Sermon for Requiem for HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, 17 April 2021, the Vicar

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.” The requiem’s prayers encompass emotions around death: fear, separation, love, memory, hope, thankfulness. This prayer for the dead calls the faithful to face mortality and finitude and situate them within the loving purposes of God, whose justice is true and who longs to forgive. We pray for eternal rest for the souls of the righteous, in the hand of God, beyond the torments of Hades, awaiting the final resurrection and joyful consummation of all things.

How very good to welcome Fr William Whitcombe, who serves in the Chapel Royal. Normally he and his colleagues would be keeping vigil with the body of Prince Philip before the His Royal Highness’s final obsequies. Thank you, William for being with us. We feel a very personal and particular connection with Prince Philip here, through our beloved Anne Griffiths, who worked with Prince Philip (albeit with a break) from 1952, dying in office. It was not insignificant that 48 hours after Anne’s memorial service, in May 2017, which Prince Philip attended, that he announced his retirement. Amongst Royal representatives and many guests and from the Household were members of the wider Mountbatten family, attending in their own right, in recognition of Anne’s encyclopaedic grasp of their history.

In speaking now, I am mindful of the Prince’s well reported comment that “the brain cannot absorb what the posterior cannot endure…”

Much has been said already, in moving tributes, especially by the Duke’s close family. I wish only to make a few points, beyond underlining what Joanna said on Sunday about Prince Philip’s vision in founding St George’s House in Windsor: a place of high level discussion, before the term networking was even coined.

On Sunday, Simone Chambers kindly sang the Kontakion for the Dead. This was in memory not only of Prince Philip, but her own 97 year old mother-in-law, Joan, who also died last week and whom we remembered on Tuesday. Our thoughts remain with Mike and family.

The Kontakion is a funeral text from the Eastern Orthodoxy, which in the last 100 years or so the Church of England has borrowed. In 1863 William, Prince of Denmark became King George I of Greece. His marriage to Olga of Russia, assured the Greek Church that the Danish prince’s Lutheranism, would be replaced in subsequent Royal generations by indigenous Orthodoxy. Prince Philip’s Lutheran mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg, converted to Orthodoxy in 1928. This was of her own accord some years after her marriage to Prince Philip’s father, Andrew of Greece. I will return to her story shortly, which itself is very moving, but I would make one point about Orthodoxy in relation to Prince Philip’s heritage. I know Orthodoxy well, having shared my last church with an Orthodox congregation. There are many ways to differentiate Orthodox and Western Christianity. The simplest is a visual distinction in their respective architecture.

St Mark’s own high pointed arches, and great spire point us to heaven – typical of the Western idea of striving upwards. Eastern churches are known by their domes. Orthodox thereby presents a vision of heaven descending to earth. There are big implications of this for how each views creation. There is nothing wrong with reaching towards the heavens, but the vision of heaven stooping to earth is a reassuring one. And one which reminds us that the stuff of creation, and we ourselves, are heavenly creatures, in our essence, and the world around us charged with divine potential. It’s no surprise there is no worked out doctrine of the Fall in Orthodoxy. But there is a very developed Theology of creation. We can see in Prince Philip’s love of nature and grasp how concern for the deep interconnectedness of all life, ran through his thinking.

He was no “bunny hugger” (not a turn of phrase to be used after a glass of wine). But he understood the delicate ecological balance of the environment. It should be added, remembering Anne’s work in his library, that there were nearly as many works of Theology as conservation on its shelves.

It may just be that the combination of both disciplines holds the solution to the aversion of climate catastrophe. And if that is true, Prince Philip will have been one of those who paved that path.

There may be a key to understanding Prince Philip’s motivation and faith in exploring his mother’s continuation of the mission of her Aunt Ella; Elizabeth of Russia. Did you hear Prince Charles’s story, when his grandmother announced her hope to be buried on the Mt of Olives near Grand Duchess Ella, at the monastery of St Mary Magdalene? The family exclaimed some concern about not being able to visit her grave. She replied confoundingly (whilst in Buckingham Palace at the time, 1967) “Nonsense there’s a bus which runs from Athens once a day.” Whilst working amongst the most deprived, during the privations of war, unbeknownst to anyone, she gave refuge to a Jewish family. Without her they would have been deported and murdered. Alice is commemorated at Yad Vashem as Righteous Amongst the Gentiles. There could be no more fitting resting place for her than the Mt of Olives overlooking the ancient site of the Jerusalem Temple. The place three world religions believe the Messiah will reclaim at his final Advent. It was to this otherwise tranquil place that Anne took us in 2015. In the tomb’s alcove were many laminated photographs and family trees, which Anne had sent years before. Digress: “You are family.”

When Prince Philip retired, he gave an, a rebarbative encounter. Prince Philip was asked whether the things he had done, not least the scheme which bears his name, and the countless other causes he had supported, was all about leaving a legacy. His response, disarmingly sincere and utterly Christian, to my ears chimed in with the selflessness and perhaps even eccentricity of his mother. Doing what he did, he explained, was about doing what needed to be done, not considering what would be left in his memory. Jesus’s injunction about our treasure, holds true here. Our treasure should not to be earthbound, but heavenward – where your treasure is there will your heart be also. This is about the renunciation of earthly glory and vanity. It concerns striving, with all pureness of heart, for the kingdom to come.

Prince Philip served as liege-man of life and limb his and our Queen & Governor. Throughout their remarkable marriage, they have demonstrated through service to the Crown, that this kingdom must bow the knee to the one to come.

Earth’s proud empires do and must pass away. They are of this world.

The Kingdom we serve is not of earthly legacies and glories. The Christian task now and at the hour of death is to pray with the Saints is to pray: Our Father which art in heaven, thy kingdom come, thy will be done… For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Easter Day sermon, 4 April 2021, the Vicar

One of my favourite poems by John Donne, begins the third verse:

I have a sin of fear

 I hope it is not inappropriate to admit that as I shut the church door on Mothering Sunday 2020, I was afraid.

St Mark, has the oddest ending to his Gospel “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Something very similar happens in today’s Gospel reading from John.

“Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping.”

went away again unto their own home!

 Are there any Italians in the House?

 What did you celebrate last Thursday, on 25 March?

 Yes, the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante in 1321.

 His most extraordinary work, The Divine Comedy, marks one of the great shifts in European literature. This epic poem, composed over several years from 1307, could be said to have shaped the modern world.

 It covers the span of a single weekend. Not any weekend, but Good Friday to Easter Day 1300.

 Dante quite literally goes, as the phrase says, “to hell and back.” Dante travels through the nine circles of hell Inferno, to its very pit. He climbs from there, encouraged by the sight of the stars that he can see in the distant heavens, up the Mountain of Purgatory and then to Paradiso itself. The work is a combination of references to classical literature, contemporary politics and reflection upon the path to salvation. Not forgetting a range contemporary scandals. He sees two Popes is in one of the lowest circles of hell, Nicholas III (d 1280) & Boniface VIII (d. 1303!). Dante’s Easter journey, down, so that he might rise, is the journey of the poet’s soul, mirroring Christ’s.

 We have left Mary Magdalene at the tomb.

 The earthly events following Jesus’s death, on Good Friday are very hurried. Jesus dies, the Sabbath is falling. His body must be buried, out of the way before dusk, the Passover celebrations and the curfew.

 The Sabbath stands for the very first Sabbath, the seventh day of creation – God’s day of rest.

 On Friday, Jesus cries out “It is finished.” It is clear from the start of John’s Gospel that John means to revisit the work of creation. The crucifixion takes place on the sixth day, from that moment, God’s work of re-creation is complete.

 As scrabbling, by bit-part-players takes over in the Gospel narrative, the seventh day is beginning. God will rest in the tomb.

 Like Mary, we have a text from Isaiah ringing in our ears

 And he will destroy the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces.

 The Sabbath rest is over.

 When the men have gone – to their homes – Mary looks in. It is the holy of holies. The two angels are the proof that the mercy seat is there, that only the high priest would visit once a year. “Why are you weeping?” they ask. She does not know where they have laid him.

 Outside, a stranger, “Why are you weeping?”

 She realises she is in the holy of holies, which was Eden: this might be Adam – the gardener. The only other alternative is that it is God himself who walked in the garden in the cool of the day. In fact, we know He is both. When he names her, as Adam named the creatures in Eden, she is reborn. Significantly, He does not come from the tomb. There is no account of his rising. The tomb is as redundant as the burial clothes. The door is open, its purpose complete.

 As Dante has descended into hell, he has found Jesus’s death had shattered the very base of hell too. Sleeping in death, death was swallowed up. It is all as Isaiah foresaw. He saw too the wiping of tears from all faces. Mary, weeping at the tomb has her tears wiped away, and her soul recast. The primordial place is sanctified.

 Fear, fear, fear, the memory with which we began, and which has done its best in the last year to take hold of us, is done away.

 Like Dante, climbing towards paradise, guided by and enlightened by the stars we might say:

“O grace abounding and allowing me to dare
to fix my gaze on the Eternal Light,
so deep my vision was consumed in it!

I saw how it contains within its depths
all things bound in a single book by love
of which creation is the scattered leaves:

how substance, accident, and their relation
were fused in such a way that what I now
describe is but a glimmer of that Light.”

(from Canto 33:82 John Ciandi translation)

Or, like John Donne, another poet of the soul’s ascent to God through love, riffing on his own name – Donne:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun

My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son

Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;

And, having done that, thou hast done;

I fear no more.

Sunday 7 March 2021, Lent III, the Vicar

Our OT lesson is the gift of the Law to Moses. The Ten Commandments give shape to human interaction and the proper sense of the holiness of God. The Gospel reading, not from Mark this week, is from the start of John’s Gospel. Jesus comes from Galilee and as his first public act, makes straight for the Temple, and drives out the money changers.

I want to think about three things this morning which arise from these two lessons. Sabbath, The Temple, the symbolism of the turning over the tables. Each of them points in the direction in which we are going in this Lenten journey towards Easter.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: …For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Many of us will have Jewish friends, and will know that the keeping of the Sabbath in the Jewish household is age-old. It has no exact equivalent in Christianity. Sunday is not the New Saturday. Sunday is the First Day of the Week. Saturday is the day of God’s resting at the culmination of creation, and that resting is not an afternoon nap, it is the representation of divinely ordered peaceable harmony. It is about completion, that which is finished.

If you have ever been to the Synagogue for the evening service, soon after the start the assembly faces the door and greets the Sabbath, like a bride. The Sabbath is personified and hailed like a lover. There is a sense in which this time is time out of time. It’s hard to get our heads around. But the Sabbath is a hint of a time still to come, and yet it is here. It is a moment in ordinary time, when God’s new age would arrive in advance. You would not be wrong to think this sounds a bit familiar. Jesus prays in the Lord’s prayer “Thy Kingdom come… give us this day our daily bread.” The kingdom and day of bread-giving are very connected in the Lord’ Prayer. Give us today tomorrow’s bread is one possible translation. The Sabbath is tomorrow today. Early in Mark’s Gospel Jesus says “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” The healing miracles on the Sabbath make this plain. What John does is to place Jesus in the Temple to “cleanse” it at the start of the narrative of his ministry. Let’s talk about the Temple and then see how these two things are connected, Sabbath and Temple. And then let’s not forget the table-turning.

