Sermon, Living in Love and Faith, Sunday 17 October, the Vicar and Penny Jenkins

WG:  Today’s sermon is a little different from normal. Penny and I are seeking to present a major discussion document endorsed by the House of Bishops to help the Church of England reflect on Church teaching about marriage and created identity, as society’s understanding of these things is evolving very fast. It is called Living in Love and Faith, and there will be a deanery chance to explore this in a few weeks’ time for any who are interested.

In presenting it, I want to underline something about how differently various generations might address this subject. It should not be surprising that each generation present may have a contrasting experience and view. Just before I was born, male-homosexual practice between adults over 21 became legal, but for many before and after that time, it was viewed as a sin. The moving into the mainstream of psychotherapeutic understandings of human nature along with the separate current of increasing secularism have challenged and transformed that premise, so today’s young people discuss sexual and gender identity and morality in very different terms.

The Church’s teaching in this area and the limitations we are under legally about marriage of same sex couples, risk leaving the Church is a place very far distant from where much of society is.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. For example in relation to euthanasia, I hope the Church will retain its clear objection without fear. But in terms of understandings about marriage and sexual identity, there is the need first for discussion to help clarify what we mean, and second there is increasing need for interpretation of terminology. All this is for the Church to be seen to engage with the realities of how people live, and not to be seen as redundant.

This is not about mere compromise, but discovery of God’s will. The Church may learn what God is trying to tell us in this, and likewise society may have something to learn from the Church. The Church will always have something ultimate to say about human beings as beloved creatures of God, made in God’s image.

I just begin personally before Penny and I move into a conversation. As already said in the last 52+ years there has been a dramatic change in the recognition of what it means to be human. Things that may have been tolerated are now embraced. In my childhood, I was very fortunate to be surrounded by all the members of my family, both sets of grandparents lived within a mile of where I was brought up, and we lived next door to my grandmother’s sister. Their parents were born and brought up in the Victorian age. My grandparents did not sport frock coats and crinolines, but I am sure they had been influenced by a very formal and strict set of values. Sex of any kind was just not talked about at all. Perhaps it was prudish, but it seemed consistent with so much of what was taken for granted in wider society. Yes, that reticence was informed by morals shaped by the Church. I say that because without wanting to use the word in a loaded way, it was normal or normative in the world in which I was growing up, for discussion about private things to be impossible. Going to school in the early 1980s when Section 28 was heavily in place in education, discussion of sexual and gender difference was off limits in school. Sex education was entirely about heterosexual relationships. Teachers could not promote same sex partnerships, and some, for fear, and others because of conviction, did not refer to it. Tolerance, acceptance, kindness and diversity characterised the life of university campuses, by contrast. A deliberate intention on the part I think of dons who were liberal minded and student unions which were in full sail against the morally overbearing intentions of Thatcherite education policy. If it had not happened already, one was immediately on sensitised, on arrival at university, to the suffering of those who were gay particularly, and who asked for recognition. It’s not surprising that David Cameron, just a few years older than me, made it a personal campaign when in government to legalise same sex marriage, against the general tone of his own party’s views, because he was a product of his own generation.

Before we go further, I am going to ask Penny to paint a picture of her upbringing and the context in which she grew up.

Hello everyone, I’m Penny. I was born in 2002 and since then mum and dad, Allan and Sophie, have brought me to St Mark’s.  My earliest memories of St Mark’s were coming to Sunday School for juice and biscuits, and a little theology. These sessions were often led by Keith, partner of the Reverend Doctor Peter Baker. Peter and Keith living in the vicarage was all I knew they were just another example of a loving, Christian couple.

In my schooling I have been to both Church of England and secular schools. Throughout I have experienced a liberal attitude to sex, sexuality, and marriage: At school we focussed on safe sex rather than abstinence; I have seen the LGBT acronym extend to include ‘Q’, for queer, a term reclaimed by the community to encompass the flexibility of identity; And the plus, to include all the gender identities and sexual orientations that have existed before, but now have labels.

I have now landed at the very secular University College London. Very close by to the House of Friends, the Quakers. They are a denomination who already marry same-sex couples. This shows that in the wider Christian community that finding agreement has been possible and also offers an alternative to people who do not feel they agree with the Church of England.

In my life, Christianity and the LGBTQ+ community have always existed in parallel, but never fully converged. St Mark’s has always been very comfortable with the LGBTQ+ community and has made this Church feel like a safe space for me growing up. But so far, we have managed to avoid these conversations.

WG:            Penny and I will not be able to exhaust the material in LLF, and there will be a deanery opportunity to do this later this Autumn, but we thought a Q&A might open up some of the issues.

WG:           There are things members of the Church want to discuss, how should we have these conversations?

Penny:       It’s going to be tricky! When we discuss sexual orientation and gender identity, we are discussing a key part of people’s identities and so must be gentle, and respectful and move froward in our aim of sharing opinions, rather than convincing others that our opinion is correct.

In 2020 The Church of England published their Pastoral Principles: a list of ways to address evils and encourage safe and meaningful conversation. They ask us to: Acknowledge prejudice; Cast out fear; Speak into silence; Admit hypocrisy; Address ignorance; and to Pay attention to power. Using these key points, we hope to have these difficult conversations without conflict.

WG:            What does living in love and faith wish to discuss?

Penny:                 Living in love and faith wants to prompt conversations about four big topics: Identity, Sexuality, Relationships and Marriage and, of course, their relationship to Christianity and the Church. Of course, there is intersectionality between these four things, making these conversations endlessly complex. For example: when we speak about same-sex marriage in Church, we are really considering the gender identity, and the sexual orientation of the people being married, as well as what marriage means as a relationship between a couple, and God.

WG:  At this point perhaps I should say how importantly the teaching about marriage is in the document. There is clarity that marriage is foundational to any teaching about sexuality in the Bible and the Church’s tradition. The sacramental character of marriage, its absolute quality, is key. Clearly, however absolute it is, its image is marred by domestic violence, infidelity and divorce. We have a high doctrine of it, but it is not always the paragon we believe it should be.

Penny:       I agree that the Bible is very clear that marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman and God.  In the context of the Bible marriage was used to unite families, share resources and to allow for children.

In our modern world the core component of marriage is love, the love two people have for one another and a promise that they will continue to love one another all their lives, declared before God.

Penny:       What is love and what does the Bible teach us about love?

WG:            God is love, and the heart of the Bible is the love-story between God and his creation. Humanity has a special part in this because we are made in God’s image and we have stewardship of all that was made. That reflection of his image, as male and female, is utterly bound up with who we are and how we reflect who God is. Love is prevenient, it comes first, and as St Paul celebrates “bears all things, believes all things… and never fails”. That is shown most poignantly in the death of Jesus on the cross; it is that ultimate image of self-giving that typifies God’s love. St John says “Beloved let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Penny:       This instruction to love and to love unconditionally is used by many Christians, my family in particular, have always emphasised their unconditional love for their children. However, this is not true in all Christian families. In the UK and across the world LGBTQ+ youth are often kicked out of their family home for being gay. In the UK almost 20% of LGBT people This homophobia is often rooted in an interpretation of Christianity, alongside beliefs related to culture and tradition.

WG:  These are very important points, and the disjunction between an unconditional view of love, and parents who reject their children is very painful to observe. Here reliance on God’s unconditional love is what we pray will inspire all driven apart in situations like this.

WG:  What is gender and what does the Bible teach us about gender?

Penny:       What is gender? Gender is a social construct. Historically we have identified two genders: men, and women. Now our thinking has evolved, and we have labels for people who feel neither masculine nor feminine.

In Galatians we can read ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Galatians 3:28

I think this is God telling us that the social constructs of gender, or ethnicity, do not matter to him. That our priority should be in living as loving Christians, whatever our labels may be.

Another idea supporting the gender-neutral identities came from the Rt Rev Dr Jo Wells during the LLF conference William and I attended this summer. Jo described a middle ground in God’s creation: God made day and night, and so also dawn and dusk. If there is a middle ground in the day and night, could there not also be a middle ground between men and women?

WG:  I was very taken with this idea of dusk and twilight, that between night and day and the givens of male and female there may be a hinterland. There is work to be done on exploring this. One observation on that might be that in the middle east, night falls very fast, twilight is very short, but clearly in northern climes that is different. There is mileage in exploring this. And there is clearly still much to learn in and from the Bible.

Penny:       But how much can we rely on the Bible to answer these questions?

WG:            As Anglicans our moral frame of reference is always Scripture, Tradition and Reason. The interplay between each is key. We cannot blot out the bits of the Bible or Tradition we do not like, they are there, but our experience and reason test the contents of the Bible and are in constant dialogue with it and Tradition, which itself is in continuity with the Bible.

Penny:       Throughout history we have seen the Christian tradition change and this makes sense, as society has evolved far beyond the context in which the Bible was written. We choose to ignore many parts of the Bible: we work on the Sabbath and we eat shellfish, mostly to make our lives easier. Choosing to acknowledge that modern society has moved beyond what the Bible includes and being able to make our own Christian Traditions will be critical for moving forwards with love and faith.

WG:            Does the Church need to have an opinion?

Penny:                 Every Christian will have their own opinion, and this is unlikely to change because of what the Church says. However, if the Church says nothing, they are continuing the legacy of homophobia in Christian communities. I believe that if the Church leads the way that social attitudes are more likely to follow.

It will also have an impact on the future of the Church as an institution. Every one here today has chosen to come to Church, for all of us, St Mark’s is the safe place I described earlier.  But looking out at all of you, I see very few young people. I think that is because many young people are not going to choose to be in spaces where they cannot fully be themselves and cannot see their future families existing.

WG:  I am going to close with a difficult question. Because this process is not even begun, let alone finished, it may be very unfair, but just for starters, shall we both hazard a view on whether we think that two people of the same sex could and should be married in church? This gets perhaps to the nub of the where the debate is going.

Penny:       In my opinion same-sex marriages should be happening in Church.

In my opinion the key difference between same-sex and heterosexual marriages is the gender of the people being married, whilst the core principles of marriage remain the same: Love, Loyalty and a vow before God. I don’t think gender is significant enough to stop people being married. And therefore to exclude some Christian couples from this rite of passage.

Making the Church an inclusive institution is the only way for it to survive the future and I think this is the next step.

