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The Rev'd Canon Dr William Taylor

The Blessed Virgin Mary, 18th August 2019

Office Manager

Readings: Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 1:46-55

 

In November of this year, we will commemorate 100 years since the first woman entered Parliament as an MP. This was the famous Nancy Astor, and you may remember the not so glorious exchange between her and Winston Churchill.  Reprimanding Churchill she said “ Winston, you’re drunk” To which he replied “ And you Madam are ugly, but in the morning I will be sober.” Commemorating the role of a powerful woman is what we do today. This is something deep in the human psyche. One of the most sacred aspects of a priest’s work is to be with people at the end of their lives, and for me, it is always moving and basic.  Our last words are often Mother. This is reality very close to something very primal and basic and something to do with pain.   But when the reverse happens, and a mother buries her own child, the pain is even greater. We have seen this already 15 times this year in the murder of teenagers by stabbing in this country, by the tragic death of Nora in Malaysia, and by the murder of Police Officers in their line of duty, in our increasingly violent country.  I know from my own family’s experience that there is probably nothing more painful than for a mother to bury a child.  It feels like a cruel reversal of the natural.  We expect in the course of life to bury our parents, but not the other way round.  In this Church, one of the more powerful pieces of religious art is the distraught Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross in Emmeline Halse’s powerful depiction on the reredos.  This is a mother’s pain.  And it is the Blessed Virgin Mary whom we commemorate today, together with most of the rest of the Christian world.  So today, I want to speak about the Virgin Mary today by using Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ, published by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, or ARCIC.   I have used this before, but today, I want to use two insights from that book, Mary pain-bearer, and Mary, mother of consolation and strength.

 

First, Mary pain-bearer.  Any mother knows that this is one of the things mothers do, from the pain of child-birth to the shared pain of rearing offspring, to use a farming term.  This never goes away.  Anything your child does at whatever age will affect you, for good or ill.    This is part of being connected through the human family, and isn’t necessarily restricted to those who are biological mothers.  There are many who take on and experience this mothering role, both men and women, who may not have produced children of their own.  This is part of the destiny and role of the Virgin Mary, willingly accepted.  When the child Jesus was brought to the Temple by his mother, Simeon said to her amongst other things.  “ And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  This is Mary, pain-bearer, and in Christian spirituality it has been especially powerful and helpful.  My own mother chose this reading at the funeral of her own son, my younger brother.  ARCIC recognises this in these words, speaking of Mary the pain-bearer at the foot of the Cross:  “Understood in terms of discipleship, Jesus’ dying words give Mary a motherly role in the Church and encourage the community of disciples to embrace her as a spiritual mother.”  This, amongst other reasons, was why the early Church gave Mary the title Theotokos, or God-bearer, because it is ultimately God who shares all human pain by becoming fully human.  This helps many in their worship, and can be real source of unity.  An urgent contemporary issue is of course how Christians and Muslims can find common ground.  What better person than the Virgin Mary to do this, as she holds a place of high honour within Islam.  Go to any Marian shrine in the Middle East, and you will find it full of Muslims, especially women, invoking Mary the Pain-Bearer.

 

Now Mary, mother of consolation and strength.   Mary sings the Magnificat, her song.  We hear this in the Gospel set for today, and indeed it has a central place in the daily prayer of the Church.  Come to this Church on any day to Evening Prayer and this Gospel canticle, the Song of Mary, is recited every day.  Marian devotion thus takes pride of place in the universal Christian tradition. Why has this song been such a powerful influence on Christian spirituality?  For an answer, we need not go to the rich, the powerful, and the self-contained, because it is manifestly not their song.  It is the song of the powerless throughout the ages, which is also a song of strength and of defiance.  Let me quote again from ARCIC:  “ In Mary’s response, we can see an attitude of poverty towards God that reflects the divine commitment and preference for the poor.  In her powerlessness, she is exalted by God’s favour…Issues of justice for women and the empowerment of the oppressed have arisen from daily reflection on Mary’s remarkable song.  Inspired by her words, communities of women and men in various cultures have committed themselves to work with the poor and the excluded.”  So this is not a quietist piety, but an active, powerful, revolutionary one.  It is no surprise that the Church of England, often siding with secular power at the expense of the poor, has not been particularly keen on Mary, mother of consolation and strength.  The Chaplains of the East India Company in India were forbidden from saying the Magnificat, the song of Mary, lest it gave the native Indians the wrong idea.  Remember this was the Church which produced “ the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, he made them high and lowly, and ordered their Estate.”  But Mary, mother of consolation and mother of the poor comes to invert all of that in her Kali-like turning of the world upside down.

 

So we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary today and join our prayer to hers.  As we pray with her, so she prays with and for us.  This a model of mutual listening, and one which all communities should take to heart. She could not listen to God and give her “Fiat” if she was always uttering and opining, and nor can we.  We recognise through her that the vulnerable and helpless have a special place in the economy of Grace – one of the most powerful reasons we baptise infants, and it is a delight to baptise Maisie on this special day today.  I end with words again from ARCIC on Mary’s special place of honour for all Christians: “We are to bless her as the “handmaid of the Lord” who gave her unqualified assent to the fulfilment of God’s saving plan, as the mother who pondered all things in her heart, as the refugee seeking asylum in a foreign land, as the mother pierced by the innocent suffering of her own child, and as the woman to whom Jesus entrusted his friends.  We are at one with her and the apostles, as they pray for the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church.”  So today be encouraged by Mary, Pain Bearer and Mary, Mother of Consolation and strength. When we speak or pray with her, she always listens.

 

Further Reading:  Mary, Grace & Hope in Christ  (Morehouse Publishing) ISBN 0-8912-

Trinity 4, 14th July 2019

Office Manager

Readings: Luke 10:25-37

A former Prime Minster famously said, though one of his spokesmen, “ We don’t do God.”  That same spokesman, from this pulpit last year, continued his blast against the Christian faith. That said, the parable of the Good Samaritan, our Gospel for today, is one of the most quoted by politicians of all hues.  Margaret Thatcher famously said that the Good Samaritan could only be the Good Samaritan because he was rich and could pay the bills.  From the opposite perspective Hilary Benn used the parable when justifying the bombing of Syria. In the nineteenth century the abolitionists around Wilberforce ( with whom this church has a direct connection) used it in their campaign to abolish slavery. Wilberforce said, in this vein “ You can look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” One of the great things about parables, and this one in particular, is that they can be read on many different levels. What Jesus is doing here is the Rabbinic teaching device of Halakha – I suppose what I am doing now is Halakha – the teasing out of Biblical texts and giving them contemporary interpreatation. As I understand it, the parable should be read on at least two levels – the immediate and the practical, and the theological meaning. Let’s look at both of them.

 

First, the immediate and the practical.  This asks of the reader “ Who is my neighbour?”  The is  a particularly difficult question in 2019 London, as the answer most probably is “ I have no idea who my neighbour is, either to the left or to the right, above or below.” So let’s look at the story a bit closer to see if we can get any insights.  The action of the good Samaritan is not about who I can do good to – or who can I give to – but is the opposite – from whom am I willing to accept help, assistance, and ministry?  So, let’s spend a moment just focussing on that.  Think now of the person you most dislike in this world-it may be an individual, or it may be a type – like preachers in a pulpit for example. When you have called this person or type to mind, now imagine yourself at absolutely rock bottom and destitute, desperate for help, and along comes the person you most despise in the world, and immediately gives you whatever you need. We call this method of interpreting Scripture using imagination the Ignatian method. How do you feel?  

 

The message, like so much of the teaching of Jesus, is both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  What these teachings do, is to re-imagine the world through the expansion of the heart and the change in our head – this process is called metanoia in Greek, which simply means “ change of consciousness” and at bottom, this is what the Christian Gospel does. John Wesley preached about this all the time, and applied this conversion of the mind and heart to economics – he often exhorted his hearers to work and earn, to save, and to give – all at the same time.  Another way of describing this is that each of us has moral agency – the capacity to do good and to be the good Samaritan, but only so after our mind has been renewed and our heart warmed. If this mis true for us as individuals, it is also true for us as community, especially when we read this parable and hear the words of Jesus” Go and do likewise.” This is a call to action.  Jesus does not say go and form a focus group and have a chat about it.  Go and Do Likewise.  It’s with this in mind that your PCC have just produced our mission Action Plan 2019-20, where we focus, under God, on what we need to do in the year ahead. The document would be a fantasy document unless it is owned and understood by the community, especially in the sense that this is a call to corporate action, and we cannot achieve any of it unless we work together in realising our common goals and aspirations. When this is lacking, then nothing will be achieved except endless debate and bitter wrangling, as we can see from our public life right now.  A house divided against itself falls. This is the immediate and practical implication of the question “ Who is my Neighbour.”

 

But ow let’s move to the deeper meaning a reflect on that.  This is not simply a call to what is call moral agency – my individual freedom to act, but also a theological statement framed in unambiguously theological terms. If the Samaritan is the persona Christ- the person of Christ, now we understand what the Samaritan means when he says “ When I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” This is where the Christian community has a completely different imperative from social services.  You could say that it is the job of the state to look after the broken and the wounded and those who fall by the wayside, and to some extent it may eb so.  But what is different when the Christian community does this?  The good Samaritan tells us – that the act of ministering to someone is always reciprocal.  In the act of mistering to, I am ministered to, often in radically unexpected ways. For example, we have a focus right now on the persecution of Christians, a growing global phenomenon.  This last week, the independent report on Christian persecution was made public. Here are some extracts - An estimated one-third of the world’s population suffers from religious persecution in some form, with 80% of them being Christians, it is claimed. Open Doors, which monitors Christian persecution around the world, has estimated that on average each month 345 Christians are killed for faith-related issues. The report says “Evidence suggests that acts of violence and other intimidation against Christians are becoming more widespread.” In parts of the Middle East and Africa, the vast scale of the violence and its perpetrators’ declared intent to eradicate the Christian community had led to several declarations that Christians are suffering a genocide, it said. So as part of our commitment to action, and to being ministered to, we have a deacon from one of the most persecuted Christian minorities on earth, and who, together with the Yezidis, of Iraq, have suffered genocide.  But this is no one way street.  We learn from each other, we minister to each other, we laugh together, and we weep together.  Like the good Samaritan we are called to recognize and celebrate the Persona Christi in each other.  In this, I am proud that this Parish may be showing the way to others, and that what we do today may be in some senses ground-breaking, but my hope and my prayer is that it will become normative as others see the possibilities open to them.

Who is my Neighbour?  The good Samaritan encourages us on our way of ministry and being ministered to, and in this way living with soul. I hope it’s not too dramatic to say that we are engaged in a battle for the soul of post-modern, post-Imperial, post-everything Britain, however long that fragile entity will continue.  My Muslim friends are very clear about that, and we can learn from their seriousness of purpose. With the good Samaritan, we invite the Holy Spirit to warm our hearts and renew our minds to minster and be ministered to.   In this way all are set free, as we see our Lord Jesus Christ in the Samaritan and pray the ancient Aramaic prayer “ Maranatha” – “ Our Lord, Come!”

 

 

Birth of John the Baptist

tobi iyanda

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Acts 13: 14-26; Luke 1; 57-66,80

The nights are now drawing in, and we count 183 days to Christmas.  Another year gone.  As someone said recently, when you are on a bicycle and over the hill, things speed up. The Birth of John the Baptist which we celebrate today was in mediaeval Europe kept as midsummer’s day. People would bring herbs and other greenery to the church to be blessed on this day – you can still see this in parts of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia and we have a relic of this in the plant St John’s wort. It was only when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in in Europe in 1582 that midsummer’s day became associated with the summer solstice 21st June.  England only adopted the calendar 200 years after the rest of Europe, so in this, plus ca change. St John the Baptist is known in the Orthodox Church as John the Forerunner, so here we have his birth, six months before that of Jesus Christ whom he foretold.  He heralded Christ even in his birth and before, as he leapt in the womb. So let’s look at the prophetic figure of John the Baptist, especially in the prophet’s role of speaking truth to power.  

 

The readings set for today give us the context.  First the reading, from the Prophet Isaiah, which gives the content of what prophecy is in the Biblical tradition.  The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that this prophetic tradition is public, fearless, and encouraging.  One of the synonyms for Prophet  ( Nabi) used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is herald.  The image of the herald is actually taken from court ritual of the time, as the one who announced to the Monarch who was about to enter the royal presence.  Courtly ritual in our own time and country still functions in this way.  In Royal audiences, we see the herald boldly and clearly announcing the person, and in the next snap we see the herald, job finished, standing with bowed head before reversing out of the room. This is the herald who announces and withdraws, job done.  He is not the centre of attention.   This is the Hebrew prophetic tradition, in which Isaiah stands, announcing “ In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

 

We see this theme continued by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, where he describes Paul’s understanding of the place of John the Baptist in the prophetic tradition.  He links him to his Hebrew, Old Testament forebears, so as to give a pedigree to establish his credibility and legitimacy.  There were many ascetic itinerant prophets at the time, and Luke is keen to establish that John the Baptist is not just any old itinerant preacher.  Luke puts these words into Paul’s mouth, “As John was finishing his work, he said “Who do you suppose that I am? I am not he” Here we have the prophet as herald, announcing, withdrawing, encouraging.”  This is continued by Luke in the Gospel which bears his name.  In this, we hear the birth of John to Elizabeth and Zechariah, his mute father.  Against Hebrew tradition, he is named John by his mother, and his speechless father can only confirm it in writing, “His name is John."  On a personal note, my mother reversed this tradition when she wrote on a piece of paper after the birth of my younger brother, “His name is John.”

 

John the Baptist is the one who prepares the way of Jesus Christ and points to him.  The contemporary icon in the sacrament Chapel has him pointing to Christ. Par excellence he is the one who points us to a greater reality without becoming the centre of attention himself- the mandate of course for all Christians, but especially for clergy. One of the more unfortunate things about some contemporary expressions of Anglicanism is that clergy are placed at the centre of attention in their roles as chief entertainer, the cooler the better, and of course in very long sermons.

