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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity VI, 19 July 2020, William Gulliford

Trinity VI 19 July 2020 Year A Proper 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fifth Circle – is reserved for the wrathful.

In the sixth circle we find heretics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity I, 14 June 2020, Ros Miskin, Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday after Ascension, Ros Miskin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mine eyes have seen the glory

of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage

where the grapes of wrath are stored

He has loosed the fateful lightning

of his terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on’.

 

Then the chorus continues with:

‘Glory, glory, Halleluja!’

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

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

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

 

Mothering Sunday, 22 March 2020, Ros Miskin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Transfiguration

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

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

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

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

Augustine and Monica

Frances and Clare

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

And here two greatest of all Peter and Mark.

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

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

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

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

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

Germany was the place the Scientific approach really took off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Septuagesima, 9 February – William Gulliford

The Sunday School at this moment is in the crypt learning how to pronounce the word Septuagesima so they are word perfect by the time they come back again. Let us wish them all very good luck with that. Before getting the weekly email that gets sent to the families about what is happening in Sunday School, I had not really given a thought to this. But why not let us start with today’s strange nomenclature and work from there to today’s Gospel from the early part of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s ringing call “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your father, which is in heaven.”

Last Sunday we had the Candlemas Procession. This was joyful keeping of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The procession, all candlelit, with no electric light, echoes Simeon’s prophetic words that, first, Jesus is The Light to lighten the Gentiles; and he becomes this because, he addresses Mary: A sword shall pierce your own soul also. Jesus’s death brings about his illuminating glory. We turn from Christmas and all its attendant celestial light and joy now towards Easter. Septuagesima is not exactly, but very nearly, 70 days before the solemn events we shall keep in Holy Week. Jesus’s glorification. We turn from white vestments to violet ones. It is not Lent yet, but the Old Testament reading is clear about the nature of fasting.

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him.

And the Gospel is Matthew’s particular take on what Simeon had said.

A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

Jesus is the light to lighten the nations, just as Jerusalem is City set on a hill that cannot be hid. He in turn will be set high on a hill outside that city, and his selfless sacrifice on the Cross will be the means of the light shining in the darkness.

Septuagesima is our turning point then to the very heart of our faith.

I want to ponder something of the parish’s history, from what we can reconstruct and explore how it has sought to Let our light so shine before the world that they might see the good works and give glory to our heavenly father.

There’s something of a problem and that is that part of the history has got a bit lost, let me do my best to reconstruct some of it. I will need to borrow from the annals and muniment room of our neighbour St Mary’s, and the library of Cecil Sharp House. Let’s start at the turn of the 20th c. In 1901 the Revd Percy Dearmer was inducted as the third vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, and in 1904, his friend, the Revd Maurice Bell, was inducted as the third Vicar of this parish. We shall need some visual aids: the biography of Percy Dearmer, by his widow Nan; a photograph of Bell, the English Hymnal; a vestment. I shall try to use each of these to explain something of our history.

Dearmer is almost regarded as a saint of the Church of England. What he did whilst at Primrose Hill between 1901-1915, with his friend and collaborator Maurice Bell 1094-1912 was perhaps the consolidation of the quiet revolution which took place throughout the 19thc. You may remember that in the Autumn I told the story of John Henry Newman, who was the first of the Tractarians. He left for Rome in 1845, but for those that did not, the Church of England changed almost without recognition in terms of its aesthetics. The emerging Neo-Gothic architecture of the early part of the 19th, which was Romantic really, rather than scholarly, became increasingly studious. Later 19th c architects, such as Street, and Bodley created spaces for ornate ritual which the preaching boxes of the 18th c had never envisaged. The bold pioneers who succeeded the Tractarians got themselves into huge trouble as they ornamented the liturgy attenuating Papistical practices within the framework of the Prayer Book. Outside several of the Anglo-Catholic shrines there were riots, protesting against the popish goings on, stoked up by extreme Protestants. Some clergy got arrested. One Bishop went to prison for mixing water and wine at the Eucharist! One of the related cases got as far as the judicial committee of the Privy Council! It all became quite a to-do! Percy Dearmer’s ministry was beginning when much of this had died down, but the accommodations reached were compromises brought about by exhaustion more than anything else. The Church of England was quite divided, and liturgically things were a hotch-potch. Dearmer was the son of an artist. Dearmer himself at studied at Oxford with a view to becoming an architect. Like his father he was gifted artistically. He had been greatly influenced by the writing of Ruskin, and the work of William Morris. Behind the careful work of both was a strong underlay of Liberal Socialism, which saw good architecture and design as one of the key instruments of social justice and change.

Once acquainted with this vision, Dearmer never wavered from a deeply held Christian Socialism, strongly advocated during his time in Oxford by Charles Gore, one of the founders of the Mirfield Community. What developed in his thinking at this time, alongside Conrad Noel (later to be Vicar of Thaxted), and our own Maurice Bell, of whom we hear frustratingly all too little in this period, is the need for a clear expression of Anglican worship, heavily reliant on the pre-Reformation sources, and as clearly distinct from contemporary Roman (Tridentine) practice as possible. He had visited Italy in the 1890s and while loving some of the architecture he had an almost immediately violent allergic attack to the sloppy baroque services he encountered. He developed a vision of an outward form of liturgical style which worked within the framework of the English Gothic. It is not surprising that the young Ninian Comper was immediately drawn to the aesthetic Dearmer was calling for. Dearmer’s first great work published in 1899 just before he arrived in Primrose Hill, helped to standardise the so called English Use. The Warham Guild became the workshop from 1912 producing the fabrics and ornaments the Use required. Reading the Parson’s Handbook, he is exacting on the quality, substance and style of vestments. Below, one of our visual aids, we have the St Mary’s requiem dalmatic. We borrow them for services here to go with our own requiem chasuble. There are two things to note. It is well over 100 years and in mint condition – testimony to the quality of the materials used and the manufacture about which he was a stickler. The damask is exquisite. But can you guess its material. It is wool, the outer black and the beautiful lining. It evokes the time when East Anglia became rich beyond imagining in the 14th c because of the quality of English wool and weaving. And it underlines that for certain occasions and seasons, it is wool or linen rather than silk that should be used. This hierarchy of material use was integral to the aesthetic that undergirded his practice.

The last of our visual aids is the English Hymnal. As the liturgy settled down in late 19th c hymnody had become increasingly a part of services. Unknown in the 18th c when metrical psalms were the limit of innovation, the result of the Evangelical revival had been the popularisation of hymn singing. Dearmer saw the great value of hymns as devotional aids and the means of as it were audience participation, and in collaboration with Vaughan Williams, and our own Maurice Bell, the hymnal came to be. Hymns Ancient and Modern had cornered the market since 1860. And there were some most scholarly and wonderful additions to the canon of hymnody as a result of that work. Dearmer, Bell and Vaughan Williams and others wanted to update, deepen, and renew the repertoire. As with Dearmer’s commitment to good liturgy being undergirded by the best materials in vesture, so his attitude to music was that the best congregational singing should be supported by the very best in musical arrangement. Our musical colleagues are better placed to judge than me on this, but the melodies for new hymns derived from folk songs which Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams had been notating, and the stirring arrangements of these and new works added verve, spice, sentiment, beauty to the offering.

