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Address for Sunday 21 June 2020
We began our worship this morning with the pilgrims of St Albans, retelling the story of their Patron Saint – carrying those giant puppets in procession to the Cathedral.
St Alban was a Briton, and living under Roman rule: he was a well-respected man – known to be wealthy, generous and kind hearted.
It was due to this reputation that a Christian priest, seeking refuge from persecution by the Roman authorities, came to Alban for help. Alban hid him away in his house, and as he got to know him better, Alban was so impressed by the example of this priest – Amphibalus – that he became a Christian.
And when, eventually, Roman soldiers came knocking at the door, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and had himself arrested instead – giving time for Amphibalus to flee.
When the magistrate discovered the truth of what he’d done, he was furious – and insisted that Alban should offer sacrifice to the Pagan gods in order to atone for his wrongdoing. Alban refused, stating that he only believed in the God of Love.
And so he was led away and killed, becoming the English church’s first martyr.
It’s slightly unnerving then, that today’s Collect encourages us to follow his example – not a very enticing prospect!
Perhaps I can rescue us then with the thought that our word martyr – someone who dies for their faith – is a translation of exactly the same Greek word as the word for “witness”, μαρτυσ.
Strictly speaking then, we could say that a martyr is someone who bears witness to the truth whatever the cost.
And while St Alban witnessed to his faith by dying for his friend, most of us are called to witness to our faith in the way that we live.
There we are, it’s feeling better already!
That’s not to suggest that our task is easy – bearing witness to our faith means living by the standards we commend to others, grappling with the challenges of the gospel and not holding back – being both as generous and as faithful as St. Alban.
And at least as challenging for many of us, to be a witness implies a willingness to speak about our faith – something that we may feel is intensely private; something which may feel is TOO precious to even try and explain to someone else.
When we speak of our own religious, or spiritual experience, too often we’re afraid of looking silly – or of making a mess of it and letting the side down, of selling short God’s goodness and greatness.
And yet, very often what other people want to hear is precisely that – our honest reflections on how we come to be mixed up in this curious bunch of people called the Church.
There’s no suggestion that the priest, Amphibilus, tried to cathechize, or teach Alban the doctrine of the Church – it was his nature, we’re told. and the way he spoke about himself that captured Alban’s imagination and led him to follow the way of Christ.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of plain speaking, of honestly “thinking aloud” about our faith and our struggles with that faith, in communicating the power of the gospel to others. We do also need scholars, and evangelists, and experienced spiritual guides within the life of our Church – but we don’t ALL need to be skilled in all those things in order to pass on our faith, just a willingness to speak of our own reality.
Into that reality Jesus himself speaks some rather unsettling words:
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
At first hearing that seems rather perverse.
If you WANT to live you’ll die – if you hate living, you’ll live for ever! What kind of morality is that?
Presumably though – if it doesn’t seem to make sense – then that’s not what Jesus is saying. He wants his hearers to do a double-take and think about what he’s said.
Could it be that he’s also talking about the way that we live – about where our attention is focused.
If we are TOO concerned with our present circumstances – surrounding ourselves with whatever we can acquire, always content to stay put and look no further – then there is only one possible outcome: ultimately it will all come crashing to a halt. We can’t preserve this life, unchanging, for ever.
On the other hand, if we are the kind of soul who is always striving for something better – all too aware of our own shortcomings, as well as those of the world around us, and always looking for ways to improve things – then we can expect to be rewarded when finally we pass from this life to the next.
In that light, the prospect of keeping our life in eternal bliss – absorbed into the life of heaven – has rather more to commend it.
And that’s where I want to wander back to the theme of pilgrimage – and to interpret pilgrimage as a deliberate refusal to simply exist, and fade away.
Pilgrimage – in the literal sense – is a sacred journey where we leave behind the familiar, and seek God in new surroundings and among new people, and to learn from them.
And in another sense, pilgrimage is a state of mind – an equal determination to keep seeking truth, to keep seeking beauty, to keep seeking holiness, wherever we glimpse them.
If we are too comfortable with what we already know, with what we like, or with what we think we know about a particular issue or concept – then we’re in danger of falling into the “loving life” category: from which we can only grow stale and lose what life we have.