 

Prophets are not comfortable.  They are not supposed to be.  They speak ahead of their time, with a far-sighted vision, which may not be seen or shared by the society in which he or she is set.  All of us could name those we believe to be prophets of our own time, and they have often been given a hard time by the institutional church and by the hierarchy.  For example, in the life of the contemporary Church of England and its hierarchy - there are those who believe that the potential for prophetic leadership in the hierarchy has been effectively extinguished by the middle management culture of ecclesiastical beaurocracy, and the need to keep the show on the road.  The Prophet would ask- is it worth keeping the show on the road?   But sometimes we are given a glimpse of another way. Today we welcome Deacon Milan Kakone, from the persecuted Church of Iraq. The story of persecuted Christians is a prophetic one for all of us. Take our political life and the life of British institutions right now.  The Conservative Party is accused of Islamophobia, the Labour party of anti-Semitism, and the Liberals recently got rid of a leader because he was too Christian.  All manifest Christianophobia, as do our institutions. Let me give some examples.  The recent report on Christian persecution, a growing global phenomenon, criticised the BBC for editing this narrative out. The BBC edited this criticism out.  One of the largest public street gatherings in London recently was the Christian celebration of Pentecost in Trafalgar Square.  Edited out.  When there was an opportunity to question our future Prime Minster recently, the only question about faith which the BBC allowed was from a radical Islamist preacher – nothing from more mainstream representatives of faith, especially Christianity. The recent street demonstrations in Hong Kong, in which 2 million people protested in the street.  was facilitated by the Christian Churches in Hong Kong, and the unofficial anthem of the protesters was “ Sing Aleluia to the Lord.” This was edited out by the BBC. Our last census was in 2011, when 60% of the population identified themselves as Christian.  So who has given the BCC this hard-line secular mandate? Likewise, in the Home Office, which recently confessed that many of their employees dealing with matters of faith lacked the religious literacy to do so – the initial refusal of the visa for Deacon Milan was just one example. I could go on and on.  But the point of this is the prophetic tradition of John the Baptist, and the need to speak up and out.  If we remain mute just remember this, from Pastor Martin Niemoller, “ Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out “

 

Speaking truth to power in undoubtedly a central characteristic of prophecy and it may be costly.   John the Baptist payed for his speaking truth to power by being murdered- as do increasing number of prophets in our own time as state murder becomes more and more common – be that of journalists in many countries, clergy who regularly receive death threats, be that in Iraq or in the Philippines, or in our own country where the silent collusion with unelected secular fundamentalism simply edits whole communities out of the narrative and out of the picture, especially Christians. So John the Baptist, as he points us to Christ, gives us a voice, which we do not use at our peril.

 

So celebrate, and be encouraged by John the Baptist.  He comes to herald, to warn, to encourage, and in speaking truth to power, to set us free.  Here at St John’s, we have a noble tradition of this, from calling our racism in the 1960’s in the Notting Hill race riots, to today when we break new ground in welcoming a brother in Christ from a persecuted Church. And that maybe that’s the vocation for all of us.  And  by the way, Happy Christmas in advance. Thanks be to God.

Sermon for Easter 7

tobi iyanda

Sunday after Ascension, 2019  

 

What is heaven for you? Maybe it is a green wood full of bluebells, or being out in the sea fishing. At this time of Ascension, we mark and commemorate the Resurrected Christ being taken up to heaven. We know of course very little about what heaven is or might be, except that in the Gospels there are significant references to food in heaven – the heavenly banquet etc. I’m quite interested in food, so it was fascinating for me to have been invited recently to a dinner where the starters were provided by a food scientist working on edible insects, partly as a potential future solution in a world without the means to feed itself. I enjoyed the caterpillar puree, and the tiny amuse bouches made from beetles.  So, on the Sunday after Ascension, why stand looking up to heaven?

We celebrated Ascension Day with rockets last Thursday.  It was good to celebrate it with many guests, with some from the nearby Muslim Cultural Centre, for whom Ascension is a resonant image. This period in the church’s year is called Ascension tide, and we continue to concentrate on what the Ascension of Christ means as we wait for the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – that’s next Sunday.  Recently, I have been speaking in this Easter period about the public quality of the Christian faith. I want to continue that theme and develop it a little bit this morning, by speaking of the aspects of Ascension which refer to the public quality of the faith.   We are reminded in this period that the most important pre-requisite for any who would wish to identify themselves with the Christian faith, is that they witness to its truth.  In other words, I want to speak of the openness and transparency of the Easter and Ascension tide faith.

Begin with the reading from Acts.  In it, we heard the story of the liberation of a slave girl and the setting free of Paul and Silas from prison, and the baptisms of the jailer and his family. There was a clear requirement on whoever was going to be baptised. The person baptised needed to know the Lord and be prepared to witness to the resurrection.  Nothing else.  No Myers Briggs test, no expensive consultancy programme.  No Alpha Course.  Know the Lord.  Witness to the resurrection.  Now pray about it and get on with it.  In terms of government of the Church, I long for this to be the model, but I suspect we have some way to go in the Church of England before we reach that level of faith.  A Bishop was in the national press recently saying that the Church was unhealthily preoccupied with its own churchy stuff, especially the interminable and tedious debates on gender and sexuality – millennials especially feel this.

Similarly, in the Revelation to John, we are reminded of the inescapably public witnessing quality of our faith.  Listen to this: “The one who testifies to these things says “Surely I am coming soon.” In other words, the testimony we have is nothing less than life itself.  And again, it’s the word Testimony, as the requirement placed on those who believe.  The theme is spelled out even more clearly in the Gospel according to John set for today, where Jesus says: “I am in them and you in me.”   With the Ascension of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit, the work of that divine mission is now over to us.  That’s a slightly awesome and humbling thought. There is no Plan B.

These three readings all give the context for this time between Ascension Day and Pentecost.  The faith has a public quality, and we are called upon to witness to that public quality as an integral part of what it means to belong to this faith community.  It’s not an optional extra.  The language of Ascension is designed to re-enforce this.  The imagery of the ascent of Christ describes the early Christian community’s belief in who and what Jesus Christ was for them.  The claim being made by the spatial imagery of ascent into heaven is one about authority and rule.  Who, for Christians, is the highest authority? Here the claim is radical and subversive, because the Christian community was making the claim in respect of Jesus Christ that, for them, he is the ultimate authority.  This was and is a direct challenge to any who would claim that final allegiance was owed to the family or tribe, or to the party, or to the state.  The spatial imagery of ascent is not only a claim about who is the final claim in authority, but also a statement about the public visible quality of the faith.  It was no wonder that Christians were thought to be dangerous and subversive, not just in the early period of the Roman Empire, but right down to our own time.  When we believe that faith in the ascended Lord has public, open, and transparent consequences, then there will be ways in which we express this.

Take the bigger national context right now, and especially the notorious and scandalous “hostile environment” of the Home Office, especially in respect of refugees and asylum seekers.  A church report puts it like this “It is unacceptable to use destitution as a tool for coercion when dealing with refused asylum seekers.”  On the growing gap between rich and poor it says this.  “The church must challenge the thoughtless accumulation of wealth which ignores the needs of the poor, both globally and locally.  Churches must not hold back from confronting selfish lifestyles, either in their own membership or in the wider population.”  This is particularly significant here, where we have the UK’s widest gap in life expectancy based on the UK’s widest gap in incomes. Many houses go for over £20 million, and many of them are unoccupied as the owners live elsewhere. As we know, inflated property prices damage healthy society, and the social consequences of these levels of division are obvious. At the same time, many of the families who were made homeless by the tragedy at Grenfell Tower remain homeless.   I need to be clear.  I am not anti- wealth, nor am I advocating the politics of envy.  But we need to make our wealth and our poverty work towards the common good, especially when it is channelled through the church’s work. 

So these are just a few of the implications of the openness, the transparency, and the public quality of the faith in this period of Ascension.  The model of the Kingdom as heavenly banquet, for me, will address all of these issues.  There is a Chinese depiction of this from the period of Syriac Christianity in China, which you can see in the amazing oasis of Tulufa, close to the Taklamakan Desert.  In this ninth century wall painting, the diners are given chop sticks so long that they cannot feed themselves, and the only way to eat the food is by using the long chopsticks to feed each other. We should try this one day at one of our dinners.    As we pray “Thy Kingdom Come” as we await the sending of the Holy Spirit, these words may help “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Let’s go to it.  It’s down to all of us together us, and there is no Plan B. 

Ascension Day 2019

tobi iyanda

Ascension Day Sermon by the Vicar 2019

 I know someone who has a message on his mobile which answers “I can’t hear you.  Speak louder.  I can’t hear you.  Speak louder.” Of course, this is a recording which doesn’t listen, and doesn’t hear, but a common feeling right now is the endless noise, which we wish would just stop or go away, because no-one is listening.  No, it’s not our choir and orchestra (though it may be me) but the endless political noise. Brexit.  No Brexit.  Backstop.  Deal.  No deal. Hostile environment. Immigrants out.  Building fences round Europe.  Europe’s culture under threat from immigration.  The rise of the far right, now calling those who appeal for a more humane policy such as Pope Francis, “The enemy.”  Politicians jostling to stab each other in the back, politicians in Court for lying, human rights abuses in the Philippines, the coarsening and brutalising of political language with plenty of name calling. The rejection of politicians by electing a stand-up comedian as Head of State. Why not?  It can’t get worse. The Ascension of Christ speaks directly to all of this.  So allow me in three short headings to give a reflection. Jesus Goes Away. The Spirit is Sent to Empower Us. The Cosmic Christ Shows us our own Destiny.

 Jesus Goes Away

This is a recurring theme in John’s Gospel, coupled with an image of His Resurrection in the garden with the Latin tag Noli Me Tangere, Do not hold on to me.  This is a really important image for the cosmic Christ, and an important corrective to some contemporary English church culture, which is, on the surface at least, touchy-feely, and a bit domesticated. The cosmic Christ is above and beyond.  Listen to this from Rowan Williams, “We are always liable to hang on to what we can see and understand so as to make ourselves feel safe; when Jesus is simply ‘there’ like the other things we find in the world, part of the furniture, there’s a big risk that we can make him too familiar.  We domesticate him and we lose the possibility of being shocked and surprised by him.  We don’t grasp the fact that he isn’t just one thing among others, one person among others.  We miss out on the great truth that he is within and beyond all things, mysteriously holding everything together.”  That’s why the image of the Ascension taking the cosmic Christ above and beyond is so important. And the importance of the cosmic Christ is dramatically underlined for us at the moment politically, economically, and in the international order.  The sense of crisis and drama surrounding the EU, The United States, China, the Philippines and many other places. The tangible sense of fear which people have right now in respect of their jobs and mortgages is given an important corrective and perspective by the cosmic Christ above all things, and with an authority over the whole created order.  Remember that this is the same Christ who as a baby has gold symbolically offered to him.  Our economy, our gold is there to be offered to this cosmic reality.  Our gold, our economy, is not an end in itself, and never can be, for when it becomes so, we become its slaves, just as more and more people we see becoming wage slaves, working longer and longer hours, and consequently with the spirit and life crushed out of them. Earlier this week, I was dealing with a 30 year old completely burnt out by his highly paid life in the City. By contrast, remember the cosmic Christ, ruling over all – The Pantocrator, Noli Me Tangere.  Do not hold on to me.  Jesus Goes Away.

 The Spirit is Sent to Empower Us

Jesus goes away but does not leave a vacuum.  He tells us that he will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Paraclete, to fill each one of us just as the Spirit fills the world.  The message of this is twofold .  Christian believers are empowered by the Holy Spirit not as some private trip or possession, but they are empowered to get on with the work of Christ in the world.  Christ goes away, and at the same time says, you have the equipment to do the work.  Get on with it. The Sprit empowers each one of us individually and empowers the Church corporately when it seeks to do the will of the cosmic Christ, The Pantocrator. The sending of the Spirit is what we await immediately after Ascension as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, which in this church this year will see quite a few baptisms. The faith of these infants and their families will be confirmed through their anointing, just as we are all confirmed in our faith by the Holy Spirit within us.   This Holy Spirit empowers us to get on with the work of Christ in the world, because he is not here – except through the actions of you and me.  The Spirit is sent to empower us.

The Cosmic Christ shows us our own Destiny.

The cosmic imagery of this comes from the Logos, the Word of God, the Second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, “leaping down from his royal throne” as an Orthodox hymn puts it.  He leaps down from his royal throne and lives as one of us in his birth and in his incarnation as a human being.  The human Christ dies. We die.  The cosmic journey continues with the divine Christ descending to the dead and the nether world.  Again, an Orthodox hymn describes this.  “You descended from heaven to earth to redeem mankind, and not finding him there, you descended to hell.  There you found him.”  The Divine Christ rises from the dead.  Through our sharing in divinity, we rise from the dead. And through the Resurrection and Ascension, the Divine Christ returns whence he came.  So too with us, we become most fully human after our death.  In this, we differ (so far) from the AI look alikes, even the ones which I have seen in China which look at you and emote. The Resurrection persona returns whence it came through the Ascension. It’s simple – up-down, down-up.  This spatial descending and ascending cosmic imagery has been important in art and literature as the “harrowing of hell” of the cosmic Christ above and beyond time. But equally important is how this connects to you and me. Where the cosmic Christ leads, we follow, or to use biblical language Christ is “leading captivity captive” in a victorious Roman victory procession.  In a Roman victory parade, the captives were chained to the victor.  This is the image for us too, chained through our baptism to the victor Christ in his descending and ascending cosmic movement. The Cosmic Christ Shows us our own identity.

So there it is.  Jesus Goes Away, the Spirit is sent to Empower us, and the Cosmic Christ shows us our own destiny.  So, if the noise around us gets too much, just remember this. The baptised and anointed believer owes ultimate allegiance to no political party, no state, no country, no culture, and is without age.  Our ultimate identity and allegiance lies in the Resurrected and Ascended Christ and nowhere else. All this is immensely freeing and empowering as we celebrate the Ascension of Christ and pray “Come, Holy Spirit and Renew the Face of the Earth.” 