The city set on a hill, the candle set on the candlestick, the flavoursome salt which changes everything, all these images call the Church to be more vibrantly all that it is called to be on this Septuagesima and always.

The word liturgy means work, or even public work. It comes from the same Greek word for road-works, what the city does to make the city (on a hill or otherwise), what it should be.

May our light so shine before the world, that it may see our good works and with us glorify our Father, that is in heaven.

Candlemas

 

As we come together today to celebrate Candlemas, I have chosen for my sermon the theme of light and darkness.

Looking at today’s Gospel, let me begin with the words of Simeon, who has been guided by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple to see Jesus. The heart of the Temple cult was service to God.  It was the place where the Law, the prophetic spirit and the Temple cult all came together to set the scene for the greatness of Jesus.  Simeon arrives at the Temple and gives his great hymn of praise to God, known in Christian worship as the Nunc Dimitis. Praise, because Simeon knows he has seen ‘the Lord’s Messiah’ who will be the Saviour of mankind.  Simeon describes Jesus the Saviour as ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’.  This light will give glory to the people of Israel.

This glory will not, though, fully manifest itself until there is a complete realisation of the Kingdom of God in the time to come.  Jesus, as the light, is the dawn of salvation yet to be completed.  The dawn is the fading away of the darkness of the night as a new day emerges that will culminate in the radiance of the new heaven and the new earth.  When this time comes, it will be the end of a universe locked into a cycle of endless repetition as history will be resolved and God will banish evil and establish salvation, peace and righteousness.  Simeon warns that it will not be a trouble-free journey from dawn to glory when he prophesies Jesus’s troubled manhood and his mother’s heartbreak, but he knows that he can die in peace because of the promise of salvation in the child Jesus.

The presentation of Jesus in the Temple does not feature in the other Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John but the light does.  In the opening chapter of John, Jesus ‘was the life that is the light of all people’.  John writes that ‘ the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’.  He goes on to say that John the Baptist came to testify to the light – ‘the true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’.  In chapter 8, Jesus says: ‘I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples that the lamp must not be put under a bed but on the lamp stand.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: ’you are the light of the world’.  So they must let their light shine before others so they may see their good works and give glory to God.

Light, then, gets a very good press in the Bible but not the dark.  Darkness is perceived to be that which needs to be overcome so that the light of salvation can shine on.  If we go right back to the opening chapter of Genesis and the Creation narrative we read that ‘darkness covered the face of the deep’ until God said ‘let there be light’.  God ‘saw the light was good’ and God ‘separated the light from the darkness’.  While in a state of darkness, the earth was just a ‘formless void’.  In the New Testament we learn that at the time of the Crucifixion ‘darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon’.

We could, then, produce a simple statement having read the Bible that : ‘light is good, dark is bad’. My inclination was to do so until I read recently a book by my former tutor in Pastoral Ministry, Christopher Chapman.  The book, entitled ‘Seeing in the dark’ gives a pastoral perspective on suffering in the Christian tradition.  In this book, Christopher puts the case for darkness as not always being negative and destructive but rather positive and spiritually inspiring.  He writes that there is a place for darkness.  When you wonder at the night sky it is good to feel small as you look up at it.  He goes on to write about John of the Cross , imprisoned in the sixteenth century for attempting to restore the Carmelite Order, being the Roman Catholic religious order founded in the twelfth century.  It was when John was incarcerated in what he described as ‘the tomb of dark death’ that he realised he was not alone.  He began to sense the Presence of Christ. It was then that he found the gift of poetry.  When the poetry began to flow from him ‘the tomb of dark death’ became a place of ‘spiritual resurrection’.  Sensing the ‘mysterious company of the Lord’ in the isolation of the night, John writes:

‘The tranquil night,

at the time of the rising dawn,

silent music,

sounding solitude

the supper that refreshes, and deepens love’.

Christopher writes that in the darkness we lose our sense of security.  We are no longer in control.  Yet, he argues, if we were always to be in daylight there might be something restrictive about it.  It could keep us in a state of anxiety and deny us rest.  He looks at the life of the ‘anchoress’ Julian of Norwich who, in the fourteenth century, lived a life of solitary prayer in a hermitage.  Julian understood that in Christ’s Passion God shares our deepest darkness and pain. This prompts me to look again at the New Testament account of the darkness that fell during the Crucifixion.  Contemplating Julian’s understanding of darkness, I perceive it now to be a time in which God stands with us in our darkest hours.  I have two further thoughts here.  One is words of the Reformer Martin Luther who wrote that faith is ‘a leap in the dark’.  I take this to mean a letting go of control to show trust in God.  The other is that the Nunc Dimitis is a traditional Gospel canticle of night prayer not prayer in daylight.

What we might say, then, is that darkness in the Bible is a temporary and not wholly negative feature in the Bible story.  From Genesis onwards it occurs in pivotal moments and is not always expressed  in flattering terms; it is associated with the earth as a formless void and the death of Christ but it is not permanent and we may expect, as Christopher Chapman writes, ‘joy and Presence’.  Christopher finds this in a poem by the seventeenth century priest George Herbert who wrote:

‘And now in age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write;

I once more smell the dew and rain,

And relish versing: O my only light

It cannot be

That I am he

On whom thy tempests fell at night’.

This is the poetry of hope; the Christian hope of renewal for us when the tempest has calmed and we can then relish nature in the light.

In today’s Gospel reading, Simeon’s hope of seeing the Lord’s Messiah was realised and it is his great moment in the Temple that we celebrate here today with our candles lit and blessed.  Candles that can be lit again year after year in the continuing affirmation that when Jesus was born this was the dawn of our salvation.

 

 

AMEN

Rejection of the cornerstone, 22 December, Ros Miskin, Reader

‘Be careful what you throw away’ my grandmother used to say, ‘you never know when you might need it’.  This accords well with the saying: ‘don’t buy new when old will do’.  It is fun and refreshing to buy new things but to my mind there is a gentle warning here to be careful when we contemplate discarding that which might be of great value.

Keeping this caution in mind, in today’s Gospel reading Joseph, albeit with honourable intention, is minded to dismiss Mary quietly to save her from public disgrace as she is with child while still engaged to him.  This is not discarding but it is close to being so in its intention to put away and conceal that which  emerges in the Gospel narrative as coming into being for the salvation of mankind.

Fortunately, as Matthew goes on to write, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that Mary will bear a son, to be named Jesus, who will ‘save his people from their sins’. This birth, we are told, will be the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy ‘that a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us’.  When Joseph wakes up he obeys the angelic command by taking Mary as his wife with ‘no marital relations until she bore a son and he was named Jesus’.