The Temple in Jerusalem was first built by King Solomon in the middle of the 10th c BC. His father David had been impeded from doing so. Before then, the Ark containing the tablets of the law and other ancient and holy objects had been peripatetic. When Solomon dedicated the Temple he prayed “The highest heaven cannot contain God, how much less this house.” (I Kings 8: 27) When Isaiah had a vision of God in the Temple itself, only the hem of God’s garment filled the Temple. The glory of the vision filled the whole earth. God’s glory dwelt in the inner sanctum but was not contained by it.

To summarise Israelite History…

For Jeremiah, when the Temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians, something terrible happened beyond the wanton destruction, desecration and deportation of the inhabitants. God’s glory departed from the most sacred place.

From the moment of Solomon’s consecration of the Temple, not only was there a sense of God’s glory being present in that holy place, but what the Sabbath was for time, so the Temple became for space. The Temple spoke of the life of heaven in the midst of the earth. Sabbath and Temple in their own ways were propositions, not just symbols of God’s presence in the midst of his people. The Sabbath represented the end and completion of God’s creation. The Temple was the microcosmos of the whole cosmos. Humanity, which according to Genesis 1 bears the image of God, takes its place in the created order as the image-bearer. Something about who and what we are is to take forward God’s creative purpose. The roles of priest and king embody that image-bearing, creating-stewardship.

The message the Temple gives is the same as that of the Sabbath, heaven and earth are designed to belong together. They intersect. Creation was very good, stewarded by the image-bearer – us. The Temple is the physical focus of this. It is presided over by the High Priest. Adam in the Garden, perfect. Just as the Sabbath is lived experience of God’s age touching this world, week by week in the lives of the Jewish faithful, so the Temple was the sign of a perfect past and a perfect future towards which God is drawing his people. That was what the Temple was for.

Deeply bound in with this is the renewal of the Temple, both with its daily, weekly and annual sacrifices and cleansing rituals. The Day of Atonement in the Autumn each year, saw the High Priest, as image bearer making reconciliation for his own sins, and then transformed he lays the sins of the people upon a goat cast into the wilderness and expiates the sins of the nation.

Today’s account of Jesus in the Temple portrays him full of zeal for the Lord’s house. Psalm 69 is quoted, and he drives out the money changers and stall-holders. Is he just railing against trade in the Temple, or is there a deeper symbolism here? It is not quoted, but it is implied. Zechariah 14: 20-21, the last words of the penultimate book of the Bible:

On that day ….the cooking-pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.

“That Day” is the day in the coming age when “The Lord will be King over the whole earth” (Zech 14:9). Injustice will be overturned, and the reign of God made manifest. Crucially, on that day they won’t need money changers and people to sell unblemished offerings. None of this will be necessary, just as every saucepan will be as holy as the vessels of the Temple, so every coin and animal will be pure and ready for sacrifice.

Jesus starts his ministry turning over tables, not to implicate the traders or even to do away with the sacrifices, but to declare that that day is now here. What Zechariah saw and Ezekiel had seen, “The Lord your God will come and all the holy ones with him.” (Zech 14: 6). God’s glory has revivified the Temple. Indeed, as John foresaw, the glory of the Lord now dwells with his people. The place which symbolised the Sabbath, the connection between heaven and earth is being relocated. It is visible now in the Son of Man (who is Lord of the Sabbath). John will tell us as Jesus is crucified, so are the Paschal lambs sacrificed for the Feast. The Image bearer, humanity, thanks to what that day will show, truly will reflect the divine image, and those who follow will be admitted to the new sanctuary.

Sermon Lent I, 21 February 2021, The Vicar

Sermon Lent I, 21 February 2021, the Vicar

There are elemental factors with which we must deal before we look at Mark’s telling of Jesus’s time in the wilderness.

Some years ago, rather baldly, one of the children, said, “Look what you have done to the planet, that we will have to manage!” It was a sobering moment. Aged about 12, and with a lifespan of at least another 80 years she had been shown the predictions of weather patterns, flooding, winter and summer extremes, the erosion of fertile lands, and the rise in sea waters, and knew that before her was a life of climate uncertainty and foreboding. I don’t blame the school for scaremongering when the scientific modelling has become incontrovertible. That was long before the current crisis, in some measure environmental, as well as health-related.

The urgency of discussion about global action to prevent unnecessary interference with the natural order, through reduction of emissions is in the consciousness of most now, and action to see a fundamental change is a spur and inspiration.

The sequence of the early chapters of Genesis, which sees the beauty and balance of creation at its outset corrupted by human selfishness and murder, shows the immediate consequence of sin to be death. The flood, which Noah’s ark and its precious cargo of specimens of all living things, just escapes. It is the scouring, the cleansing of that death-wish. The rainbow, we read of in today’s lesson sets a seal of promise that nothing like this will be repeated. But Noah’s own intemperate reaction is to make wine and become drunk himself, an acid postscript to an otherwise sobering story. For all the cleansing and the rainbow, the death-wish of humanity still remains. As the G7 meet, and as America re-enters the Paris Climate accord, and as Cop-26 is being prepared for later this year, God-willing in Glasgow, may the world’s sober attention be trained on all that is possible. We are doing our best, following an environmental audit to see if we can be carbon neutral by 2030, with efforts to harness the very best insulation and energy technologies. The forty days and nights of rain, were followed by 150 days of gradual ebbing of the great flood, then 40 days more before a raven was released, then another 7 and a dove.

Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness echo some of this symbolism. Two things underlie this imagery. Jesus goes from his baptism. He is revealed there as the Beloved Son, and then driven into the wilderness. As usual Mark does not mess about in telling us the sequence of events. But each word is loaded with symbolism. The prophets underlined that Israel in the wilderness, after its passing through the Red Sea, became God’s beloved own. The sense of being driven into the wilderness, which the Greek suggests, highlights the driving back of the sea, and the escape of the Children of Israel, the impulsion into their desert wanderings.

I mentioned the elements at the start, the threat of destruction of the world as we know it. Sea and desert, driving forces, all combine to cast Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness as a recapitulation of two key moments of promise and salvation, the flood and the desert wanderings.

But before the sentence even ends, Mark says, “he was there in the wilderness 40 days, tempted of Satan”. Unlike in Matthew and Luke there is no diabolical dialogue. Instead, Mark says almost charmingly, “and was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.” Whatever testing Satan tried is brushed off. Jesus, as the Beloved is vanquisher before he even starts his ministry. The wild beasts are no threat, if he was able to dismiss Satan. Jesus is hailed as the Beloved three times. Twice by his Father, at his baptism and then in chapter 9 at the Transfiguration, and then again in the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus tells of the coming of the beloved son, whom they kill. It is the precious, beloved connection between Father and Son, which is the source of the unending victory.

This Lenten journey is in companionship with the Beloved Son, whose relationship with his Father is above all division. Their bond invites, sustains and repels all evil intent. This journey with them is dynamic, a driving force of nature. It recalls seasons when the elements might overwhelm, flood and desert but in fact it takes us to the primal season of balance and harmony. Eden.

The Orthodox liturgy at the start of Lent prays in the voice of Adam restored to Eden:
The Lord my creator took me as the dust of the earth and formed me into a living being, breathing into me the breath of life. He honoured me, setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible and made me companion of the angels. Satan the deceiver, using the serpent enticed me by food, separated me from the glory of God, and gave me over to the lowest depths of the earth. As master and compassionate, call me back again…. bring me to paradise again.

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us.
By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion;
by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord, deliver us.
In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity;
in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment, Good Lord, deliver us.

Sermon 14 February 2021, the Transfiguration, Ros Miskin

In today’s sermon I am going to attempt to reflect upon the love of God, drawing upon today’s Gospel reading and the fact that today is St Valentine’s Day.  This reflection will, I hope, offer reassurance and comfort to those who have suffered and are suffering from Covid and those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic.

Let me pick up on the expression ‘lost loved ones’.  It is natural to believe that when someone you love dies, you have lost them because their earthly life has ended and you feel deeply and lament the loss of their presence in your life.  Yet if we look at today’s Gospel reading we can say that the loss of presence on earth is not the end of the story.  In this Transfiguration narrative there is the reappearance on the mountain of  Elijah and Moses, both of whom had long since died and are now seen talking with Jesus. Elijah represents the Old Testament prophets who looked for the coming of the Messiah and Moses represents the law.  When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain and his clothes become ‘dazzling white’ this is a manifestation of the glory of God triumphing over death.  It is so because, although Jesus has not yet gone to his death, the Transfiguration reveals his post Resurrection glory yet to come. Jesus then goes on to let his disciples know that he will rise from the dead.  This is all made possible by the voice of God from the cloud saying: ‘this is my Son, the Beloved’.  This love of God, which defeats the power of death, is for us all to share in now and hereafter when the kingdom comes.  All that is required of us is to have faith that God, the King of Love, our Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never.  We nothing lack if we are his and he is ours forever.

This faith will not diminish the pain and mourning at the loss of loved ones but it may help the sufferer to look beyond the valley of the shadow of death towards the light of the abiding love of God. Light as an expression of God’s love is often found throughout the Bible.  We have just passed through Candlemas when Jesus was presented as a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’.  In Matthew’s Gospel, during the Transfiguration, Jesus’s face ‘shone like the sun’.

In Psalm 50, God ‘shines forth’ and this passage echoes the Transfiguration in calling to the heavens and to the earth to gather the faithful.  Light is a common element shared by the three key moments of baptism, transfiguration and the Crucifixion.  All this triumphs over the darkness of the valley of death.

So the light of love is there for us all.  How else can love be expressed?  Well, it  can lift us up into a new dimension of being.  In the wonderful painting by Raphael, the sixteenth century artist of the High Renaissance, Jesus is depicted in the Transfiguration as lifted up just above the mountain top. As a song written in 1982 expresses it: ‘love lifts us up where we belong, where the eagles cry on the mountain high’.

All that having been said, in today’s Gospel reading the three disciples Peter, James and John, who witness the Transfiguration are not transformed by the experience.  At first Peter wishes to stay with Jesus and to make dwellings for him and Elijah and Moses but then as Jesus descends the mountain with them fear and confusion reign as they puzzle over what is meant by Jesus saying that he will rise from the dead. We do not have a definitive explanation of why Mark portrayed the disciples in this negative fashion.  What we can say is that in spite of all their fears and uncertainties which we also experience in our daily lives, love continues and is given particular expression upon St Valentine’s Day.  Legend has it that a third century early Christian priest named Valentine was the originator of this day.  This legend reveals that before his martyrdom for looking after persecuted Christians, Valentine wrote a card in prison to the jailer’s daughter who he had cured of blindness, signing it ‘your Valentine’.  This may be legend but there is no smoke without fire and from this legend has sprung centuries of expressions of love, from the courtly love of the High Middle Ages to the cards and flowers and chocolates given to lovers today.

One aspect of this legend that I love is that St Valentine brings on the spring and plants and flowers start to grow on his day.  It gladdens the heart to see the emergence of the snowdrops, aconites and crocuses in our church garden. So as we battle against the pandemic let us hold this spring time in our hearts and remember that love never dies.

Sermon 7 February 2021, Tessa Lang and Sermon 2 May 2021, Tessa Lang

It is an honour to embark on my maiden sermon in front of our St Mark’s community…and what a treasure trove of gospel riches I’ve been given to consider and share with you…briefly, I promise.

When William sent the options for today’s readings, he noted that the Prologue to John’s gospel was included for the third time so far in the 10 weeks of this liturgical year. This struck me as meaningful, resonating with current experience when we are being asked over and over to pay attention to the same messages, for our own good and most vitally, for everyone else’s sake…as is fit in matters of life and death. So…what is John’s message repeating to us this particular Sexagesima Sunday, in the midst of lockdown with its widespread anxiety, loss and separation? Poised at the back end of winter but still far from spring? What could St John’s divine Word …and the compilers of the Church of England Lectionary…intend for us today, the 7th of February 2021?

