Sermon, 14 April 2024, Easter III – Ros Miskin

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

Despite all the horrors of our world, with its wars, malpractice, and onslaught on the climate, I believe that when we look at the manifestations of nature that surround us, such as the spring flowers or a glorious sunrise, we can still say that creation is God’s ‘Yes’.  I would describe today’s battle to preserve and improve the climate as a battle to preserve God’s ‘Yes’.

That being so, what is the ‘No’?  The ‘No’ is the Devil’s attempt to destroy our planet and with it will come the downfall of humanity.  When you consider the beauty of nature and the miracle of new life born into the world that is a terrible prospect.  So we continue to strive for peace and to swim against the tide of adverse climate change.

What can give us the will to carry on in our pushback against the ‘No’?  To attempt to answer that question I will look at what the ‘No’ leaves us with and how that may be overcome.

What it leaves us with is nothingness.  Nothingness is a void in which nothing exists.  It is emptiness.  We can describe it as darkness in contrast to the light of God’s presence.  It is, to put it bluntly, where the Devil wants us to be.  We know, though, from the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that ultimately the light overcomes the darkness, and there our hope lies.

To see why this should be so, let us in the light of today’s Gospel reading, look at that story.  At the beginning of Luke’s narrative, he writes that Jesus’s disciples are talking about what has just occurred.  What has occurred is that the body of Jesus had been taken by the good and righteous man, Joseph of Arimathea, wrapped in a linen cloth and ‘laid in a rock-hewn tomb where no-one had ever been laid’.  On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee arrived at the tomb with spices and ointments that they had prepared and they were perplexed to find that the tomb was empty.

At this point, emptiness has been defeated twice over.  The body of Jesus, that was emptied of life on the Cross was then laid in a tomb which is then emptied by the Resurrection.  Jesus then appears to his disciples as they walk to the village of Emmaus, although they do not recognise him until he blesses the bread at supper with them.  Jesus then vanishes from their sight, but the empty space left by his disappearance is again filled when he reappears to his disciples in the opening passage of today’s Gospel reading.  Another triumph of presence over absence and light over darkness as the life of Jesus is, and the opening passage of the Gospel of John gives this to us, the light of all people.

The disciples, though, take some persuading of this triumph, even when Jesus has shown them his hands and feet, inviting them to touch them.  In spite of this reassurance, they are still in a mixture of joy and disbelief and so, perhaps to again reassure them of his presence, he asks them to feed him which they duly do, offering him a piece of boiled fish.  Sensing this continuing uncertainty Jesus reminds them of the Scriptures where it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  We know that what will follow on from this will be the Ascension of Jesus to heaven and that the disciples will return to Jerusalem in great joy, continually in the Temple, blessing God.

Here, in the Ascension, is the final resounding triumph over the ‘No’ so beloved by the Devil.

We, like the disciples, are called upon to open our minds to this promise of Scripture.  If we do this, then our attempts to protect and preserve our world and encourage the prosperity of all, are given the hope they need because we have the vision of the glory to come which cannot be eradicated by destructive forces dragging us down into a dark void where nothing dwells.  On the contrary, we can joyfully affirm that ‘hope springs eternal’.

 

AMEN

 

 

Sermon, Good Friday, 29 March 2024 – the Vicar

When I was growing up, Reverend Rankin’s sermons featured on high days and holy days, when he would tackle mysterious or difficult Bible passages by swerving disputatious detail in favour of the main message. “The main thing is the plain thing”,he was fond of saying, “It will also get us home in good time for dinner.” Here is a fine grasp of how Christianity is grounded in and speaks to both physical life and spiritual hunger. No wonder we are moved on this momentous day when we approach his cross in veneration.

Today, amidst the celebration of the Lord’s passion, a precious and intricate act of
remembrance and worship, the epistle from Hebrews provides a summary answer to the main question: Why do we call this Friday ‘Good’?

From Chapter 10 of this mysterious New Testament book by an unknown author: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.” A dazzling promise: in relationship with God, the heart becomes a thinking organ and the human mind possess perfect memory of how to life righteously whilst God cancels his memory of our failings .

For ‘after those days’, read the Triduum Sacrum – the Sacred Three Days of Paschal Mystery dramatically presented as passion, death, and resurrection. Every year, we are invited to walk with Jesus on the path to the cross, through the cross, and beyond the cross…the path that defines the Christian Way.

Today, we are in the very thick of it. As our transfigured saviour revealed to Moses and Elijah on the Mountain, he will soon achieve perfection of the first exodus from bondage, restoring the relationship of God Almighty with his beloved creation, and healing a fatal estrangement from his love and holiness by their sinful choices. Jesus is fully empowered and committed to God the Father’s plan for redemption, willingly entering history in occupied First Century Israel as fully man AND fully God. In the same way, the story of Good Friday plays out in physical and historical terms whilst it fulfils the highest spiritual function.

On Good Friday, the humanity of the son of Man is nakedly and humbly displayed. On Good Friday, the divinity of the incarnated Christ of God fulfills the Scripture and its Laws. On Good Friday, our Lord’s obedience unto sacrificial death washes away all our sin, once and for all, with his sacred blood.

Sadly, many of the details of the day’s narrative are familiar components of our news cycle – unlawful arrest and imprisonment, kangaroo justice, false witness, brutality and torture, brazen execution in front of a world that doesn’t seem overly troubled.

You don’t need me to tell you that Good Friday does not eliminate this reality. Yet
miraculously, today’s portion of the salvation programme re-opens the borders of
to heaven. From now on, death and misery are not foregone outcomes, thanks to Jesus’ pain and death.

For Christianity is the faith where God suffers to spare us … so we can be liberated into joyful relationship with his person and even with each other. That is why fixation on the gruesome details of death on the cross will yield only fear of a wrathful God and fresh inspiration for all the evil that men can do. For example, the Persians initiated execution by crucifixion, but the Romans perfected it as a humiliating and excruciating capital punishment reserved for slaves and conquered peoples. That is the opposite of the good news of the gospels!

Such a concern may explain why St. John reports Jesus’ execution in such a matter-offact
way:
. 19:1 Pilate took Jesus and scourged him.. 19:2. The soldiers plaited a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe.
. 19:18 They crucified him.

This brevity contrasts with four fulsome chapters of Jesus’ discourse at his last supper among his remaining eleven apostles, a master class in coaching and team building with love, encouragement, and joy at its heart. Betrayal and arrest follow on, then a series of through- the- night- into- dawn trials, religious and political in turn, culminating in a triangulated conflict between Caiaphas the high priest, Pilate the Roman governor, and Jesus their prisoner and Son of God, moving between outside the Praetorium to the Hall of Judgement and finally, Gabbatha. The crowd, uncontrollable in size and roused to hatred, shout ‘Crucify him!’. Jesus is led off without demure; carrying his own cross: stripped, nailed, and lifted between two criminals in place of a notorious thief of civic order, Barabbas. He is a veritable lamb to the slaughter at the time of Passover, the perfect sacrifice who surrenders to the sovereign power of God
the Father and not to those who slay him.

Undoubtedly, the brief report of this extreme and transformative event indicates it came as NO surprise to Jesus. Throughout his ministry on earth, he kept divine time, entering into his return to the Father at exactly the right hour to give himself as sacrifice, but one with absolute agency and authority. Yes, evil men and weak men are overtaken by demonic influence to plot and act against him. They bear responsibility and infamy for their deeds. Yet God can arrange all things to achieve his purpose.

Throughout the Passion Gospels, Jesus acts to fulfil God’s original covenant with
Abraham, renewed across the generations with Moses and David. Further, he acts with consummate knowledge of and reverence for The Word of God. Consider that first century Jews and educated Gentiles, whether new Christians or not, could rely only on the Old Testament as codebreaker for the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, reflected in biblical motifs from Genesis through Malachi. Citing these references gives rise to something like 300 concordances between the Passion Gospels and the laws and prophecies given by God to his chosen people. These motifs create a master story framework that points the way to the Cross, achieves deliverance and salvation through the Cross, embeds the living triune God amongst us from the Cross, assures the new covenant of kingdom come under the Cross.

The comfort offered by theology and tradition aside, what breaks our hearts is Jesus’ very human presence throughout the ordeal. John focuses on 3 such expressions, the word of God spoken by a dying man nailed shamefully to a tree at a busy crossroads during the most populous festival of the year.

The first: Jesus looks upon his Mother grieving below with the disciple who expresses his entire identity as one created by and for his Saviour’s love. With some of his last words on earth, he gives Mary and John to each other: “Woman, behold thy son”; to his disciple, “Behold thy mother”. Before the tomb was emptied, before the risen Christ stood in front of Mary Magdalene and appeared to his downcast disciples, before the wind and fire of Pentecost, this gift of love and belonging blesses the church of the family of God in perpetuity. It provides a pattern for material as well as spiritual support that honours our dual needs and his dual perfection.

The second: As the three hours of darkness draw to a close, Jesus summons voice to call out “I thirst”. The divine part of Jesus knew he was fulfilling Psalm 69, a lament at being given ‘gall for meat and vinegar to drink’; in real time, his human body was painfully dehydrated. The executioners soaked a reed of hyssop in sour wine and lifted it to him. In extremity and total commitment to drain the cup of sin, suffering, and spiritual death, he received it. Just as he received beatings about the head with reeds administered by Pilate’s soldiers in cruel mockery of a king’s sceptre, and the blows and abuse by priests and false witnesses in Caiaphas’ palace.

The third: Our incomparable source of living water, with water and blood yet to flow from his side pierced by Roman spear after death, cries out one final time. “It is finished”. Here is a call of triumph and hard-won satisfaction, made in defiance of physical limitations, a final assertion of his god-nature. By this time, a crucified man would suffer asphyxiation as pain and injury slowly shut down his ability to breath. Of course, Jesus is not an ordinary man! Rather, he may lay down his life, then take it up again upon his sovereign wish. By choosing to sacrifice his life, our Lord nailed all sin, our sin, and all evil, our evil, to the cross. This cancelled once and for all our debt and bondage to spiritual death by faith in God the Father through Christ our great high priest. “It is finished” asserts the full satisfaction of Christ’s mission on earth until his second coming, and calls out to God the Father, the heavenly hosts, and all those with hearts open to his word.

On Good Friday, the Son of Man gathers us at the foot of his cross.
On Good Friday, the Son of God enfolds us in God’s family.
On Good Friday, Christ paid for our sins with his blood and overcame spiritual death for all who believe on him. The divine ecosystem that sustains, unites, and blesses us with the love and presence of God is fulfilled. Clearly that is the main reason we call this Friday of all Fridays ‘Good’. What follows is the plain thing: upon solemn contemplation and in the midst of our congregation, PRAISE HIM for the good things he has done. AMEN.

Sermon, 3 March 2024, Lent III – Ros Miskin

Is this country in decline?  This was a question raised in a Question Time I watched recently on television.  The general view was expressed that it is, and for a variety of reasons.  There has been the effect of the pandemic, some adverse effects on the economy post-Brexit, the war in Ukraine sending prices rocketing and I would add to this the earlier circumstance arising from the financial crash of 2008 from which there was recovery but it did not help to set the stage for future prosperity.

This heady cocktail of troubles has left many people struggling to make ends meet.  Even those who are a bit better off are finding it hard to pay for what they previously took for granted that they could afford and the soaring cost of renting a property has left many people wondering if they can keep a roof over their heads or afford a roof in the first place.

Looking at this unhappy state of affairs I ask myself; what is God doing in all this?  Why is God, who loves us all, allowing such suffering and not intervening to help us get back on the road to life in abundance?

I could sound an optimistic note at this point and say that suffering is not new to humanity but has been part of our existence since time began and that although the tide is right out now in terms of our well-being, it eventually returns.  This may be true if we take the long-term view of the economy but it will not ease the present day anxiety and depression felt by many as they struggle to make ends meet.  You could say that successive governments have taken some wrong turnings over the decades, sometimes with good intentions, and that this has led to a decline in our living standards but I believe that it goes deeper than that.  In my opinion it is in the hidden agenda that we find the cause of our economic malaise and this is where, I believe, we can find out what God is doing.

The hidden agenda is one of malpractice that can affect people in all walks of life.  If we look at today’s Gospel reading we can see that there is nothing new in this wrong doing.  When Jesus poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables in the Temple, it was not so much the business of the day that was the issue, it was the corrupt practice that the moneychangers were engaged in that was impoverishing those who entered the Temple.  In his commentary on the Gospel of John, David Pawson explains this wrongdoing.  He writes that to enter the Temple you had to pay the Temple tax and to do this you needed to go to the money lender to get your Roman money changed into a Jewish shekel.  The half-shekel allowed you to go in and you had to come in with an animal for holy sacrifice.  The priest then inspected the animal to see if it was without spot or blemish.  It is at this point that the malpractice began.  It was easy for the inspectors to say that the animal was no good when it was perfectly alright, which forced people to pay a great deal more, twenty times more, for an animal sold inside the Temple.  This racket was led by the priests, known as the Sadducees who loved money.  The moneychangers took some of it and the priests took the rest.  You had entered the Temple with your half-shekel and your animal, to get close to God and you came out robbed.  This incurs Divine wrath as Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives the moneychangers, and the animals with them, out of the Temple. Enraged, he then pours out the coins of the moneychangers and overturns their tables.