Unfortunately, in spite of this obedience to the Divine will, we know from Matthew’s Gospel and the remaining Gospel narratives of Mark, Luke and John that, following the birth of Jesus, the initial attempt to conceal him before birth is succeeded by attempts to discard him made by those who fear him.  Thus in Matthew’s Gospel King Herod sends out the three wise men to search for him but once more an angel intervenes by instructing Joseph in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety.  Then all four Gospel writers inform us that as the adult Jesus undertakes a healing and teaching ministry, the Pharisees perceive him as a growing threat to the Jewish law, trying to foot fault him in what was and was not permitted on the Sabbath. In the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew and Luke when Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth he is rejected by those suspicious of his wisdom as the son of a carpenter.  The testing and accusations by the Pharisees continue, Judas betrays Jesus, and all culminating in the ultimate rejection of the Crucifixion.  The Divine will prevails though with the Resurrection.

God, then, has the last word but there is mourning for the rejection of Jesus which we can find in Acts in the words of Peter as prisoner in Jerusalem when he addresses the rulers, elders and scribes under Annas the High Priest.  He says that Jesus, who was crucified whom God raised from the dead is ‘the stone that was rejected by you the builders; it has become the cornerstone’.

To return today’s Gospel reading we can be fair to Joseph by saying that he was attempting to be obedient to the law as given in the Old Testament but tempering it with compassion.  The Old Testament ruling of Deuteronomy was, after all, stern.  If a woman to be married was not found to be a virgin she was stoned to death.  Matthew’s relationship the Old Testament is complex here.  His aim is to demonstrate by reference to the Old Testament how truly and unexpectedly the birth of Jesus has fulfilled the deepest hopes and aspirations of the Law and the prophets yet in order to do this it requires an overturning of the Deuteronomistic law in the compassion of Joseph and in the reference to the Old Testament prophecy that a boy will be born and named ‘Emmanuel’.  This unique conception and birth must not be hidden away from mankind and so the stern law must be overruled in favour of the birth. If Matthew was alive today I am sure he would welcome the wonderful statements by Tom Wright in his book ‘Simply Christian’. They read as follows: ‘With Jesus, God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once for all.  A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut’.

Matthew wanted to stress the divine nature of Jesus as it was a major issue for the Matthean community, crucial in separating the early Christian community from their Jewish neighbours. This Christian community was part of a larger Jewish community.  To achieve this he combines traditional material with imaginative creativity.  In his book ‘Discovering Matthew’ Ian Boxall describes this as ‘creative historiography’.  Here, the Old Testament is used to illuminate historical happenings.  In this process we see the creative reinterpretation of Mark’s rather blunt narrative.  For example, the ‘young man’ at Jesus’ tomb in Mark’s Gospel becomes ‘the radiant angel’ in Matthew.

Angels are key players in Matthew’s creative purpose.  They are the divine mediators between heaven and earth.  Following the appearance of an angel to Joseph in his dream there are further angelic appearances in the Gospel.  In chapter 4, they are referred to by the Devil as bearing up Jesus so that he will not dash his foot against a stone.  In chapter 26, Jesus tells his enemies that if he were to call upon his Father to rescue him ‘he would at once send him more than twelve legions of angels’.  In all this we find the ‘shekinah’ meaning the glory of God as a shimmering luminosity hovering over individuals and groups.

Angels have many functions in the Bible.  These are distinct from the word ‘Angel’ which simply means messenger.  They have an unusual authority over the created order, including a responsibility for children.  In Matthew’s parable of the Lost Sheep we learn from Jesus that we must not despise children as in heaven their angels continually see the face of their Father in heaven.  Angels protect, guide and carry out tasks on behalf of God.  There is a hierarchy with Michael as Prince and Archangel with special authority and angels can appear in numbers and power in angelic worship.  In Isaiah they surround the Lord sitting on the throne calling to one another:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’.

In art, angels are depicted in human shape with extraordinary beauty.  Such depictions take many forms.  In the nineteenth century painting by Gustave Doré, Jacob wrestles with the angel.  In Ludovico Carracci’s painting of the early seventeenth century, angels are depicted dining with Abraham.  Then there is the gentle ‘Tobias and the angel’ by the fifteenth century artist Filippino Lippi and Carl Bloch’s nineteenth century angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.  On the negative side of this angelic coin stands the Devil as the chief rebellious angel.  Then there is the denial by scientists of their existence because they cannot fit into a world explicable by causes open to scientific examination.  Let us, though, at this time when Christmas is nearly upon us, hold on to the shekinah being the glory of God.

Matthew also uses dreams for his creative purpose.  As a Jewish Christian he may well have been influenced by the ancient Hebrew connection of dreams with religion. This connection is shared by Christians as the Old Testament includes frequent stories of dreams with divine inspiration, one such being Jacob’s ladder.

Let us then not discard Matthew’s dreams and angels as they affirm what we are on the brink of celebrating which is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind.

The Prophets: Truth Tellers – December 8th 2019

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

Readings: Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12

On this Second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate the prophets of God. These are the holy men and women who, yes, predict the future, but more importantly and more powerfully, the prophets are those who speak the truth.

Truth to those in power. Exactly as John the Baptist cries to the religious authorities, “Repent!” and cease manipulating others.

They speak Truth about who God is, his character and loving nature. And they point out God’s action in the world.

Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today comes from the great prophet Isaiah. As a bit of an aside, the book Isaiah is better thought-of not as one book written by one prophet, but one book with two Epilogues – additions written by two subsequent prophetic writers who follow the original Isaiah. Our passage from chapter 11 comes from that first Isaiah, writing in the mid-8th Century BC. A solid 700 years before Jesus was born.

In this prophetic writing Isaiah gives us an unrestrainedly joyful image of an exalted figure who will wield power well,

 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

This leader, this Lord, this Anointed One, will rule with justice, not cruelty: Isaiah says,

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;”

Here Isaiah reveals the truth of God’s inner character. The ‘Spirit of the Lord’ which rests on the Root of Jesse will care for the poor and the meek of the earth. This is the God we believe in and trust; the God we celebrate coming in the person of Jesus Christ.

When we look around us, we of course see that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God, is not yet fully realised in the here and now. Thus one of our callings as Christians is to take up the call of Isaiah and John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’ and work with all peoples towards a more just and more caring society. It’s an exciting calling.

So how do we get there? With a General Election upon us this week, I’m sure you foresaw the future that I might have a thought or two to share as we consider our voting.

If there was one suggestion I could offer, it would be this: “Trust those who tell the truth”.

Of all the casualties of the pre-election debates, it is the breaking of the 8th Commandment which concerns me most. After all, if we cannot base our voting on facts, we cannot make a meaningful choice. I am not advocating for one particular party, but rather would rule out the politicians or parties who are happy to make false claims, deny they said things they said, or simply seek to manipulate rather than persuade. I would suggest these have not the character for good leadership.

It is a challenge for all parties and all governments to be honest and transparent, especially when they want to be popular. It’s a challenge for all of us as individuals too as sometimes being honest can be costly or risks others rejecting us for who we are.

Truth though can be hard to pin down. Two weeks ago here at St Mark’s we hosted a panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence and Ethics. It drew out some fascinating discussion and one of the topics under the microscope was the question Pontius Pilate once asked Jesus, “What is Truth?”