Let us consider its timing, for last Tuesday we concluded the season of Christmas and Epiphany with the Feast of Candlemas. Already we find ourselves at the midpoint of the 3- week-only ‘Gesima Sunday season’ …then the Lenten journey to Calvary follows on … in preparation for the Feast of Feasts – Easter Day. As Easter occurs roughly 60 days’ time from today, this explains the origin of the racy-sounding prefix to -gesima, the middle sister in a series of 3 that form this short season of preparation… for a longer, more austere preparation in advance of Christianity’s central event. This is subtly underscored by a visual modulation of the service. During the 3 Sundays of this transition period, our magnificent reredoses remain open and the Gloria is sung although ministers now appear in purple vestments, last worn during Advent, also a season of preparation, penance and sacrifice.

Yet here we are, once again treated to John’s Prologue, a grand piece of prosody, soaring and resonant as any symphonic overture, with great themes set out in poetic rhythm, its skilful parallel images and diction crafted to embed a dazzling logic…building a veritable stairway to heaven by which we ascend, from the Beginning to re-birth through belief, solely by the will of God and our openness to its acceptance. We are introduced to the Johannine key terms that make his narrative of Christ so powerful and able to communicate across all faiths and disciplines to anyone who ponders the nature of God: the Word; life;
true light; sons of God (meant more broadly as children of God); belief; grace, and truth. This is another realm from the customary seasonal one of exhortation to examine, atone and improve our Christian life; here is a full-on foretaste of glory, a packing list of life-giving essentials for our Lenten knapsack.

In today’s gospel we also encounter John the Baptist, characterised not as another miracle of birth within the extended family of Jesus as a slightly elder and mortal cousin, but by the role he fulfils in God’s plan. His special purpose is to prepare humankind for receiving the sole presence who can prepare us for the ultimate feast that brings us to God’s table. He is a man [human being – anthropos] who did see and give witness to the true light — that is, the Baptist saw the glorious nature of God manifest in its human form, as Jesus, flesh and blood, upholding creation and all life with his Word. Perhaps John the Baptist’s witness could be seen as the model, an ideal form of -gesima sermon in and of itself, shining a light on the living embodiment of the Word.

This Sunday, we, too can turn to the light found in revisiting St John’s Prologue, experience it as a beacon in the darkness of a global pandemic. Indeed, it has illuminated those who gathered centuries before us, from the first Christians raising their voices together to exult in the good news…to its liturgical role as the Last Gospel, routinely said quietly by the priest after the mass from the fourth century until the end of the 1960s – and still said quietly by the late Father Kent White every time he proceeded out after celebrating the Eucharist, here in St Mark’s, in the 1990s. We can find comfort in the repetition of our Church’s cycle of liturgy and observance, upheld through so many other times of trouble, pestilence and conflict…we can remember that 69 years ago yesterday, the young – then Princess – Elizabeth, acceded to the Throne upon the death of her father, King George VI, and that she wasn’t able to be there for his passing; a personal dimension to a public event, now a tragic circumstance that so many
families in their thousands across this nation have suffered…we can have faith that those we have lost remain children of God and live in perpetual light.
All this is possible because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, a connection forever available to us between the personal and the absolute, the human and the divine, what is above and that which is below. Here indeed is a message worth repeating…and the best possible preparation for what lies before us.

Sermon 2 May 2021, Easter V  – Branches in the Vine

The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
+ The beginning of the Holy Gospel according to John.
Glory be to thee, O Lord.
John 15: 1 – 8
This is the word of the Lord
Praise be to thee, O Christ
From the Gospel for today, John, Chapter 15, Verse 1
1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
And Verse 8:
8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be
my disciples
+ In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon – Branches in the Vine
We have arrived together to the fifth Sunday of Eastertide, and there is
much to celebrate as we continue to welcome the risen Christ amongst
us. Soon our thoughts will be directed to the duties of the growing
season actual and metaphorical as Christ is taken up and we remain –
to increase his Kingdom and to get on with unlocking society and
rebuilding our lives.

At this hinge moment in the Church year and in 2021, we are given
today’s text, surely one of the New Testament’s richest and most
instructive passages.

For here is teaching by allegory, a sparkling illustration of how to
understand the spiritual structure of our Christian life:
The true vine is Jesus Christ. The husbandman (meaning farmer and in
this example, a specialist vinedresser) is God the Father.
Who then are the recipients of their support and attention?
The branches. Each one of us, individually, and all of us collectively as
a church, are a branch, one of only two kinds: one that is fruitful so
subject to pruning to increase its abundance, or one that is taken away
to wither and be cast into the fire.

What is the end purpose of this divine horticulture?
To glorify God the Father by bearing an ever-increasing luxuriance of
the fruits of faith, made possible by uninterrupted connection through
Jesus Christ…by abiding in Him and He in us, branches in the true vine.
What sort of crop is this?

It can only be the sort that glorifies God, so anything and everything
that truly matters, has value and endures forever. Varieties of this
celestial fruit can be love, joy, peace … faithfulness, kindness, patience
… truth, beauty, righteousness. …good works … sharing His gospel,
listening to His direction, living in community … answered prayer.
When we make ourselves available to bear this miraculous fruit, we too
abide in a realm beyond daily sustenance – serving to God and each
other a boundless, transcendent feast.

When the disciple set down the words of our text, he invited us into the
intimacy of that last night with Jesus, one that John shared as a
teenager in disrupted and troubled times. The clock is ticking to the
foreseen final act on earth; Judas’ departure reduces the disciples to 11
in number, rising with their Master after the Passover meal as He begins
the long walk to Calvary. The next 3 chapters, starting with Chapter
15, are an outpouring of love, instruction and example to the dear ones
He must first leave behind before He can join them to Him
forever…preparing them for what comes next, and from then on, for all
the Children of God.

Imagine Jesus leading the small, anxious band through the streets of
Jerusalem, approaching the west gate to the Temple Mount. Josephus,
a first century historian, reports that all entries to the sacred area were
adorned with magnificent decorations in the form of golden vines laden
with fruit, with the most impressive wreathing the 60-foot-tall main door.
Every Jew would know that the vine symbolises Israel since (in the
words of Psalm 80) “Thou has brought a vine out of Egypt, though hast
cast out the heathen and planted it.” In this Mediterranean country,
vines equate to prosperity and posterity. Here indeed is a powerful
image to implant within his disciples, to associate Himself and them
with their root tradition but “growing it” to include more than one nation
in one location. With Jesus as the true vine, all of creation is invited to
connect to the divine life source. In the confused and troubling days
immediately after the crucifixion and resurrection, and the turbulence
stretching ahead, every time a disciple lifted their head to the hills,
visited or just thought of the Temple, they would be reminded of their
life in Christ, bearing fruit pleasing to God.

Each Eastertide, I marvel at the faithfulness and courage of the women
at the foot of the cross and at the tomb. Particularly as they were not
present for Jesus’ last master class and tender farewell, so far as we
know. What a bounty of fruitfulness they embody, a perfect example of
how abiding in Jesus, staying close, remaining connected, keeps you in
life-giving contact with all that is true and good. No special treatment
or instructions are required by the Christian and there is nothing we can
do alone to effect anything.

But God the Father’s work is never done. As husbandman, He is the
one who cultivates the branches in the vine. This is an endless and allconsuming
task, as in Biblical times, vines were not set in straight rows
supported as we see them today but grew along the ground. The task
of vine dressing involved lifting and cleaning dust or mud away,
perhaps propping a cluster on a stone to enable sunlight to do its
magic, routinely and decisively pruning branches that had come adrift
of the vine, never hesitating to cut as deeply and as often as necessary
to let in the light and multiply the crop – pruning to enable the fruitful
branches truly to thrive. More profound than ‘tough love’ and
emphatically not random or meaningless, here is a way to understand
our losses, our separations, our troubles and disappointments, and
remain connected to the true vine without falling into isolation and
spiritual death.

As our text teaches us, so shall you be a disciple of Christ when you
expect and accept pruning to the greater glory of God. This removes
what is dead – unfruitful – and makes room for the real thing – real joy,
real purpose, real communion with God, by remaining in Him as He is in
us.

How straightforward as a message…life-changing in
application…wondrous in its source, which is the pure love and power
of God the Father whose plan and pleasure is to experience us as we
bloom and fruit. So much so that He transforms our reality with the gift
of his Son, whose Word cleanses us so that we can abide in Christ and
through our fruitfulness, glorify God.

We need only abide to learn what He intends for us, which often starts
in an unexpected way and ends with a new beginning…as Philip
experiences when God directs every step of his encounter with the
Ethiopian official in today’s reading, then whisks him away to the next
task; no doubt, you have experienced such upheavals and sudden new
directions in your own life. Pruning is evidence of God’s presence in
your life. Pruning reveals God’s purpose for you. Pruning produces
more fruit.

Good news indeed in uncertain times. Good news indeed when the sun
shines. Alleluia. Amen.

Sermon 6 December 2020 – Advent II – Rosamond Miskin, Licensed Lay Minister

In the current situation of being in the midst of a pandemic we long for good news.  That might be the arrival of a successful vaccine, or a steep decline in the number of people infected or, best of all, the knowledge that the virus has either burnt itself out or at least mutated into a much less harmful threat to our health.

What are we left with whilst waiting for good news?  Primarily, whilst the professionals seek to provide a cure, the rest of us are left with just that, waiting, and whilst we wait we peer ahead to seek a light at the end of the tunnel.

In attempting to stay positive, let me begin with a negative. Let me consider what it means to be in a tunnel, using the analogy of a train journey.  There is a sense of being confined, albeit in a lit space, surrounded by a dark exterior.  If the train gets stuck in the tunnel, I, for one, can feel a bit claustrophobic.  Others may also feel this and an anxiety about not reaching their destination on time or how to cope if they suddenly felt unwell.

So what might a passenger do to stay positive?  In normal circumstances you could distract your mind with chatting to your travel companion about pleasant things, or have a joke with them to ease the tension.  If you are travelling alone you could exchange a pleasantry with another passenger.  In the current situation, though, where we are required to maintain social distancing, this might not be so easy.  So instead you could read a book or listen to music or use the imagination to take your mind elsewhere.

Some of these ways of staying positive may ease your mind.  The problem, though, at the moment is that the tunnel we are currently in that has been generated by the pandemic is very long; we have already been in it for quite a while and may be in it for some time yet.  During this time many people have lost loved ones and the situation is exacerbated by money worries as ways of making a living are heavily reduced when everything is on hold.

So to stay positive perhaps the best way forward is to dig a bit deeper, beyond distracting our minds and find solace and hope in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  To consider this bigger picture to address the anxieties that have arisen following the onset of the pandemic.  The non-believer might also wish to at least take a look at this life of Jesus; after all, we are all in this together.

Let us see why this is so.  Well, we have the words ‘good news’ in the opening sentence of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel.  Thus he writes in his opening sentence: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.  Without any preamble, Mark affirms head on that this ‘good news’ which is about to be proclaimed by John the Baptist, is now with us.

