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.

The Core Christian Commandmant, 19th May 2019

by the Revd Matt Harbage

Readings: Acts 11.1-18; John 13.31-35

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want to share with you a story about Martha. When I was living in Cambridge I was part of a small community which offered hospitality to people with learning disabilties. They didn’t usually stay with us, but we would have them round for dinner and films and gardening and so on.

Well, Martha had learning disabilities and we had her stay with us for a weekend. A week before the weekend began, I went for a run and mightily sprained my ankle. It swelled and swelled, as these things do. My housemates were sympathetic for a while, but life soon returned to normal, and we didn’t speak of it again.

When Martha came to visit, seeing the pain I was in, she pointed to my foot and said, “Ouch.” “Yes, I said, ouch.” I found it very comforting. In fact, every time she saw me, she would point and say “Ouch.” I was constantly in pain and she was always there to offer kindness. My housemates had forgotten about my injury, but Martha did not forget me.

Being in Cambridge, perhaps a little like London, it’s easy to take life at a sprinting pace, and that leaves some people out. Yet, it is those who can’t keep up: those with learning disabilities, those who are unwell or sick, those on the margins, or those with poor mental health.

They have something indispensible to teach us about being human.

It is this idea which is at the heart of L’Arche. From the French for ‘The Ark’, L’Arche is a collection of communities with, and for, people with learning disabilities. L’Arche was founded by Jean Vanier, an incredible inspiration to me, who died just last week at 90.

Jean Vanier’s life was striking because of his love, and in our Gospel reading today we are given the core commandment of the Christian church:

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another. As I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”

It’s the core Christian commandment because in order to put it into practice we first need to know how Jesus loved us. We have to drink deeply from the well of Scripture which teaches us what Jesus did and said, how he lived, how he died and how he rose again.

It’s core for our Christian life, because the commandment requires us to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit in order to live it out. We cannot love as Jesus loved out of our own strength but need the Holy Spirit and need one another.

It’s the core commandment of our faith because it’s the core of the church. The Eucharist brings us together to remember the greatest act of love and forgiveness: Jesus’ life, given up to death, for us.

Jean Vanier recognised that this Jesus-love is not wishy-washy. Jesus challenged injustice and worked hard to mould together his diverse group of disciples. In his book, Community and Growth, Jean writes:

“Love is neither sentimental nor a passing emotion. It is an attraction to others which gradually becomes commitment, the recognition of a covenant, of a mutual belonging.”

Talk about a vision for church. A place of mutual belonging, where we welcome others in, just as Jesus welcomed us into his fellowship.

Jean wrote prolifically. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, he reflects on this new commandment we have before us, and writes,

“In the Law of Moses, the Hebrews were called to love God … and love their neighbours as themselves.

Here [in John’s Gospel], Jesus is calling his disciples not only to love others as they love themselves, but to love as he – Jesus – loves them. That is what is new.”

In reflecting on this new commandmant, I want to suggest two applications of all this for our community here in Regent’s Park.

The first, is that we are to exercise love in a thoughtful way, always seeking mercy and justice in grace.

The second, is that bearing the wounds of Christ, we are to welcome everyone.

The able bodied members of L’Arche that I met in the original community in Troley in France, were absolutely clear-sighted about the challenges that people with often profound learning disabilities presented. These members were well trained. Many were professionals in care-giving. But at the same time they never lost their calling to love.

In our building and gardens of St Mark’s we have to sometimes have to deal with antisocial behaviour. It might be graffiti or abuse of alcohol. When dealing with difficult behaviour, Jean Vanier offers us advice: “we have to be prayerful and loving; we must also be competent” (Community and Growth, dealing with tensions in community).

We sometimes need to show tough love, but always with love. I’ve put together a contact sheet at the back of church for those who want some guidance as to which organisations are best to call to support those who are struggling; such as getting help for rough sleepers, or for those whose actions are intimitating others in our parish.