WG:            I don’t want to hedge my bets on this, but at the moment, I cannot quite say what I think about this. I do think this consultation is needed. I do think the Church needs to discuss this and demonstrate an openness to the changes in society. I do think it should continue to honour the examples of love, tenderness and commitment between many same sex couples, which are themselves parables of what marriage can look like. There remains much we have missed, it’s a big subject, but fidelity and fruitfulness in marriage is a whole huge area. There is also a vital need for the Church to honour in a wholly more celebratory tone, the single life. There is Theological work to do to say that same-sex marriage can be a sacrament. I think there is unmined material in the Bible to help in all of these areas.

And the overarching, absolute and utterly challenging truth that human love is always a reflection of God’s love, is a mystery that is still to be realised fully. We cannot confine God’s purposes. Our lack of faith, our inadequate words, our limited experience will always be made up for by God’s abiding and unconditional love.

 

Sermon, Trinity XIX, Sunday 10 October 2021, Ros Miskin

The theme of my sermon today is ‘expectation’.

In the second Act of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the Chorus describes the scene that is taking place in preparation for war against France.  He declares that the ‘youth of  England are on fire’ and ‘Expectation’ sits in the air.  Expectation that the French will be defeated. This expectation was fulfilled in the victory of the English at the Battle of Agincourt, led by the king himself.  Yet, as we learn from the Chorus in Act V, Henry is free of ‘vainness and self-glorious pride’ as he gives, and I quote: ‘full trophy, signal and ostent, quite from himself to God’.

What I believe Shakespeare is saying here, is that God may allow our expectations to be fulfilled on the understanding that we view them in the light of his purpose rather than our own.  This requires a certain humility which we learn from the Chorus that Henry possesses.

I do not believe from this perspective that we cannot enjoy and feel a sense of achievement in meeting expectations.  What I do believe is that we need to acknowledge that God is the source of all good outcomes.

In today’s Gospel reading, we learn that the rich man, having affirmed with Jesus that from his youth he has obeyed the commandments given by God to Moses, now expects that Jesus will confirm that he has done all he needs to to inherit eternal life.  To his astonishment, this expectation signally fails.  It fails because Jesus finds his weak spot which is pride in his possessions.  The thought of having to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor, is too much for him. He had probably spent many years accumulating these possessions and it is just too big a leap for him to give it all up.  Pride will not permit.

We can all have some sympathy with the man.  It is not easy to contemplate giving up what you possess, particularly if you have worked hard to get it.  It may be though that it is not so much wealth itself that is the issue here but the fact that an accumulation of wealth without any reference to giving to the needy is an accumulation without reference to God.  God expects us to give. In today’s reading from Amos there is a condemnation of the rich ‘trampling on the poor’ and putting aside ‘the needy in the gate’.  If justice is not established in the gate then there will be ‘wailing in the squares and the vineyards’.   In the Old Testament narrative Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Solomon are enabled by God to acquire wealth but, as Amos writes, they must assist the poor.  To give is to avoid greed and pride in possession because we adhere to God’s purpose.

So it is that the pride of the rich man is not rewarded with the promise of eternal life whilst the humility of King Henry is rewarded in battle because he put God first.

To put God first is to see that it is not us but God himself who is the provider.  This provision is plentiful.  As Sean Doherty expresses it in his book ‘Living Witness’ whilst Scripture alludes to the dangers of money, we must not miss the message of Genesis 1 and 2 which is that God himself is the abundant source of material gifts.  God wants humanity to prosper but not by pride in possession that prohibits giving.

Pride then is not God’s way.  In today’s Gospel reading there is no pride in Jesus when he denies that he is the ‘Good Teacher’.  His response is ‘why do you call me good?  No-one is good but God alone’. It is this humility that runs contrary to the expectation of the people of Israel that the Messiah would come enthroned in majesty not being amongst the poor and the lame, healing and teaching, and certainly not ending his life naked on a Cross, left to die.  Yet it is this death that is a fulfilment of God’s expectation of Jesus that he must die in order to save mankind from the power of sin and assure humanity of eternal life.

As Jesus had to go this way, so he asks his disciples to follow his example.  They must, as today’s Gospel reading makes clear, leave everything and follow him.  This is why it is so hard for the rich man to behave in such a way as to inherit eternal life.  Jesus knows this when he says: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’.

As I have contemplated this theme of ‘expectation’ in the Bible, the word ‘reversal’ comes to mind.  It appears that what God expects of us can be a complete reversal of our expectations.  The Messiah a King enthroned on earth in majesty? No.  Inability to break the law on the Sabbath? No.  As Jesus says his disciples can pick grain on the Sabbath as ‘the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath’. After the Crucifixion, the body of Jesus in the tomb to be seen by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome? No. The tomb was empty.  At the end of today’s Gospel reading we are told that there is a major reversal yet to come: ‘the first will be last, and the last will be first’.

What a turning upside down of expectations there are then in the Bible. Assumptions are overturned, leaving people amazed and afraid.  God does this though not for us always to be afraid but to gently steer us towards the goal of eternal life.  This eternal life is the gift of his love for us.  Jesus looks at the rich man and loves him, and part of that loving is knowing his weak spot.  Here we have an echo of Hebrews where it is written that God judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  You cannot hide from God.

Today, as we draw nearer to the time of the great conference on climate change, let us fervently hope that the expectation of people for action is rewarded.  As we are the stewards of creation it is an expectation to be met as soon as possible as it is surely one desired by God who desires that we live abundantly.

Trinity XII, Sunday 22 August 2021, John 6 vv 56-69, Tessa Lang

From the Gospel for today, John Chapter 6, Verse 61:
‘When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this
offend you?
And
Verse 67 ‘Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?’
Perhaps you enjoyed “One more croissant for the road” by Felicity Cloake, a recent Radio 4 book of the week (other radio stations and books are available) about a bicycle tour gastronomique with special emphasis on treats from boulangeries across the French nation, rating the quality the pastry as she pedalled. Here at home, I for one am looking forward to a Sunday croissant baked by the Little Bread Pedlar of this parish.

But first, let us briefly review what has been served at St Mark’s thus far during our liturgical season of bread and whet our spiritual appetites for feasting on the two questions that Jesus puts to his followers. From manna in the desert …to the miracle of the loaves and fishes …to the lammas loaves of Our Lady in Harvest, we have savoured abundance provided by God for the physical sustenance of his people. So far, so delicious. Easy to swallow. Yet there is a more profound purpose to John chapter 6, which has been our gospel throughout August and culminates today, where the Evangelist confronts us with the essential and lifesaving truth
embodied in Jesus Christ – that he IS the bread of heaven, no less than the bread of life itself.

Life with a capital L. Not our little lives that arrive at death, but nothing less than eternal life, the life of creation, permanent and enduring connection to divine life force.

Now for the difficult part, the ‘hard saying’ of today’s gospel, taught in the synagogue in Capernaum to a crowd of Jesus’ followers. They are the ones who flocked to healings and exorcisms, enjoyed free wine and picnics, marvelled at raisings from the dead and vivid preaching, even sought Jesus to make him king to lead their liberation from Rome. They had allowed themselves to believe that Jesus was a prophet rivalling Moses; in time, this Nazarene may prove to be the one foretold as Messiah. He was shaping up as a winning bet for a better future. Now this.
“He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him.” If taken literally, the ‘hard saying’ is an invitation to a bizarre rite apparently involving co-habitation via cannibalism! They must have found the concept weird and unnatural. It violates kashrut, ancient dietary laws that ban consumption of blood in any form of meat as well as flesh from any living animal. A leap of faith is required to hear these words as something profound and metaphysical rather than deranged, dangerous and tantamount to instructing his listeners to
stop being Jews who observe the very laws set down by their God.

Whilst his audience still reels at the thought, Jesus reasserts the claim which will ultimately condemn him to death on the cross: that he lives because the living God the Father sent him. Then he goes further: if his disciples ‘eat’ of him, they too will live because of him, the true bread of heaven. The ancestors who ate manna in the desert continued to die at their appointed time. But those who take him for their nourishment will live forever. No wonder they murmured against his words. These words disrupted their minds, particularly if they hadn’t taken on board Jesus’ radical message and method of teaching. Their exposure to these concepts was brief and recent. Further, these words interfered with
tradition and flew in the face of everyday experience – people still died! They were still hungry…still diseased, oppressed and confused! What sort of blasphemy or babble were they being offered as remedy?

We can imagine that Jesus had compassion for those who took offense and grieved for those who turned away. Not only is he the incarnation of the living and merciful God; these were his people on earth. Yet he presses on and doubles down on the very words that disband his fan base and challenge even his 12 hand-picked disciples. It may seem counter intuitive as a strategy for effective team building and mission success, particularly with a completion date
looming in Jerusalem. But for Jesus, conveying his message is far more important than pleasing the crowd or assuming earthly trappings of majesty – it is the perfection of divine interaction descending in love to forgive and save. Jesus’ true disciples, his disciples in spirit, need to understand the magnitude of the sacrifice being prepared for the forgiveness of sin and access to eternal life. They need to be prepared to come to his table and witness his body broken and blood shed. They need to understand what they have been called to take up and to take comfort and community in sharing his elements.

Next in our text we hear Jesus, ever a painstaking teacher, ask if beholding the Son of Man ascending to heaven would help them understand the essential connection? Because this is going to happen in real time. Would it help them realise that he is the source of all life and the embodiment of God? He close-reads his text for their benefit, reminding his listeners that he is giving them the most profound, life-giving truth – that the words they find so difficult to
hear flow from the spirit which pervades them as it pervades his flesh and blood…and wonderfully pervades those who BELIEVE from the moment they do believe. For without belief in his word, they are “unquickened”. Literally and metaphorically, they are dead, dead women and men walking.

Furthermore, the flesh is helpless to EFFECT belief UNLESS God the Father draws them through and to his son, so that they are cleansed in him, abide in him and receive the sustenance of life from him. That, dear friends, was the final affront to many still in attendance. Jesus already knew that most followers were disciples of the flesh, investigating what was available, on a tour in search of the best croissant, the best messiah. Some of them would betray him, this man
Jesus, who claimed to have descended from God the Father to fulfil his role as Son of Man and would ascend again… claimed to have an exclusive on the gift of salvation and eternal life…and that belief in him the only way to obtain this gift.

Adding insult to injury, he also claimed that even your belief was a gift from God the Father who draws you closer only through his son. In short, flesh and all its efforts can achieve nothing that lasts, nothing of true life and value without connection by spirit through the lord Jesus Christ. Him!

