of Roehampton – Gerard Manley Hopkins – imagined God’s presence with us continually pouring out from within all things – Christmas as a permanent state of affairs.

‘All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (Who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle , dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
                                                              Praise him.’

Midnight Mass sermon 2023 Read More »

Sermon on living the best life – Psalm 90 and the Parable of the Talents from Rev’d Ian Tattum

I apologise to a lot of you this morning, because I am going to start by mentioning a poem again. It is one of those that is most famous for the question in the last two lines:

‘Tell me what it is you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?’

They come from The Summer Day by the American poet Mary Oliver. But, weirdly, the words are often attached to social media photos of elaborate dinners or exotic locations, or moments of high achievement and economic success. Mary Oliver, however, led a quiet, undramatic life with her partner in Province Town, New England, and in the poem made it clear she was not talking about exciting experiences but about attention to the small things.

She was writing about a typical day, for her, wandering in nature and a close encounter with a grasshopper that eats out of her hand. It is about making the most of time by being conscious, aware, and attentive. It is about depth of experience rather than excitement and thrills – a kind of mindfulness.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

It seems to me that the poem has an echo of Psalm 90, which gave the English language another famous phrase, as rendered in the King James version, which Oliver would have known well.

‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut of and we fly away.’

Psalm 90, it has been noticed, is part of what is called the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures – reflections, that is, on what life is actually like and what it is for, before, as the translation we heard this morning puts it, ‘Our years come to an end like a sigh’.

Today is a baptism day when we would naturally turn our thoughts to the beginning of life and its potential, but everything is put into context by what is to come. At a baptism we celebrate that we believe that every human life is made in the image of God. Each person, from the cradle to the grave, and indeed beyond, is precious in the sight of God.

When we talk about rejecting evil, we acknowledge that there are temptations which may lead us from the path, that being vulnerable human beings liable to error, selfishness, lack of courage or conviction affects all of us in our ability to love, be truthful, and follow lives of meaning and value.

But we also believe in forgiveness and the chance to start again and that no one is ever perfect. The image of God is marred in us, but hope is never extinguished.

In a couple of weeks, we are going to have one of our evening sessions with our Theological Consultant, Ben Wood, and it is going to be about what he sees as a kind of Christian mindfulness that we find in St Matthew’s Gospel. And I do think he is on to something. Today’s Gospel included one of the most misunderstood parables – the one about three servants who are given large sums of money when their boss goes off on his travels. The two given the most go and invest it and double their money, but the third just buries his sum in the ground. On his return the master rewards the initiative of the first two, using another phrase which seeped into the English language – ‘well done good and faithful servant’ – while casting the non-productive one into the famous ‘outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

This story, though, has nothing to do with Jesus encouraging a sound investment strategy or the nurture of personal talents, but with making the most of time to lead a life fully lived out in the image of God, now with a sense of urgency.

This parable comes in the gospel in the middle of a cluster of teachings about how God will measure the quality of human lives. Love and be active in generosity and kindness to neighbour and stranger borne out of a sense of your own need and fragility, is the underlying message. Be mindful of who you are. Seize the day. Live your wild and precious life. But let it be rooted in the love of God, which flows through every life.

Sermon on living the best life – Psalm 90 and the Parable of the Talents from Rev’d Ian Tattum Read More »

Remembrance Day Sermon, 2023 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

I am going to dare to share one of my own poems this morning. It is about to be published in a seasonal anthology of autumn and winter poems and is, like too many I have written since the invasion of Ukraine, about war, or at least my experience of being a distant bystander of war.

But before doing so, I think it might help to reflect on why people find they have to write poems.

To me, writing poetry is closely related to praying. It is not essentially a craft or art but a spontaneous act of letting words and images out into the open, which can’t be held back. Both have elements of praise and lament. They respond to the beauty and the tragedy of life which so often reside alongside each other or twine around each other. They are a cry we need to share and might hope God hears.

One of the greatest examples from the Great War is Isaac Rosenberg’s Returning, we hear the larks, with the lines:

‘Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped…’

The contemporary poet Ben Okri began a poem which takes us straight to Gaza and Israel:

I shall tell you
The meaning of love
When the conflagrations
In the cities

My very short poem came about because at dawn – a very cold dawn – when we slept out to raise money for heating costs, the birds were active in the hedge, but the news was in my head too. And this became the cry I needed to share in God’s hearing:

The wrens are building ladders of song in the olives.
The leaves are defying seasonal legend and staying put.
This October is when the storm season begins and the trees
Are shaken, and as the branches crack the innocent fall.

When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan I am sure that he was delivering a message not only about generosity and charity and risk, but also about noticing. The easiest thing, and probably the natural thing, to do when we encounter suffering, outside our own networks of family, friends or ‘own people’ or tribe, is to look away and pass on.

Christ’s message, which he lived and died by, was not to overlook people and their greatest needs but to see there inklings of the kingdom of God: the tiny mustard seed, or the treasure in the field, that could explode into flourishing life, or become the greatest gift of all.

Because of the way the Church’s lectionary works, the texts recommended for Remembrance Sunday happen also to have come around already in the immediately preceding weeks.  These are the discussion about imperial coinage we heard today and the beatitudes. Each of them comes at this fundamental Christian vision from a different angle.

In the beatitudes, Jesus calls some of the toughest human experiences a blessing – a cause of happiness: grief, lack of social significance, those who worry themselves about justice, do the hard work of forgiving, and above all those who make peace, who will be called the children of God.

The argument in the discussion of imperial coinage focuses on the most prominent man who declared himself to be a child of God – the dissolute emperor Tiberius, whose face was on every coin. Jesus’ insistence, though, is that whatever is on the coin and whatever culture wars can be stoked up by it, the more important thing is to look to the divine vision – towards the God in heaven, who we are shortly reminded in the Gospel, invites adoration and demands that we love our neighbour.

On Remembrance Day we call to mind those who have died in military service and those civilians affected by war, old and young, and those enduring today. We notice them, we grieve for them, and we yearn and pray for the healing of memory and our broken world.  We pray for the great blessing of peace as we look for the good and the signs of hope that fulfil God’s blessing for all his children – blessings that are stirringly put in the verse of I vow to thee, my country. There is another country, whose armies can’t be counted and her King cannot be seen:

‘soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.’

And in the words of the poet-prophet Isaiah, writing about Jerusalem:

They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as waters cover the sea.

Remembrance Day Sermon, 2023 from Rev’d Ian Tattum Read More »

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