Looking outwards with the love of Christ, critically must lead us to a hospitality which includes everyone. The passage from Acts, with the very surreal vision from Peter, was a message from God which taught him this lesson.

It was no longer only the Jewish people who were acceptable to God and to be welcomed into the new Christian church. Rather, the unclean animals, were now safe to eat too. Not very P.C., but that meant the Gentiles, that they were to be given a chance too.

The invitation of Christ to invite all nations and peoples into his fellowship, which he reminded his discicples on the day of Ascension, is not without cost.

Here in St Mark’s we have the banner of Our Lady, scorched by the arson attack which took place in the 90’s. It is a visible reminder of the cost of welcome and hospitality. It is is, I believe, a wound of Christ.

For Jesus was attacked and wounded because of his Gospel of love. Yet, for the author of John’s Gospel, it is Jesus’ self-giving, which is the glory of God.

May we ponder the calling to offer ourselves too for his glory, as we love one another just as Christ has loved us.

Amen.

Patronal Festival of St Mark 2019 – Sunday 5th May

By the Revd Dr Ayla Lepine

Readings: Acts 15.35-end;  Ephesians 4.7-16; Mark 13.5-13. 

The Song of Solomon, a novel by the American writer Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, concludes with the protagonist’s realisation that ‘If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.’ In the context of the narrative, which is a story of cycles of trauma and hardship not unlike the intensity of suffering and bewilderment we hear in St Mark’s Gospel this morning, this insight about riding the air, yielding to it, is closely linked to liberation and the possibility of truly, authentically, finding one’s own voice. There are two questions at stake here: in the book, in the Gospel, in ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How can I truly be myself?’ It is as if this young man in the novel, trapped in his history, begins to attain a new level of acceptance regarding where can came from, and relinquishes his pain to gain a new sense of what it is to be truly free in his own heart and mind. There is a comparison to be made with St Augustine’s ancient prayer to the Lord that ‘our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’

Finding your voice, trusting its strength, rejoicing in its distinctiveness, believing you’ll be heard, respected, and loved when you use your voice, is a critical aspect of what it is to live with dignity. Striving for the common good through the celebration of diversity is a critical aspect of civility. Knowing that the voice of Jesus, speaking now directly into the heart of places experiencing the most acute oppression or destruction, is a voice of true welcome may help us to tune our own voices to that tone and that message. Priest and theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber noted recently that ‘For some, the good news is that there are insiders and outsiders and they are the insiders. For others, the good news is that there are no outsiders.’ There are no outsiders. There is only the love of God enfolding the whole of creation, the galaxies of stars and the fingernails of babies born today in the Royal Free hospital down the road, and everything in between. To be human is to be infinitely loved. Just as you are. Mark knew that, and his Gospel proclaims it. And it is that God, who brings new life through Christ’s death and resurrection, who imparts diverse gifts to every person through the Holy Spirit, who is present with us in this holy place. It is the same God who inspired St Mark and all the saints, who supports the life and work of every person in this parish and your neighbours, and who sets us free to really be ourselves and to find our voice.

Voices are often raised up in communities most powerfully when they are under severe and urgent pressure. We know this was true of Mark and the earliest generations who gathered around Jesus and told his story, sometimes at great risk, sometimes risking death. David Stancliffe writes,

‘Mark’s Gospel ends with the veil of the temple torn in two as Jesus dies, the stone that had sealed the tomb rolled away, and the disciples running off, too frightened to say anything to anyone. Yet the existence of the Gospel itself, and the community that preached it, was an extraordinary witness to the faith and courage of those whose fear had been turned into unstoppable boldness. In all this pattern of apparent disaster and brokenness, was there indeed some purpose or design? The broken bread was the clue. When they broke the bread, the pieces fell into place and the waste of a promising life was seen to be a dramatic sign of the total self-giving of divine love.’