The man standing in front of them – well, not for much longer, for they were out of there. How comfortable are we even now with these words? We listen to them each time we receive the Eucharist. Have they become routine or are we alive to their power? Do we truly feast upon him because our lives depend upon it and drink in the power of his sacred blood as the only way to wash away our burden of sin? When the 12 who walked and lived with the incarnate God are taken aback, how able are we in our distant, tumultuous, secular world to
accept his radical reorganisation of our very existence?

Devout minds have tried to understand and explain the body and blood of Christ down the centuries. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that they, themselves, are the body of Christ, full participants in the mystery, becoming his own body and blood. St Teresa of Avila wrote that “Christ has no body now but yours…Yours are the hands through which he blesses the world.” St. Augustine’s sermon on the theology of the Eucharist repeats that unless you believe, you will not understand, because “what is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is
grasped bears spiritual fruit.” C.K. Chesterton sums up the enigma: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” It is a tall order to abide within a divine mystery that devolves Christ’s physical agency to his church and its people.

The followers whose numbers and fervour had swelled throughout the events of chapter six until they encountered the ‘hard sayings’ have departed, leaving only the hand-picked bunch. No wonder Jesus asks his disciples: “Will you also go away?” John reports it is Simon Peter who speaks up. We can imagine the brash Galilean fisherman blurting out his reaction – not ‘where shall we go’ but “TO WHOM shall we go? Who else has the words of eternal life?” Peter speaks from his immediate and precious experience of abiding in Christ, the son of the living God, and receiving his forgiveness, nourishment and life everlasting. Here is the radiant gift wrapped in the hard saying. Belief confers it in a heartbeat, here and now, ever and always, when coming to his call. Amen.

Sermon, Trinity XV, 12 September 2021 – Ros Miskin

In the opening sentence of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus poses the question to his disciples: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ This leads into a dialogue about his identity as the Messiah. What, though, was Jesus like as a person?  If I was asked to describe his personality I would not be able to do so.

Why should this be so?  When authors write biographies of well known people, past and present, we are usually given an indication at least of what they were like as people.  They may be revealed as virtuous and kind or scheming and corrupt, extrovert or introvert and so on.  From this, and photography and film we can get at least an idea of the personality of the one concerned.

When we consider the life of Jesus, though, his personality is somehow obscured.  We know that he is the Son of God and Saviour of mankind but what about him as a person as you or I are?  Throughout the ages artist and sculptors and film makers have produced numerous images of Jesus as a baby, and a boy and as an adult in agony on the Cross.  To my mind these images give us the unique story of the life of Jesus rather than his personality.  There are episodes in the New Testament that give us his attitudes to life.  We know that he was strong willed in that he defies the norm by staying in the Temple in Jerusalem for the Passover without his parents knowing.  He is welcoming and supportive of little children as he says: ‘suffer little children to come unto me’.  He can get angry; he curses the fig tree and overthrows the tables of the money changers in the Temple. He can be sorrowful; he wept for a friend.  All this leading up to the agony the garden before the Crucifixion.  Where, though, is his personality in all this?

If narratives, images and behaviours do not answer, can it be found in his identity?  If we consider today’s Gospel reading, Mark gives us a strong message that Jesus does not want his identity as the Messiah to be known and that, to my mind, obscures his personality even further.  Jesus asks his disciples ‘who do people say that I am?’ When Peter replies ‘You are the Messiah’ he strongly orders the disciples not to tell anyone about him.  Jesus keeps himself at a distance by referring to himself in the third person as the Son of Man ‘who is to be rejected, killed and then rise again after three days’. He stays with the third person when he says it is the Son of Man who will come ‘in the glory of his father’.  Again, a few verses on in Mark’s Gospel, after the Transfiguration, Jesus ‘charged them that they should tell no man what they had seen ‘until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead’.

What, then, might be the reason for not being able to perceive the personality of Jesus in the New Testament?  He teaches, he heals, he commands, he endures, he suffers, but where is the person?

An explanation may be found in the book entitled ‘The Bible for Grown-ups’ by Simon Loveday.  Simon writes that the words of Jesus saying: ‘go and tell no man of this’ are often repeated in Mark’s Gospel as this leaves the field clear for others to write his story.  Another possibility, Simon writes, is that Jesus is ‘very selective about who he reveals his true identity to because, as chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel reveals, it would allow the Jews to be converted and their sins forgiven.’  A further explanation is given in Jerome’s Biblical Commentary which states that the secrecy surrounding his identity ‘allows Jesus to avoid misinterpretation of  his discipleship’.  We have to wait until chapter 16 of Mark’s Gospel before the secret is out.

I believe there is a further reason why we cannot find the personality of Jesus.  The reason is that those who wrote the Gospels were not concerned with personality.  In ancient times there were stories written about those who did good deeds and those who did not but we cannot readily perceive the personalities of the people concerned.  The story was what counted. This precedence of story is, to my mind, the approach of the New Testament writers.  They want us to know what Jesus did, and illustrated those deeds with certain behaviours because they want us to focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which lies at the heart of our faith.  It is enough for us to know that the Word became flesh and was to suffer, be crucified and rise again to sit at the right hand of God.  We are not asked to consider a personality profile but to contemplate the divine which is God revealing himself in the life of Jesus.

As we learn from today’s Gospel reading, the personalities of the disciples are not to be revealed either.  On the contrary, Jesus calls upon them to deny the self in order to take up their Cross and follow him.  They are being asked to have faith in that which they cannot comprehend but must trust in as the loving purpose of God.

Today we are also called upon to trust in this loving purpose in the midst of the pandemic, the situation in Afghanistan, the threat of terrorist attacks and the threat to the planet brought about by climate change.  A tall order but if we stand firm in faith and not give up in working towards a better world then much can be achieved and remember that we have the promise of eternal life already made to us by God in his covenant with us.

Sermon, Trinity X, Sunday 8 August 2021, Ros Miskin

The theme of my sermon today is mystery.  The quest for knowledge and understanding has formed part of human history since man first walked the earth.  Yet the mystery of faith remains.  As St Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, now we ‘see in a mirror dimly and only when the kingdom comes will we ‘see face to face’.  He writes that our knowledge is only ever partial and will come to an end.  What abides is faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.

We learn then from St Paul that the mystery of faith far outweighs knowledge.  What is the meaning, though, of this expression ‘mystery of faith’?  In his book entitled ‘Mysteries of Faith’, Mark McIntosh writes that our aim should not be ‘to be clever or well informed but to be drawn into God’s life’.  We need, he says, ‘to see our lives as taking place within God’s life’.  Formation, he explains, means to be ‘transformed by the Spirit of Christ in prayer, worship, service and mission and be inhabited by his life as the meaning of our lives’.  When this happens, he says, then you can communicate with life at a deeper level and become more neighbourly.

My interpretation of this view is that when our formation is ongoing (and it is a life-long journey) we are in tune with that which is mysterious.  Mysterious because it is beyond our comprehension but by seeing our lives as taking place within God’s life we are liberated from the narrow confines imposed by non-belief and free to be fully human and deal better with one another.  This freedom rests not in knowledge but in love.

This does not mean that learning is unimportant.  The learning required, for example, by the medical profession has led to the treatment of life-threatening diseases and has recently produced the mighty weapon of the vaccination to defeat Covid.  The subjects learnt at school can help us towards fruitful employment and the pleasure of hobbies and interests.  Travellers seek knowledge of other peoples and places and history is important in offering us both encouragements and warnings.  There is also the joy of learning a new skill and the gratification of receiving an award for your achievements.  If, though, we want the promise of eternal life becoming a reality in the present, then we need, in our quest for knowledge, to recognise the activity of God and realize that at the end of the day the knowledge that really counts is knowledge of the love of God.

This recognition of the activity of God in our lives is what Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading, is conveying to the crowd. When he affirms that he is ‘the bread of life’ and says: ‘whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ he is revealing the activity of God in him.

Unfortunately, the Jewish audience do not heed his words.  As far as they are concerned, Jesus cannot have come down from heaven as the son of Joseph whose parents are known to them. Here is an example of the confines to knowledge imposed by non-belief.  Jesus answers their lack of belief in him by saying that they need to respond, as McIntosh expresses it, ‘to the call to communion with the Word’.  If they do so, then they can have eternal life.  Eternal life granted by the bread that comes down from heaven and is offered, not as the manna in the wilderness which their ancestors ate and then died, but in his flesh which is the living bread.

Here we find in this explanation a foreshadowing of the Last Supper when Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to his disciples saying: ‘Take, this is my body’.  Before the Last Supper, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.  It is an act of humility and concern for others that demonstrates the interaction in earthly life that occurs when life reveals itself as taking place within God’s life.  The disciples are amazed that their teacher and Lord should wash their feet because they do not yet grasp the mystery of faith.

The word ‘mystery’ appears many times in our worship both yesterday and today. It features in hymns and the affirmation in our liturgy: ‘Great is the mystery of faith.  Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again’.  Here we have the mystery of the Resurrection which we express in our worship to affirm the greatness of what is beyond our comprehension.  Beyond our comprehension but the word ‘mystery’ does not imply a ghostly otherness but a rejoicing in the glory of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus who died for the salvation of us all.  As McIntosh writes: ‘God speaks the Word into our time and space as the historical human being Jesus’.  It is not a ghost story but a conversation given in the Gospels that is earthed but with a heavenly meaning.

Jesus is no longer physically present with us but the conversation continues in our worship today.  It continues because we have faith in the love of God as our Creator and Redeemer. It is an eternal love which, if we contemplate and pray at the deepest level then we can, as McIntosh writes: ‘sense the gracious drawing of our whole being into the divine heart’.

Sermon, Trinity IX, Sunday 1 August 2021, Tessa Lang

Give us this bread
John 6 v 33 – 35
33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto
the world.
34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.
35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never
hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.
Here is gospel with much to chew over, starting with our daily bread, then serving
up the astonishing and profound affirmation of who Jesus is in the first of the I AM
statements that structure John’s Christology.

Jesus had compassion for hungry people. Feeding the 5000 with 5 barley loaves and 2 small fishes, followed by collection of 12 baskets of leftovers, is the sole miracle reported across all 4 gospels except for the final miracle of resurrection and ascension. Heading the list of supplications within the Lord’s Prayer is “give us this day our daily bread”. At the heart of our worship is commemoration of the Last Supper. The importance of taking time to eat, breaking bread together, preparation and participation in feasts and celebrations are abiding themes throughout Jesus’ ministry. Certainly they are features of our community life we are longing to restore fully as Covid restrictions are lifted. John gives us insight into the meta meaning of bread, the staff of life, with the first of Jesus’ seven statements of identity, the “I AM” affirmations which link him not only with Moses and the sweep of the Old Testament – they identify him as the incarnate son of the living God.

