Sermon, 1 May 2022, the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist -Tessa Lang

Welcome to our patronal festival of St Mark the Evangelist, with First of
May greetings to all. Perhaps you also enjoyed Radio 4’s broadcast of
the Magdalen Choir singing an Old English air from the vantage point of
the college’s historic tower. Across the land and often from a town’s
highest point (such as St. Catherine’s Hill in Winchester), similar
celebrations of hope and renewal will be taking place today and
tomorrow.

Let us hold onto this image of joy and gratitude on the day we honour
St Mark, particularly as we consider two passages that contain some
mighty discouraging words.

Firstly, from Acts 15: v 39
And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed
asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed
unto Cyprus…
And
From the pen of St Mark 13: v 5
And Jesus answering them began to say, Take heed lest any man
deceive you…
v 9
…take heed to yourselves…
v 13
…ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall
endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.

“We’ve got trouble, my friends” Professor Harold Hill sings to the good
people of River City in The Music Man (other theatrical productions are
available). Though tuneful, it is a common-or-garden deception, a slight
example of Jesus’ warning in his Olivet Discourse as set out by Mark in
chapter 13. That’s because everyday deceptions and false claims
damage our shared society, particularly when weaponised by the truly
evil.

The Discourse remains as disturbing and relevant as it was on the 11th
of Nisan AD 33, when anxious apostles gazed across the Kidron Valley
at the incomparable golden Temple of Jerusalem…whilst their beloved
master pondered the soon-to-be-accomplished events of crucifixion,
resurrection, and deployment of a fledgling church.

For we do have trouble, don’t we? All kinds of claims and remedies
and preposterous assertions are touted for power and profit; terrible
conflicts and escalation of war clog our news; climate change disasters
multiply. How are we to navigate a fallen world in faith and arrive at
salvation?

Enter John Mark, who appears in the Bible as the son of Mary Mark in
Acts 12. Peter turns up at her front door following an angel-enabled
escape from Herod’s prison; inside, many believers were gathered to
pray. From this report, we glean that Mark’s mother made her
apparently large and staffed home available as a church and refuge; this
puts Mark squarely within apostolic and earliest Christian circles, most
likely involving contact with Jesus. Tradition has it that her home was
the location for the Last Supper. Her teenage son, Mark, could well
have been the man with the water jug who escorts two trusted apostles
to the Upper Room; after all, they would be able to recognise each
other. Later that momentous night, it is widely agreed that he was the
unnamed young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest.

Mary Mark also appears on our high altar reredos with her son as a
young boy who carries one of his attributes – a volume representing his
future Gospel, dedicated often with the Pax Tibi angelic greeting the
Evangelist received on a stop in Venice.

It is the shortest and the first of the written gospels, and its narrative
form sets a pattern for the gospels that follow. Mark begins with
assertion of authority of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God as
written by the prophets, now proclaimed by his messenger, John,
crying in the wilderness and preaching the baptism of repentance.
Jesus appears as an adult reporting for his baptism, to receive the Spirit
of God from above before fasting and temptation in the desert – a lot of
territory is covered in the first 13 verses!

Next Mark moves on to the active public ministry of Jesus. Extensive
use of time words (now, then, when) and rapid succession of actions
move through his ministry in earth-time to explanation of what lies on
the other side of ascension… when the end-days progress like birth
pains delivering the Second Coming in God’s own undisclosed and
sovereign time. In between Jesus’ acknowledgment as the Son of God
at his baptism and his ascension, Mark emphasises the Passion,
devoting 6 of his 16 chapters to chronicling the event, which he
foreshadows from chapter 8. The first gospel-writer incudes nothing
more or nothing less than required for full commitment to radical
spiritual transformation.

Fundamental to this earliest gospel is the relationship between Mark
and Peter, which sits at its heart. In chapter 1, Peter is mentioned twice,
and in the final chapter 16, within the first 8 verses that are undisputedly
Marcan, the women are exhorted to “go tell the disciples and Peter”;
this placement of mentions is called an “inclusio”, a classical device to
indicate the source of the contents as the person named at the
beginning and the end. In between, Peter is mentioned more times
than any other disciple, not least because Mark joined in the work of
spreading the gospel throughout Asia Minor and on to Rome. In his
first epistle during these years of setting up and mentoring churches,
Peter writes of Mark as his son. Tradition has it that during earlier times
in Jerusalem, Peter acted as a spiritual godfather to the young man,
encouraging him to continue and complete his studies of useful
languages and of law. In this way, Mark became Peter’s Boswell, a
scribe and recorder of the apostle’s eyewitness accounts of Jesus in
words and in deeds. Testimony of early church voices such as Papias,
Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian universally assert Mark’s Gospel
provides an accurate account of Peter’s teaching, which Luke in turn
relies upon in his later gospel.

As we learn in our first reading, not all of Mark’s relationships within the
early church flourished. In Acts we learn he had set sail with Paul
accompanied by his cousin Barnabas on the first missionary expedition,
serving as an “attendant”. But at Perga, in Pamphylia, (present day
Turkey), he went AWOL and returned to Jerusalem, no doubt to the
care and comfort afforded at his mother’s house. The text does not
speak to specifics; perhaps Mark had fallen ill and realised that being
on the road with Paul was not a prescription for recovery, perhaps he
was just homesick. Or both. We are uncertain of Mark’s age although
he was most likely born up to 15 years after Jesus was; clearly, he is
the junior partner-in-training. As such Paul could not forgive his
dereliction of duty, so much so that when Barnabas approached him a
considerable time later to propose that Mark be given a second chance,
the senior disciple flatly refused.

Thanks to his cousin, Barnabas, Mark’s career as evangelist continued
to develop through ministry in Cyprus. Tradition has it that the Mark
family, though Jewish and most likely Levite, had roots in Cyprus
although Mark was born in the city of Cyrene, north Africa (modern day
Libya) before his parents decided to return to Judea when he was a
child. At the start of his work, he evidently preferred preaching to fellow
Jews in Jerusalem or ministering in the Cyprus of his extended family.
The full fruition of Mark’s evangelism, however, would be throughout
North Africa, the cities of the Pentapolis including Cyrene and Carthage,
and finally, Alexandria. For our patron saint is particularly revered in the
Coptic Orthodox church as the founder of Christianity in Africa, the first
Bishop of Alexandria, and most holy martyr of the faith. There is a
treasure trove of stories about Mark, as well as attributed theological
writings arising from this time that form a central part of the Copt
tradition.

With an Aramaic name meaning “son of comfort”, Barnabas gets my
vote for enabling a second chance for a young man ideally positioned
by his age and connection to apostolic teachings, education and
literacy, family wealth and relations, devout and supportive mother, a
serious mind, and a constitutional sense of urgency, to lead the early
and rapid expansion of the gospel into an established church. In
Mark’s case, a regrettable rupture between believers was eventually
reconciled and redeemed, when the now experienced evangelist spent
time with Paul, then imprisoned in Rome, as a “fellow-worker” given the
high Pauline accolade of being “useful to me”. Surely a lesson in
conflict management, and for avoidance of splintering of focus and
efforts when confronted with the task of “publishing the gospel among
all nations”.

The life of our patronal saint and Christian hero is beautifully depicted in
the stained-glass window above his dedicated altar on the south aisle
of our church. Created by the distinguished English artist John
Hayward, its luminous composition tells the evangelist’s story from
boyhood to martyrdom (including lushly red wounds), accompanied by
the person and spirit of his mentors, primarily Peter. Completing the
window is an image of his leonine Live Creature. Although our window
is vintage early 1960’s, it reminds me of the 800-year-old Miracle
Windows from Canterbury Cathedral…their vivid colour, evocation of
extraordinary encounters and undeniable reverence. At St Mark’s, we
possess the cherry on top in the form of the dove of the Holy Spirit, an
abiding memorial for the late and much-loved Anne Griffiths. A second
lion takes a central position above the high altar, so we have an
aesthetic representation of Mark’s faith when confronting two lions in
the wilderness with prayer…and living to tell the tale, as Copt tradition
relates… or perhaps the lions also represent the Baptist roaring to
prepare the way of the Lord. When you have trouble, two lions are
better than one!

A final touchstone for our St Mark experience today is the icon sent in
glorious colour with the weekly email of service. Here is a powerful
depiction of a young Mediterranean man, in robes of passionate red,
ablaze with mission and inspiration, swathed in the deep blue of
eternity. His companion the Lion acts as subdeacon, holding the
gospel for the reader – both us and Mark himself. He sits where his
mystical lion’s wings would be the active principle in proclaiming the
gospel. Now his words have wings because they are received from the
Holy Ghost, very God of very God, all powerful, unknown by us,
emerging from its cloud of glory.

We are fortunate indeed to have St Mark’s life and spiritual journey so
vividly displayed for us as an example of how to take heed and endure
unto the end. This is the mission of the Marcan gospel expressed in the
very fabric of our church, where together as companions and fellow
workers, we can help others and ourselves along the way. And in the
closing lines of a poem William found in the church archives circa 1967:

“Give us your faith that we may not turn back
But go on in God’s service to life’s end.”
Amen.

Sermon, 8th May 2022, John 10:22-30 – Glen Ruffle

This last week I had training in Woking on preaching, and William led the first two sessions. So what I’m saying is – if this sermon is great, well what did you expect from me?; if it’s terrible, blame William…😊

Today we will explore the reading from John, and the identity of Jesus. Why is it important that Jesus is one with the Father? And how do we remain in his flock?

Later this year, we have HM the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee! It will be a big event, one that does not happen very often! And in our gospel today, Jesus was at a big event – though I admit it happened much more frequently, occurring each year. Our Jewish friends call it Hannukah.

Hannukah celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. Why did it need to be rededicated? A nasty man called Antiochus Epiphanes had come to power and he decided that all religions, especially Judaism, should be merged into one; that one sacrifice to Zeus would cover everything. He banned Jewish circumcision and he had pigs – an unclean animal – slaughtered on the altar in the Jerusalem temple.

Talk about red rag to a bull! It would be like driving a car covered in protestant/unionist symbols through a catholic/nationalist neighbourhood in Northern Ireland. Eruption and riots would erupt. And sure enough, the Jewish world exploded, led by the Maccabees brothers.

You can read all about the Maccabean revolt elsewhere, suffice to say they won and the temple was retaken. But it was now seen as dirty, defiled and unclean, and so it was rededicated and restored. It was made ready and fit for the sacrifices to God to resume, making things right between God and his people.

They got the temple back in order, but they still waited for a godly and holy king, a great leader to save them. Imagine Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, a righteous and virtuous king riding in to lead the overthrow of Greek and Roman rule.

So when Jesus turns up, and with him comes the big fuss and massive reputation about what he’s been doing, the priests ask him: are you the messiah?! Are you the one? Tell us plainly! Well, it’s true Jesus had not explicitly stated his identity to them, but equally, he had said it in other words, and he heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out demons and turns water into wine. The elemental chemistry of planet earth changes at his whim. The prophesied kingdom of God is erupting as lives are changed, deformed bodies restored, sinners corrected into living rightly. The evidence of his identity is pretty clear…

If it is yellow, peels, grows in bunches and is curved, then it is probably a banana. If someone ticks all the boxes of your hoped-for Messiah, then he might just be that Messiah!

Jesus responds to their doubt in an exasperated manner. I told you and you don’t believe!  The things I do show you who I am! Why can’t you see this?!

Before WW2, many people admired the strongman leader of Germany. They saw a man delivering results. A few lone outliers, like that “troublesome” Churchill, warned that this Hitler was evil and that authoritarianism leads to horror and war. Some people, like Churchill, had eyes to see the truth, even when everyone else was blind.

Jesus effectively said the same about the priests: their shepherd was in front of them, but they refused to recognise him.

Jesus uses sheep as a metaphor. Sheep are often used to describe God’s people of Israel, but here Jesus gives the shocking truth to the priests: they are not God’s sheep!  Imagine you spend your life serving and volunteering for a charity, doing good things, and then suddenly a faction hi-jacks your charity and leads it to an extreme position, accusing people like you of not even being a member! You’d feel very insulted, upset and grieved. You gave your life to that organisation!

That’s how these leaders felt! The leaders of Israel – not God’s sheep! It’s such an insult! But Jesus’ sheep listen to his voice, and these leaders clearly do not see or hear Jesus.

Jesus then gives the incendiary statement: he and his Father are one. If the priests wanted a direct statement, this is it! But why is it important that Jesus and God are also One?

First, if Jesus and God are One, then it means the teachings of Jesus are the teachings of God. And if you can’t listen to Jesus, you can’t listen to God.

Second, if you ever feel dirty, devalued, used, flawed and just ‘wrong’; if you ever wish you were an angel, or a unicorn, or a ghost; then I have news for you: Jesus Christ, One with God, became flesh just like you and me. God became us: that’s how valuable and precious we are!

Third, if Jesus is God and man, then Jesus is where God meets us. He is the new temple. He replaces the stone monolith in Jerusalem and himself becomes the gateway and door to God.

And if you are his sheep, you are safe. God himself protects you. No one can steal you.

But… please note, no one can steal you, but you can probably wander off. You must keep an eye on your shepherd. By all means explore and ask questions: Christianity is about learning and growing to embrace the fullness of your responsibility as a child of God, serving him and making the best choices. It is psychologically healthy to question your faith, to find answers and go deeper; to wrestle with God and to mature. But remember – No one can steal you, but you can lose yourself.

So how do we remain in the flock? Ask yourself: can I see my shepherd? If you are not coming to church, meeting with Christians, you are isolated and losing touch with the shepherd. Indeed, if you can love fellow Christians, it often seems you can love anyone! Persist in praying. Ask questions, but continue to serve. And read the bible, let it form you to be like Jesus. Because his words are the words of God, and his temple is now made of people like you and me.

So persist in your faith, don’t wander off. Stay loyal, and remember your value – God took on flesh just like you and me; that’s how much he cares!

 

Sermon, Good Friday, 15 April 2022, the Vicar

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on / and our little life is rounded by a sleep.”

Familiar words of Prospero to his future son-in-law, from Act IV of Shakespeare’s entrancing and slightly mystifying play The Tempest.