In a world where AI can be used to empower political manipulators such as Cambridge Anaylictica; and Facebook controlling what we think we see on social media, and the blossoming of alt-truth and fake news, we might be tempted to declare that we live in a post-truth society and the only truth is the one we create for ourselves.

However, as someone who gets really excited about the potential good of new technology and AI, I recognise that much of what appears new, is simply a new improvisation on what came before. For example, in the history of politics there has always been propaganda, lies and manipulation, character assassinations and the such.

It is into the same kind of political world we face, that Isaiah and Amos, and Jeremiah and Micah, John the Baptizer and Jesus could speak truthfully of God and the kind of persons we are to be and the kind of society we are to seek after.

In seeking truth, the recent joint pastoral letter from Archbishops York and Canterbury: speaks powerfully about our calling this Election. They wrote,

 “As followers of Jesus Christ each of us is called to honour the gift of truth, both to speak it and to seek it. We all have a responsibility to speak accurately, to challenge falsehoods when we hear them, and to be careful to separate facts from opinion”

This week, may we prayerfully reflect on who to vote for, and re-check the facts. We cannot cynically say it doesn’t matter, they are all as bad as each other; or, what difference can one vote make?  – let us avoid “the valley of despair” and find our way up the mountain of hope.

It is the role of the Prophets, the Canon of Scripture and our Tradition to recall our shared values and keep us prizing the truth above the lies we are told. We cannot “fact check” ourselves. Instead these ancient guides help us discern together the direction we should go.

And once the dust has settled after the Election, let us continue to serve our common life together by prizing the truth and celebrating those who speak it.

The growth of Artificial Intelligence, whilst helping sift false information and potentially aid us in understanding the world, will only take us so far. Wisdom and justice are not to be found in a technological Messiah, any more than a nationalistic one.

BUT we do have hope. We Christians aren’t dreamers. Nor are the prophets idealists: They are realists. They describe the vision God has for his people, which we believe in Jesus Christ has already started to become a reality. What’s more, the reality of God’s loving kingdom cannot be stopped or overtaken by another vision of the future. It will bless everything: this planet and all nations.  The God of the poor and marginal, his redeemed people and His Messiah will be united, completed[1]. This is Christ’s return, Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.

And then?

“the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

Amen.

[1] 1 Cor 15

The Persecuted Church: 17th November 2019

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

Readings: Malachi 4: 1-2a; Luke 21: 5-19.

Last week, on Remembrance Sunday, I spoke of the Christian calling to witness to the Cross of Jesus Christ: In the face of violence and war, we see in Christ a better way. No longer “an eye for an eye”, but the Cross of Nails. The place where violence and destruction is met with the costly words, “Father Forgive”, and fought with the peaceful weapons of love.

This morning, as we reflect on today’s Gospel where Jesus predicts that his disciples would face persecution and, like him, be betrayed and even face death; I want to focus on the persecuted Church of today and their witness to the Cross of Christ.

A few years ago, I had a phone call from one of my brothers. He said, “Matt, have you heard of Open Doors?” I said I hadn’t, “They work across the world supporting the persecuted church; I’m going to go overseas and help them for a week”. “Where are you going?” I asked, “Ah, well, I can’t tell you that.” “OK. So what are you going to be doing?”. “Ah, well, I can’t tell you that either.”

My brother, quite wisely, had been told to keep all his arrangements secret, in order to keep those he was meeting safe. I cannot tell you any more of his story, so instead I want to share some things I learnt from a 2019 report from Open Doors on the persecuted church. The organization’s work has been used to inform recent MP cross party debates and you might remember seeing the Bishop of Truro in the news, in between the ubiquitous Brexit reporting.

If I’m honest I struggle to get my head around the scale of Christian persecution worldwide. Looking at last year alone, 2018, in Nigeria over 3,700 Christians were killed for their faith in Jesus. In India, much has changed over the last 5 years and is now one of the top 10 countries of Christian persecution. Direct violent attacks have increased, false accusations and arrest of Church leaders have multiplied and the rights of Christians under the constitution are not being upheld.

Worldwide, 1 in 9 Christians are persecuted for their faith. When gather in St Mark’s, I’m sometimes struck by how easy it is to assemble together and freely pray and worship our God. This basic human right is denied to so many. Blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan create a culture of fear for so many religious peoples who face possible arrest and even death.

And this is not just a problem for Christians of course. One million Uighur Muslims are being detained in the western Xinjiang region of China for ‘re-education’.  Members of the Falun Gong spirituality are regularly ‘disappeared’. The lack of rights given to the Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar.

Returning to our Gospel passage, Jesus predicts one of the most heart-breaking of religious attacks in antiquity– the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The very centre of the Jewish faith and culture, desecrated by the Roman Occupiers in 70AD.

I know many of us have travelled the world and have seen such places of historical religious persecution, and have witnessed or experienced contemporary religious discrimination ourselves. So Jesus’ words in the light of the persecuted church opened up something new to me.

Whereas I hear the words threatening a coming persecution, and I worry, what horrors might be in store? But for a Christian faced with hiding from Boko-Haram in Northern Nigeria, having witnessing their Christian brothers and sisters taken away and killed for their faith, this passage speaks not of more suffering to be feared but rather, comfort:

“when ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified

And when faced with unjust state courts and mob violence, Jesus says

“I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist”

And when Jesus names the reality “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.” He goes on to say, “But there shall not an hair of your head perish.  In your patience possess ye your souls”

What incredible words of hope and comfort. We know of course that many Christians around the world, from Eritrea to Palestine, do perish. God does not save their bodies from death.

However, just as we see Jesus Christ, hanging from the Cross, we know that death is not the end for those who love God. Resurrection is promised. What’s more, God cannot forget us. He doesn’t know how. Whatever suffering or difficulties we find ourselves, God is there.

Sometimes stories of hope from the persecuted church can be inspiring, as churches refuse to return violence with violence and instead witness to the Cross of Christ. I will never forget the suicide bomb attack on Palm Sunday in 2017 in Egypt. I remember celebrating the Eucharist in quiet Lincolnshire the following week with the sun shining down on a very English country landscape and struggling to imagine their situation. On Egyptian TV, shortly afterwards, Samira Fahmi, whose husband was killed in those attacks said this:

“Believe me I am not angry.”

“I ask the Lord to forgive them and let them try to think.

“If they think, they will know that we didn’t do anything wrong to them.

“May God forgive you and we also forgive you. Believe me, I forgive you.”

Such an incredible witness of faith. I think I would be angry, but I hope I might speak of forgiveness as she did. And so we must ask ourselves, as our fellow Christian brothers and sisters face injustice for being disciples of Jesus Christ, what is our response to be?

I think for each of us it will be different. For my brother, since his first trip he has been out again twice with Open Doors. Others lobby their MPs. Others spend time supporting refugees in the UK. Others pray. But the image which comes to mind in all this is of Mary and John at the foot of the Cross. ‘Being with’ those who suffer. ‘Being with’ those who hang on the Cross of today’s injustice and persecution.