Easter 4 2019

tobi iyanda

Readings: Acts 9:36-end, Revelation 7:9-end, John 10:22-30

 

The contemporary Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas wrote in his masterly work, Being as Communion, “ The most important question for ecumenical activity and theology in the twentieth century was ‘What is the Church’ but the most important question in the twenty-first century will be ‘What is the human Person’?  I believe this to be profoundly true, and would like to speak about the Church and the Human Person as we prepare to renew our Mission Action Plan next month.   This is also an invitation to any who wish to join us in that important exercise.     

 

Firstly, What is the Church? For ecumenical work, that’s to say Christian churches working together, the twentieth century was a mixed bag.  The 1960’s to the 1990’s saw rapid progress in formal ecumenical agreements between churches at official level, and increasing co-operation at the local level.  The 1990’s onwards saw an equally rapid retrenchment of positions in many areas, so that we find ourselves now in what has been called the ecumenical winter.  Previous high hopes of formal progression in agreement between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in some formal senses did not achieve the high hopes which were held for it, but there also signs of much more close working agreements. A recent meeting of those of us who work in the ecumenical field, was asked to identify one positive and lasting contribution that the ecumenical movement had made to the life of the churches in the twentieth century.  We identified one - the recovery of the sense of baptism as the foundational sacrament from which all else flows. So in the liturgical re-ordering which we did here at St John’s, one of the features that has inspired outside expert advisers is the relocation of the Font.  This relocation was its third position in St John’s, a Church that was known in the past for the boldness of its liturgical re-arranging, and for its ecumenical work. The Font is equidistant between the two porches as the first and most striking liturgical and architectural feature of this church.  This speaks of the centrality of baptism, and baptism as the source of all ministry in the church and the world, as well as making the obvious point that coming into the Church is by way of the Font.  It speaks too of the inclusion of all, through baptism, in the vision of heavenly worship, as we heard in the reading from the Revelation to John. So here, in the twenty first century, the twentieth century rediscovery of the centrality of baptism as our answer to the question “ What is the Church? “

 

This leads to the urgent and burning question, “What is the Human Person?”  A Christian anthropology answers that the human person is built for both community and worship in order to be truly human.  It was the second century church father Irenaeus who said “ The glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” This Christian anthropology would identify that to be fully human and fully alive is to be connected to others, through worship of God and love of neighbour. Again the readings of the Easter season all demonstrate this joined up new life of the Resurrection community. Today, we heard the account of Peter’s raising of Tabitha from the dead demonstrating this, as well as the reading from John’s Gospel that the sheep hear Christ and follow him in this new life. The Resurrected Christ says to his community – as we have shared the resurrection experience together, so now you will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue my work. In other words – it’s now down to you, it’s now down to me, it’s now down to us, to get on with the job in hand. This is faithfulness.  If as a Church we do not believe that the Holy Spirit is leading us into all truth, and that the Spirit is present in our doings, than we may as well pack up and go home. Every believer and every church needs to believe this, that the Holy Spirit is living and active in each one of us and corporately leading us into the future.  The emphasis in this Easter season is the new life of Resurrection making us fully human, empowering us to worship, and connecting us to each other.  This is the answer to the question of Zizioulas, “ What is the human person.”

 

It is these two questions, what is the Church, and what is the Human Person, which churches have expressed since earliest times through their architectural and liturgical arrangements. They have certainly been the motivating force of the early radical re-arrangements of the interior of this church, St John’s.  In the late nineteenth century, under the influence of the Tractarian movement, which was answering both questions, what is the church, what is the human person, the interior of this Church was dramatically re-ordered in the 1880’s.  The organ was moved from the western gallery to accompany worship led by a robed choir behind me in the chancel, and an eastward facing celebration of Holy Communion with vested Eucharistic ministers. These were very significant changes with very different theological emphases. In the 1960’s, roughly 80 years later, further dramatic liturgical re-arrangement was carried out under the influence of the Parish Communion movement. Through good liturgy, we connect with each other and with God better. So this is part of our answer to the question of Zizioulas in the twenty-fist century that the human person is a connected person – connected to each other, and connected to God.  The early church Fathers said, “ Your life and your death is with your neighbour.”  This must be the central driving force of all theological and pastoral work in the twenty first century as we rediscover our connectedness with God and with each other through high quality, inspiring, uplifting and transforming worship.  This is the vision which leads, and without vision, as we know, the people perish.

 

As a Church, we make choices, and we plan for the future in faithfulness.  Nothing else will sustain us.   We believe that it is the Spirit of God who accompanies us in the journey forwards – this strengthens and comforts us, especially when times are hard.  What is the New Testament, especially the Acts of the Apostles which we read in this Easter period, but a record of that?  And when the Spirit is living and active, the Church changes.  We have experienced this particularly in this Church of St John in recent years, when the Church has changed rapidly so that in many senses, it is a totally different Church from the one it was.  How could it be otherwise?  For us, this has been accentuated by the structural and demographic changes in the make up of London, especially this bit of it.  So I salute the faithfulness of people who have stuck with these many changes in the character and make up of who and what we are.  I salute too, those who make up what we now are.  One of the many encouraging signs for us right now is not only our growth, but also the fact that we are more reflective of the rich diversity of London, especially this cosmopolitan, diverse, and mobile part of it.  Through it all, remains the faithfulness of the people of God, day in day out, as we go about our work often unseen and unsung.

 

I thank you, brothers and sisters in Christ, for being part of the ongoing story of faith in this place.  The contribution to the life of this Church, which every person makes in good faith, is hugely valued.  Each and every one of us is valued by God as we answer the questions, “ What is the Church? What is the human person?”  All of us together are given the mandate to get on with showing the answer to these questions, empowered by the Holy Spirit, in the new life of the Resurrection. We answer the question, what is the Church and what is the Human Person, by the quality of our life together as a worshipping community, as we say Thank God for the past, and “Yes” to God’s present and future.

 

Easter Day 2019

tobi iyanda

Readings: Acts10; 34-43, John 20:1- 18

 

This week we entered the Heart of Darkness. I am of course speaking about Holy Week, in which we entered the heart of darkness of betrayal, collapse, violence, judicial murder and execution.  The events of Holy Week take us to where we are, and are inseparable from the celebration of Easter, when we join in the triumph over evil and death which Jesus Christ accomplished for us by his victory over death.  The tomb is empty.  It is not a symbolic resurrection, but a real one. We live the heart of darkness, as we have seen this week at Notre Dame in Paris, and Northern Ireland, and the nuclear posturing of the United States and North Korea which could obliterate us all. There is an Easter hymn of the Orthodox Church addressed to Christ which says this, “You descended to earth to redeem mankind – and not finding him there, you descended to Hell.  There you found him.  There you rescued him.” Holy Week and Easter speaks directly to this Heart of Darkness which is the human condition. Like many others now on our fragile planet, I am asking the question what makes us truly human?  This is the big question for the twenty first century, together with how our humanity cares for the rest of the creation, before we destroy it. There are other images which also convey the new life of Easter, principally from nature and the natural environment so I want to use those this morning. As a farm boy, I have always responded to the rhythms of nature.  So, I want to use three images this Easter Day from the natural world – growth, flowering, and mature stability and death.

Growth: The reading set from the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Peter’s confession of faith. In it, we are presented with a picture of a man who testifies to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead with fluency and confidence.  Remember the earlier stories of Peter which we have heard from Palm Sunday onwards of Peter as a broken man, half destroyed by his own betrayal of his Master. Betrayal is a very real feeling abroad right now, especially in our own society and culture.  People feel betrayed by their elected representatives, particularly in the handling of the often infantile and rarely uplifting debates about Brexit. At the same time, we see the rise of hate crimes and overt xenophobia.  This cannot be a healthy model for the future in which we look to growth- economic growth maybe, but more importantly growth in the human experience as rounded, connected, and spiritual beings. But if we want to see real growth, go back to the reading.  Peter is the one who betrayed Jesus Christ and now in Peter we see a man transformed.  Something has happened to him, and he has a confidence and an authority which was not there before, and this confidence and authority has followed on from a very public betrayal and collapse.  The betrayer becomes the defender.  As a priest, I see this again and again – individual’s lives transformed by the grace and power of the Resurrection life, leading them on to things they could never have dreamed possible. I would say that this is one of the principal jobs of priests in Parishes – to nourish, develop, and coax this change into being – in individuals and in community, to raise the game, to be vision led, and to be open to the many possibilities for change and renewal. This is Growth and thank God we experience this in this Parish and Diocese in spadesful.

Flowering.  We flower and flourish when we are with others, which we call community. Community is an ambiguous and tendentious word.  Many of the people who speak about community are exactly the ones we would like to run a mile from. You may be thinking that right now.  But like it or not, the Christian community is marked by the characteristic of being a Resurrection community.  Without this, the community is nothing.  Listen to this: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”   This community, marked by the Resurrection, is the opposite of a club. Take the word used to describe this community – church.  This English word translates the Greek ekklesia.  The ekklesia in classical antiquity was the municipal authority of a town – the Borough Council you might call it.  And to be a member of the ekklesia, you had to be an adult, freeborn, male. What did the early community of the Resurrection do?  It took this term, ekklesia, and immediately transformed and publicly subverted it by admitting women, children, and slaves.  No more dramatic and public redefinition of language could have been possible.  The ekklesia reborn – no longer a club, but a living community of the Resurrection.   When churches live this new life, they flourish and flower.  Why should it be that the Diocese of London has been for the last two decades years a growing Diocese?  Part of the reason must be the huge variety of backgrounds, languages, and cultures, present in our Diocese and City of London, with more than 200 languages present in the Church schools of this Diocese. During this time, immigration into London was higher than any other world city, including New York and Los Angeles.  The flowering of our world city is directly attributable, partly, to this high rate of immigration. Immigration and emigration are part of what has always shaped our community, especially here in Notting Hill.  Last night we baptized 12 people in this church, mainly from Iran, and now at least half of this church is Filipino.  I thank god for the Christians of Asia, who are the future in our own secular desert. Many analysts predict that the largest number of Christians in 2050 will be from China. On a more local level, I see this flowering daily, as I am privileged to work with people from Community Payback/ Probation Service. The offenders I work with, now majority Muslim, teach me how to flower daily in the life of this Church. This is community in living action, helping to put right what has gone wrong, so that all may enjoy mutual flourishing.

And now, mature stability and death.  Speaking as we find is an aspect pf mature stability, as in the recent recognition that what is happened to Christians and other minorities in the Middle East under Islamic State is Genocide.  Parliament voted to recognize this persecution as genocide.  Yet we still wait for justice and in the meantime the Home Office continues to display a discriminatory attitude to Christians from the Middle East.  Amidst those who have been given refuge from Syria in this country, not one is Christian, from a country where 10% of the population is Christian. The anti-Christian discrimination in our own country becomes daily more palpable.  The now almost unwatchable BBC, in its coverage of the fire at Notre Dame, did not once refer to it as a church, and only used the meaningless phrase “a cultural icon.”  We have much to learn from those who have experienced discrimination and for this reason, this Parish will be hosting a Chaldean Catholic deacon from Iraq for three months in the summer, whose family lost everything to Islamic state. This is a form of maturity and stability which comes from people of faith, not least from the Christian community. Addressing teachers in Catholic schools on the subject of radicalization, Cardinal Nicholls recently pointed out that it takes only a few hours on the internet for a young person to be radicalized as they are, in the chilling words of Islamic State groomers, “clean skins.”  In other words, the spiritual vacuum of our secular society leaves children and young people dangerously exposed.  A convincing case could therefore be made against the prevailing secular fundamentalism that it is a denial of the human rights of children to be spiritually equipped. Being spiritually equipped in the face of death also characterizes the human condition at its best. As you know, the Gospel of John which we heard today mirrors Genesis in what is technically called typology.  The Genesis narrative opens with the words “In the Beginning” - this is mirrored by John consciously as he begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the word.” If John’s account is therefore of the new creation in Jesus Christ, what completes creation?  In the words of a Russian Orthodox theologian, it is the three words of the dying Jesus on the Cross “It is finished.”  It is no accident that these words are found in the Gospel of John only, and not in the other Gospels. The words do not refer to his own life on earth, but to creation which is completed through the creator being crucified on the cross. In other words, if birth is the beginning of the human experience, it is death which completes it and makes us fully human. Our true humanity is yet to be revealed. This is the human condition, and Jesus who goes through persecution, judicial murder, death and resurrection is the archetypal human. The Easter community is the extension of this new humanity as we are born again through our baptism, our life in community, our physical death, and the glorious life of the Resurrection.

Fires in Cathedrals are not new.  These living artifices of faith are renewed all the time. In our own history, when St Paul’s Cathedral was burned down in 1666, a single stone was found amongst the ashes with the word Resurgam on it – I will rise.  That’s our Easter message. The poet Maya Lou Angelou, in her narrative of black slavery gave us too our Easter message of hope for all people.  “Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise. “A blessed and happy Easter – Christ is Risen!

Lent 5

tobi iyanda

SERMON BY THE VICAR:  LENT 5       THE MYSTERY OF LOVE & SACRIFICE

 

The storm clouds are gathering.  The mood is darkening. The smell of violence increases. Knives are sharpened on the streets and ready to plunge into colleagues’ backs. Betrayal is the mood of the moment.  Justice is miscarried.  The leadership washes its hands. The people starve for lack of vision.  Sounds familiar?  This is the Christian story as we enter Passiontide.  We call this season Passiontide because it comes from the Latin Passio - I suffer.  So, this is the season in which we turn towards the suffering death and resurrection of Jesus through the events of Holy Week.  This is also the day on which we hold our Annual Meeting, when we review what we have done over the past 12 months and look forward to the future under God.   To illustrate what I want to say, I want to use three images which I have used before, but I return to them again and again, as they describe for me the life of every church in every place in every time.  The images come from the East of Libya to an area called Cyrenaica. It reminds me of bits of the Yorkshire Dales. Every time I have been there it has been raining heavily. The Greeks who colonised this place said there was a hole in the sky.  In this green upland area, you will find an important sixth century Byzantine Church with a stunning mosaic floor.  In the centre of the mosaic are three veiled Byzantine court ladies – by the way Christianity had veiled women before Islam, and still has in lots of places.  These elegant women represent the three cardinal qualities for Byzantine Christians in how they understood churches to live and grow. These three cardinal qualities are described in Greek as K’tsis, Kosmesis, and Ananeosis.   These snappy little titles are what I want to speak about today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, also called Passion Sunday and when also hold our Annual Meeting.