In this instance, through his son Jesus, God has intervened to punish the perpetrators.  Unfortunately, corrupt practice in financial dealings has remained across the centuries, continues today, and it is always the innocent and the well-meaning who suffer the outcome of financial loss.

As this is so, why does God not intervene directly now?  I believe that as the lesson has not been learnt, God is now calling upon us to push back against corruption ourselves to alleviate the suffering of the present moment.  Television is, I believe, playing an important role in this pushback.  Examples are the work of the scam interceptors and the recent detailed exposure of the Post Office scandal.  The hope is that if we fight the good fight against those who put profit before people this should eventually bear fruit in easing the acute financial burden felt at present by so many.

We cannot avoid the ill effects of natural disasters nor can we bring about the immediate cessation of wars.  We can work towards a better climate but we cannot avoid every disease that the body is subject to.  If, though, we make people before profit our creed, which many people already do, then I believe that God will reward us with the life in abundance that he wants for us.  In hard times people help each other out but if we also have the courage to stand up to wrongdoing that damages the prospects of young and old then we are saying to the new generations who, forgive the pun, have been very short changed, that we do not wish to give up when times are hard but strive for a better world for them to inherit.

 

AMEN

 

 

 

Sermon, Sunday 11 February 2024, the Transfiguration – Ros Miskin

In today’s Gospel reading we learnt from Mark how Jesus led his disciples Peter, James and John up a high mountain and was transfigured before their very eyes.  Transfiguration meaning that his clothes became dazzling white, ‘such as no-one on earth could bleach them’. That statement about the bleaching identifies the clothing as heavenly and not of this realm.  In Matthew’s Gospel we learn that Jesus’s face ‘shone like the sun’. Then Elijah and Moses appear and talk with Jesus.

What an extraordinary moment that must have been for Peter, James and John who were given a brief glimpse of the glory that was to come when Jesus will rise from the dead and ascend to heaven.  It must have been a moment of both wonder, awe and terror.  Neither Peter, nor James nor John were even certain who Jesus was, even though by that time they had journeyed with him in his healing ministry in Galilee, Capernaum, and Caesarea Philippi.  Uncertainty because although they had not at this stage deserted Jesus he had put them in some very frightening situations already.  They had been caught in a boat in a gale and whilst Jesus rescued them they were terrified until he had used his power to command the wind and sea.  On another occasion they were stuck in a boat, straining their oars against the wind; again, a terrifying experience even though Jesus walked on the water, got in the boat and the wind ceased.

In spite of the terrifying nature of the transfiguration, Peter is at least able to speak and he offers to make three dwellings for Jesus and Elijah and Moses.  Possible motives for this offer were to prolong the amazing situation, despite fear and awe, or perhaps to introduce an earthly element into a divine situation to keep a sense of proportion.  Here, though, Peter takes a wrong turning as this offer to make dwellings denies the divinity of Jesus and what has occurred.  God responds in a voice through a cloud that has overshadowed them that reminds them of divinity as he says: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’. There was no need for speech just to listen and learn.

Unfortunately this was the second wrong turning that Peter made in his journey with Jesus.  A while before the Transfiguration took place, Peter had firmly stated to Jesus that he is the Messiah, showing that his faith was strong.  Then came a turning point. When Jesus foretold his death and resurrection, Peter rebuked him.  How could his beloved Master, after all his great works, be put to death?  Jesus reprimanded him for setting his mind on human things not divine things. You could say that when Peter offers the tents at the Transfiguration he is making the same mistake.  Later on, towards the end of the Gospel narrative, He makes one last terrible wrong turning when Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot and duly arrested and Peter denies three times that he knew Jesus.  Yet when he realizes what he has done, he breaks down and weeps.

We know, though, that this is not the end of the story for Peter and his fellow disciples.  Except for Judas Iscariot who betrays Jesus with a kiss and then goes to hang himself, they will all, regardless of any lack of faith and stubbornness of will, be sent out by Jesus into the world to proclaim the good news of salvation, which they duly did.  Even Peter, who was the one who denied Jesus, was the very one who was asked by him, as John’s Gospel gives it to us, to feed his lambs and tend his sheep and Peter is to die in a manner that will glorify God.

So where does this leave us with the wrong turnings that we can make in our lives, that can lead us into a cul-de-sac of despair?  For the disciples, we know from the Gospels that their journey of faith, which was a mixture of doubt and fear and love, was pre-ordained.  Jesus knows that Judas will betray him and he knows that Peter will also deny him.  So these wrong turnings were part of God’s plan.  What I believe distinguishes the fate of Judas Iscariot with Peter’s fate is that Peter shows remorse and that must surely find favor with God as Judas hangs himself whilst Peter is destined to be the rock upon which the church is founded.  Is that so for us also?  I believe so in that God gives us freedom of choice and when we go awry but show remorse, he is forgiving and patient; he waits for us to turn the wheel towards him when we turn it away. Sometimes, when we are not sure of our direction and we pray to him for guidance, he may take the wheel and shift it to put us on a better road. God is after all the King of Love so there lies hope for us all.

 

 

AMEN

 

Sermon preached at the King’s Chapel of the Savoy, Candlemas, 28 January 2024 – Tessa Lang

May I speak in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
From Luke 2: “ …’for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared inthe presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’. And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.”

Thank you for welcoming me this late January morning as we keep Candlemas, a
festival of light and hope that concludes the season of Christmas and Epiphany some forty days after the Nativity. Here at the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, between the manger and the cross, we mark the Presentation of Christ in the Temple in your beautiful King’s Chapel of the Savoy as well as its linked observance of the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin. As Mary and Joseph were observant Jews, these obligations would be fulfilled before returning to Nazareth and settling into their new family life.

These events form our final act of welcome and recognition of Christ as a child, as we observe his first public appearance by lighting and blessing candles, symbolic of the one true light that brought forth creation from nothing…the light which we know as the light of Christ that illuminates the darkness of a fallen world, dispels the blindness of sin, and reveals God presence. Candlemas is a feast of three profoundly interconnected faith components: Mosaic law, prophetic revelation, and traditions of church and culture. Candles themselves are a universal symbol of light resisting darkness, often lit as a memorial for lost lives like yesterday’s call to place a candle in windows for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In today’s lessons, the voices of King David the psalmist and Malachi the messenger ring across the centuries, telling of the judgement of the Lord descending in glory to his people. If salvation is what you seek, best prepare for the rigours of his day: righteousness demands purification and rituals to achieve it are built into the third book of Moses, Leviticus. For example, the post-partum obligations observed by Jesus’ parents. Forty days after birth of a male child he is due for presentation in the temple to consecrate him to the Lord; the same period is required to cleanse his mother from the blood of childbirth, enabling her return to worship with her baby boy and make appropriate sacrifice. A firstling lamb is preferred; birds are an acceptable budget-friendly option.

For a first-born son, such as Jesus, there is an additional obligation to redeem the
baby with a money offering, the pidyon haben, to be paid to a priest before the boy is ritually returned to his family. Otherwise, the office of priesthood belongs to the first-born son, and he to the temple as in the story of Samuel. Luke, a meticulous reporter, does mention that all duties under the Law were observed although no specific mention is made of this practice. We are told that the child left with his parents and did not remain in the temple, though as an older child, a runaway Jesus was found there, in his Father’s house. Throughout his ministry, Jesus identifies his body as the temple, the place where humanity encounters divinity and God abides with his people.

When two elderly Temple attendants without official status announce that the Lord of hosts sent to enlighten the entire world has just presented as a 40-day old infant, his young mother and her husband bearing the poor man’s sacrifice of a pair of birds, it signified a seismic shift in first century Jerusalem. The Old Covenant and all its priestly undergirding are rocked by the big bang of incarnation; there is now a new and endless supply of light for those who can see it. It may be given by grace but presents its own rigours of faithfulness and a different sort of sacrifice.

Let’s look more closely at this strange story of a certain first-born son, his mother, an old bachelor, and an even more elderly widow. Bustling with the business of
worshiping God, the multitudes and priests of the temple fail to see the King of Glory enter those everlasting doors. Not so Simeon, a righteous man who frequented the temple with single-minded devotion, ever watchful for the appearance of the saviour of Israel before he died, as foretold to him by the Holy Spirit. He has spent a lifetime waiting on God and trusting his promises, relying upon the revelation of Messiah to release him. At the critical moment on the appointed day, the Spirit guides him to the Christ Child. We can imagine him breaking into joyous song and dance as he first proclaims the Nunc Dimittis.

Imagine Mary’s surprise as her child is whisked from her arms and adored by a
stranger. Perhaps some of the parents here today have a memory of their child
being singled out for praise when they did not expect it…perhaps in a public place, by someone not a family member. Though no other parent could receive the sort of child-rearing advice Simeon provided with a prophecy for Mary’s ears only: be prepared for great sorrow as the impact of this momentous birth is felt across the world and at home, opening division, bringing death but ultimately, new life. Whatever she understood in that moment, she remained faithful to the will of God and the care of his son on earth. The same advice applies to us: whatever we understand in the moment, remain faithful to the will of God and care of his people and church on earth.

Next Anna appears, a holy woman and prophet who suffered loss of husband and family in early adulthood before taking up a life of worship, dedicated to fasting and prayer for the redemption of Jerusalem. She is witness that no one is too unfortunate, too alone or too old to do God’s work; she faces her future with
renewed energy, full of praise and the good news of redemption. Like Simeon, she is also freed from past constraints and isolation, liberated by revelation of the Christ child.

Well-known representations of the encounter abound in art and icon, frequently
depicting the Christ Child as the composition’s radiant source of light; I am
particularly reminded of a “Presentation” that Rembrandt, that master of light and dark, painted whilst still a young man. Youth and new life illuminate our story today, shining beacons of hope against the forces of darkness and division. In time their creative energy bears evergreen fruits of patience, faith, and hope, as expressed in the beautiful rite of Candlemas.

Beginning with the early church in Jerusalem, the festival spread throughout the
church, integrating a blessing of the candles from the 11th century. The supply of
beeswax candles for the church year received this blessing and parishioners could bring in their household supply to benefit from a spiritual boost to their
candlepower. The Anglican Missal includes praise to God for ‘the labours of
bees’…providers of material for human hands to make candles, …’formed into wax by thy ordinance’, rewarding their diligence as were the prayers of Simeon and Anna. Their light will ‘protect body and soul’ in all perils and darkness on land or sea. Candles in procession re-enact Christ’s entry to the temple and greet Mary as the ‘gate of heaven’.

From rite grew legend, as embodied by snowdrops or Candlemas bells, said to have sprung in clusters in Eve’s footprints when banished from Eden, modest blooms of consolation and hope of new life given of God’s love despite human disobedience. They are said to have also sprung to life in Mary’s footsteps as she left the Presentation, to honour her consent to the incarnation that makes possible a return to Eden or unity in communion with God.

For now, we stand at the crossroads of the seasons. It is a good time, a divinely
designated time to light a candle in thanks for his love and care. May hope
illuminate a way through the darkness to fulfilment of Simeon’s prophecy of
enlightenment to the Gentiles and glory of Israel in the image of God. May we
continue to be amazed by your loving presence. AMEN.

Sermon, Epiphany IV, 28 January 2024 – Rosamond Miskin

The theme of my sermon today is trust. How often have you heard the expression ‘trust me, I am a doctor’.  The doctor is asking you to have faith in her or his ability to heal you by advice and the recommendation of surgery if needed.  It is up to you to determine whether you have sufficient trust in the doctor to agree with the recommendations made.  If, in spite of your trust, there is malpractice, then you will suffer, and the doctor may be struck off the register.

So there is, in human affairs, of which this is one example, an element of risk involved in placing your trust in another.  This is because we are frail humans all, liable to make mistakes and misjudge situations.  In today’s world, with its fake news, fraud, scams and the ability to break into other people’s accounts to name but a few, it does seem that the risk is great and that trust is at a premium.

Was trust at a premium in the New Testament also?  If we look at today’s Gospel reading, when Jesus, in the synagogue at Capernaum, rids a man of an unclean spirit, the authority with which he does this amazes the people and it marks the beginning of the spread of fame for Jesus that, as it is written ‘began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee’.  The people, at this early stage of Mark’s Gospel, are not questioning the role of Jesus as healer.  There is an element of trust here.  So far, all is well but the seed of trouble ahead for Jesus is planted on that day.