 Dreams and sleep play their part in the Passion narrative in particularly fascinating ways.

I will take forward thoughts about this in relation to the Passion in a moment, but I would begin with a simple acknowledgement of the dream we all share, I am sure for peace in our world, and not least in Ukraine. The visit of Lord Williams to Kyiv this week, as a simple witness with other faith leaders, from the RC Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and several other faiths represented in the UK was a brave statement of connection, and I hope and pray it was able to speak louder than words.

My eldest is reading English, but has found herself in her final year becoming rather taken with a range of literature, and not least Biblical writing. A study she made of dreams in the Bible, and particularly women’s dreams, caused me to look again at two narratives, which owe a great deal to her close reading of them. if there are any feminist readers of the Scriptures present, you might be intrigued by her findings. I was.

The first of the dreams comes from the Song of Songs, which has strong connections with St John’s account of the Resurrection; and the second is just one little verse in Matthew’s Passion narrative (not John’s which we have just heard), which we don’t often hear preached on because it is sung on Palm Sunday without a sermon normally.

The Song of Songs is an arresting read. It’s only eight short chapters. It’s x-rated material, beware. It’s clearly a conversation between lovers. King Solomon, its author, we see as the first. According to I Kings 11: 3 had 700 wives and 300 concubines. One assumes he knew something about love. From his father, King David, he inherited the gift of poetry. The book is a to and fro between the lover and his belove; which one of the 1000 women in his life is not clear. As with modern novels, not only are there no speech marks, there is no clear indication which of the protagonists is speaking at any one time. Literary scholars love this deliberate enigmatic style.

In 5: 2 we read “I slept but my heart waketh.” And then, “Hark my beloved is knocking.” The beloved is the male lover knocking at the door, his damsel is sleeping but her heart waketh.

She writes:

The text is a long, mystical poem, elusive and delirious with metaphors such as “a garden inclosed is my sister, […] a spring shut up.” It evokes the idea of trapped love and desire, unable to be found or opened, and the male lover cannot touch this Rapunzel. The female speaker, who sounds as though she is in a trance, opens this book with “let him kiss me with” “kisses” as his love is “better than wine”. This analogy of desire is heightened by the similarity in Hebrew of the verbs to kiss, and to drink: yishshaqeni and yashqeni. This romantic poetry cannot be the language of one who is awake, as it is drunk and disconnected from reality, lost in a world of desire.

While this is fitting, as the images are so palpable, the reader does not quite have access to them, as the images flit too quickly and nothing is ever certain. This is perhaps the beauty of the text, as the dream never remains one clear image.

One Theologian Valentine draws on, Andrew Bishop, puts forward the fascinating idea that certain sorts of sleep in the Bible, equate to a spiritual state: he coins the term Theosomnia – godly or hallowed sleep. What is distinctive about Theosomnia, as opposed to normal sleep and normal reverie, is that the subject finds its deepest longings met in the experience. From the profound sleep of Adam in Genesis, as bone of his bone, his wife is taken from his side, through the dreams of Jacob and Joseph, the great patriarchs of old meet God. Here in the Song though, uniquely in the Old Testament, it is woman whose heart is awakened in sleep, and the significance of this is profound: she is equal to her beloved. There is a symmetry reminiscent of Eden’s primordial equality. While sleeping HER heart waketh.

This sets the scene for the encounter of Mary Magdalene with Our Lord in garden on Easter morning, where of course we find ourselves back in Eden.

That is to jump ahead though.

There is another dream, another woman’s dream, which is easily missed, we barely notice it, it passes in a trice in one verse of the Gospel of Matthew.

Setting aside our Lord, Pontius Pilate is the only human being named in the creed. He is there, because he is historical; he is named by Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, Tacitus, all four Gospel writers, and there are archaeological fragments attesting to him and his time in office between 26-36 AD, in the reign of Tiberias.

It’s arguable how choice a posting Judaea may have been for a Roman official. At a corner of the Empire known for flare-ups and trouble, Judaea was not one of the fancier provinces in Gaul. But Pilate may not have been one of the first division civil servants, and so this may have been as much as a former soldier might have hoped for to line his pockets and establish himself in gracious retirement in Rome.

The reason for this background is because our second dreamer, was Pilate’s wife. By tradition named Claudia Procula – there are no contemporary independent sources to prove either her name or presence in Pilate’s household during his governorship. Tantalisingly there was a tomb uncovered in Beirut, some think it possibly of the second half of the first century. How she ended up there, we cannot know.

Matthew alone of the Gospel writers tells us that during the interrogation of Christ before the governor, his wife sent him a message “Have nothing to do with this righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream because of him.” There is no record of Pilate’s immediate reaction to her intervention; we hear directly of the stoking of the crowd against Jesus, baying for the release, in his stead, of Barabbas, apparently an annual Passover sop to the crowds. Mark tells us Barabbas was a murderer, while John tells us he was a robber. Matthew spares us those details, but Pilate does something he does not do in the other accounts, and this may have been one of the results of his wife’s Theosomnia. He publicly washes his hands. The Roman judge and authority wishes no part in Jesus’s death. For the most Jewish of the Gospels, it is particularly striking that Jesus’s own nation is targeted as having been solely responsible for it. Matthew remembers Procula’s dream and its dramatic consequence is Pilate’s, therefore Rome’s, recusal from the death sentence.

From a literary point of view, critics would say that Matthew uses Procula’s dream as plot driver and a cliff-hanger. But it might be seen as a moment of Theosomnia as well. Procula’s heart is awakened, her sleep is hallowed and she dreams the most striking prophecy of them all, in the context of the Passion. For a woman in antiquity to have clear sight and judgement when all around seemed to be losing their own, Matthew is underlining the travesty of the justice to which Jesus is subject.

A Roman pagan and his wife see what the Jewish authorities and those that follow them will not, that the one being condemned is in fact the only true judge. To extirpate his guilt, the Governor may wash his hands, and seem to distance himself from his part in this distortion of justice. Procula is held as a saint in some of the Eastern Churches, and Origen, one of the early Fathers says of her that her insight makes her a prototype of what and who the Church is. A significant accolade indeed, for one whose part is so fleeting in the Gospel. I cannot say how grateful I was to sit at my daughter’s feet in revisiting the Passion this year.

The Gospel in today’s liturgy has the evangelist quoting the prophet Zechariah, in cadences which are almost shrill, declaring ‘“They shall look on him whom they have pierced.”’ This describes exactly our task as we gaze upon the figure of our Lord upon the cross. We are not looking in horror or fear, but wonder and joy and hope. Procula’s waking sleep revealed correctly “that this just man” was indeed both innocent and just. Like Mark’s centurion at the foot of the cross, Procula sees Jesus for who he is. He is of such stuff as a her dreams are made on. Dreams of restoration and the return to Eden, as in the Song, and John’s account of Easter morning.

The prophet Isaiah had foreseen this in the suffering of the Servant of his songs:

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

 

Sermon, Maundy Thursday, 2022, The Reverend Glen Ruffle

Maundy Thursday. I always thought the meaning had something to do with mourning, but if we translate the Latin meaning, this is Commandment Thursday. The day Jesus gave us the command to serve each other, the command to commemorate him in bread and wine at Holy Communion, and the command to love one another.

Today we heard that it was the Passover in Jerusalem, the time when Jews remembered and rehearsed the Exodus from Egypt. They had been slaves; God had promised to set them free; pharaoh refused; God sent the plagues on Egypt; still Pharaoh refused; and so finally God passed over the land of Egypt and delivered a fearful judgement. Yet where doors were marked with the blood of a lamb, judgement was averted. Those doors showed where the people of God lived. The people of God who trusted in God’s promise.

And so, after the judgement of God fell, the people of God – those who trusted him – left Egypt and began their journey to the promised land.

And the Jews remember this every year. God rescuing his people, delivering judgement on their enemies, but saving his people via the blood of a lamb.

In this context, John begins chapter 13 of his gospel. And it struck me how he begins it. “Jesus loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end”. He did not abandon anyone.

Jesus knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands”, and Jesus knew that “he had come from God and was going to God”. This is Jesus at his absolute zenith. All, everything, the entirety of the universe was placed into his hands. Jesus saw clearly the glory he had left, and the glory to which he would return.

To find a (bad) analogy, it’s like the footballer Ronaldo – he left glory at Juventus, where he was a legend, to come to Manchester United’s glory, where he was also a legend. Everything was at his feet. And how much more was everything at Jesus’ feet.

And what did he do? He got up, took off a robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin, and began washing the feet of his rag-tag disciples.

The next US president in two years’ time could be Biden again, it could be Trump, it could be Kamala Harris. But do you foresee any of them, with all that power at their feet, getting up to wash the dirty feet of the people who serve them?

Yet Jesus, Son of God, served us. Remember the context: God saving his people from their suffering via the exodus; averting judgement from them via the blood of a lamb. And in that context of salvation, rescue and mercy, Jesus serves us again.

I have no idea why the washing of feet is not more of a sacrament. I read some arguments on the internet and felt they didn’t particularly hold too much water. I suspect, being a cynic, that we, historically, have been far more comfortable eating bread and drinking wine, which requires less of us, than physically encountering the smelly, warty, deformed, bruised feet of each other.

Yet John’s gospel is quite clear: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

We don’t need to take this literally! Though perhaps, for some of us, this might be very relevant. But the point is that we are to serve one another. The Son of God did not come to be served, but to serve us. Go and do likewise. And sometimes service involves smelly feet!

I’ve been deeply honoured since joining this church to be welcomed and served by so many of you, welcomed for meals and given such kind hospitality. It has humbled me, and I am so grateful to you all. You have served me so kindly.

In his example of serving everyone, Jesus washed feet, and even honoured Judas. His love and service was sacrificial – discarding his status and even his dignity. He went down to serve people like us before going up to glory.

When I was in Moscow, there was a person who really knew how to make enemies. This person was inexplicably hostile to many people, and difficult to get along with. I found this person difficult, but then the chaplain gave me some wisdom: “the best way to deal with difficult people, your enemies, is to serve them”. That Sunday I gave bread and wine to that person, and it was a powerful moment for me, serving this person and remembering that Christ died in service for them because he loved them.

So let us too follow Jesus’ example. How might we serve each other sacrificially? How can we honour people we find difficult? How can we love those we dislike?

Jesus died for us, to make us one family, to rescue us from pointless existence.

Let us continue to follow our master and serve each other, showing the world just what a difference following Jesus makes to our lives. People will find faith by experiencing how we love them: so let us love them, being their servants, as Jesus would.

But let us remember that love begins here in church with our family. Love each other, forgive each other, learn to see through the eyes of your neighbour, and via love and humility, you will grow more like Christ.

Sermon, Mothering Sunday, 27 March 2022, Ros Miskin

Today is Mothering Sunday.  How gentle that sounds at a time of continuing pandemic and the horror of war in Ukraine, with its destruction of people and places.  The cards, flowers and gifts that mothers will receive today as expressions of gratitude for all the love and support they have given their children stands in stark contrast to the bombing of the maternity hospital in Ukraine.

It appears, though, that the history of mankind has been one of both gentleness and horror.  Acts of loving kindness whereby we build each other up and acts prompted by fear and hatred whereby we bring each other down. It is a seesaw that has yet to stop going up and down and rest in balance across the world.  Only when that happens will the lion lie down with the lamb.

We may be decades away from that position but we must not despair.  To keep hope alive let us look at today’s Gospel reading to see where that takes us.  Jesus is about to die on the Cross.  An agonizing death being witnessed by his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene and the beloved disciple.  It seems at this point as though hatred has triumphed as not even maternal love can save Jesus from his death.  Mary’s love can only be expressed in the agony she must have felt in losing her son in such a terrible way.  Yet even at this time of extreme suffering there is a moment of gentleness.  Jesus puts his mother into the care of the beloved disciple and says: ‘Woman, here is your son’.  Then he says to the beloved disciple: ‘here is your mother’ and the disciple takes her into his own home.

In this Gospel narrative, John gives us a perfect example of an act of loving kindness amidst an act of destruction that is a pattern we are all familiar with.  It is in this particular act of kindness that we can find the hope we are looking for.  We can find it because it is a missionary act.  The mission we all have to love and care for one another is not destroyed by the death of any one of us.  In this, his last act of mission before his life on earth ends, Jesus is completing his earthly task before bowing his head and giving up his spirit. Our mission is to continue in such acts of loving kindness.

We also know that this death of Jesus is in itself our hope because it is a death that saves us from the power of sin and offers us an eternal life in the kingdom of God.  God has put his son on the Cross as an act of ultimate love for us all and our hope lies in this love that is our past, present and future.  It cannot be taken from us by destruction and death.

I hope that I have gleaned enough from today’s Gospel reading to offer us all hope beyond the despair we can feel when all around us seems to be going awry.  You could say, also, that when times are hard it can bring out the best in us.  The lockdown imposed by the pandemic produced numerous acts of kindness. The financial hardship now experienced by so many is being offset by people volunteering in food banks and donating generously.  The plight of the refugees from Ukraine has mobilised people left, right and centre in offering aid and accommodation.  This is mission in action on a grand scale.

Then there is the positive effect of the narrowing down of some of our daily activities in lockdown, prompting us to reflect on life and to evaluate where we are and what matters to us.  All these are positives in the sea of negatives that we currently find ourselves in.

Hope, though, is not just for those who actively seek God’s presence in their lives and do good works for the benefit of others.  It is also offered by God to those who regret their wrongdoing.  One such was Dismas, the Penitent Thief, who, according to the Gospel of Luke, was one of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus.  Dismas asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingly power. Jesus responds by saying ‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’.  When I was reading ‘Dismas, the Penitent Thief’ by Mark Thomas Jones, he writes of the synergy between the Virgin Mary and Dismas who are both experiencing agony.  For Dismas the physical agony and for Mary the emotional anguish and trauma in losing her son.  In the Catholic church St Dismas is commemorated on 25th March, the same day as the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when Christ was conceived and so became Incarnate.  For Catholics, Mary is Dismas’s Gate of Heaven and she is the refuge of sinners.  I thought it appropriate to look at this description of Mary on this Mothering Sunday as one of parenting of offspring in trouble.