Why is Jesus Christ good news?  We can say this as it is salvation in Jesus made possible by his death on the Cross for our sins and his resurrection with its promise of eternal life for us all.  We can take comfort from this promise of eternal life in a situation whereby many people have passed away. This promise is there for us in the offer by God to us of baptism when by water, oil, and the Holy Spirit we are made members of the body of Christ.  This is what John the Baptist is calling people towards in today’s Gospel reading.  Here we find John as the messenger who is preparing the way for us to have this participation through baptism.  John baptises with water which is to be followed by Jesus baptising in the Holy Spirit. Once baptized, Jesus is within us and we are within him.  Baptism opens the door for us to become faithful people of God, armed to resist the Devil and his destructive purposes.  For those of us who live on, this faith in God and his son Jesus allows us to find ways out of trouble and to be renewed and refreshed.  It does so because, whilst seeking to provide practical solutions to problems, we can not only pray for the souls of the departed but also commune with God through prayer to ask for his help in our times of trouble and to show us the way forward.  We can do this because he is the way, the Truth and the life and that is all positive for us as it has a beginning and a new beginning in its narrative.  That is to say the Bible begins with the positive act of creation and ends with the positive event of the resurrection with its promise of eternal life, and we are all in that story.  This gives us hope for now and the life to come –  a hope to dwell in, in the current situation and the promise of eternal life for those who have died.

So we have the good news offered to us by God through his son Jesus and the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Let us hold on to that whilst we are in the tunnel and pitch the onset of the virus, which came as a bolt out of the blue, against the sudden appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness summoning people to baptism and the abrupt beginning of today’s Gospel reading both of which affirm the good news that we are urgently seeking today.

Sermon 25 October 2020 – Trinity XX – Bible Sunday – the Vicar

The subject of the Bible is a vast one to undertake, let alone complete in 5 minutes.

I want to mention one person, who in the history of the Bible stands out. His approach to it is remarkable and gives us a key to interpreting it and understanding it as the whole that it is for us.

We know him as St Jerome. The Latin name of his birth was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymous. We see one many medieval depictions of him, a serious and intent face. Anachronistically he is depicted in a cardinal’s hat, as a onetime prototype of a Vatican official.

He was born in 347 in Dalmatia, modern day Croatia into a wealthy family. He was not baptized until 360 or so, so as a teenager, and this is the period when Christianity is both official and more or less undisputed in the Roman Empire. He studied in Rome, the typical education of a Patrician of his day. Aged about 26 having travelled in Europe, he journey to Asia Minor where he was gravely ill and he experienced a profound personal conversion, which caused him to lay aside his other studies and to concentrate on Biblical study. In some ways this is the most interesting and formative period of his life, from the mid-370s, living almost as a hermit, he sat at the feet of converted Jewish Rabbi from Antioch. Jerome learned from this master Biblical Hebrew. He was probably the best versed scholar of the Old Testament of the Ancient world as a result. In these four years or so his grasp of classical Hebrew was unsurpassed. I shall come back to the significance of this in a moment. He returned to Rome in the early 380s. En route Paulinus ordained him priest. Pope Damasus I greeted his friend and employed him as his secretary, aware that his scholarship was unique. Damasus commissioned Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin. There were earlier beloved texts circulating, translations of the Greek Gospels and the Septuagint [LXX] into Latin. But it was known there were problems of embellishment and scribal error in them. What was the LXX? The Jewish diaspora, notably in Alexandria, was largely Hellenised. A story went in the ancient world had it that the great Ptolemy II, Philadelphus, whose library in Alexandria was one of the great treasures of the ancient world invited 6 scholars from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to meet and prepare a complete translation of the Hebrew scriptures for his library. It is not certain this took place exactly like this, but what is clear is that a pretty standard Greek text of the OT, now known as the LXX was produced by the 2nd c BC and it was almost more widespread in use in the time of the New Testament, than the Hebrew Bible texts, preserved mainly in and around Jerusalem and Galilee. The early Church was dependent on the LXX.

Jerome in the 4th c, in his detailed dialogues with his Hebrew master and many Jewish scholars, understood that although important as a text, it was not original, and so scholarship of the Hebrew would be key for the best work of Biblical translation. After Damasus died in 384, Jerome and other ascetically minded clergy made for Egypt and the Holy Land. They sought to follow the teachings of Anthony of Egypt, the founder of Monasticism. And by 385 Jerome settled. Significantly he chose Bethlehem. Bethlehem is arguably the oldest place of Christian pilgrimage and worship in the world. The church of the Nativity apart from occasional sackings and skirmishes is almost as it was when the mid-6th c by Justinian, and it was very much on the site of the Constantinian church, which itself was built over the grotto the earliest Christians regarded as the place of Jesus’s birth

From 385 until 404 as well as guiding the monks of Bethlehem, Jerome undertook his work of translation. In terms of the NT, he had a tidying up job to do. The Latin fathers who had translated the Gospels had tried to cover up differences between the Gospels, Jerome set about disentangling the errors. To a large extent he was dependent on sources now lost, but they were very comparable to the twin great ancient Greek texts, the Codex Vaticanus (in the Vatican) and the Codex Sinaiticus in the British Library.

The work on the Old Testament was even more complicated and it is not surprising this took well over 10 years. Setting the Hebrew text alongside the long-inherited LXX, he like many of the contemporary Rabbis in Judaism, who by then had jettisoned the LXX, recovered from the more ancient texts a more robust translation of the Jewish Scriptures. This was not always popular with Christian exegetes.

The Rabbis rejected several of the later books of the LXX, books like Tobit, the Wisdom of Solomon, parts of Daniel. Jerome understood perfectly why. They were later Greek texts, devotional and hortatory in nature, but not with the same character as the Law and the Prophets.

The Church though, because its dependence for the last 350 on the LXX had held onto these books. If seen as a whole, the Apocrypha is not quoted once in the NT. Reformers much later would side with the Rabbis, and push for the excising of the whole Apocryphal section of Scripture. This was but one of many things to row about much later. Its origins, in a way unsuspectingly came from the method of Jerome in his approach to the Bible.

This is not to denigrate him, quite the opposite. His method would be employed by later Reformers, Erasmus, Luther and others. He was the Biblical scholar par excellence.

Jerome helps us to see Bible as a whole. Its origins are vast. Our understanding depends on linguistic experts such as he. People prepared to engage with the minutiae of translation, which itself is so dependent on close textual analysis and ensuing exegesis.

Our collect prays that we might hear, read, mark learn and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures. This is a life-time’s work for all Christians. The Liturgy we celebrate is the word of God, scripture, made visible, audible and our life in response is the word made flesh. How we live our lives in conformity with this marking, learning, inward digesting is the proof of our dependence on Scripture. As St Paul says “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord”.

 

 

 

 

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet, Ros Miskin, Reader – 11 October 2020

 

In the opening sentence of today’s Gospel reading, we learn that Jesus was once more going to speak to the chief priests and elders in parables.  The purpose of the parables was to teach of the kingdom of heaven by way of comparison or illustration for those who could not understand the teaching.  This is confirmed by Jesus in an earlier chapter of Matthew’s Gospel when he informs his disciples that he will speak in parables to the people because ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’.  He goes on to affirm that many prophets and righteous people longed for this sight and hearing but were unable to possess it.

The disciples, then, are blessed in their ability to see and hear the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.  They have, so to speak, the inside story denied to others, many of whom would consider themselves to be righteous and therefore worthy of this knowledge.  Thus it is that the chief priests and elders addressed by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, who would consider themselves to be righteous, are taught of the kingdom of heaven in the form of a parable, in this instance the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.

What emerges here are themes of inclusion and exclusion. Some are included in the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven, others not so readily.  For them it will be a question of grasping the inner meaning of what they hear and so interpretation is required.  For the chosen few the secret of the kingdom of heaven is laid bare.

Why should this be so?  If we are all equal in the sight of God and the promise of the kingdom is given to us all, why the need to make division between those who can have the inner story directly and those who must work it out by means of comparison and illustration?  I believe the answer can be found if we read on through the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.  In this parable, the kingdom of God is given as a Messianic banquet.  God invites us to this banquet freely, as an act of kindness.  He is under no obligation to do so.  Everything is well prepared and there is an eschatological urgency in the words of the king: ’everything is ready’.  Yet in spite of this loving preparation, the invitees, who have status in society, make light of it and ignore the call to the feast.  Enraged, the king destroys them and their city.  The invitation is then sent out again, this time to the outcasts of Israel, saints and sinners all, and they all accept the invitation.  One such guest is condemned to being thrown out by failure to wear the wedding garment that represents conversion to a life of good deeds but the rest remain.  What we learn from this story is that if people do not turn to God in faith they will not be amongst the first to enter the kingdom of heaven, whatever their status in society may be.  Those who do accept the invitation, whether they be saints or sinners, attend the banquet.

So within this parable we can find a reason for the distinction in what is revealed and to whom it is revealed.  Your position in society, and your perception of  yourself as a righteous person, does not mean that you have priority in entering the kingdom of heaven.  What accords you entry is being open to the love of God and accepting him into your life.

If this is so, then we find within a parable itself, in this case the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, the reason why some are chosen to receive the inner story of the kingdom of heaven, while others are given the secret of the kingdom in the form of a parable.

There is a harsh note in today’s Gospel reading: the rage of the king, the destruction of people and property and the ‘wailing and nashing of teeth’ in utter darkness.  This is, as Ian Boxall describes it in his book ‘Discovering

Matthew’ the apocalyptic atmosphere that pervades Matthew’s Gospel.  Where Matthew differs from this apocalyptic tradition is that the true revelation of heavenly secrets has been made not to ‘the wise and intelligent’ but to ‘infants’.

In spite of this division and severity, I believe that we can in faith have trust in the loving purpose of God for us all and that in the end we can all participate in the heavenly kingdom.  All that is required of us is to respond to his freely given invitation to be with him, now and to come.

Sermon by the Vicar to mark the 80th anniversary of the bombing of St Mark’s, 20 September 2020,

Today’s lectionary readings picture moments of destruction. Jeremiah, in his Lamentations sees the devastated wastes of Jerusalem after the Babylonians had invaded and destroyed it before the exile. The picture he paints is one of despair. Over 500 years later, Our Lord is in the Temple precincts, all newly rebuilt and burnished; he foresees what indeed was to happen forty years later, that once again, the Temple would be razed to the ground. The prophet holds out hope for restoration; and Jesus calls us all to watch. Here at St Mark’s we know something of the experience of devastation and restoration. Our remembering what took place exactly 80 years ago is not a mere looking back, but an honouring of a key moment in our national history and local experience; the echoes of another age, which can ring strangely, at moments capture something of the spirit which sustained our forbears here, and which might renew our own courage and hope in the current moment of crisis.

 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on 13 May 1940. The German threat to the whole of Europe could not have been more intense. His speech on 4 June 1940 makes plain the significance of the collapse of allied strongholds in the rest of Europe. The Battle of Britain was in sight, and that Battle was as much as anything to destroy to morale of the British people. Edward Murrow, US journalist commented in 1954 that Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended”. The powerful rhetoric and detailed straight-talking of Churchill’s speeches in the Summer of 1940 helped a bombarded people hold firm. On 4 June 1940, the Prime Minister addressed the House of Commons as he recounts of Dunkirk and its aftermath.

The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armoured vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never had been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into a prosaic past: not only distant but prosaic; but these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that:

When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight,

deserve our gratitude.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

 The Fall of France, and Dunkirk were deep traumas. Many urged a negotiated peace. Having begun a War of words, Churchill had to intensify the onslaught. On 18 June he gave this memorable speech on the Eve of the Battle of Britain.

 However matters may go in France or with the French Government or with another French Government, we in this island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye. And freedom shall be restored to all….