 

So, first K’tsis. This means Foundation, and it speaks of the early stages of energy and growth, which represent the founding of any church. Libya, like much of North Africa is very proud of its apostolic traditions of Christianity, with the belief that St Mark was there before he ended his days in Alexandria, as well as the important figure that we think of at this Passion tide – Simon of Cyrene, which is of course in Libya.  All churches need their foundation narratives.  What makes this church, or any other church, an authentic expression of Christianity?  For the majority of Christians in the world, namely Roman Catholic and Orthodox, it would be the fact that they are apostolic- that’s to say, the belief that the life of this Church can be traced right back to the Apostles themselves.  For the English Church, or the Ecclesia Anglicana, it too found its identity through the sixth century Augustine of Canterbury to the Apostle Peter, Bishop of Rome.  There was of course some sort of Celtic manifestation of the faith in these islands before Augustine, but we don’t know much about it, as they were the losing side, and much of what we think we know is in fact twentieth century romantic myth. This Church of St John, when it was built in 1845, harked back architecturally to that medieval period of the ecclesia anglicana.  This early example of a Gothic revival cruciform church was making an architectural statement of a belief - that the Church of England stood in direct continuity with the pre-reformation ecclesia anglicana as the ancient church of the land. This foundation, this k’tsis, was ahead of its time in many ways – ahead of its time in demography (hardly anybody lived around here), in ecclesiology (it was ahead of the later Tractarian or Anglo-Catholic development) and in providing for the mission of the Church where the only people who lived nearby lived in poverty down the hill at the piggeries.  In this sense, our founding forebears had an energy, vigour, and belief that traditionally is associated with the foundations of a church. This is Ktisis. If you want a visual representation in this church, look at the youthful figure of St John in his boat on the left of the reredos behind the altar.

 

Ktsis Foundation leads to Kosmesis – beautification or adornment.  Kosmesis is my favourite of the women, as she is so heavily done up and adorned.  This is the next stage in Church life and follows on from the youthful energy of ktsis.  This is the natural human instinct for beauty, especially in places associated with the sacred.  I know of no religious tradition anywhere which would not instinctively always want the best of human endeavour – art, architecture, and music, for their places of worship. Even traditions that say they are anti-beauty and anti-adornment seek their own aesthetic, which they would call Godly – Shakers, Quakers, and Amish come to mind.  The whole re-arrangement of the interior, the change in the liturgy, all of this was designed through beautification to create a sense of the numinous, the Godly. Much of the nineteenth century years was the move from ktsis, youthful foundation to kosmesis, beautification, through the development of a more ritualistic form of worship. For us too – beautiful worship should produce beautiful people.  Does it do that? But it doesn’t stop there, because all churches need the third phase ananeosis.

 

Ananeosis – Renewal. If you drew these three aspects – Foundation, Beautification, Renewal, diagrammatically – you would find in all healthy churches that they form a constant circle.  Foundation leads to beautification, leads to renewal which leads to return to foundation and on and on.  I believe we have certainly seen this form of ananeosis or renewal in the past year, and generally renewal and growth comes with growing pains.  One of these has been our finances, where we ran a deficit.  But we have used this growing pain as an opportunity to examine what we are doing and plan vigorously for the future.  Through increasing our income and controlling our costs we are already set in a much better position. In the last year, we have also been able to look at pastoral care of our families, pastoral care for children, pastoral care for older people, and pastoral care for each and every one of us. A wise external trainer helped us to put this pastoral care into practice in a structured and systematic way. As we see foundation, beautification, and renewal in church buildings, so too we see it in how we care for each other.  We cannot be beautified and renewed as individuals if we spend our energy in negative and destructive ways – carping, sneering, criticising, insinuating.  Pastoral Care leads us to the relation that we are in this boat together.  A Japanese Buddhist monk friend of mine told me recently that classical Japanese spirituality expects the tsunami of life to occur at any time, and so there is a consequent need to cling together.  It is not for them to rage and blame because the wrong type of leaves has made the trains late.  So too we belong together and look after each other, as we do not know when the wave of the tsunami will strike us individually or collectively.  This too leads to a renewal, especially today when we hold our Annual Meeting on Passion Sunday and prepare ourselves for the Tsunami of Holy Week and Easter.

 

I hope these three images from Libya will help us as we give thanks under God for another year of your life together and make our plans for the next.  The three stages of Ktsis (foundation) Kosmesis (beautification) and Ananeosis (Renewal) underlie our present plans for the future of this church and can well apply to every one of us in our own journey of faith.  As we renew our building, our faith, and our structures, we find that our pastoral care for each other is rooted in one significant and overriding fact- our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  As baptism is so central to what we do, it was the relocation of the font which has drawn so much praise from Diocesan and national advisory bodies.  Baptism is the root and origin of all that we do. Baptism gives us the new ekklesia, the household of faith, into which we are all baptised and commissioned to ministry. This new life, this new connectedness of the People of God has never been more important than it is now.  The times are critical and urgent.  As we see the collapse of political authority, factional infighting, and the fragmentation of society accompanied by the rise of extremisms of all kind, accompanied by violent language and violent behaviour, we need to step up to the plate like never before.  As we celebrate Passion Sunday and keep our Annual Meeting, we turn to the suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in the sure and certain knowledge that all growth in the church, all renewal, comes from Christ the head of this and every household of the baptised. As we thank God for the past and say yes to the future, I end with words of the fifteenth century mystic Catherine of Siena, whose feast day we celebrate later this month.  This is true for us as individuals and for us as a church. She said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire." 

Lent 1

tobi iyanda

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and together with other Christians in this neighbourhood we are following the national Churches Together in Britain and Ireland Lent Course The Mystery of God.    We will be meeting on Thursday evening at St James, Norland Square, and the subject I have been given is the mystery of God’s Glory.  https://ctbi.org.uk/lent/.  This is in anticipation of the readings set for next week, as a way of preparing ourselves – this is one of the reasons we always put the readings for the following Sunday on the weekly notice sheet, as it is sound spiritual wisdom to prepare for the weekly Eucharist by reading and meditating on the readings before hearing then in Church.  Our faith is the same as anything in life – the more we put into it, the more we get out of it.  The less we put into it, the less we get out of it. It isn’t magic or rocket science.  If you haven’t tried it before, why not start this Lent?

 

The Bible is full of references and descriptions of the Glory of God. The Hebrew word Shekinah שכינה means literally “settling”.  In the Lent Course material, we have a girl talking about her name Shekinah and describing the meaning for herself in this way “My parents called me Shekinah, which means “Glory of God.”  I love my name.  The root of my name suggests birds which like to settle down in a nest, like a mother hen with all her chicks underneath her. So it’s like God “settling down” among us when we pray together or gather together for worship.”  Quakers describe this experience is silent worship, where no-one should speak until the presence of God is felt to have “settled” amongst them.  Silence in worship can do this.  It also sets us free from the dominant tyranny in our culture – the culture of me only and me first.

 

All churches in the mainstream Christian tradition are called to deal with the two aspects of life in equal measure.  The shorthand for these two aspects you could call the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical measure refers to our direct relationship with God, both as individuals and as a community.  The theological term we use for this experience of God is Transcendence.  God is unknowable, supreme, and other.  Worship must always have this vertical or transcendent dimension – for some, this may be communicated through ritual – vestments incense, music etc, or through ritual which claims it isn’t ritual – long sermons, jeans, and guitars. At the same time churches as faith communities are called to address the horizontal dimension of life – money, the economy, and the way we deal with each other.  This ranges from simple neighbourliness to addressing issues of society and politics – right now a divided and fragmented society, rising violence (linguistically and physically), lack of political leadership, and the rise of extremism of all kinds, including secular extremism and political correctness. The new film Capernaum, the first film directed by an Arab woman to win an Oscar, tells the story of the child Zain who takes his parents to court and sues them for bringing him into this world communicates this sense of social disorder very powerfully. The theological term for this is immanence – God with us.  Put the vertical and the horizontal together and you have the Cross, at the centre of our faith, which the theologian Paul Tillich described as the “intersection of the timeless with time.” This is the setting for our experience of God.

 

Lent is a time of course for us to focus on our relationship with God and each other, as like all relationships, if we do not give it time and attention it withers. That’s why we use the Anglo Saxon word Lent to describe this period of 40 days – Lent simply means Spring, and if we allow it to, this season can be a springtime of the heart – experiencing our love for God and God’s love for us as though it were brand new and we were falling in love for the first time. For most people, God’s love, and God’s glory are probably experienced through the daily and the so-called ordinary.  An amazing sunset, a high mountain, a fast-flowing river, a wood full of bluebells or birdsong at dusk or dawn.  Or through our human interactions – someone who was there for us when we were down, hurt or lost, someone who told us that we matter to them, a stranger who helped us when we were lost. But there also the other overwhelming experiences of God which we may have and are more reluctant to talk about lest people think we are weird. Dreams, experiences of the numinous power of God in prayer, visions and so on. In my own life, I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled quite a bit, and some of these experiences may have come to me in places where I was an illiterate – where I could neither read nor speak the language.  This may open us up to other experiences. So, take a moment now to speak to your neighbour and ask this question, “In what ways has God communicated with you?”  

 

Do join with us this Lent in giving our relationship with God and with each other some priority.  This is what this season is for, so try not to miss the opportunity.  Remember too the three traditional aspects of Lent which have thousands of years of experience and knowledge behind them – Prayer, Giving, and self-Denial.  The last one is often misrepresented as simply giving up some of the things we enjoy.  But of course, it’s much more than that.  Whoever started the fashion around the 1960’s for saying that Lent isn’t about giving things up wasn’t fully aware of the human and spiritual picture. We all need to give things up – that resentment we can’t get rid of, that unresolved quarrel with a family member I haven’t spoken to in decades, or even my over-hasty and acid tongue. The Archbishop’s Lent Book this year, Reconciliation, is by the Indian theologian Muthuraj Swamy, and he writes this, “The very basic Christian world view of love and peace with God and with one another, based on what God has done for humanity through Jesus Christ, is where we begin our ministry of reconciliation.” Lent addresses the human condition fully and offers everyone an opportunity for change and renewal so that we can become what we were intended to be – the image and reflection of God’s glory.  So in answer to the question of what is God’s glory I come back again and again to the second century Church father Irenaeus, who said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Let’s become fully alive this Lent!

2 Before Lent

tobi iyanda

Readings: Genesis 2, Revelation 4, Luke 8:22-25

 

Like thousands of people across the nation, I have been fascinated and moved by the story of the 82 Sheffield pensioner Tony Foulds, honoured this last week.  Tony was an 8-year-old boy playing in a Sheffield park in 1944, when an American bomber narrowly missed him and crashed into the park, killing all 10 American airmen in the plane.  Every day since then, he has honoured their memory for 75 years. When an interviewer asked him, “Tony, why did you do this?”, he replied “Because I kept faith with these my friends who died.”  Tony kept the faith.  Which brings us straight to the Gospel set for today where Jesus asks, “Where is your faith?”  That’s a question not only for every individual at all times, but also for every society at all times – “Where is your faith?” Because without it, the only reason to get up in the morning is your bladder.   Let’s look first at what this means for society, and in particular our own right now.

 

It is only to state the obvious that we are right now a confused, divided and directionless society – there are of course many and multiple reasons for this in addition to the obvious one of Brexit, whatever your position on that.  For me, two reasons stand out, both related.  The first is lack of vision – “Without vision the people perish” and second is the militantly secular context in which we find ourselves. Secularism maintains that the highest good is the individual and his or her place in the state. There is nothing higher.  In the twentieth century, the two catastrophic examples were fascism and communism, both of which systems placed the state at the pinnacle of human achievement.   It was a guiding principle of Nazism that the highest good to which an individual could aspire was the State. The principle philosopher, on whom Nazism relied, of course, was Friedrich Nietzsche of Mensch and Ubermensch fame.  Nietzsche shared much with contemporary political correctness or European secular fundamentalism in his belief, that, given the right conditions, religious belief would simply fade away.  Nietzsche famously described religion as the “idiosyncrasy of the decadent revenging themselves upon life.” 

 

But now, nineteen years into the third Christian millennium, and having left behind a century of militant and murderous atheism, we see religious belief not only stubbornly refusing to go away, but growing, it seems, ever stronger. This is true globally, where faith is on the rise, and we should not imagine that our own faithless society is a model across the world. There are many acute observers, not least in the Vatican, who predict that the largest number of Christians in 2050 will be in China – one of the reasons, as an aside, why I am learning Mandarin as I want to connect to this bigger picture. Policy makers, it seems, will have to take this phenomenon seriously. To give one example -in the debate on Brexit, on both sides of the divide-there has been an almost total absence of the question “Where is the soul of Europe and its citizens?” This is even more important than the trade rules and all the other stuff currently under negotiation. The Bishop of London said in St Paul’s last week, as she called for “a broad public discourse based on a different language, and a transcendent conversation – one that can address deeper questions of meaning and belonging.” Here we come back to the question, “Where is your faith?”  