Why should this be so on that particular day, known as the ‘Eventful Day’?  Well, also present in the synagogue, as they routinely were, were the scribes whose task it was to interpret the Old Testament and teach its laws.  This teaching rested on what they regarded as the authority of the Old Testament and this stood in direct opposition to the authority given to Jesus directly from God to drive out evil spirits.  On this Eventful Day the scribes say nothing but not for long.  If we move on to the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus heals the paralytic man by the forgiveness of his sins, we hear the first rumble of thunder from the scribes: ‘why does this fellow speak in this way?  It is blasphemy!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?  On the Eventful Day, Jesus keeps the people on his side as ‘they were amazed and glorified God’ but the antagonism of the scribes towards his authority does not go away; it escalates to the point when he is condemned to death by the Jewish leaders and the people who have now also turned against him.  Their failure to trust him is evident when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and the response there is who does he think he is, teaching in the synagogue words of wisdom – he is just the carpenter.

A complete breakdown of trust, you might say, in Jesus as the Son of God.  A breakdown because none could see what the demons who possessed the man in Capernaum could see.  They saw Jesus as enemy number one who had the power to destroy them as ‘the Holy One of God’.  They wanted to go on existing by means of power and control over and within people and they knew that Jesus as the Son of God could break the man free of them and thereby rob them of their power and control.

As we know from Bible narratives, the Devil loves power and control.  We have only to think of the temptation of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke when the Devil offers Jesus the possession of all the kingdoms of the world, provided he worship him.  The possession of people by demons, that are the Devil’s instruments, that control the speech and thought of the victim, is a recurrent theme of Mark’s Gospel.  There is the man in chains in the tombs who howled and bruised himself until Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him. There is the healing of the boy with a spirit that makes him unable to speak and dashes him down.

The problem is that in his healing ministry, that was defeating the demonic purpose and offering instead the freedom of the Holy Spirit and the love of God, Jesus antagonized those around him which led to his death. People were not ready to receive this offering because they were steeped in the tradition of their ancestry and rites and rituals of their worship which was rooted in the Old Testament and not being adhered to in full by Jesus, as the parables make clear.  They were suspicious of the new, as we can all be, and it was easy for them to dismiss Jesus as just another charismatic healer.  As Rowan Williams expresses it in his book ‘Meeting God in Mark’ there were many such healers ‘wandering around the ancient Near East’. The Jewish leaders rejected Jesus’s healing ministry as ordained by God because they said that only God can forgive sins.

Thus it was that the miracles he performed, the healings and the forgiveness of sins that were all offerings of Divine love were rejected and nailed with Jesus to the Cross.

That is not, of course, the end of the story as Mark gives us the Good News of ultimate salvation which was the outcome of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, leaving the Disciples to go out and proclaim the Good News everywhere.  If then, in spite of the failures in trust in our world today, we continue to trust in that salvation then there is hope for us all.  If we stay with corrupt practices then trust will continue to be eroded and leave us ruled by fear rather than inhabiting the all-encompassing love of God.

 

AMEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon, Epiphany, Saturday 6th January 2024 – Reverend Paul Nicholson

One great advantage still enjoyed (for now at least) by the Church of England, and which I believe it ignores at its peril, is that it is there for everyone – whether or not they happen to be ‘signed up’ members. We see that in the focus for national celebration and mourning provided by places such as Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, and we had evidence of it right here as recently as Christmas-time. It was, after all, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who once remarked that the church is perhaps the only organisation that doesn’t exist primarily for the benefit of its own membership, and this is surely a principle that the Feast of the Epiphany enshrines.

Sometimes it takes people from outside our own cultural groups and belief systems to reveal to us riches we are taking for granted. To most local people in that village setting of Bethlehem, a birth in a stable would be squalid, and a social disgrace, or at least, ‘unfortunate’. The main reaction might probably be to pass by as quickly as possible, without comment. We should not dismiss the ‘wisdom’ of the Magi, foreigners who had read in the Hebrew Scriptures references that completely passed-by Jerusalem’s own ‘religious experts’, and had looked for the child ‘born King of the Jews’ and recognised his star at its rising. They create a stir with their steady intent on finding this Messiah – scaring Herod (Judah’s official ‘king’), and surely discomfiting the leaders of the Jerusalem Temple, who feared their precarious tolerance by the occupying Roman authorities to be under threat. They are strangers, outsiders, who yet reveal to us all the divinity of Christ and the worship and the offerings he is owed. Closer to our own time, they bring to my mind the remarkable life of Simone Weil, who became a 20th century mystic. Born a Jew in Paris, and for most of her short life an agnostic, she became consumed by the love of God, and love for God, believing that ‘Christ himself came down and took possession of’ her. She never officially joined the church, and died of tuberculosis in her early 30s whilst serving the French Resistance in London during the 2nd world war; nevertheless her writings have proved an inspiration to Christians and atheists alike – perhaps an Epiphany in their own right.

Simone Weil’s life may have been short, but her spiritual journey was long and eventful, not unlike the Magis’, with many twists and turns and increasing intensity. In the wise mens’ gifts there is rich symbolism. The prophecy of Isaiah (as we heard) had foretold the bringing of Gold and Frankincense. For the Magi the Frankincense represented Christ’s divinity, and the Gold his kingship, but to both of these is added the extra gift of Myrrh – representing his destiny of death on a cross. Simone came to see the Passion of Christ as the only answer to the cruel pain and suffering of so many in the world about which she cared so deeply. Having sought for God and finally encountering him in Jesus Christ she, like the Magi, opened up her treasures – in her case, continuing to reject the comfortable middle-class pursuits and ambitions she’d been born to, and embracing yet more self-denial in a close identification with the poor and the afflicted, pursuing truth, love and purity of intention. Remaining un-baptised she could still write – with absolute authenticity – that ‘contact with God is the true sacrament’. Mindful of this we might find our own prayerful response to this Feast day in the conclusion of a poem on the Epiphany penned by the 17th century English priest-poet whose verse had so influenced her conversion – George Herbert:

O that his light and influence,

Would work effectually in me

Another new Epiphany,

Exhale, and elevate me hence:

 

That, as my calling doth require,

Star-like I may to others shine;

And guide them to that sun divine,

Whose day-light never shall expire.

 

Amen

 

Sermon, Advent IV, 24 December 2023 – Rosamond Miskin

The theme of my last sermon was war.  So, I thought by way of contrast that as we are in the fourth Sunday in Advent, looking towards the imminent birth of Christ, I would preach on the theme of peace.

I found it more challenging to reflect upon peace than to reflect upon war.  This may be because war, however dreadful its consequences may be, is dramatic and dynamic whereas peace is harder to define.  I will though make the attempt and in so doing put Christ center stage.

If we look at the life of Christ, there is a pattern of peace in the silent night, holy night of his birth, then a gradual buildup of conflict ending in his death on the Cross and then peace returns via the Resurrection and Ascension narratives as he then takes his place in heaven at the right hand of God. From this pattern we could say that the life of Christ represents a triumph of peace over conflict.  This peace, that passes all understanding, is a gift to us from God through his son Jesus and as we say in our worship it is there to ‘keep our hearts and minds in the love of God’.

If we look at today’s Gospel reading, the Annunciation, we learn that the Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the most High will overshadow her as the child to be born will be holy.  Mary is initially perplexed but then peace reigns once she states her obedience to God’s Word.

When contemplating the Annunciation I looked at the depiction by artists past and present of this narrative, and noticed their use of light to depict holiness and I believe that this light is also the light of peace.  I think here, for example, of the Annunciation painted by Bartolomé Murillo, the seventeenth century artist who places the dove of the Holy Spirit in a pool of light positioned above-center between the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. I give another example in the painting by the nineteenth century artist Alexander Ivanov who paints Mary standing in front of a huge circle of light. Moving on from the Annunciation to the birth of Christ, the light of God which is brought to us in that birth is beautifully expressed at the beginning of John’s Gospel when he writes that when the Word became flesh what came into being in him was life and the life was ‘the light of all people’. ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’. The light, then, represents peace.

Staying with a contemplation of the effect of light, I recently, I read an article in an Art magazine written by Antonia Harrison, curator of an exhibition that investigates the story of glass into the present day. She said that if you observe the light coming through stained glass it has the power to connect you to it.  When I have observed the light coming through the stained glass at St Mark’s I feel that it connects me to the Divine. I believe also that when we light a candle for people in distress or in their memory we are looking for them to be at peace.

Then there is the association of peace with stillness versus the turmoil of war.  Advent is the invitation to us to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus and it is also a time of waiting.  How often were you told in childhood to sit still when waiting in excitement for something to happen.  It is not easy but over the years you get to the point of understanding the value of stillness as it is then that you can be ‘still and know that he is God’.  You can listen to the ‘still small voice of calm’ which is offering you peace.

Silence, whilst having an association with fear, can also be associated with peace. As one Commentary on Luke expresses it; ‘in our troubled times we need to share the silence and faithfulness of Mary’.  I would add that giving space in silence for time to put down the guns of war and to consider the possibility of peace is something which can only be beneficial.

Peace then can be expressed in light, in stillness and in silence.  It need not be dull though.  Advent, in its preparation of the heart for the coming of Jesus, is a time of joyous expectation of his birth.  You can be full of life while at the same time experiencing inner peace. Joy can be found in the Annunciation in the wonderful sentence given to Mary by the Angel Gabriel which reads: ‘nothing is impossible with God’.

Let us hold on to that sentence as we near the end of a very troubled year in the world and look forward in hope to a better situation in the new year.

 

 

AMEN

 

 

Sermon, Feast of Christ the King, Sunday 26 November 2023 – Joseph Steadman

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, or – as our Roman Catholic friends call it,
with characteristic flair – the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the
Universe. It’s the final Sunday of the Church’s year, and the culmination of what
has become known in the last century or so as the Kingdom season, which we
have been observing here at St Mark’s.

There’s a temptation, I think, when we think of the Kingdom, to think about
what happens next—we begin with the feast of All Saints, then the
commemoration of All Souls, and then of course Remembrance Sunday. And the
readings we hear have a distinctly eschatological flavour to them—especially this
year, when our readings come from the Gospel according to St Matthew, whose
account of Christ’s teaching ends with the vivid vision of the Last Judgment we
heard a moment ago.

But if we focus on what happens next, there is a risk that we might forget about
what happens now. Because we are not called simply to wait around until God
brings the Kingdom to us. Rather, we are called to cooperate with God in bringing
the Kingdom closer—day by day, and year by year. After all, Jesus Himself taught
us to pray: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”.
That’s an idea that John F Kennedy, who died sixty years ago this week, echoed
at the conclusion of his inaugural address. He said, “let us go forth to lead the
land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth
God’s work must truly be our own”.

Now, by this point you may be wondering why I’m the one standing here in the
pulpit this morning. Well, as many of you will know, I’m one of the
Churchwardens here. And that means that it’s my job – along with Jane, Colin,
and many others – to make sure we can keep doing what we do at St Mark’s.
So, in the next few minutes I’d like to persuade you that one way of working to
bring the Kingdom of Christ closer is to consider providing financial support for
what we do here.

I’m going to start by saying something about what funding parish churches need,
then talking about why what we do here is important, and finally identifying howyou can help, by asking you to do three practical things—perhaps think of it as a New Year’s resolution for the turning of the Church’s year.

What? It might surprise you to know that parish churches receive no central
funding—nothing from the Government, nothing from the Church of England.
In fact, it is parishes who are asked to provide a lot of the central funding for the
church, through contributions to the Common Fund. In 2024, the amount we need to provide is £91,300, which reflects the cost of supporting and housing a parish priest, training the next generation, supporting diocesan schools, and funding the Diocese itself. And the day to day running costs of everything we do here are roughly the same again. Then, of course, there are the one-off, often eyewatering, costs that come with maintaining a historic building.

It is only through the generosity of our congregation, friends and neighbours –
with the help of income-generating activities like the nursery and the café, and
William’s work with the Diocese in Europe – that we have historically been able
to meet those costs.

Why? Now, I hope you will agree with me that what happens here at St Mark’s is
important. You probably think it goes without saying. But sometimes, I think it’s
worth saying these sorts of things out loud.

Our worship here offers a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. Through our
worship, we bear witness that at the very foundation of the universe is a force of
love so generous, so powerful, so abundant, that it overwhelms every human
brokenness, overpowers death, and still continues to flow—as we will sing in a
moment, “sin and death and hell shall never stifle hymns of love”.
And that love is what underpins the ministry we offer. One of the wonderful
things about the Church of England – for all its faults – is that it seeks to be a
Christian presence in every community. St Mark’s is here for the people of
Primrose Hill and the surrounding area. Every so often a survey comes out
showing that regular church attendance is falling—though looking around today,
you wouldn’t know it. But I don’t think that needs to worry us. Because St Mark’s
is here when people need us. It is here at important moments in the life of the
nation, to make space for people’s feelings and to be a focal point for the
community. It is here at important moments in people’s lives – when a baby is
born, when a couple marries, when a loved-one dies – not asking whether they’re
part of the club, but generously offering care, comfort and compassion. And it is
here at other times, too, when we might not even realise it’s needed—a moment
of quiet contemplation when someone is having a difficult time, the unexpected
joy of an inspiring piece of music, or something as simple as a coffee and a pastry
on a cold Sunday morning.