What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over… the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Rhetoric was one thing, military strategy was another. It was vital if Britain were to prevent a full-scale invasion that its Air Force should prove itsmastery. A massive campaign of bombing of German military and industrial targets was carried out. This was matched with comparable targeting of key installations in this country by the Luftwaffe. On 20 August 1940 the signs of Britain’s air supremacy were there. The Battle was by no means over or won, but Churchill  pronounced as if it were.

Almost a year has passed since the war began, and it is natural for us, I think, to pause on our journey at this milestone and survey the dark, wide field.

As in Nelson’s day, the maxim holds, “Our first line of defence is the enemy’s ports.” Now air reconnaissance and photography have brought to an old principle a new and potent aid.

The great air battle which has been in progress over this Island for the last few weeks has recently attained a high intensity. It is too soon to attempt to assign limits either to its scale or to its duration. We must certainly expect that greater efforts will be made by the enemy than any he has so far put forth. Hostile air fields are still being developed in France and the Low Countries, and the movement of squadrons and material for attacking us is still proceeding.

It is quite plain that Herr Hitler could not admit defeat in his air attack on Great Britain without sustaining most serious injury. If, after all his boastings and blood-curdling threats and lurid accounts trumpeted round the world of the damage he has inflicted, of the vast numbers of our Air Force he has shot down, so he says, with so little loss to himself; if after tales of the panic-stricken British crushed in their holes cursing the plutocratic Parliament which has led them to such a plight; if after all this his whole air onslaught were forced after a while tamely to peter out, the Fuehrer’s reputation for veracity of statement might be seriously impugned. We may be sure, therefore, that he will continue as long as he has the strength to do so, and as long as any preoccupations he may have in respect of the Russian Air Force allow him to do so…..

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings. I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.

The late Summer and early Autumn saw by the far the most intense reprisals and determination by the German command to beleaguer the civilian population.On 7 September, a massive series of raids involving nearly four hundred bombers and more than six hundred fighters targeted docks in the East End of London, day and night. The German press jubilantly announced that “one great cloud of smoke stretches tonight from the middle of London to the mouth of the Thames.” Göring maintained that the RAF was close to defeat, making invasion feasible.The Luftwaffe began to abandon their morning raids, with attacks on London starting late in the afternoon for fifty-seven consecutive nights. The assumed defeat of the RAF never came. By 13 October, Hitler himself postponed so-called Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain until the Spring of 1941. This was not before large parts of London had been devastated and St Mark’s, amongst so many places, lay in ruins. The church took two direct hits during the nights of 21 & 26 September.

The October Parish Magazine begins soberly:

Many of our readers will probably be surprised that no mention is made in this magazine of certain events last month. The editor can only say he is unable to allude to them and will of course do so at the earliest moment. He feels sure those who read will understand. Mr Wheeler, Newsagent in Princess Road, is kindly allowing us to put notices in his shop window of certain of our services and arrangements. I ask you all to keep your attention on these notices.

By the time of The November 1940 magazine’s publication, we read:

The Disaster

 (Permission has been obtained from the Ministry of Information and Air Ministry to publish the following statement. It was not allowed to be published earlier and certain details such as the date of the disaster, although well-known to everybody here, have been omitted.)

 St Mark’s Church was struck by incendiary bombs during a recent raid on London. The roof quickly caught alight and the fire rapidly spread from the west to the east end of it. By the time the hoses were brought into action most of the nave roof was ablaze, and it was soon evident that the destruction of the interior of the church would be complete. The fire was all over in a few hours.

The church was again struck by a high explosive bomb at a later date. The tracery of the east window, hitherto intact, was blown out and the wall around and above it so damaged that it had to be taken down later. This bomb apparently struck the High Altar steps, going right down into the church room and making a good deal of material damage to the chancel wall.

St Mark’s now stands in ruins. The walls and pillars remain, although the chancel walls are badly cracked. So is the steeple which, to our grief, will have to be taken down, and, indeed, the process of doing this has already begun.

This great calamity which has befallen the parish will I know, meet with the sympathy of all, wherever they may live, who knew and loved St Mark’s. It is too early yet to see far ahead…..It is unnecessary to tellyou of the great grief of our congregation and of the many kind expressions of sympathy which have reached me and touched me deeply. We can but look forward to the day when St Mark’s may be restored. Indeed, it has been remarkable how, in letter after letter which I have received, the conviction has been expressed that out of the present ruins will arise a new St Mark’s, beautiful and fruitful for the future years.

I know this great calamity will unite our congregation, and keep them loyal to the things for which St Mark’s exists and yes, still exists. We shall continue of course to “hold fast the profession of our faith”, to worship together and to have our sacraments. We shall, I hope be more faithful and regular than ever. We will not be dismayed but will remember, in the words of His Majesty the King, that “after winter comes spring” and we will do our best to show that our Christian faith is big enough to ride over our present distress.

The then churchwardens, Mr S A Davis and Mr F A Wallis wrote this in the same issue:

The loss of our church is keenly felt by every member of St Mark’s, many of whom have over the period of years, given so much time and care to its beautifications and maintenance.

To one man, however it has been grievous and personal shock – the Vicar.

As a little group of us stood with the vicar watching the flames creep relentlessly towards the High Altar, we thought of the years of devotion he had unsparingly given to make St Mark’s Church truly beautiful, as beautiful as it was.

Like the artist he is, the Vicar has given the highest and noblest in him to his church – a labour of love – and in a few minutes, it stood out against the starlit sky a grim charred ruin. Had  the vicar pressed words of bitterness none could have wondered. His first words however were of concern for his people; that the spiritual life of the parish should go on.

We are addressing these few words to you, the members of St Mark’s, because we feel that you should wish to know of these things. The Vicar’s courage is a challenge to each one of us. We must accept that challenge as a sacred trust. The work of our Church must go on, our Church must be rebuilt.

In the meantime, we earnestly appeal to you to all to do your utmost to maintain the income of the Church and indeed to increase it, that hurried and maybe unwise decisions may not be forced upon us by economic distress. That St Mark’s Church shall again stand proudly as a place worthy and beautiful is, we are sure, the will and determination if its people.

In the December edition of the magazine, the Vicar announced, under the title RIP George Langford:

The death of Mr Langford came to us as a real shock: not only because of its unexpectedness – he went from us very suddenly –  but because our affection for him brought with it that unwillingness to believe we should see him no more. He has been associated with St Mark’s for so long – all his life, I believe. Not only was a he a sidesman, not only had he served on the Parochial Church Council, but he was a faithful and regular member of the congregation….. It must have brought great trouble to him when his house was badly damaged in a recent air-raid; and the destruction of St Mark’s perhaps meant more to him that we can ever know. Such disasters were in all probability contributory causes of his death.

The Vicar’s spirits were despite these sadnesses were undimmed. He writes in the same edition:

I have recently come across a bound volume of the St Mark’s Parish Magazine of 1900. Such ancient volumes must be rare…. One of the most valuable functions of  a parish magazine is to record parish history, and therefore it may be of interest and profit to look back to the life of St Mark’s forty years ago as it was portrayed in the magazine….Queen Victoria was still alive.. but they were not days of peace. We were in the middle of the Boer War. The vicar was then Dr Sparrow Simpson who is happily still with us. His name is known throughout the Church of England as one its greatest scholars and theologians.

He goes on to describe aspects of parish life, not least the management of the schools, the teas for the children on St Mark’s Day, the daily mass, the choir football and cricket teams. He concludes in the evocation of this bygone age:

As we read these accounts of calm happenings in the life of the parish 40 years ago, we are inclined to think that there is something to be said for the despised Victorian age after all. There is the sense of well established Church life, with its well run schools and organisations, with nothing to upset its ordered progress. In in 1980, if someone discovered the bound volume of this year’s parish magazines, and wrote the article “Forty Years Ago”, I wonder what he would think of 1940?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon by Fr Hugh Stuckey 7 July 1940 – given by the Vicar on 6 September 2020

On Sunday I read a sermon that was preached in St Mark’s on Sunday 7 July 1940 and published in the August 1940 parish magazine, just one month before the church was all but destroyed (as given below with the title ‘Overheard in church’). The campaign of enemy bombing was in full swing, and the proximity of the church to the Euston mainline  meant it was no surprise it was in the line of fire, but no one knew as this was preached how severe the destruction would be. Fr Hugh Stuckey had been vicar already 12 years by this time. In the late 1930s he had commissioned Sir Ninian Comper to restore the interior in his recognisable neo-gothic style, but the glass of the Victorian church was untouched. Fr Stuckey clearly loved the interior and was at one with it. What follows is an evocation of those windows, for some of which there is no record, and we can only visualise them from his lively “parable”. Like another clerical story teller, the Revd Wilbert Audrey, my predecessor gives voices to the different windows and in so doing varying characters. It is poignant to read as so soon afterwards all but the three roundels in the baptistery were destroyed. Hearing the echoes of real and imagined conversations in the church on the eve of its devastation help us to gain some sense of that time, to bring it to life in some important way at this anniversary, and to gain inspiration. The endurance of a community which was so beleaguered then helps us to take heart now, in the midst of ongoing uncertainty.

 

Trinity X healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, 16 August, Ros Miskin, Reader

In Psalm 34, a Psalm of David, which gives praise to God for deliverance from troubles, we read the sentence: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good’. This tasting does not have the literal meaning of eating but the symbolic meaning of taking refuge in God.  Those who fear the Lord will have no want and those who seek God ‘will lack no good thing’.

What matters then, according to the Psalmist, is faith in God and with that belief your needs will be satisfied.  Thus feeding, and being fed, which is referred to throughout the Bible, couched as it is in the ordinary, everyday language that we understand today, has to be seen ultimately as being the hallmark of God’s covenant with us that we are his people and he is our God.  From the Old Testament Passover meal, through to the New Testament shared meals and feeding narratives, culminating in the Last Supper and the Supper at Emmaus we have expressions of  Divine purpose in God bringing us to him to be as one with him.

This oneness reaches its zenith, I believe, when Jesus blesses bread at the Last Supper and gives it to his disciples saying: ‘Take, eat, this is my body’ and then calling upon them to drink from a cup which he tells them is the blood of the covenant.

If we are all to become as one with God this means inclusion.  If we look at today’s Gospel reading, Jesus heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter because he learns from her that she has included the dogs in a meal by feeding them with the crumbs that have fallen from their Master’s table.  This is not just a ‘be kind to animals’ inclusion but something more profound.  It symbolises the spread of the salvation history from the Jews to the Gentiles.  The Jews are the children at the table and the Gentiles are the dogs that are sharing not scraps but crumbs of food from their table.  It is this demonstration of inclusiveness by the Canaanite woman that leads Jesus to say to the woman ‘great is your faith’.  I say ‘leads’ because his initial reaction is to ignore her pleading as he is adhering to his mission solely ‘to the Lost Sheep of Israel’ but her inclusiveness gives him the bigger picture of the mission to the Gentiles . So in this passage we have the extraordinary position of Jesus being influenced by an unnamed Gentile woman and healing her daughter as he sees her capacity to exhibit faith.

Faith, then, comes first in relationship to God and not whether you are a Jew or a Gentile.  This is expressed in today’s epistle when Isaiah affirms that ‘foreigners who join themselves to the Lord’, provided they hold fast to his Covenant, will be brought to his holy mountain.  It is also expressed in St Paul’s letter to the Romans in which we learn that we are ‘justified by faith’.