The earliest of our four Gospels, gritty and vivid in its language, uncompromising in its starkness and in its revelation of Christ’s true glory, teaches us in its details as well as its whole shape, that following Jesus means being broken apart, and made whole, over and over again, trusting in God to be our guide in the darkest this world can be. To me, this is a great comfort. We are never abandoned. The God of hope is constant, no matter what life brings. This week a government report has found that the overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East persecuted for their faith – 80% – are Christian. Numbers of Christians across Middle Eastern countries have been depleted by millions through political force taking a variety of forms. Murdering people at prayer in Sri Lanka shocks the world into remembering that the words in Mark’s Gospel of fear and terror are not a distant apocalyptic metaphor, but a cry of pain that has its resonances in our own time. We must stand in solidarity with all people of faith, no matter their sacred tradition, and care for one another as a sign of mutual striving for the freedom to raise our voices for peace, and for mutual respect.

Through baptism, Christians are fellow-citizens with those in heaven, joining with them in the eternal song of praise at the Eucharist. When we come to the Sanctus later this morning, before consuming the Body and Blood of Christ, finding ourselves made whole once again, remember that St Mark does join with us, this parish’s own patron, in the great hymn of praise, and supports this place and its people with joy and prayer.

In her feminist commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon explains that this Gospel is ‘a warning to all who might be attracted to hierarchical models of power. God’s realm is dramatically portrayed in Mark’s story as making health and wholeness available to all, especially to those who have least access under the Roman Empire ruling Jewish Palestine: women, children, the poor, the sick.’ Today’s Gospel reading describes a world and a community in anguish and chaos. ‘Keep alert’, Mark says, because followers of Jesus are invited to see hardship and pain will be transformed by the bigger and greater truth of God’s redemption. The voice of Jesus can be heard, if we choose to hear him, above all the harsh noise of a damaged world.

St Mark’s Regent’s Park has its own distinctive voice. It speaks with the voice of Anglican liturgy’s richness, of maniples, incense, altarpieces filled with holy women and men, and the choral tradition. Its voice, its expression of faith and God’s holiness in this little corner of London by the canal between Camden and Primrose Hill, is one of the reasons I stand here in the pulpit knowing and trusting that I have been called by God to serve the Church as a priest. The beauty and dignity of worship. The care and compassion and thoughtful support people here show one another. The understated gentleness and the bold liveliness through which this Christian community unashamedly proclaims the Gospel of Jesus as our Great High Priest, both sacrifice and saviour of the world. These are aspects of St Mark’s church that conform in the best sense to the pattern and character of St Mark the Evangelist’s pithy and creative Gospel. Through word and Sacrament, God is worshipped here. In the beauty of holiness, God is worshipped here. In the truth of the same Jesus who we see in Mark’s Gospel, offering healing and freedom for all, this place is a beacon of hope and a place of honest hospitality for every person, and for every unique voice. In the glory of liturgy, in the fellowship of community, in the proclamation of the Gospel, may this place dedicated to St Mark be none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.

Amen.

Septuagesima: “Little Easter” – 17th February 2019

By the Revd Matt Harbage

Readings: Jeremiah 17.5-10; 1 Corinthians 15.12-20; Luke 6.17-26.

Today we begin a bit of a countdown.

Septuagesima Sunday: derived from the Latin for 70, followed by next Sunday, Sexagesima  – 60, next Sunday 50 – We are counting down to Easter.

Lent has not yet begun, beginning as it does on Ash Wednesday on the 6th March, so this pre-Lent period offers us time to ponder how we might keep the coming Lent.

So what might we give up, or take on, over the coming 40 days? How will you keep Lent?

These Sundays leading up to Lent, [Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima] have sometimes been called ‘Little Easters’ and our first reading, from 1 Corinthians 15, clearly focuses us on the resurrection.

It’s amongst my favourite passages of Scripture and this and other parts of chapter 15 are often read at funerals. Here, Paul is making an appeal to logic: If we don’t believe in the resurrection from the dead, then Christ himself wasn’t raised either. If that is the case, then where is our hope?!

Surely it is the incredible, and mysterious – and sometimes hard to imagine – resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead which gives everything else in our faith and life generally meaning, unique colour and clarity.

