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The Rev'd Canon Dr William Taylor

Lent 1

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Trinity Sunday

tobi iyanda

Readings: Isaiah 6; 1-8, Rom 8:12-17, John 3: 1-17

One of the great monasteries of Europe is the Monastery of Bec in Normandy. That monastery produced no less than three Archbishops of Canterbury – Theodore, Lanfranc, and the greatest of all, Anselm in the eleventh century. We celebrate Trinity Sunday today, and it was Anselm in the eleventh century who introduced this feast into the Christian calendar.  This was an example of Anglo-Norman Christianity being ahead of the rest of the church, because Rome didn’t adopt it until three centuries later.  Ecumenical deference precludes me, of course, from drawing any parallels with today.  So, we thank Anselm and the Monastery of Bec for the Feast of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, which we celebrate today.

When I was first ordained I used to dread being given this short straw of preaching on Trinity Sunday.  I think then I was still under the influence of John Robinson who was once asked how he would teach the doctrine of the Trinity to a child.  “The question was the easiest one I have been asked,” he wrote “I wouldn’t”.  But since then life has moved on, perceptions have changed, and above all, needs have changed.  Much recent theological writing is now pointing out the centrality of the Holy Trinity to our thinking and self-identity as a church.  The Trinity has become as fashionable as Angels – and visit the Internet if you want to see how popular angels now are.  Two books helped me in developing my understanding of the Holy Trinity – both by Robin Greenwood - Transforming Priesthood and Practising Community - I recommend both. Robin Greenwood will be with us in June for a weekend in which we review our work and plan ahead under God.  This is the last of the three years he has dedicated to us, so I urge you to come.  All can have their say in our priorities for the future which will come out of this weekend of reflection and discussion. Central to his thought, and I would also say, this Parish’s, is the living faith in the Holy Trinity.

 

The readings for today show how central the Holy Trinity is for all that we do – the readings today can guide us.  From the prophet Isaiah “Holy Holy Holy” This speaks of the human response to God in worship and praise to God the Father.   All of creation is involved in this response of worship and praise. This worship and praise from the Christian Church involves the whole of life, and there is nothing outside its concern.  It was a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who was preaching to deacons about to be ordained priest when he said; “You will remember that nothing that is human and nothing that is created lies outside the compassion of God.”   This speaks of God the Father caring for all. This is a very twenty-first century model, especially when we apply it to the environment for which we have responsibility.  So it’s right to ask how much we as individuals and as a church collude with lifestyles which damage our environment. Or how much are we addressing the sickness of the prevailing culture in which we are set with the medicine of the Gospel? Robin Greenwood writes this: “In a society which thrives on adversarial competition and the assumption that a few winners will mean a majority of losers, the proclamation of the Gospel is long overdue.”  And this is not simply an out of date swipe at the now discredited financial system of our own society.  It has direct implications for models of society and how the church impinges on them.  In London especially, one of the medicines which the Gospel offers, is community in place of isolation.  Recent findings on personal breakdown suggest that those who find themselves in deepest trouble or on the edges of the law will usually have fewer than ten people with whom they have any sort of relationship. And I’m not talking about people who have 5,000 Facebook so called “friends” – I mean real ones. Talking to our Community Payback members week in week out bears this out. Community in place of isolation also addresses what remains of the nuclear family.  The point is this – our social God the Father never intended the isolated nuclear family to be the bearer of all human needs. It takes a village to raise a child. Or an aeroplane.  In Armenia last week, the only calming effect on a screaming child was to pass the child around the whole of the small plane I was in. It worked. This is a major role of the church, and always has been.  Environment, society and individuals are all embraced in the loving Fatherhood of God the Creator.

 

Now to God the Son.  Paul writes to the Romans that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ will be with them if their lives in community model that of the Trinity in relationship.   So too our teaching on Jesus, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, is not some abstract piece of theological speculation but has real and practical consequences for the way we live.  If you have been to Turkey, you will know all about the churches of Cappadocia and how they produced the greatest outworking of this Trinitarian theology.  The Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century spoke of God as complete communion – or persons in relationships.  They used a Greek word to define the relationship of the persons of the Trinity to each other, and by extension gave us a model for how relationships ought to be within the church and society.  The word they used was pericoresis. In its origin, pericoresis was a sort of dance – but not rave, house or techno trance style – it was a dance of mutual and courtly deference where none takes precedence over or dominates another.  The radical thing the Cappadocians said about God and about the human person was this – that outside of relation, we are not.  “Your life and your death is with your neighbour.” Our very existence is defined by our capacity for relation. This is the opposite of the medieval Roman view of the church as a Pyramid with the Pope at the top and the peasants at the bottom.  It is radical, subversive, stuff.  So this then is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

And now to God the Spirit.  We are reminded in the Gospel set for today that the Spirit of God lives through each one of the baptised.  Every baptised believer is thus a God-bearer, a Spirit-bearer, and a Christ-bearer.  We are all Christophorus. We are promised that those who wish to obey God can rely on the ever-present Holy Spirit, leading us into all truth. This will lead us as a church and community into new and unfamiliar territory the whole time.  Robin Greenwood puts it like this: “Together, under the spirit, God’s new covenant people are empowered, taught how to love, directed, upheld, and given wisdom” Notice Greenwood’s together – for this is a promise to the church, not to individuals.  Our job is to discern this will together, and the only way we can do that is by staying in relationship.  There are challenges all the time.  Like any other organisation, this week we have had to implement the GDPR.  I would love to have had some real theological reflection on what Privacy in Community means, but it’s been absent so far in a Church, seemingly fearful and anxious, and hiding behind more and more layers of bureaucracy. Small Parish churches are not Facebook or Cambridge Analytica. So step forward if you would like to write this piece, and we can do it together. Extend this further, and we see that this task of being God’s presence in the world is down to its people, you and me, acting together. This is also a message for political elites around the world, not just in our own country, who are tempted to go down the isolationist, or even the notorious “hostile environment” route. “Your life, and your death, is with your neighbour.”