 

Why speak about this today?  For two treasons- firstly, and principally, because the readings for today remind us of this phenomenon, and secondly, as we approach Lent, we are reminded as believers that we each have our own work to do. Firstly, then, the readings set for today. They are unashamedly theological and are powerful reminders of the fundamental grounds why anyone should go to any Christian Church anywhere.  The Old Testament reading from the Genesis reminds humanity of its stewardship of creation and our role as co-creators with God. The Eden narrative from Genesis reminds me of the rabbinic joke now, which asks, “Why did God make man before woman?” and its response “Because he needed a rough draft first.” Humanity is male and female together is an image of partnership.  The animals and the rest of creation are a reminder that, as human beings work together, so they are called at the same time to work with creation as part of it. More partnership. The New Testament reading from the Revelation to John continues this theme as Christ the second Adam is surrounded by the four living creatures.  This is pictorial language of course for the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and their symbols – the winged human, the lion, the ox and the eagle. In iconography this is called the zoomorph, and you no doubt know where all the zoomorphs are in this church.  One is behind the head of the preacher. Christ is at the centre of creation as the new Adam, which brings us to the Gospel and story of the storm on the lake.  In Genesis, water is the symbol of chaos and confusion- we are told in the first story of creation that the earth was a shapeless watery chaos, and the Spirit hovered over the waters.  So here, in an echo of Genesis called typology, Christ orders the potential chaos in the waters.  This too, is a symbol of the human heart and the human condition. One of the great early African theologians, Cyril of Alexandria reminds us that this chaos in the storm on the lake is also a metaphor for the chaos within every person.  Theologically, this means that we are not able to simply point to others as a reason for the chaos in society – politicians and the like – but we have created it as part of our human condition- each and every one of us. So back to the question “ Where is your faith?”

 

For Christians, our faith is anchored in Jesus Christ, the same yesterday today and forever, and this gives a strong and stable base to move outwards and forwards as I hope we are always doing. And there is sound sense why the compilers of the lectionary put these readings for today as we approach Lent. These readings bring us back to the core on which we rely.  Without this theological underpinning, the Christian Church and the Christian message is nothing. A strong and secure theological base will endure, and people will be attracted to it, especially if it is open and not a club.  Why else do new people come to the Church all the time?  Why are we baptising 10 adults at Easter in this church? This strong and stable theological base of belief in Jesus Christ gives real power to those who enter this Covenant.  To become sons and daughters of God..  In other words, to be born again.  This is radical stuff, and at this time of year we are reminded of the opportunities which Lent offers for personal re-birth as we examine our lives as sons and daughters of God. “Where is your faith?”  Faith in Jesus Christ gives everything perspective, even if we are reduced to a troglodyte existence in the hermit Kingdom.  The eight century Chinese monk Xuanzhang ended his epic narrative Journey to the West, with these words,     “Never give up.  Keep the faith.”

Baptism of Christ- Rochester Cathedral

tobi iyanda

Readings: Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17

Have you ever wondered why Christ was baptised with water, why Christ was baptised in the Jordan River, or why we bother baptising anybody?  As a person who is paid to think about these things, I have wondered about all three and today I’d like to suggest three answers for those three questions on this day when we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Christ.  The Baptism of Christ is one of the three central themes of this Epiphany season, together with the arrival of the Kings and the miracle of water into wine.   I want to draw on Sergei Fyodorov’s 2004 fresco in the North Transept to illustrate what it might mean for us now, with my three answers to those questions.  First – why was Christ baptised with water, or chaos, then why was Christ baptised in the Jordan River, or chaos reclaimed through the Spirit, and finally why baptise anybody, or commission to ministry.  One leads to the next, and at the beginning of a New Year, should see us well as we look forward.

 

So first why was Christ baptised with water, or chaos.   In the upper part of Sergei’s fresco, Christ is being baptised in the River Jordan.  Here, the iconographer has used a Byzantine genre, rather than a Slavic one, as in Slavic iconography, Christ, as the second Adam, is naked when being baptised. In the centre of the picture is the bright blue of the River Jordan, which belies the brown muddy stream of today. Remember that frescoes and icons are theological statements, not freestyle art.  The centre of this composition is therefore the water of the Jordan receiving Christ the Creator of the Universe. This is called typology, and the image being used here is the watery chaos at the beginning of creation in the book Genesis. As you know, there are two accounts of creation in the book Genesis.  The first one pictures the primeval state as a watery abyss, and the second pictures the primeval state as a waterless desert.  They seem to have their origin in different creation narratives from different sources.  Both are very ancient and go back to the dawn of recorded history.  This one probably draws on Sumerian and Babylonian accounts, which we know of from the fourth millennium before Christ.  The people of Sumeria and Babylonia depended for their lives on the unpredictability of the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, in Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq.  These waters, like all water, were at the same time both life giving and death dealing.  Water represents both life and, potentially, death.  That’s part of the reason why the Hebrew rhyming phrase “toho ve Boho” is used to describe the formless void.  In those formless waters lurks chaos.  This is a synonym, of course, for the human person, in whom lurks chaos.  When we name this chaos, then we have power over it, and it no longer has power over us.  Any priest or clinical analyst knows this well.  When we name our demons, then they no longer have power over us.  We name it and own it, that it may not own us.  One of the demons with which we live is violence – either the actual violence on our streets, or the violence in the ether of our political discourse as maps, alliances, and friendships are ripped up before our eyes. The violence and disorder of the human person is symbolised by the water, and Christ enters it by going down into the water. The Christian Church, I would suggest, has a particular perspective on the importance of confronting the chaos within all of us, and naming it.  This is our starting point with the water of baptism.  The destructive force, the Tsunami within every person, is named, claimed, and in the process transformed.  If this is true for us as individuals, it is certainly true of the international order. This is Christ entering the water – the verb baptizein means simply “to submerge.”

 

Now why was Christ baptised in the River Jordan? My answer for this is chaos reclaimed through the Spirit.  In the Gospel we heard of the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River.  You know, of course, that the Jordan or Rift Valley is the lowest place on the earth’s surface – 1,000 metres below sea level.  The same point about entering the chaos is being re-enforced, this time through sacred geography. Early icons of the baptism of Christ show demons in the water, which Christ is transforming through his baptism. The Rochester fresco shows them very clearly, portrayed this time slightly after the manner of classical water Gods. The symbolism of the Jordan Valley is equally obvious – down to the lowest place of human need comes our God in Christ.  The water and the chaos is transformed in the new creation. If you now fast forward on the theological time zone, you come to Christ creator of all Things (Pantocrator) completing creation on the cross with his words “It is finished.” And what happens?  A spear is pushed in his side, and blood and water come out – the blood of the Eucharist, the continuing life of the Church, and the water of baptism by which we enter the new creation and reclaim the chaos in the water.  Every baptised person is also a spirit bearer.  This is why we symbolically anoint with oil at Baptism. In living churches and Christian communities, this mysterious grace can be seen again and again in the lives of individuals as they grow into that Pentecostal authority and dignity which is given through baptism.  I’ve been privileged a few months ago to see the baptismal authority of our brothers and sisters in Christ in Iraq, who themselves have been displaced by the most barbaric violence and brutality under the so-called Islamic State.   Those people have the baptismal authority of the anointed person, the Christ bearer and Spirit bearer. I also see this daily in my own church as the many trafficked people reclaim their innate authority and dignity through their baptism. The same can be true for each and every one of us.   This is the new life of the baptised.  It’s always fresh, always new.  Unlike us, it never grows old, and when it’s really working it can be seen especially in the lives of older people as they are continually renewed by the Holy Spirit.  The chaos within is then given new perspective, as its energy, potentially destructive, is channelled into this new Pentecostal life.  Chaos reclaimed through the spirit, and baptism in the Jordan River at the lowest place on the earth’s surface.

 

And finally, why baptise anybody or Baptism as Commission to Ministry. “Baptism represents life-long growth into Christ… and “baptism is commission to ministry.”  Our Baptism is not simply for us as individuals, but also commissions us to active ministry in the world.  It calls us to exercise that innate baptismal authority in work for the common good.  We see this in the fresco, not only in the baptism of King Ethelbert of Kent by Augustine, but also by the baptism of large numbers of Saxons in the Medway after which they are immediately given Communion by Bishop Justus, first Bishop of this Diocese.   As in the fresco, so it should be with us.  We are led through this commission to ministry into new ways of doing things and new ministries all the time.  One of the principal jobs of any priest, must be to release the baptismal energy of the communities we serve. It’s fascinating right now to see how new and more diverse forms of ministry emerge.  For example, the recent and dramatic growth in the Filipino and Iranian communities who form part of my responsibility, though I know neither language.   Or take the willingness of many, not all believers, to contribute their energies and resources to the work of the Church, as it renews itself and as you have done with the building here in Rochester.  People get it.  They see the relevance and importance of having a building which speaks of God to the community through being open, in top condition, and used daily from morning till evening.  We need to harness this energy and willingness. So, at the beginning of a new year, I think it no bad thing if we ask ourselves the question, as we ask it as a community, “into what new areas of ministry is God leading me?”    This is baptism as commission to ministry, or why we bother to baptise anybody.

 

In summary, we recognise and name the chaos, we transform it by the Pentecostal energy of the Holy Spirit through baptism, and we move on to exercise that commission to ministry in new and surprising ways.  We see all of this in Sergei Fyodorov’s fresco and how fortunate and blessed is this Cathedral to host it.  I hope reflecting on it gives us all new energy as we recognise God speaking directly to each one of us in these words “You are the beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”

Epiphany 2019

tobi iyanda

As we celebrate light from the east in this Feast of the Epiphany, I am reminded of a conversation between Mahatma Ghandi Gee and Sir Winston Churchill.  Churchill once asked Mahatma Gee “What is the view on this question in the east?”  To which Mahatma Gee responded “East of where?” 

 

That’s the first of three aspects of this season of the Epiphany, which I briefly want to speak about. Visitors from the East came to worship the child Jesus at Bethlehem.  The New Testament calls them magoi.  We know that one of the terms for priests of Zoroaster in the Greek language was magoi.  So the wisdom of the east (in this case Persia) came to worship Jesus. What we do not know, because the Bible does not tell us, is how many there were.  Some Orthodox traditions have 12 Kings, others 7. The number of Kings cannot be important because the Biblical account does not tell us how many they were. What we do know is that three recorded gifts to the child Jesus were gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are gifts of adoration and worship, given in commitment.   This is important for all of us, because it emphasises the importance of adoration, or worship for each and every one of us. Whatever our age, whatever our background, whatever our faith, as human beings this is our first and most basic human response- worship and adoration.  It is our faith which makes us fully human and fully alive.  This is shared by all the great religions. It is a treasure and richness, and as material riches increase, it is often the first thing that is lost.   We should try not to lose it, or if we have lost it, to recover it.   As children of God we come before God in worship, adoration, and thanksgiving- as magoi from the East. The Benedictine view, of course, is that simple physical work is a form of adoration.  For that reason, this year we will be inviting people to renew their commitment to helping the work of the church in physical and practical ways as a form of adoration. 

 

The second theme of this Epiphany season is the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.  Baptism is the sacrament that unites all Christians as they share in the death and resurrection of Christ.  It gives Christians their identity, and it gives them commission to ministry in the Church.  So as baptism gives all Christians their identity, so for people of other faiths it is a reminder of the importance of commitment in the faith.    Whatever our faith, we need commitment to it to live out our values in a tough and difficult world.    Those who have chosen education for their children know that this comes at a cost which will not be seen through without commitment – commitment of the parents, commitment of the children and students to hard work, and commitment by staff and teachers.  Without commitment, none of us will achieve anything in life.  So baptism as reminder of the importance of Commitment.  This is profoundly and deeply anti-cultural.  In contemporary culture all arrangements, all relationships, are disposable, and changeable.  It’s not unusual now for people simply not to show up for a meal, having accepted the invitation. A better offer may have come in the meantime.  So we are inviting people in this church in the course of this year to renew their commitment as a manifestation of the commission to ministry, which is baptism.  Let’s all consider this year how we can be counter cultural and show our commitment in practical ways to our church and our faith. The basic form of commitment we show to each other is of course through this shared meal, the Eucharist.

 

We stay with the theme of meals for the third theme of the Epiphany season  - the miracle at Cana of Galilee.   This was the wedding party at which Jesus was present where he turned water into wine.  As a priest, I particularly enjoy wedding parties, and I often remind people that we have no record of Jesus at a wedding ceremony in a religious building, but we do have a record of his attendance at a party.  So the wedding party at Cana in Galilee is a reminder for all of us of the importance of celebrations in life.  Today is such a day of celebration.  And I do not need to remind anyone of the fact that celebrations are always shared – never alone.  We all need occasions to celebrate, and our religious faith often gives us such an occasion.  Anyone and everyone can and should celebrate- even that most basic of celebrations – the miracle of staying alive another day.  Today we share this celebration together of the Epiphany with the gifts offered to Jesus. As we celebrate together, so we build up community and our knowledge that we are interdependent on each other. We become, together, a community of celebration, marked by joy.  So this year, let’s recover that basic sense of celebration in all that we do. This too, is counter-cultural, as tired cynicism may be the prevailing cultural norm. The wedding at Cana as celebration.

 

So on this Feast of the Epiphany, and was we begin a new year, think of these three things- adoration, commitment and celebration.  They are no bad way to begin a new calendar year, with a resolution that we realise that our Church is only as good as the input we put into it.  Together, we can achieve great things.  So at the beginning of 2019, my prayer for us at St John’s is that, as we share the load together, so we can make this year one of real wonders.  Adoration, commitment, and celebration come to us in this Feast and season of the Epiphany.  Adoration, commitment, and celebration will help all of us through life in our shared pilgrimage together – so please take a moment to reflect on how you can share your gifts for the good of church and society.  During Lent this year, we will be inviting everyone who is a regular worshipper how we can do this together. May God bless us all in this Holy Season of Epiphany as we show, and share, the gifts of God in adoration, commitment, and celebration.

 

 

Christmas Day 2018

tobi iyanda

This Christmas morning we have come again to hear the message of the angels, in Luke’s moving narrative. The heritage we bring to this story is one of ethereal beauty and splendour: the velvet, starry night, the darkness of the stable; the gentle sounds of the animals, the sudden radiance of the angels.

 

Yet of course the birth of Jesus was, in historical terms, an insignificant event. It takes place in a tiny, unimportant province, far from the seat of power. The wider stage is the Roman Empire under the Emperor Augustus – the great Emperor whose rule had heralded the pax Romana – a golden age of peace and security for the Empire. The “Saviour” of his people – Augustus was called – you can still see this title, still inscribed on surviving coins and monuments.

 

In a territory ruled by the great Augustus, Luke gives us this story of the birth of a child to a poor family: of a heavily pregnant woman forced, because of the Emperor’s casual decree, to travel the rough road from Nazareth to Bethlehem; of an arrival in a town plunged into chaos by the census decree; of all lodgings taken; of the pain and fear of childbirth in a cold stable; of the newborn child, placed unceremoniously in an animal’s feeding trough.