And that same love overflows into the world as we are sent out each week “to live and work to [God’s] praise and glory”. In a moment I’ll come back to how we
do that, because – frankly – that’s way more important than money.

How? But first, I said I would tell you how you can help, and that I’d ask you to
do three practical things as your New Year’s resolution. So here they are.

1. The first practical thing is easy. There are leaflets at the back of Church called
“Leaving a Legacy”.
Pick one up, take it home, and read it. That’s all.

2. The second practical thing asks a little more of you. If you haven’t already set
up a standing order for regular giving, might you consider starting one? You
can find our bank details at the beginning of your service booklet. It’ll take
perhaps five minutes, maybe with an extra minute to email William with your
Gift Aid details. But it will make a real difference. And if you have got a standing order in place, might you consider updating it? You may have set it up several years ago, and in the meantime the cost of everything has gone up—you could even use the Bank of England inflation calculator to work out the new amount, if you want to be scientific about it.

3. The third practical thing is the most demanding, but it also potentially has the
most impact. (This is where I put my barrister hat on.)

Please, if you haven’t already, think about making a Will. It is the only way to
ensure that your wishes are carried out after your death—otherwise, the rules
of intestacy will apply and that will very probably not be what you would have
wanted. It needn’t be expensive, or complicated – and the legacy leaflet has
details of low-cost and free will-writing schemes – but it is vital.

And once you have made provision for your loved ones in your Will – or if
you already have a Will you’re happy with – I’d like you to consider leaving
a legacy to St Mark’s. It’s inheritance-tax-free, and if you leave 10% or more
of your estate to charities – including St Mark’s – the rate of inheritance tax
on the rest of your estate is reduced to 36%. It’s a win-win.

If you do decide to leave a legacy to St Mark’s…

First of all, thank you.

Second, it would be really helpful if you could let William know, in complete
confidence.

And third, please make sure you actually execute it properly! You need to sign
it in the presence of two witnesses who then sign it in your presence, otherwise
it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

So—three practical things. Read the leaflet, think about your standing order, and
make a Will.

I hope I’ve persuaded you that providing financial support to St Mark’s is one
way you can participate in bringing the Kingdom closer. Colin, our Treasurer,
would probably be happy if I stopped there. The rest of you might, too, since I’ve
probably already gone on longer than I was supposed to.

But I am going to carry on a little longer. Because not everyone has money to
spare at the moment, and many people will have other causes that are near to their hearts, and – anyway – there are far more important things than money.

Turning back to this morning’s readings, we have a blueprint for how we can
bring the Kingdom closer.

In this morning’s Gospel, the ones who inherit the Kingdom are the ones who
have treated others as they would treat Christ himself. St Matthew records the
words of Jesus: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my
brethren, ye have done it unto me.” And that in turn means asking how Christ
would treat them. It means returning something of the ridiculously generous,
outrageously self-sacrificing, totally revolutionary love of Christ to those in
need—the ones He calls His brethren.

And in the New Testament reading, St Paul writes that the church is Christ’s body.
Combined with the Gospel passage we heard, for me that calls to mind a reflection attributed to St Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish mystic, although it was probably actually written in the late 19th century. It goes like this.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

In a few minutes, we will each come forward to receive Christ’s sacramental body. As you do so, I’d like to invite you to join with me in reflecting on how you can answer the call to become Christ’s body on earth.

How will your feet walk to do good?

How will your hands be a blessing?

How will your eyes look compassion on this world?

And then, when we sing our final hymn, I’d like you to pay attention to the words
of the third verse. It asks two more questions, which you might like to think about as you go out into the world this week.

And if your answer to those questions includes giving some money to St Mark’s?
Then thanks be to God.

Sermon, Second Sunday before Advent, 19 November 2023 – The Reverend Paul Nicholson

‘The day of the Lord is at hand’, asserted the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah, and if you glance through it, you’ll notice that in the New Testament Epistle offered for today, St. Paul, writing to Thessalonian Christians, holds pretty much the same view: ‘the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night’. We hear quite a lot of this ‘day of the Lord’ in our readings in church at this time of year. Arising, as our faith did, from Judaism, it was natural that the first Christians should take on and adapt their inherited Hebrew ‘eschatology’ – the thinking and writing about ‘the last things’. The Biblical scholar William Barclay wrote that for 1st century Jews,

‘….all time was divided into two ages. There was the present age, which was wholly and incurably bad. There was the age to come, which would be the golden age of God. In between, there was the day of the Lord, which would be a terrible day. It would be a day in which one world was shattered and another was born….the New Testament writers to all intents and purposes identified the day of the Lord with the day of the second coming of Jesus Christ.’

Persecution and hardships experienced by both overlapping faiths at this time often stimulated some of the most graphic and vengeful apocalyptic texts, right up to the Book of Revelation and beyond. We perhaps get a glimpse of that at the end of our Gospel today, where the ‘unprofitable servant’ is cast into ‘outer darkness’, accompanied by Matthew’s almost trade-mark ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’! So, what do we make of all this, two thousand years on?

Speaking personally, these words stimulate two reactions. The first is a certain embarrassment at the archaic world-view they represent, and an intention not to let their hateful images detract from the revolutionary love and generosity of Jesus himself, and his radical way of being – which even the church has been slow to realise and catch up with. It has always been too easy (and more convenient) for the church at various times to ‘weaponise’ apocalytic texts like these to scare people into dull conformity, rather than facing up to the dynamic implications of the kingdom of God that Jesus actually preached. That is to be no better than the terrorist extremists who use their vengeful religious writings to justify violence and killing. Some so-called Christians manage to sabotage the true Gospel, even to this day. But just look at the main thrust of Jesus’ teaching this morning – from which we realise, by the way, the origin of the sense we often give to the word ‘talent’ now, and in which he illustrates the real call of the kingdom of heaven. Those words, ‘unto everyone that hath shall be given, and ye shall have abundance : but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’, may sound at first harsh and callous. But they should not be understood as some manifesto for the ‘prosperity Gospel’ blasphemously purveyed by certain mega-church organisations. They are really expressing the simple blessedness and the continuing fertility of maximising our gifts and our abilities in the service of God and of others, and not wasting them only on ourselves.

At the same time, though, my second reaction to Biblical Eschatology is to find in it so much contemporary resonance. So many of the scenes which our news bulletins currently bombard us with – whether of the destruction and killing of war, or the devastation of extreme weather patterns brought on by climate change – are rightly described as nothing short of apocalyptic. They seem to embody Paul’s words: ‘For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them’. We are seeming to find in these biblical scenarios less about future judgement, and more increasingly a description of the horrific lived-reality of numerous peoples in the world here and now. We may well be justified in reinterpreting the ‘day of the Lord’ – as indeed the Jewish prophets did throughout biblical revelation, when in their own changing circumstances they described it variously in terms of comfort and assurance rather than threat.

I acknowledged just now the part that extreme religious writings are playing in world conflicts. But in a recent book, ‘The Imaginations we live by’, James Walters – Professor in Practice at the Department of International Relations at the L.S.E, and an Anglican Priest – makes the point that a variety of imaginative frameworks shape all our thoughts and attitudes. One of these frameworks, he says, can be ‘an over-optimistic imagination of social progress and of the ability of science and technology to eliminate human want and suffering on their own’, whereas religious imagination, properly shaped by scriptural texts, patterns of prayer and collective worship can build up a measured picture of the world and of our place within it. However, he admits that this positive influence of faith is sidelined in ‘the modern Western-European understanding of religion as an essentially private matter – personal rather than social, spiritual rather than political, supplementary rather than fundamental to everyday life’. But, however the world may trivialise the place of faith, we who follow Christ know that his way is concerned with the ultimate, transcendent realities, and gives answer to those who shrug and say indifferently, ‘the Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil’, to quote Zephaniah. His way gives answer to humanity’s persistence in continuing old acquisitive patterns of behaviour, in planning which exploits the earth and fellow humans, when increasingly ‘they shall… build houses, but not inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, but not drink the wine thereof’, ‘when neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them’. Christ’s answer is for us to follow the gentle rule of his Kingdom, expressed by Paul in his encouragement to the Thessalonians:

‘putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.’

 

Sermon, Remembrance Sunday, 5th November 2023 – the Vicar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In today’s first lesson, Micah hears the nations of the world saying: Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, …we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

We hold in mind the departed of this parish in War, so our minds and memories ponder current conflicts.

Might we, unusually perhaps on Remembrance Sunday, consider the Battle of Gaza of 31 October – 7 November 1917. It was the third of that year, a decisive year in WWI.

Let me introduce you to some of the key players, whose respective roles in this battle or on the international stage, help us gather its significance then and now.

First, General Sir Edmund, later Viscount Allenby, Commander of the British Forces of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign from 27 June 1917. He had served alongside General Haig on the Western front. A month after his arrival he received a telegram, telling him his only son had died in action in France.

We all know something of David Lloyd George, the Welsh born British Prime Minister of WWI. One thing it might be important to hold on to, was something he told the Jewish Historical Society in 1925

I was brought up in a school where I was taught far more history of the Jews than about my own land. I could tell you all the kings of Israel. But I doubt if I could have named half a dozen of the Kings of England.

Four other less well known men need an introduction as well.

The first is the Shariff of Mecca and King of Hejaz, Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi. His two sons would later reign as King Faizal of Iraq and King Abdullah of Jordan, the Hashemite Kingdoms founded after the War in Transjordan and Mesopotamia.

Chaim Weizmann 1874-1952 was a Russian born Jewish academic came to England 1904, where he taught Chemistry at Manchester University. He was a convinced Zionist, and from 1906 he conversed regularly with Arthur Balfour, nephew of Robert, Lord Salisbury  and himself Salisbury’s successor as Prime Minister in the early 1900s, (hence Bob’s your uncle).

Sir Mark Sykes, a Lincolnshire baronet, whose childhood had been spent with his father travelling in the Middle East, an intriguing preparation for later diplomatic service in the Levant, which he loved.

The Great War, should have concluded by Xmas 1914. But as we know it went grinding on through 1915 and 1916 on all fronts and no end in sight.

Different political and diplomatic currents in the British establishment were seeking ways not only to end the war, but to secure Britain’s future post War interests. The creaking Ottoman Empire was perhaps an easy target for a short-term victory, and a long-term investment. It’s not clear how fixated the British were then on Iraqi oil, but they were determined on two things: to secure the Suez Canal; and secondly, to get one over on the French.

In the meanwhile, three parallel unaligned sets of conversations were taking place:

  • Between the Shariff of Mecca and the British High Commissioner in Egypt Sir Henry MacMahon.
  • Between Chaim Weizmann and Arthur Balfour (and through him with Lloyd George).
  • And between Sykes, and a French counterpart in Levantine diplomacy Georges Picot.

MacMahon, along with Lawrence of Arabia, was stoking up the Shariff to rebel against the Ottomans, with the prize being the Arabian lands from the Arabian Peninsula to the Turkish border to the North, the Persian boundary to the East, and the Mediterranean to the West. It was never made explicit in the letters, but it was understood by the Shariff, that this included Palestine.

On the other hand, Balfour and Lloyd George were convinced by Zionism, with a baffling occlusion to the Arab presence in the Holy Land. Their fascination with Judaism was complex. It contained a blend of deep admiration, conviction of the Biblical Covenantal character of the people of Israel, a strange sense that that international Jewry somehow held the key, through its perceived internationalism, to facilitating an end to the War, and according to many historians, who have read the detailed correspondence, a lingering and unpleasant antisemitism.

And Sykes and Picot managed to negotiate France getting Syria and Lebanon while forfeiting any presence in Palestine, which would be held by an international mandate. They by then had secured Morocco as the Western buffer to Algeria, as compensation for loss of Egypt. The straight-line borders say it all in terms of how borders were drawn.

Let us trace the events of 1917. There are several elements of this story which are not edifying, which does not mean they should not be told. Remembrance is after all about honesty, humility and the desire for grace.

The Sinai front was showing signs of collapse. Lloyd George believed morale might be boosted at home if the cracks in the near East could be exploited. Ieper and Passchendaele were mud-bound and indecisive. The Spring of 1917 saw the first two battles of Gaza. The Ottomans held firm, despite heavy attack, but Allenby was despatched to drive a third onslaught on Gaza and from there to continue up the coast, driving the Turks into their homeland. Lloyd George needed a hero, and Allenby certainly cut the dash, for which the Prime Minister was hoping.