 

So be encouraged by the mystery of the Holy Trinity in our life, in our worship, and in all our relationships. near and far. This is the central truth it proclaims- that outside of relation, we are not. So come and join us in June as we act this out and make our plans for the future under God. Whoever you are, whatever your background, whatever your language, whatever your age (as thousands of GDPR messages, which blacken our screens and phones say) “we want to hear from you.” This is all energised by the mysterious reality of the Holy Trinity.  And it is with mystery I end, with this powerful poem by John Donne;

“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you

as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me,

And bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Amen

Easter 4

Office Manager

1 John 3:16-end, John 10: 11-18

"You make the first blow” he said, as he handed me the sledge hammer. Smash went the sledgehammer into the reinforced concrete of the altar.  I guess this hasn’t happened for 500 years, I thought, that an Anglican priest was helping to smash up an altar in a Roman Catholic Church. The scene I am describing happened in a Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, where the priest and the community asked me to help them demolish their old church in readiness for the consecration of a brand new one. The whole community turned out with hammers and sledgehammers and within a few hours it was gone. No-one was paid, and it was astonishing to see how effective an operation it was.  This was a church in which the community had buried their dead, got married, christened their babies, and much more.  But they knew that they had outgrown it, and that the times demanded something new.  They had given sacrificially to build a brand new much bigger Church and there it was ready for use.  For me, this was a practical demonstration of our Easter faith in action leading us on to new things, which the church is always called on to do.  This Parish had a unique opportunity to start again from scratch in 2003.  So, 15 years on from that new beginning, and on a day of our Annual Meeting, it’s no bad thing to pause and reflect on where we have come in that time, and to reflect in this Easter period on where we might be going. To do this, I’m going to use the three headings often used to describe pilgrimage -  Companionship with God, Companionship with Each Other, and Companionship with Those we meet along the Way.

Companionship with God.  The first duty of any Parish Church and the first duty of any priest must be to model what Companionship with God looks like. For me, this is encapsulated by the phrase of the second century Ireneus who said, “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  Companionship with God brings us individually and corporately to living springs of water which will continually refresh us, especially when the going is tough, and we appear to be in a desert.  Those springs of life come from open access to the sacraments of God – principally, of course, Baptism and Eucharist. From the beginning, our driving pincinciple has been to relocate baptism as the foundational sacrament, commission to ministry, and the source of any authority in the Church.  I would say that the principal theological discovery ecumenically in the second half of the twentieth century was the rediscovery of the significance of baptism. The open policy we have in respect of the pastoral offices has borne fruit in this 15-year period, in which we baptised nearly 400 new Christians, and united over 100 couples in the sacrament of matrimony. I recognise that this work would only be a morning’s work in Churches like Mozambique, but the secular desert in which we operate makes this a bit more challenging for us.  Central to the re-ordering and liturgical work we are now done so far has been to place the Font where it belongs at the heart of the worshipping community.  At the same time, and drawing on an older identity of the Parish, we have re-introduced a more expansive celebration of the Eucharist, using all the Church, including the unused Chancel, and revitalised the organ. In short hand you could describe all this work as the rediscovery of the numinous, or the vertical element of our work. We have more to do – a new lighting system and a new decorative scheme which will reveal the beauty of the original 1845 roof is ahead, and we will be applying ourselves to the fundraising for this in the year ahead. You could call this the vertical aspect of our work

Now Companionship with Each Other. As we could call rediscovering our relationship with God the vertical work, so we could call companionship with each other the horizontal aspect of our work. Sociologically, one of the most distinctive aspects of this Parish is the very wide gap between rich and poor, a gap which has grown exponentially. Partially to address this, we established the Filipino Chaplaincy for the Diocese in this Parish, a work which has renewed and refreshed us in countless ways so much that now we have combined electoral rolls of 500, as opposed to just over 100 in 2003. Looking ahead, the PCC have identified that youth work must be a priority for us.  This is an urgent need. This year in London alone, there have been 36 murders by stabbing and 13,000 recorded knife attacks in 2017 – the victims are mainly young people. This is not a problem out there for somebody else.  It’s a problem here now, and we can be part of the solution.

We have already started our youth work, with a successful bowling outing, a group of teenagers being confirmed, and one of our team on a youth work training course.  We will be giving this energy and attention, as we seek to address people’s real fears, and to show a different way from the way of violence. If we call this work the horizontal element, and we place it on tracing paper on top of the vertical work, we produce of course the cross, which the theologian Paul Tillich called the intersection of the timeless with time.

The Cross at the heart of our faith, and the Cross in Light has guided us in this element of our work Companionship with those us Meet along the Way. Look at the underside of the kneelers in this church with their Latin inscription, in Hoc Sign Vinces – by this sign conquer.  This is the cross in light.  In this work, we realised that all churches in London, in addition to being Parish Churches, must have a niche market. For us, this has been the focus on music and the arts.  So, in this period, we created the Sacred Space Gallery, the Mayfest, and renewed our musical tradition and choir. The Church is now open 7 days a week from morning until evening and used by a cross section of groups too large to be listed in this short reflection. Companionship in the neighbourhood is also key to our past and future. This year of 2018 is significant if we look back and forwards at the same time. In 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived in the UK, with significant numbers of the new arrivals making their home in this area.  In 1958, the first race riots happened in Notting Hill.  In 1968, the politician Enoch Powell made his notorious immigration speech predicting that it would result in rivers of blood. And now in 2018, we have the shameful spectacle of the Home Office destroying records so that those who have lived here all their lives cannot prove it and may be liable to deportation. I am not alone in feeling that this is not only a total failure of our political leadership, but also deeply shaming.  In this vacuum of political leadership, from anti-Semitism at one end of the spectrum, to lack of vision for the Brexit future at the other end, the churches and faith communities will need to step up to the plate, raise their voices, and offer a better way, as this Church did recently in offering healing and solace to our fractured community in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. 