And as we stand there, witnessing to the Cross, we remember that they, and we – in our own sufferings – will one day be resurrected. In the words of Malachi the prophet, “unto you that fear My Name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.”

In all circumstances, what a hope we have in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Remembrance Sunday Sermon 2019

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

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

In the UK today, we live in a political culture of division and blame. It will not have escaped any of us that the language used in parliament over the last couple of months has been lamentable; stoking the fires of division. The Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly spoken out about this, and calls for action to heal divisions not just in parliament but “at almost every level of society”.

And indeed, as we reflect on our society, we see a mirror of the Westminster tension: Between pro-Brexit and Remainers. Rural and City. Between the radical alt-right, and the often judgemental extreme left.

And amongst all these political forces at play, it’s easy for us to become cynical, or simply find saturation. Yet our culture raises a key question of faith which must be addressed.

What is our role as Christian people amidst the divisions and tense uncertainty? Given our claim of the arrival of the world’s savior in Jesus Christ and his offer of salvation, I wish I could say our role is to make sure history rolls out properly. Surely after all, with God’s guidance, the world is heading towards progress, peace and wellbeing.

The events of the first and the second world wars, and the incomparable events of the Holocaust have truly exorcised the notion that the coming of Christ means the days of human cruelty and violence are over.

Furthermore, we feel powerless, as one armed conflict after another hits our TV screens. These are often fought as proxy wars, as Western nations and the rest of the world fight across the lands of the even less fortunate.

And so we must ask: In the face of our own divided nation and the frequently scorched and violent world, what is the calling of Christian people today?

I believe our calling is one of witness.

To witness to the Cross of Christ.

This is the site where fear and division took an innocent man’s life and God’s light became bloodied and raw death.

The site where humanity crucified God, and where God responded not with revenge, but with the costly words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

On the night of the 14th of November, 1940 Coventry and its Cathedral endured a relentless bombing campaign. Overnight, the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ offensive annihilated much of central Coventry. Its Cathedral in ruins, only the outer shell of the walls and the tower remained standing.  In the midst of the rubble, a priest took three large roofing nails forged in the Middle Ages and bound them with wire, making a Cross. In the terrible aftermath that followed, Provost Howard wrote ” Father Forgive” on the smoke-blackened wall of the sanctuary.

Provost Howard made a commitment not to seek revenge, but to strive for forgiveness and reconciliation with those responsible. During the BBC radio broadcast from the Cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940 he declared that when the war was over we should work with those who had been enemies ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.’

The Cross of Nails quickly became a potent sign of friendship and hope in the post war years, especially in new relationships between Coventry and the cities of Dresden and Berlin.

This story has always moved me, speaking of the witness to the Cross of Christ where profound destruction and violence is met with even more powerful compassion and forgiveness.

Along with much of London, our church of St Mark’s was also bombed during the second world war and left as a ragged shell. It was rebuilt and resurrected, not as an attempt to rewind the clock and forget the reality of war, but rebuilt to remind us of God’s enduring love and faithfulness.

Memory is vital when it comes to armed conflict. On Remembrance Sunday we are rightly reminded to “Never Forget”. An instruction all the more important as the last veterans of the Second World War pass away. We must not forget the horror of war, lest we forget the profound stain war makes on the national psyche and human soul.

On a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum, my walk through the exhibitions started to feel less like education and more like pilgrimage. The realities of armed conflict started to hit me. A quotation from Captain Theodore Wilson from the first world war was written across the wall,

“Whatever war journalists may say, or poets either, blood and entrails and spilled brains are obscene. War is about the most unclean thing on earth.”

I quote these words not to shock, but to counteract the glorification of war which tempts us to believe violence can be the righteous path to resolve tensions.

I was reminded recently of this temptation to glorify violence in an advert for a computer game called “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare”. In this game, the hero kills their way to victory. I fear for our young people to whom it is marketed. As if warfare can be entertainment, or that there are any victors in war.

As we look to the Cross of Christ, we see God’s Son, with the power to call down legions of angels able to make war, refuse to retaliate. Jesus allowed himself to be led to his death. In this he found a way to fight against evil while also living out his commandments to “love your enemy” and “do good to those who hate you”. Such love is not weak, nor without judgement. The Cross speaks of power of a subtle kind.

In our communities in London and other UK cities, we have seen some young people putting their faith in the power of knives and their trust in the balance of violent retribution.

The power of the Cross, then, in the face of such forces becomes the power of seeking peace without recourse to further violence. It means absorbing horrendous pain and disorientating loss, and harnessing it so we pursue understanding and seek reconciliation.

The physical cross made of nails of Coventry Cathedral speaks of pain and destruction. But discovering a shared pain with those once called ‘enemies’ became a source of common experience which led to reconciliation.

Seeking understanding and dialogue is vitally important, especially as we reflect on today’s political world. I’d like to end with some hard-lived words from Henry Allingham, one of the last British veterans of the First World War who died in 2009. Having turned 100 Mr Allingham said this:

“War’s stupid. Nobody wins. You might as well talk first, you have to talk last anyway”

May we honour the brave war dead by a united witness to overcoming division and working towards dialogue and understanding. To work at peace, in our everyday conversations and interactions, and never sit idle.

May our talk be wise, and be centered on the Cross, where love and pain and suffering and reconciliation and forgiveness meet.

For the sake of this generation and the next. Amen

Nature in the Bible and the Saving of the Lost Sheep 3 November 2019 Ros Miskin

Nature in the Bible and the Saving of the Lost Sheep

3 November 2019

Readings: 2 Thessalonians ch.1, Luke 19 1-10

Ros Miskin, Reader

Recently I watched a television programme about children who were evacuated from town to countryside during the second War.  Some of them were found places at a school run by the Quakers called the Yelland School.  Observing the expressions of  the pupils happily engaged in a variety of activities in the school grounds, I felt glad that they were being well looked after having experienced the upheaval of evacuation.  I also noted though that there was one pupil, a Jewish boy, who I heard had experienced a rougher ride than the other pupils.  In his early days at the school, whilst his fellow pupils played happily on the ground, he sat up in a tree.  It was not certain why he did this but a possible explanation was that he needed to distance himself from the others to reflect on what had happened to him and come to terms with it in order to adjust to his new circumstances.  This must have worked as I then heard that he fitted in well at the school thereafter.

So the boy climbed a tree with a purpose.  The tree provided a setting for that purpose, which was to be healed.

In today’s Gospel reading we learn that Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, also climbed up a tree, in this instance to see Jesus, as with his short stature he was unable to see him at ground level.  Here a tree features once more in helping to resolve a dilemma.

This led me to consider what trees mean in the context of the Bible and what they mean to us today.  We could say that Zacchaeus made a good choice of tree as he climbed up a sycamore tree which symbolizes strength, protection, eternity and divinity.  Yet in spite of this divinity Jesus calls upon Zacchaeus to ‘hurry and come down’ for, he says, ‘I must stay at your house today’.  The tree has facilitated Zacchaeus being able to see Jesus but for him to receive salvation he must come down and welcome Jesus as a guest in his house.  Salvation is to be found at ground level.  Similarly, for the boy at Yelland school, he cannot stay in the tree forever but must descend in order to engage fully with those around him.