Today’s reading begins soon after impromptu catering for a hungry multitude of
Passover pilgrims chasing Jesus and his disciples from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. They had seen or heard of demons cast out, loved ones brought back from the dead, the sick and lame made whole, so had reason to travel in anticipation of miraculous goodies on offer. To evade them and to gain time to rest and regroup, Jesus retired to the mountain whilst his disciples set off on another dangerous nighttime sailing, heightened when Jesus re-joined the struggling crew mid-sea by walking across turbulent waves.

It was a short-lived escape. His pursuers would seek Jesus in Capernaum, where he was known in the synagogue for teaching a dazzling metaphysic, fearless in the face of religious authorities and received tradition. They now knew he is also capable of providing a free meal, more than anyone could eat in a single sitting! No need to murmur against him as their ancestors had against their leaders during the Exodus, before Moses’ parlay with Yahweh resulted in daily deliveries of manna. Surely, then, Jesus is a prophet, in direct contact with God Almighty. Perhaps one who may prove equal to the foundational prophet of Jewish tradition, Moses? No wonder they sought him to make him King, the one who could free them of bondage to the Roman empire, provide for their needs, make the chosen people great again. The time was right. The approach to Jerusalem for Passover meant that families and villages were on the move in their tens of thousands. They had the numbers, the time and the psychological atmosphere conducive to political uprising. All they had to do was find him.

They may have had another free meal in mind, but clearly weren’t expecting the True Bread from Heaven.

When they did find him, what they received was a rebuke for being hungry for the wrong food, for seeking “…meat which perisheth” instead of spiritual sustenance that endures unto everlasting life. Jesus identifies himself, the “Son of man”, as the very bread of life because he is the Son of God, “…for him hath God the Father sealed”: approved and commissioned to directly bestow God’s grace. By his descent and sojourn on earth, he is literally transforming our spiritual destiny.

You can hear incomprehension in their next question: “What shall we do, that we
may work the works of God?” What they understand is a reality based upon doing – ritual and obligation, procedure and hierarchy. These structures and practices had forged a nation from 12 tribes and sustained them across centuries marked by exile, slavery, occupation, judgment. What is difficult to get their heads around, despite all the times they are reminded of the prophecies, is the outright gift of God amongst them bringing salvation that is bestowed, not earned. What is unimaginable is a relationship with God where He does the work so that his people can benefit through belief, where the concept of personal righteousness is made irrelevant by the power of grace; it is over-ridden by the love of God for his people. “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” True connection to God and everlasting life is an altogether more present state; receiving Jesus as the bread of life releases a creative and dynamic force in your life and the ones around you. Just look at how it galvanised the first Christians to spread his word and continues to inspire and structure acts of care and kindness in his name. John always uses a verb form for believe (from pisteuo), not the abstract noun (pistis): belief and faith require active commitment.

I occasionally bump into Reverend Canon Thomas Woodhouse, Chaplain of the
Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy and known to this congregation whilst taking walks by the River Thames, most recently last Thursday when we congratulated each other on taking advantage of a stretch of dry weather to put some steps in our fitness banks. We briefly discussed the subject of this sermon, and he noted that the business of ministry is “to keep on keeping on”. Faith is not a navel-gazing, one-and-done sort of practice. Hear how many times Jesus must say and demonstrate the same message, over and over, finding fresh ways and words to reach out to those mired in their personal and ancestral past, in unhelpful habits of thought and life.

For his questioners were not ready to receive the message. Before they can allow
themselves to think along those lines, they need more evidence. OK so you fed the
multitude once. Didn’t Moses provide bread from heaven with a double portion to
tide them over the Sabbath for 40 years? “What sign shewest thou then, that we
may see, and believe thee? What does thou work?” Jesus was ever on the receiving end of requests to flex his superpowers to satisfy the doubters.

Like every good and patient teacher, Jesus goes back to basics, using the most
emphatic form of oath available: “Amen, amen” translated as double “verily” here,to affirm that only God the Father gives the bread of heaven. This is not something Moses did or could do alone. God sent manna then and as he promised, has now sent his son, the true bread from heaven, the bread of God, to give life unto the world.

Here he is, standing right before them, whilst they continue to ask for what they have already been offered. Evermore give us this bread.

This request elicits the first I AM of John’s gospel – “I am the bread of life”. Next,
we learn the only way to receive the bread of life is to come to him, to the son of
God. Come to him. The gentlest of invitations to intimacy, the tenderest wooing, no
hint of transaction, coercion, demand. Do this, and never again be hungry. Believe
on him and never thirst.

One evening during the Diocese in Europe pilgrimage I was fortunate to join in 2018, we gathered beneath St. Peter Gallicantu, a possible site of Caiaphas’ Palace, scene of Jesus’ interrogation by the Elders and of the underground pit in which Jesus may have spent his last night. William distributed copies of poems from “The Witnesses” by Clive Sansom, and mine was “The Woman of Samaria”, the lone woman who went to Jacob’s well at blazing midday and there encountered a travel-worn and dusty Jesus. Even as she gave him water from her jug to ease his thirst, she experienced the gift of living water, springing up into everlasting life through the forgiveness of sin. In John chapter 4, the story is shaped by an extraordinary dialogue and parallel discussion to living bread from our chapter 6 text, though far more thoughtful than the one in Capernaum. She goes back to her town, and John tells us that “many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman”.

In Exodus 3:14, when God spoke from the burning bush, he revealed his identity “I AM WHO I AM” in response to Moses asking what should say to the Hebrews when they ask him. For the prophet knew of the inquisitive nature of his people and wanted to be prepared. Henceforth, they would know this as a name for their God. Theologians such as W N Clarke call it the ‘aseity of God’, the principle that God is completely independent and self-sufficient, uncaused and not reliant upon any other being or reason for his existence. Simply, when Jesus makes “I am” statements, he identifies himself with the eternal, perfect, living God. His Jewish audience would know this, and we learn later in John chapter 6 that it made many troubled and angry that an individual like themselves, from nowhere special, who worked a trade, whose immediate and extended family they knew, could stand up and make such a claim.

The incarnation of bread from heaven was hard for many to swallow…even with an everlasting supply of living water to hand. Those who stayed with Jesus were put on notice that their discipleship was just beginning to unfold its complexity and mystery. After all, they know that they are in the company of the incarnate God. From now on, they will operate ever closer to the spiritual realm, where they are drawn and desired although not everyone can see or feel God drawing them to him. And some may flat-out belong to the devil. With eternal life at stake, there is all to work for. In John 6, we are assured of divine nourishment for the struggle on offer in the person of Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Sermon, St James’s Day, 25 July 2021, the Vicar

Did you have an embarrassing aunt when you were young? I was brought up with many aunts, more than I could count, and they are all gone, they all had wonderful names of a particular type, Freda, Mavis, Joyce, Phyllis, Nora, Nora, Lucy, Hester, Muriel….. One of the Noras had seen Queen Victoria. They were great aunts really, most of the normal aunts were post 60s and did not want to be known as Aunt. None of them was embarrassing, but I was little and they were quite a collection, as my grandparents were cousins, most of this collection were related to one another.

It’s just possible that James and John’s mother, Salome, present at the crucifixion and on Easter morning, was Mary the mother of Jesus’s sister, making James and John Jesus’s first cousins. Salome was Jesus’s embarrassing Aunty, from Capernaum, wife of the wonderfully named Zebedee.

Aunt Sal puts Jesus and her boys in pretty sticky situation in today’s Gospel. The disciples are heading towards Jerusalem, and she asks Jesus a rather difficult question. “Go on boy, will sit your cousins either side of you in your kingdom?

There’s a bit of background needed, which might help.

The people in Qumran about whom we know a fair amount from the Dead Sea Scrolls, like Jesus, were into nice meals. There’s a lot of stuff about their Messianic banquets in a text called the Messianic rule. It was all very ordered, who came in when and sat where. A Messiah-Priest was to sit in the middle, with the next most important to his right and the next again to the left. Although the Qumran community was made up of radicals, they were not democrats or egalitarians. We don’t know, but Aunt Sal probably knew something about what was going on there, and connected what her nephew had been saying about Kingdoms and reigns and supplanting the current order, and wanted to get in a word for her boys. Can you feel your toes curling?

It’s made all the more sit-com like because Aunty is so ridiculous. Interestingly the older version of this story in Mark, has James and John themselves doing the begging. In both stories the other disciples are pretty narked by it, not because of how crass it is, but because they are kicking themselves for not having thought about it earlier! It’s a laugh a minute in this narrative. And then it suddenly all gets very serious indeed.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I shall drink of and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” They say they are, but when it comes to it, after the last supper, when he has taken the cup, and then gone to Gethsemane and prayed that that same cup might pass, where do the disciples go? James and John, the so-called “sons of thunder”, who would have called down fire onto Samaritan villages that would not hear, vanish into the night. Their thunder got stollen pretty quickly, and the cup passed them by.

In today’s story Jesus is very clear, Aunt Sal has herself melted away. All the other ways of being, whether it is Qumran or the Gentiles are rejected. “It shall not be so among you: whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” The son of Man is THE servant, just as Israel was called to be from the time of the prophet Isaiah.

Early views of suffering and exile and humiliation are summed up in the idea of the cup: “Take the wine cup, and cause all the nations, to whom I send thee, to drink it.” Jer 25: 15.

This cup is a very dense image, therefore. There are strong echoes of the exile and defeat, at the same time as the Paschal image of the cup blessed at the last supper, which in turn spells Jesus’s passion, which in turn is his identification not just with the suffering of the world but the ancient suffering of his people. Binding all of these images is the strong sense of release, ransom, salvation from bondage. The Servant’s suffering brings release, a sharing in that cup, an identification with captivity and loss.

James and John are on this path, whether they like it or not. James, as we hear in our reading from Acts dies in 44 AD. His younger brother will live a very long life. Although he did suffer persecution and exile on Patmos.

