A Sermon for All Saints

4th Nov 2012

A Sermon for All Saints


Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24.1-6; Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44.



The Feast of All Saints is one of the most important of the Church’s year. It is what is called a ‘moveable’ feast, and can be ‘moved’ to the nearest Sunday, where it can be given its due significance.


The other day I was staying in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, from where you can see the tallest spire in England. The Cathedral is a stunning sight, and walking around the west front, you see before you hundreds of saints, each contained within their own apse, and all looking vaguely alike. And perhaps this is the image we have of the saints, mostly bearded men, gazing down at us from their isolated places and lost in time.But the facts of the matter are otherwise.


Today’s Gospel reading of the raising of Lazarus seems at first a strange reading for All Saints Day but this feast is, after all, about the powerful commixture of life and death and resurrection contained within John’s narrative. It is a new kind of identity that John celebrates, echoing the words of St Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die gain”. (Philippians 1.21) The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb, still dressed as a corpse, is one of the most startling occurrences in the New Testament. It speaks vividly of there being something new at work in the ministry of Christ. It speaks above all of the promise of the resurrection of the dead. The French word for resurrection is resussité, literally ‘resuscitation’. Death is not only for the Christian a biological certainty, it is also a summons to new life in Christ. Christians speak of dying to self as a way out of the self-centred, tomb-like existence which is the burial of our gifts and our love. He calls to you and to me as he did to Lazarus ‘Come out of this place of death; allow the power of Christ to resuscitate you, to breathe new life into you. Die to live! John Donne, a former Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, likened his spiritual life to the battering of an Autumn tree. The Christian life involved a necessary life and death struggle:


Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you

As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend

Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.



The crucifixion and death and resurrection of Christ is the once and for all, final summons to attain to what St Paul called ‘”The measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13), and this is where the saints come to help us. They provide markers or directions for us. They remind us that the Christian Faith belongs neither to a ‘goodness religion’ nor to a religion for super humans. Sanctity issues out of lives which have been marked by doubt, disillusion, suffering and struggle. The saints remind us that the Christian journey is real and loaded with possibility. They are not ‘plaster’ saints but real human beings. They remind us of lives lived a very real, difficult world. In the film “Nixon”, Anthony Hopkins plays the former president as a tortured and ruthless power maniac. In one scene, Nixon gazes up at a painting of John F Kennedy. He speaks to the painting thus  “When people look at you they see themselves as they want to be, when they look at me they see themselves as they are”. Perhaps our working definition of a saint must combine both these observations?


The idea of the saint came from a tradition of venerating the mortal remains of Christians who had left their mark on the memory of the Christian community. The first of these were the early Christian martyrs who died in Rome, including St Peter and St Paul. Once churches were built they were called after saints names, and in Cornwall there are names like St Ennodock and St Neot who are known to us only in legend. The most famous English saint, Thomas à Becket was made a saint only four years after his death. RS Thomas the poet reminds us as he looks upon his old church in remote West Wales that ‘the parish has a saint’s name that time cannot unfrock’.


The saints remind us that the Christian Faith may not be an easy faith to live out but it is an essentially human way and not a conveyor belt for the turning out of plaster saints. Do not believe the certain kind of Christianity that makes faith seem guaranteed and easy; it is not. I do not find being Christian easy at all. The Church teaches, however, that we are here not for short-term spiritual gain but for the long haul, in faith terms ‘till death us do part’. Christian witness is about the sanctification, the blessing of lives that seek God by what someone has called ‘the absurdity of faith’ that exists alongside life’s vagaries. This is the kind of faith that came to St Augustine as the guilt over the enforced separation after 16 years from the partner he never married and the later death of their sixteen year old son. This is also the absurd faith of St Teresa of Avila, who on inspecting a room offered to her as a chapel declared that it was not big enough, and took a sledgehammer and smashed down the wall only to reveal the startled neighbours next door. You didn’t argue with Teresa; a woman who had survived the Spanish Inquisition would not have been a pushover under any circumstances.


St Benedict wrote a rule for the community we call the Benedictines and it has long been valued as a Christian model for its understanding of human limitations and its love of unity in the Christian fellowship. Nonetheless his basic rulings on human behaviour are forthright:


Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way: the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.


