When the road is hard..

The Feast of Ss Gregory and Macrina – 19th July

 Ten years ago, on the 19th of July 2006, a newly ordained priest celebrated the Eucharist for the first time – engulfed in clouds of incense, robed in fine silk vestments, and flanked at the altar by Deacon and sub-Deacon – also robed in fine silk vestments. The priest in question was me, and the sub-Deacon my fellow curate, Jill – a gentle Evangelical Christian – not especially keen on elaborate robes!

She was also blessed with the real patience that perhaps comes naturally to a mother of 4 sons. And it was that same patient expression she wore, as we stood in the vestry before the service – on the hottest day so far that year, piling on the layer after layer – as if to say – “well Mark, the things I do for you!”

I’d originally planned to make today a celebration of the last ten years – almost 8 of which I’ve spent here – but in the light of “events” this week, that now feels rather self-indulgent and I want, instead, to concentrate on the saints whose feast day I chose for that first Eucharist and the inferences that we might now draw from their lives.

First of all, don’t be surprised if you’ve never come across the names Gregory and Macrina before – until ten years ago, neither had I!

Along with their elder brother, now known as St Basil the Great, they grew up in Caesarea – in the country that we would now call Turkey.

Basil was the scholar of the family – writing about the Christian faith and producing texts for worship – and the Eucharistic Prayer (the prayer over the Bread and wine) that we use this morning is based largely on a prayer of his, written in the 4th century.

Macrina was the really spiritual one – the one whose prayer life was an example to all around her. And when their father died, she turned the family home into a primitive kind of monastery.

And Gregory, who at first seemed less academic and less devout than his siblings, had a late flowering and went on to become the well-loved Bishop of Nyssa – not far from Ankora – the present capital of Turkey.

And that fact is an important reminder that areas of the world that we think of as Muslim countries – and somehow different from us – were also once seats of Christian learning and witness. And that, in the intervening period, the two religions have at times co-existed not just peacefully, but fruitfully – with shared culture and learning across religious divides.

The attempted coup, which overshadowed Ankara two days ago, is said to be a result of long-running religious tensions between those who value modern Turkey’s secular democracy and a more hard-edged Islamist minority – who would prefer a clearly Muslim state.

The coup has failed, but not without cost, and those tensions within Turkey give yet another reminder of the wider sense of instability and religious tension at large today, and which so easily spill out into other parts of the world.

We only have to look at beleaguered Syria to see what can become of a once beautiful state – where not that long ago Christian and Muslim neighbours lived side by side – to see how quickly things can deteriorate.

It seems to me that, on the world stage today, there are three different political models vying for supremacy.

There is the kind of secularism I’ve just described – where, at least in theory, all religions are allowed to flourish equally – and none is able to assert its superiority or to override the neutral laws of the state.

Then there is the more European kind of secularism that pretty much tries to keep any religion out of the public sphere – any religion is fine, so long as it’s kept private, and preferably invisible.

And finally, there’s theocracy – the kind of religious state craved by ISIS, and also by some Jewish and Christian hard-liners – which would enshrine one religion above all else, with the inevitable sense of persecution among those who do not subscribe to the right one.

Living, as we do, in a society with many faiths, and in a world of many faiths, I think we can only work for option one – for that positive vision of secular politics – of tolerance and mutual flourishing – where our Christian vocation can be lived out openly among our neighbours of any faith.

As our own politicians begin to negotiate new agreements – new relationships with other nations of the world – I hope that they will not lose sight of these broader issues – that they will be concerned with the nature of democracy itself, and not just the value of trade deals – with the things that feed heart and soul, not just the protection of workers’ pay.

And if they or we need a reason to be concerned about such things, we only have to look across the water to Nice – and yet another tragedy for the French nation.

The Promenade des Anglais, where Thursday’s attack took place, was built in the 19th Century as a symbol of hope.

The Anglican chaplain in Nice, at the time, the Revd Lewis Way, had raised the funds to build it – in order to provide work for unemployed local people. It was a gift of the English to the people of Nice – hence the name Promenade des Anglais –  “promenade of the English”.

Today, we, like the people of Nice, are left perhaps with a sense of powerlessness – stunned that so many could see the attack unfolding but could not prevent it. Speaking on Friday, the Anglican chaplain of the nearby St Michael’s Church, Anthony Ingham, said:

“We can’t do anything tangible or practical in support of the security service apart from our own vigilance. But we do have a very strong and very powerful thing that we can do and that is prayer – prayer for those who have died and prayer for their families in particular – because with faith we trust in God’s love and mercy.”

The local bishops of the Anglican and US Episcopal churches have also issued a call to prayer – and, if you would like to make use them, some of prayers they have suggested are on our candle stand here and on our Facebook page and more fully on the main noticeboard.

Gregory and Macrina, the saints whom we commemorate today, were themselves no strangers to religious strife and persecution – their grandfather was martyred by the Roman authorities and their parents had “had their goods confiscated” because of their Christian faith.

And it was Gregory’s experience of bereavement – with the death of both his sister, Macrina, and his brother, Basil, in same year that affected his own spiritual life, and led to his own deeply prayerful leadership for which he was so loved.

Out of his profound sense of loss, came a profound transformation in personal holiness and devotion.