So, in this Easter period, and today when we celebrate Christ the Good Shepherd leading us into the future, we pause, take stock, and thank God for all that has been and for all that will be.  And what of the future? In the light of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, our good shepherd will lead us on to even greater things, and I for one am up for the challenges ahead.  To the future we say “Yes”!

Easter Day 2018

Office Manager

SERMON BY THE VICAR EASTER DAY 2018

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.  So if you missed them, I'm sorry.  Jesus does not rise by magic, and he is not the Easter Bunny, but here it is. The tomb is empty.  It is not a symbolic resurrection, but a real one. We live the heart of darkness, as we have felt and seen with all who are persecuted for their faith, as the Prince of Wales says in his Easter message, the continuing tragedy of Grenfell, the rise of xenophobia, nationalism, and protectionism, and the nuclear posturing of the United States and North Korea which could obliterate us all. We are not, by any reading, in great political shape. 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. Last month I was fortunate enough to visit Myanmar/Burma, and to hear directly the big plans of China for the region and beyond.  The city of Kunming in south west China is to become the new hub for the booming Artificial Intelligence industry, especially robots, and as a transport hub for the new high-speed railways to Bangkok, Singapore, and throughout the region.  This is all part of the One Belt One Road programme of the Chinese Government for the next 50 years.  This is the one big political idea for the 21st century.  Like many others, I do not see any big political idea closer to home.  Also like many others right now, especially with the growth of AI, I am asking the question what makes us truly human? Netflix has helped me with this, especially the series Altered Carbon which has fascinated me. Altered Carbon presents a view of humanity which is not far off – here, humans are frozen when they die and kept refrigerated until someone buys the “sleeve” (as the body is called)  to wear when the body gets unfrozen.  All the bodies or sleeves are owned by the Government, who also patent the DNA. Altered Carbon raises the question of the soul, life and death – in other words, what makes us human. This is the big message, the strap-line of Easter - The new life of humanity. There are also other images that speak directly of 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, as we alienate all our neighbours and move into a worldview akin to the hermit Kingdom.  At the same time, we see the rise of hate crimes and overt xenophobia, not least anti-Semitism in politics. For this reason, we are proud to host this major exhibition commemorating the 70,243 men women and children murdered by the Nazi regime in less than a year. We know that those who cannot remember are doomed to repeat.  On the theme of betrayal, people feel betrayed by the church in the  light of the findings of the independent Enquiry into abuse in the church, especially its Bishops and hierarchy.  In the meantime, we are left without societal vision.  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, whatever the rest of the church is doing.

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.  A very convincing case can then be made that 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. These insights from our Resurrection faith will continue to be offered to society as a whole, “What makes our community healthy and whole?”  Over the past months, I have been privileged to see this happening with the group of people from Community Payback/ Probation Service I work with week by week in this Church. The offenders I work with, now majority Muslim, teach me this 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 of mature stability, as in the recent recognition that what happened to Christians and other minorities in the Middle East under Islamic State was Genocide.  Last Easter, Iraqi Christians were still living in exile from their hometown in and around Mosul, then occupied by Islamic State.   But since then, we have seen the collapse of the so-called Caliphate, and now Christians and others begin to return to , and rebuild, their homes. I was blessed to be asked to visit there in August and to see this new life after the destruction of the jihadists, many of whom came from this country, and a significant number from this borough. This is new life, and mature stability. A mature, stable faith will always offer this. 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 therefore yet to be revealed – so everything from our birth to our death is characterised by radical insecurity as we shelter ourselves in a fragile tent.  This is the human condition, and Jesus who goes through persecution, judicial murder, death and resurrection is therefore archetypal human in the image and likeness of God. 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.

The Christian community has at its heart, Mary Magdalene’s, the Apostle to the Apostles, declaration of faith “I have seen the Lord.”  If we are able to say that in our hearts, then we are truly living the Resurrection life – growing, flowering, maturing dying and rising to new life all the time.   “I have seen the Lord.”  For we are an Easter people, and Alleluia! is our song.

A happy and Blessed Easter

 

Lent 1 2018

Office Manager

Authority Established

 In the staff team, when we were considering what we should do this Lent and were looking at the material available, we looked at the national ecumenical material on 40 Stories of Hope.  When I spoke about this possibility later, someone said to me in disparaging tones, “I don’t think that sort of stuff would be appropriate for St John, Notting Hill.” So, I want to read immediately from the preface to some Lenten reflections, together with the mainstream Churches throughout the country,” The first few years of the third millennium have revealed that violence in a variety of manifestations is an issue in the world and in and for the Churches.  War, terrorist attacks, civil wars, crime and violence in local communities, violence and abuse in families, all raise their challenges to the Gospel of Peace.  As Christians, we dare not turn away from the agonies of the world, because it was by violence that Christ was put to death.”  This is the context in which all of us need hope, so out of that series my task is to reflect on Authority Established. So here goes.

