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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prophets: Truth Tellers – December 8th 2019

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

Readings: Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then?

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

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

Amen.

[1] 1 Cor 15

The Persecuted Church: 17th November 2019

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Believe me I am not angry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Remembrance Sunday Sermon 2019

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe our calling is one of witness.

To witness to the Cross of Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the sake of this generation and the next. Amen

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

Nature in the Bible and the Saving of the Lost Sheep

3 November 2019

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

Ros Miskin, Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

God and wealth

22 September 2019

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

by Ros Miskin, Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

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

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

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

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

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

Imitation

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

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

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

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

Three ethical tools

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

The first is appealing to Law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtue Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let us go, and do likewise.

Amen.

The Gerasene Man Freed

by Ros Miskin, Reader

Readings:

In today’s Gospel reading we learn of a man in the country of the Gerasenes who is trapped by demons within himself that cause him to live outside the city in the tombs. The demons have left him as an outcast without even the capacity to wear clothes. Attempts have been made to imprison him in shackles but his inner demons drive him so distracted that he breaks free and goes into the wilds.

So there he is, naked and beyond the pale.  In Mark’s Gospel narrative he even bruises himself as he has been robbed of his self-esteem.  He is an outcast whose identity has been eroded by demons to such an extent that he has even lost his real name.  It has been superseded by the name ‘Legion’ which is the name Luke gives us for the many demons who have taken over the man’s existence.

In spite of all this torment and isolation we know from his encounter with Jesus, as given in today’s Gospel reading, that this man is a good man.  We know this because he falls down before Jesus and calls him ‘Son of the Most High God’.  The demons have not robbed him of this recognition of the Son of God though his spirit has been so crushed that he assumes that Jesus will only torment him as a damaged lowly being.

What I believe we can perceive at this stage of the Gospel narrative is that the aim of the Devil is to create division as division is contrary to the unifying purpose of God for humanity to become as one.  The words ‘divide and rule’ come to mind here.  To create barriers between people the Devil occupies a person’s inner being and this drives them away from the centre of human affairs.  That is one method.  The other is to create a dispute of such magnitude that it results in humiliation and death away from the centre of human affairs.  This method can be seen in the rejection of Jesus as the Son of God followed by his imprisonment, then his naked body left to die on the Cross, pierced by the Crown of Thorns.  Here Jesus is the ultimate outcast left to die, as we sing in the Easter hymn on ‘a green hill far away’.

In today’s world we can see attempts to counteract this divisionism in a variety of ways.  For the believer and non-believer alike there is an emphasis on people working together in teams and groups to mutually support each other and solve problems if need be.  There is the desire to include people with special needs in all activities, to welcome diversity and to host refugees.  As a Christian I see this as a step towards the ultimate reconciliation of God with humanity when all will become as one.

Let us now return to Jesus on the Cross.  The moment that Jesus is nailed to the Cross he is trapped.  Being trapped is very much a theme of today’s Gospel reading.  It is the hunter and the hunted.  The man is trapped by demons and the demons are trapped in the man’s body, begging Jesus to set them free by releasing them from the man’s body and allowing them to enter the swine.  Jesus permits this to happen and the demons are destroyed by the rush of the herd down the steep bank into the lake where they are drowned.  This sets the man free at last to ‘sit at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’.

So what does this narrative of being trapped and set free tell us?  What I believe it tells us is that in spite of the constant attempts of the Devil to confine us all in mind, body and spirit, God has the final say in terms of our freedom.  We may all from time to time feel trapped, either by external circumstances or by internal mental conflict but as Christians we have the assurance given to us in the Bible that it is God who commands the process of being confined and set free, even though the Devil can temporarily hold sway.  Thus Jesus frees the man and he himself is set free from the power of death by his Resurrection. We, as Christians, are also offered the freedom of the Holy Spirit to guide us through times of fearful confinement and peril.

This commanding position from on high is not readily perceived by those who witnessed Jesus healing the man and those who were informed by them of what had happened.  They know that Jesus has demonstrated his power to heal by freeing the man from the demonic trap he is in, but it leaves them fearful.

Seized with this fear they ask Jesus to leave them and he does so but this is not the end of the story.  The healed man begs Jesus to go with him but Jesus orders him to return to his home and ‘declare how much God has done for you’.  Out of the fearful reaction of the people is emerging a mission to the Gentiles by one man who is told to return to his home to declare God’s power to heal and restore.  Out of the fearful episodes that have occurred both for the man and the people is going to come a spreading of the Word of God which trumps the Devil’s card.  God is the fountain of sending love and this is the deepest source of mission so we can say that ‘hearts are trumps’!

We may ask, though, in the light of today’s Gospel, how should we view the treatment of the swine?  They have done no harm and yet are destroyed by demonic possession which sends them rushing to the lake.  This is a complex situation.  Are we to infer from Luke’s Gospel, as both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas did centuries ago, that this killing of the swine was ‘for the good of men’s souls’?  This, I believe, is rather a harsh judgement on the animal kingdom.  In the Book of Genesis, God does give Adam and Eve dominion over

living creatures, inviting them to name them.  Here we have dominion but no evidence of condemnation of the animal kingdom.  On the contrary, as Adam and Eve have disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit it is they who are brought down to ‘move upon their belly’ and ‘eat dust all the days of their life’.

They are the ones who are ‘cursed among all animals and among all wild creatures’ which gives animals the greater good.

Could it be, then, that the swine are symbolic?  The might of Rome at the time was symbolized by a white sow and the word ‘Legion’ in the context of ancient Rome meant a large unit of the Roman army.  Although pigs were sacrificial in Greek and Roman worship, we might say that the fate of the swine was not so much a rejection of the animal kingdom but a rejection of Roman rule.

Hopefully then by looking back into earlier Bible texts and considering symbolism we can avoid an attack in today’s reading on the animal kingdom.

We can instead focus on the power of God to heal us and consider how that first missionary push that was given to one man to achieve has spread throughout the world.

 

The Core Christian Commandmant, 19th May 2019

by the Revd Matt Harbage

Readings: Acts 11.1-18; John 13.31-35

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

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

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

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

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

They have something indispensible to teach us about being human.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Patronal Festival of St Mark 2019 – Sunday 5th May

By the Revd Dr Ayla Lepine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Septuagesima: “Little Easter” – 17th February 2019

By the Revd Matt Harbage

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

Today we begin a bit of a countdown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Jesus Christ, God is doing something new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Advent I – Revd Matt Harbage, 2nd December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

God of fear,

God of the night,

God of the expectation.

You visited shepherds in the night,

With songs and sights of joy.

In all of our nights, turn us

towards hope, because

Hope might just

Keep us alive

Amen.

 

 

dedication festival read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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