So a tree, from the distant and not-so-distant, past has been beneficial but in the course of our earthly life it appears that this is not the whole story.  That is to say that we cannot count on permanently inhabiting a tree, as the animal kingdom may, in order to resolve our earthly concerns.  To do this we have to engage fruitfully at ground level.

If, though, we go one step beyond consideration of our earthly existence into the bigger picture that the Bible story gives us, we can see that trees are very significant in our journey towards the Kingdom of God.

Of ultimate significance is the Tree of Life that first appears in Genesis in the Garden of Eden.  To eat the fruit of that Tree would mean that Adam and Eve would know good and evil and ‘be like God’.  Unfortunately, lured by the serpent, they disobey God’s commandment not to eat the fruit of that tree and are punished by the Fall from Paradise. If we look to the end of the Bible story at Revelation we read that God has not denied us the Tree of Life for eternity.  In Revelation, the Tree is described in chapter 22 as being ‘on either side of the river of the water of life with twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the Tree are for the healing of the nations’.

I interpret this to mean that in spite of the Fall of Adam and Eve the whole Bible narrative is one whereby we are ultimately offered the Tree of Life, not in our earthly existence but in the heavenly realm.  In the meantime we can turn to the trees for solace and to admire the beauty of nature, climbing them if needs be to get a better view or simply to explore as children do.  Trees also play a vital part in the preservation of our climate.  One instance of this is the current battle to save the Amazon rainforest.

Throughout the Bible story wood from the trees has represented both rescue, as in the Cyprus wood of Noah’s Ark, and worship as in the Acacia wood for the Altar of Burnt-Offering and the Ark of the Covenant as given in the Old Testament.  Today in St Mark’s, we can see that our beautiful new glass door that we have blessed this morning is framed by lovely wood.  Great skill and care is taken to produce items that enhance worship, not to mention the embroidery skill that has produced the magnificent red cope that we have also blessed today.

Staying with my theme of trees in the Bible, it is not all plain sailing.  In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus curses the fig tree that has no food for him when he is hungry.  In Psalm 29 in a great storm ‘the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars’ and ‘causes the oaks to whirl and strips the forest bare’.  I believe that the pinnacle of this turbulent relationship to trees in the Bible is the death of Christ on the wooden Cross.  Only by his being nailed to the wood can we have the ultimate promise of the Tree of Life.

Returning to today’s Gospel reading we were given the connection between the ground and salvation.  Zacchaeus is called upon to come down from the tree to be saved and the Cross is fixed to the ground for mankind to be saved.  It is as though God does not want us to fly high to seek to be with him but rather for us to be grounded and communicate with him from that position in our daily lives. Psalm 23 comes to mind here where it is written: ‘he makes me lie down in green pastures’.  There are of course special instances in the Bible when key figures are required to make an upward journey for divine purpose. Moses is summoned by God to go up to Mount Sinai to present himself to God and in Matthew chapter 17 Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on a high mountain and is transfigured before them. Then there is the ultimate Ascension of Jesus to heaven.  For the most part, though, mankind is left in the Bible story to wrestle with relationships, war and justice at ground level.

What happens though when Zacchaeus does come down from his tree?  Jesus says he must stay in Zacchaeus’s house. This is not popular with the crowd.  As far as they are concerned Zacchaeus is a sinner, being a rich tax collector working for the Roman Empire. As such he is corrupt and not part of the Jewish community.  Zacchaeus defends himself by asserting that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and if he has defrauded anyone he will pay them back four times as much.  Here, Zacchaeus is attempting to save himself.  The response of Jesus is that salvation rests with him as the Son of Man who has come to ‘seek out and save the lost’.  He views Zacchaeus as lost as he is shunned by the crowd.  The saving of the lost is a major theme of the Bible.  A prime example can be found in Luke chapter 15 when we learn that the Pharisees and the Scribes are berating Jesus for conversing with tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus replies that these sinners are like lost sheep that must be rescued from the wilderness.  He adds that there will be ‘more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance’.

Zacchaeus is also saved because, Jesus says, he is a ‘Son of Abraham’ as the others are. He is the descendant of the common patriarch of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other religions.  Then there is his name, Zacchaeus, which means ‘pure’ .  As we are given in chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God’.

So Zacchaeus is saved and we too have the hope of salvation through that simple wooden Cross to which the body of Christ was nailed to free us all from the bondage of sin.

 

God and wealth

22 September 2019

Readings: Amos 8.4-7, 1 Timothy 2.1-7

by Ros Miskin, Reader

In the final sentence of today’s Gospel reading we are told clearly and simply:‘You cannot serve God and wealth’.  This sentence appears to conflict somewhat with the earlier narrative.  Here, the master commends his dishonest manager for acting shrewdly in currying favours with his master’s debtors by remitting some of their debts.  This has led some scholars to believe that the final passage of the Gospel, which condemns this shrewd behaviour, may have been added on to the earlier text to uphold the virtue of honesty so you may receive the true riches of the kingdom of heaven.  As J. C. Ryle, the Anglican theologian, wrote in 1859: ‘where there is no honesty, there is no grace’.  Or, you might accept the Roman Catholic view that the manager is repentant and so asks the debtors to pay what they owe the master but not him as well.  My view is that the manager is desperate to remain welcome in people’s homes and hopes that his swift action will ensure this welcome.

Whatever our response to the conflicting viewpoint in Luke’s text may be, we are left with the powerful final sentence that you cannot serve God and wealth.  That is to say that you cannot be devoted to God and to wealth – it is one or the other.

This prompts me to consider what might our attitude be towards wealth in the Christian life.  If we make the teachings of Jesus a starting point we can say that he does not call upon us to avoid the subject of money for the sake of worshipping God.  As he declares to the spies in chapter 20 of Luke’s Gospel they must pay tax owing to the Emperor as well as giving to God that which belongs to God.  We might, though, conclude from this that if we pay our dues this will demonstrate that we are not devoted to wealth.  How also may we avoid such devotion?  In chapter 18 of Luke’s Gospel we find an answer when Jesus  is confronted by the rich ruler who assures him that he has done all he can to keep the commandments of God in order to inherit eternal life.  Yet Jesus replies that there is still one thing lacking.  He must give up everything he owns and distribute the money to the poor.  This saddens the rich man greatly.

I am sure that most of us would find it very, very hard to give up all we have but we can at least do what we can with what we have to help the needy.  As the Jerome Bible Commentary expresses it: ‘the Disciples must convert mammon into healthy capital by sharing with the needy’. In doing this we can surely avoid devotion to wealth.  We can do so because money becomes the good servant rather than the bad master.  The table is turned and it is up to us to put what we have to good use for the benefit of others.  This way, as Martin Luther was later to express it, ‘we can avoid attachment to possessions which distracts our hearts from God’.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul advises them that there is no need to promote themselves through money and power as they have been made right with God through the Crucifixion.  No need for devotion to wealth here, then, nor when we consider, as Jesus asks us to do, the lilies of the field that do not toil nor spin to acquire their glory.  There is no need to worry as God provides for us.