 

Authority is an issue in every Church and every society.  People in secular employment often say to me that the standards of behaviour they experience in their work place are much higher than they find in the local Church, which can often set itself shockingly low, or even no, minimum standards of behaviour.  Abusive language, abusive behaviour, unresolved anger, and the acceptance of patterns of behaviour not normally acceptable seem to be the norm in many local Churches.  Ecclesiastical beaurocrats also know that if you want to bring out the worst in people, simply suggest that their parishes are amalgamated.  It can often produce the spectacle of two groups of people who are so suspicious of each other that they would be quite happy if the other group dropped dead.  A Bishop I know who works in a rural part of the country told me that he had found it impossible to put two Parishes together because one had been with the Roundheads and one with the Royalists in the Civil War. But it’s not that sort of authority I’m talking about today, but the authority of Christ, which is unmistakeable authentic.

 

Children may help us here.  In the book A volcano in my Tummy- Helping Children to handle anger, a distinction is made between feeling angry, which is OK, and abusive behaviour, which is not OK.   Anyone who lives and works with bereaved children knows this well, having to deal with the anger of bereavement. “As children learn that anger is a healthy emotion when it protects and motivates us, so they and we experience that when it is bottled up, it can become explosive, depressive and bad for health.”   As it is with children, so it is with adults.  Anger management in the local Church ought to be a compulsory course for every PCC member, because all will be subject, at some time to a burst of someone’s misplaced anger.  When this happens, then positions become entrenched, and the need takes over to get even.  Let’s take a piece of orange. Imagine an orange.  Two people want it and they want it now.  There is only one orange.  What is to happen?  Try it now.   The options probably were: cut it in half (compromise) toss a coin (chance) buy another one (expand resources).  But we could also ask.  What do both want the orange for?  One might need it for the rind to make a cake, and the other might need the inside to make juice.  Here both can have what they want.  In this scenario, we move behind the presenting difficulty- i.e. conflict to ask the reasons for the conflict, and in determining the reason, we find the solution.  I’m speaking about this on the personal level- especially anger in children, anger in individuals, and conflict within the local Church. This is the authority of becoming the solution, not the problem.

 

I want to go on now to speak about another source of authority, which is giving policy makers in the Church, especially within the Anglican Communion, real difficulty now, and this is Holy Scripture.  It has been the Anglican norm since the Anglican way emerged that the way we develop practice and doctrine is through the equal balance of scripture, tradition, and reason.  To take texts of scripture out of context and to use them simply as weapons is to do violence to Scripture.  Scripture then becomes a tool to sanction actual violence. But the violence of Scriptural fundamentalism has here spilled over into potential and actual violence against other sons and daughters of God. Together, these insights can offer real hope and understanding in this present conflict. We may also be at a point where the use of Scripture has been so violated that it must be named as a perversion. Here, the authority of Scripture needs its other two components of tradition and reason to understand it aright. This would be the insight brought to bear in the situations of real and actual violence in which many people live – sexual violence, domestic violence, random street violence, civil conflict, war, and state sanctioned violence. 

 

An important insight in the different way of spirituality was given to me by Professor Luigi Goia, in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2018.  He says that part of authentic authority for any Christian is rooted in prayer, which will and can transform our lives.  He writes this, “All personal relationships are unrepeatable. Keeping this in mind a few brief directions might be useful…Keep it simple…Keep it short…Keep it frequent…Keep it real.”  Luigi Goia is both a Benedictine monk and Professor of Theology at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, so he does know what he is talking about, and has an authentic authority, such as the one we seek.  He writes this, “Nothing of what you do, think, love, hate, suffer, enjoy, hope, fear, dread, desire – nothing is unworthy of God- there is nothing that you cannot convert into prayer. There is one rule, one method, one secret, one simple and infallible way to achieve this; just say it to God.”   

 

This then is authority.  Real spiritual authority comes from within and is the product of prayer and reflection.  It’s the opposite of the authority of a CEO, a General or a Bishop.  The two examples given in the material for authority established are Jesus sending out the 12 with no bag or money to preach the Gospel. But here’s the rub.  He says to them that if people will not listen, “then leave that place and shake the dust off your feet.”  When you read this passage in the Arabic Bible, the shaking off is also the root of Intifada, a rising against all that diminishes.  This is authority.  This is hope.  Next week the Archbishop of Canterbury will publish a new book, Re-Imagining Britain: Foundations for Hope.  He argues that Britain is at a turning point which only happens every three or four generations and asks this question “What kind of society fills our lives with hope and purpose, and what do we base that in? “The answer for each one of us will tell us where authority lies for us.  What is authentic?  What is real?  Now Lent is an opportunity for all of us to rediscover this question for ourselves. Lent is an opportunity for that shaking off, that letting go to develop and blossom, and for all of us, as we witness to Christ in the conflict of life, to become Easter People in a Good Friday World. This is Hope, and by this hope we live.

 

Further reading Authority Established – CTBI 2018 https://ctbi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/40-Stories-of-Hope-Lent-Course-Week-2.pdf

 

Luigi Goia – Say it to God (Bloomsbury 2018)

 

 

Advent Sunday

Office Manager

Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Cor 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-end

 

We begin a new liturgical year today, as Advent Sunday, this Sunday, is the beginning of the Church’s year. Advent is the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and the traditional themes of this period are Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell – cheerful themes for this time of year. These traditional themes are ones which are part of life and part of the Gospel – as the Christian Gospel is not always like a Starbucks Coffee – light and frothy. But I’d like to distil those traditional themes into two areas which I understand as themes coming out of them – faithfulness and preparation.