All through the same Summer of 2017 Balfour was finessing what was to become his Declaration. Lobbied by Weizmann, he honed its provisions and contents. Both imagined the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine to be primarily a colony, sponsored by Britain. An essentially European enclave, upon which they both naturally agreed, but for the British Government, it would stand at the outer reaches of Suez, a bulwark against any attack on the Canal, the artery to India and the Far East. Balfour believed the energy and ingenuity of Jewish settlers would transform the barren terrain of Palestine, and he and Lloyd George were convinced of the destiny for which they were paving the way. Much of the 19th c had seen millenarian and Evangelical sectarians and Anglicans seeing mission amongst the Jews as a divinely ordained task. How much of this was conscious is hard to determine, but it was bound up with their vision. Plans were put before the cabinet in early October 2017, and two senior politicians stood robustly against it, Edwin Montagu – himself Jewish, but fiercely proud to be British and resistant to any notion of Judaism being a race apart rather than a religion; and Lord Curzon, who detected immediately the difficulty of a plan for a Jewish homeland, against the provision of support for Arab Palestinians. Curzon’s objections served to modify what would otherwise have been a declaration blind to the needs of the Arab population of Palestine. As Allenby embarked on command of the third Battle of Gaza 31 October 1917, the War Cabinet considered the final draft of Balfour’s proposed declaration.

Having been agreed, Arthur Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild

Dear Lord Rothschild, I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of his majesty’s government, the following declaration of Sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations, which has been submitted to and approved by the cabinet.

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the attention of the Zionist Federation. Yours Arthur Balfour.

The letter was published on 9 November 1917, but its contents were overshadowed by dramatic events in Russia. The Bolshevik uprising and arrival of Lenin caused Russia to begin disengagement with the War. As well as changing the axis of the conflict, weeks later, the Communists used their awareness of allied negotiations, to publish for the world to see, the contents of the Sykes-Picot discussions, which clarified the post war intentions of France and Britain. When by early 1918 the Shariff of Mecca was aware of the criss-cross of British double or even triple dealing, his disgust was apparent, and all Arabia with him, as their aspirations for control of Palestine, which seemed to have been promised in all sincerity by MacMahon, were decimated. As Oxford Jewish historian Avi Shlaim observed:

Thus, by a stroke of the imperial pen, the Promised Land became twice-promised. Even by the standards of Perfidious Albion, this was an extraordinary tale of double-dealing and betrayal.

None of this was before Allenby had won the third Battle of Gaza on 7 November 1917. The British press, hungry for good news, was delirious that at least on one front a British Expeditionary Force was at last making progress. The tone of the reporting was frightening to British Imperial officials. The Evening Standard declared Allenby a latter-day crusader. A section D notice had to be issued by the Ministry of Information, reminding Editors of the nearly 100 million Muslim subjects of the Empire and the march on Jerusalem was to defeat the Ottomans, and no echo of Mediaeval crusading. Nevertheless, following the Prime Minister’s wishes, Allenby made his way to Jerusalem. Military historians regard his achievement in taking Jerusalem remarkable, given the difficulty of the terrain and the complex supply lines for water and munitions.

However, Jerusalem had no military or strategic value, sitting way above the Levantine coast, in the Judaean hills. But its capture by Allenby on 8 December was the Christmas present Lloyd George needed. Huge advantage was gained by Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem. Unlike the preposterous arrival of the Kaiser in 1898 on horseback, dressed almost as a Crusader Knight at Sion Gate, as we see on the front of this order of service, Allenby dismounted from his stead and walked humbly into the city. The comparison of choreography was deliberate.

Allenby’s words to the inhabitants of Jerusalem struck an immediate chord with all who heard and read them:

Since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people of these three religions for many centuries, therefore, do I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred.
Guardians have been established at Bethlehem and on Rachel’s Tomb. The tomb at Hebron has been placed under exclusive Moslem control.
The hereditary custodians at the gates of the Holy Sepulchre have been requested to take up their accustomed duties in remembrance of the magnanimous act of the Caliph Omar, who protected that church.

With hindsight after Versailles, Balfour was able to say with regret:

The literal fulfilment of all our declarations is impossible partly because they are incompatible with each other and partly because they are incompatible with the facts.

On a day of remembering, perhaps to remember that 106 years after the three Battles of Gaza, conflict there now, stemmed from words half said, promises half kept, and visions half dreamed. Might we pray for forgiveness and healing, and all the more earnestly for peace?

Jesus prays in today’s Gospel for selfless love of others, Micah foresees all nations seeing God’s law coming forth from Zion transforming the world. May selflessness, characterise the pursuit of peace, and might the ultimate peace of Jerusalem, and God’s law shine in the hearts of all. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon, 5 November 2023, Fourth Sunday before Advent – Rosamond Miskin

War is very much in the news at the moment.  The war in the Middle East and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  You could say that the whole history of mankind has been one of conflict between nations.  It has also been a history of civil war and tribal enmity.

What stands out, in my mind, as a reason for all this conflict is the desire to conquer and occupy land that you believe is rightfully yours.  If you achieve your objective, you then build upon the land structures that affirm this belief and assert your presence.  The story does not end there though as there may be further invasion by an outside party who will destroy what you have built, kill your people and build anew to reflect the new state of affairs.  In his book entitled ‘Modern Theology’ James Mackey writes that ‘no circle is more vicious than the circle of violence, and there is no logic of violence, however plausible it may sound, which is not in fact circular’.

There is much sorrow in this process.  The loss of loved ones, the trauma of survivors of all ages, and the destruction of beautiful buildings containing art treasurers of great interest and beauty.  It is a negative process that goes on repeating itself throughout human history.

What, then, may bring this cycle of destruction to an end?  War weariness?  A reduction in the desire to conquer and possess land?  Prayers for peace answered or perhaps new generations putting the sacredness of human life above all other considerations.  Time will tell, but I believe that the New Testament provides us with the ultimate answer.

To find that answer we can turn to today’s Gospel reading from Chapter 24 of Matthew.  Here, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple and the wars that will follow, not to mention famine, earthquakes and the persecution and killing of his disciples.  There will, he says, be an increase in lawlessness and ‘the love of many will grow cold’ – what a chilling expression that is.  Yet, as Matthew goes on to reassure us, that is not the end of the story.  Jesus then says to his disciples that those who endure to the end will be spared, the good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.  From subsequent verses of Matthew’s Gospel we are told that the Son of Man will come on clouds of heaven to gather his elect from the four winds ‘from one end of heaven to another’.

The ultimate answer then lies not on earth but it comes down from heaven.  You might ask why it must be this way.  Why does God, who loves us, not intervene earlier to put an end to war and suffering?  If we look at Psalm 107, God does, according to the Psalmist, answer those who cry to him in distress and deliver them from destruction, but war, and its aftermath of horrors, has continued across the centuries.  In his Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Rowan Williams writes that ‘God does not step down from heaven to solve our problems but is in the heart of the world in our suffering’.  I would also say that God has given us freedom of choice and for many the choice is war and its aftermath. I believe, though, that in verse 13 of today’s Gospel reading, a way forward is offered when Jesus says to his disciples that ‘anyone who endures to the end will be saved’.

Endurance is a word that features often both in the Old Testament and the New.  In Psalm 43, the Psalmist initially mourns the fact that God has ‘cast him off’ and he calls upon God to send out his light and his truth.  Then he corrects himself, calling upon his soul to continue to hope in God who is ‘his help and his God’. In Psalm 107, the Psalmist knows that ‘the steadfast love of God endures forever’. God, then, will not abandon us even if we choose to walk away from him.  Jesus certainly knew that God looked to him to endure.  As he says in the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want’. There was also the endurance of the early Christian martyrs.  So when we endure hostility this imitates the enduring love of God and demonstrates our faith in his ultimate loving purpose for us and the promise of his kingdom, even in the darkest hours.

We can also say that although the loss of beautiful buildings is a source of sorrow, we can take comfort in the words of St Paul to the Corinthians.  Our bodies, Paul writes, are God’s Temple in which God’s spirit dwells, and the foundation of the Temple is Jesus Christ.  Christ is our foundation stone and we belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.

So let us endure what we must endure, keep hope in our hearts and pray for a better world to come.

Sermon, All Souls, 2 November 2023 – the Reverend Paul Nicholson

Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.

Once was this a spirit’s dwelling,
by the breath of God created.
High the heart that here was beating,
Christ the prince of all its living.

Those are the opening verses of an early Christian burial hymn by Prudentius, who was born in Spain in the mid 4th century. He had worked as a Roman civil servant, but from his early 50s gave himself over entirely to Christian devotional poetry, some of which is preserved in our hymn books in English translation – for example, the Advent to Christmas hymn, ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’. Helen Waddell’s translation of his burial hymn inspired a wonderfully powerful choral setting from the English composer, Herbert Howells – written for a Memorial Service for President John F. Kennedy in Washington DC, one year after his assassination.

We have seen so much upsetting news coverage of killing and death over the last few weeks, and today as we continue to absorb those horrifying images, whilst we also remember and commit to God our own dear departed loved ones and friends, this hymn of Prudentius perhaps gives us space to honour both. For it holds each and every human body in the highest regard, as the very home of life and spirit – ‘by the breath of God created….noble even in its ruin’. Tonight’s Epistle (1 Peter 1: 3-9) affirmed that by his resurrection, Jesus Christ has won for us a ‘lively hope’, and ‘an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled … that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you’. It’s in that same confidence that Prudentius’ hymn continues, reminding the earth that its cherishing of this body is but provisional:

Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
not unmindful of his creature
shall he ask it: he who made it
symbol of his mystery.

Comes the hour God hath appointed
to fulfil the hope of men,
then must thou, in very fashion,
what I give, return again.

In a Remembrance-tide reflection on Prudentius’ burial poem written originally for the Church Times, Andrew Davison underlines that for the author, the body is symbolic of God’s mystery, and that as such, it will be raised at the general resurrection. But referring to images in subsequent verses he continues: ‘In the mean time, dust is what we shall become. This dissolution is a metaphor for all human frailty. Human life, for Prudentius, has the character of something holding together, but only just. We will come apart, but – such is the Christian hope, and never more than at this time of year – God in his mercy catches the essence of each human self at its disintegration, the “spirit” or “soul”. He holds it fast, kept until the resurrection of the body and restoration to…Paradise’. Here are the hymn’s final verses:-

Once again the shining road
leads to ample Paradise;
open are the woods again,
that the serpent lost for men

Take, O take him, mighty leader,
take again thy servant’s soul.
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
balm upon the icy stone.

Sunday 3 September 2023 Trinity XIV Proper 17 Year A – The Vicar

Today’s Gospel is the immediate continuation of last week’s. There Simon Peter in a moment of extraordinary insight understood, or so we thought, who and what Jesus was – in his words then declares “The Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Today, following Mark’s order of things, St Matthew takes the narrative forward. Jesus continues to instruct his disciples and to show them that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things… and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter “Get me behind me Satan!”

It’s quite a dramatic turn around, is it not? Just before this Simon son of John is named formally as the Rock, the foundation of the Church itself, against whom the powers of death will not prevail, and then at the next turn, this rock-solid foundation is being addressed by Jesus as Satan, the accuser, the tempter, the antithesis of God’s plans and directive power.

And then to the punchline perhaps: Jesus makes clear that any who follow HIM, must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. To be saved is to lose, to lose is to find true life in Him.

Taking up the cross, each of us having a cross to bear – tend to be slightly pietistic, and possibly rather depressing terms that Christians use. Sometimes one might even say of a difficult friend or relative that they are the cross we might be having to shoulder. It’s not difficult to see how this terminology has become pretty standard. In the United Kingdom at least, persecution is not something most Christians are acquainted with. I am sure when this term was used, almost certainly, by Jesus, and remembered as the Gospels were being written down, persecution was a reality. Peter had been crucified, by tradition upside down, and most of the Apostles, including Paul had died martyrs’ deaths. For most, crucifixion would have been normal, although Nero took mass torture and capital punishment, particularly for Christians, to new depths of awfulness.

At a personal level now, the recognition of our frailty, our inabilities, the difficulties which life has dealt us, all of these, we might characterise as our cross. The human condition, upon which thinkers of all kinds have reflected in so many ways, might itself be a way of describing what Milan Kundera termed The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I am not absolutely sure that Jesus meant that, that life itself was a cross. But for so many, weighed down with the intolerable anxieties of existence, it’s understandable that life itself might be seen as a cross, however tragic that this is the case.

The character of sin, our fallen nature, and living with an acute awareness of human degeneracy, for many towering Christian figures has been of profound importance. Martin Luther’s terror at his own sinfulness, triggered a Reformation, the shock-waves of which we are still feeling. We may ourselves feel burdened by shame, guilts and fears which threaten to overwhelm us. Ministry to those affected by suicide, acquaints us with the after-effects of just such overpowering feelings of despair at human limitation. There are so many in the history of the Church, saints and sinners alike, who have borne the weight of the cross, it takes so many different forms, but let it not leave us in despair.

Without being glib or morose, might we seek from the great treasure-trove of the Church’s medicine chest? Sin’s darkness can overwhelm, that’s its danger if we are not careful, but Jesus’s words to Peter about the gates of hell not prevailing against him, take us towards the Church’s teaching on forgiveness and grace. Repentance, confession together are the sacramental reality which unburdens us the weight of sin. When we confess our sins, however inadequately, the promise of forgiveness outweighs anything lacking. The chance for personal confession is always on offer in the Church of England, with the comforting words that “none must, some should, all may.” The unburdening of the weight of sin in personal confession can be a very wonderful release, the weight of the Cross can be laid down.