 

Not that ethereal or splendid after all you might think. The only people who  know of this event are shepherds – people on the margin of things; too insignificant, to the Romans, even to merit inclusion in the census. Yet something has happened – for into the shepherds’ dark night of watching breaks the shimmering glory of the angel host, with its message of the birth of a child which “good news of great joy for all people.” (2:10).

 

There is a message here: forget the Emperor Augustus, Luke is telling his listeners, he is not the Saviour of the world – it is this baby – a child of poverty and exclusion; he is to be the only real Saviour. The Pax Romana of the Emperor Augustus looks to putting the army on standby and stockpiling medicine, but the Pax Christi- the Peace of Christ offers a radical alternative.

 

This is the extraordinary claim of the Christmas message: that God slips quietly into the world – as a newborn infant, laid in animal’s feeding trough. Every mother knows the utter vulnerability of a newborn baby. And this, Luke says, is how God comes to us: needing human hands to hold him, a mother’s milk to feed him, a mother’s love to nurture Him.  And yet...as Mary bends to kiss his face – she kisses the face of God.

 

This is the true mystery of Christmas: that a Divinity – beyond human comprehension – is willingly confined within a human baby and has become fully human. This is the mystery of God’s in-carnation – the Word that existed before all time has been made flesh in time for our sake.

 

What does this tell us? Two things, I think: First that God comes to us in weakness. He might have come with power and triumph – but He does not. The incarnation shows us that there is a different way.  In a world ruled with force by a Roman Emperor this is the birth of a new King – the Pax Christi. Yet no one, except a few shepherds, knows of it.  As we look at our world this Christmas we need this different way. We do not need reminders also of the violent destruction of Syria; Terror in many parts of the world, and closer to home, the standing rebuke in the collective failure of vision which is Brexit or no Brexit. We can see how important this Christmas message is. The desire for power, the fear of loss of control, the use of force to maintain it: it is all ultimately empty – it is death dealing. God puts all this aside in the act of incarnation. The incarnation is a willing letting go – God makes Himself power-less for our sake.

 

Secondly God comes to us in total sympathy with our human condition. By entering human history as a baby born in poverty he identifies himself with the powerless, the oppressed, the homeless and the needy. The Hebrew word for this is “Emmanuel” – meaning God is with us – this is a statement of divine solidarity with humanity. For those who have least, this nativity story is especially precious. Our fellow Christians, celebrating Christmas in Iraq and Syria will know that. And yet, we are all in need. We are in need of healing and of hope. The coming of the Christ Child, in the cold of the winter stable, is a glimmer of light in the darkness – of hope in the midst of fear. Two thousand years ago this light and hope came to us, and, two thousand  God is with us, He shares in everything that makes us human – our fragility, our weakness, our vulnerability, and our need for love. He heals and restores our humanity by taking the whole of it into Himself. So this Christmas we can bring to Him, our joy and gladness, of course, but also those things which, when we look back on the past year, we would lay aside if we could – our sorrows and fears, our failures and our disappointments. The peace the angels speak of is more than mere absence of strife; it is the hope of a restoration to wholeness for every individual who accepts it.

 

‘The people that walked in darkness’, the prophet Isaiah said, ‘have seen a great light’ – may you know the light, the joy and the peace the Christ Child brings, in your homes and in your

Midnight Mass 2018

tobi iyanda

 

Readings:  Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1: 1-14

So as Adam said in the garden, “It’s Christmas, Eve.”  Welcome to the celebration which transforms our lives, the Birth of Jesus Christ. When I was reflecting on what had transformed my life in 2018, one was the NHS without which I would not be here this evening, and secondly this community which constantly both challenges and energises me.  Having a near death experience is sobering and teaches us to realise what is really valuable – and for me   I came back (more or less) to the same answer- the love of family friends and community, which I have resolved never to take for granted - - oh, and of course, Netflix, and Artificial Intelligence. 2018 has been a deeply challenging year, but at the end of it, this transforming celebration gives me the two aspects of Christmas I'd like to speak about at this Midnight Mass, and both relate to peace – the Pax Romana and the Pax Christi.

 

The Pax Romana. The Christmas stories that we read about in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and the prologue to John’s Gospel are specific contradictions to the idea of the Pax Romana. They assert boldly and clearly that it is not Caesar Augustus’ who is Prince of Peace and Lord of All but rather Jesus the Christ. Not peace through putting the army on standby and stockpiling medicine but rather peace through freedom, equality and justice, through respect for the dignity and value of every human being. There are of course some very real parallels with our own time. We too live under a kind of  Pax Romana. The market led approaches to peace we have seen over the last few generations no longer provide us with quite the peace we need however. This market-shaped peace has had a particular way of understanding what it is to be human. First that we are individuals complete of ourselves where we emerge into a world which we manipulate so as to maximise our own personal happiness: our relationships, the responsibilities they give us, and the way they shape us are all secondary. Second that we are simply and inherently competitive, and that we will as a matter of instinct always pursue our own interests. And further, in some miraculous way, it is purported that this endless pursuit of self-interest will lead to the common good. There is no room here to acknowledge that we are also naturally cooperative and can be sublimely selfless.

On the one hand this makes us consumers seeking more and more ‘things’ to make us happy and on the other we become commodities, useful only in so far as we are able to consume. Of course markets and prosperity are important but God knows that we need an alternative to save us from what can only be described as a wasteland. What then in our own time does Christian faith have to offer? What is our alternative story?

 

 

Here we come to the Pax Christi- the Peace of Christ. What is this? The Pax Christi starts from here - this birth changes everything, which is one of the main reasons why in Orthodox iconography the birth of Christ takes place in a cave not in a stable – as the cave symbolises the human heart. We become, through this birth, a new humanity. Some of the recent series on Netflix have helped me realise this – they pose the question which many say will be the only question for the 21st century – what makes the human person?  What makes you and me human?  The answer lies in what we celebrate today – God unites himself to humanity, so that humanity may continue its journey towards God – as T S Eliot wrote, “In my end is my beginning.” In a year which has seen what many call the death of politics and the beginning of the era of post-truth politics we desperately need this. I take a simple example from this rapidly growing church.  People feel lost through the post-truth era in which we now live, and see the failure of the institutions which surround us – the EU, Parliament, especially in its abdication of the responsibility to govern, the United Kingdom itself, all accompanied by the rise of the far right, the rise of social fragmentation and fanatical extremism, and the collapse of the world order as we have known it since the end of the Second World War.  A scenario which has frightening similarities, in Europe, with the 1930’s. especially with the rise of xenophobic nationalism and the rejection of the liberal ascendancy which has been taken for granted until now.  In this scenario, people feel lost and bewildered, so it is no surprise that people need hope to sustain and energise.  As a little microcosm we are witnessing the rapid growth of this church, fuelled of course by immigration which brings the wholly positive benefits of people who are far more confident in articulating their faith.  So over the past decade we have seen a fourfold increase in the numbers of people regularly attending this church.  Here is the Pax Christi - we are a part of God, because God becomes part of us.

 

 

This is the Pax Christi and answers the question “What makes us human?”  The second century church Father Irenaeus wrote this “The Glory of God is a human being – fully alive.” What we celebrate tonight makes us fully alive – in fact buzzing with life, as through we had had several Red Bulls for breakfast. And we can and will do our part in making 2019 a real year of hope, where we work at demonstrating a more hopeful, and therefore Godlier, world order.   It may even address issues uncomfortably closer to home.  Violence and social fragmentation are the lot of many people on the streets of London, which this year saw too many teenage deaths from stabbings, and the deaths of over 600 homeless people.  Here, we build the new humanity.  Working closely with the Probation Service, as we do in this church, I see new hope emerging all the time out of lives seemingly wrecked. When I visited someone in Wormwood Scrubs, he said to me, “I’m at rock bottom now, and life can only get better.”  That’s the job of all of us, the new humanity, the Pax Christi.

 

This Midnight Mass is often a poignant time of year for individuals.  We all bring our own stories to this celebration, and for most people these stories are mixed- some good, some bad, some achievements, some failures, some foolishnesses, some regrets.   So, whether this year past has been for you one you want to forget or whether it’s been a good year, may you know that you yourself are the glory of God, as a human being, fully alive.  The birth of Jesus Christ changes everything, as we live it year by year, and as Christ is born in the cave of my heart, that most unchangeable of things – you and me – is changed.  We are transformed.  May this continue to be true for all of us, and may 2019 be for our whole world a year of grace and wonders through the birth of Jesus who brings the Pax Christi – the Peace of Christ.

Advent Sunday 2018

tobi iyanda

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16,  1 Thessalonians 3:9-end,  Luke 21:25-36

 

Today, we begin a new year on this Advent Sunday.  The reading from Jeremiah reminds us that Emmanuel, God with us, will be born of the House of David, which was rooted of course in Bethlehem.  We need to keep Bethlehem in our prayers especially at this time, as they still live with military occupation and the brutal concrete wall through the middle of the community. This week in Westminster Abbey, a major service for Christians of the Middle East will remind the world how precarious is their existence and how we, their brothers and sisters in the faith, have a duty to support them as they experience discrimination and persecution.  As one Christen leader said prophetically this week –  “It’s us today – it will be you tomorrow.” Then we heard the Gospel of Luke, echoing the prophecy of Jeremiah, that the experience of persecution can be regarded as normative.  But listen to the response “Stand up – raise your head – because your liberation is near.”  So today, I want to use what are called the Advent Antiphons to reflect on the meaning of Advent in our twenty-first century context. I believe they can help us prepare for Christmas.

The Advent Antiphons are used in the Western Churches of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran traditions between December 16th and Christmas Eve.  They appear in our tradition, for example, in the hymn O Come O Come Emmanuel.  They are intended to be used before and after the Magnificat in the daily offices of Evening Prayer or Vespers.  Here they are.  Each one begins with O.  This is called the vocative in Latin, which means that they are prayers addressed to God.

  • December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)

  • December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)

  • December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)

  • December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)

  • December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)

  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)

  • December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God

I’m not going to go through each one in detail - if you want to do that, simply have a look at the Hymn O Come O Come Emmanuel.  What I do want to do is speak about why they are useful.  Each one gives us an insight into God, and builds a sense of anticipation.  Those who compiled these antiphons, probably in fourth century, knew exactly what they were doing.  Through the daily prayers of the Church a sense of anticipation and mounting excitement was built.  You could say they are the fourth century equivalent of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which is the nearest our culture gets to the anticipation of Christmas. Also, they are clever.  If you take the first letter of each Latin title, Sapentia ( Wisdom) Adonai ( Lord) Radix ( Root) Clavis ( Key) Oriens ( Dayspring) Rex ( King) and Emmanuel (God with us) and read them backwards you get the Latin acrostic ERO CRAS – Tomorrow I will be there.  That’s just to prove that Liturgy, Latin, and Theology can be fun. It also connects us to Mary, the God-Bearer, Theotokos, for without her there would be no Emmanuel, no God with us, no Incarnation, no Christmas.

 

In the sense of mounting anticipation which the advent Antiphons give us, they encourage us to listen, wait, and to raise our heads.   One of the difficulties of our own culture is a genuine difficulty with listening, especially to the deeper human resonances, such as pain, loss, violence and persecution – the things which define human existence, especially right now.   Mary helps us with this. Mary at the foot of the cross knows that a sword is piercing her own heart.  This is a woman who knows the depths of human pain.  This is a woman who can only bear it because of her deep listening to those around her and hence to God.  Those in trouble and persecution know this instinctively, as I heard for myself in a deeply moving visit to the Syrian Christians recently, where we listed to their stories of pain and loss of Syrian , many of them children.  In Europe in the 1940’s a similar experience of genocide took place at Jasenovac in Croatia as you will see so movingly in the exhibition here. These are all in the heart of Mary, Pai Bearer and Mother of Consolation.

 

So as we prepare for Christmas, may we listen, with Mary, to the sound of the angels and be prepared to be shifted and moved by what we hear and experience. We are being led to new things.  Of that we are sure.  But we can be less sure about the direction unless we are prepared to do some of that deep listening to the world and its pain and to God. Being quiet, listening, and changing.  This is the world turned upside down, which the birth of Emmanuel symbolises. As Christmas preparation in this Advent period, I can think of no better thing than honouring the Mother of the child and allowing her to speak to us – through her own listening, she became the Mother of  God.  In the birth of Emmanuel, heaven come downs to earth as the Latin reverse acrostic of the Advent Antiphons announces Ero Cras. Tomorrow I will be there.  Tomorrow I am.  And because I am – You are.  And because you are, I am.   In other words, without God, there is neither me nor you – that, of course, is pure existentialism.   So as Christ is born, we are born.  We are at the same time set free – “Stand up, hold your head high, because your liberation is near.” To that biblical phrase at the beginning of Advent, we add the Aramaic invocation, Marana Tha. Our Lord Come – be born in the cavern of my heart.  Maranatha.

Remembrance Sunday 2018

tobi iyanda

A question: Are there any 9 year olds here this morning? A flashback: A couple of weeks ago, I was in a school for Syrian refugee children on the Syrian border run by one of our partner churches in Lebanon. There I met a nine year old boy in a wheelchair paralysed from the waist down by a chemical gas attack on his school. He told me his story of being gassed, and as he told me I had the most vivid flashback I ever experienced in my life.  My grandfather was gassed too – in the trenches of the First World War.  Invalided out, he was to spend the next 60 years of his life in a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down. As I listened to the nine-year-old Syrian boy, my flashback took me to myself at nine years old listening to my grandfather telling his story of being gassed, shortly before he died.  My flashback also made me realise with a start that it was European civilisation and culture which exported world wars, the arms industry, and chemical weapons – used for the first-time in the Fist World War.  Why tell this story?  Because the personal brings alive the historical.  Every single name on these memorials here is a person known to and loved by God and isn’t simply a number or statistic.  And while we have no longer any surviving combatants from that war, my only little story illustrates the personal connections of millions to that conflict.  And if you come from most of the countries of the Middle East, as many in this church do, you automatically are formed and shaped by the First World War, because your map and probably your country, was created out of its ashes. Why is it important to remember these things, as we do today, and what does our faith have to offer as an insight?