 

Faithfulness.  All Churches are required to be faithful.  This may take many forms, and it certainly has different manifestations.  Faithfulness may be demonstrated in our keeping faith with the wellsprings of faith.  For example, I believe it would be impossible to continue as a Parish Priest without the daily offering of regular, disciplined, sustained prayer.  Good days, bad days, up days, down days, Prayer is there at the root of the tree. If the roots are not nourished, the whole tree dies.  So it is with us.  We need to remain faithful to our roots through regular prayer.  That’s why coming together week by week to be nourished by the sacrament matters more than we can easily explain.  We are often told that without vision the people perish.  So it is in this matter of faithfulness.  As a Church, we must remain vision driven to be faithful to our origins.   We know that Churches which slip into maintenance mode, delude themselves, and are probably in all reality in decline.   The same is true with our bodies.  If we don’t look after them, they go into decline- which they will do quickly enough anyway, without any help from us.  In this process of faithfulness, we therefore need each other, because there are times when I can lend support and help to you, and times when I need that help and support from you.  Yesterday we hosted a big gathering of Iraqi Christians who can tell us what it means to keep the faith under the pressure of violence persecution, and displacement.  They have much to teach us.  You could also argue that the income of a church is a manifestation of its faithfulness.  When churches are seen to be giving, generous, active, and vision led, then the income will follow.  This is as night follows day. To take one example – when we started our restoration work, we had literally not one penny in the bank, but through faithfulness and being vision led, we raised £1.5million. So in terms of faithfulness and our income, what has happened in the Parish this year? Some areas of our work are high performers and are ahead of their targets – our community outreach and our Filipino Chaplaincy are just two of them.  One aspect, however, lags behind, and that’s our regular committed stewardship giving to support the work of the Church throughout London – so this Advent, if you’re in a position to help, please consider a thanksgiving offering to help us reach our Diocesan Common Fund target of £78,600 which we need to give as a Parish. The PCC have set a very simple equation – our Common Fund should be matched by our stewardship.

 

Now, Preparation.  Advent, which begins the Christian liturgical year, is a time of preparation.  Spiritually, we go back to our roots to prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  This is a coming like no other, because it will have an effect on all our lives.  Advent helps us to get the spiritual balance right.  Traditionally, the time of Advent is a time for reflecting on the things, which we would actually rather push away to the back of our minds.  Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell. The last things, the end of time.  All our religious tradition teaches us that to live in a state of preparedness represents being spiritually awake. Anyone who works with me will tell you that I am allergic to lastminute.com, and find it stressful when forced into that mode of work.  I recently had to lead a Bible study for a clergy gathering and the passage they chose for me was the foolish virgins. You will remember that five were prepared and had enough oil in their lamps to welcome the bridegroom and five didn’t prepare and ran out of oil, and couldn’t therefore join in the celebration. My Bible study was short – and went like this. “They were too late. Too bad.”   That was it. Or like those who say “ Oh, my phone ran out of battery”  as though it happened by magic and was not connected to the fact that they had not charged it.   The Gospel set for today reminds us that we need to be prepared and ready at all times, and that, mercifully, we are spared any knowledge about the end of things.  We just don’t know. The Christian tradition is, in this sense, the opposite of that most widely read woman in England, Mystic Meg, with her horoscope in The Sun newspaper.  Hear this, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”   My grandmother, who brought me up, told me that we should always change our underwear, for we never knew if we might be involved in an accident. Preparation, keeping awake, being ready.  There are many ways in which the life of a church will demonstrate this readiness, and one manifestation will be a church’s expenditure.  How we spend our money will not only demonstrate our priorities, but also our preparedness for the future.  So what has happened in 2017? We have kept our expenditure down by controlling costs, and spent where we have to. In addition to the Common Fund payment, there are all the regular bills- utilities, keeping the church open, insurance, running the office and paying those who work for us, which is the bare minimum to function.  At the same time, the level of our activities increases daily – from the beginning to the end of this year there has been a significant increase in the range of different community groups using this church, and this is set to increasing yet further.  Improving our facilities and being ahead of the game is also a manifestation of being prepared and ready- not just for the now, but for the future. We are fortunate in the PCC of this Parish, and in powerful discussions this year, we have teased out what it would mean theologically about our beliefs if we ran a deficit budget in the church. This was real leadership in the things of God.  I’ve used this quotation before but I use it again.  It is Archbishop Justin Welby who says “Everything to do with money is simply theology in numbers.”

 

So as we enter this season of Advent may it be a time for all us of faithfulness and preparation.   It’s also true to say that with this in mind, much of the physical preparation for Christmas, which we make as a Church and community, as families, and as individuals becomes less stressful.  These twin towers of faithfulness or income and preparation or expenditure, will encourage us as we start another year. It’s pretty simple.  It isn’t rocket science, but if we are able to live it, it will transform our lives. The Apostle Paul can often be a stern and gloomy moralist, but today he encourages us in this final word from his letter to the Corinthians, “God is faithful”  In faithfulness and preparation, may all of know God’s blessing this Advent, as we prepare to welcome Jesus the Christ into our lives. Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus.

Simon and Jude

Office Manager

Sermon by the Vicar, Saints Simon & Jude 2017

Readings: Isaiah 28:14-16, Ephesians 2:19-end, John 15:17-end

 

To my knowledge, there is only one shrine dedicated to St Jude in England - which is in Faversham in Kent.  As you know, St Jude is commonly thought of in western culture as the patron saint of lost causes. Once, when I went to the shrine in Kent, one of the people looking after the shrine asked me if there was any special reason why I had gone there.  I attempted to introduce myself by saying "I'm a parish priest" and wanted to go on but before I was able to, the man simply said " Oh, I see.  we get lots of those."  I didn't say any more - but if I had been able to I would have been able to explain that in London, generally parish priests don't feel like that, and I certainly don't.  Only a couple of weeks ago, in a major consultation on the Parish system held at St Mellitus College here in London, Bishop Graham of Kensington defended the Parish system in the aftermath of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower.  Before any of the statutory agencies made their presence felt, it was the Parishes of this neighbourhood, this one included, which were there, on the ground, doing the job they are intended to do in caring for the people of the neighbourhood, regardless of background, and on the basis of need alone.  So, a lost cause this is certainly not. But let's look a little closer at Jude and Simon, as I do believe, like most saints, they speak directly to us today.