If we can keep alive the pilgrim’s sense of enquiry, of eagerness to hear the stories of others and to learn from them; if we can view our life as a pilgrimage of faith, then – even if we’re physically unable to travel to new places –we are already journeying towards the eternal joy that Christ sets before his hearers.
All of that, I think, is true for individuals; for church congregations; and for THE Church as a whole – the Body of Christ.
None of us are meant to sit still for too long – to be too sure of who we are and what we do and leave it at that: we are called to strive for the kingdom of God, to seek out the signs of God’s presence in the surrounding that are familiar to us – and to step beyond what is familiar, in order to receive fresh insight, fresh inspiration and the wisdom that others have perceived before us.
In that pioneering, pilgrim spirit there is risk – as Alban would testify – but there is also rich reward for ourselves, and those we encounter.
We have no idea what happened to Amphibalus, the priest whose life Alban saved – but his influence echoed throughout England and beyond through his most notable convert.
And we can be sure that he never forgot about Alban.
Two lives were changed – each one by the other – and countless others have been changed ever since, by their combined witness to Christ.
A pilgrim’s prayer
O God, watch over us as we walk in the love of your name, Be for us our companion on the way, Our guide at the crossroads, Our breath in our weariness, Our protection in danger, Our shade in the heat, Our light in the darkness, Our consolation in our discouragements, And our strength in our intentions. So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and, enriched with grace and virtue, we return to our home filled with joy. Amen.
CHURCH OPENING TIMES
We’ve now completed our Risk assessments and introduced the Safety measures needed to allow us to open the church for anyone who would like to come in and pray.
We know that some of you will be disappointed that it can’t be open for longer, but protecting the weak and vulnerable is central to our Christian faith, and we want to keep everyone here as safe as possible.
From Sunday 21st June we will be open on:
Sundays, from 9 – 10 am and Wednesdays from 9 – 9.30am.
During these times church is open ONLY for individual prayer
It will not be possible to light candles or to access prayer books or other printed material. You may like to bring (and take away) your own prayer book if that would be helpful.
There will be restricted access, to a number of pews near the front of church.(There will be stewards present to guide you.)
Toilet facilities will not be available.
Normal social distancing and other safety rules apply: in particular, please do not bring any food or drink with you.
Please see the short video, above, for an idea of what you can expect to find when you come into the church.
Address for 14 June 2020
Readings: Exodus 19: 2 – 8 ; Psalm 100: Romans 5: 1 – 8
There’s quite a contrast in today’s readings – between the assurance given by God to the Israelites, in our reading from Exodus, and about God, in the Psalm, and then Paul’s words, in his letter to the Roman Christians.
If you obey my voice – if you really listen to me, and keep my covenant, God assures the Israelites, “you shall be my treasured possession”.
“The Lord is Good”, declares the Psalmist, “his mercy is everlasting”.
But if all that adds up to a divine promise, Paul’s words sound more like a threat!
“We boast in our sufferings, – knowing that suffering produces endurance, and character, and hope.”
If God leads the Israelites to expect ‘special treatment’, then, Paul seems to be advising that suffering is a natural part of the Christian life – something to be expected.
But is it?
Is suffering to be regarded by Christians as natural, or necessary; as something to be welcomed, even, for our greater good?
We can probably all think of someone – that we know, or know about – who has emerged from a period of hardship, with renewed strength and energy and purpose.
At the beginning of lockdown I quoted Terry Waite, Archbishop Runcie’s “special envoy” – who, with his bitter experience of incarceration in Beirut, effectively told us to ‘get a grip’ – not overdo the seriousness of our current inconvenience.
And I’m currently reading his book – Travels with a Primate – which leaves the reader in no doubt that his sense of humour has survived intact.
And so, yes, it seems to be true that suffering can indeed produce endurance and character and hope.
Fundamental to our Christian faith is the suffering and death of Jesus; and his rising to new life.
So we know that good things can come out of even the harshest treatment and deprivation.
And yet, for those who are facing hardship of one kind or another, who are now in the enduring part of the process, there is likely to be little sense of hope or purpose – just the reality of pain or despair – and no real sense of any future perspective.
So I’m not convinced that suffering really IS something to boast about – with quite the enthusiasm that Paul seems to be advocating here.
If, as we profess, God is love – then surely suffering must be seen as a frustration of God’s will, and not something God wishes for us.