Perhaps the profound sense of shock and revulsion at this week’s events can result in a similarly profound resolve to engage with social and religious tensions in all parts of the world – not with yet another knee-jerk reaction against Muslims, or anyone else, but with a more enlightened vision of that mutual flowering of different faiths and cultures , and with a steely determination to root out the hatred and self-justification that allows any of us to regard our neighbours as anything less that fully human .

There is not much “tangible or practical” that we can do – for the people of Nice, or Turkey, or South Sudan –  but, to echo Anthony Ingham, the strong and powerful thing that we can do is to unite our prayer with other faithful people around the world.

We can keep faith that God’s love and mercy will yet shine through our present troubles – because He has loved each one of us since before the formation of the world.

God, who sends us into his world, wills all his children to live as one – and God is faithful.

Seeing is Believing

3 July – St. Thomas, Apostle

 Today we mark the feast of St Thomas the Apostle – who seems to have suffered a crisis of faith in the wake of Jesus’ execution: unable to believe the reports that Jesus is risen, he seems to have felt that he’d been taken in after all – that neither he nor Jesus are quite what they’d seemed just a few days earlier. He needs real, physical proof to change that feeling. And so, for all his strengths, Thomas been left with the nickname “doubting Thomas”.

Today’s collect highlights the question of Thomas’ “believing”– his inability at this stage to remember Jesus’ predictions of his own death and resurrection. But, it seems to me, there’s the equally important question of trust .

Why won’t Thomas accept what his fellow disciples are telling him?  He’s been with them day after day, as they’ve trailed around following Jesus in his mission.  He must know them pretty well by now.

Why doesn’t he trust their words about the risen Christ?

We’re not told what they made of Thomas’ reaction to them – but it must have stung a little.

And when Jesus subsequently appears again, with Thomas present, the overwhelming sense of joy might just have had an undercurrent of “we told you so!”

The concept of trust is very much in the air at present: in the race to replace David Cameron as Prime-minister, some voices are asking who we can trust to deliver the best deal with Europe, who we can trust to unite the country and /or the Conservative party. Meanwhile Labour politicians have been making it clear that many of them do not trust their leader to deliver them a future victory at the ballot box..

And, as we’ve marked 100 years since the beginning of the Battle of the Somme – military historians inevitably rake over past events, and the perceived mistakes of some of those who were then trusted to lead the assault.

So how do we know when or whom to trust?                                                                                            And when are we right to suspect we’re being taken in?

By happy coincidence, we were exploring precisely that dilemma at school – a couple of weeks ago.

And my starting point for the children was a set of three indicators:

1 – we trust people because we know they have certain skills.   If we need a filling in one of our teeth – we don’t just want dad with his electric drill – no matter how good he is at DIY.  We need a proper dentist.  IF we need to have our appendix removed, we don’t just want someone who is nice and reassuring – we want someone who actually knows how to operate on us safely.

2 – we trust people who we know care about us. If we know that we matter to someone – that they think about us as much as themselves – then we can be pretty confident they won’t trick us, or do anything that will hurt us or leave us in a mess.

3 – we trust people who we know will  be there for us – no matter what we’re going through. We learn to recognise “fair –weather friends” and also those who will stand by us in the storms of life, battling to keep the umbrella over our heads.

From all of that we concluded that, ultimately, being trusted is about our core identity – our “character” – that we can become trustworthy people by working at it.

Knowing what we ourselves are good at, and not pretending to be more or less than we really are.

Actively seeking the welfare of other people.

Sticking by those who need us when the going gets tough.

All of those things make us better people – more reliable people – more trustworthy people.

Those are qualities I think we should strive for in ourselves, and qualities we should look for whenever we weigh up the various figures in our public life – whenever we’re asked to consider whom we trust to lead us.

Thomas’ legacy on “trust” is a complex one.

I’ve already suggested that he shows a lack of trust in the other disciples – “unless I see,     I will not believe”, translates very readily into “Why should I believe what YOU tell me?”

But what about Thomas himself?

Presumably Jesus trusted him. And yet here he is, apparently at best falling into the category of “fair –weather friend”. He simply can’t see past the storm clouds and is running for cover.

WE recognise in Thomas’ failings the fact that we do fail each other – even good people do sometimes get it wrong, or lose their nerve.

But then Jesus himself effectively steps out with umbrella and welcomes Thomas under –   he gives Thomas what he needs to restore his trust – the proof he needs to believe the truth he couldn’t accept.

Through “doubting Thomas” then – we gain the reassurance that even when we do lose heart, God will not give up on us, and that there is always a way back to him.

So Thomas points us beyond “believing”, beyond accepting in our minds that Jesus rose from the dead, to a more profound trust  – that God who raised Jesus from the dead can and will always bring hope out of despair, good out of evil. He teaches us to trust in God even in the absence of proof.

When our faith is challenged by events in our own lives, in the world around us, or even from a century ago, Thomas’ restored faith encourages us to trust, even then, that God is always at work, and working always for our good.

He teaches us, perhaps, to weather each storm by clinging onto remembered sensations of sunshine – in times of doubt to recall the times when we have felt closest to God, or when we have sense that he has touched our own lives most dramatically – and so to trust that his presence is real even when we cannot sense it or see it with our own eyes.

In Thomas’ encounter with Jesus, we learn as he did, that we can trust in God NOT for what he shows us, but because of who and what God is.

God’s “character” – God’s true nature is love –  and that love cannot fail.