Simon and Jude are not heard of in the New Testament other than a few references in the Gospels and in the letter which bears Jude's name.  The tradition, in both east and west, which is very early so is probably rooted in historical fact, is that they went to Edessa (or Urfa) in what is now eastern Turkey, and from there on to Persia, where they were both martyred for their faith - giving them their symbols of the axe by which, by tradition, they were beheaded.  Simon is generally referred to as the Zealot to distinguish him from Simon Peter, or Cepha.  Jude is associated with him again by tradition, in that not many people were prepared to pray through him because of the proximity of his name to that of Judas Iscariot.  Whatever the case, they have been associated together and share the same feast day since the fourth century.  The fact that they died as martyrs also strengthens their links with all the faithful, especially in our own time, which in many ways is the time of martyrs. Martyrdom also currently has a bad press as it may, in tabloid culture, be associated with suicide bombers and other forms of hate crimes.  But Christian martyrdom is never like that as a martyr who sought his or her own death would in our faith no longer be thought of in that way. So, if we want a clue to what the meaning of contemporary martyrdom is, and where it is rooted, I suggest that we turn to the scriptures, and especially the readings set for today. From the three readings, for me, two key words emerge - The Cornerstone, and the Advocate. Without these there would be no roots and shoots of the faith of the martyrs or our own faith.

The Cornerstone.  This is a biblical word used throughout the scriptures and it describes the solid foundations on which faith is built. For Christians of course, this is Jesus Christ.  For this reason, one of the earliest descriptions of Jesus Christ in the New Testament is Lord.  This is a title giving authority and weight to the stature of Jesus Christ in relation to our own lives.  But very quickly, and by the time of the fourth century, the Christian creed of Nicea Constantinople, which we recite every Sunday, describes Jesus Christ as truly God and truly human.  In other words, if we want to become truly human and alive, Christ is our model for in him we see God.  From the same period, it was Irenaeus who said, " The Glory of God is a human being fully alive." With Christ as our corner stone we become fully alive and living for life.  A common misperception of martyrs is that they somehow had a death wish.  But the reality is the opposite.  If we are truly alive with Christ as our corner stone, then death is nothing at all, and certainly nothing to be feared. Other so-called foundations on which we build are generally found to be wanting when we find ourselves at rock bottom.  If we have built our foundations on money in the bank and we lose it, we are without foundation.  If we have built our foundations on another person who deserts us, we are without foundation.  We do know this, but the temptation is often so great that we can't resist it - there's probably nothing more terrifying or untrue to say to someone else " You are the reason I get up in the morning."  Until you're not there. In his book, Prayer and the Pursuit of Happiness, Bishop Richard Harries points out that these projections onto other people are only natural in a secular society. In a believing context, God is the all knowing, the all loving, and the rock, but in a secular society we have a natural tendency to project those things onto other people, and of course it isn't sustainable. But Christ, truly God and truly human, is the unchangeable cornerstone, for the martyrs and for all of us.  This is the root of the organic tree.

Now the Advocate.  This is a term for lawyers who speak on our behalf in court, and of course The Holy Spirit.  And in the organic tree of faith, it is the Holy Spirit which enables the tree to flourish and grow.  We need roots and foundations, but the roots and foundations need to produce flourishing and abundant growth.  For this reason, we pray, " Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth." The martyrs and heroes of our faith showed both deep roots and firm foundations in the cornerstone, but also were flourishing and fully alive, showing organic growth like a tree.  This is another reason why death would be nothing at all, as of course the Holy Spirit continues to be the advocate beyond our physical death.  These two things have been central to Christian martyrs throughout the ages.

This is the contemporary and indeed timeless context in which martyrdom is set.  Do not think of it as something out there and back there in time.  The twentieth century, sometimes called the century of blood, was the century of Christian martyrdom, not least through the numerous genocides which took place throughout the century. In 2015, in a moving and powerful collective ceremony in the Armenian Church, one and a half million martyrs of the Armenian genocide in 1915 were canonised at one stroke.  The Nazi holocaust of the Jews and others is at the same time commemorated in the Memorial at Yad Vashem in the State of Israel, but there are many other martyrs and victims of genocide from that century who have no memorial - be that in the gulags of the Soviet Union, the killing felids of Cambodia, or the silent mass graves of Rwanda or Srebrenica. In our own twenty first century, we need to hold in our prayers the victims of the genocide waged against Christians and Yezidis by Da'esh, whose fantasy Caliphate now lies in the ruins it was always destined for, and there will be an urgent need to bring to justice those who committed these crimes against humanity.  We are fortunate and blessed to have many regular worshippers in this Church who come out of a context of active persecution and potential martyrdom.  As we all learn together, it is for that reason that we have given supporting Christians in the Middle east and in areas where persecution is to be expected, a high profile in our Mission Action Plan.  Martyrdom is not a strange out there and back there experience.  It is now.  So, let's use the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude to ask ourselves individually and collectively " What is our Corner Stone?”  and “Do we allow the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to be active through us?” If the answer is yes, all our challenges will be put into perspective, not least our use of money in supporting the work of God's Church. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, can then be invoked elsewhere! Happy Feast.    