May we return to the cross itself for one moment before concluding. I am very struck by a contemporary writer, who, rather despite himself, has found that from being a popular ancient historian he has become something of a Christian apologist. You may have come across his excellent podcast, recommended to me by a parishioner: The Rest is History. This is Tom Holland, whose book Pax, has been recently published and I have not yet read, but his book Dominion I have, and really enjoyed. It is the cross itself with which he begins in the discussion of what he calls, the making of the Western Mind. Drawing on Horace, Tacitus and Seneca, Holland reminds us who view the cross as a symbol of a faith, and possibly an adornment, that in the 1st c. it was a brutal instrument of utter humiliation. It existed in a coercive society as the means of suppressing those who underpinned it, slaves. The Romans knew it was abhorrent, they avoided mention of it. “Some deaths were so vile, so squalid that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely.” St Paul of course said it first, “we preach Christ crucified, the cross a stumbling block to Jews and to Greeks (that’s everyone else) foolishness.” When Jesus said “take up your cross” and how necessary it was for the Messiah to die this way, he would have revolted his hearers. This is why Peter is so vehement in his reaction.

Simon Peter had been named the rock, but he wanted to disassociate the Messiahship of Jesus from the Messiah’s need to die. In this the rock became himself a rock of stumbling.

If Peter is in some measure us, let us learn from this, not to make God is our own image. Words from what for many was their confirmation hymn:

O let me see thy footmarks

And in them plant mine own

O guide me, call me draw me

Uphold me to the end

And then in heaven receive me

My saviour and my friend.

 

Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving (Trinity XV) – 17 September 2023 – Tessa Lang

Welcome to Harvest Thanksgiving 2023 this Sunday, Trinity XV, where
every portion of the order of service points to the power of giving
thanks.

For example, the liturgy for The Blessing of the Harvest Gifts rejoices
that: ‘springtime and harvest shall not cease’…and neither should our
thanks, as ‘All things come from thee, O Lord’. His generous provision
for his people activates the wonder and gratitude that is the wellspring
of creative human expression…such as voiced in a near-delirious
prayer of thanksgiving by poet e e cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

A wonderful attribute of Christianity is its materiality, where the physical
is portal to the metaphysical, and the shared experiences of being
alive–senses and emotions, food and drink, waking and sleeping,
disease and healing, birth and death, sowing and harvest–structure our
understanding and practice of faith. In this way, we arrive together at
the appointed time for the annual “Thank you” segment of Sunday Live
at St Marks…to hear a remarkable story…remember the love and
bounty of God…and rededicate ourselves to his purpose. This priority
looms increasingly acute as the actions of humanity encroach upon and
degrade the systems supporting our planet, and statistics report a
falling away from Christian identity and belief in our nation.

Today’s New Testament Lesson speaks to an existential situation in the
Church Paul founded in Corinth. In the second epistle the evangelist
needs to answer growing protests about his ministry and methods,
warn against false teachings, and calm internal power struggles. Tothis
daunting set of pastoral tasks he must add preparation of the
ground for collection of aid for the church in Jerusalem, suffering
hardship and privation of famine and facing an equally dangerous if
different sort of threat. His message is direct and personal:
“Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not
grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” Sowing
bountifully to reap bountifully is the pathway for connecting to God’s
unstinting grace, and success is certain. Much later at another flash
point in church history, Luther warns that losing touch with ‘Christ the
Saviour and Comforter’ impoverishes our very souls; worse, it is a
failure of faith that obstructs God’s plan of bounty for all.

For the love of God outshines human-dictated regime and law, as
demonstrated in the remarkable story we hear today, when only the
Samaritan returned to give thanks to Jesus after nine fellow lepers who
were also cleansed did not. Luke reports the words of the Lord: “They
are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger. And
he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole”.
No matter the affliction, however hidden or serious, we sinners can
connect to the power of thanksgiving by acknowledging the presence
and mercy of God in our lives. We are then saved to go on our way in
newness of life, restored to our birthright as children of God, sowing the
good news and actively sharing our faith. This is the energetic
ecosystem spoken into being at the beginning, connecting creator and
his creation with the hearts and hands of his people.

I think we can agree what is before us today is a bumper crop of
blessings – the gift of resources and time to provide for our physical
needs year after year, abundance in all things meant for us through
God’s grace, the transformation to spiritual health through faith in Jesus
Christ. All are freely given, if wildly undeserved, like the miracle
cleansing of 10 lepers that took place along the rancorous border
between Galilee and Samaria. A long-standing and irreconcilable
schism between the tribes had created antagonism associated with this
region that lay between Galilee and Judea. Although a direct and open
route to Jerusalem traversed Samaria and was much used by Gentiles
conducting trade, the historian Josephus reports that 1st century Jews
were at risk of trouble if they used it. At the very least, they considered
themselves exposed to unclean people in an apostate land.

Nevertheless, his is where we find Jesus and his apostles in Luke
Chapter 17, as they take their final journeys throughout the north before
travelling to Jerusalem together for the final time. There is intention
behind every word and act of Jesus, and we can be sure there is good
reason for this stop in questionable territory, notwithstanding a mission
to sow the seeds of faith amongst the Gentiles: Gadarenes, Samarians,
Romans, Syrians, Cyrenians, Greeks and Cypriots, Princes from the
East. This Messiah is global, delivering upon the Father’s promise to
save the world through his chosen people. Starting, it seems, in
Samaria.

During the three previous years, Jesus has conducted a one man, rock
star tour of healing and restoration of health, senses, even life itself. He
could travel nowhere alone, save on a mountaintop to pray with the
Father. As John informs us, the disciples saw innumerably more
miracles than are written down for a specific purpose in unfolding God’s
plan for salvation to those coming after his time on earth. Matthew
relates that a mere touch of the hem of his garment was sufficient to be
made perfectly well. News travels, and the later days of his ministry on
earth must have been mayhem. Taking the road less travelled could
have its benefit.

What happened here is reported by Luke, the saint of eyewitnesses and
fact checking himself, although it reads like a parable. The embodiment
of human misery and misfortune presents itself as a group of 10 lepers.
This cruel disease had manifestations so hideous and contagious that it
was deemed divine punishment for sin. Any sufferer was immediately
cast out, quarantined for the duration of a miserable lifetime, excluded
from family and community, work and worship. Their only companions
could be others punished with the same fate. The disease was such a
dire threat that chapters of Leviticus are devoted to how to identify and
isolate those infected. The arbiters of public health were the priests,
who diagnosed the condition, enforced its management, and exercised
an elaborate sacerdotal procedure to ritually cleanse and restore to the
community anyone fortunate enough to be healed. Sacrifices,
pilgrimage and anointings all paid their part. The trouble was, there are
no accounts of natural or spontaneous healing of leprosy anywhere in
the Old Testament. Only supernatural intervention, as in the case of
Moses’ sister and Naaman the Syrian warrior, was effective. Little
wonder that leprosy cures feature in the New Testament, during the
time Jesus the Christ is incarnate on earth.

As part and parcel of the physical degradation wrought by the leprosy
bacterium to skin and limb, causing damage to the nervous system and
severe disfigurement from infection and tissue loss, the voice is
weakened and distorted. Not only does a sufferer not look like his or
herself, but they also no longer sound like themselves. No matter: the
only word they need to speak is “unclean”, to announce the danger
they represent. No one in their right mind would reach out to them,
although Luke in Chapter 5 tells us that Jesus healed a leper with his
touch.

Somehow, this band of 10 lepers must have heard about Jesus and
most likely, could not believe their luck now that their hope for healing
had arrived in the neighbourhood. Standing a way off, they marshalled
their voices to beg him, as Master, for mercy…the prayer of those who
have no power of their own, nothing with which to bargain. The prayer
of all who sin.

On this occasion Jesus does not go to them or touch them. Instead, he
instructs them to “Go shew yourselves unto the priests”, as we now
know, to have their cleansing certified and the procedure to return them
to full life undertaken. As they move off in obedience to Jesus’
instruction and no doubt, with exhilarating hope, they are cleansed and
restored to physical health. The priests, the temple and the rest of their
interrupted life awaits; there can be no looking back.

The Samaritan leper is the odd man out. He is unlikely to be welcome in
a Jewish temple, even though physically cleansed. He had just
experienced total transformation at the word of the man called Jesus,
whom many claimed was the Messiah, the Christ of God. In a moment
of spiritual insight, the former leper understands that only here is his
high Priest and his God, and he is going back to glorify him in his newly
strong voice, and to bow down and worship. No other path unfolds
before him. Jesus being who he is, I do not doubt that he came this
way to save this leper.

And that is the power of thanksgiving. It ignites faith, it restores
connection to God, it sends forth in newness of life, it increases his
blessings exponentially, in ways we may hope for but cannot imagine.
For this we give thanks to God for what he does for us, for the harvest
of all good things, from our daily bread to eternal life.

In the eucharist we ask for mercy, we repent our sins in the hope of
being acceptable to God, we approach the Lord’s table as we have
been instructed, with thanks; we partake of divinity, with thanks; and we
return again and again, with thanks. This too is the precise structure for
the salvation of an afflicted stranger we meet through Jesus on the road
to Calvary. Sound like anyone else you may know?

Then Paul’s message deals with the connecting part of the circuit, and
that is to be thankful for what we can give to the activity of God. When
the two connect, giving to God and thanking God for his gifts, we abide
in his new creation, nothing less than the Kingdom of God. We are the
10% who give more than gratitude to God – they give themselves, like
the healed Samaritan.

At St Mark’s, are especially fortunate that our harvest sacrifice of thanks
and praise features gifts for body and soul – glorious music, precious
liturgy, cheerful giving, apple cider to wash down Little Bread Pedlar
pastries and West Country cheese.

Which brings to mind a recent Guardian report of a seed-scattering
event to re-stock native species of wildflowers and grasses across
habitat-depleted acres, starting in Cornwall. There was joy at the doing
of it – cider probably featured there, along with country fiddling and
dancing. There will be more joy next spring and summer, as the first
species emerge and the landscape becomes more beautiful, varied,
and alive. There will be healing in time, after seasons of returning to the
image in which they were created. Here is a living example of how
giving with thanks brings God’s harvest home. Amen.

Sermon, Trinity XII, 27 August 2023 – Rosamond Miskin

The theme of my sermon today is concealment.  Is concealment wise or unwise?

Does it bear fruit or is it destructive?

In today’s Gospel reading we learn from the words of Jesus to his disciples that he does not want them to tell anyone that he is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  He praises Simon Peter for saying that he is the Messiah as it has been revealed to Peter by God, but the Gospel concludes with a stern order from Jesus to his disciples not to reveal this title to anyone.

This concealment of his identity is wise because Jesus, at this particular time, is undertaking his earthly ministry, and only when he has been raised from the dead and ascended to heaven can the word be spread that he is the Son of the living God. Until that time Jesus does not want to apply the title of Messiah to himself because of the implication of an earthly, rather than heavenly kingdom.  Implication, because in popular Jewish opinion the one through whom God would restore the Kingdom of David would be a king triumphant who would not suffer.  Jesus, in this instance, is accepting concealment as necessary in the fulfillment of God’s divine purpose, which takes us on a journey in stages from Creation to the Book of Revelation when we are given the vision of the new Jerusalem.

Setting aside this particular concealment, Jesus runs heavily in the opposite direction when referring to the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  The Pharisees, who distrust him, resent him, and have malicious intent against him, are condemned outright by Jesus, throughout Matthew’s Gospel, for concealing their true intention to bring him down and eventually kill him.  This concealment is unwise because it hides murderous intent. It involves saying one thing whilst meaning another.  We can find an example of this concealment in Matthew chapter 22 when the Pharisees, whilst plotting to entrap him, say to Jesus: ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth..’.  Jesus retaliates with ‘why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?  He sees right through them.

In his earlier chapter 10, Matthew warns the disciples that they will be dragged through the mud before governors and kings but they must not fear because nothing can be concealed from God.  As it is given: ‘for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  God sees all, even a sparrow that has fallen to the ground.  So you cannot get away with unwise concealment.

In Matthew chapter 23, Jesus denounces the Pharisees and the Sadducees in their placing of heavy burdens on others and doing nothing themselves.  He accuses them of locking people out of the kingdom of heaven because they cannot get in themselves.  All this is concealed by appearances; taking the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues.  Appearing righteous but inside full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.  All very unwise.

The Jewish leaders, then, come under heavy fire in Matthew’s Gospel for unwise concealment and this attack on their behavior can also be found in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Concealment does not get a good press in the Bible.