It is because Jesus went first, died and then came back to us, my fear of death is calmed.

When I was a teenager I once read a book called “Who moved the stone”. You might have come across it. The manuscript was praised by TS Elliot and published in the 1930’s. The author, Albert Henry Ross, set out to disprove the resurrection. Like St. Paul’s approach in Corinthians he approached the evidence with robust logic and followed where it led. But, the more he wrote the more he ended up being convinced, beyond reasonable doubt as it were, of the real bodily resurrection of Jesus.

After all, he reasoned, “Why would the first disciples be prepared to die for something they knew was fabricated?”

And why, when Christians became a problem, didn’t their detractors – the Romans and Jewish leaders – simply produce Jesus’ corpse?

You might decide this Lent to look out for “Who moved the stone” or find something similar. There are some remarkable books out there written to strengthen us in our belief.

The Resurrection is so foundational and thus important to wrestle with: Through it, the Eucharist becomes not just a memorial meal to remember a powerful teacher, but becomes a celebration of life over death. Of redemption over the powers of human will to kill and destroy.

In Jesus Christ, God is doing something new.

Yet in Jesus, God was also continuing something as well. For Jesus was also a great prophet, continuing the great prophetic tradition of the likes of Jeremiah and Isaiah.

In the sermon on the mount from Matthew’s Gospel, or indeed the sermon on the plain from Luke’s Gospel, it contains that prophetic passion which comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable.

Here Jesus speaks politically: Those who trust in themselves, in their own power and might, they will fall. Those who are downtrodden, who know themselves to be in need, these are the blessed ones. For they, in their humility, will find God.

We see that same prophetic passion in Jeremiah: In the reading printed in our order of service, Jeremiah contrasts trust in human power with trust in God. He begins by speaking poetically, about a wilderness with no life and contrasts a tree planted by water.

It reminds me of that famous poetry from Jeremiah’s contempory, Second-Isaiah:

“Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old.

Behold, I will do a new thing; now it springs forth; do ye not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”

This “New Thing”, this “Way in the wilderness”, is Jesus Christ and his Resurrection. And as long as we live and die as human beings, the hope of Resurrection will always remain relevant and attractive.

So too, the prophetic tradition today is also alive and well.

I think of those who are involved in the campaign against the arms trade; lobbying MPs, engaging in symbolic actions, mobilizing support and meeting with in the arms industry, pushing for fewer exports of weaponry, more embargos and giving greater voice to victims of war and conflict.

In the spirit of the Beautitudes, we contemplate how to peacefully take symbolic action: to fill the hungry. To make those who are weeping laugh. To critique the powerful systems which forget compassion and mercy to those in need.

Who knows where such thirsting will take us, as we prayerfully look outward to the world Jesus came to save.

And so, as we turn towards Lent, I wonder where our Lenten journey will take us.

Alongside spending time with activists this week I’ve been receiving the most remarkable reflections from members of our community on the Gospel of Luke. These insightful reflections will be put together to form our Parish’s Lent Booklet which will be printed in time for Ash Wednesday.

It’s going to be my Lenten habit to prayerfully read and re-read these reflections as I ponder the “New Thing” God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

May we allow his Gospel to deeply impact our lives this Lent and thus lead us out deeply into the needs of our world.

Amen.

Advent I – Revd Matt Harbage, 2nd December 2018

“When these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”

It is a real privilege to be welcomed into this community especially at the very start of this liturgical new year. Advent is such a rich season: A time of reflection and preparation, of expectancy and joyful hope.

Over lunch this week, a friend remarked, “We often think that love is the most important virtue in the Christian tradition, and indeed it is,” he said. He continued, “However, perhaps hope is even more foundational to our faith.

As we find ourselves starting to think perhaps about sending loved ones Christmas cards, buying presents, or booking holidays and making arrangements, — amongst all the busy activity, we might forget to be people of hope.

As the Church begins a new liturgical cycle, I find this first week of Advent always feels particularly special and a time when I look back at the year gone by.