Today we commemorate St James, whom Luke tells us in Acts was killed by Herod Agrippa in 44. The latter was the grandson of Herod the Great, nephew of Antipas and Philip and son of Aristobulus. He had a strange Aunty, in the shape of Herodias, who did for poor John the Baptist. He was a friend of Caligula, a dangerous thing to be, and Josephus tells us he was instrumental in the coming to power of Claudius, so a king-maker. Unlike most of the Herodian family he gets a good write up by the Rabbis, but he met a curious end, soon after he put James to death. Luke is the only one to tell us was eaten up by worms, but the other accounts do suggest it was not pleasant.

James, poor chap, having been beheaded by Agrippa, did not exactly get to rest in peace. The Armenians think they have his head in St James’s Monastery in Jerusalem. There is a very strong belief that by one of several means, James’s relics managed to get to the Atlantic coast of Spain, either by a rudderless boat guided by Angels or even that his followers walked them there, after his execution. The legends abound. Sir Thomas Kendrick, former Head of the British Museum, archaeologist and one time lover of the novelist Barbara Pym, said in the way that post-war scholars did, dismissively “even if one admits the existence of miracles, James’ presence in Spain is impossible.”

There’s something about sanctity of place and person that casts remarks like that into the shade. Santiago de Compostella has been a place of pilgrimage since the 9th c AD. In 2019, the last normal year, it had very nearly 350,000 pilgrims who did the Camino. It will be interesting to know how many travel this year. Today, I imagine the famous church with its incense burner weighing about 13 stone and standing at well over 5 foot high, made of solid brass, will test Covid security. Near continental Finisterre – land’s end, the pilgrimage to St James’s relics represents the goal of many people’s striving after holiness and has done for over 1000 years. At the very heart of that holiness is what Jesus says to the self-serving James and his brother John, and their dizzy Aunt, as they are on the road to Jerusalem about power and authority “It shall not be so among you, whosoever shall be great among you let him be your minister (servant) and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your slave.”

Sermon for the ordination of a Diocese in Europe Deacon, Glen Ruffle, given by the Vicar at the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy on Sunday 18 July 2021

What remarkable and unique factors come together today! At the very kind permission of the Chapel Royal and the Duchy of Lancaster, the peculiar status of this historic place permits the ordination of a Diocese in Europe Deacon, Glen Ruffle to serve at St Andrew’s Moscow.

St Andrew’s may need some brief introduction. The chaplain, Fr Malcolm Rogers cannot be here today. As well as serving our community there, he is the Archbishop’s Apokrisiarios to the Patriarch of Moscow, Third Rome and All Russia. The worshipping community is made up of people of many nationalities. St Andrew’s is represented, as is the Diocesan Office, and the venerable Russia Company a historic pioneer of in the Diocese’s ecumenical work. Not being able to get to Russia, Bishop David has been to Madrid to ordain one deacon, to Milan to ordain four priests, and tomorrow flies to Norway to ordain yet another. That’s 2 deacons and five priests in four countries in five weeks with two sets of quarantine.

A word about Glen, although I am clear an ordination is not an opportunity for a eulogy. Friends, European, countrymen: I come to praise God not to bury Glen. Glen has lived and worked in Moscow for some years before training. As his DDO, it is my job with others, to assure the Bishop Glen is a good thing. Which he most definitely is, otherwise we would not all be here.

Exactly 360 years ago this week, here in the Savoy, Commissioners met to establish the contents of the Book of Common Prayer. We could even say “The Prayer Book is coming home!”

Glen you are vested in red, the colour both of the Spirit, and the blood of the martyrs, just as monarchs arrive at their coronations robed in scarlet.

Today is the Feast Day of St Elizabeth of Russia. For brevity, may she permit me to refer to her as Ella, the name by which she was known by her extended European family.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, read by Alison on behalf of all you will serve in Moscow, recounts the ordination of the first deacons. We are introduced to Stephen, the Proto-Deacon, who was also the Church’s first martyr, whose commemoration, the Feast of Stephen, is significantly the day after Christmas. The diaconate is not just about service but, martyrdom as well.

We start in 1878. When just fourteen, Ella’s mother, Princess Alice, third child and second daughter of Queen Victoria, died of diphtheria in Darmstadt on 14 December. It was 17 years to the day since the death of her beloved father, Prince Albert. The family was devastated. Ella and her sisters would spend much of the rest of their teenage years with Queen Victoria, in loco parentis. The Queen took a real interest in their upbringing, and future marriages! From an early age, Ella had been marked by her namesake and ancestress, St Elizabeth of Thüringen, foundress of the Houses both Saxe and Hesse, an interest the keen genealogist Queen Victoria greatly encouraged.

Ella’s great aunt on her father’s side had married Tsar Alexander II (d. 1880), and through that connection, Ella was courted by her cousin Sergei or Serge. Serge was a suave and cultivated man. The informed Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, regarded Serge as “one of the handsomest men I have ever seen.” She could speak as one who knew.

Serge was steeped in Russian literature and culture, a devotee of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He was also a devout Orthodox, passionate for the Holy Land and the care of its Russian pilgrims. Part of his youth was spent in Rome with his brother Paul. Despite confessional differences, Pope Leo XIII took avuncular care of them. It was he who broke the news of their father’s assassination in 1881.

Serge and Ella were married in 1884. Their match frowned on by Queen Victoria, suspicious of Romanov autocracy. Nevertheless, Serge and his German Grand Duchess dazzled court life. Ella converted to Orthodoxy to the joy of her husband and family. Ella’s younger sister, Alix met the Tsarevich, Nicholas, at the wedding. Another Princess of Hesse would make her way from Darmstadt to St Petersburg in 1894. How could any of them have known this would be the start of the final act of this dynastic drama?

1905.Nicholas II had mishandled conflicts abroad and government at home, culminating in the Bloody Sunday massacre of 22 January. Serge meanwhile was a reactionary Governor of Moscow. In a move about which Ella had forebodings, Serge exiled 20,000 Jewish citizens with wilful disregard for popular feeling.

On 17 February, an insurgent Ivan Kalyeyev hurled an improvised bomb towards Serge’s carriage as it passed through the gates of Nicholas Palace. The murder was horrific. Ella heard the explosion and rushed to the scene, too late.

In the aftermath, Ella visited Kalyeyev. She gave him the Gospels, which she implored he read, saying she had forgiven him. She asked that he seek forgiveness. If he did, she would plead with the Tsar for clemency. Kalyeyev would not, preferring death for the cause of revolutionary socialism. This act of mercy was unprecedented, albeit spurned. Ella’s love for her husband and Christian response to his death, marked all around her and beyond, at the tensest time of Tsarist rule.

She left court. A dear friend wrote:

The horror left a deep trace on her countenance which only passed away when, having learnt the futility of earthly existence, and she received the experience of divine beauty, and after this time her eyes seemed to be gazing at a vision of the other world.

She set about founding a women’s religious community dedicated to Ss Mary and Martha. The same friend, just quoted, described her clothing as a nun:

So it came to pass. Through the grey veil of the Sisterhood her works shone with a divine radiance.

Many give witness that the work of the Sisterhood and the offering of worship in the chapel were seamless.

Russia’s prosecution of War was catastrophic. A generation of Russia’s youth perished. The Tsar’s reign was doomed, with few to blame but himself. He abdicated in 1917.

Elizabeth’s convent was raided by ascendent Bolsheviks at the same moment as the abdication. They found only signs of an austere community, living alongside and in communion with the poor. Their leader told Elizabeth as they left “Perhaps we are heading for the same goal but on different paths.” She observed to the sisters “Obviously, we are not yet worthy of a martyr’s crown.” The Soviets seized power in late 1917. The Imperial family now a liability to their captors and possible saviours.

At Easter 1918, Ella, Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, four Imperial princes, an aide, and faithful sister Barbara, were escorted to Ekaterinburg, on the Siberian side of the Urals, very near Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, but there was no contact.

104 years ago yesterday, the Tsar and his wife and children were shot in cold blood in the basement of the house named, The House of Special Purpose. We know the details from the accounts of those who took part. It was horrific. I will say no more.

The carnage did not stop there. The same direct orders from Lenin to his henchmen in Ekaterinburg outlined what was to follow. The Soviet guards were determined if ham-fisted to the end.

Early on 18th July the captives were ordered from their makeshift prison at a school in Alapayevsk and trundled in carts to a disused iron-ore mine, with a shaft some 20 m deep. Elizabeth was cast into it, the rest of the party following. Ella’s fall was broken by a ridge some way down, her nephew landed next to her. She bandaged his broken arm with material torn from her head-dress. All the while, she led the singing of Easter hymns. A grenade was lobbed into the mineshaft, then another; despite the injuries, the singing continued, haunting their inept guards. They poured a quantity of branches and dry leaves into the opening and set them on fire.

Pre-arranged telegrams were sent from the Ekaterinburg Soviet announcing that the school at Alpayevsk had been raided by “an unidentified gang”. Lenin’s ploy was to inform the world Grand Duchess Elizabeth and her companions were no more. No hint of responsibility implied, or remorse recorded.

Those close to Lenin noted his fear of Ella’s reputation. Apparently, he observed:

Virtue with a crown on it is a greater enemy to world revolution than a hundred tyrant Tsars.

Not knowing the details only that Ella had certainly died, the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg wrote:

If ever anyone has met death without fear she will have, and pure faith will have upheld and supported and comforted her in all that she has gone through so that the misery poor Alickey [Ella’s sister, the Tsairna] will have suffered will not have touched Ella’s soul.

Ella was Princess Alice’s beloved Godmother. The work Princess Alice undertook in Athens as a nun from the 1940s was a deliberate continuation of her aunt’s mission. Poignantly, Alice’s choice of final resting place would be near her Aunt’s.

The bodies were found in September, when the White Russians commanded by General Smolin, occupied Alapayevsk. A drunken guard let slip his part in the gruesome murder. That is how we know of Ella’s nursing of her nephew, and that she did not die in the fire, but of starvation, possibly days after she fell.

The bodies were recovered, given funeral rites, and taken to Peking, to the cemetery of the Russian Mission. Grand Duchess Elizabeth’s older sister, in England, Princess Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven, arranged for the bodies of her sister and Sister Barbara to be transported to Palestine for burial on the Mt of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the church built by Serge and his siblings to honour their mother, and Serge and Ella had seen consecrated in 1888. On 15 January 1920 the remains of the two nuns were met in Jerusalem by the British interim authorities and processed to their final resting places, accompanied by the Greek and Russian Orthodox hierarchs of Jerusalem. You might picture the onion domes of St Mary Magdalene glimmering amidst the green olives of Gethsemane, overlooking the site of Solomon’s Temple. It is the Feast of the Madeleine this week, who in another garden on the first Easter Day encountered the Risen Lord. To those whose faith causes them to hold fast to the end, Our Lord says “I am the resurrection and the life. He who liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

Elizabeth had written to Countess Alexandra Olsoufieff, departing Moscow in April 1918:

“One must fix one’s thoughts on the heavenly country in order to see things in their true light, and to be able to say, “Thy will be done.” Dear friend, I am only certain that the God who chastises is the same God who loves. Thank you for the dear past.”