The saints are human, just like us. The call to Christian sanctity is the call to live lives which are generous and loving and which reveal the Christian Faith to be transformative of the human condition. It can be seen and known in our actions. Of course talking of sainthood and sanctity is always difficult. Perhaps, however there have been people that you have known who have revealed in their lives something of that holiness and purposefulness and selflessness which are the signs of a sanctified life. Or perhaps you yourself have found sanctification in the love of another, or in an experience of God’s love in a place or a community, like this church.


I never enter this building without feeling a sense of awe. I always feel my heart miss a beat. This is a place, a sanctified space, where I have, maybe like you, found and re-found a sense of belonging in the love of God, and that Lazarus sense of being spiritually resuscitated. At the heart of all we do and all we are to become in the life of God is that prayer which is a witness to the holiness of God and his Church.


It is a prayer for the sanctification of our own lives, too:



Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God,

Who was, and is and is to come!







A Sermon for All Souls

2nd Nov 2012

The Commemoration of All Souls 


“Praying for one’s departed loved ones is a far too immediate urge to be suppressed. It is a most beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death”.                                                                                                                                                        Pope Benedict XVI.


At this particular time of the year in the first days of November, the Church seems to wrap itself in the lives of those who have gone before us: On the 1st November in the lives of all the saints, which we celebrated last Sunday. Then as the days in November wear on, we come to that moment on the 11th hour of the 11th month as Armistice Day is observed. And then there comes Remembrance Sunday and the wearing of poppies… Today’s All Soul’s Day is the Church’s Day of the Dead, and forms an inseparable apart of the general commemorating and remembering of the dead. And its purpose is to keep us in mind of what we know as Christians already. That there is a fine veil that separates life from death. Similarly, there is a fine veil that separates us from those who have gone before us, and especially those whose lives we came in the past to know and to love. They are a part of us and their influence upon us in the present and for all time.


For the Christian, life is of God’s making and it is sacred. And all is vital for our understanding of who God is. As God’s creatures we stand in awe of the grandeur and the mystery of what he has made and how he has made it. The true meaning of life lies beyond mere speech. No wonder, then, that the appropriate response in the remembrance of the dead is one of silence. The Two Minute’s Silence speaks to us clearly in this busy world more than ever in ways words never could. In the silence is communicated that place where the living and the dead hold communion. Yet another tradition in the remembering of the dead is the writing down or the reading out of the names of the dead. We may imagine the war memorials, with their thousands of names, the books of commemoration and condolence, as well as the engravings for those known and unknown on countless memorial stones. And at his All Souls Mass, the long list of the names of the dead, known by you and I both individually and severally is solemnly read out. It is stands both as a list of the dead and a declaration of our faith in the one who has risen from the Dead – Our Lord Jesus Christ.


In his great poem ‘The Wasteland’ TS Eliot, recovering from a nervous breakdown, describing a crowd of commuters  crossing over Westminster Bridge in the year 1921:


A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,


I had not thought death had undone so many.


Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,


And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.


Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,


To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours


With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.



He observed them; a people recovering from The Great War and most of them suffering the deaths of their men folk: sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. And the feeling is one of great sorrow and loss. And this is a sorrow that Eliot describes as a kind of  ‘undoing’. “I had not thought that death had undone so many” he says. Death and the brevity of life and the loss of a loved can feel like we are being unravelled.


Another poet, Dylan Thomas writes a poem which is an elegy for his dead father and bids us ‘rage,rage aginst the dying of the light’.


And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


It expresses a passionate anger that must form a part of the sense of impotent rage at a life gone from his midst, and the terrible loss of it. This too, forms a part of the human experience of death.

This Solemn Commemoration of All Souls on this day each year, 2nd November is, as the Pope has said,   “…a beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death’. However faint our powers of recollection, we nevertheless feel in our own lives the influences of those who have gone before us. We feel there is more here than words can express, even for an Eliot or a Dylan Thomas. “What will survive of us” said WH Auden “…is love”.


At this time each year we remember the dead in faith and in thanksgiving. And we pray that as we journey on, so we may be sustained and maintained in hope by the One who made us and loves us as Christian souls. He is The One who came to show us the way through death and into life eternal, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

St Simon and St Jude - A Sermon from the Archdeacon of Hampstead

28th Oct 2012

Sermon for the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude.

Holy Cross Cromer Street, Sunday 28th October 2012.


You also must testify John 15:27


It is pretty negative, but both S Simon and S Jude were defined by who they were not. S Simon the less was not the great Simon Peter, prince of the apostles. And Judas is Judas not Iscariot: a boring good guy who ended up as the patron saint of lost causes because he was only entreated for his intercession as a last resort for fear that people might think one was asking the traitor for prayers. But the positive thing about them is that they testified. They were evangelists of the faith. All apostles are evangelists: apostle means ‘one who is sent,’ and Christ did not send them out for a loaf of bread: he sent them out with a message, to testify the Good News.