It is this provision which I believe we need to appreciate to avoid a Puritanical worthiness in our attitude to wealth.  To steer clear of greed and to give what we have a missional purpose does not mean that we cannot enjoy what God has provided for us in abundance.  As Sean Doherty writes in his book ‘Living Witness’ God’s provision for us does continue, even though after the Fall work became a ‘burden for minimum return’. He writes that although there is an immense danger of money in Scripture, we only have to look at the first two chapters of Genesis to be assured of the goodness of the world and God as the abundant source of material gifts.  Also, let us not forget that Jesus himself enjoyed a good party! It is just that, as Sean reminds us, wealth is perilous if loved too much.

Nowhere is the sense of joy in this abundance more keenly felt, I believe, than in the Harvest Festival which we celebrate today.  In past times, church bells could be heard on each day of the Harvest and a corn dolly made from the last sheaf of corn harvested was placed in honour at the banquet table and kept until the following spring.  The horse that brought the last cart load was decorated with garlands of flowers and colourful ribbons.  Then a magnificent Harvest feast was held at the farmer’s house and games played to celebrate the end of the harvest.  An early harvest tradition was loaves of bread given to the church as the Communion bread.  This ‘loaf mass’ giving became known as ‘Lammas Day’.  There is a precedent here in the Old Testament in Leviticus when an offering of grain and oil, with frankincense added, was made to the priests who would then turn the token portion of it into smoke on the altar.  An offering described as ‘an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the Lord’.

In 1843, the British tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in church began with the Reverend Robert Hawker inviting parishioners into his church in Cornwall.  The nineteenth century also saw the emergence of the great harvest hymns such as Matthias Claudius’s ‘we plough the fields and scatter’ and Henry Alford’s hymn of 1844: ‘come ye thankful people come’.

Before we leave the Victorian era and look to our own era, I feel I cannot do so without mentioning the poet Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’.  I say this because, to my mind, his opening verse is such a wonderful description of the abundance of God’s provision for us.  The opening lines that read: ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun’ give us a connection to the universe in the relationship of the processes of autumn to the sun that, and I quote: ‘conspires with autumn how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run’.  This connection to the universe is also found in the Harvest Festival, its date being on a Sunday near or on the Harvest moon which is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox.

What, though, of the celebration of Harvest Festival in today’s world?  It is true to say that hymns and prayers have continued but as there is less reliance in the modern world on home produce, the emphasis has moved towards concern for people in the developing world.  Development Relief organisations produce resources for use in churches at Harvest time.  Here at St Mark’s we collect provisions for the Simon Community to help the needy.

The Christian hope in such Harvest giving is that the abundant provision of God can be spread to include those near to us and beyond.  In order to keep this hope alive we must, I believe, continue to be charitable in our doings, particularly in the current climate of economic turbulence.  We must do our best to remain confident in our future and not allow that confidence to be dimmed by the stresses and strains of modern life.  We must stand firm in the knowledge of the love of God and trust in his loving purposes for mankind.

Jesus’ radical calling to be Peacemakers (Christian Ethics sermon part 1), 7th July 2019

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

Readings: Galatians 6.7-16; Luke 10.1-11, 16-20.

“Behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves…. And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house.”

May I speak in the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Today I want to speak about war. Perhaps more so, about peacemaking, but also about war.

These first few weeks after Trinity Sunday, our Bible passages and Collects, lead us to think about ethics. Last week Mother Joanna spoke about Agents of Change, a charity supporting people in Romania who have disability. We raised over £100 in the retiring collection which will be used to further their work of compassion and care. Next week we will reflect further on our morality when we hear Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

Today, Paul in the letter to the Galatians, gives us some important ethical advice:

“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Says Paul, and, “let us not be weary in well doing.”

As we hold this advice in mind, I want to explore our calling as peacemakers. A good place to start is the conflict we might have overlooked in our Gospel passage. For here the threat of war is present just over the horizon. Jesus, as he sends out the 70, calls for peace in the context of people who at that moment would rather have had war.

The Samaritans, who feature in next week’s parable, were enemies of the Jewish people and were seen as unclean: Travelling through their land would be avoided if at all possible. They were heretics and sinners. Even more, the Roman occupiers were hated and loathed. Many felt they should be removed by insurrection – strategic all out warfare which would allow God to hasten Israel’s freedom.

Jesus’ choice to send 70 pairs out to declare “peace” and the coming of the Kingdom of God, flies in the face of this background of hostility. This number 70 has theological significance too.

St Luke sees Jesus as the new Moses. Moses, who in the Exodus led the people of God from slavery in Egypt into the promised land. After the people arrived and grew in number, Moses chose 70 elders of Israel to be blessed with God’s spirit, in order to share his leadership.

Like Moses, Jesus was equipping his disciples to lead a new Exodus, but not out of the physical land. Rather his Exodus is out from the old ways of violent conflict. He could see the coming crisis where he would meet his own death in Jerusalem and, unless they turned back, his people would meet theirs. If the people fought fire with fire against their Roman occupiers, Jesus knew they would be defeated. A few decades later, his prediction came true when Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed in AD 70.

“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Paul writes.

“Those who live by the sword, die by the sword” says Jesus. And as he entered Jerusalem for the last time he lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you knew what made for peace.”

As we hold on to our calling to be peacemakers and contemplate our world today, we must cry out to God to give us bold hope. For the threat of war is ever present:

Focusing on our own nation, the tension between the UK and Iran is heightening, to the backdrop of sharp threats exchanged between Iran and the USA. UK arms continue to flow into Saudi Arabia, adding to the civilian death toll of the Yeminis. In fact, if we contemplate Paul’s advice, the UK’s arming of Turkey, Eqypt, and China to name but a few should be deeply troubling.

Scripture and Jesus’ teachings call us to work tirelessly for shalom – “right relationship”, and to do so without lethal force of any kind. Jesus explicitly refutes the old ethic of “an eye for an eye” and instead teaches that we are to love even our enemies, perhaps especially them:

“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6. 27-28)

Jesus lays out his path before us. His approach is creative non-violence, not lethal force. Demonstrated most powerfully through the way he lived, and met his death.

On a recent visit to the Holy Land I was struck by the sheer complexity of the frequently violent conflict there. Addressing the violence a few years ago, the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, asked this,

“What is the mission of Christ in this land at this time?

As people of faith we do not pretend that evil things are not happening in our land, or that deep injustices have not been perpetrated against our people.

We reject violence as a form of resistance or a pathway to justice.

But we stand in eternal solidarity with the victims of discrimination, ethnic cleansing, racism, tribal violence, and war.

Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, our cry goes up to heaven seeking justice. Like the spirits of the martyrs under the altar of God, we ask: “How long, Lord?” How long before justice comes? How long before your kingdom arrives? How long before your will is done on earth as it is in heaven?” – Read the full address here.

