Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2020
8th Nov 2020
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; most of them suffering the deaths of their menfolk: sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. And the feeling is one of immense sorrow and loss. And this is a sorrow that Eliot describes as a kind of emotional and actual ‘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 ones still comes as a kind of raw pain; an undoing. Another poet, Dylan Thomas writes a poem which is an elegy for his dead father and bids us ‘rage, rage against 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. But the Christian message is the one which, in the light of Christ’s death and Resurrection, is always one of hope. Death does not have the last word.
This Commemoration of All Souls on this day each year, 2nd November, is, as Emeritus Pope Benedict once said, “…a beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death”. However faint are our powers of recollection and however frail a hold we have on the life of the world to come, we nevertheless feel the strong influences of love and thanksgiving for those who have gone before us. We pray tonight continue on our life’s journey in faith and hope, so we may be maintained and sustained by the One who made us and loves each one of 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 our alpha and omega; our beginning and our true end. Amen.
1st Nov 2020
A Sermon for All Saints 2020
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 honour. And as we honour the Christian saints so we honour the Christian calling, which is to a life consecrated and dedicated in the service of Jesus Christ.
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. In the south east corner of our church we have a statue of St Jude, who was rarely prayed to on account of his unfortunate name. But because of this he became known as ‘the patron saint of lost causes’. And he gives us the clue we need to fathom something of the meaning of the lives of the saints in everyday life in all its many facets.
The saints 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 both with possibility and perplexity. These were never ‘plaster’ saints but real human beings. They remind us of lives lived in a very real and challenging circumstances. 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 saint’s names, and in Cornwall there are strange names like St Ennodock and St Neot who are known to us only in legend. The most famous English saint, St 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. It is a way which can be tough because it expresses itself counter-culturally. 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 and dedication of lives that seek and find God over years and years as a single act of witness in Jesus Christ. The expression of this consecrated life have been many and various: displaying 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. Then there was St Benedict, who 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 behavior 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 because they are God immersed and God-led. But they rely, importantly, not on their strength alone, but in the mercy, forgiveness and healing they receive at God’s hands. Of course talking of sainthood and sanctity is always difficult. Holiness is a quality of experience we sense strongly and intuitively. Perhaps, as well as the saints of Christian history, there have been people you have known who have revealed in their lives something of that holiness and that strong purposefulness and selflessness which are the signs of the sanctified life. Or perhaps you have found sanctification in the love of another, or in an experience of God’s love in a place or within a community of prayer, 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 a true sense of spiritual refreshment. The holiness of this place reveals itself apart from the matter of its architecture or of furniture, light or proportion. It is something felt to exist beyond the sum total of its parts. It lies in the prayers that have been made in this place for well over a hundred years, the prayers of many thousands of lives for which this place has been a house of God, a sanctuary, and a place of encounter with the God who has speaks and who calls. The outpouring of so many hopes and fears in this place, the human activity and the worship go to make up the strong sense of this place as a holy place, a place of truth. The presence of God in this place which seems saturated in the bricks. The saints and the idea of the sanctified life is a reminder that here we participate in that which is holy, and we hope that this holiness becomes folded into our everyday lives as the influence for our own healing and transformation. St Paul called his church members ‘saints’ as a way of encouraging them more fully to live the life to which they were being called and to establish, once and for the fact of the holiness of the Church.
The following great prayer, simply called ‘The Sanctus’ or ‘Prayer of Holiness’, embedded in the Eucharist, is one which tells us that our worship of God is a participation in that which is holy. For God is holy, and the worship we offer Him is for the sanctification, the transformation, the making holy of the ordinary stuff of our lives. And so we say:
Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God,
Who was, and is and is to come!
11th Oct 2020
Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4.5,6
It is a commonplace for us to hear of ‘St Pauls’ Letter to the Philippians’ or to the Colossians or the Corinthians. The second Reading of the Parish Eucharist is often called the ‘Epistle’ or ‘Letter’. We have to imagine St Paul communicating to the far flung early Christian community as he dictates long letters via a secretary, companion or scribe like Timothy. His letters contain formal teaching, warning, moral instruction. They contain exhortation and greeting. We read Paul’s letters, even after two thousand years and their words leap out of the pages with passion and love. He begins his letter with a greeting : ‘My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for’. It is so interesting that the kind and intimate letter greeting ‘Dear so and so’ has now been replaced with the impersonal and screechy ‘Hi!’ ‘Yours Faithfully’ with an emoji. Paul is ready always to convey the sense the there is such a thing as the Christian character, whose stamp and mark is mutual love, both of God and neighbour, and perseverance and bravery in the commitment to the life of Christian faith.