We are apostolic in the sense that we have been converted by this message, and receiving it we are one with the apostles in their life in Christ. But we are also apostolic in the sense that we also must testify: we too are sent, and we too must go out with the Good News.


Today’s scripture readings help us to unpack a little what it means to be an apostolic church – one which is united with Christ and so testifies well.


The beginning of apostolic ministry is Christ who is the cornerstone. The Nowadays a corner stone a ceremonial plaque and is seldom structurally necessary to the building. Looks good but no real use. That is not what the Bible means when it describes Jesus as the Cornerstone. He is the fundamental thing: the foundation, the reason why the whole edifice stands up. People scoff against this. They always have, as the prophesy of Isaiah says. But the word of the Lord comes to those who scoff: this is a precious corner stone for a sure foundation. It is true, and the challenge we have is to live as though it were true. Taking Jesus seriously in our lives is more difficult than it looks. How can we take the virtues of the Kingdom as the basis of what we do, the commands of God as our inspiration, how can we allow Jesus and our faith in Him to be more than a set of vague ideas or membership of a cosy club? How can virtue grow in us, how can souls burn with love and zeal, how can we build on Jesus as the foundation of all that we do, rather than faith in Him being a small time off activity?

Only grace can do this: God’s action in our lives. It begins with the call – the apostles themselves were called by the lakeside. Jesus reminded them: you did not choose me, no I chose you. This is God’s prior action. And He has called every one of us. How can I say that so certainly? Because you are here. The evidence is as simple and as incontrovertible as that: you are here. And here you are being built up in grace. Baptism is the beginning, the wondrous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, no less powerful than that outpouring the apostles received in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. You receive the Body and Blood of Christ, the food of angels, the presence of Christ with you, the indwelling of His life in yours, when He offers Himself to you in Bread and Wine. He is with you here in His temple and He is with you in the office and at home, in your work and wherever you go. This is what S Paul means when he says that you are ‘fellow citizens with God’s people, and members of God’s household. The while building is founded on Christ and raised to become the dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.


So you are called like the apostles and in the church you are built with them by His grace in the sacraments into the dwelling of God. And that is why you re rejected and why your mission is difficult. No servant is greater than his master; if they rejected me they will reject you. We are thought mad or bad by the world. The church holds positions which challenge the vested interests and the wealthy and the powerful: we stand up for the weak and the outcast and the poor. But the progressive world is also challenged and made uncomfortable when we propound views which seem exclusive in demanding that the say that our behaviour should be regulated by the teaching of a 2,000 years dead rabbi rather than by what is thought acceptable in the drawing rooms of Islington. We are thought simply mad when we say that God is alive and well in the world and influences decisions, and frankly we are dangerous when we suggest that suffering is not simply an evil to avoid and purge, but yet another tool, along with wellbeing, to help us on our way to God.


Where perhaps the apostolic message has had most traction is in the call to love our neighbour. For we do not come like some sect with a message of condemnation and hate and disengagement. The command of the Lord is to Love each other, and that challenge is one for which we plead help to fulfil. None of us lives up to the perfection of the apostles and we all fall short of heaven. And from our own sinfulness – and the awareness of its forgiveness in Christ – we reach out with the charity – that is the love – of Christ to the world. The offer of the disinterested love of Jesus Christ is the beginning of so much of our mission: offered not to convert but simply to respond to need: to show His love to the world, who was crucified for our salvation.


But that is not the whole of what the apostolic church does. It is not that we have some nice private faith which expresses itself in good works. Look at the end of the Gospel reading: when the Advocate comes He will testify. The Paraklete, is an Advocate in tow senses. He is our defence advocate in the court of public opinion: He helps us to defend ourselves against the attacks of the world. But He is also the advocate who brings our charges against the world. He helps us to make the challenge. Like Simon and Jude we are sent to make the case for Christ, in season and out of season, to teach rebuke and exhort. There will be much opposition, but we cannot duck the challenge: it is the inevitable concomitant of our membership of the church. For we have been built on Christ the Cornerstone and given grace for the upbuilding and conversion of our own souls. The result of that is the hatred of the world, to which we respond with acts of love and also with the courageous proclamation of the truth: that Jesus is the cornerstone on which they too can and must build their lives. Come, receive the bread of life; then  go out: proclaim the Gospel with your lives. 