So Mary can be seen as our refuge, God as our ultimate refuge and we can be a refuge for those seeking to escape persecution.  All this keeps hope alive and demonstrates our trust in the love of God.

 

 

 

Q&A Sermon, 13 March 2022, Revd Deacon Glen Ruffle, Curate of St Andrew’s, Moscow

  1. Glen, could you just introduce yourself to us and give us some sense of your background and life prior to your move last July to be curate of St Andrew’s, Moscow?

Thank you very much for welcoming me, it’s strange to think that this time last week I was in Egypt and two days before that in Moscow.

I am from Lincoln, 800 years ago, a rival to London. I studied International Relations and managed to get a job in a political campaign, working in Westminster. Then I headed to Moscow to try teaching, learn Russian, and have an adventure. One year turned into two, two into three, and I kept going back! I got a job with KPMG, a large consulting firm, and also got more involved with St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Moscow. One thing led to another, and I was asked if I had considered ministry. I said yes, I had considered it, and I began the discernment process. I left Russia in 2018, spent two years in Cambridge, then we had the Covid year, and finally I got back to Moscow in 2021.

 

  1. Could you tell us about St Andrew’s, Moscow, its regular worshipping community, its history and its life in normal times before recent events?

St Andrew’s is in many ways both a church and a cultural meeting centre. The English have lived and worked in Moscow since Ivan the Terrible, 500 years ago. Our sailors went across with a letter from Queen Elizabeth I, and they were granted exclusive trading rights. The English and Scots prospered there and started many of Moscow’s great businesses. These British settlers were allowed to build their own church and worship in their own style, showing how good relations were.

The Communist Revolution put an end to all that, and St Andrew’s, purpose built for the worshipping community, was requisitioned and turned initially into the Finnish embassy before becoming a recording studio, due to its excellent acoustics. Some of the best music of the Soviet era was recorded in St Andrew’s!

The British who had lived in Russia were scattered abroad, not welcomed by the Communists. Their goods were taken, and many of them, having been born in Russia with no knowledge of English, found themselves living in poverty in England.

When Communism fell, St Andrew’s was handed back to the Anglican church, and a thriving community re-established. On a normal Sunday, there is a 9am Book of Common Prayer Communion, then a 11am service which was getting well over a 100 people, and we had just launched a Third Service to ease pressure on numbers in the morning. There is a Communion service on Wednesdays as well.

The church building is rented by musical groups putting on classical music concerts almost every day of the week, which is an important revenue stream. AA and 12-step groups use many of the rooms in the crypt, and some private businesses rent other office space. This helps the church remain financially viable.

Being a brick-building in a climate that goes from months of minus 20 to months of plus 30 Celsius, the building is a headache in terms of being repaired. As an architectural monument, we have to preserve it, but we can’t do anything without official permission, and so vast sums of money are constantly being raised to pay for architects and builders to keep the roof up!

 

  1. Could you tell us something about the context of St Andrew’s ministry – what is it like to be guests in a country rediscovering its Orthodox roots for example and what is the significance of the role of the Orthodox Church in contemporary Russia?

St Andrew’s is allowed to operate in English, because if we were to preach in Russian, it would be seen as pursuing the Orthodox. If a Russian person chooses to come to St Andrew’s and worship in English, that is fine; but if we were seen to be trying to evangelise Russians in Russian, then that would be severely frowned on, and could jeopardise our status as guests of the Orthodox.

The Orthodox are often seen as one group from the outside, but in reality they are just like the Anglicans – a diverse group of competing ideas. There are churches that are very evangelistic; churches that are much more conservative; churches that revel in liturgy and beauty; and churches that preach a political message supporting the government. I remember visiting a holy place in 2008 and a monk handing me a sheet of paper with information on how NATO was Satan’s work.

Putin very much sees Orthodoxy as part of Russia’s identity, and thus it is important in the process of nation building, creating a sense of ‘us’ against ‘them’. I would suggest that he does hold a belief, but it is in the Slavophile tradition that looks to our eyes much like nationalism.

It should be noted that attendance at Orthodox services is very low, and while they are effectively a department of government, their influence over society seems fairly low, though people do respect the priests. It’s like the UK in the 1950s – people are Orthodox because their passport is Russian, though they don’t necessarily know what Orthodox means.

My personal experiences of Orthodoxy are quite minimal – but sadly I do associate with walking into churches to be shouted at by old ladies for not crossing myself properly! Orthodoxy in Russia, on home territory, is perhaps more rigid and lazy than Orthodoxy abroad.

 

  1. Might you tell us something about the build up to the current crisis in Ukraine, as you see it, and have observed it since you first started to live in Russia over 10 years ago? Do tell us something about the different perceptions and narratives both in Russia and here and in different places in the world – I gather you have an academic background in International Relations.

I want to say at the start that the following in no way justifies the invasion, pillaging, murder of children, and brutality of what is happening. My tendency is to be rather academic and this can sometimes appear as ‘too’ balanced!

Russia has always had two movements within: the Slavophiles, promoting the uniqueness of Russian identity; and the Westernisers, looking to the West and to integration. Peter the Great was the leading example of the latter, enforcing great change and opening the inward-looking Russia to Western innovation.

Those forces remain, though in the USSR, they were mixed with a communist ideology. That ideology morphed from revolutionary exportation of ideas abroad to a conservative entrenching to preserve stability within, and so once again, Russia became a conservative, inward-looking state.

With the collapse of the USSR, Russia was quite naïve and vulnerable, and the 1990s were extremely formative. Government officials believed the West, they trusted the West, and many people got rich. But they also saw the West promote things that were clearly in Western interests and designed to weaken Russia. The excessive inflation of 1992 wiped out the savings of many people, and then the crash of 1998 wiped out the savings again. People don’t forget that.

This is where it can be argued Russia lost faith with the West. Boris Yeltsin was clearly incompetent, but the honeymoon period with the West was also over.

Putin came to power with a background in espionage, and thus with a particular worldview and particular insights. He certainly tried to make Russia a place of prosperity, I can testify to the reforms that have taken place for the benefit of all. But Putin’s frustration and anger at being snubbed by Western leaders, and observing how often the West ignored Russian interests, has been mounting. There is an interesting clip of Putin talking to the cameras in the early 2000s, stating that his intelligence agencies had reported to him that the ‘friendly’ West were seeking to break up Russia. It’s one of those clips you are unlikely to ever see on our televisions, but I think it shows our own involvement goes deeper than we pretend.

Putin’s grievances mounted up. Russian interests in Iraq? Ignored. Russian warnings about Afghanistan? Ignored. Russian dislike of NATO moving to its borders: ignored. Russian frustration at how ethnic Russian groups living abroad have sometimes been treated badly: ignored. And then the 2013 Maidan Revolution happened in Ukraine.

It’s worth understanding that Kyiv is the heart of Kyivan Rus, the historic birthplace of Russia. Putin wants to bring together the historic lands of Russia into one united state – part of the Slavophile nation. Yet in 2008, NATO agreed Ukraine could eventually join it. This was concerning for Russia. In 2010, Victor Yanukovich won power in Ukraine, and he was seen as a pro-Kremlin puppet. But actually he was seeking to chart a middle way. He sought to make Ukraine a bridge between the EU and Russia, and polls show the country was pretty much divided 50-50 in 2013 about its choices. However, as one US ambassador stated, Russia cared far more for Ukraine than the EU did, and so Yanukovich was seen as friendly to Russian interests. In reality, Russia cared far more than the EU did.

Then in 2014, Yanukovich was overthrown – this is often painted as a joyous revolution, but was actually a little murkier. It led to the Russian parts of Ukraine feeling a sense of persecution as pro-Western forces left the strategic middle-way and launched into a Westward drive.

This led to the capture of Crimea by Moscow. It was a simple operation – if Moscow did nothing, it would lose its base at Sevastopol as Western influence would force out the Russian navy. So Russia did a ‘surgical snip’ and took Crimea. It was relatively bloodless because most of the people on Crimea wanted to join Russia, recognising their ethnic and financial connections. Unfortunately, Russia seems to have concluded that the ease of taking Crimea in 2014 would be replicated in 2022.

The 2014 NATO summit in Wales promoted interoperability between NATO military forces and Ukraine, taking another clear step towards Ukraine joining the West, agitating Russia further. It was perceived that Kyiv was being stolen from Russia. Kyiv is like London – how can London leave the UK? It is integral to Britain. Our history happens here. Yet in Putin’s mind that was what was happening – the birthplace of Russia was leaving the Russian world. Tensions rose and rose, the Western sanctions after Crimea, and also at work were more societal forces: the shunning of the Sputnik vaccine by the West, despite it working rather well. The perceived promotion of extreme liberalism and woke ideas in a culture that is more conservative. Russia largely views these forces as decadent and as sign of Western collapse.

So basically, if Putin was going to put an end to Ukraine’s westward, decadent drift, then he had to act now. He’s 69, not getting any younger, and inspired by conservative values and a clash-of-culture narrative, he was taken this step, which I fear he sees as almost a crusade.

 

  1. Can you characterise the difference between how Russians you might meet in your everyday life feel about the current situation and the that of the government?

Simply put, the older generation don’t know what is happening, because they get most of their information from state TV. The younger generation, with greater knowledge of English and more international connections, are more aware but they have all learned that you don’t talk about politics, because it is dangerous.

So the people I know are reluctant to talk, but generally sad. They don’t like what is happening.

 

  1. Can you tell us something about your feelings on leaving Moscow, especially with almost no notice?

My exit from Moscow was swift and it was all so surreal. On Monday I had a job and lots to do; on Tuesday I was packing my bags; Wednesday saw me lead my last service with them; and on Thursday morning I flew out of Moscow.

Surreal is the only word. We flew to Egypt, me and group of others forced to suddenly leave, and they were in a worse state of shock than me. So I had to try and give them time and space to talk too. I tend to focus on being resilient, but honestly it feels like a holiday at the moment, with a strange fact that I won’t be going back; a fact that doesn’t seem real.

 

  1. Do you see any overlap between this current situation and the issues raised in today’s Gospel, and Jesus addressing Herod Antipas as “that fox”?

Where do you start with such compelling relevance?! There is so much that can be said, but I want to remind us that the gospel challenges all forms of politics. It overturns this world and its values. Russia is acting like Herod: seeking to enforce its will by power and force, murder and vengeance. This is how people of this world act. Let’s be honest: given the same power, our politicians would be no better. And it is tragic that Christianity, in the Orthodox version, has been entwined to an extent with the machinations of the political state. War has no relationship to the Kingdom of God.

As Christians we must remember to follow Jesus and to lay down our ideas and ideologies, and pick up the good news of Christ. It is that good news, that God has sent a saviour, that Jesus can set you free from sin, anger, hate, addiction and bondage, that we must proclaim and enact.

This is our mission: to live humbly, to serve God and the poor, to bring healing to those who suffer, and to encourage justice and love on earth. God is building a new family. It’s us, the church! We are to become like Jesus, full of love, graciousness, mercy, compassion, gentleness and self-control. Our mission is to decrease, and instead exalt Jesus.

Sermon, Ash Wednesday 2 March 2022 – the Vicar

One of the strange things about the last two years of lockdown and restriction is the deleterious effect upon one’s memory. I had forgotten what we did for ashing last year in 2021 and needed to be reminded of how we managed.

Today is actually a day for memory. Remember thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. Words which echo through eternity from chapter 3 of Genesis. From the lies and distortions Adam and Eve had tried to tell God in the garden of Eden, He ejects them from primordial bliss:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. Genesis 3: 19

Our most primitive memories today are sharpened, there can be no forgetting the frailty of our condition: just a few verses after the cherubim with flaming sword are placed at the gate of Eden, Adam and Eve’s second son Cain kills the firstborn Abel. Lies, violence, death. No wonder our sleepy souls need to be called to remembrance.

We have seen enacted already, what Joel prophesies in the first reading:

Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God?

Ancient words from a time of disaster, as the people of Jerusalem prayed for the deliverance, with fasting and prayer. Joel goes so far as to wonder at God’s apparent absence from the impending disaster.

These images are all too redolent, in an international crisis in which we find ourselves. Hot on the heels of a pandemic, we find the world staring down the barrel of nuclear rocket launchers. Perhaps you have friends living in Ukraine, or friends of friends. I have two ordinands there, a third studying here now who previous to coming here had been there for nine years. Our Europe chaplaincy there is a worshipping community whose life is in tatters, as its members are fleeing, living below ground for more than 12 hours a day, or part of the deterrent effort on the ground, as all males between 18-60 are bound to stay and resist if not fight. Our chaplaincy in Moscow is already seeing most of the expats packing their bags.

There are origins to this conflict with significant religious ramifications. Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, made an active choice to convert from paganism to Byzantine Christianity in 988 BC.

One of the early accounts, known as a near contemporary chronicle tells, Vladimir sent ambassadors to investigate the religions of his neighbours.

Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga the envoys reported there is no gladness among them, only sorrow.

Vladimir thought Islam undesirable because of its prohibition of alcohol and pork. The chronicler reports him remarking: “Drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”

His envoys sounded out Rabbis. And they visited pre-schism Latin Rite Christian and Eastern Rite Christian missionaries.

At Constantinople they found their ideal: “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth”, in Hagia Sophia they saw, “nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.” Vladimir’s baptism changed the course of Slavic history.

The fact the presidents of Russia and Ukraine both bear the Grand Prince of Kiev’s name is part of that story too.

Earth’s proud empires have passed away: the Byzantine giving way in Ukraine’s southern reaches to that of the Ottomons, in the South and West the Hapsburgs held sway, to the north the Polish Empire, had its brief flourishing. Always to the East, Russia prized the territories on their side of the Deipner river, with fierce determination to see the cradle of Russian culture uneclipsed.

The Soviet Union maintained Russian influence, some would say the effective subjugation of the distinctive Ukranian spirit. Communism’s collapse in the early 90s meant Russian hegemony was decimated at a stroke. Russian nationalist fervour allied with the rapidly emerging Orthodox resurgence.

Russian communities within Ukraine, some of which were there because of Soviet forced settlement, and arbitrary borders, made for a patchwork of communities, not totally dissimilar to areas of the Balkans.