For me, this year has been marked by transition and joy – not least getting married in October to my wife Catherine, also a priest; completing my curacy in the diocese of Lincoln and moving to Central London.

I am really excited for the months and weeks ahead, especially having the opportunity to get to know you and the wider St. Mark’s community and where God has been at work.

As we look back at the past year as Advent begins, we might also reflect on the life of the world and of the nation. We find ourselves in a time which is perhaps not unfamiliar in the chaotic description given by St. Luke:

For … There is much distress amongst the nations; in the Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen. People desperate for hope.

The ‘sea and the waves roar’ as we observe sea level rises, and climate change claiming islands. The powers of the heavens twist and turn.

Our hearts too might fail us as we engage with the constantly evolving news surrounding Brexit.

And into all these signs of the times, which might easily lead us to look ahead into Advent with fear, doubt and despair, we are called to remember our identity as people of hope.

For hope is at the very heart of our Christian life together.

Our hope is a joyful hope. Rooted not in a naive ‘hoping for the best’, eyes closed, fingers crossed. But rooted rather in our loving God & his Son Jesus Christ.

This hope is rooted in history, in the concrete person of Jesus and his holy Incarnation as Emmanuel – God with us. It is rooted in his teaching and his active witness to the forgiving, generous character of God. And [our hope] is rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which he promises will be our pattern too, when our time comes.

The apocalyptic language of Saint Luke invites us to explore the traditional Advent themes of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell and in our order of service, we are offered a depiction of the Last Judgement by Michelangelo.

This painting of the second and final coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is I think a striking image.

And as I reflect on it, I feel uncomfortable with all the movement and activity. Souls ascending (towards the left) and descending (towards the right), in fact there’s movement pretty much everywhere.

The warning of St. Luke to keep watch and keep alert feels all the more important amongst all the activity. I wouldn’t like to get lost in this picture.

But there, at the centre of it all, drawing us in, is Jesus with his Blessed Mother Mary. Our Lord, surrounded by light.

Our joyful hope is a simple one, although it is a mystery.

It offers comfort, a fixed point amidst the busy, activity of life. Importantly it allows us to sit with contradiction and pain, knowing things will change. It shapes us as people of prayer, and in the light of God it challenges us and stirs holy fear.

I wonder where this Advent, here at St. Mark’s, will take you as we journey together in this beautiful space, accompanied by our sacred music.

How will we carve out space to sit with God, sharing with Him our hopes and desires?

As we journey through the Season and get busy with preparations, may we make time to pause and centre ourselves so that we might make space for Christ’s arrival in our hearts, and thus be a people of hope for the world.

To end, I’d like to conclude with a prayer, by Padraig O’Tuama:

Let us pray:

God of fear,

God of the night,

God of the expectation.

You visited shepherds in the night,

With songs and sights of joy.

In all of our nights, turn us

towards hope, because

Hope might just

Keep us alive

Amen.

 

 

dedication festival read more

Today we shall hallow above that 1962 installation, a roundel by Graham Jones in memory of Anne Griffiths, long-time, neighbour, pillar, churchwarden, flower-arranger friend. And how lovely that her family have been so much a part of this project.

How dreadful is this place, Jacob says, this is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven.

As you enter this church, engraved above the door are those very words.

We often say that pictures speak louder than words and the icon in the order of service is a complex and beautiful telling of aspects of this morning’s first lesson where indeed Jacob says “How dreadful is this place, this is none other than the house of God.”

What have we got in the pictures, how do they relate to the story we heard, our Gospel reading and what we are saying about this building in relation to our faith?

What’s in the icons. You have to look at them: right-left-middle.