Achieving Greatness

21st Oct 2012

Sermon for 20th Sunday of Trinity Year B


“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” Mark 10.43


To commemorate the beginning of  the new millennium in London, a landmark exhibition was opened at the National Gallery in the year 2000. The coming third millennium provided the opportunity for a celebration of Christian history, and the title of the exhibition ‘Seeing Salvation’ a way of seeing and realising the centuries old Christian witness in paintings.


The first of these paintings was a startling and unusual one. It was a Spanish picture, painted in 1630 by Francisco de Zurburan and depicting a lamb trussed and placed on a slab. The title of the painting, ‘Lamb of God’ or ‘Agnus Dei’ told you what you needed to know about the subject, whilst the lamb you saw had a halo above its head. The image of the lamb is moving because it appeals directly to your sense of compassionate understanding. But its title means that this painting has a meaning which is emphatically Christian.


Christian paintings have been important in helping us to understand some deep and complex theological truths. These images are generous. They give us the time and the space and allow our imagination to rest upon them and to feel them. They help to make difficult truths real and understandable for us. Words cannot convey the meaning that images can. And so what might seem a pathetically simple image, of a lamb bound and ready for slaughter (or is it sacrifice?) is also one that speaks of a deep sense of mortality and of loss, bound here to the life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Zurburan’s gaze and intention is unrelenting and searching. The image echoes the words of this morning’s Old Testament Reading from Isaiah:


“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53: 7-8)


Isaiah spoke about a messiah who would be a sacrificial lamb—of course for us it is Christ. Jesus is the Lamb of God. We sing about every week in church at the Agnus Dei.


“Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi….”     

”Lamb of god, who takes away the sins of the world….”


We have another ‘Lamb of God’ image in our stained glass window in this church, designed and made by Martin Travers in 1920. He created this image three hundred years after Zurburan in 1920 and yet the message for our salvation remains still clear and sure. Travers has the Christ as Good Shepherd wearing an amber coloured cloak and carrying a lantern, the light of the world. This time the lamb is carried on his own shoulders. But we know that the lamb he bears as the good shepherd also alludes to the lamb of sacrifice. His sacrifice. The cloak is riven with thorns and nails. The Christ wears a crown of thorns, his hands bear the stigmata or wounds and a single tear appears out of the corner of his eye.


Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows?   Isaiah 53.4


It is not sufficient just to ‘see’ salvation. It also has to be acted upon. In our Gospel reading the paintings and their meaning are given their necessary debt to Christ’s teaching in a discipleship which follows a pattern of sacrifice. We understand this in terms of servant hood and service. If the saving death is sacrificial then the Christian action is also sacrificial. It is a radical message because it reverses accepted notions of status and rank. It is very demanding. It calls us out of ourselves and toward the other. Jesus’ sacrifice is the one which is transformational because it works for our greater good. It is the teaching given by the One who is for all time the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But in earthly terms it is by the way of self-giving that we lose ourselves and find ourselves. It is by costly self-giving that lives are changed. It is by these means, and by these means only, that the Christian Church becomes Christian. It is this teaching which provides the prophecy for our times. The arguments in the Gospel about greatness are in Jesus Christ, redefined and re-orientated around the sacrifice of his life.


“And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, “Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favouritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared. Prepared to serve. ( Amen)


And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.


Martin Luther-King.


The Church of Christ in the new third millenium must proclaim this ‘new definition of greatness’. But so that this proclamation doesn’t become a rant it must be a proclamation which is continually informed and enriched and enlivened by that Christian vision of the Christ, the Lamb of God, the one who has known suffering and who is therefore able to contain it and bring it to its true fruition. The Church is the place where the modelling of this service of self-giving is to be seen and known. It is the visible reminder of the Christian salvation at work, alive and active in those, like you and I, who have seen salvation and have now been called to act upon it, but not in our strength or will alone, but by his grace and through his mercy.


Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Gave thee life, and bid thee feed

By the stream and o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,

Softest clothing, woolly, bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice?

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?


Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:

He is called by thy name,                                                                 

For he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek, and he is mild;

He became a little child.

I, a child, and thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little Lamb, God bless thee!




Little Lamb, God bless thee!

William Blake (1757-1827)





















The Rich Young Man

14th Oct 2012

Nineteenth Sunday of Trinity


 Everything is possible to God.  Mark 10.27.