As we seek to answer the Archbishop’s questions for the Holy Land and elsewhere, we must also turn inwards. As Thomas Merton, the Catholic priest and monk writes, “the root of war is fear” as he reminds us that violent conflict does not start in someone else’s heart. It starts in our own. We are led by our fear to over simplify and demonise our adversary, and then seek their death rather than seek their redemption.

My friends, If we do not know what we stand for, we’ll fall for anything.

We must stand for peace. So how do we live out the peace of Jesus Christ that we share in the Eucharist “out there” – in our families, work-places, and world?

This calling will look different for each of us. As some of you will know, I’ve been involved in campaigns seeking an end to the UK arms trade, an issue close to my heart.

In September, I’m organising a day of resistance against an arms fair coming to London. At this celebration of weaponry; the UK will seek to further arm nations across the globe. But Christians, Jews, Quakers, Muslims, Buddhists and others will also come together to declare that we have “no faith in war”. All are welcome, click here to find out more: https://www.stopthearmsfair.org.uk/faith/

And so we, like the 70, are sent out by Jesus Christ into the world.

And as we are sent out, we must ask one another, how do we stand up for peace. in our world. today?

 

 

 

The Good Samaritan (Christian Ethics sermon part 2), 14th July 2019

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

Readings: Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Luke 10. 25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

Our Gospel reading today contains a powerful parable and it’s one of my favourite.

 When I was a teenager I once knew a Methodist minister. One day I asked him, “Some of these old Bible stories, they must be so familiar to you. Surely they lose their punch over time?”. He replied, “They become more familiar perhaps, but no less challenging.”

I hope the Good Samaritan remains no less challenging to us. A story where the outsider, the one deemed ‘unclean’, the uncultured, the heretic, becomes the hero and offers compassion and mercy.

It challenges us in many ways: To offer hospitality to the stranger in need, and always to have compassion for the person in front of us. And, especially when we consider the story from the point of view of the injured man, we are to sometimes expect help to come from the most unlikely of places. We are all neighbours on this planet.

Imitation

Then, having given his example of the Good Samaritan, Jesus calls us to “Go and do likewise”. In today’s address I want to zoom out and focus more broadly on this calling towards imitation.

That phrase, ‘go and do likewise’ conceals a hidden depth of meaning. So deep in fact, an author entitled their book with those words of Jesus’ (Spohn, William).  At the risk of offering a book review, I want to commend this idea of ‘doing likewise’. Not just to imitate the ‘thinly’ described character of the Good Samaritan, but our calling as Christians is together to imitate Jesus Christ Himself.

Just to be clear, this isn’t about us becoming moral legends. Imitating Christ is about humbly helping one another to reflect God in a world which desperately needs signs of hope and stability. We are disciples after all (or at least considering such an invitation) and our goal is never self-perfection or self-actualisation, so much as self-less giving. As John the Baptist put it, “I must decrease so he, Jesus, can increase.”

This calling to imitation of Jesus is at the very heart of Christian Ethics. We find the Good Life, through imitating faithfully the example of Christ.

Three ethical tools

So let me get concrete and specific. When we approach a difficult ethical choice, there are perhaps three tools we might make use of.

The first is appealing to Law.

The robbers on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem had clearly not been convinced by the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20 we read, “Thou shalt not steal”. It’s a command. It’s an order. As Christians, we quite rightly want to obey God’s commandments. This is a helpful tool in our toolbox in order to love our neighbour. But there are limits to laws and rules:

For example, the other day I was cycling past Parliament Square and discovered a protest and a counter protest just wrapping up. The issues at stake: abortion and pro life. The rights of a woman over their body. The rights of an unborn child. The question of legislation verses constructive civic and cultural support.

Both sides were appealing to Law. Whether Biblical Laws (‘thou shalt not kill’), or UK State Laws, or EU Directives or International ‘Human Rights’. After speaking to people on both sides of the issue, I cycled away, leaving very aware of the limitation of the appeal to Law alone. Law is a very helpful tool, sustaining civil society but it’s not enough for our ethical decision making.

The second tool we might make use of in our ethical wrestling is Consequence. Going back to the robbers in our parable, I suspect they wouldn’t have robbed the man if they thought the consequences of their actions were too risky. That the reward wouldn’t outweigh the risk.

They certainly did not rate important St Paul’s word of guidance in last week’s Lesson, namely: “you will reap what you sow”. I almost hope they got a taste of their own medicine as they tried carrying the man’s goods back to their den.

Being guided by outcomes, aware that to be ethical is to try to make choices that benefit perhaps the greatest number of people (ultilitarianism) or does the greatest good (however we measure that) over all long term and short term consequences (admittedly an impossible calculation), is nonetheless a useful tool.

For example, optimizing NHS spending and resource distribution is not easy but it has to be done. Such a task is often framed as a cost-benefit analysis.

Putting resource into research to fight the worst cancers and the ones that are most common makes sense, even if that means for some rarer forms of cancer we might not be any further ahead today than some decades ago.

Yet sometimes we must challenge this Consequentialist and seemingly logical way of thinking – something brought home to me a couple of years ago at a previous church. A parishioner’s death meant we lit up the spire purple to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, an example of an illness where treatment has seen no improvement for 40 years, where research is desperately needed.

So Consequential ethics is limited too. Appealing both to Law and Consequence are valid and vital ways of doing ethical reasoning but both fall short of enabling us to ‘go and do likewise’ in our imitation of Jesus.

Virtue Ethics

So finally, not letting go of Rules and Consequences, we need to turn to Virtue Ethics. This approach, the most powerful and holistic approach to my mind, says, we need Christian practices to help shape our perceptions and character, so that when we are faced with a difficult decision, we will have the skilled intuition to know what God would have us do.

This is not some kind of Situationalist ethic allowing us to do whatever we feel like doing. Rather, our integrity is measured by our faithful imitation of Jesus Christ; and held accountable to the community of faith, to God’s Law and to the consequences of our actions.

This final tool to help us love our neighbour, is perhaps best illustrated by artists like Beatrice Gulliford, our vicar’s wife. As a newly graduated sculptor she spent several years learning her craft. It involved watching great sculptors at work, reading about theory, and most importantly – practical practice herself. Guiding the process were peer support and review by the community of artists.

This is a model of our calling too as the church: We sit at Jesus’ feet, learning from the Gospels and Scriptures. We pray and come around the Eucharist together. We go out to serve and imitate our Lord. We return back to the church community to support one another in our practice.

There are so many ethical issues at stake in our world today and the Church together must decide what faithful improvisation of Jesus means. Last week I spoke of our radical calling to be peacemakers. Can this help practically when faced with knife crime on our streets? How do we critique the UK as they sell arms to conflict zones?

Or, more personally, how do we divide up our time?

What might we do to serve one another here in church?

Offering your time once a month to serve coffee or welcome people at the door is invaluable. I would like to thank everyone who makes St Marks what it is.

In my personal decision making, these tools of Law, Consequences and the pursuit of Christian Virtue I find hugely helpful, even though I get things wrong on a daily basis. But I hope they might offer something to you as we follow Jesus Christ, our Lord, our inspiration and our Life.

So let us go, and do likewise.

Amen.