Michael & All Angels

Office Manager

Readings: Genesis 28:10-17, Rev 12: 7-12, John 1:47-end

 

Wherever I go there are Angels.  Today I look at a church full of them, I have just, the internet is full of them, and our experiences on a daily basis can be angelic.  When was the last time someone called you an angel? This Feast of St Michael and All Angels is also so significant that this academic term in many institutions is called the Michaelmas Term, and look outside the south door of this church and you will see Michaelmas daisies. From the internet, to art, to university terms, to flowers, Michael and his angels are with us.  The readings set for today also give us the perspective we need to understand a bit more about the significance of angels.

 

First the reading from Genesis.  Judaism inherited its belief in angels mainly from ancient Sumerian religion.  Jacob and the angels, which we just heard is a manifestation of this. Angels, winged messengers of protection, appear in all the great religious traditions of the world, and Judaism simply inherited this.  Because of their universality, they are great unifiers, as any believing person of any faith will tell you today. They serve an important role in our faith, and today we have a great opportunity to be reminded of that.   The late and great Bishop John Robinson wrote in his book, But That I can’t Believe (designed for the sceptical British public),             “ When you say to someone, ‘Be an Angel’ you are not saying to them ‘Go and grow feathers,’ you are saying to them, ‘Go and do something angelic.’  A simple paraphrase is “ An agel is what an angel does.” So even in sceptical liberal secular democracies they serve an important role.

 

Look around this church, and you will see angels – angels in the windows, in the icons, angels on the reredos behind the altar, a large icon of St Michael in the Chapel over there, and angels in the pew next to you.  We also pray in this and every liturgy with angels and archangels who we do not see – or perhaps you do?  In this sense an angelic being needs no defence, as they simply are – part of the created order, which we humans are given a mandate to care for, especially during this creation time when we focus on our care for creation. Winged, post-gender beings are, I believe, particularly helpful for we non-winged, gendered beings, as they lift us above and beyond ourselves.  Angels symbolically fly above all that restrains and hinders us as human beings – especially as we grow older and our frail body becomes a tattered thing upon a stick. Children generally have no difficulty with angels, especially as symbols of protection.  We remember that angels particularly surround the young, the weak, and the vulnerable. I had a powerful reminder of this in Kosovo, when I visited a couple of years ago.  One of the EU monitors guarding an Orthodox monastery there said to me as we went in, “We’re protecting this church, especially the priceless frescoes of angels,” to which our Kosovar Muslim guide responded, “I think you’ll find that they are protecting you.” 

 

The Greek word for angel, angellos, or Semitic Mallai’k, Farsi Freshte, denotes a winged messenger.  Winged because their message is not limited by the usual constraints of time and space.  Messengers, because they simybolically convey messages from God.  And here we need the eyes of faith, because the messengers can come in very many different forms, and often what is required of us is the openness and faithfulness to receive their message, especially when the message comes through unexpected channels.  St Benedict, a great believer in angels, speaks about the importance of being open to the message of the angels, particularly through the youngest member of the community, and of course through strangers and guests.  This is particularly important in the monastic practice of hospitality based on the concept of entertaining angels unawares.  We too need to be alert to this in becoming a hospitable and open community. I am very aware of having a good number of angelic visitors here today, if we use the young and guests as their archetypes.  I’m also very aware that in the local response to Grenfell, the local community and other well-wishers acted in this angelic way as they brought comfort and relief to victims of the tragic fire. There is an important fifteenth century icon from the Russian iconographer Rublev which illustrates this well.  In this icon, sometimes called the hospitality of Abraham, we see three angels. It is a depiction of the Holy Trinity in angelic form around a symbolic meal.  The symbolic meal is of course the Eucharist, and what’s of particular importance is that the angelic figures are all outward looking as they invite the believer into this joyous feast.  This is one of the ways we pray with angels and archangels as they assist the host of this Feast, Christ himself, in inviting people in to it. Eucharistic hospitality, assisted by angels, is therefore always outward focused as all are invited to this Feast.

 

So as Robinson wrote, an angel is what an angel does.  They protect, they communicate, they guard – as in the symbolic victory of good over evil which we heard in the Revelation to John. If we allow them to, they take us to soar with them, they help set us free - which is one of the reasons I included that reference from the John Mason poem in the piece we commissioned for the blessing of the organ “If I have freedom in my love, and in my soul am free, angels alone that soar above, enjoy such liberty.” And today, this collection of angels, seen and unseen, like that poem and the Rublev icon, help us to celebrate that joyous feast in which all are included.  For this reason, if I were in a position to make that decision, I would introduce into our church immediate inclusion into that feast upon baptism, as our Orthodox brothers and sisters practice, with baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist all in one hit.  But that’s another story.  Today we simply celebrate Michael and the whole company of angels. Every one of us is protected by this mighty host, especially when we celebrate the joyous Feast of inclusion in this Holy Eucharist.  What more do we need?

                                                                                          

Trinity 12, 2017

Office Manager

Readings:  Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-end, Matthew 16:21-end

Beginning a new job is often a daunting experience and sometimes a steep learning curve.  Shortly after I was ordained going to work at Lambeth Palace was one of those experiences for me. Having to learn the niceties of protocol at high speed and on the job, I once accompanied the Archbishop to a diplomatic reception and was walking ahead of him.  Before his presence was announced to the assembly, he quickly leant forward and murmured in my ear” Get behind me Satan.”  We heard these words of course today.  Just as behind has a double meaning in English, so the Greek word opiso also has a double meaning.  Behind is not just a physical position but also conveys the sense of being behind someone in the school of life as we learn from them. That’s the sense I want to convey today, as we get behind the agenda of God, so we are caught up into the Divine life.  The Divine life is conveyed today by the name of God which we are given in the first reading.  I AM. This of course is the Hebrew tetragrammaton, the four consonants of the name of God which is not a noun but a verb.  And it’s three aspects of the verb God I want to explore briefly today as we look towards the Autumn and the renewal and refreshment which we hope and pray it will bring.