Yet there may be times when concealment could be deemed to be wise.  You might want to protect a child from the full knowledge of a traumatic episode.  You might also want to protect a vulnerable elderly person from bad news.  Where concealment becomes, as Shakespeare wrote ‘like a worm in the bud’ is when it is there to cover up ill intentions and malpractice.

Sometimes, in our history, there have been attempts made to conceal dark periods by pushing them underground in a frenzy of merriment.  I think here of the dance floors of the 1920s under which lay the horrors of the first war.  This was understandable concealment generated by fear, but I believe it is better to acknowledge that those bad times happened and let time and tide ease the pain.

Probably, at some stage in our lives, we have all wanted to hide something from others.  One of the most popular children’s games is hide and seek.  There is the excitement of being in a hiding place, provided it is not prompted by fear, but to cover up wrongdoing can generate a succession of problems, sometimes for generations to come.  Let us not go down that path if we can avoid it.  Let us instead be guided by God towards an open minded and honest society for the benefit of all.

 

AMEN

 

 

 

 

Sermon, Trinity XI, 10 September 2023 – the Reverend Glen Ruffle

It is absolutely wonderful to be here on what I really do think is my last Sunday with you all! Never say never, but there really is no other date in the diary (in the foreseeable future)!

Well, the gospel reading we had today is one that has caused some controversy over the years. And I have to say, I’m not convinced that the language of the King James Bible has helped us today…

It has of course been greatly influential on our history and poetry, but I sometimes feel we need to hear things in a more modern way, and so I’m going to give you again the passage that was read, but in a way that hopefully makes it a bit clearer.

The reason for this, is that some people have concluded that Jesus is racist and sexist in this passage – he calls the foreign woman ‘a dog’! Let me be clear: he is absolutely not being racist or sexist, but our cultural distance from the actual event hides that fact somewhat.

So here goes. What you are about to hear is a terrible translation from the Greek, but I hope it gives you an idea of the actual meaning:

  • Jesus, who is a big fan of the England football team, went over to Germany (I should probably say Spain, given that it’s the final of the Women’s World Cup, but Germany came to mind given our long sporting rivalry!) There, a German woman, wearing the colours of the German football team, started shouting for help.
  • She said “Help me kind Sir, honourable Englishman”.
  • The disciples said “Get rid of her, she is annoying us and she supports the German team. We all know the rivalry between the England and Germany football teams!”
  • Jesus said “I was sent only to England supporters”.
  • But she threw herself before him and blocked the way. She begged him, “Help me, sir!”
  • He said, with a kind smile and a twinkle in his eye “Is it right for me to give my time and energy, which is meant for the England supporters, to you, a supporter of our great rivals, the German team?”
  • She replied “Yes it is!”. She recognised his smile and playful tone. “Because even when England win against Germany in the final, we still know that we came second in all the world”.
  • Jesus answered with a smile “You have huge faith and have shown it. I will heal your daughter”. And her daughter was healed instantly.

How does that make you feel? In that light, I hope, you can see this is not a rude encounter, but one in which a total outsider is commended and rewarded for her faith. (I also hope my ancient Greek teacher never reads that translation)!

Jesus meets this woman, who is from absolutely the worst possible background. She is a Canaanite, Syrophoenician, gentile! The worst kind of person! The Kings of Israel had a long history fighting these people.

And yet she comes to him, showing amazing faith. This Jesus is someone from outside of her community, outside of her comfort zone. Yet she reaches out to him. It is like a true supporter of the Labour Party deliberately choosing to go to the Conservatives for help – and showing the Conservatives lots of respect at the same time!

Jesus’ first response is as much to the disciples as it is to her. The disciples see her only as a problem, and as an outsider trying to break in on their nice day. “Send her away! She has nothing to do with us!”

Jesus says what they are thinking “I was sent only to Israel’s people”.

The woman comes and stops him in his tracks. She is going to chase the Lord, knowing that if you really want something, you will ask, you will seek, and you will knock. This is general life advice: people who really want things make big sacrifices.

Jesus, with a smile, tests her. Clearly she recognises him as Lord – she uses that word – but Jesus, to use an awkward phrase, plays “devil’s advocate” with her. He says “Should I take the bread for the children of Israel and give it to a dog?”.

She recognises that he is being provocative, and she recognises that he is inviting her to argue with him in an intellectual game. Yes, he has called her a dog, but that is the word all Jews used for non-Jews at that time. Jesus is using a great teaching method, that when your professor argues with you, making the opposite points, it forces you to think and argue and develop your own ideas, and it allows for ideas to be tested and developed.

So she responds with a wise smile, recognising the game Jesus is playing with her. “Yes Lord, but even the dog gets the crumbs that fall from the children’s table”. And Jesus was so delighted with her answer, he healed her daughter.

So what do we take away?

  1. The woman passionately believed in a God of abundant blessing. If the Jews were blessed, then God would give them so much that everyone else would also be blessed. In my analogy, if England won, then Germany would still be delighted, as they came second in the entire world! Silver medal – better than no medal! The leftovers on the table would be so much that those down below will also get food! God is seeking to pour out blessing – but he also looks for a faith response!
  2. This women is from the outside, with no right to the blessing, sees and understands God better than the disciples do. She knows that the God of the Jews promised to bless Abraham and through Abraham the whole world. The disciples are so insular and self-obsessed, they miss the mission of God to bring the whole world back to him.
  3. We also see that Jesus invites the woman to engage, to chase, to argue with him. We see him giving her some barriers, but she leaps over then. She really believes Jesus can give her the answer she wants, and she won’t let the disciples, or being called a dog, or being from the wrong ethnic group stop her getting the healing she wants for her daughter.

This woman is an example of the kind of faith Jesus loves. It isn’t very English, it is about chasing, pursuing and hounding the Lord. Do we, when we pray, really beg God for a response? That is the kind of faith he invites us to have! When was the last time we wrestled in prayer, begging God for an answer? Wrestling in prayer, worshipping him and submitting our lives and our desires to his will?

Because this is the heart of it: this might be the last time I preach here at St Mark’s – unlike last time, there really is no further date in the diary when I am scheduled to be here. So let this be the message I want everyone to hear:

We are like the disciples. We say to people “go away, you are annoying us, you are from the wrong group, you make us unclean”. Yet Jesus is clear – no person can defile you. The problem is in your own heart, not in a different person. And each one of us carries that problem. We call it sin.

Sin leads to death. We can’t avoid that. But Jesus died – and rose from the dead. So first of all we must submit ourselves to Jesus. We must metaphorically die, letting our desires go and laying our hopes on the cross.

Then, we receive forgiveness and begin to let him live his life through us.

Sometimes he will pick up your desires and use them for his glory; sometimes we will have to let them go. That can be painful – death is always painful. But by dying to Jesus and letting him live through us, we bring God’s rule to this earth. We are no longer our own property, we become agents of God’s Kingdom.

So my desire for everyone in this church, and for myself, is that we learn to daily die, to repent and turn from our way to the way of Jesus, and let Jesus live through us.

And then this Syrophoenician Canaanite woman can be a guide to us: to seek the welfare of others with a passion. To pray and worship fervently, with real faith, believing God wants to answer and change us and our situations.

Let us pray:

Father God, we thank you for Jesus, who died and rose from the dead.

We thank you that in him and through him we too can have life.

We repent of our selfish ways, and ask that you will live in us and through us. We give our lives to you. We ask that you will let us be agents of your Kingdom on earth.

Help us to love you and trust you more. Help us to pray with greater passion and urgency, and to know you want to answer us and lead us ever closer to you.

In and through the name of Jesus our Lord,

Amen

Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Sunday 6 August 2023 – Tessa Lang

From St Luke, chapter 9: v 28 and 29
“And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took
Peter and John and James and went up to a mountain to pray.
And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his
raiment was white and glistering.”
And
From 2 Peter, chapter 1: v 19
“We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well
that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the
day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.”

Good morning, and welcome back to the Holy Mountain for the
Transfiguration, an event so radically illuminating and foundational that
we encounter it twice every liturgical year, at two different fixed times.
One sits as the tollgate to the Lenten passage at the close of Epiphany
season, when we can hear its message as motivation and comfort for
the long weeks of penitence and reflection ahead. It uplifts a reluctant
pilgrim with a glimpse of the Christ, the son of God who became fully
man – ie. what he was not – whilst remaining what he has ever been –
fully divine. It is a fit time, between Christmas and Pentecost, to reprise
the miraculous events of Jesus’ incarnation in earthly space and time
and take heart in his glory and redemptive love. Each of these events –
from birth and presentation in the Temple to Passion and Resurrection –
has multiple ties back to the Hebrew scriptures and are deeply
embedded in writings of the Prophets. From Genesis to Malachi, these
steppingstones lead only to Christ, concealed in plain sight in the Old
Testament, revealed in divine purpose and glory in the New.

Some 5 months later, the 6th of August is the date for the official Feast
of the Transfiguration, so it does not always occur on a Sunday. Any
day of the week, I love the word ‘feast’; it creates an anticipation of
bounty, joy, good company and in my mind, fully deserves its own
Sunday. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, ‘feast’ is defined as a
“commemoration of sacred mysteries and events in the history of our
redemption”. It is not a “cunningly devised fable”, not myth or
metaphor, but eyewitness reports from a time and place. Our second
invitation to witness the majesty of the living God comes in Week 10 of
the long season following Pentecost, a stretch of “after Trinity” Sundays
that examine the nature of the Kingdom of God, and the conduct and
mission of his Church. Into a season of instruction and application
drops a shining moment of elevation from this world to that which is
eternal, yet available to be grasped here and now, if briefly. As Jill
describes it in C S Lewis’ The Silver Chair, this experience is “too
exciting and scrumptious for words”. Luke describes eyewitness
accounts of Jesus emerging from a veil of flesh to a metamorphosis so
beyond human understanding it cannot be described as anything other
than ‘altered’ or changed, arrayed in pure light, radiating energy that
literally flames and sparks with self-generated power: the Son of God
as the life-giving, glistering sun.

The Transfiguration is included in all three Synoptic Gospels, and in
Second Peter. The fourth gospel writer, John, also an eyewitness, does
not mention the specific incident. Instead, it seems to have irradiated
his entire book with the message and metaphysical wonder of the
experience. How else could his Prologue speak of “the Word made
flesh” who not only lives amongst us as well as in the bosom of the
Father, and is the Word that expresses the Father as it calls all things
into life?

It is interesting that all three gospels cite the trigger for the
Transfiguration experience as Peter’s confession that Jesus is the
Christ of God. For the first time in nearly 3 years of living and travelling
with Jesus, witnessing him preach, heal, cast out demons, feed the
multitudes, resurrect the dead, subdue wind and water, Peter is moved
to speak as himself and not as others speak. It is an opening of his
mind, a John Donne-like “battering of his heart”, Luke follows it soon
after by recording Peter’s impetuous speech on the Mountain, spoken
from a place of faith beyond his ability or need to understand. Jesus
recognised it as such.

We may find it more difficult to credit such ability to discount a nearly
numberless sequence of miracles! For us, seeing is close to believing,
as in an often-paraphrased quote from a Poe short story “Believe
nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.” The
emergence of deep fake images hint at the danger in such an
assumption. One of the churches in Wittenberg where Luther nailed his
95 Theses to the door now boasts a Chatgpt priest dispensing a
blessing for a donation! Radio 4 reports it does a brisk business.
Both are a reminder we alone can do nothing, create nothing to gain
forgiveness, redemption, and eternal life without a live faith in the living
God.

For the Jews, a deeply imbedded tradition of holy men doing
miraculous deeds as moved by God poses a different barrier to
discerning divinity. Seeing is not believing unless reported by reliable
sources. The bar is high because some their people have seen and
recorded miracles such as Moses parting the waters, ascending Mt
Sinai to receive the Law, feeding the children of Israel for 40 years
wandering in the desert. Or Elijah triumphing over 450 prophets of
Baal, bringing the widow’s son back to life and passing straight from
earth to heaven in a fiery chariot. The prophets acted as God’s proxy
because the Scriptures told them that no mortal can tolerate the sight of
God almighty. Divinity must always be veiled, separate, apart, not
walking about looking like everyone else.

They also believed that the appearance of the Messiah would produce a
total transformation: an imminent restoration of their people to the
Promised Land and reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, fully
aligned with Mosaic Law and the Prophets. Advance organisation
would be provided by Elijah, returned to serve his nation after being
‘taken up’ from Mount Carmel centuries before. The Kingdom would
manifest on Earth as a righteous and triumphant upgrade in preparation
for the Last Day, when God’s people would be resurrected all at once,
soul and body re-joined. They knew that resurrection was possible as it
occurs 3 times in the Torah scriptures, when God brought the dead
back to life acting through the prophets Elijah and Elisha.

Instead, Jesus confuses them by giving strict instructions to keep this
joyous news strictly to themselves until AFTER his time of suffering,
death, and resurrection, to be mirrored in a difficult life for his followers.
At this point, Luke tells us that Jesus withdrew to pray as was his habit,
this time taking Peter, John and James, his closest disciples. In Jewish
tradition, neither sight nor hearing counted for evidence unless there
were 2 or 3 witnesses.