This morning’s Gospel reading continues to ask the same question. “Can I afford to be more generous?” The story of the rich young man appears to be one of the most straightforward and indeed the easiest to interpret. Jesus challenges the young man at the point of his greatest possessiveness. His wealth. And this is surely a story about the acquisition of money for its own sake and of greed? The reading and interpretation surely falls easily to hand? But the story has a more subtle meaning: What might it mean to live the life we are made by God to live? The Gospel writer Mark places alongside the ideas of finding and gaining the equivalent ideas of renouncing and of losing one’s self. It is with the principle of renunciation rather than with that of acquisition that life is made productive and can be made Godly. It is when we can give from within ourselves toward that which lies outside of ourselves that life is enriched. This is the basis of all service in whatever capacity, even when our own motives are mixed and our intentions not particularly selfless.


The rich young man enjoyed his time of spiritual ease. He came to Jesus as the religious man from a good post code. But he had become complacent. He lived an oblivious life. Churches are now growing across the world, containing congregations of great number, in which a new Gospel of ‘Rich is Godly’ is preached, where the minister might well own a private jet and drive about in a limousine. There is seen to be no irony in this… He is a for many of his followers kind of hero. But his riches cut him off from himself and lead away from God. The rich young man lives in the spiritual equivalent of a gated community. A kind of cordon sanitaire, away and apart from the mainstream. Jesus stands before him as the presence and the voice of God. He lacks one thing, this young man; the spirit of self-emptying or renunciation. To ‘move on’ he needs to ‘move out’ and even to ‘get rid’.


London is one city which bounds many towns and villages, each with their own identity. It is like a giant patchwork quilt of differing communities, and you can get this delightful sense of wandering through districts as each appears to you in their distinctive character. There is much speculation about where and how these identities are located and where they meet; where and what is King’s Cross, where and what Bloomsbury, where and what the romantically sounding Fitzrovia? And the estate agents like to talk this up. They like to talk up easy access to the Brunswick Centre, with its ‘shopping opportunities’ and now the King’s Cross identity begins to take on a veneer of luxury living with mention of the St Pancras Chambers, the new 5* hotel, The Guardian Newspaper and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. A cold and derelict tract of wasteland has been turned into a gleaming mini-metropolis. A London postcode for estate agents can tell you all you need to know about a distinct where WC1 sounds and means something different from NW1, as the Euston Road separates them and where this separation was once known as ‘The Dead Sea’. But inhabiting fascinating patchwork of districts are countless lives being led, and all of them asking, whether they express it or not, deep and searching questions about the meaning of life and of its truer purpose: “What is the true purpose of my life?” This is the great unuttered, unanswered prayer of modern life. Its exaction holds for us now just as it did for the rich young man. It is a Gospel question. It is urgent.


Mark tells us that the rich young man went off ‘on his own way’. The story is left open ended. Did he or didn’t he sell what he owned to follow Jesus? The story suggests that he didn’t. He left ‘disconsolate’. Jesus had been the sun breaking through to illuminate the field of his dreams but it was for the young man an uncomfortably searching light. It was the cold light of day. It was more than he could bear. Christ’s insight is not coercive. It allows for our freedom. His illumination does not press the believer against a corner. No: ‘it knows of what we are made’ and expresses what is true to our existence and to the love of God. It is the light which reveals us as we are and the only way in which we can own the truth of our existence.


I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

           The Bright Field by R. S. Thomas


Finally, the story of the rich young man makes comments upon this offer of eternal life in the present. It tells us that it is hard to see or to enter this Kingdom and to realise its beauty if you are ‘hurrying’ or ‘hankering’; and so this is a call to a kind of stillness and waiting from which a truer responsiveness to the purposes of God might emerge. Jesus tells us that ‘…everything is possible with God’. God can use our indifference, our desire to domesticate and tame him and use him for our own ends. He can use our weaknesses, our good and bad faith and our base passions and transform them. We are not as self-sufficient as we suppose. In fact it may be our brokenness and our vulnerability that brings us closer to the Kingdom of God.The gift was always greater and more valuable for its having been given. The giver the greater because you gave freely, not thinking of yourself first. How can it be possible to ‘sell all that you have?’; to take that risk on what might fell like self-annihilation? The One who knows is the teacher, the Saviour, the One who has gone ahead and died for us. He is the One has made it possible. He is the light which seeks to break through to illumine our minds. His is the life which is for our healing.




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