The name of God is the verb to be.  In Hebrew, it’s 4 consonants without vowels – YHWH.  When we transliterate this into the Latin script and the English language it becomes Yahweh or Jehovah.  But it isn’t a noun or a name – it’s a verb, and the verb to be.  Hebrew verbs also have no tenses, so the name I Am could be also translated I Was or I will be.  Or I was who I am and will be.  Here we are taken right into the heart of God who is without time, and as we get behind him, so we are caught up into the Jetstream of God, without time and pure action. Now if that doesn’t excite you on a beautiful September morning, then I guess something might be missing.  So let’s look briefly at those three aspects.  I Was.  I am.  I will be.

I was. The Christian Gospel of Good News works both with the natural order - through, for example, the rhythms and cycles of nature, and at the same time radically inverts them.  In many ways, this is the central paradox of the Christian faith which takes the natural world, works with and through it, and at the same time subverts and turns it upside down.  For example, the central image of Christianity – the cross – an instrument of painful death for convicted criminals, becomes the central symbol of the intersection of the timeless with time. Death, to the secular mind the end of things, becomes the beginning of things. Take the example of the tragedy which befell our community at Grenfell Tower.  The indescribable horror of death by fire or asphyxiation or jumping remains the I was of secular mind.  But in the timelessness of God, and in the complete inversion of the natural order which comes through the Christian Gospel, I was becomes I am and I will be simultaneously.  Those who have died through this or any other tragedy, in fact all the dead are no longer I was but as we get behind God, we all become I am and Will Be.  This is not some false security blanket or as Iris Murdoch said, “All that consoles is fake”.  It’s the opposite.  It’s the deep truth of our life in God, and the perspective we bring to our work, and the fuel which gives us the energy to keep on doing it.

Now I am. In many ways, I am, is the central image of western society and culture since the enlightenment.  I think therefore I am.  I shop therefore I am.  The autonomous individual is King and whatever I want is my right.  Technically, this is called affective individualism, and it means that the atomised individual is always sovereign.  But here again, the Christian Gospel comes with its critique, as the teaching and the practice of the Christian Church was and is to show a radically different world from the so-called natural order of dog eat dog and the weak go the wall.  In this new world, the Magnificat is the song in which the poor are fed and the humble lifted high.  Affective individualism can never do this, which is one of the reasons that without the critique of the faith communities western society will end in sterile and arid ways from which disaffected individuals will seek violent release.  Watch the 4 episodes of The State on Channel 4 which tells the dramatized stories of people disaffected by western society and going to fight for Islamic State, now in their final days. Having just come back from areas liberated from Da’esh or Islamic State I found it no accident that much of the violent and disturbing graffiti they left behind, especially in churches was in European languages.  The I AM of western society, itself a kind of violent suppression, has become the trigger producing the ugly reaction which we see in Da’esh and other forms of violent reaction against western individualism.  But my experience was also in the light of the reconstruction of life which the Easter people – the Christian Churches of Iraq- are doing with astonishing speed and energy.  Here we see the real I AM, of life in God’s slipstream.  Home communities being rebuilt with the energy of the Resurrection. This is the real I am, in the slip stream of God.

And finally, I will be.  In 2017, I will be 10 kilos lighter.  I will be Master of the universe when climb to the top of my organisational greasy pole.  I will be many things.  But in the eyes of God, all are seen simultaneously- I was, I am, I will be.  One of the most powerful films I saw in 2016 was the film Arrival – which tells the story of 12 UFO’s coming to earth with creatures inside them.  The world’s top linguistic experts cannot work out how to communicate with the creatures until it is discovered that their language is circular, not linear, and that they do not exist in time, by which time the creatures have become bored with trying to communicate with humans, and fly off again in their space ships. You can imagine why I found this so riveting. The power of religious language and life in God is that it is cyclical, not linear, and that it gives the power of seeing in multi-dimensional ways.  It is not one dimensional.  Take the responsibility, which we heard in the New Testament reading, to care for the stranger.  You could say that this is simple effective social policy – but it’s much more than that, because our Christian tradition and religious language in general has the capacity to invert all that we see, where I am the refugee, or I was the refugee, or I will be the refugee.  Even our use of language can powerfully demonstrate this multi-dimensional way of seeing things, especially when we think of the Christian status of the refugee. Please read this.  Now read it from bottom to top.

I hope in these examples, I have given the sense of the Christian Church working through the natural order and at the same time subverting and inverting it.  We live in God’s slipstream of time – Was, Am, and Will be simultaneously.  As the season changes from summer to autumn, this is a small example of God’s natural world showing time as cyclical.  In the Christian tradition, time is cyclical and not linear.  This allows all of us to get caught up into God’s slip steam as we get behind him as I was becomes I am and will be.  All at the same time. This is the life of the Resurrection as we enter the Autumn and why Alleluia is our constant song.

 

 

REFUGEES

 

They have no need of our help

So do not tell me

These haggard faces could belong to you or me

Should life have dealt a different hand

We need to see them for who they really are

Chancers and scroungers

Layabouts and loungers

With bombs up their sleeves

Cut-throats and thieves

They are not

Welcome here

We should make them

Go back to where they came from

They cannot

Share our food

Share our homes

Share our countries

Instead let us

Build a wall to keep them out

It is not okay to say

These are people just like us

A place should only belong to those who are born there

Do not be so stupid to think that

The world can be looked at another way

 

(When you have read this, now read it from the bottom to the top)