This was the last farewell, said as simply as everything else in her life. Knowing her as well as I did, I can say with certainty that she thanked God for throwing open to her, through suffering, a place among His elect. She was of the same stuff as the early Christian martyrs who died in the Roman arenas. Perhaps in the time of our grandchildren the Church will beatify her as a saint.

Indeed, they did. The Russian Church in Exile canonised her in 1981, and the Moscow Patriarchate followed in 1992. Elizabeth’s statue was consecrated above the West Door of Westminster, before the Queen and Prince Philip in 1998. Elizabeth stands next to Martin Luther King as one of the martyrs of the 20th c.

Our first reading pictures the call of a deacon. The Greek widows were not getting their fair share, and the lofty Apostles in Acts chapter 6 wanted it sorted and to have as little to do with it as they could. They lay hands on Stephen and Philip and their friends, and a new chapter in Church life opens.

St Luke delights in irony. His Gospel takes a particular interest in the lives of servants. There are several parables which involve domestics, one of them today’s Gospel. It is reminiscent of Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids with oil or not in their lamps. But the story is different. In the parable Glen our deacon read, the master is about to return, the faithful servants, are waiting up. The master arrives, jolly late, but far from expecting himself to be served and fawned over, the master puts on an apron, girds his loins, and serves them.

The Apostles were just that little bit too grand, and had forgotten that Jesus, their master, came not to be served but to serve.

Grand Duchess Ella had tried in 1909 to revive the ancient order of deacons for women in the Russian Church. She nearly succeeded. Had she done so she would be remembered for one of the boldest ecumenical moves of the early 20th c. Her name though is hallowed with all the martyrs, for holding firm to the end.

Whether you will be called to martyrdom or intimating to Malcolm the “estates, names and places where the needy of the parish may dwell” remains to be seen. But we trust and know that you are “inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon you this office and Ministration, to serve God, for the promoting of his glory and the edifying of his people.” “So let your loins be girded and your lights burning.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon Trinity V, Sunday 4 July 2021, Ros Miskin

The theme of my sermon today is perseverance. I am sure that most of us, at one time or another, have felt the desire to give up when things are not going well.  I certainly have, though my boarding school years taught me to keep going and persevere when sensing that everything was going wrong.  In my school days of the 1960s there was very little pastoral care but pupils encouraged each other to keep going and helped each other out in times of trouble.  This encouragement to persevere through difficult times has stood me in good stead over the years in attempting to cope with the ups and downs of life and keep a steady course in stormy weather.

Is there, though, something more here than just getting through hard times and marching on in the hope of better days to come?  To attempt to find the answer let us look at today’s Gospel reading.

Mark writes that when Jesus teaches in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth his teaching is rejected by his hearers on the grounds of his being a carpenter in his home town with his sisters present.  Where, they ask, can such a one get his teaching from?  ‘What is this wisdom’ they ask ‘that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done in his hands?’  Jesus is amazed at their lack of belief but he does not react by abandoning his teaching.  On the contrary we know from Mark that straightaway he went about among the villages teaching.

Here is a demonstration by Jesus of perseverance in a time of rejection and as we can read in the continuation of today’s Gospel, Jesus, without hesitation, goes on to summon the twelve disciples to further his mission of healing and teaching.  They too, are called upon by Jesus to persevere, as they are either to stay in a household until they leave or, if they are not welcome, as they leave they must shake off the dust that is on their feet as a testimony against the householders.

What, though, is the motive for this continuance of mission against the odds?  In his book ‘Transforming Mission’ David Bosch writes that: ‘Christian mission gives expression to the dynamic relationship between God and the world’.  It is, he writes, ‘an act of faith without earthly guarantees’.  ‘It is God’s ‘yes’ to the world’. It is an invitation to people to become living members of Christ’s earthly community and begin a life of service to others in the power of the Holy Spirit’.  He writes that: ‘you are challenged to be God’s experimental garden on earth’.

These are impressive words used to explain why perseverance matters.  By sticking to our guns and remaining undefeated by opposition we are engaging with life in such a way that we can demonstrate our faith in God’s ‘experimental garden on earth’. It means that we have faith in the promise of God’s covenant with us that he will never, in spite of the Fall of Adam and Eve, abandon us as he offers us an eternal love that does not fail.

An example of this love is God’s power to renew his creation. It is a feature of Jewish scripture that when his love is met by infidelity and failure it is always renewed by him.  From time to time, God breaks us down, like the potter with the clay, and then renews us.  In today’s pandemic it may well be that God is breaking up our world in order for it to transit through a portal into a renewed and better state of affairs.  This sense of breakdown and renewal should sustain us as we attempt to persevere, particularly now with all that the pandemic has thrown at us.  We can remind ourselves that every time a child is born that is creation being renewed.

To return to the mission of the twelve disciples, we learn from today’s Gospel that the journey must go on.  At this stage, though, Jesus has the advantage over them in that he knows that when he teaches it is in the sure knowledge that God is the origin of his power.  This is affirmed in the Gospel of John in the passage where Jesus is teaching in the Temple in the Festival of Booths.  In response to the anger and astonishment of his Jewish audience, he says: ‘the teaching is not mine but his who sent me’.  At the onset of their mission, the disciples embark on their journey but we know that without the certainty that Jesus possesses  their faith wavers and later on the narrative of the Gospels there is denial and betrayal of Jesus right up until the Crucifixion.  Yet, by the mercy of God, we also know that this is not the end.  After the Ascension we are told that they will go out to proclaim the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Here is an example of God breaking the pot in the death of his Son and then renewing it in the Ascension and the renewal of the mission of the disciples.

This brings a sentence to mind that I heard on the radio recently that if God opens a door no man can shut it.

In the current difficult situation that we are facing worldwide I believe it will help us to persevere if we hold on to this power of God to renew his creation. We can too pray to God to assist us when times are hard.  As the Psalmist cries to God in Psalm 123: ‘have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt’.  The Psalmist is struggling but he knows who to turn to when reaching the limit of his ability to endure.  This is a free gift of God to us that we can call upon him for strength in hard times.

So let us pray that God will see us through when the going gets rough and have faith in his covenant of promise with its heavenly reward of eternal life.

 

 

 

Sermon, Trinity III, Sunday 20 June 2021, Tessa Lang

What manner of man is this?
From Mark 4: 38 – 41
38 And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a
pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest
thou not that we perish?
39 And He arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the
sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a
great calm.
40 And He said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? How is it
that ye have no faith?
41 And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another,
What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea
obey him?
Moments before muttering this question amongst themselves,
the disciples on that small fishing boat with Jesus were
terrified, bailing out incoming waves, wrestling super-human
strength winds, losing control of their craft and their nerve,
fighting for their lives. Amongst them were several former
fishers from a long line of fishermen who knew all about perils
on the sea, yet finding their skills no match for the sudden
violence of the storm.

The sea now stilled, the winds calmed, and rescued from what
looked like certain death, yet they were still afraid. And they
feared exceedingly we are told. By the end of our text, we
understand why. Spoiler alert: it has everything to do with
what manner of man Jesus is.

Mark makes every word count in his characteristically fastpaced
and cinematic gospel. In the space of 7 short verses,
we move from floating just off-shore at the end of a long day
preaching to the crowds…to unexpectedly setting sail to a
destination far from home…into the maw of a stupendous
storm…unto a miraculous rescue when Jesus speaks 3 words
–Peace, be still … only to experience an even greater fear in
the aftermath. Our text today leaves the disciples on a cliff
edge, and the reader panting to keep up with events and grasp
their full meaning.

In the space of 7 short verses, a series of 4 questions shapes
the encounter into a lesson in discipleship –– 2 are uttered in
extremity by the disciples, at the start and conclusion of Jesus’
intervention (Master, carest thou not that we perish? and What
manner of man is this?) and 2 by Jesus in revelation of His
nature and of theirs (Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye
have no faith?)

Perhaps it is the lens of our shared Covid experience and
awareness of storms that threaten the church, the nation, the
international order and the planet itself that connect us to a
narrative more mysterious and existential than a blanket
assurance of comfort and help in times of trouble…a central
character more strange and subtle than a Prospero-like master
of nature…where fear is as essential to the message as peace.
Let us, like Job in verse 1 of chapter 38, listen to the voice
from this whirlwind together.

Like all foundational Bible stories, be they Old Testament or
New, this one begins at Creation, when the Spirit of God
moved upon face of the water and all things were made, set in
place and regulated. Jesus’ audience would be aware of God’s
deployment of the waters in the Flood and Exodus, and have
heard of seas calmed and stilled in many of the Psalms (65,
89, 107 et al). It is a power reserved to Him alone. A signifier
of God-ness. As God alone, not man, controls the weather.
The disciples and those who thronged to the shore that day to
hear Jesus preach would also be familiar with the Sea of
Galilee: with the River Jordan, its source; the surrounding
mountains and Golan heights; its weather patterns. In the
mornings, a lake breeze blows to the land, making it hard work
to get the boats out first thing from shallow coves and towns
dotted along a level shoreline. An essential effort, though, as
later, westerly winds begin to blow off the Mediterranean
coast, sinking when they head for the lowest freshwater body
in the world, making it harder to get back home to the western
shore. At night, winds from the land increase, combining with
katabatic winds plunging down the steep slopes surrounding
the Sea of Galilee. Sudden violent storms result.

This wind pattern has been observed since trade first began
across the Sea and agriculture took root in the sheltered lands
ringing a relatively abundant source of water. Here is the
topography of a place of borders and liminal spaces — where
earth, wind and sea, tectonic plates, rival homelands and
cultures, empire and colony, God and humanity arrive at the
threshold of the other. Here is the home of constant risk and
exposure, surely best if managed prudently and with benefit of
experience.