Although there may be consequences when we turn away from God, just as there were for the Israelites, his promise is still that he views his people as a “treasured possession”.
He calls us to trust that he holds us – through dark times and rejoicing – and to listen to his voice.
To do justice to Paul, if we had carried on to the very next verse, in Romans, he tells us that because of Christ’s suffering, we are now saved from the wrath of God – Christ suffered, so we don’t have to – a neat reversal of logic!
Perhaps what Paul is really telling us, is that whenever we do face some kind of hardship, we can draw strength from the example of Christ’s suffering and victory over death; we can draw strength from the way other people have overcome even the most formidable challenges; and we can be encouraged when other people’s hardship matches our own (“If they can get though it, so can I”).
I can’t deny that the process he describes – suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope – can work very powerfully – not just for unfortunate souls who themselves endure hardship, but also for those around them, who witness their triumph over adversity.
In the worlds of art and literature, of theatre and dance, it’s sometimes argued that you need a powerful dose of hardship – of real life at its bleakest – before you can really produce your best works, or give a full-blooded performance.
And, perhaps on this Music Sunday, you’ll bear with me as I pay tribute to the composer who I think had the greatest influence on me – as a musician, and also as a young Christian.
Herbert Howells, who lived from 1892 – 1983, was a perfectly adequate teacher, composer and performer of music. He was also a contented family man until, in 1935, tragedy struck.
On a family holiday in rural Devon, his 9 year old son, Michael, contracted polio and, 3 days later, he died. The tune to which we sing the hymn “All my hope on God is founded” was given the name “Michael” in memory of his son.
Without doubt the impact of this loss did indeed transform Howells’ creative powers – from perfectly adequate to something profoundly more individual and compelling.
It would be wrong to suggest that Howells ever really “recovered” from Michael’s death, and his own faith was somewhat ambiguous after that – hardly surprisingly, we might add.
And yet he went on to produce vast amounts of church music that is still sung in cathedrals and churches across the English-speaking world.
And it’s the compelling way he then began to convey, in his music, a sense of yearning for the presence of God – of “pining for beauty” as one of his anthem’s puts it – which captivated MY heart and mind and soul as an impressionable teenager; and led to the fusion of music and spirituality which has carried me ever since.
That feels uncomfortably like “like experience on the cheap” – he suffered, I benefit: pain and loss for him, life-enhancing beauty for me.
Howells certainly endured and grew in stature, but the hope belonged more to others.
I suspect that Howells himself did realise the greater creative energy that he possessed after Michael’s death – but there’s no question that he would have preferred, instead, to see his only son grow up.
And so I can’t accept Paul’s invitation to “boast in suffering” – however much I recognise the strength of human will and the power of God to bring us through.
I can accept that we can learn from suffering – our own and that of others – as with any experience of life. But that doesn’t mean that it’s is something we should seek out, in order to prove ourselves; that doesn’t mean we just accept suffering as inevitable.
Not all suffering is unavoidable: and unnecessary suffering – whether caused by deliberate cruelty, or indifference, or ignorance – is a cause for shame, not boasting.
The recent “black lives matter” protests have highlighted for us the continued hardships caused by inequalities in our global society. And if we are willing to delve further, and closer to home, there are others whose lives are incredibly hard – the key-workers we’ve been so eager to praise during this pandemic, but slow to reward with a decent wage – the victims of the modern “slave trade” who somehow disappear. There is now way that their suffering can be justified or dressed up as something good.
For them, and others, there is natural progression from suffering to endurance to character to hope – it needs other people to give them a cause for hope.
“God proves his love for us”, says Paul, “in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
He calls us to prove our love for him – not by dying, not by choosing to suffer, but by doing all that we can to prevent suffering where we can – and, if when we can’t prevent it, to do whatever we can to support those who are afflicted in some way.
Jesus himself, quoting the prophet Hosea, said “I desire mercy not sacrifice”
To be righteous in his eyes has little to do with some well-meaning martyr complex – a desire to show how holy we are by our hard work, or how much we’ve sacrificed – and more to do with a thankful and loving heart.
We thank you for your love so freely given to us all..
Empowered by your Spirit, may we be united in prayer and worship,
And, in love and service,
reach out as your hands across the world.
In Jesus’ name.