Thanks to Grand Prince Vladimir, Ukraine is largely but not exclusively Orthodox.

There is a religious fault line which runs through Ukraine. To the west, in former Polish strongholds such as Lvov, of course, there are Latin Catholics; in Ukraine’s central and even Eastern territories, there are sizable Greek Catholic minorities, whose influence dates from the earliest days of the Hapsburg and Polish empires and before, when Uniate rite missionaries succeeded in luring the Orthodox to Roman obedience, with the promise of retaining their favoured Byzantine rites.

For the Eastern Orthodox this was very dimly viewed as a conversion technique.

The fully Orthodox themselves straddle the most complex part of the religious fault line.

You may have heard Sara Wheeler’s A Point of View on Sunday on Radio 4. She tells a well-known story of contemporary Russian folk lore. The Russian Patriarch Kyril, a very powerful man in Russia, appeared in an official photo, in all his robes and pectoral icons. Visible was a very expensive watch he was wearing. Attention was drawn to it in ribald press reports, and the photo was removed, and reissued minus the watch. However, its reflection in the glass table top, on which his arm was resting, was still visible!

There are those Orthodox in Ukraine who remain faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate, under Kyril. But most Orthodox in Ukraine support the newly autocephalous Church, under its Patriarch, His Beatitude Epiphanius I, which was granted its independent status by the Patriarch of Constantinople in January 2019. A matter of months later Zelensky was elected President.

Sadly, many Russian Orthodox have moved from being zealous for their new-found faith in the last 30 years, to espousing full-blown nationalism, and not seeing the fundamental difference.

Arguably the recognition of an independent Ukranian Orthodox Church, the election of Zelenksy by a huge majority, and the perceived threat of Nato, have been too much. Without putting too fine a point on it as well, despite his first name, Zelensky is Jewish, and Russian nationalist feeling is increasingly antisemitic.

We are at moment of real darkness, the chaplain of Moscow last night said this is not the start of Lent, in Russia and Ukraine, it feels like Good Friday.

Discipline, fasting and prayer help us to remember: to remember the frailty of our nature. Lies breed violence, violence brings death. It might seem that there is no health in us, that our nature is the misery of sin.

The sacrificial lamb of God, on Good Friday, through his self-offering, breaks the chain of violence; he transforms the hatred, the lies. His body is broken by them, his blood is poured out, as the sponge of vinegar reaches his lips, his body like a sponge itself absorbs the violence and transforms it. On Sunday we heard the narrative of the Transfiguration. Jesus’s suffering is the transfiguration of violence in himself, and as the priest and victim he makes the sacrifice complete. And so death can have no more dominion, violence is not the last word. The Messiah had to die in Jerusalem, the city of Peace. Only his death can make manifest that peace, which is God’s manner of existence, and goal of all things.

 

 

 

Sermon, Quinquagesima & Transfiguration, Sunday 27 February 2022 – Tessa Lang

From today’s reading of the Gospel of St Luke, 9: v28 & v35:
AND it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings,
Jesus took Peter and John and James, and went up into a
mountain to pray.
And
there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son:
hear him.
Were I addressing a topic other than one anchored in the word of
God, any message would have been blown off course by events
since Friday 18th February. How can anyone speak with certainty
when the structure of the world we relied upon has changed in eight
days’ time?

At parish level, we are blessed to find ourselves together on a
Sunday as usual, albeit after extreme storm and in the throes of loss
from multiple departures, if mercifully buoyed by the presence of
new life, a third child and daughter for Drs. Matthias & Vickie Grebe,
Clementina. A sufficiency of life events in any month, I’m sure you
can agree. Then literally overnight, the larger world plunges into
destruction, bloodshed, and war on the European continent. The
brutal descent of an Iron Curtain in a new century and discordant
sounds of our own ugly chickens coming home to roost warn of dire
future events about to hatch.

Good news then, that our passage today prescribes a God-given
remedy for existential crises – prayer. From the opening verse, we
sense that something is amiss in Jesus’ inner circle, a disquiet that
has bubbled along and needs sorting. Gathering his hand-picked
three, Jesus takes them to the mountain for a prayer summit and a
glimpse of his kingdom come as essential preparation for what lies
ahead.

They have spent 3 dusty, impoverished years enabling his ministry.
Assertion of Jesus’ identity as the Christ of God the Father is a
recent development, yet they must keep this monumental fact to
themselves at his instruction. Rewarded with powers to heal and
preach; gratified by witnessing their master raising the dead, feeding
the multitudes, calming the storm, walking on water; the apostles
may well have felt dismay and disappointment when reminded that
the real-world result of the exercise is rejection and suffering,
followed by death and resurrection on the third day. Time was short
as Jerusalem and their last shared Passover loomed; Jesus
understood they needed a visceral experience of the ultimate finale
beyond Calvary – Christ appearing in all his glory – his
Transfiguration – when Jesus drops the veil cloaking his everlasting
deity whilst here on earth. Paradoxically, he is not the one who
changes; it is our eyes and ears and hearts that must open to
receive him.

Luke tells us his face and clothing shone impossibly bright, solar,
powered from within…translated in the KJV as ‘glistering’. The
apostles recognised him, not as they had known him in his everyday
human form, but in his divinity. They were overwhelmed by his
majesty, and the presence of that mind-blowing pair – Moses and
Elijah, in conversation with the Christ to learn at last how he will
complete his earthly mission in Jerusalem. (How they must have
pondered this fulfilment over the eons.) Patriarch and prophet have
their own history of mountain-top moments and similarly appeared
glorious in Jesus’ presence. We heard about this phenomenon in
today’s Old Testament reading, when Moses’ face glowed so
brightly following his nearness to God at the time of receiving the
Law that he wore a veil to protect the Hebrews’ eyes. Yet his
radiance was a fading one of reflection only, and Jesus’ is fully self sustaining,
the infinite energy source of all life.

Moses may represent the divine gift of the Law, but he was a sinful
man with the conscious murder of an Egyptian on his hands.
Although given a glimpse of the Promised Land from Mt. Sinai, he
was prevented from entering for his more critical failure to honour
God as the power producing water from dry rock during the
Hebrews’ desert wanderings. He was a mere mortal, a leader with
serious human faults of temper, doubt, self-aggrandisement. He
had been dead for many centuries, his body removed for
undisclosed burial by God himself, no doubt to frustrate a temptation
to make its resting place a shrine. Yet here he stood, recognisable,
in close company with the Christ of the Lord God – glorified,
forgiven, standing upon the ground of the Promised Land.

The prophet Elijah, also long departed, lived a dangerous life at a
time when the Hebrews split into two kingdoms and many
worshiped false gods and idols. At God’s direction and with his
power, Elijah restores life to a widow’s son, ends famine and
drought, vanquishes false priests with a winner-take-all test of the
powers of Yahweh and Baal atop Mount Carmel. As he crosses the
River Jordan and prepares the way for the tribes of Israel to enter at
last into the Promised Land, he is lifted into the heavens by
whirlwind in a chariot of fire, spared the passage of death. Yet here
he stood, recognisable, in close company with the Christ of the Lord
God – glorified, safe, standing upon the ground of the Promised
Land.

If this is the way God’s plan works out for sinful individuals who
strive to live in his love and fear, albeit imperfectly, then the trials
and perils of earthly life can be seen in context and with inklings of
the sense of its grand design. Brought to life for Peter, John, and
James then, and for us now and always, Transfiguration is the
visual and visceral expression of Jesus as the fulfilment of scripture
and prophecy. On that mountaintop, Jesus bestows the divine gift
of knowing him as God in his full, merciful glory.

This may always be beyond our understanding, but it can be our
experience through faith. Even if a glimpse of the Kingdom of God
overwhelms us as it did the apostles and we succumb to a similar
spiritual sleep, we like them, can awake in time to rejoice in
renewed belief.

“Tis good, Lord, to be here” cried out Peter the impetuous, not
knowing what he said, or why, but as a spontaneous expression of
the joy of this mountaintop moment of communion with God. He
wants to DO something! DO something to keep it going, build
tabernacles, set up camp, keep eternity present in his life. But that
is not how it works.

The words barely out of his mouth, a cloud comes and overshadows
them with the awesome presence of God to deliver the abiding takeaway
from this momentary enlightenment:
“This is my beloved son: hear him.”
The cloud vanishes, Jesus is once more alone, and there is nothing
to do but go with him down the mountain, across the plains and to
the appointed time of Calvary. Then pick up their cross and continue
to follow him to resurrection and thereafter.

We are in no less need to reconnect to glory – as we remember in
the readings, sing in today’s hymns, and observe in the fabric of our
worship with Comper’s sublime representation on the reredos above
the high altar.

For Transfiguration stands at the gateway to Lent, lighting our
spiritual path from today – Quinquagesima Sunday, culmination of
Shrovetide and the “gesima season” of preparation for the
Adventtide of self-examination and penance leading to Easter Day,
and welcome return to Alleleuia.

But first, and in the knowledge of what we have been reminded, let
there be pastry and feast in solidarity with the European tradition of
Festelavn, when children parade in costume, collecting alms for the
poor and worthy causes, stuffing Lenten buns laden with icing and
heaving with cream, and brandishing Shrovetide rods to tickle and
turn the tables on their sleeping parents this Sunday morning. Let
us give thanks for our shared Christian heritage and our abundance
of blessings knowing that if circumstances challenge or fail us, we
can rely on the word of God. All we are asked to do is to hear it.
Given that time is short and the matters at hand are critical, let us go
on to action Mary’s instruction to the servants at Cana – “do
whatever he tells you.” Begin with Jesus’ approach to tribulation:
seek out your mountain top moment and divine guidance through
prayer. Then walk with him down the mountain and throughout your
life. We give thanks to thee for thy great glory! Tis good, Lord to be
here! Amen.

Sermon, Candlemas, 2nd February 2022 – The Vicar

Jesus’s visit to the Temple aged just 40 days old, and celebrated as the culmination of the Christmas Season at Candlemas, is arguably one of the most exquisitely crafted accounts in Luke’s Gospel. The symmetry of it with, on the one side the two parents bringing their child before God, to do what the law required, and on the other, two older people, about whom we gather fragmentary information, receiving Jesus and recognising him instantly is beautiful. With Jesus, a tiny infant, framed by two generations of faithful Jewish witnesses to the mighty works of God, this is the first instalment of a Gospel which catalogues the lifting up of the lowly.

 

One of Luke’s interests in his first two chapters is to make his narrative emerge from Israel’s rich and ancient history. We have met this already, in the way he presents Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the account of the birth of John the Baptist. There, too, a key moment in that story takes place in the Temple. Who knows whether Simeon and Anna may have been witnesses to Zechariah’s revelation while he offered incense and was struck dumb? It must have buzzed around the Temple courts, and heightened Anna’s excitement, and Simeon’s. It sets the scene for what unfolds as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple. These characters are not just elderly people with the gifts of insight, they are the summation of the ancient wisdom and prophetic traditions of Jesus’s own people.

 

Crucially, as older people, they are presented as vigorous and charismatic. Although in the last stages of their lives, they are the opposite, each of them, of retiring has-beens. As Ros, in her sermon this Sunday (Epiphany IV) astutely observed, they are pointing to the future, the best and real task of the those in older age. They have an active role to play in witnessing to Jesus for who He is and what the significance of His life and ministry will be.

 

There is nothing restrained in their response. Anna most particularly is uncontainable in her determination to make Jesus known.

 

There is something about endings in this narrative, nevertheless, for all Anna’s zeal and excitement about the future. Simeon had been told ‘that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.’ We are not told how Simeon knew this, but readers of Luke will have gathered already that, when in doubt, it was through the Holy Spirit that this would be the case. Luke emphasises at nearly every turn that what drives the narrative is always the work of the Holy Ghost!

 

Simeon utters the hymn that daily we say either at Evensong or at Compline – the Nunc Dimittis.

 

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

 

Simeon and Anna have spent their lives in the Temple, whose precincts faced East, towards the rising sun, praying for and expecting what the Prophet Malachi foretold.

 

‘The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.’

 

Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, means Grace, the daughter of the face of God. Simeon prays in his song-like prayer that the salvation which he has seen has been ‘prepared before the face of all people’, ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, and ‘the glory of Israel’.” Israel, the name given by God to Jacob, means the one who sees the face of God.

 

Together, Anna and Simeon see God face to face. This happens in the place of meeting God face to face – the Temple. What Malachi had foreseen – the return of God to His Temple – a longed for culmination, prayed for daily as the nation looked East to the rising sun, they now encounter. Perhaps this entry, this meeting is not as they had previously expected or imagined, but in a way which assures them of the fulfilment of all earlier promises.

 

The Orthodox call this event the Meeting, not the Presentation as we do.

 

We know no more of Simeon’s life or death, or of Anna’s. But Simeon knew that he could now depart in peace. God’s word had been fulfilled.

 

This narrative sets the scene for the rest of the Gospel story as Luke will tell it. It is rich and multi-layered. And there are yet more treasures in this pregnant account, but I would just like to underline certain points which are implied in it, which speak to a contemporary situation.

 

On 14 September 2021, the British Medical Association, the union of all medical practitioners, adopted a neutral policy in relation to assisted dying. Less than a month later the House of Lords debated a bill on the subject, introduced by Baroness Meacher.

 

The 1961 Suicide Act decriminalised suicide, but clarified the law to make it an offence to assist it. The wholesale opposition of the medical profession to so-called Euthanasia, throughout its history, for clear professional reasons, has been one of the bulwarks against change to the law on assisted suicide.

 

The debate in the HoL came at a watershed moment, perhaps. It was the eighth HoL debate on this subject in 20 years, and amongst others the Lord Carey of Clifton, former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke for the motion. It is hard not to view his comments as a latter-day trahison des clercs.

 

The current Archbishop opposed the motion to decriminalise assisting suicide, arguing strongly and intelligently for retention of the status quo. Amongst other acute remarks he observed:

 

No amount of regulation can make a relative kinder or a doctor infallible. No amount of reassurance can make a vulnerable or disabled person feel equally safe and equally valued if the law is changed in this way.

 

This seemed to strike a chord, in the press reporting, and it was a point well-made and well-received.