Returning to the mission of Jesus, we see in today’s Gospel reading an early reference to the mission to the Gentiles.  This mission, though, is first to the Jews who we learn in today’s Gospel reading are ‘lost sheep’.  What Matthew is giving us is the failure of the Jewish leaders to be good shepherds of their people.  In the passage that precedes today’s reading they are accused by Jesus of being hypocrites who are ‘the blind guides of the blind’.  He accuses them of putting tradition above what comes from the heart.  As Luke warns in his Gospel: ‘Beware the yeast of the Pharisees’.  It falls to Jesus then to be the Good Shepherd.  Matthew affirms this in naming Jesus as ‘the Son of David’. When the Canaanite woman calls out to Jesus as ‘the Son of David’ this is Jesus as the Davidic shepherd who we find in chapter 34 of Ezekiel when God responds to the failure of Israel’s shepherd leaders by raising up his servant David to be their shepherd.

The Canaanite woman’s reward for her faith is the exorcism by Jesus of the demon that is possessing her daughter.  Exorcism was one of the three healing miracles of Jesus, the others being cure and the resurrection of the dead.  What all the miracles have in common is that they are delivered freely.

It would not be inappropriate for us today to pray for a miracle to bring the Corona virus to an end.  While we make this petition to God we can at least go on helping each other out as everyone has been doing.  The rest we must leave to the professionals and to God.

 

Trinity VIII, Sunday 2 August, The feeding Miracle – Ros Miskin, Reader

What I have observed during my preparation of sermons to preach here at St. Mark’s is that the Bible narratives are full of threads that are woven to form various patterns that make up the great tapestry of the Bible story.

In reading the text of today’s Gospel, with Matthew’s account of the feeding miracle, I can identify three of these patterns.

First, there is the pattern of withdrawal and being with others that repeats itself.  If we consider today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is initially alone up the mountain and then the crowd, amazed at his power to heal, come to him.  Having been fed, the crowd are sent away and Jesus departs to sail to the region of Magadan.  A similar pattern of withdrawal and being with others can be found in the Gospels of Mark and Luke with their accounts of the feeding miracle.  In Luke Jesus withdraws ‘privately to a city called Bethsaida’. Then the crowds seek him out.  In Mark the disciples are asked by Jesus to ‘come away to a deserted place all by yourselves’.  They do so in a boat, yet as they come ashore the crowds are waiting for them.  In John’s Gospel we read that Jesus is trying to be withdrawn by the sea of Galilee but ‘a large crowd kept following him’.  Having fed the crowd Jesus retreats up a mountain.

So what does this pattern of withdrawal and being in company signify in the Bible?  One answer is given at the end of John’s account when he writes that Jesus ‘withdrew to the mountain by himself’ because he believed he was going to be taken by force to ‘make him King’.  This earthly kingship would have directly contradicted the Christological understanding of Jesus as the new Moses, healer of Israel and servant of the Lord.  Withdrawal, then, was an immediate response to an attempt to force him into a wrongful position.  It also reflected the fact that by the time of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus was coming to a head with the authorities who were accusing him of acting through the power of Satan.

If we look at the bigger picture, the place of withdrawal in the Bible is often as not the mountain.  Key moments in the Bible narrative involve individual characters in communion with God on a mountain because, as Ian Boxall writes in his book ‘Discovering Matthew’, the mountain is a place of revelation and empathy with the divine’.  From this we can say that withdrawal is an essential part of the Bible story.

My second pattern concerns use of bread in the Bible.  Here there is a repeated pattern of blessing, breaking and giving bread that features in today’s Gospel reading that has an ancestry in the ancient ritual of the daily Jewish meal.  From the Old Testament on into the New, bread symbolises God’s relationship with man.  From the Festival of the Unleavened Bread, through the feeding miracle of today’s Gospel reading, the Last Supper, and the supper at Emmaus, God is revealing his covenantal relationship with mankind.  Thus the miracle of the loaves and fishes anticipates the Eucharist and the Eucharist anticipates the Messianic banquet of the kingdom.

My final pattern is the numbers that re-occur in the Bible. Each time they re-occur they may contain a different meaning or revert back to an earlier meaning.  In order to understand their meaning we need to comprehend their symbolic significance.  Let us look then at the symbolic significance of some of the numbers as numbers feature heavily in the feeding miracle.  In Matthew we have the feeding of the 4,000 with 7 loaves and a few small fish and 7 baskets for the fragments.  In Mark, Luke and John we have 5,000 people being fed with 5 loaves and 2 fishes and 12 baskets for the fragments. There is a discrepancy in the numbers in these narratives but we can make sense of them if we seek their symbolic significance which varies as they re-occur in the Bible.

The number 12 symbolise the 12 tribes of Israel. This number reappears in the New Testament with the appointment of the 12 Apostles. It then appears again in the feeding miracle where, as Ian Boxall writes, it represents the 12 tribes of Israel that are the lost sheep being fed.  Here is has reverted back to its earlier meaning.  Another example is the number 7 which is given in Genesis as the day of rest when God has finished his creation. In the feeding miracle it represents the Gentile nations so this miracle is a feeding of the nations. It appears again in the Book of Revelation with the 7 angels blowing the 7 trumpets.  We might conclude from this that the number 7, as it features in the beginning and the end of the Bible story, has the most powerful significance in terms of the Divine.

These patterns then, and others that emerge as we read the Bible, make up the great tapestry of God’s relationship with mankind from Genesis to Revelation.  If we stand back and view the tapestry as a whole we find compassion emanating from it in the feeding of the needy.  We also find in the gathering up of the fragments of food into baskets the call to avoid waste. Compassion is echoed today in our endeavours to feed the hungry, particularly in the current health crisis.  As we continue with these endeavours I believe we show our trust in the love of God for us all.

Trinity VI, 19 July 2020, William Gulliford

Trinity VI 19 July 2020 Year A Proper 11

Jesus’s remarkable style as a teacher was to use pictures to capture his audience’s attention. Last week’s Gospel was the Parable of the Sower, which anyone in an agricultural society would have grasped immediately. And I thought in that vein I might use some pictures too, which while not of wheat and tares, are of furnaces of fire!

You have two large images of Doom Paintings, scenes of the Last Judgement.

The first on the left is in the Dominican church in Florence of St Maria Novella in the Strozzi di Mantova chapel.

St Thomas Aquinas in the early 13th c and to whom this chapel is dedicated had written amongst many things on the character and structure of the heavenly realm. Dante’s Divine Comedy, of 1320 follows this outline. What is depicted is an intricate description of the nine circles of hell.

Dante is even shown in the contemporary stained glass of the chapel, witness to his work illustrated for all to see. We should add that the family who commissioned it in the 1360s were userers, money lenders, anxious to expiate their sins. The frescos suffered from bouts of restoration which actually damaged rather than enhancing them!

Meeting with the Roman poet Virgil, his companion on his journey into hell in the vestibule, Dante passes the sign which reads “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

The first circle contains unbaptized and the virtuous pagans, who, although not sinful enough to warrant damnation, did not accept Christ. We learn that Jesus has already released from here Adam, and the patriarchs in the Harrowing of Hell, after his death on the cross.

But those that are left are such classical heroes as Homer, Horace and Ovid.  There is also Hector, Aeneas and Julius Caesar. Not to mention Saladin, known for generosity and chivalry at the time of the crusades.

The Second Circle is described as “a part where no thing gleams”. Here are those overtaken by lust.

In the third circle, the gluttonous wallow in “a great storm of putrefaction”– as punishment for not mastering their appetites.

The fourth circle is guarded by Plutus, the ancient pagan deity of wealth.

The fifth Circle – is reserved for the wrathful.

In the sixth circle we find heretics.

The Seventh Circle houses the violent: against neighbours; against themselves; against God, Art, and Nature. Usurers are singled out. They are shown as the violent against Art, which is the Grandchild of God. This is interestingly depicted in the fresco and ironic, given the commission.

In the eighth circle we find the counsellors of fraud: sowers of discord; the falsifiers and imposters.

The ninth the final, deepest level of hell is reserved for traitors, betrayers and oath-breakers, its most famous inmate is Judas Iscariot.

At the very pit of hell is Satan condemned for committing the ultimate sin personal treachery against God. His three faces represent a perversion of the Trinity.

Time does not allow more commentary on the monumental fresco from Albi’s cathedral in detail. It suffices to say that it is enormous and half of it was removed in the 18th c. It is about 100 years later, having been painted by Franco-Flemish painters from 1474 and taking 10 years. Less Aristotlean, it deals with the results of the seven deadly sins (right to left: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Greed, Gluttony, Lust, with Sloth now being missing). Hell is a world of despair, far from God, where disorder shapes its life. The omni-presence of fire, boiling cauldrons, noxious smells, torture, impalement underline the grimness and degradation of the place.

Perhaps these images illustrate that the mediaeval mind was fascinated with the mechanics of hell, in a way different to us who don’t give it very much thought, apart from occasional films. Today’s Gospel is quite clear, there comes a judgement at the end of all things, and a binding up and casting into the fire of that which is found wanting. Do I believe this? Are we missing something not to have Doom-Painting of our own here?

During the start of the lockdown, I heard many people outside the Church speaking of the pandemic in terms of judgement, crisis – the same word. I was taken aback by the vehemence of such statements.

I think these paintings were not so much descriptions of actuality in a netherworld as warnings to the faithful.

Today’s Gospel which speaks of the burning up of the weeds, is not exactly predictions of what will happen to those who commit terrible sins, but statements of God’s justice.

God is just. He is lovable because he is just.

Doom-Paintings are images without God. Christ does not feature in them, hell is a dark and terrible place where his light does not shine. But we know such a place cannot exist. God’s judgement is never the last word. Our attempts to make a world of our own where God does not feature are imperfect, disorderly chaos. God’s justice rights wrongs, corrects the imperfect and the fallen and turns hell into eternal light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday 27 June 2020 Trinity III Proper 8 Zoom Sermon – William Gulliford

Next week we shall return to church, but before we do, here we are gathered in this virtual way, safely distanced, but together. We are worshipping as perhaps three months ago we might never have imagined. And we are poised on the threshold of our beloved St Mark’s.

We are still the same people. Perhaps our hair is longer, or greyer; perhaps we have acquired new skills, or put on a few pounds, or taken off a few. We have all lived through an episode of our lives which may have felt was suspended somehow– a waking dream; or for some a nightmare.

Quite apart from an economy also suspended (with all that might imply for the future), society has been tested in unique ways. Health services remarkably took up the challenge of caring for our nation and its most vulnerable in ways which rightly deserved the many Thursdays of applause. That weekly moment became a ritual, a liturgy of its own, a secular-eucharist, which bound so many together. We may have discovered neighbours we never knew or were able to realise who lived where exactly in the houses and flats around, and the sense of connectedness, as a time of isolation was incredibly powerfully unlocked for a few moments.

The world-wide movement protesting at the death of George Floyd, was very understandably bound up with the shocking reality that in developed countries the most adversely affected in society have been Black, Asian and Minority ethnic communities and with them the poorest, and least-well housed; everyone who died or who has been affected is an undeserving victim of this disease.

In the last week on the radio there have been a range of essays, short and long on a BBC podcast called Rethink. If you get a chance to listen to any of them, I do commend them. They are all fascinating. They help us to recognize that what we yearn for in our hearts for a better society we need to work for in our lives, through our words and even better our actions. This is a very important challenge, which speaks directly to today’s readings.