With the advent of the PC and the laptop, of Emails and of countless other instant message types, all characterised by their brevity, it has become a rare joy to receive a hand written letter. I remember our Post Office when I was a boy. It was a large modern and airy building, but along one bank of its long walls lay a whole row of ink pots set into the wipe-able Formica surfaces upon which were large framed mats of neat blotting paper. People would patiently dip pen to ink many times before a few lines had been written, but here was a kind of patient ceremony which is now lost to us.
I have here my grandmother’ Parker Pen. The fountain pen is at least 60 years old and it was used to write countless neat letters written in real ink on thick laid paper. The letter of course had to be stamped, enveloped and then hand posted. On applying for a university place, our headmaster gave us two pieces of advice – “Always write your letters in ink and not biro, and when at interview, always thank you interviewers for taking the time to see you! The giving and receiving of letters becomes an important part of the plot in old films and novels, and somehow an Email doesn’t quite measure up in terms of the quality and the beauty of these former communications. It is so pleasing to see a hand written letter as it raises its head above the junk mail.
St Paul’s letters are known for their beautiful greetings, which in this morning’s letter take up 29 lines of prose. From his letters we get a very real sense of St Paul as communicator and we realise that only twenty or so years after the death and resurrection of Christ, Paul’s Church is one in which mutual love abounds, in which there is a sense of real joy and confidence in believing, but equally the struggle and the determination to prevail. There is, too an abiding sense of the reality of God in Jesus Christ, and that he is ‘very near’. Then there is Paul’s fearless and powerful self-confidence and strength of leadership as he urges his followers to cast all worries aside and instead to offer prayers and supplications to God. This is echoed in the words of Teresa of Avila, whose saint’s day we commemorate today:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
The same intimate connection with St Paul’s followers is to be the intimate connection they are to maintain with their God. This is to be their strength. Above all they are to persevere and to prevail in and with what he calls ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’, that strong inner peace which is the evidence of their personal connectedness with God rather than with the ‘passing’ things of this ‘fleeting’ world.
Of course it only human to find yourself preoccupied or worried about things. We are sometimes confronted with what seem like strong tests to our usual feeling that everything is more or less OK. This coronavirus has tested us very much and last week’s mental health week was all the more significant for the realities that coronavirus has brought, not least the strain it has placed on our capacity to cope. Shakespeare termed the famous phrase ‘the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’, which is the legacy of pain and worry, whether by reason of ill health, loss, the disappointment of our hopes or the painful challenge to our complacencies, or of past sorrows. To all this we may admit, but for Paul’s corresponding call to ‘the higher Way’ where God is the peace which ‘passes human understanding’. The move away from our own anxiety and into God’s peace. It’s all very tough, and not easy or consoling. But our correspondent Paul has been through it; is going through it in his cell in Philippi. His letter is known as a letter of exhortation, urging us all on to find our security in that which has already been established in us, the love of God, meted out through his humanity and the gathered church. In his gentle and beautiful cadences, every bit as mellifluous as Shakespeare’s, Paul’s final words of our letter section from Philippians reach their moving crescendo:
Finally, my beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and is there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of Peace be with you.
So much better than the very English ‘Yours sincerely!’
A similar prayer was gifted to me by an old Australian priest friend, long since dead and former Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome. It is simply a prayer to the loveliness and awesomeness of God. God is, in this prayer, as God is in the Letters of Paul, our truest and most loving correspondent.
O MYSTERY MOST BLESSED MOST HOLY
MOST MERCIFUL MOST LOVING MOST MIGHTY
MOST TRUE MOST HONOURABLE MOST BEAUTIFUL
UNFATHOMABLE ABYSS OF PEACE
UNUTTERABLE OCEAN OF LOVE
FOUNT OF BLESSING
GIVER OF AFFECTION
FATHER SON HOLY GHOST
ONE GOD IN THREE PERSONS
EVER TO BE WORSHIPPED AND ADORED
BE THOU TO US
RECTITUDE FORTITUDE BEATITUDE
REFRESHMENT LIGHT PEACE
THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD.