 

It was disappointing that of 106 peers who spoke relatively few were grappling with the key moral and legal arguments. Many drew on the alleged statistic that at least 84% of the population approve of assisted dying. To that I would counter, that in matters of life and death, it is vital that the legislature should hold firmly to fundamental principles which have shaped our lives and civilisation, and remain unerring. I hope a rehearsal of some of those might be of interest. In place of a sermon for Candlemas, what follows is something of an essay to make clear my own thoughts, which I hope might inform yours.

 

The key in this is that human rights do not add up to us choosing when and how we die. It is not by right that we are born. Life and death, their timing and their character are irreducible, special and mysterious. It is faith in God which gives us a due sense of the mystery and marvel of our existence.

 

The contributions of Lady Campbell of Surbiton, both to this particular debate, and its many precursors in the Lords, are worth close study in Hansard.

 

https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2021-10-22/debates/11143CAF-BC66-4C60-B782-38B5D9F42810/AssistedDyingBill(HL)

 

As a profoundly disabled woman, she is clear that at other points in her life, with different legislation in place, her life would have been taken from her. She is clear that any change in the current legal framework would lead to grossly insufficient safeguards for the very vulnerable, and she speaks for many people when she says of the proposed amendment to the 1961 Act:

 

This Bill does not give [terminally ill patients] a real choice; it does not guarantee universal palliative care, offer adequate support to those with progressive conditions, or remove the fear of being a burden. All are essential to support a pain-free and dignified end of life, but we all know that they are in very short supply. Rather, the Bill confirms their disempowered status and lack of choice. No one should feel that they would be better off dead. No one should have to witness a loved one in intolerable distress or pain, as so many of us have experienced—and I count myself among that number. It does not have to be like that…. I am not immune to dark thoughts when my health deteriorates and social care fails, or when I am told that I am at end of life and I am in pain—but my experience has taught me that universal patient-centred care is and has to be the first priority. One disabled woman sums it up very well. She wrote to me last week, ‘I am against this Bill. I have got a terminal illness, but when I am left to spend a painful night in my wheelchair because nobody turned up to put me to bed, I am going to think that assisted suicide might not be so bad after all. Why can’t people support us to live first, so that we wouldn’t get suicidal?’ Is this Bill the best we can offer her?

We must not abandon those who could benefit from high-quality health and social care to the desperate temptation of assisted suicide in the guise of a compassionate choice. This is a popular Bill, there is no doubt about it—but it is not the right Bill, and I will not support it.

 

**************

 

 

Alongside our Christian inheritance and its clear teaching about our creation in the image of God, we need to acknowledge the role of medicine. Its unique contribution to the character of society is that it exists to preserve and promote life.

 

Qualified doctors swear in the Hippocratic oath:

 

I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; …

In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art.

 

Care of the ill and dying is one of the medical specialisations which this country has pioneered. Palliative care begins with the principle of relief of pain, but because pain is more than about something hurting, so pain relief is about the treatment of the whole person. Neuro-scientists, neurologists and other therapists have researched pain at the end of life in a number of very ways. It is clear that pain is felt differently by everyone. Managing pain as part of viewing the whole person and their needs is key to the care of the dying. It is best done when it is loving and intentional. This has been written about extensively by Dame Cecily Saunders and Dr Sheila Cassidy, amongst many other remarkable pioneers of the Hospice movement. I would underline, too, the role of Sister Frances Dominica, in Oxford in her work at Helen House.

 

The Hospice movement has developed much earlier paradigms of care of the dying and made it an art form. Many people will have observed its miraculous work either in hospices themselves, or increasingly in the well-structured way the care can now be delivered in the community, thanks to the highly skilled and specialist care of Marie-Curie and Macmillan nurses.

 

No one need die an agonising death, even with a very life-limiting condition.

 

A further false claim is that religious minorities are ‘holding back’ change in the law, as a way of imposing outmoded religious beliefs on the rationalist and sensible general public. This presumption ignores the Christian origin of most long-established medical institutions. I was at St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield this last weekend, whose foundation alongside the hospital of the same name was in 1123!

 

One of the sharpest questions in this debate is: Does the right to choose the date and time of my death entail a responsibility on others to kill me? In the light of the motivation to care for and heal others, and the sentiments of the Hippocratic oath, this is a very pertinent question. Put in other words: if my right to choose the end of my life is paramount, what does that mean about requiring another to take my life, especially if their solemn and sacred trust is to care for me?

 

The ethics of modern medicine are always hotly debated. The risk-benefit equation in the treatments of terminal cases can depend on a range of factors. Some lives are prolonged successfully, while other people experience considerable suffering. Many medical decisions are unenviable in this regard. My admiration for doctors in their day-to-day lives as diagnosticians and physicians is unending, as they help and guide people in their decision- making about their treatment.

 

We might give thought to our own treatment, should our health deteriorate. The patient’s choice to decline treatment or not to be resuscitated in extremis, is not the same as assisted suicide, it is a legitimate choice. Choosing not to be treated is choosing not to be treated, it is not choosing to die.

 

 

One of the remarkable discoveries for good in this pandemic has been to see that society willed the care of the most vulnerable at the expense of much else. (At this point I do not wish to debate the success of the management of the Pandemic, that is another question). One approach might have been to let the virus take the world by storm without preventative measures, leaving many of the sickest people to shield until the discovery of a vaccine or to die. Instead, most modern governments in democracies prioritised the most vulnerable. Behind this is the deeply-held view that life is precious and not expendable, thank goodness. The alternative is the path to actual and spiritual annihilation.

 

Put very simply, the injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’ remains foundational to how we must live. Sanctioning killing, which assisted suicide would do, must be resisted.

 

As you may have gathered, these last few weeks have been ones in which the ministry to the sick, the dying and the bereaved has been to the fore in the life of St Mark’s. Being with the dying, and with those who mourn the departed, is a special part of the Church’s ministry. The sacrament goes by different names: sometimes, The Last Rites, or Extreme Unction or the Viaticum (provision for the journey). The words and actions (and crucially both) which make up these rites, give shape and meaning to things beyond adequate description and easy acceptance.

 

The Church offers this sacrament to those who are dying. Some people may wish to unburden themselves of anything weighing on their hearts. The office begins with the opportunity of confession and the assurance of forgiveness offered to them personally. ‘I absolve thee’, the priest will say. This is not a general confession but a personal and ultimate one with absolution, with all that word implies – complete forgiveness. The penitent is offered communion, which for some may be the merest fragment of the reserved sacrament, because in the latter stages of life, a patient’s swallow may be compromised. As the Apostles were instructed to lay hands on the sick, in imitation of their Lord, so the priest lays hands on the head of the dying. And then, in conformity with the life of the early Church, the sick person is anointed. The sensation of oil on forehead and hands has an immediate effect of calm. It symbolises and enacts the outpouring of the Spirit of comfort.

 

Simeon prays ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’ This is said or sung at funerals, as we say it each night of our lives in the daily office.

 

As your parish priest, I say there is and can be such a thing as a good death. We can pray for a good death, and endeavour to die peacefully, commending our spirits into the loving care of our heavenly Father, whose creative purpose is the only source of meaning and hope. Like Anna, we are looking for redemption, but also know that we have found it in the child in the arms of his parents. He is the one who enters the Temple and is at once the dawning of the new day of God’s visitation upon it.

 

William Gulliford

1 February 2022

Sermon, Septuagesima, 13 February 2022 – Ros Miskin

In today’s Gospel reading we learn that Jesus came down from the mountain where he had called and chosen his disciples and stood on a level place with a crowd of his disciples and a multitude of people who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.  Jesus cures the sick and then begins a collection of sayings which, as one Commentary on Luke states, is called by some ‘the Sermon on the Plain’.  The first part of this sermon, with its blessings and woes, is known as ‘the Beatitudes’ and falls within today’s reading. There follows a call to love our enemies, avoid judging others, a discourse on the nature of good and evil and the need for actions not just words.

In my sermon today, I am going to focus on the word ‘level’ in today’s Gospel and see how it stands in relation to today’s quest to ‘level up’.   That is to say, to address the inequalities in society that exist amongst us all; for example poor health and poor prospects.  Particular reference here to the need to regenerate certain areas to ensure a good environment for both the north of England and the south.

I believe that Luke would have been much in favor of this plan to ‘level up’.  His Gospel makes clear that Jesus loves the unfortunate. The Beatitudes and woes are on the side of the poor, the hungry and the bereaved. The blessings are for them and the woes are for the rich and the well fed and those who laugh when others weep.  In Luke’s earlier chapter 4, Jesus reads in the synagogue from the Book of Isaiah that the good news is for the poor.  They are to be released from captivity, their sight is to be recovered and the oppressed will go free.  This is the expression given to ‘levelling up’ in the New Testament.

So far so good, but, as in today’s world, barriers to achieving this ‘levelling up’ were there at the time of Jesus preaching as they are today.  Not always, but sometimes, wealth can be a barrier.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus warns that there are those who are ‘choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature’.  As such, they have heard his message but gone their own way. It is unlikely in their preoccupations that they would be attentive to the need to ‘level up’. Today, as I learnt from a webinar I listened to recently on ‘levelling up’ we were reminded that capitalism has existed for a thousand years  and will not be given up so easily.  I would say though that I cannot see why capitalism should not work if it is rooted in faith and puts people first.

Then there is the barrier of lack of trust.  A barrier certainly in the life of Jesus. When Herod the ruler learnt of the healing ministry of Jesus he was perplexed; he asked who was Jesus?  John the Baptist raised from the dead?  In chapter 20 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples that they will be ‘hated by all because of my name’.  It is a hate that put Jesus on the Cross.  This hatred is often expressed in Matthew’s Gospel and Matthew takes it further: brother will betray brother, a father his child, and children will rise against parents and put them to death’. Not much trust in evidence  here. Turning again to the webinar on ‘levelling up’ I heard that if it is to take effect it will require trust between government and people.  We must not, though, lose faith in democracy.  As history has revealed, the chance of ‘levelling up’ in an alternative state of affairs would, I believe, be remote.

So far, I have considered two barriers to ‘levelling up’ that are shared between us today and the age of the New Testament.  There is, though, a barrier that exists in our time but did not in New Testament times and that is the barrier imposed by the culmination over many years of data, statistics, a multiplicity of organisations and the bureaucracy that goes with them.  The question was raised during the ‘levelling up’ webinar – who, amongst all these factors, has the power to effect change?  If it is the government only, would that mean too much command and control?  Also, as the Chair of St Mungo’s said during this session, health and well being need to be at the heart of ‘levelling up’ but she said that local government did, on occasion, prevent the innovations to assist people that were proposed by volunteers.

All this in contrast to Jesus coming as an individual face to face with the multitude to give them his sayings and heal them, then and there. Jesus blesses his hearers directly and says that they will be rewarded for theirs is the Kingdom of God.  You may say that this is a promise for the future in heaven rather than an immediate ‘levelling up’ but Jesus heals on the moment.

For our desire to ‘level up’ is there anything that we can take from Luke’s Gospel that will help achieve this goal?  Certainly, as I have learnt from meetings with church leaders of the London Boroughs, the church is very active in helping the needs that arise when there is no ‘levelling up’ in place. Such as its enormous contribution to helping the homeless, feeding the needy via food banks, counselling the bereaved and being the welcoming presence for the lonely and the confused, the lost and the abandoned.  Churches are in the process of networking with other churches to maximise the impact of their work.  Covid has not made this easy, with the restriction on face to face contact and the weariness felt by all after many months of sickness and bereavement. Yet in spite of these problems, the church leaders have been able to communicate effectively with Councils and the police.  I have made clear at these meetings that we do all we can at St Mark’s to be the comforting pastoral presence and extend welcome to all.  Could it be, then, that when methods are being considered to achieve ‘levelling up’ the church will play a major part in this process, particularly as they seem able to serve the needy directly without undue bureaucratic processes.  For example, the work of the London City Mission who work with the homeless and make provision for them.  I would not want anyone to think that in saying this I wish to undermine any proposals made by any government or secular institutions who work for the benefit of others but I would be very surprised if the church, with its mobilization on behalf of the needy, spurred on by the ill effects of the pandemic, did not play a major part in the mobilization of  ‘levelling up’.

From the Christian point of view this would accord with today’s reading from the Book of Jeremiah that tells us that if we really want ‘levelling up’ to work then we must trust in God and then, he says, we will be ‘like a tree planted by water sending out its roots by the stream’.

 

 

 

Sermon, The Accession Platinum Jubilee St Mark’s, the Vicar, 6 February 2022

Seventy years ago this morning, King George VI died in his sleep at Sandringham. His heir presumptive, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary aged just 25, acceded to the throne, on the first leg of a Commonwealth Tour the King himself was too frail to make.

In a moment I shall read part of the speech, given the following day by Winston Churchill. Today, we celebrate this long reign, and we acknowledge with the Queen and her family that it is also represents a day of memorial. It was the end of a reign which had encompassed over five long years of War. And before that an abdication crisis which had shaken the character of constitutional monarchy.

I preface what follows with a word about the Accession Service itself, which we use today, and acknowledge what a remarkable milestone today marks.

The accession service was first used in 1576 to celebrate the anniversary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and used annually thereafter. One of the first acts of any reign is to reissue this service by Royal Proclamation and for it to be used annually. It remains a rather delightful appendix to the Prayer Book. And falling on a Sunday, too good an opportunity to miss. It has special readings, prayers, suffrages, and offers us the chance to hear the Te Deum, a special hymn of praise to God, dating possibly from the mid 4th c, but more likely that early 6th c. From those times it was used on feast days and special occasions.

You remember that after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the short-lived reign of his successor Richard, the nation heaved a collective sigh of relief, as to a man, woman and child they exclaimed Lord Protect us from Lord Protectors!

The question of the Crown in Parliament remains an uneasy separation or perhaps amalgam of powers. The Church is not uninterested, because it is the Archbishop who anoints and crowns the monarch and that rite underlines the sacral nature of the rule by which we are ultimately governed, and sets it apart from other political office. That rite is over 1000 years old on these shores and dates back to Byzantium and through that the anointing of King Solomon in about 970 BC.

There is a prayer of great poignancy towards the end of the Accession Service, it prays:

Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord.