The daily historical programme The Long View, has explored historical health crises in the last week. And this made me look at the Church’s reaction to plague and pestilence in its history. Certainly, the prayers we have and use show those who wrote them had first-hand experience of them.

Rodney Stark, a historian and sociologist in the 90s did some fascinating research on the early history of the Church in relation to pandemics of the first centuries of our era. There were two waves of what may have been Smallpox in 165 AD and 251 AD. From a pastoral letter written by Bishop Dionysus of Alexandria, after the second of these, it is apparent that medicine and society were of no avail.

At all events most of the brethren through their love and brotherly affection for us spared not themselves nor abandoned one another, but without regard to their own peril visited those who fell sick, diligently looking after and ministering to them and cheerfully shared their fate with them, being infected with the disease from them… the very pick of our brethren lost their lives in this way, both priests and deacons and some highly praised ones from among the laity, so that this manner of dying does not seem far removed from martyrdom… But the Gentiles behaved quite differently: those who were beginning to fall sick they thrust away, and their dearest they fled from, or cast them half dead into the roads: unburied bodies they treated as vile refuse; for they tried to avoid the spreading and communication of the fatal disease.

Doctors fled from the contagion as far as they could. It was the Christians, at that time sporadically persecuted, who not only took care of their own, but of those abandoned by their families to die in the streets. In the Fourth Century, the Pagan Emperor Julian tried to roll back Constantine’s establishment of the Church. In a letter to the high priest of Galatia, Julian urged the distribution of grain and wine to the poor, noting that “the impious Galileans [Christians], in addition to their own, support ours, [and] it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.” The Church’s acts of mercy commended it to a frightened and beleaguered populace, and this is one of the reasons Paganism crumbled thereafter.

Professor Stark says the early Church grew because the values of love, dedication to social service and community solidarity, before, during and after pandemics was so strong that nothing could break them.  Our assemblies which we seek to restore are essential to our worshipping life, but as intensive communities they are essential to our missionary life.

Scroll forward 1000 years, there is a baudier but no less cheering account. Estimates vary but the Black Death of the 1340s may have killed half the population of Europe in a very short space of time. The mother and father of all pandemics, the economic and social order would never be the same. The Church unfortunately did not display the same levels of self-sacrifice as it had when underground. An uproarious record of the effects of the time is Boccacio’s Decameron. A set of narrated stories within the story of a group of refugees from plague-infested Florence, the Decameron inspired Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There are three things perhaps to note, which have real resonances for us as we emerge from lockdown. Humour, even and perhaps particularly the baudy and disrespectful, helps to turn human frailty, especially fear, into something manageable. It’s a vital tool in survival. We certainly saw that at the start of the confinement – so many silly emails, but they raised a smile. I still love the quote of a 15 year old “it’s comforting to know that we are living through a History GCSE question”. Second the Decameron marks in the literature of the very early renaissance, the changes in the world order. Rulers and ruled across Europe entered a different relationship, with a series of uprisings which followed in the decades after return. The narratives more than hint at how things have to change, and how inevitably old hierarchies will be questioned in the light of such upheaval. And thirdly, related to the first point, it is not just that humour tames the horrendous, but entertainment – story-telling is a natural need and place to turn to. This book was the original Netflix box-set for lockdown. One of my prayers for the next stage of our life is for all associated with sport, theatre and music venues, as they are so essential for the renewed mental health and resilience of society.

These moments in history, and there are more, all underline that the Church has not been absent or unaffected by pandemic-type calamities. Sometimes it has thrived against all odds and been a beacon of the light of God’s grace during and after human suffering, sometimes the Church’s tendency to self-preservation has rendered it a derisory caricature of itself, as it did in plague-struck Florence.

Today’s readings remind us of the character of prophecy. Jeremiah, that brave lone voice at a moment of disaster, speaks of the role of the prophet to tell of evil or plague, war or peace. And Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and be courageous in proclaiming the Gospel and to accept the varying welcomes they might receive; but those who welcome them as prophets will receive “the prophet’s reward”.

This moment of change, this turning point in all our lives, is the time to attend to prophetic words, to challenge to society to unearth and root out injustice and restore hope. To call for what some call “the circular bio-economy”.

Our return to our church building is not just convenient, it is the opportunity to be what we are called to be – the Church. The very word Church means “assembly” those who are called out – to be together. On 20 September we shall mark the 80th anniversary of the destruction of St Mark’s. An anniversary we were planning to keep with special celebrations and the start of fund-raising for renewal of the building, essential maintenance and possibly other works to help us the better to be at the service of all in our neighbourhood. Can we, as our forebears did, show that we are changed, and thereby change for the better this parish, this community and all with whom we have to do.

GOD, whose beauty is beyond our imagining and whose power we cannot comprehend: show us thy glory as far as we can grasp it, and shield us from knowing more than we can bear until we may look upon thee without fear; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Trinity I, 14 June 2020, Ros Miskin, Reader

One of the charities that I support is the Children’s Society.  When reading their most recent magazine I was struck by the depiction in it of colourful postcards sent by supporters of the Society sharing messages of hope for young refugees.  One such read: ‘Welcome to England.  We hope that you feel welcome and enjoy being here’.  Another wrote: ‘Welcome! You are valued!

How reassuring these words must be to refugees arriving in England from afar.  They prompted me to make ‘welcome’ the theme of my sermon today as I believe that it is a crucial part of the life of the church to welcome people into its worshipping community.

At present, in the socially distanced situation we have been left with by the corona virus, we cannot welcome people into the church building as it must remain closed until it is safe enough to allow people to enter once more.  Nevertheless we can, thanks to technology, stream worship into people’s homes, where computers are to hand, and engage in a pastoral ministry by phone and email.  All this, to my mind, affirms St Mark’s as having a continuous welcoming presence.  What we can conclude from this continuity is that the unwelcome virus that has found a way through cunning means to unlock and corrupt the human cell can never lock us out of our faith and participation in worship.  We can also say that our worship, wherever it takes place, reflects our membership of the body of Christ and that body was resurrected following the Crucifixion and raised up on high to sit at the right hand of God, so we are members of an incorruptible body now and in eternity.  As we affirm in our worship: ‘we are many but we are one body’.

 We do, though, look forward to the day when we can once more open the church door to welcome parishioners and visitors from all walks of life so they may be sustained, comforted and uplifted by the rites and rituals and music which form our worship and nurture our spiritual as well as mental wellbeing.

So how does welcome relate to today’s Gospel reading?  Here, Matthew writes that Jesus sends out his disciples to the iron age Semitic tribes of the ancient near East, known as ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  They are being called upon to ‘cure the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons’ but without payment or money to take on their journey. The missionaries must be sustained by Divine providence and travel in humility.  They must take the risk of sharing life with people to whom they are sent.  They are to be the labourers for God’s harvest and as such there will be a strain upon them. They may well face persecution before governors and kings so they must be careful for they are sheep amongst the wolves. Yet lack of welcome is to work both ways.  If the disciples are not welcomed into the houses and towns they travel to then Jesus says: ‘Truly, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town’.  Also, the disciples are given a commanding position by Jesus as it is they who greet the households they approach and not the other way round. If, and only if, the household is receptive to their mission will peace come upon it. If they are not welcomed they are to ‘shake the dust off their feet as they leave that town’.  I interpret this to mean that they will continue their journey and continue un phased by rejection and lack of welcome.

Great significance to welcome, then, is given in today’s Gospel narrative.

How, though, does what is known as this ‘little Commission’ to the disciples square with the ‘Great Commission’ given at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus shows mercy to all in his call to the disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations’.  This reflects covenant theology rather than the harsh judgement of destruction worse than Sodom and Gomorrah.  Scholarship has not resolved this tension but I think we can say this much.  Whilst having faith in God’s mercy and love for us all while we are in our earthly existence we must do our best to be a welcoming presence for all in any way we can.  Particularly now whilst we are threatened by a most unwelcome virus and the recent horrific attack on a black man in the United States of America.  Restrictions on us all there may be but as long as welcome continues we are staying with the words of St Paul addressed to the Corinthians: ‘For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Sunday after Ascension, Ros Miskin

The theme of my sermon today is ‘glory’.  I have chosen this theme to reflect today’s reading from the Gospel of John.  The focus of John’s Gospel is on the ‘hour’ of Jesus’ glorification which was to return to the Father at the Crucifixion.

‘Glory’ is not a word that readily springs to mind at present, as the sufferings generated by the onset and spread of the corona virus have been and are acute.  Where is the glory, you may ask, in lying on a hospital bed on a ventilator, or tearfully trying to communicate with a loved one through a window.

Let me attempt in this sermon to respond to this question.  In the first sentence of today’s Gospel, Jesus is asking God to glorify him so that he can give eternal life to all those whom God has given him.  So glory here means the ability to offer us an existence in eternity.  Glory can be found in our earthly life, for example in the glorious spring weather we have enjoyed recently, but its ultimate expression lies in the eternal.  Jesus says to God ‘I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do’ but then he goes on to ask God to glorify him in his own presence with the glory that he had in his presence before the world existed. Here again is the interpretation of glory as eternal; it was there before the world existed as well as in the life to come.

Where, though, does this promise of eternal life leave the inglorious sufferings of our present predicament?  Why would God promise us through his Son Jesus Christ a glorious eternity while allowing us to endure the inglorious time we are in of restriction, fear and death?  I would say that Jesus died on the Cross to free us from the power of sin and through that death and resurrection we have the promise of eternal life.  However, until the kingdom comes we are still having to confront evil in various ways, as we have had to do from the beginning of time.  From the wily serpent in the Garden of Eden, the death on the Cross and the wars and plagues across the centuries our earthly life is not without its battles.

If we look further on in the Gospel chapter we learn that Jesus, knowing his earthly journey is coming to an end, is praying to God to ‘protect his disciples from the evil one by his sanctification ‘so that they also may be sanctified in truth’.  He then goes on to ask that this sanctification be extended to all those who believe in him.  This was, as William Neil expresses it in his Bible commentary: ‘a matchless prayer of self-consecration as he turns to face his Cross’.

The implication here is that the death on the Cross, which was the ultimate expression of the love of God for humanity, did not mean a cessation of hardships for humanity.  Had it done so there would have been no need for Jesus to call upon God to protect his people. It is only when we read the Book of Revelation that we find the glory of the new heaven and the new earth.  Here, the holy city Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God and has ‘the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal’. Until then, although God loves his creation, we are still in the battlefield against the forces of darkness.

So what can we do in this battlefield? We can work to find solutions, help each other out, applaud, as we are now doing, those who are on the front line of the battle – the medical profession, the carers and the scientists fighting to provide a remedy.  We can find solace in the Bible narratives that give us a pattern of loss and retrieval, destruction and rebuilding.  Solace, because we are shown in the Bible story the temporary nature of loss and destruction.  Then there is test and reward as given in the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Such is Abraham’s love of God that he is willing to sacrifice his son Isaac for him but God prevents it as Abraham has shown great faith. So if we demonstrate our love of God this may ease our suffering.  Today, as people go to great lengths to help others in the crisis they are, I believe, doing just that in emulating this Divine behaviour.  When people produce images of the rainbow, as they are now doing in response to the crisis, this affirms God’s covenant made with us that he is and always will be with us – that is his promise to us. We can also, as Jesus did in today’s Gospel reading, pray to God to protect us and others.

Prayer is rooted in faith.  Faith is, I believe, the trust in God that he will aid us in our battle against destructive forces.  I find this faith beautifully expressed in Julia Ward Howe’s 1861 ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’:

‘Mine eyes have seen the glory

of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage

where the grapes of wrath are stored

He has loosed the fateful lightning

of his terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on’.