Here is where Mark sets his account, starting in a small cove
somewhere between the villages of Capernaum and Tabgha,
forming a natural amphitheatre so weirdly effective that Jesus
was able to withdraw to preach from a boat moored near the
shore, benefiting from a bit of distance from his audience as
well as the cooling lake breeze.

What Jesus did next was unexpected: he gave the command
to sail to “the other side” of the sea, “as he was”, without
preparation, immediately, through the gathering dark and
during the hours favoured by intense storms. It also meant
sailing eastward –– away from Jewish lands to those of the
gentile –– a foreshadowing of the ultimate direction of his
ministry unto the entire world.

Mark reports that other small boats set sail at the same time;
they then disappear from our story. Meanwhile Jesus took
himself off below and was deeply asleep when the storm
struck. In his incarnated humanity, perhaps Jesus was simply
worn out by exertion, heat and the crowd. Or perhaps Jesus
created a ‘perfect storm’ to give his disciples an examination
under pressure, to reveal His identity and His mission by
demonstration and direct experience. Perhaps both.
Up on deck, the disciples were overwhelmed. No doubt their
burden of responsibility for Jesus, and those of their fellows
compounded their distress. When they could see no other
option, they went to wake Jesus with a terrified complaint –
don’t you care if we perish? It’s a feeling familiar and all too
human when we are threatened, when things fall apart. They
call Jesus ‘Master’; like Rabbi or Teacher, even Messiah, such
titles fall short of his true identity.

For what manner of man is this? A full demonstration that
Jesus is the Lord of Creation swiftly follows.
He speaks 3 words and everything transforms upon His
command. This is not exorcism, or Kabbalistic conjuring with
complex requirements for ritual and supplication; it is an
instantaneous and effortless deployment of power. No wonder
His disciples are more deeply afraid when they realise they are
in the presence of God. Through their fear, they truly reach
“the other side” in reverence and awe. Only then will they
begin to exercise faith…receive His peace…be saved. As will
everyone who abides in faith and reverent fear, even in the
midst of our own storms and self-imposed separation from the
living God who always loves us. And who as Jesus, the man
and incarnate God, accepted a life of risk and pain for our
sakes. Amen.

Sermon, Trinity II, Sunday 13 June 2021, Ros Miskin

In today’s Gospel reading we learn from Mark that the kingdom of God is like a seed that, when it grows up, will put forth large branches ‘so that the birds of the air can nest in its shade.’

When I read that particular sentence about the birds, it brought to mind another passage from the New Testament which can be found in chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke.  Here, Jesus says to his followers: ‘foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ If, as Mark’s Gospel indicates, the birds are to be included in the kingdom of God then the text of Luke’s Gospel implies that Jesus, who has nowhere to lay his head, is not of the kingdom of God but a homeless outsider.  I believe that the answer is that in the Gospel narratives, the kingdom of God is anticipated and inaugurated by Jesus but he cannot fully participate in it until his earthly body has been transformed into a heavenly one. As the Son of Man, Jesus has to wait until his destiny is fulfilled on the Cross and in the Resurrection. Nor can we rest in the kingdom until the seed has grown up and has spread its branches.

In expressing his unique position as the Son of Man, the effect is one of  sadness at being, in effect, homeless.  Homelessness is a dispiriting state of affairs, and manifests itself on a large scale today. Politicians and people alike struggle to find solutions and churches and charities do their best to help those concerned. Can the New Testament offer us a way out of this anxiety-making state of affairs?  Let us see what we can find.

I believe that we are being asked not to strive too hard for a solution.  The message that the Gospel writers are giving us is that our real and ultimate home is the kingdom of God and this is not brought about solely by us.  We harvest the ripe grain but it is God who brings it forth on his own timetable.  As St Paul expresses it in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  St Paul also asks us not to lose heart because if our earthly tent is destroyed we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  This does not mean to say that we do not suffer earthly dilemmas but that, as Paul expresses it, he would rather be ‘away from the body and home with the Lord’ than the other way round.

Where does this leave us, though, in our present day reality with its massive problems, homelessness amongst them, made worse in recent times by the pandemic?  I would say that if we want to inhabit a better, fairer, world we can, as St Paul says, look towards the kingdom of God as a source of joy and completion but there is something else we can do.  In his book entitled ‘Meeting God in Mark’ our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams writes as follows: ‘to understand God there are a number of clues around you. The growth of a seed and the radiating of a lamp, as in the parable of the lamp under a bushel basket, demonstrate that God does not often manifest himself in  thunderclaps but works from the depth of our being; from the heart out into the life of the everyday.’ I would say, then, that if we contemplate these clues and are aware of this earthly activity of God in our being, then whatever comes from our heart out into our everyday existence is bound, by its very nature, to work for the benefit of all.  By tuning in to God’s work in us we can cope better and resolve where possible the problems that beset us, of which there are many.

We know, in today’s digital world,that we can tune in to what is going on all over the world but if we focus on tuning in to God’s work in us that, I believe, bears greater fruit in terms of the benefit of all.  It does so because it involves the very heart of our being.

The everyday earthliness of the ministry of Jesus is emphasised by Mark to refute the charge made by his enemies that Jesus was a magician who healed by means of an evil spirit.  On the contrary, Jesus is a human figure appointed by God as his earthly regent.  His teachings, as in the parables, are grounded in the natural world.  The focus of Mark’s theology is the kingdom of God but it is brought about in nature and we are then able to reap the harvest.

What Mark asks us to do is to be patient and wait for the seed to grow.  It is a gradual process but do not be disheartened as the coming of God’s kingdom is inevitable.  Waiting is not always easy and, as we know from the falling asleep of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we cannot always stay the course but if we can wait a bit, pray and be conscious of the possibilities that arise when we acknowledge God in our hearts, then from that little acorn the mighty oak will grow.

Sermon Trinity I Sunday 6 June 2021, Sara Wheeler

‘No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.’

Who is the strong man?

According to the context of Mark’s gospel, he is Satan, the force of evil, and according to Jerusalem scribes making a nuisance of themselves somewhere in Galilee, Jesus is working in partnership with him in the driving out of demons.

By this stage in Mark, we’ve had quite a lot of the force of good fighting it out with Satan with Jesus in the middle – in the wilderness for example, where Jesus successfully bound the strong man by withstanding temptation.

Jesus now applies logic to the arguments of those pressing forward in the crowd loudly accusing him of charlatanism. What would be the point, Jesus argues, in cooperating with one bad guy, in order to tie up another bad guy?

This is the fourth story in Mark about people’s reaction to Jesus, and one imagines the writer trying to build an argument in support of Jesus and his teaching. That, building an argument, is what writers do, perhaps the only thing in this whole sermon about which I have authority to speak. When today’s reading begins, Jesus has just healed a blind and mute man. Mark  frames him within his miracles.

By the way, the non-canonical version of the story we have heard today, the one in Thomas, says the episode is actually about the importance of careful planning. I can’t help thinking that preaching a sermon on that interpretation would be a lot easier.  A sort of Marie Kondo approach to spiritual tasks.

Who might the strong man be today?

He’s anti god, but he’s not anti just the Christian god is he? That moment in the evolution of Christianity has passed, at least within Thomas Little’s walls. Our strong man can’t be just that. Let’s say he is the one opposing the forces of good.

If that is the case, we must neuter him. Mark on this point is clear: we cannot overcome the enemy without taking away his power.

Who is the attacker then in the story, the one who binds? In Luke’s gospel he is someone stronger than the strong man. (Luke’s account ushers in the story of a man freed from a demon. This cunning demon, however, is not destroyed, he is merely displaced, and promptly joins up with seven other demons to get back inside the same man, who ends up worse off than he was when Jesus cured him.)

In verse 23, Mark writes  that Jesus called everyone round him and spoke to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan?’, for example. Jesus continues,  If a country divides itself into groups which fight each other, that country will fall  apart.’ It’s hard to know where to start with that in terms of contemporary relevance. It is a statement of fact, not a parable. To cite last week’s Economist, ‘The Holy Land remains contested by two peoples who cannot bring themselves to live together.’ We are not walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Continuing the analogy of the effects of fighting Satan with Satan,  a strategy the Pharisees accuse Jesus of prosecuting, Mark quotes Jesus saying, ‘If a family divides itself into groups which fight each other, that family will fall apart.’  Few among us could not come up with examples of that.

 The strong man story is a call for non-violent Christian political resistance, perhaps, if we can discern ideology reflected in the narrative. Scholars do often interpret Mark’s gospel as a call to overturn oppressive power structures. There is no shortage of strong man candidates if one does go down this route. I would like to see a painting of him labelled MAMMON.

A word on the strong man through a long-angle lens, one Mark often uses to view the world. The baptism of Christ at the start of his ministry achieves or represents victory over chaos and over all the armies of strong men. He’s done it for us.

I find this immensely reassuring. Viewing the verses here in a close-up shot, however, it’s for us to bind our own strong men as well. Here our Old Testament reading offers advice: don’t hide in the trees. We can surely do it, though we with giants fight. It’s a question of how hard we try.

I am reminded of a story told by George Bernard Shaw, not one of my favourite writers, but apposite here. ‘A Native American elder’, Shaw relates, ‘once described his own inner struggles in this manner: inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time. When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, The one I feed the most.’ 

Jesus, God, the Bible, someone or other in charge of events – what John Betjeman called ‘the management’ – is showing us through this story that we can do the right thing or stay on the right course by allowing the holy spirit to live with us in a kind of in-dwelling. There is a choice here, don’t you think, between binding, or letting the strong man roam and by the latter condemning our inner life to a tense stand-off with stuff that’s not good for us?

Jesus mentions the holy spirit. (But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness.) I would like to draw to a close by considering what that might be, but I imagine at theological college, if they have ten cardinal rules of sermons on the white board, number one might be, don’t try to define the holy spirit in the last paragraph.

So here’s what I think. The one characteristic that bipeds do not share with any animal is the desire to reach for the transcendental. Michelangelo’s finger on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. If anything is quintessentially human, it is the religious impulse. We detect it from Neolithic records: in cave paintings, for example, in which early man and woman crawled to the spot that was the most difficult of access to carve or daub pictograms of animals escorting their kinfolk to the next world. I do a lot of work with indigenous peoples and I see again and again the way in which their earliest myths seek to show the non-finality of death. Here is a carved walrus bone I picked up in Chukotka in the Russian Far East. It is intricately engraved with people, walruses, and scenes of the next works in which both live happily together

Mark talks of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ and you could say that means letting the strong man beat you down, letting what’s bad for you get the upper hand. By binding the strong man you take away his power. You become stronger than him.