One might think, that it was composed at the time of the Restoration, although it might have served at the start of any number of reigns, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles II, William and Mary. Actually, it was composed on the accession of the first Hanoverian, George I, descendent of Charles I, through his daughter Anne of Bohemia. Regime-change, for that is what it was, is often painful. This prayer along with all those that have been used on the anniversary of successive successions is sincere and it is our prayer in solidarity with and thanksgiving for our Queen. Thank God for this last 70 years, and thank goodness that our nation’s anthem, which is really our nation’s prayer, set to music, has been answered: Happy and glorious, [she has indeed been] long to reign over us; God save the Queen.

My friends,

When the death of the King was announced to us yesterday morning there struck a deep and solemn note in our lives which, as it resounded far and wide, stilled the clatter and traffic of twentieth-century life in many lands, and made countless millions of human beings pause and look around them. A new sense of values took, for the time being, possession of human minds, and mortal existence presented itself to so many at the same moment in its serenity and in its sorrow, in its splendour and in its pain, in its fortitude and in its suffering.

The King was greatly loved by all his peoples. He was respected as a man and as a prince far beyond the many realms over which he reigned. The simple dignity of his life, his manly virtues, his sense of duty – alike as a ruler and a servant of the vast spheres and communities for which he bore responsibility – his gay charm and happy nature, his example as a husband and a father in his own family circle, his courage in peace or war – all these were aspects of his character which won the glint of admiration, now here, now there, from the innumerable eyes whose gaze falls upon the Throne.

We thought of him as a young naval lieutenant in the great Battle of Jutland. We thought of him when calmly, without ambition, or want of self-confidence, he assumed the heavy burden of the Crown and succeeded his brother whom he loved and to whom he had rendered perfect loyalty. We thought of him, so faithful in his study and discharge of State affairs; so strong in his devotion to the enduring honour of our country; so self-restrained in his judgments of men and affairs; so uplifted above the clash of party politics, yet so attentive to them; so wise and shrewd in judging between what matters and what does not.

All this we saw and admired. His conduct on the Throne may well be a model and a guide to constitutional sovereigns throughout the world today and also in future generations. The last few months of King George’s life, with all the pain and physical stresses that he endured – his life hanging by a thread from day to day, and he all the time cheerful and undaunted, stricken in body but quite undisturbed and even unaffected in spirit – these have made a profound and an enduring impression and should be a help to all.

He was sustained not only by his natural buoyancy, but by the sincerity of his Christian faith. During these last months the King walked with death as if death were a companion, an acquaintance whom he recognized and did not fear. In the end death came as a friend, and after a happy day of sunshine and sport, and after “good night” to those who loved him best, he fell asleep as every man or woman who strives to fear God and nothing else in the world may hope to do.

The nearer one stood to him the more these facts were apparent. But the newspapers and photographs of modern times have made vast numbers of his subjects able to watch with emotion the last months of his pilgrimage. We all saw him approach his journey’s end. In this period of mourning and meditation, amid our cares and toils, every home in all the realms joined together under the Crown may draw comfort for tonight and strength for the future from his bearing and his fortitude.

There was another tie between King George and his people. It was not only sorrow and affliction that they shared. Dear to the hearts and the homes of the people is the joy and pride of a united family. With this all the troubles of the world can be borne and all its ordeals at least confronted. No family in these tumultuous years was happier or loved one another more than the Royal Family around the King.

No Minister saw so much of the King during the war as I did. I made certain he was kept informed of every secret matter, and the care and thoroughness with which he mastered the immense daily flow of State papers made a deep mark on my mind.

 Let me tell you another fact. On one of the days when Buckingham Palace was bombed the King had just returned from Windsor. One side of the courtyard was struck, and if the windows opposite out of which he and the Queen were looking had not been, by the mercy of God, open, they would both have been blinded by the broken glass instead of being only hurled back by the explosion. Amid all that was then going on, although I saw the King so often, I never heard of this episode till a long time after. Their Majesties never mentioned it or thought it of more significance than a soldier in their armies would of a shell bursting near him. This seems to me to be a revealing trait in the royal character.

 There is no doubt that of all the institutions which have grown up among us over the centuries, or sprung into being in our lifetime, the constitutional monarchy is the most deeply founded and dearly cherished by the whole association of our peoples. In the present generation it has acquired a meaning incomparably more powerful than anyone had dreamed possible in former times. The Crown has become the mysterious link, indeed I may say the magic link, which unites our loosely bound, but strongly interwoven Commonwealth of nations, states, and races….

For fifteen years George VI was King. Never at any moment in all the perplexities at home and abroad, in public or in private, did he fail in his duties. Well does he deserve the farewell salute of all his governments and peoples.

It is at this time that our compassion and sympathy go out to his consort and widow. Their marriage was a love match with no idea of regal pomp or splendour. Indeed, there seemed to be before them only the arduous life of royal personages, denied so many of the activities of ordinary folk and having to give so much in ceremonial public service. May I say – speaking with all freedom – that our hearts go out tonight to that valiant woman, with famous blood of Scotland in her veins, who sustained King George through all his toils and problems, and brought up with their charm and beauty the two daughters who mourn their father today. May she be granted strength to bear her sorrow.

To Queen Mary, his mother, another of whose sons is dead – the Duke of Kent having been killed on active service – there belongs the consolation of seeing how well he did his duty and fulfilled her hopes, and of knowing how much he cared for her.

Now I must leave the treasures of the past and turn to the future. Famous have been the reigns of our queens. Some of the greatest periods in our history have unfolded under their sceptre. Now that we have the second Queen Elizabeth, also ascending the Throne in her twenty-sixth year, our thoughts are carried back nearly four hundred years to the magnificent figure who presided over and, in many ways, embodied and inspired the grandeur and genius of the Elizabethan age.

Queen Elizabeth II, like her predecessor, did not pass her childhood in any certain expectation of the Crown. But already we know her well, and we understand why her gifts, and those of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, have stirred the only part of the Commonwealth she has yet been able to visit. She has already been acclaimed as Queen of Canada.

We make our claim too, and others will come forward also, and tomorrow the proclamation of her sovereignty will command the loyalty of her native land and of all other parts of the British Commonwealth and Empire. I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian era, may well feel a thrill in invoking once more the prayer and the anthem, “God save the Queen!”

Welcome to church today, as we mark the 70th anniversary of HM The Queen.

It is consistent with the Queen’s no nonsense approach to all things to do with her role that today’s anniversary falls after Candlemas and before the Sundays before Lent. We have designated this a special celebration keeping our white hangings and vestments, because, when before in these islands has any monarch celebrated 70 years on the throne. This is a one off commemoration.

The Queen has made a statement in advance of today, speaking of her eternal thanks for the good wishes and support she has received, recognising the blessing of her late husband in her life, and willing that in due course, the Duchess of Cornwall will be received as Queen consort, at the accession of the Prince of Wales.

Today’s service is often done as quiet commemoration with no fanfare, as part of a said eucharist or the daily office. How fortunate this anniversary falls on a Sunday. The Accession Service as we shall hear has a long history. The provision made for the readings which we shall hear is interesting. St Peter’s calls us to

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors

And Our Lord answers the question about taxes

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

When Royal Court clergy opted for these readings, they perhaps had social control of one sort or another in mind, and certainly wanted to frame obedience to the monarch as divinely instituted. There is more nuance in the readings, when they were written. The Jewish nation and then the Church knew oppression and state coercion. Our Lord is clear throughout his ministry that there is a separation between his Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. However, when monarchs recognise the origin of their authority, and the limit of their power, godly rule can prevail. We are here to recognise what a blessing we have had in this 70 year reign, and with heart and voice we praise God for this remarkable anniversary.

Sermon, Epiphany IV, 30 January 2022, Ros Miskin

In today’s Gospel reading we learn that Jesus, in accordance with the law of Moses, was presented in the Temple in Jerusalem as ‘every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’.  We also learn that Simeon, a prophet and High Priest of the Temple, rejoices in his old age that, having been guided by the Holy Spirit to the Temple to see Jesus, in seeing him he has seen God’s salvation.  The prophet Anna, also in old age, who has never left the Temple, reacts to the presence of Jesus in praising God and begins to speak about Jesus to ‘all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’.

In my sermon today I am going to consider two aspects of this narrative.  First, the significance of its setting, being the Temple, and secondly what the reader of this text might learn about our state of being in old age.

Let me begin with the Temple. To consider its significance I began by looking back to the Old Testament for its history.  I found in chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus that God says to Moses that he does not require images in gold and silver, only ‘an altar of earth’ for sacrifice of offerings.  By chapter 26 development is underway as God calls upon Moses to create an ark to contain his covenant with his people and to build a Tabernacle to house the ark and a Table for the Bread of the Presence.  There is to be a lamp stand of pure gold and curtains and a tent to cover the Tabernacle, an altar for burnt offering and a court with hangings.  Then there are priestly vestments to be made.

Moving on through the Old Testament, we find in the Book of Kings that in the tenth century BC, Solomon, son of David, builds a Temple in Jerusalem with sanctuary and halls that have their ancestry in the Tabernacle.  Because of warfare, David was unable to build the Temple but God told David that his son Solomon would build ‘a house in his name’.  In the seventh century BC the neo-Babylonians destroyed the Temple which was then re-built after the Israelites returned from exile.

It is this second Temple that is the setting for today’s Gospel reading.  We have come a long way from the altar of earth and arrived at a Temple with its most sacred area known as ‘the Holy of Holies’.  This area contains the ark of the covenant.  In 70 AD this second Temple was destroyed by religious zealots.

You could say from this history that the Temple, being capable of being destroyed cannot in itself have a great significance in God’s relationship with his people nor in their worship of him. My answer is that it has a massive significance.  In terms of places of worship, it is a vital stage of our journey with God that will have its final destination as given in the Book of Revelation.  The first stage was the ark built to rescue Noah and his family and animals from the flood and the rainbow that God presents to him to show his covenant with us that he will never abandon his creation.  The second stage was the altar of earth as in Exodus.  The third was the law God gave to Moses, and it was according to this law that Jesus was brought to the Temple in today’s Gospel reading. The next was the construction of the Tabernacle followed by the Temple as ordained by God.

Why so significant?  Well, there are many demonstrations in the Old Testament of Divine glory revealed in the Temple. For example, we learn from Ezekiel who writes that ‘the glory of God filled the Temple’.  In Psalm 48, the Psalmist ponders ‘the steadfast love of God’ in the midst of the Temple.  In the Book of Kings, God appears to Solomon to say that he has consecrated the Temple and put his name there forever and his heart will be there for all time.  This significance is also revealed in today’s Gospel reading in Simeon being led to the Temple by the Holy Spirit to see Jesus and Anna never leaving the Temple, worshipping in it night and day.

You could say, though, that in terms of Christian thought, there are two further stages in this journey with God.  In these two stages we transit from the visible to the invisible. In the first stage of this transition we are taken from the Old Testament to the New.  In St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes that ‘we are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in us’. This is affirmed in writing of our time by Alister McGrath who writes in his book ‘The Spirit of Grace’ we are a temple within which the Holy Spirit may dwell’ but the temple stands empty unless the Holy Spirit is present.

In this new scenario we lose the vision of the Temple as a building and we perceive ourselves to be that temple.  The second stage is found in the Book of Revelation.  Here, in chapter 21, we learn that the Holy City of Jerusalem will come down out of heaven from God but there is no temple in the city ‘for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb’. Ultimately, God is the Temple and this would explain why, as Alister McGrath writes, we have a ‘built in longing for God’.  He says that ‘we are made in such a way that we are drawn to God so that we can find our way home’. He tells of an old lady who looked to heaven as ‘home’ and the church for her was an outpost of heaven.

You could say the same for Simeon and Anna as they are both looking ahead to salvation in Jesus.  This prompts me to consider our state of being in old age.  So often, particularly in today’s world, we regard old age as a retirement from active participation in life but should this be so? Surely to look forward is for all ages, from cradle to grave, and looking forward is particularly energized, I believe, when we contemplate eternal life and the presence of God.  Simeon is joyous and Anna gets busy spreading the word in speaking about Jesus to the people.

Returning to thoughts about the Temple, I would say that when we worship in church today, it is our sacred space with an ancestry in the Temple and of great worth to us in our worship and communal life.  It is there for us while we retain the knowledge that God also dwells in us and that the church is there for us until there is a new heaven and a new earth.

 

 

Sermon, Feast of the Baptism of Christ and the Blessing of the Waters, Tessa Lang, 9 January 2022

From Isiah 43, v 1 Fear not: for I have redeemed thee; I have
called thee by thy name; thou art mine.
And from St Luke 3 v 22 Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am
well pleased.

Welcome to St Marks on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ,
subject of today’s gospel reading. It is a foundational story,
wonderful for the moment the Word of God made flesh
publicly enters time, uniting heaven and earth, calling forth the
voice of God the Father and descent of the Holy Spirit to
identify and accompany the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Because his baptism sanctifies the waters as a bath of rebirth
and renewal, today we also observe the Blessing of the
Waters, an Eastern Orthodox rite adapted to spare parish
youth any health and safety risk from a wintery plunge into
Canal waters. Yet we remain mindful of the theology and
intention baked into God’s simultaneous appearance in all 3
aspects of the Trinity, and what immersion and retrieval of the
cross represents. When we add Johnny Bucknell’s remote controlled
boat to shepherd the cross to shore, the Blessing
becomes a memorable and fun way to energise our worship
and witness in our community. We enact the emergence of
Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ… remember St Sophronius, a
7th Century Patriarch of Jerusalem who protected its Christian
sites and community through uncertain times…we connect to
our own baptism and the gift of redemption and eternal life.

Then let us revel in one Sunday, two feasts – a literal and holy
double dip observance that comes on the heels of Epiphany.
Set on Twelfth Night, it marks the arrival of the Three Kings
and presentation of gifts to the Christ Child; as this year’s
reading of T S Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” reminded us, it
was a profoundly spiritual journey to the light of divinity on
earth. In this parish, Epiphany is observed with hygienically
dispensed, socially distanced enjoyment of champagne and
galette des rois, accompanied by choral performance of the 12
days of Christmas. A fitting crescendo to the season.