 

Then the chorus continues with:

‘Glory, glory, Halleluja!’

This, to my mind, is a wonderful, uplifting song that affirms by faith the ability of God to rescue us from our troubles.  It also affirms the truth and glory of God that cannot be diminished by adversity.  So God tests us and may leave us to fight our battles for a time, according to his Will.  If, though, we have faith, we know that God will never abandon his creation.

An expression of faith is hope.  In keeping hope alive we are holding on to this conviction that God may, from time to time, put us in a dark place but he is with us in the darkness and he will never abandon us.  Never have expressions of hope been more needed than they are now whilst we are in the tunnel, looking for light at the end of it.  Better still if we can go one step further and turn that hope into the sure conviction that God is with us and will see us through.

So, in faith, hope and love let us soldier on with our eyes fixed, not just on the end of the tunnel, but on the glory of the kingdom to come.

 

Mothering Sunday, 22 March 2020, Ros Miskin

Today is Mothering Sunday.  In spite of the face to face contact that has been curtailed by the Corona Virus I am sure that many people today will be on the phone to their mothers in gratitude for their love for them and all they have done for them.

This celebration of motherhood has an ecclesiastical origin in the 16th century practice of visiting your mother church on the fourth Sunday in Lent.  The expression ‘mother church’ is used to this day by the Christian church to affirm the church as the provider of nourishment and protection to the believer.  It can also be the primary church of a Christian denomination or diocese; for example a cathedral. The fourth Sunday because this Sunday is ‘Laetare’ Sunday which is the Sunday in Lent that allows for a day in which to drawn breath within Lenten austerity.  So young apprentices and young women were released by their masters for this weekend of worship.

In the early twentieth century one Anna Jarvis in the USA led a movement to commemorate her mother’s death.  This became known as ‘Mothers Day’ which gradually became commercialised – not something approved of by Anna. It does though give people much pleasure to choose gifts and cards for their mothers as tokens of appreciation. In any event many churches today hold on to

a holy significance for Mothering Sunday, with attention paid to Mary, mother of Jesus.  We here at St Mark’s have a service in which we venerate the Virgin and in the Roman Catholic church there is ‘Virgin Mary Day’.

What attention, though, did Jesus pay to his mother?  John’s Gospel does not provide us with an account of the childhood of Jesus but if we look at Luke’s Gospel he does and we find that the boy Jesus at 12 years old stayed behind in Jerusalem to learn from the teachers without his parents knowing.  When they eventually find him in the Temple after frantic searching they question his behaviour.  He replies: ‘why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’  I do not believe that this was a rejection of his parents but puzzlement that they had not grasped where he ultimately needed to be, which was in the company of his heavenly Father.  We know too, from that particular Gospel passage, that Jesus then went obediently with his parents to Nazareth and that in spite of his independent journey to the Temple his mother ‘treasured all these things in her heart’.

So in this early stage of his life we find maternal devotion to Jesus.  It is believed to be a life time devotion and I find this devotion profoundly expressed in the sculpture by Michelangelo known as the ‘Pieta’ with the body of the crucified Jesus draped over Mary’s lap.  We also find a boy who, though obedient to his parents, knows from the outset that his heavenly Father takes precedence.

Did this precedence leave Jesus with a coldness towards his mother?  Or was it not so much coldness as ‘otherness’?  That is to say he was, as the Son of God, on a journey from cradle to grave that was unique and driven by the Holy Spirit in such a way that it distanced him from family ties.

The distancing that began in the Temple in his childhood gradually escalates.  In chapter 8 of Luke’s Gospel Jesus says: ‘my mother and brothers are those who hear the Word of God and do it’. These are his ‘True Kindred’. In chapter 12 Jesus says he will be the cause of division in families not peace.  Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law will be divided.  This remoteness from family ties culminates in today’s Gospel reading when Jesus dying on the Cross does not even call his mother ‘mother’ but ‘woman’.  He gives his mother to the ‘beloved disciple’ saying: ‘Woman, here is your son’ and he says to the disciple ‘here is your mother’.

This is a farewell by Jesus to earthly family ties that could never be fully expressed in his lifetime because of his unique position as the Son of God. Yet in his last words to his mother and the ‘beloved disciple’ there is an acknowledgement of family ties. In giving his mother the ‘beloved disciple’ as her son it was the best that he could offer as the ‘beloved disciple’ was so dear to him.  Scholars dispute who the ‘beloved disciple’ was but according to John’s Gospel he was superior to Peter who was the shepherd commissioned by the Risen Lord and he was the only disciple present at the Cross. Jesus then was perpetuating the family tie through him.

In this creating by Jesus of a mother/son relationship between two unrelated people we can, I believe, find something bigger than the nuclear family which is the small unit that forms part of a community.  We are looking at what was once a tribal society made up of an organisation of families united by kinship bonds and ancient lineage being transformed into a community of faith that is not necessarily dependent upon family relationship but upon being children of God. Thus in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we learn of Jesus that: ‘his own people did not accept him: but all who receive him ‘had power to become children of God’.  ‘Not born of the flesh or blood or the will of man but of God’. This is expressed at the very beginning of John’s Gospel, with Jesus himself as the one who was ‘the human expression of the creative purpose of God’. That is God’s ‘Word’. As William Neil writes in his Bible Commentary ‘the stage is set by the Word made flesh’. The stage is set for us to be children of God.

The family unit is important but the Bible gives us the bigger picture of the community being transformed into a community of faith.  This transformation is not by any means an easy one.  There are those who reject Jesus and condemn him to death on the Cross and those who were close to him then betraying him.  The disciples did not always grasp the full meaning of the symbolic discourses of Jesus.  Yet the community of faith begins in the Bible and continues in our time in our daily worship. Never has our community of faith been more needed than now in this time of fear, uncertainty and financial hardship generated by COVID-19. We must be beacons of hope in our common life of worship.

So let us then honour motherhood today for bringing new life into the world or adopting new life to nourish and guide it on its way but let us also be mindful of the community of faith in which it set so that we may all grow in faith and trust in God’s loving purpose for us all.

 

 

Transfiguration

We are fortunate in this church that there is so much to look at, which tells a story.

The stained glass window in the All Saints’ Chapel next to the altar is very fine piece of work.

It is by Brian Thomas, born in 1912, he died in 1989. He has work in St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, St Andrew’s Holborn, St Vedast’s Foster Lane and a fine mural at All Hallows by the Tower.

I have mistaken this window as you can see it is a memorial to King Edward VII. I had assumed it was redone after the War as the reredos had been. Instead it replaced a Gothic window which was destroyed and lost. It was paid for with War Reparations money in 1958, when much of the newly built St Mark’s had been designed. It was the first of a planned series of four, which did not go further there would have been:

Augustine and Monica

Frances and Clare

Two Oxford Movement heros, unspecified in the history, Keble and Pusey, perhaps

And here two greatest of all Peter and Mark.

Before coming to my main point – forgive discursiveness, this Church’s dedication to Mark is quite interesting.

In the 1840s this area burgeoned, from farmland, suddenly in 10 years a suburb had grown. The original church, a temporary structure seating 600 sat across the road from here, on the corner of Princess Road and Regent’s Park Road. Poverty, malnutrition, disease, poor housing surrounded the parish. William Brown Galloway, curate of St Pancras, was appointed by his vicar Dr John Dale, as the new vicar here. His task was to raise the funds for the construction of the Church which took place eventually in 1854.

Apart from the surrounding maelstrom of local social complexity, Europe had been convulsed in 1848 by revolutions in Denmark, Poland, Galicia, Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, France and Italy. England managed to avoid the worst of it.

Academia was being convulsed too. The Enlightenment had changed the way the Bible was studied. The Origin of Species in 1859 would present the biggest challenge perhaps of the 19th c, with ideas about Evolution. But before that, the established order was being rocked in other ways too, that it is easy to forget.

If you apply to the Bible a critical approach, if you ask not: what is God telling me about myself and my world? but: how and when was this written? the text becomes an object, a specimen, a relic, to be questioned and almost suspected.

Germany was the place the Scientific approach really took off.

Just as other ancient texts were being poked and prodded to answer the question: where did this come from? Scholars were coming to some answers they had never thought of before.

One of the earliest historians of the Church, Eusebius, tells us that Matthew – the Gospel writer we are reading mainly this year, was the first to write his Gospel. It tended to be the view thereafter that Mark then summarised what he read and that gave us the shorter, pithier second Gospel. But the historical method, came to a rather different conclusion.

Someone called Gottlob Christian Storr, a student and then professor in Tubingen, and Lutheran Pastor in Stuttgart, came to a radical conclusion. Perhaps Eusebius was wrong. Perhaps the abbreviated Gospel of Mark, was in fact the first Gospel, which Luke and Matthew separately then took on and elaborated. Storr’s avant-garde thesis of 1786 took some time to penetrate the mainstream but by the early 1830s, it was building up a head of steam in German Faculties. By the late 1840s, with the world in turmoil, it was almost Orthodoxy amongst the educated.

So what? You might say. Well, as the world was convulsed, but before it was turned upside down by Darwin, it could said that for some, St Mark held something of clue. His Gospel might well help us meet the historical Jesus. Papias, who was relied on by Eusebius, did say very early that Peter had dictated his memories to John Mark. This comment had been overlooked in scholarship, but was returned to with some seriousness.

May be Mark’s lively, breathless text was not just a boring distillation of Matthew, but its origin.

I like to think that St Mark’s name was invoked in the late 1840s when it was decided to found a church here because, they thought his wonderful Gospel took us closely to the events of Jesus’s life.

Now, you might ask, that is all very well, but isn’t our Gospel reading from Matthew this year? Should you be getting on with interpreting that? Well yes, perhaps I should BUT. Let us have a little reminder of this morning’s Epistle reading first.  We don’t often get readings from the Second Letter of Peter. This may be because some of its contents even in the 5th AD were disputed as being by Peter himself. But this passage has something about it which is truly wonderful.

Just in reading the text, you hear the words, as if dictated by burley old Peter to the younger Mark; just as in that stained glass window:

we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. 

It is almost as if this tiny jotting of Mark’s dictation which Mark then later wrote up in his Gospel, is held here in fragmentary form, which some later clerk tidied into a more rambling Epistle about other things, and for a moment, rather than hiding behind the authority of Peter’s name to make some important points about the contemporary Church, for a moment, Peter’s actual voice, sentiments and feelings are conveyed; just as that picture illustrates with such vibrancy and immediateness.

Michael Ramsay was a great Archbishop of the 60s and 70s, before that he as a Theologian of great repute. He wrote one of the most wonderful books of academic scholarship about the Transfiguration. I remember reading it in the late 80s and being moved beyond anything I have ever encountered. John Hapgood, preached at Lord Ramsay’s funeral on the Transfiguration and said, knowing the impact this work had had on Michael Ramsay, that the Transfiguration “was a mirror within which all the events of the Christian mystery are seen together.”

Here is Jesus of his earthly ministry, but this is no earthly experience; here is Jesus of the resurrection; before his death had even happened; here is Jesus who is returning; before he had even gone away. The cloud out of which God speaks, is the cloud of God’s presence, the Ascension and the clouds of Judgement and return.

Peter had glimpsed this, had heard that voice; and for ever after was utterly changed. The significance only made sense after Jesus’s Ascension.

But Peter tells Mark all he can, so that we might know it too.

We are so fortunate in this church that there is much to look at, which tells a story.