4th Oct 2020
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity 2020 (Year A)
“…but this one thing I do : forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus”. Philippians 3.13,14.
Paul had good reason to want to forget. The conversion to Christ on the Road to Damascus was granted to the former man, Saul, who had been instrumental in imprisoning and putting to death members of the early Christian community. But the so-called ‘forgetting’ which Paul recommends in Philippians does not involve the blanking out of past memory, even though by now Saul was a figure from the past. Rather, the ‘new man’ Paul makes the claim to a ‘good forgetting’. Past memory, perhaps full of guilt and anguish, was not to have the last word. The coming to Christ for Paul involved what the Greeks called ‘metanoia’ or, a complete change of heart, of motivation; a change in personal fortune with the advance of a powerful new working hope. And it was hard won. And if really won, then there could be no turning back.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul lays his life bare. He powerfully expresses his conversion in terms of loss and gain: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own, but one that comes through faith in Christ”. We, like Paul have our own powerful life narrative and within this narrative, lies a myriad of other narratives, some of which become crucial to our idea of who we are. These are our stories of significant meaning, perhaps involving roads down which we have experienced great trial and suffering, roads down which we have lived and loved most fully, roads along and through which we have made great mistakes and have emerged numb or wiser after the event, perhaps wounded and more attuned to the world around us. These are the narratives which have made us and brought us to where we are now. They are our baptisms of fire. And they are formative and important. Others may know better than we that these life stories have brought about real changes in us. In this we stand alongside St Paul and affirm his conversion to a new life. In this vein John Henry Newman could say
To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
Some six years, in 2014, a seventeen year old schoolgirl was called out of her chemistry class at Edgbaston School in Birmingham to be told that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. She was the youngest Nobel Laureate ever, Malala Yousafzai. She was later offered a place at Oxford University, to read politics, philosophy and economics at Lady Margaret Hall. Malala Yousafzai, described in the press as a ‘child education activist’ had been shot in the head in her Pakistani home town by the Taliban whilst travelling on the school bus. She recovered, though with marked signs of her wounds, and afterwards spoke out for education and particularly in the cause of girls and against the way girls in Pakistan are denied educational advantages, and commonly reduced to slave status by their families, supported by a collusive political system. Malala has been a great presence and a great voice on the world scene. Her experiences and outspokenness are prophetic. Her voice has broken through the dictatorial voices and vested interests which would treat girls as commodities. Through her travails, Malala had found a new and confident and passionate voice and become a world renowned humanitarian. The voices of St Paul and Malala prove prophetic because they direct our attention both to the stark facts of our existence and the hope for a life transformed for all.
As we approach our Annual General Meeting this afternoon I am minded that this church contains within it both a strong set of past narratives and an equally strong prophetic role in the present. By narratives I can already look back on fourteen years of ministry here and remember past members who have left their mark on this church in their own way and their own time. I find it particularly appropriate to remember those faithful ones who held things together when this church’s fortunes were at a low ebb and who were then able to hand on something which could be built upon. This church has grown and changed so much over these years and has been indebted to persons who have been here for decades as well as those who have come long for a shorter period and have left their mark. And so with the coming together of lives and of their giftedness the church grows and adapts and changes and develops extra layers of personality and character. The movement is very present and ever forward.
A prophetic church is one which fully inhabits its situation in life, and communicates a generous and vibrant spirituality. The Church speaks of the committed spiritual life as its proper grounding, and the lively antidote to doubt, fatalism and inhumanity. It believes and places trust in the possibilities of our common humanity in a committed Christian faith. In this, it begets new forms of energy and new expressions of hope. It’s no wonder that as we began to embrace the idea of a ‘church turned inside out’ here at Holy Cross, we have housed the moon in this place, we have welcomed 3,000 people in ten days at last year’s Bloomsbury Festival, we have completely refurbished our crypt, and in a time of lockdown and crisis we have actually increased our membership - impossible dreams 14 years ago…. We move forward perhaps in small increments but in great confidence ; and from their relative places in the past and present the voices of St Paul and the prophet Malala surely cheer us on…
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