In our sermon texts for today, we hear God speak in both
verses; firstly, through Isaiah, the Hebrew prophet who foretold
the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. Forward some 700 years of
turbulent history for the children of Israel, to arrive at a
supernatural crescendo in a one-off, miraculous moment of
divine manifestation in the River Jordan. The melody we hear
throughout is the voice of love, of God in direct relationship
with his people and his beloved only son, the whole family!

Here is the message that rang out then as it calls to us today,
and shall sound through all our tomorrows, until its ultimate
crescendo in the glory of his kingdom come. From extending
a parental arm of encouragement and comfort to the Hebrews
in Babylonian exile in the Old Testament text, to anointing
Jesus as Saviour and Son at the start of his earthly ministry in
our New Testament passage, God advances his plan to rescue
sinful, rebellious humanity from certain death and
destruction…to forgive sins, reconcile and heal humanity, and
re-unite heaven and earth.

From the start of his gospel, Luke asserts the certainty and
accuracy of Jesus’ story; it is the truth made available to him
through the Holy Spirit, fact-checked with eyewitnesses,
acknowledged and recorded by historians and ministers
throughout the known world. Chapter 3 describes no less than
the debut of Jesus Christ as an undeniable, active principal in
history with the launch of Christianity, beginning in the waters
of the river Jordan – a real event in a real place.

Isaiah reminds us that God calls and names his own for his
own unknowable purposes. Such as Mary, an espoused virgin
of Nazareth in Galilee, chosen to be mother of the holy child
called Jesus – a very young woman not yet married from an
obscure town far from Jerusalem and the Jewish heartland of
Judah.

Another is John, the son of Mary’s cousin, born of aged and
barren parents, commissioned by God to announce the
coming of the Lord and prepare the nation for repentance of
sin, followed with baptism by water. It would have been a
difficult message to sell to a people whose religion required
burnt sacrifice for remission of sin, with an animal as proxy for
the supplicant. Ritual washing was practiced to purify the
body but was not sufficient to clean the soul. Regular burnt
sacrifices were required for maintenance of righteousness as
well as a daily schedule of washing. John would have
understood that provision of a once-for-all sacrifice would be
of an altogether greater magnitude.

He must have had a fair amount of time to ponder such
matters from a young age as he lived in the desert, an
eccentric life choice, most likely spending some time in the
settlement known as Qumran, now a national park and the site
where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered by a shepherd
boy in 1947. Day 5 of William’s Diocese of Europe 2018
Pilgrimage included a dip in the Dead Sea followed by a tour of
the park. Here lived the Essene ascetic community, devoted
to prayer and ritual purification in preparation for the coming of
the kingdom.

The Baptism of Christ occurred about 6 miles north, on the
Jordanian side, although like most pilgrims we stopped on the
Israeli occupied West Bank directly opposite. The River
Jordan has a narrow waist at that point, and we could see
where Joshua parted the waters and arranged for 12 large
stones to be set into the river bed, both symbol of the tribes of
Israel and useful hard standing for its children to be lead, at
last, into the heart of the Promised Land. The place was called
Gilgal and later was the site for the departure of Elijah the
prophet in a chariot of fire. A holy and miraculous place,
always; in November sunshine, it was also a gratifyingly busy
one.

Whether John emerged from solitary seclusion or from this
isolated group, his charismatic preaching caused many to
question whether he was the messiah, a speculation he rightly
turned aside. But as an active prophet and forerunner of
Jesus, John links the Old Testament to the New. Our gospel
portion today warns of the destructive fire of judgment – that
was then – and prophesies the coming of one who baptises
with the holy spirit, a transformative fire within each believer as
the gift of his power and presence – this will begin with the
appearance of the Messiah.

Now imagine John’s inner turmoil when the next in line for
submersion was Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, John would
know of his identity and their kinship, although we have no
record of them meeting before that day on the river. As the
Messiah, Jesus would be without sin or need to repent. How
was he worthy to perform baptism for him?

As with every documented step of Jesus’ earthly path, we see
him in total obedience to God’s will no matter how difficult,
and in solidarity with the people for whom he will lay down his
life no matter how they receive him. Jesus stepped into our
dirty bathwater and made it clean, assuming the burden of sin
and guilt generated from disobedience of the first Adam. By
his own sacrifice he raises us from certain death to salvation.
That is why he is sometimes called the last Adam. In our
baptism, we become joined with him first in death, then raised
to newness of life, graced with his righteousness, and
bestowed with his peace. This redemption is impossible to
achieve without God’s plan, Christ’s agency and the gift of the
Holy Spirit at baptism. Otherwise we would be trapped on the
hamster wheel of imperfect human nature, unable to live fully
as children of God.

Good reason to remember your baptism on this special
Sunday and indeed, whenever you look for a reason to be
grateful, feel in need of love and support, experience
loneliness or adversity. “Remember your baptism” said the
plaque that Luther placed in his room because he relied on the
fact that baptism had more power than any doubt or anxiety
he could conjure. During his most severe depressions he
would repeat as an affirmation “I am baptised! I am baptised!”
Baptism is also a foundation for living together with love and
faith.

When the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu was announced
the day after Christmas and my son Tim was awaiting the call
to produce memorial content for the New York Times, I started
reading some of the Arch’s writings, including a forward to
“We too are baptised”, dubbed the first prayer book for those
then called lesbians and gays, first published in April 1996. In
it he writes:
“What a poignant testimony this book turns out to be. It is a
‘cri de coeur’ from the hearts of persons we have first
accepted as baptized fellow Christians, members together with
us all in the body of this Jesus Christ, wherein as a result of
that baptism there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female,
free nor slave – there is a radical equality. (NB from I
Corinthians 12:13).

Remember that your baptism is not just for the first Sunday
after Epiphany, it is for life. A better life for you and for others.
Eternal life. Amen.

Midnight Mass, 24 December 2020 – the Vicar

A Christmas letter came from an esteemed parishioner. His wife told him not to “be boastful, smug or complacent.” He continued – there was nothing to boast about, because they had not done anything all year; in their country cottage, where they spent most of the lockdown, they were content to admit to being snug of not smug. And, as a couple of a certain age, being complacent, he said, was a synonym for being alive! Brilliant, I hooted with laughter, and it did me no end of good.

Being alive at the end of this year, gallows humour apart, is a thing, and right to celebrate at Christmas.

The angel of the Lord terrorises the poor shepherds on the Judaean hillside. “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

Twitter’s usp is to get you to condense statements to 280 characters, a pithy, punchy word of self-publicity. The Romans knew all about this. They called them evangelions. Headline news, broadcast by dictat. – Roman General quells uprising – Marauding Northern tribes beyond the Rhine cast back. You get the sort of thing. That was an Evangelion. A Roman Tweet of 2000 years ago. What does Evangelion mean? Quite simply Good News. It has a verb “to give good news” “evangelizomai – “I GIVE GOOD NEWS”. And what does the Angel say to these poor so and sos on the hillside evangelizomai: “I GIVE GOOD NEWS”.

It is earth shattering – no heaven shattering actually, because it as if the heavens are torn open at the seams and the atmosphere is thronging with the heavenly host. It’s just like Dr Who, but two millenia earlier – the crack in space and time continuum.

What is so brilliant in this account is that the world’s understanding of GOOD NEWS is toppled on its head. Propaganda, the fiction of government is replaced by the REALLY good news that a baby is born –  fully alive. And he is the Messiah, not the unspeakable Herod in his gaudy magnificence, or Caeser across sea. This real King is alive, fragile and in a manger, but alive, and he will bring the only true vision of peace that will ever be known.

Here we are at the end of one of the strangest years of our lives but we are alive and making sense of what that means. We may have suffered, may have sacrificed much, but we are here. Can I suggest three things to continue to ponder?

We have breath in our lungs. The shocking dying words of George Floyd “I can’t breathe” early in the pandemic encapsulated the injustice and fear this virus wreaked and exposed. Breath, the very essence of life, shapes the Biblical narrative of salvation. The spirit of God is breathed out over the face of the deep at creation, and breathed into Adam’s lungs. Our Lord at his death, gives up the ghost, breathes his last, day turns to night. The Spirit returns with might at Pentecost to inspire the Church. The breath of God shapes creation. We are deprived of singing, thank God we have a choir to articulate our praises – while we feebly struggle, they in glory shine! Losing singing in worship, that particular focusing of the breath, to utter praise is one of many privations; it symbolizes how much has been sacrificed.

Value, we have learned whole new values in this time, and the world cannot and must not unlearn what value must be ascribed to those who care. I don’t know if you have heard Mark  Carney’s sobering Reith lectures, Credit, Climate and Covid. They have underlined this most strikingly; the need for a complete social climate change could not be more needed.

Breath; Value – (third word) YES.

Might I commend the most beautiful book published in 2019 if you do not know it, by Hisham Matar. It is called A Month in Sienna. Matar is a secular Muslim, of Libyan dissident parentage. A refugee, having fled following the rendition of his father from Egypt to certain death at the hands of the Gaddafi regime.

Precisely what happened to his father remains unsolved 35 years later.

As a young student, Matar became absorbed by the collection of 12th-14th c Sienese paintings in the National Gallery. They have remained a source of inspiration to him.

He resolved, after researching a book about how and why his father disappeared, to spend in a month in Sienna as balm. His book is an entry to a moment of art history which straddles the period of the Black Death of 1348. Writing before the current pandemic, he explores the significance of Plague in mediaeval Europe presciently. He ponders Lorrenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the Palazzo Publico in the city:

The French artist Henri Cartier-Bresson had once described taking a photograph as saying ‘yes’, not the yes of approval, but that of acknowledgement. In the end, as it is in the beginning, love and art are an expression of faith. How else to function with the limited knowledge we have? Asked if he was a pessimist, the English playwright Edward Bond replied: “Why am I talking to you, if it is not a gesture of hope?” Lorenzetti’s Allegory and indeed the entire history of art can be read as that: a gesture of hope and also of desire, a playing out of the human spirit’s secret ambition to connect with the beloved, to see the world through her eyes, to traverse that tragic private distance between intention and utterance, so that, finally, we might be truly comprehended this not in order to advocate a position, but rather to be truly seen, to be recognised, not to be mistaken for someone else, to go on changing while remaining identifiable by those who know us the best.

Christmas is surely the celebration of this truth for all humanity. That God decides to say His yes to and for us by taking on our nature and proving that He is Emmanuel GOD WITH US.

Breath, value, yes: we are alive, thank God.

 

 

 

 

Sermon, Advent Sunday, 28 November 2021, Ros Miskin

 

On your marks, get set, go! Looking back over the decades to my school sports day I remember those words being shouted out at the beginning of races which, I hasten to say, I was not very good at but I enjoyed the stimulus of the run.  There were prizes for the winner and the runner up who were applauded for their performance.  What helped us to ‘get on our marks’ and ‘get set’ was that we knew what was to come.  We knew what was required of us and we could practice beforehand.  We knew that the race would end at the finishing post.  The unexpected could occur; we could fall over and be disqualified or we could decide, for whatever reason, that we could not participate as we might not feel well enough to do so.  In spite of such unknowns, preparation was straightforward because we had a clear idea of the task in hand.

What, though, can we do to prepare for the momentous events of the celebration of the birth of Christ and his Second Coming?  A question to be asked on this particular  Sunday, being Advent Sunday, when we are called upon to engage in this preparation. No-one can say for certain why this period of preparation came into being but it is understood to have been in existence from the fifth century.  In the sixth century, at the Council of Tours, it was decreed that monks should fast every day until Christmas and fasting was observed until the ninth century.  What, though, about our preparation today?

Let us seek guidance by turning to today’s Gospel reading to see what Luke says about this preparation.  Luke gives us a picture of tribulation followed by triumph.  There will be the destruction of Jerusalem by the Gentiles and then great cosmic disturbance heralding the Son of Man coming in a cloud ‘with power and great glory’.  The cosmic disturbance will mean signs in the Sun, the moon and the stars and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring  of the sea and the waves’. When these events take place, Jesus calls upon his followers to stand up and raise their heads because their redemption is drawing near.  They must be ‘on their marks’ and ‘get set’ or they will not escape the trouble that lies ahead.

In this foretelling of tribulation and triumph, of confusion and glory, the call is for us to be alert and to pray that we have the strength to ‘escape the things that will take place and to stand before the Son of Man’.  That would not have been easy for the followers of Jesus then, nor us now, because of the distinction between earthly time and Divine time.

How can you prepare for an event in Divine time when Divine activity is on a different timescale?  If we are called upon to run a race our preparation is aided by knowing the start time but with Divine time we do not know the timescale.  God’s time has no beginning and no end.  In our worship this is reflected in it being a cycle of feasts and seasons as opposed to the linear time of our earthly existence.  As Sister Teresa White expresses it in her book ‘Hope and the Nearness of God’: ‘Advent will beckon us to re-enter the circle of liturgical time’.  When, in Advent, we re-enter the circle of liturgical time, we can prepare for Christmas Day in the spirit of hope, joy and thanksgiving, because we are celebrating that which has already occurred and we have the specific date in linear time of 25 December for that celebration.  What, though, about the Second Coming?  Are we to be alert and watchful until generation has succeeded generation? Or will it occur in the immediate future?  It is not easy to prepare yourself if you do not know the timescale.

Then there is the mystery of Divine activity. The circle of liturgical time is mysterious and, as we have learnt from today’s Gospel reading, full of both the expected and unexpected.  How do you prepare for events that are both monumental and mysterious?

What we can do, as Jesus says, is to avoid if possible over-preoccupation with the worries of this life so that we can avoid being ‘caught out unawares’. We can take time in Advent to ponder and reflect upon Divine purpose through silence, meditation and prayer.  We are waiting for the Divine events to come and in that wait we can, as one Commentary on Luke expresses it ‘begin to see the world through the eyes of God’.  I wonder if, in this pandemic that we are currently experiencing, we are being nudged towards this reflective state as we cannot move about quite as freely as we once did?  I for one, as I am sure many do, love the hustle and bustle that leads up to Christmas and the sparkle and excitement of it all, but are we being called upon, via intermittent lockdowns, to be still and know that he is God?