Some say this story reflects a world-view prevalent in biblical times: one in which human beings believed they inhabited a binary universe peopled by powerful unseen forces, good or evil. They needed to control these forces, ‘or bind’ them, in order to get them on side. Certainly there’s a great deal in this passage that does not translate, culturally, to us, here, today, but it also shows how little that matters. The Bible so often crystallises moments of universality. I’ve been doing some work in my day job lately on Queen Esther, a mythical figure and one of only two women to have her own biblical book. Incidentally, though it’s not really incidental, that book, the Book of Esther, is also one of only two in the Bible not to mention god. Yet when Esther utters her fabled line, ‘If I die, I die’, isn’t she acknowledging the power of the transcendental? Of choosing the indwelling spirit of the holy over the strong man?

(You can watch Joan Collins on YouTube delivering this speech splendidly.)

No man can enter into a strong man’s house . . . except he will first bind the strong man’. We must strive to remove the enemy’s power – the enemy within and the enemy without. And as we proceed through this vale of tears we can disarm our doubts by letting them go. It is how we become authentically ourselves.

I don’t go in for eternal damnation. But I do believe one profits enormously from accepting, or seeking to embrace, that notion of the transcendental, wherever it might lead. If you can do that, the strong man really is bound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon, Trinity Sunday, 30 May 2021, Ros Miskin

Today is Trinity Sunday.  It is on this day that we celebrate the Holy Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  We can trace the origin of this celebration back to our 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, whose first act as Archbishop was to ordain that the day of his consecration should be held as a new festival in honour of the Holy Trinity. Today, in church we say that we worship and glorify the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we sing hymns of praise to the Trinity.

These confident and open expressions of our faith stand in contrast to the elements of privacy and secrecy that we find in the New Testament.  These elements demonstrate that the path to the formulation of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was not one filled throughout with the proclamation of the glory of God but fraught with debate, critique, and uncertainty.  It is this rocky path that evokes a powerful response by Jesus  in today’s Gospel reading as I shall reveal.  Powerful because the aim of John’s Gospel is to affirm the glory of God.

With this in mind, let us then reflect upon today’ reading.  John tells us that Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus in the night time rather than the day time for a private discussion to find out more about him as he is curious to know more about Jesus as a teacher who has come from God.  We are not told why Nicodemus comes in the night.  It might imply secrecy but it may be because John wishes us to view him as being in the dark until he has moved towards the light of faith.

Nicodemus sees himself as a fellow teacher with Jesus but Jesus is one who can do signs and this, Nicodemus concludes, means the presence of God.  In his Biblical Commentary, Jerome suggests there may be an influence here of Jewish legal tradition as in this tradition ‘the agent is like the one who sent him’.  This powerful conclusion may account for the privacy of their discussion as such a position would bestow on Jesus an authority that might not be accepted by the Jewish leaders.  If not accepted, then that would put all parties concerned in danger.

This element of privacy, though, is then blown apart by Jesus in his response to Nicodemus.  Blown apart in his openness about his fate as ‘the Son of Man’ ‘who will be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’. Jesus says to Nicodemus that he speaks of what he knows and testifies to what he has seen.  Nothing hidden here and this openness, with the exception of the furtive arrival of Nicodemus, is characteristic of John’s Gospel as opposed to the secrecy found in the remaining Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus urges his disciples to keep his divinity secret. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus orders and commands his disciples ‘not to tell anyone’ of the suffering he is to undergo as the Son of Man.

In John, though, we have the opposite.  Throughout his Gospel, John writes that Jesus is divine, pre-existent and identified with the one God, talking openly about his divine role with seven ‘I am’ declarations of his own: ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the gate for the sheep’, ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life and, finally, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’.

These statements are bold and open but, as today’s Gospel reading makes clear, they require an understanding of what is meant by baptism as it is baptism that gives them their full meaning.  Jesus teaches Nicodemus that their meaning rests in our ability to see the Kingdom of God and we cannot have that vision without baptism.  If you are to enter the Kingdom of God it is not just to be born of the flesh but to be born of the water and the Spirit.  I would add here St.Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he writes that with our spirit we are children of God, then heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.  We have just come through Pentecost when we thanked God for the gifts of this spirit: wisdom, peace, healing, fruit and breath.  All this made possible through baptism.

In spite of such awe inspiring statements, Nicodemus has not heard enough to be persuaded, and still asks the question: ‘How can these things be?’  Jesus reprimands him but then produces a resounding response for Nicodemus in what will be the climax of God’s loving purpose for mankind. He says that the Son of Man will be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  We are not given any reaction to this final affirmation by Nicodemus but we can see in the later texts of John’s Gospel that he is at least sympathetic to Jesus  and after the Crucifixion we learn that he brought myrrh and aloes to wrap linen cloths around the body of Jesus. As this was done in daylight we could say that he has shifted from the darkness of unbelief towards the light of belief.

Let us hope and pray, particularly while the pandemic hovers around us,  that we too can remain in the daylight in affirming the presence of God in our lives, as we do upon this Trinity Sunday.

 

 

Sermon Ascension Day, at St Mary’s Primrose Hill, Thursday 13 May 2021, the Vicar

Ascension-Tide has wonderful hymns, one has kept coming to me as I have been revisiting the New Testament accounts of the Ascension, Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour. Let it hover in the backs of your minds for a moment.

On Easter morning a parishioner emerged from church, puzzled by the readings. “Where is He?” my perplexed friend asked? “Where is he, when Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “I am not yet ascended to the Father.”

The question about Christ’s state between resurrection and ascension struck home. I had not pondered it before.

It might have plugged into a bewilderment I think I have always felt about the Ascension, with its inference of ascending, going up, as if to a defined place. Having been born a matter days before the Moon landing, my whole lifetime has been overshadowed by the demystification of space travel, and a general acceptance of the infinite character of time and space.

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy this year, in celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, the imagination is stretched by the mediaeval world’s mapping of hell, purgatory and heaven. Implied within the Comedy is a spatial sense of the locations of all three realms. The pilgrim, Dante, descends to the earthly depths of hell, climbs the Mountain of Purgatory before taking a space flight through our known universe. Ironically, the descent into Inferno is the beginning of the ascension of the human soul. Dante is speaking in metaphors too, but the furthest reaches of space were metaphorical for him in the way that it cannot be for the modern mind.

The key readings, both from the pen of St Luke for Ascension Day present another potential conundrum.

Jesus has a busy Easter Day evening. First, Jesus meets Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. As Cleopas and his companion are recounting their experiences back in Jerusalem, Jesus then appears to the assembled disciples. Jesus takes them up towards Bethany, on the eastern side of the Mt of Olives, and “was taken from them into heaven.” No indication of what time of day, but it must have been the early hours of Easter Monday by then! The same author, says in verse 3 of chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles, “To them he presented himself after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the Kingdom of God.” This time, without being precise about where the gathering has taken place, Jesus promises them the outpouring of power from on high. A cloud then envelopes him, and as he is taken from their sight. Two angels confirm that he has been taken up into heaven and he will come in the same way as they saw him go.

St Matthew’s account is different. The women, on their way back from the tomb on Easter Day, are told by the angel to tell the disciples to hasten to Galilee. Once there, on an unnamed mountain, Jesus charges his followers to “make disciples of all nations…and lo, I am with you to the close of the age.” It does not say he ascended, but it seems it is the culmination of his teaching and presence with them.

For the sake of time shall we bypass discussion of St Mark whose original version may not have included the Ascension?

In John we find intense accounts of Jesus’s presence with the disciples in those post-resurrection days. The meeting with Mary Magdalene in the garden by the tomb is perhaps one of the most moving in a Gospel which has especially beautiful encounters of Jesus with different individuals, and notably women. As in Matthew, we are in Galilee. Twice John tells us of the many other things which Jesus did. He even underlines how uncontainable this would all be in a life-time’s library of books. But not a word about the Ascension.

For the sceptics, it could be said, having looked at different post-Resurrection accounts, that the Ascension is handled more differently by the four evangelists than the Eucharist, Jesus’s healing miracles, the Passion or even the Resurrection. Luke even seems to confound his own sequencing of it with two separate narratives. Certainly, Luke is the only Evangelist to imply, and only once, that the Ascension took place on the Mount of Olives forty days after Easter.

Is there a way to harmonise these dissonant testimonies?

The concluding line of the hymn I spoke of that the start, Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour spells the answer in just three words – Risen, ascended, glorified.

There is more insight in the account of Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene. The understandable desire of the Magdalene to keep holding on to Jesus, matched by his gentle separation from her, with the words “I am not yet ascended to the Father”, suggests that Jesus is not in an in-between or non-place. The emphasis is that Jesus’s departure is vital. It is not that he has not yet ascended, but Mary cannot see that his rising from the dead marked his Ascension too: the start of a new way of relating. It’s as if John is playing out what St Paul says (in II Corinthians 5: 16-17) “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view…, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has passed away the new has come.”

Mary’s recreation, in the early light of the first Easter morning, hints at what will happen to all believers, once Jesus has gone to his Father. His departure completes the promise in Matthew’s Gospel “lo, I am with you to the close of the age.”

Mary’s experience of needing to hold on to a departed loved one, is the most authentic experience of grief. Jesus is gentle with her, not forbidding her touch, just gently stopping it, for his resurrection was his Ascension too. What a comfort to many whose experience of this year has been one of managing grief in ways which have been so disrupted by the pandemic, not being with the dying, not attending their funerals, not sharing sympathy in their wake. Jesus’s resurrection placed him, Paul says (Eph 1: 22, 23), at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, the head over all things, but his humanity reaches out to the sorrowing and grieving. “Blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted, blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Easter Day sermon, 4 April 2021, the Vicar

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

I have a sin of fear

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

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

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

went away again unto their own home!

 Are there any Italians in the House?

 What did you celebrate last Thursday, on 25 March?

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

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

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

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

 We have left Mary Magdalene at the tomb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The Sabbath rest is over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from Canto 33:82 John Ciandi translation)

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

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

My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son

Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;

And, having done that, thou hast done;

I fear no more.

Sunday 7 March 2021, Lent III, the Vicar

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

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

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

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

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

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

To summarise Israelite History…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon Lent I, 21 February 2021, The Vicar

Sermon Lent I, 21 February 2021, the Vicar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 14 February 2021, the Transfiguration, Ros Miskin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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