So, on the right is a depiction of today’s reading. Jacob has fled from his parents’ home, escaping his brother Esau’s wrath. Jacob means heel, he was born second grabbing his older brother’s heel. He was a heel, he stole his older brother’s blessing. A usurping toe-rag his only option was to skulk off to cousins to do the best he could for himself. In his lonely wanderings, he falls asleep, and has this extraordinary vision. He sees God himself at the top of a long ladder, the connection between heaven and earth. And he is promised that not just in this place, but everywhere, he might encounter God, for the Lord will be with him. Jacob awakes, assured by this blessing, but aware of the holiness nevertheless of the place itself. It is named Bethel, House of God, and its place in the early history of Israel will go on to be significant. So much for the first picture on the right. Twenty years elapse. Jacob  makes his way in the world, marries his cousins, Leah and Rachel, and hears that Esau, whom he has not seen all this time, is nearby.

The night before, Jacob does not sleep, the depiction is on the left hand side of the picture as you look at it. Instead he wrestles all night long with a mysterious figure. It’s a very potent story, which Rembrandt did a famous painting of and Epstein sculpted a marble statue of which is in Tate Britain. No one wins. Jacob contended with God all night, and it was a draw! The day dawns. He asks to be blessed. He is renamed Israel – the one who contends with God. Jacob/Israel declares “I have seen the face of God and been preserved.” The icon of Jesus above the image of the wrestling makes this point. But he is also struck in the thigh. Wounded by this encounter, inevitably. The sun rises (the first time we hear of day break for 20 years), and Jacob limps into the new day. Then he meets his brother. The feared fraternal rancour has gone and, face to face, the brothers embrace and Jacob can barely cope. “Truly, to see your face, is to see the face of God” he says. The face of Jesus in the icon hangs over the image of the embrace in the icon connects the two stories.

In a talk an Old Testament scholar and Interfaith expert, Clare Amos gave to the WCC she cites this story as vital in grasping of the significance of struggling, wrestling for reconciliation. She also says the Book of Genesis has two connected themes that run throughout. First the key Theological truth that we are made in the image of God. Secondly that from the beginning there are splits which become pairings: night and day; land and sea; male and female. Yet creation is the expression of a God who is One: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.

She says the task of humanity is to live as she says at the heart of this conundrum.

So the question the writer of Genesis is posing throughout the book is how can or should the one and the two relate to each other so that neither dominates or disappears? Both unity and duality are necessary. And it is our task …. as created beings to be part of the world of duality, in which ‘otherness’ is important and honoured, and yet also, because we are made in the image of God, to reflect also within ourselves the divine unity. We are if you like to be a sort of sacrament, showing through our human life, just what it means to be inc

There are a lot of brothers in Genesis. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his eleven others. All of these typify how opposites, splits, pairings of all sorts need the other, to complete the vision of God; so that with Jacob we can say, “Truly to see your face is to see the face of God.”

Jesus in today’s Gospel is in the Temple, as that extraordinary complex of buildings was celebrating its Dedication. In 168 BC, Antiochus, a Seleucid Greek invaded and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. He assumed the name Epiphanes, God made manifest. The trauma of what took place incited an almighty rebellion and a brief period of self-rule for the Jewish nation. Rededicating the Temple in December each year, the Feast of Hannukah, commemorated the triumph that period. Jesus is walking in Solomon’s portico, the ancient precincts of the Temple, which you see copies of in the order of service. I have said it before, but it bears repeating, that my abiding memory of our brief parish visit to Jerusalem in November 2015, at the tomb Princess Alice of Battenburg and Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia is of Anne, whose window we shall dedicate, looking at the dome of the Rock as the sun set. She was contemplating the Court of the Lord beneath her, which I am sure now she contemplates with even clearer vision.

How dreadful is this place is this place, it is none other than the House of God, the gate of heaven.

The central icon in the triptych is of the Transfiguration – the manifestation of the true glory, the seeing face to face by the disciples, by Moses and Elijah, of who Jesus was. John’s Gospel omits this account, every episode is the revelation of that glory, being seen face to face. Matthew, Mark and Luke have it at the centre of their narratives.

Jesus’ glory seen face to face is not confined to buildings, it is seen in one another. But these buildings, loved and cherished, retain the memory of those whom we love, by association, or memorial, and they help us to renew our glimpse of the gate of heaven.