 

First, Why is it important to remember? This year, this month, this day, we mark 100 years since the Armistice of 1918 which brought the First World War to an end. On the macro level, the conflict changed and shaped the world and we still live with its consequences. On the micro level, millions of families were to live with the reality of loss, injury, and death in the most appalling circumstances- I gave one little example from my own family. It is in this way that the macro connects to the micro, through the personal, through you and me.  The poppy, which is used as the symbol of Remembrance, can illustrate this for us. We owe the use of this symbol to the Canadian doctor John McCrae.  In the spring of 1915, shortly after losing a friend in Ypres, McCrae was inspired by the sight of poppies growing in battle-scarred fields to write  'In Flanders Fields'. We heard this poem read in this church on Thursday, as our current exhibition of poppies was launched. I quote from it “To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow  
In Flanders' Fields.” The poem reminds us of one essential reason to remember  - “That those who cannot remember are doomed to repeat.”  The First World War, of course, was billed as the war to end wars, but of course it was not and armed conflict has continued from then up until today, for both combatants and non-combatants. John Mc Crae’s poem reminds us that it is now you and me who carry the torch which the dead of the First World War passed to us, and as the school report says, “Could do better.” That’s a compelling reason to remember. Our evolving national story is of course set in the much larger room of our place within the worldwide community of nations.  Politically at the moment, there are many different voices claiming to be able to assist us in developing our place within the community of nations, and great care needs to be taken that we remain an outward looking community embracing those who offer their skills and lives here, from wherever they have come and however long they have been here.  So whatever our national identity is and will be, we remember all those who have helped to form our national consciousness by having their lives taken from them in War, be that First or Second World Wars, or any of the ongoing conflicts since then – the list is long and growing, as any visit to the National Arboretum in Staffordshire shows. So today, we remember all serving personnel in the armed forces who have died following the line of duty.

 

The second and equally important reason to remember is our Christian faith. Scripture reminds us “ in the midst of life, we are in death.”  As we know, death can come peacefully at the end of a long life, or it may come painfully, suddenly, violently and senselessly.  This makes the pain of bereavement even sharper, and actually if we are honest it never goes away.  Time we know is a great healer, and memories fade, but the reality of human bereavement is one which the Christian faith has always taken seriously and acknowledged.  It is not for nothing that the Litany of our Church prays for deliverance from “ violence, murder, and dying unprepared.”  All of us pray for the grace to prepare properly for our own deaths, and it is part of the privilege and duty of the priest to accompany people in this, their final journey.  So we bring before God our own experience of bereavement and we offer it to the wider perspective of the healing love of Jesus Christ.   Later on in this service, there will be an opportunity to light a candle in memory of loved ones, and place it symbolically on the cross.  The cross, as more candles are lit, becomes then a cross of light.

 

This is the perspective which we bring to this service of remembrance today.  Christian remembering is rooted in what is called anamnesis.  Anamnesis is very different from memory, and nostalgia is totally alien to it. In anamnesis, the thing remembered becomes dynamically present to the here and now, as linear time falls away.  We do not simply remember Jesus Christ as a historical figure, but Jesus Christ in this Eucharistic theology of anamnesis becomes dynamically present now in the Eucharistic assembly, you and me, and in the bread and the wine, through the action of the Holy Spirit.  This is fantastically freeing, and it is the perspective which we bring to all our experience of bereavement and memory as we commemorate those who die in war, and all the faithful who have gone before us.  We are set free to enjoy, in this sense, heavenly communion.  Again, the symbol for this is the cross in light.  It was the Emperor Constantine who saw the cross in light before the battle of Milvian Bridge in the year 312 as a pointer to his new life in Christ and later baptism. The Cross in light in Constantine’s vision was accompanied by the Latin words In hoc signo vinces – “By this sign conquer”.  You will find this cross in light with the same motto on the kneelers of this church.  The cross in light is therefore symbolically at the root of all our prayer and all our remembering.

 

So allow the liturgy of today to do its own work. On this Remembrance Sunday, we hold in the silent love of God those who die for their country in war, together with all those we have loved and see no longer.  There is a tombstone, which proclaims,            “ Where you are, I once was. Where I am, you will be.”   This reminds us that all our destinies are bound together as we race towards the grave, held in the loving embrace of God in Jesus Christ.  For it is Jesus Christ who has gone before all of us, which enables us to pray in the words of the Russian Kontakion the Dead which we will sing later, “and weeping o’er the grave, we make our song.  Alleluia.  Alleluia.  Alleluia.”

St Matthew

tobi iyanda

September 23rd 2018,  St Matthew – “How do We Keep our Sty?”

Lambeth Palace, where the Archbishop of Canterbury lives and works, has a two-year-old resident semi-monastic community, The Community of St Anselm.  The members of the community are commissioned in a special service. At the heart of the Service is the personal commitment of each member as they are called out by name and each one responds, in their own language, “Here I am”.  This is of course a biblical phrase from the calling of Samuel. I want to use this phrase in a brief reflection this morning, as we commemorate St Matthew in the middle of a Time for Creation.  The reflection draws on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical entitled, Laudato Si or “Praised Be” from the Canticle of the Sun by St Francis, his Patron. It addresses the twin themes of climate change and population movement. The 190 pages of the document are all downloadable for free from the internet. The reason I want to use the phrase here I am is because it evokes an inescapably personal response.  The twin themes of population movement and climate change are not somebody else’s problem – they are mine and they are yours.  We are also in the middle of a period where we look at our stewardship – namely how we use the things which are entrusted to us, including money.  The word comes from the old Anglo Saxon “Sty-wardship” or how we keep our sty. How we keep our sty reflects our own priorities. How we keep our sty is generally down to us, down to me. “Here I am” reflects that personal commitment and it is also a profoundly empowering approach.  When we realise we are part of the solution by our actions, then the feeling of helplessness which national and global challenges sometimes engender disappears.  Nationally, for example, if we believed that the whole future of our country, in or out of the EU, was down to our bickering, back-stabbing and vision free politicians, then it would be too depressing for words as we rush like lemmings towards the precipice.  But actually, it isn’t like that, because each and every one of us has the capacity to say, “Here I am” and in doing so to change the world.  Yes, we can.  None of us is helpless to act, especially when we start with the local and we start with our selves.  Or when I start with myself.

So, first, “Here I am” and population movement. The present large scale movement of people out of war and conflict zones should not surprise anybody.  We did not need a crystal ball to foresee this – and yet our policy makers and politicians have been unable to act and are seemingly frozen by fear of doing the obvious and right thing. The response of Europe collectively has been shamefully absent leading many to ask what is the point of a union which is no union, and which cannot act collectively when it is required to do so for the Common Good. The Common Good lies at the heart of Pope Francis encyclical and at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Listen to these words from the encyclical “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.”  This will inevitably lead to large scale and mass movements of populations forced from their homes by drought or conflict over scarce resources. This is what we see now, and unless Europe and our world can act collectively for the common good, the population movements we see now will be chicken feed compared to what we will experience in the future. Watch Ai Wei Wei’s moving film Human Flow, if you want to see a dramatic representation of this fact.  So, on the principle of Here I am, let’s bring this closer to home.  What can we do as a Parish and what can I do as an individual?  There are many ways in which each and every one of us can act. We are fortunate in this Parish in having direct access to the human stories behind every refugee, and very trafficked person, and do not always have to relay on the filter of our media.  The more our Parish and community reflects the global reality of people movement, the more we realise that we are all refugees, in one sense, as none of us has an abiding home here on earth.  This helps us to challenge and redefine negative views of the foreigner and the other, with the reality we know.  And at a time of the rise of political xenophobia in this country and across Europe, communities of faith like this will become increasingly important. Here I am amidst movement of people.

 

Now here I am and Climate Change. This is what Pope Francis writes “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever, “and this “Technocratic domination leads to the destruction of nature and the exploitation of people, and by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.”  Here the principle of Here I am is obvious.  We are again fortunate in the Parish in having a vigorous Green for God movement which brings before our eyes the countless ways in which each one of us can act. . Here are words from the encyclical “An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” he writes. We should also consider taking public transport, car-pooling, planting trees, turning off the lights and recycling. The times are urgent.  Like most people, I am not a particularly good role model, but when I got rid of my car, I felt enormously liberated from its growing tyranny, not least in freeing some funds and capital for a more positive use.  For me, this was a demonstration of how I keep my own sty, and in a time when we are looking to ourselves to fund the ministry of the Church in schools and churches across London, this has enabled me to do a bit more. So, at this time of year, when we celebrate Creation and commemorate Matthew the tax collector, called from the selfish pursuit of gain to the ministry of an Apostle and Evangelist, we should feel really encouraged.  We are not shy about explaining the finances of how the Church works.  It isn’t magic, there is no hidden pot of gold, and the success or failure of a church will always depend on those who associate with it and benefit from the Church’s ministry.  In this way each and every one of us becomes a “Christopher” – a bearer of Christ to the world as we all share in the apostolic ministry to which Matthew was called. Already there has been a generous response to our appeal, and we thank God for that, as we reach out to the wider community to help us make this community of faith shine like a beacon on a hill.  We are, after all, on top of a hill.  Let’s shine like the beacon we are. It would be easy to become cynical about people’s ability to rise above self-interest, but I do believe that our Christian faith will keep on calling out to everyone “Here I am” amidst climate change, and the right use of our resources. We can and must act.

 

Our Christian faith makes all the difference.  We are not left feeling helpless or powerless to act because at the heart of our faith lies reverence for the created order and each other.  The whole point of the Pope’s encyclical is summed up in an almost throwaway line towards the end.  This is what he writes, “By the way, why are we here on Earth in the first place? “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” Responding to these two big issues, when we say “here I am” will liberate the mind and the heart and lead to a metanoia or change of consciousness. It will tell us how we keep our sty, where our priorities are, what is important to us, and whether our faith is real and can be seen on our bank account.  It’s no accident that I’m speaking about these things when we commemorate Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist who was called from the selfish pursuit of money to something more liberating.  He was set free, and so can we be when we say “Here I am.  Send me.”

Sermon for Trinity 14

Office Manager

 Readings:  Song of Solomon, James, Mark 7

Purposeful Direction & Generosity of Spirit.

As the summer ends and school term starts again, I hope you have experienced a change of rhythm this summer, whether you were at home or away.  During August, with a more relaxed schedule, I try to catch up on reading and films and plays.  One of the films I watched was Wim Wenders Pope Francis, and I was reminded of an interview between the Pope and a journalist who asked him, “Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?”  The Pope paused before answering “About half.”  Great question too for the Diocese of London and the Church of England.  The readings for today give, however, a different perspective as Autumn beckons, we look ahead, encouraged by the readings set for today, and I want to give our looking ahead at this hinge moment of the year two headings – purposeful direction and generosity of spirit.

 

First purposeful direction.  Most of us need this most of the time, and those who are in positions of leadership need it all the time. We see it clearly in all the readings set for today.  Purposeful direction and Generosity of Spirit need to be combined in equal measure. If we only have purposeful direction, we become simply too task orientated, and if we only have generosity of spirit, we lose direction.  We need both   In the Song of Solomon, we hear an erotic love poem addressed to God, and we need the energy and passion of the lover to live the Christian life to the full. Without it, the Christian life can be reduced to grim duty or formulaic rituals. The New Testament reading is James then presenting the opposite side of the coin – we can have all the passion in the world, but if it doesn’t result in concrete action, then faith might be dead. And the Gospel reading combines both with the images of the outside of the body reflecting the inner life. Through all of the readings runs the theme of purposeful direction.  Without it, we drift – like presently as we drift towards the potential catastrophe in March of a no Deal Brexit. One of the plays I saw was Alan Bennet’s Alleluia, set in a geriatric ward of a hospital.  Towards the end of the play, the Indian doctor on the ward is deported for some minor immigration infringement.  He makes a passionate appeal using these words “ Open your heart, England, before it’s too late.” None of us achieves anything without purposeful direction. If we were constantly blown off course by the slightest wind of opposition or criticism, then we would achieve nothing.  That’s certainly true of leadership in the church at any level, where like a distorted Alice, we get six criticisms before breakfast.  Let me quite specific now about our Parish of St John.

 

I believe we are extremely blessed and fortunate in our greatest resource, which is of course people.  We are a growing Parish with our two electoral rolls.  We have huge human diversity, many languages and different cultural backgrounds.  Many people give of their time and their resources generously to make ministry happen in this place.  In terms of leadership and direction, we express our aims clearly, simply, and specifically through our Mission Action Plan.  This year we have been particularly blessed in having had a skilled spiritual guide help us look at ourselves and our priorities.  You can see it on our website.  This is our purposeful direction.  It is not a woolly document, but it is visionary and realistic in equal measure. We could not have achieved what we have achieved in recent years without this purposeful direction, and I salute everyone who has helped to make our dreams reality.  The areas of our success are obvious – the growth of the Filipino Chaplaincy, now in a new phase of planning for its future, the restoration of our building to serve God and the community, the restoration of the organ and the musical tradition of the place, and a new sense of beauty and vigour in liturgy.  These are just some of them.   Of course, there are areas of weakness – we have identified our children’s work as being an area for concentration, as well as stewardship, or our giving of money to enable the mission of the Church continues to be our Achilles heel. So what will give us this purposeful direction, and what is the difference between that and stubbornness or arrogance?  Part of the answer must lie in the second point I want to make.  Generosity of Spirit.