It was while he prayed that Jesus’ transfiguration spontaneously
occurred. Next Moses and Elijah appeared in glory: the lawgiver and
nation-builder with the prophet and defender of the faith, both having
departed the earth centuries before. Here is a mind-bending disruption
of the time-space continuum, a multiverse on a mountaintop, where
Jesus Christ, the patriarch and the prophet discuss what Luke
describes as Jesus’ imminent ‘decease’ which he ‘should accomplish’
in Jerusalem. How will he achieve the ultimate Passover, where his
sacrifice is sufficient to justify the sinner once and for all? Do Moses
and Elijah appear to ask Jesus about his plans and satisfy the curiosity
of ages past, or did they know enough to lend him support before his
passion? After all, Moses did have early form in Passover
accomplishment. Is the scene one from the divine eternal present,
providing a glimpse of each Hebrew’s mountaintop moments
simultaneously from what we would call the past?

We recall the time the Patriarch received the Law from the Almighty on
Mount Sinai. Though cloaked in cloud, divine radiance yet caused
Moses’ face to reflect a glow too bright for Hebrew eyes. However, the
protective veil worn to return to the tribes was soon removed when
reflected glory faded. Moses may represent God’s gift of the Law, the
foundation of Jewish religion, but he was a sinful man with conscious
murder on his hand and display of lethal temper, doubt, and arrogance
as God’s appointed leader of his people that deprived him of entrance to
the Promised Land although the Almighty himself undertook his burial.
Now he stood, redeemed and glorified, once again on holy ground.

The Prophet’s epic battle against the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel
saw him spared death in anticipation of returning to prepare the way for
the Messiah. His role now assigned to John the Baptist’s preaching of
repentance and Baptism; he too stands in the presence of the living
Christ on the holy mountain. Once again, he is empowered by God and
represents the 40 or so prophets who throughout the ages have put
down markers that lead to our redemption through Jesus Christ whose
creative love sustains all life.

All too human, the disciples fail in prayer and fall asleep, so do not hear
the full discourse. Were they overcome by doubt, overwhelmed by the
prospect of the last Passover and Passion? Did they lack the
imagination to grasp the moment as did Thomas Aquinas, who when
confounded by doubt, chose to believe in a bigger God, a more
miraculous salvation? C K Chesterton calls this “believing in MORE
reality, not less”. The shock and wonder of such a spiritual awakening
kept the writer alert to the blessings and pitfalls that beset the Christian,
given imaginative life in The Screwtape Letters, written from a senior to
a junior devil. John Bunyan had written about this territory, the road
from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City in The Pilgrim’s
Progress, hundreds of years earlier. Considerably earlier still was St.
Augustine’s epic “The City of God”. Although the way is unique and
planned for each of us, the path is well known, taking us both higher
and deeper in everyday relationship with God.

When the disciples do wake, Luke tells us simply that they “saw his
glory and the two men that stood with him”. There is no doubt who is
the source of power. No sooner did they spy Moses and Elijah than
they departed, spurring Peter to speak up. “It is good, Lord, to be here”
cried out Peter the impetuous, not knowing what he said, or why, but as
a spontaneous expression of the joy of this mountaintop moment of
communion with God. He wants to DO something to keep it going, build
tabernacles, set up camp, keep eternity present, skip straight to glory
past suffering, death, and resurrection. But we have not yet
accomplished that height in God’s plan.

The words barely out of Peter’s mouth, a cloud comes and overshadows
them with God’s awesome presence, delivering the abiding take-away
from this momentary enlightenment:

“This is my beloved son: hear him.” And believe every word in the
biggest, most direct, most remarkable way. Because of his unique
person within the Trinity, Christ hears God and passes the Word to us.
In turn, God hears his Son’s prayers on our behalf.

The first time we hear God the Father affirm his son’s divinity, he speaks
to John at the Baptism of Jesus. This time, at the Transfiguration, he
speaks to the key disciples. Now that Jesus is crucified and risen, he
speaks through his son to all of us, endlessly available. Enjoy the light
shows and glimpses of the unseen should you be graced with them in
your lived life. And always pay attention to the Word as Christ walks
with you, sometimes to a mountaintop moment, always back down
again, through the spiritual landscape of your life. Stay connected
through prayer and with each other. Tis Good, Lord, to be here. AMEN

Sermon, Trinity VII, 23 July 2023 – the Vicar

Following the Parable of the Sower last week images of seed-time and harvest continue: Jesus is clear “the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.”

Before we look at the Gospel passage, and as we have not been reading much of Romans so far since passages from it have been the NT choice, let us just remind ourselves of what this great Epistle of Paul’s is addressing and then we might see how today’s two readings speak to one another.

Rome in the first century world featured as daily reality as the Church was growing and expanding from Palestine throughout the Mediterranean world. As you know all roads let to it, and it sat at the epicentre of an Empire, the like of which had never really seen. Arguably there was a rather fascinating relationship between the Empire and its Jewish subjects, who rather uniquely were allowed to practise their religion differently from everyone else. In short Jews were exempted the requirement to owe allegiance to the Emperor cult as it grew in the 1st. c.

St Paul’s other letters were to Christians in churches which he had founded, and of which he was in some sense their spiritual head.

The Epistle to the Romans is different. Paul is writing to Christians who generally have not been evangelised by him, although from the greetings at the end of the letter he seems to know or have met a large number of Christians living in Rome. They are resident in that great City, with all it represents as the seat of imperial governance. If Paul was writing in about 55 AD, he is writing to a community which had been divided for practical reasons, because the Jews of Rome had been expelled by the Emperor Claudius in about 49 AD, following an uprising. Two key people, Priscilla and Aquilla, a couple Paul had met then in Corinth during that exil,e had managed to return home, following Claudius’ death.

About 30,000 Jews lived in Rome, and it seems some of their synagogues in the early 50s AD and before the expulsion were already centres of very early Christianity. Roman non-Jews seem to have been drawn to these meetings. In Rome today there are churches which seem to have been built on the foundations of just these early meeting places which may have been synagogues before they were churches.

One of the key issues for a community which has emerged from Judaism, but itself was decimated the exile of the Jews, is how does the message of Christ sit within the intricate legal framework and demands of Judaism. Gentile proselytes realised the great demands of the Jewish Law, and while some did convert, many remained friends of Judaism but not full initiates. So the questions for them as Jewish-leaning Gentile followers of Christ were comparable with the radical Gospel Paul was preaching of a renewed attitude to the Law and Covenant – which had put him at odds with Palestinian Christians and Judaisers.

What Paul has been addressing in the intense discussion with his readers until this point has about the nature of the Law, which was both utterly attractive for its certainty for non-Jews but impossible to take on in its fullness at the same time. Before that he has reminded his readers of what baptism is about.

Chapter 8 is one of the high points of the tussle which Paul has, because it is so intensely personal for him. At the end of Chapter 7 he says:

I delight in the Law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another Law at war with the law of my mind… Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Chapter 8 begins:

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.

This is what today’s passage as the Epistle then explores. He wants his friends, and they are his friends and equals not his children or converts to know:

You are not in the flesh, you are in the spirit, when the Spirit dwells in You.

He begins the passage we have heard:

All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God… you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry Abba, Father, it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Behind this passage are two themes. The experience of the Children of Israel as they crossed the Red Sea in their flight from Egypt. This was their adoption as indeed God’s children, God’s chosen people. It is more than an adoption. The waters of the Red sea part as they were brought to birth as a new people in God’s eyes. This imagery is strongly implied in the waters of baptism, and Paul has spoken about this insistently in chapter 6. The implications of this are now apparent in chapter 8. We can cry Abba Father. But as the Spirit wells up in us to make this cry, our calling is the voice of Christ in the Garden in his agony. He cries Abba – daddy, dearest Father as his Passion is clear before him. The Spirit gives us utterance as our will and Our Lord’s are united. His death is our death to this world, and so:

…the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.

Paul has been saying as much to those he converted. Those in Rome have heard the Gospel and know Jesus already, but perhaps this is new to them: that their suffering and death is their identification with Jesus, and so they are being revealed alongside him. At the moment, following recent persecution, they are hiding. Paul is preparing them for something he knows will befall him and which his own eventual journey to Rome in the few years ahead will make manifest.

….and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly we await adoption as sons, (to wit – know this) the redemption of our bodies.

What of the Gospel passage and the wheat, the weeds and the angels?

God lets the wheat and the weeds grow together. Nothing must endanger the wheat, a premature pruning would be a danger.

Perhaps as Christians we fear that our prayer, our witness is an impure mixture of wheat and noxious weeds. St Paul says “it is the Spirit that intercedes for us”. The Spirit’s leading causes our prayers to join with the essence of prayer and connection at the heart of the life of the Trinity. When our prayer reaches the Father, because our words have been joined with the Spirit’s, the Father listens only to that portion that is true. Our hearts and conscious prayers are refined by the Spirit at work in us. We are not the weeds, the tares, the Spirit bears fruit in us, despite our dullness and helps us to cry, Abba, Father.

 

 

Sermon, Trinity V, 9 July 2023 – the Vicar

My father, whom I am sorry you did not know, because he died about a year before we came here, was full of funny sayings, which continue make me smile when I think of them.

Dad would not eat pork, ham or sausages without English mustard, French would not do, neither Meaux nor Dijon. The suggestion of mustard with either lamb or beef would always elicit his oft used dictum “Mustard with mutton is the sign of a glutton, mustard with beef is the sign of the thief.”

I was reminded of this and smiled again when recently Beatrice was recommended a thoroughly good recipe website, with really good ideas for supper Mustard with Mutton – Diary of a Glutton – do take this away as a top tip.

Of course, in today’s Gospel Our Lord caricatures himself as glutton:

“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say he has a demon; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

He goes on to say “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” What’s going on here?

First of all, where are we in Matthew’s Gospel narrative: Jesus’s preaching ministry follows on from the confirmation of the 12. At much this time, John the Baptist is arrested, and John sends from prison his disciples to see Jesus. John’s fate seems to be attracting opprobrium, despite the sensation he had been. Jesus begins today’s reading slightly despairing “What do  people want? On the one hand you had the ascetic Baptist who ate and drank nothing and on the other hand you have me, who is happy to go to outcasts and sinners and enjoy a party, and you’re not happy with either. What’s this like, well it’s like children playing make believe games, who could pretend a jolly game like a wedding

“saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced”

Or one the other hand a sad game, like a funeral procession, which you would probably see every day in the market place, going by, and it would be easy to imitate with the exaggerated dirges of the professional mourners verging on something over the top

“we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.”

Like children (without screens in those days), who just won’t get into the imaginative spirit, nothing is good enough for a bit of pretend or imagine or dream.

And so John is dismissed and Jesus derided. You recalcitrant market-place-children, just won’t dream a little.

Jesus is pretty clear that “this generation” is not just missing the point, it’s going to miss the boat too.

There’s something self-conscious about this reference to himself as a glutton and drunkard, which is not just about Jesus liking his food, or his mustard with 1st century mutton.

Bear with me, this glutton and drunkard saying has a pre-history: There’s a rather chilling example of what happens to rebellious sons in the Book of Deuteronomy chapter 20:

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father and mother…. they shall say to the elders of the city, this our son is stubborn and rebellious, he is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death.”

It is not just that Jesus loves a good dinner; he realises that he is being cast as THE stubborn and rebellious SON, the inaccurate and inexplicable euphemism for this is gluttony and drunkenness. Thus, forebodingly Jesus foresees that he will be rejected and put to death.

There are several ironies in this passage. The children at the start of the reading just won’t play. They’re so busy with other preoccupations, that they won’t dance to either the tune of JBAP or Jesus, both of whom exemplify the truth at the heart of the dance. But they are not really the children this is all about, they are really the adults – this generation, the Children of Israel, who will not see perhaps because they are so caught up in their righteousness and sense of self importance what the Kingdom’s message is proclaiming.

But there are other children referred to in this story this morning. Not children actually, but infants – very little ones, about them Jesus says:

I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. 

The market place children are too full of care, they are the wise and prudent. It’s the babes that all truth is being revealed to. They who should not understand are being offered it all on a plate, indeed their burdens are in the process of being lifted.

It’s no accident that in the first lesson that the Messiah appears as a humble man, on an equally humble beast of burden. This sets the tone for what the Lord’s coming kingdom will be characterised by, and made evident, as Jesus himself enters Jerusalem in like manner in the time ahead. In the meanwhile Jesus says to the infants:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

The irony here of course is not just about the children not being children but grown ups, but what Jesus is offering rest, and an easy burden, is actually rather more than that. His light burden which he offers his infants, is his cross, he’ll tell us this very directly in chapter 16 “if any will come after me let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

But because Jesus takes this freely, willingly and lightly himself, so he is strengthening our arms and our shoulders, and most importantly our resolve so that we might

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.