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke tells us of fear and uncertainty but he does not leave us in that state. Following the tribulation of the cosmic disturbance he brings us back to nature.  Cosmic signs give way to what we can see and understand in nature.  Jesus says that the leaves sprouting on the trees in summer are also an indication that the Kingdom of God is at hand. This gentle imagery is to show us that God is about openness and freedom of the spirit and love.  This defeats the purpose of the Devil.  To quote from Walter Brueggemann, in his book ‘Poetry in a Prose-Flattened World’: ‘The Prince of Darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed so that it can be administered’.  The coming of the Kingdom defeats this purpose.  We can, then, in Advent, reflect with thanksgiving upon that triumph and what today’s reading asks us to focus upon, which is not the birth pangs of cosmic chaos that precede the coming of the Kingdom, but the permanence of the Word of God.  As we have heard today: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away’.

So we can, in Advent, pray, reflect and meditate upon the Word of God. We cannot be alert and watchful at all times but we can allow ourselves some space and time to let the Holy Spirit breath the breath of God upon us and fill us with life anew.

Sermon, 7 November 2021, the Vicar

Do you know the Jonah-man Zazz? It opens:

 

Nineveh city was a city of sin

The jazzin’ and a-jivin’ made a terrible din

Beat groups playin’ a rock and roll

And the Lord when he heard it said, “Bless my soul!”

Jonah is in the great prophetic tradition of Israel, mentioned in II Kings 14: 25, the Son of Amittai, which means truth. Jewish tradition suggests that he the boy was raised by Elijah from the dead.

There are two contexts we need to ponder in relation to Jonah’s book, both the context of when it was set, and, when it was written which may have been rather later. It seems to be set in the lead up to one of the greatest catastrophes in Israel’s history, the 8th BC c overthrow of Israel’s Northern Kingdom. We know this happened, and the accounts in II Kings 18 and the Assyrian records tally remarkably. It was truly a horrific moment, which changed Israel’s history completely. That’s the context of the story, but we think the Book of Jonah may possibly have been written much later, possibly as late as the 3rd c BC, as Judaism faced big questions about its relations with its neighbours and Gentiles in their midst.

It is read in its entirety on the Jewish Day of Atonement each year in the afternoon.

And it is no surprise that at our most important celebration, the Easter Vigil, on Holy Saturday, one of the twelve readings which we are encouraged to have (though tend to cut them to five), is from Jonah. But, as even 5 readings is rather a lot, we read this one from a children’s bible, to keep people listening. There’s a wonderful refrain in the one I like to use, which is called Jonah the Groaner: And what did Jonah do? Jonah groaned. Indeed, Jonah is one of the Bible’s groaners.

The first two chapters of the Book are taken up with the Jonah and the Whale narrative: Jonah is called to go to Nineveh, but he does the opposite of what God wants. Jonah takes a boat from Joppa, in the exact opposite direction to Spain – Tarshish. But of course, en route, Jonah’s recalcitrance causes the most terrible storm and he gets thrown overboard into the drink, and swallowed by a fish, who lands him three days later on the shores of (landlocked) Nineveh, (don’t worry too much about geography) to do what God asked him.

Jonah then heads into the city, which takes three days to cross, and he proclaims the message, which God has charged him to give. In eight short words, he warns the Ninevites, in their rock and rolling, to repent. YET FORTY DAYS AND NINEVEH SHALL BE OVERTHROWN.

The humour of the book reaches a crescendo at this point. The unnamed King immediately removes his royal robes (in the part which is cut today). He requires everyone – man and beast – to put on sackcloth and ashes and to begin a fast. We are meant to find the whole thing funny, we are meant to find Jonah ridiculous. It is all one very serious message dressed up in a long catalogue of funnies.

Remember the context of the story: Jonah did not want to visit the Imperial HQ of a nation which was menacing his own; no wonder he wanted to flee in the opposite direction as far as he could.

Prophets, Jonah, like Jeremiah before him have to do daunting things; like telling world leaders when they are generating blah blah blah, more hot air than the environment can cope with; or criticising a government when it is changing the rules in the middle of serious enquiry for their own political ends. Prophecy is not the path to popularity, it is the way of derision, contempt and ostracism.

This is a Daniel in the Lions’ Den sort of story: Who was going to listen to the message of repentance from him? Better to be drowned, or head to the ends of earth, than to proclaim a fast in Nineveh.

The hilarities extend. The vaunting over-lords hear first time round. Rather than being lionised, God’s urgent call to repentance to the people of Nineveh is heard straight away. The plot thickens, we don’t hear it this morning, but Jonah goes off into a huge sulk. Jonah groans, because he thought he was unlikely to be successful in what he had to say, but in his heart he wanted the Assyrian capital to come crashing down around itself and be laid waste. But unfair God was going to spare the marauders and show them a sign of love.

We think that the potentially introverted, isolationism of much later Judaism in perhaps in the 3rd c BC, when it may have been written, was being pricked and teased from inside. It’s Jewish humour at its quintessential best.

There’s quite a lot about repentance in the story, as you may have noticed. There is the call to repentance, which Jonah is made to bring to the Ninevites. And rather poignantly there is the prayer in verse 9 of the King: “Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger so that we perish not?” Then we hear, mercifully, in verse 10 “and God repented of the evil that he said he would do unto them, and he did it not.” The repentance is not just human. God, even when faced with the repentance of his people’s enemies, may turn Himself.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus appears right at the beginning of our Gospel writer St Mark’s narrative. We are coming to the end of the liturgical year, and ironically we go back to the beginning again. In our end is our beginning as Eliot reminds us. Jesus bursts on the stage and says two earth shattering things in the same breath “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye and believe the Gospel.” Our end is our beginning. Our red vestments denote these final Sundays of the Kingdom, as we prepare to celebrate Christ the King. That kingdom is denoted by repentance, turning from destruction towards the truth. Jonah calls his hearers to repent, and his story shows that when they do, God’s heart is melted too, God can repent and turn to us and receive even the furthest off. There is no seaside call to follow for Peter at the start of John’s Gospel, just a renaming of him. The call to follow comes at the end, the very last verses of the Gospel, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” “Lord you know that I love you.” Then he is told, at THE END “Follow me.” In this end is Peter’s beginning. Simon, the Son of Jonah, the son of Truth begins his journey just as the Gospel ends.

“We had a wonderful party and Jonah had a whale of a time

But now that we’ve really repented everythin’s goin’ to be fine

We let our hair down in plenty and boy we had the blues on the run

But even though we have repented, our dancin’ days ain’t done.”

Sermon, Bible Sunday, 24 October 2021, Tessa Lang

Communication and Connection: Our relationship with God’s Word

From the readings for today:
God the Father speaks through his prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 55: v 10 – 11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my Word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
God the Son speaks through his disciple, John:
John 5: v 37 – 38 And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his Word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.
Welcome to our celebration of the Bible this Sunday…we can marvel afresh at this
astonishing anthology of 66 books written by over 40 authors across 1500 years, the most massive ‘best-seller’ and influencer of all time, a multi-cultural, multi-translated epic with a singularly cohesive view of God, his works, our relationship, his Marshall plan to rescue humanity from their exile of sin and build back his kingdom. Our readings today highlight this existential interaction of God and his people through Old Testament prophecy AND New
Testament works during a specific incident of Jesus’ ministry.
We benefit from having both parts of the Bible as we know it since about 400 AD, compiled from the Old Testament, finished some 300 years or so before the birth of Jesus; and the New Testament, finished within 90 years of his death and resurrection. The Bible arrived on our shores painstakingly hand-scribed in Latin translation, accessible only to those with education and wealth. In the 7th century, the Northumbrian monk and historian, Bede, translated the first scripture into Old English – the gospel of John. Not until the 14th century
was the entire Bible translated into English by John Wycliffe, a master at Oxford University. Unlicensed possession of the Bible in English was soon banned by law enforced with the death penalty, and the work of translation went underground in our native tongue. Although at the time, translations in all other major European languages were available on the continent. In the 16th century, William Tyndale, an Oxbridge scholar, translated and published scripture in English from Antwerp and Hamburg, drawing upon his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek and later smuggling the volumes into England. The most complete, the
“Matthew Bible” of 1537 is widely cited as the foundation of the King James Version. Sadly, the year before its publication Tyndale was arrested and executed for heresy, having offended King Henry VIII as well as broken the law against translating and publishing the scriptures in English.
It is worth remembering that possessing and distributing the Bible, in whole or in part, is dangerous unto death in some parts of the world; it required extraordinary faith and commitment to do so in our own country up to early modern times. Perhaps today’s portion of John chapter 5, an assertive, legalistic and difficult passage, in some ways foreign to us in its content and structure, can illuminate why. Allow me to set the scene for a master class on the power of God’s word delivered by its embodiment, the incarnate son of God who is the
subject of its witness from Genesis through Revelations, the Old Testament as well as the New.
We are in Jerusalem, in the Temple district just inside the Sheep Gate (now called the Lion Gate; it is pleasing to ponder that Jesus entered as the lamb of God and ascended as the triumphant lion of Zion, an inversion of the month of March adage…) It is Sabbath during a Festival, and we are by the pool of Bethesda, a mikvah or ritual bath where the sick and suffering also came for healing; excavations have revealed its construction to mirror the Ezekiel Chapter 47 passage on Healing Waters, with a deep, stepped pool for immersion and
a linked, higher pool as reservoir to feed it so that the waters were ever live from source, bounded indeed by 5 porticos just as John reports in his gospel.
Jesus is there, along with the Temple community and throngs of fellow Jews, casting his compassionate gaze on hopeful invalids waiting their turn by the pool, before he approaches one man who clearly had been in a bad way for a long time to ask if he wants to be healed. In short order, upon Jesus’ command, the man rises, picks up his mat and walks off once again whole in body…Jesus stops him later with the reminder to avoid sin in order to remain so. There is a sermon to be had about spiritual paralysis and divine therapeutic method, but it is not our text or focus today. What is pertinent is the fact Jesus broke Sabbath law: healing and carrying were both forbidden as work. He did this openly, in a holy place on a holy day and with multitudes as witness, acts sufficient for Jesus to be persecuted in public, then and there. And so this transpired on the spot.
Jesus is more than adequate to his own defence and doubles down on these affronts to law and authority by committing the ultimate offence: he made himself equal with God when he told them that yes, he works on the Sabbath because his Father is always at work; what he sees his Father do, he also does. Like Father, like son. In the eyes of the Pharisees this is outright blasphemy, outrageous distain for tradition and law, punishable with death by
stoning outside the city walls. In a heartbeat, they upped the ante from verbal abuse and public chastisement to conviction and condemnation to death.
Perhaps the violence of the intention to put Jesus on trial and then to death strikes the modern reader as excessive. Let us painfully recall that in our day, trial by hateful social media posts and on-line radicalisation has real power to murder and foment riot and insurrection yet is largely unregulated. It is true that in Judea of that time, a judicial procedure within religious law could be convened immediately and held anywhere. Although were a capital judgment
handed down, the crucifixion demonstrates that the Roman rulers reserve the right to execute. Furthermore the Mishnah or oral Torah which includes a compilation of laws and their application, provides the accused with the right to the testimony of minimum 2 to 3 witnesses on their behalf. What is also different to our experience of trial is if the testimony of the accused and their witnesses prevail, then the accuser could become the one found in breach of the law and suffer the appropriate consequences. Jesus would understand that their
position was far less potent than the Pharisees would have liked, and he could outwit them at their own litigious game.
Thus we arrive at the start of our passage, a masterful monologue for the defence as Jesus summons three star witnesses: John the Baptist, sent by the Father to prepare the way for Jesus (tick); the works the Father has sent Jesus to do – miracles, healings, raising from the dead, commanding the water (tick); and God the father himself who commends his son in every letter of the Hebrew scriptures (tick) …shaping our recognition of divine presence, love and care…foreshadowing redemption by prophesying the coming of the Messiah.
Logical, then, that this sermon’s spotlight text accuses the Pharisees of being blind to his glory and deaf to God’s word in the scrolls they study; in the laws, messianic texts and history set down by Moses in the Pentateuch; in the incarnate son of God turning their own laws against them and finding them sadly wanting.
Jesus then moves through his counter-charges to deliver the rest of his knock-out accusations:
You think you can study your way to eternal life without believing in or coming to me.
You will believe any third party with a message you want to hear and reject the one with the
Father’s full authority and evidence.
You may have texts in your head, but you do not have the love of God in your hearts.
You glorify each other instead of seeking the glory that comes from God.
IN short, their prosecution is a vain attempt to protect their privilege and authority, and continue to live as they prefer. They testify against themselves. The evidence is clear. There is no need for Jesus to judge them. Yet they are recognisably all too human and not caricatures. What if one needn’t be a Pharisee to suffer from delusions of personal importance and wilful rejection of God by failing to receive his word?
Reading today’s uncompromising text in the context of Bible Sunday reminds us of the good news that remedy is always available between the pages of the Bible. Jesus himself opens the Hebrew Bible again and again to enable the understanding and faith of others and to endure his ordeal of sacrifice for our sake. As a 12-year-old, he examined the scriptures in theTemple; the priests may have been impressed with his knowledge and understanding but to
the boy it was simply “doing his father’s business.” When tempted by Satan in the
wilderness, he replied each time by quoting scripture to state his refusal: “it is written”. On the cross, John reports that “…Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst”.
In Matthew 5, Jesus follows up the sermon on the mount and its radical re-ordering of our existence with this reassurance: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Mt. 5:17-18).”
A bonus text from the lectionary for this last Sunday after Trinity is useful guidance we can follow until then. Written by Paul awaiting execution in Rome to Timothy, a young pastor leading the church in Ephesus, it is as resolute, tireless and practical as its author:
2nd Timothy 3: v 16 -17 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Basically, you cannot go wrong by reading any book or portion of the Bible. Possess, peruse, take inspiration from the Bible, cherish and guard its contribution to your inner life, your eternal life and ability to live a good life. While you’re at it, keep an eye out for Jesus. After all, it was written so that we could come to him, believe on him and abide in eternal connection with God the almighty. It is one big love letter to his people written across time by his timeless Word. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WG:            Does the Church need to have an opinion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The theme of my sermon today is ‘expectation’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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