 

In both the New Testament readings set for today, we get something of this sense of this generosity of spirit.  First, in respect of our attitude to ourselves and other people. A Christian monk, living as a hermit once expressed his vocation in these words “To fall and get up again.  Fall and get up again.” In the Gospel set for today, we see the combination of purposeful direction and generosity of spirit which marks the Christian Way.   Here we see generosity of spirit in action.  So using this Gospel paradigm, we may want to ask ourselves the question, from where does this generosity of spirit come, and how we do we practice it, both as individuals and as a community?  Generosity of spirit always comes in the context of deep personal knowledge. What I mean is this.  All of us need this self-knowledge, and the more active and involved we are, the more its importance increases. The tools of classical Christian spirituality through retreat, through self-examination and reconciliation are an essential starting point, and from that starting point we can then go on to express our generosity of spirit in practical ways, including the giving of money. Let me again be quite specific.  We have said very clearly as a Parish that our obligations to the Diocese, which we call Common Fund, should be met by our dedicated giving, which we call Stewardship.  This year, our commitment to the Diocese (Common Fund) is £82,600, so by this time of the year we should have raised £55,000. At the end of August, we had raised £40,000 and were therefore £15,000 behind budget.  So throughout this month of September we will be inviting all regular givers, and those who are not yet regular givers, to prayerfully review what we are able to give to enable the Parish and the Diocese to flourish.  If we cannot meet our Common Fund through Stewardship it will have to be met from reserves, and that way is the way of oblivion - in 3 to 5 years it would be game over, and the doors clang shut, like House of Fraser.  I also describe it as functional atheism, because it means that we do not believe that we have a future. But of course we do have a future, and our generosity of spirit will enable us to see this.  Giving of money is a spiritual barometer, for we give as we understand, and our spending of money will always reveal where our priorities lie. Money, says Archbishop Justin, is theology in numbers.

 

So with these two things- purposeful direction, and generosity of spirit we will be properly equipped for the at times stressful business of ministry. I do believe that we are fortunate here at St John’s in that we do see these qualities in the Parish right now. How could it be otherwise for any community which places Jesus at the centre of the faith?  The Jesus who both challenges us and leads us on all the time. Most of all, as we gather at this Eucharist, may we be renewed by the presence of the risen Jesus who holds us, and gives us that purposeful direction and generosity of spirit which all of us need all the time.   Thanks be to God.

Peter & Paul 2018

Office Manager

Readings: Acts12: 1-11, Matthew 16:13-19

“A puffed up reptile who has over eaten his fill of cocktail sausages” Sounds like an overheard remark at a clergy Conference. But it was some of the unparliamentary language, which was used in the election of a new Speaker for the House of Commons. What particularly interested me was the tradition, rooted in Christian liturgy somewhere, of two MP’s physically dragging the newly elected Speaker to the Chair. I was instantly reminded of two things- the great early Church leader Athanasius, who was dragged in chains to his consecration as Patriarch of Alexandria.  I was also reminded, at this time of ordinations, of the ceremony of ordination in the Orthodox Church.  You will know if you have been to an ordination in the Orthodox Church, that the candidate for ordination is held by both arms by two priests for much of the ceremony so that he cannot run away. Both these traditions tell us something about leadership in the Church and leadership in general. So its leadership I want to speak about today on the Feast of St Peter & Paul, when we honour these twin towers of the Church. What I would like to do is frame leadership in two phrases, which for me come out of the Gospel set for today.  Jesus speaks to Peter and says to him “ You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” Apart from the fact that this a clever word play on the Aramaic Cipha, which means Rock or Boulder, Christ is saying two things.  You are Ordinary, and you are Extraordinary.

 

First of all, you are Ordinary. Leadership as its raw material takes real human beings, fallible creatures of flesh and blood, and with feet of clay, to mix metaphors. If you want to realise the feet of clay of everybody, just become a priest, where warts and all are the daily reality of our interpersonal dealings.  Far from making one cynical about humanity, this actually does the opposite.  I am constantly amazed and moved that the things we achieve as human beings are done through this incredibly fragile and vulnerable frame, which is you and me. The dictum in Christian spirituality for how this works is sometimes referred to as “ the wounded healer” or “ physician, heal yourself”. In many ways, this is what Jesus was saying to Peter in his phrase “ You are Peter”.  In other words, I know you.  You are Peter who will betray me and run away from me, and you are Peter who is being dragged in chains to a position of leadership.  Christ has no illusions about the sort of fallible human being Peter is.  He knows him.  He accepts him.  He loves him. The same is true of all of us.  Whatever we are called to, we believe, in faith, that we will be given the resources to carry it out.  And by that, I mean the internal and spiritual resources.  Of course, the converse is true, when self-knowledge will tell us when we need to walk away, and when we are a square peg in a round hole. To do this, we need self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-awareness. And it is undoubtedly the case that this self-knowledge in the Christian tradition comes from one source only- our realisation that any capacities we have do not come from us but from God. That’s the whole point of the story we heard from the Acts of the Apostles about the imprisonment of Peter. The Acts of the Apostles puts it like this “While Peter was kept in prison, the Church prayed fervently to God.” So this means realising that we are ordinary fallible human beings, and anything we are able to do can only come through God. That’s why leadership, in this sense, is the opposite of celebrity, which accepts none of these premises. That’s one of the tragedies of celebrity, played out on a global scene, which we have seen in many celebrity lives and deaths. You are ordinary.  I know you.  I accept and love you.

 

Now to the Extraordinary.  The second premise of what I want to say is that ordinary men and women are called to do extraordinary things, when they are done in the realisation that we rely on God for anything we have or do. Leadership will undoubtedly go wrong when the opposite is true- whatever I am doing or achieving I am doing through my own amazing abilities.  The institution and symbolism of Monarchy, especially in our English context is a good illustration of this.  The ordinary, fallible, human being through the ritual of liturgy is presented for the solemn liturgical symbolism of anointing.  Anointing is the symbol of protection and strength. And this where Monarchy is only a visible symbol of what everyone is called to do through their own anointing in baptism. This oil is the symbol of the protection and strength, which comes from our absolute reliance on God alone. Or take the example of the Apostle Paul, whom we also commemorate today.  A small, irritable, misogynist bachelor, who loved nothing more than telling people off and denouncing individuals and communities for their depravity and wickedness.  Not the sort of person you would want to be banged up with on any desert island, or anywhere in fact.  Yet he, together with Peter, became the other twin tower on which the whole edifice of the early Church was built.  From the surface, neither of these two ordinary men were expected to be the raw material out of which greatness could be made - yet, in the power of God, they became extraordinary.  

So Peter & Paul as examples of the ordinary becoming the extraordinary through their reliance on the power of God, in whom the extraordinary becomes possible. They became leaders.  And here we see the total difference between leadership and management, which is part of our political tragedy at the moment, in an almost total absence of leadership.  Leadership involves personal cost, and calling things out when it is necessary. So now it is left to others to call out the slide into ultra-nationalism and fascism across Europe and in other places.  Amy Buller did this in the 1930’s in her book Darkness over Germany, now republished as the times are alarmingly similar. Or this year Madeleine Allbright in her new book Fascism, a Warning. She writes this, “I fear a return to the international climate that prevailed in the 1920s and ’30s, when…countries everywhere pursued what they perceived to be their own interests without regard to larger and more enduring goals.”  Or this from the novelist Will Self in a recent podcast, “anti-Semitism has come once more into the mainstream of our political life, in the increasingly xenophobic character of European politics.” Leadership, like Peter & Paul, will always involve personal cost and the ability to speak truth to power.

 

From the macro to the micro. For myself, I became a guinea pig for the Church of England about 10 years ago by taking part in something called the Windsor Leadership Trust.  This Trust, based in Windsor Castle, brings together people from completely different walks of life who are at roughly similar levels of responsibility in their professional lives.  This multidisciplinary approach always brings out the same sorts of issues about leadership, in whatever the field is. The sort of words which generally come out of that work are vision, courage, humility, service, emotional intelligence. This leadership model will move us from the ordinary to the extraordinary, both as individuals and as a community. As a Parish, we are involved right now in assigning the work in the year ahead through our Mission Action Plan  to those who are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel, both financially in in terms of commitment.  This too is leadership and will take us from being an ordinary community to an extraordinary one.  As we celebrate Peter and Paul, are you ready to joins us? Because if you are, the church will be built on you.

Trinity 2

Office Manager

I Samuel 8: 4-11, 2 Cor 4:13-5.1, Mark 3:20-end

           

The great eighteenth century Russian Orthodox Saint Seraphim of Sarov wrote this, “When I am dead, come to me at my grave, and the more often the better. Whatever is in your soul, whatever may have happened to you, come to me as when I was alive and kneeling on the ground, cast all your bitterness upon my grave. Tell me everything and I shall listen to you, and all the bitterness will fly away from you. And as you spoke to me when I was alive, do so now. For I am living and I shall be forever.”  Interestingly, this connects us to the events of last week and this coming week. This last week we commemorated the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Coronation of the Queen and this coming week the first anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy. This gives me the two things two things I want to speak briefly about, community of life and Grenfell, and corporate personality in the Monarch, giving us our identity.

 

Community of Life.  The readings today lead us in. “Give us a King” the people cry to Samuel, whose sons the people of Israel did not want. They believed that this person, this King, would lead them into new life for the community.  Then this, from Paul, writing to the Corinthians, “We also believe, and so we speak- because we know that the one who raised Jesus will raise us also with Jesus.”   This is the new life in the community of life. The first way we find this new life in the community of life is by worship. Joining a community of celebration in sacramental worship lifts us above and beyond ourselves, and in so doing, gives life to the individual and community.  We do not need to understand the words of the worship – and, in truth, we seldom do.  A sacramental community of celebration, such as any Eucharistic one, renews the individual and society. The Orthodox Archbishop of Albania, Anastasios, wrote this in a recent book, Mission in Christ’s Way, “Worship liberates the believer from narrow patterns of thought, from passions and most of all, from his suffocating egoism. Worship unites the believer with Christ, and with the entire church of the faithful, with those who have lived and died, and with those who will live in the future.”  In other words, worship makes us truly alive and truly human, and through us gives life to the societies in which we are set.  This new life is the context in which we remember those who died in Grenfell, the bereaved, and the homeless. Their pain is our pain, which we hold in the community of life. Two books on Grenfell were published this last week, and I commend both because they speak of this new life. This is from After the Fire by Alan Everett, the Vicar of St Clement & St James. It’s a poem which describes the many candles people lit “Those candles represented life. They represented pain. They represented hope, however fragile. And there was energy that day We held it together.  Anger respect release you name it. It was all there and between us we made a difference.” Between us we made a difference. This is true for all of us, in the common task we face of giving life to our deadening materialistic societies. Making a difference is a corporate activity, so I want now to talk about corporate personality.

Corporate Personality.  Last week we commemorated the 65th anniversary of the Coronation of The Queen. The ceremony has its heart the anointing of one person – the Monarch. Through the sacred and mystical ceremony of anointing, be that the anointing of infants and adults at their baptism, the anointing of the adult who has turned to the Christian faith at confirmation, the anointing of priests and bishops when they are ordained, the final human touch of anointing when we die, or the anointing of Monarchs at their Coronation, we are brought into mystical communion with the divine and with each other.  Through this anointing, The Monarch becomes her people, and the people are their Monarch. Orthodoxy retains this sense in the crowning of the couple in their wedding ceremony as Kings and Queens of creation. Of course, all power can be abused. But the abuse of a thing isn’t really an argument for its discontinuation, and at the same time as celebrating the right use of power under God, we pray earnestly for all those who suffer from its abuse, as we see so plainly in Syria right now.  A protection from this kind of abuse is the understanding of corporate personality in which the ruler finds true contentment as the servant of God, and fulfilment through that of her subjects. Corporate Personality is also the ultimate safeguard for a deeply divided society – divided by Brexit and Remain, divided by left and right, divided by wealth and power, and over all hanging the menacing and potentially totalitarian "hostile environment" to the foreigner. Corporate personality was what we saw, I believe, in the recent Royal Wedding.  Symbols of unity, symbols of hope, in a ceremony of love amidst the politics of division. In the same way, communities of celebration, such as this one, can also become a sort of corporate personality.  Something of this is described in the second book on Grenfell  - After Grenfell: The Faith Groups’ Response, published by the think tank Theos.  Both the Everett book and the Theos book identify key elements in the faith groups’ response which were life affirming.  They are these. The sense of Incarnation and Trinity found in the Parish system – it is there for everybody, and not going away, Visibility – the Church and clergy are visible and identifiable, and all faith communities are person orientated.  With these qualities it is not surprising that people in trauma turned to them, rather than other more remote “authorities.”

 

Community of Life and Corporate Personality are both affirmed in the Gospel set for today, when Jesus tells us “If a Kingdom is divided against itself, that Kingdom cannot stand.” For us, our unity, our strength, and our anchor is found in what we do now. The identity of the community of life is strengthened and enhanced visibly by worship in this Eucharistic celebration. This is truly life giving. These two insights, or something similar, could have been offered in the current dispiriting debate about English identity. The most the sloppy and feeble journalistic orthodoxy of the BBC could produce was cheddar cheese and morris dancers.  Staring us in the face, for those with eyes to see, are the communities of life in the corporate personality of England through the corporate personality of anointing. And the fact that we are the only country which has a prayer as its national anthem. I do believe these characteristics are more sustaining than those the BBC identified – and I speak as a cheese lover.  I would love to have heard, from just one voice, where we locate England in Europe’s soul. Our opinion formers, in this sense, are guilty of leadership cowardice of the highest order. But back to the local. The timing of our weekend of celebration and renewal next week is not accidental.  For the past few years, we have done the hard work of renewing this building in service to God and community, and now we celebrate the achievements of that hard work, as we turn simultaneously to the future and ask ourselves, under God, where our priorities should lie in the future. The task has become more urgent in the societal leadership vacuum we experience.  We now have a buzzing community hub in this community of life – and we have anointed people up and ready for the task. So come and join us next weekend as we look to the future, and say “ Yes” to it.

 

So as we celebrate our membership of the community of life through our anointing, we are brought into the only real freedom there is - liberty under authority. I started with Russian Orthodoxy so I end with it.  Six years after the consecration of this Church, in 1851, St Philaret of Moscow, preaching on the occasion of the birthday of Tsar Nicholas I said of the believer (you and me), “The worshipping believer is set free. This is the freedom of which neither heaven nor earth can restrict.”  Thanks be to God for our membership of the community of life, giving life and freedom in turn to the wider society in which we are set -  in this country, England, in Europe, and the world.