Wait and see!

Sermon preached on 17 November 2019

Readings Isaiah 65: 17-25 & Luke 21: 5 – 19

Part of my Saturday routine involves nursing my brain into consciousness to the strains of Radio 4’s “The Curious cases of Rutherford and Fry” – a 15 minute programme in which Doctors Rutherford and Fry investigate scientific mysteries sent in by listeners.

Yesterday’s offering was a little unusual in that the listener in question was the comedian and presenter Stephen Fry – so it became the curious case of Rutherford, Fry and Fry.

What was troubling him was his own prosopagnosia – or “face blindness”. Like a surprising number of people, it seems, Stephen Fry, has great difficulty remembering people’s faces – and therefore recognising them.
He may well know the names and personalities of the director and every single cameraman while on set – filming some production or other – only to find himself standing in the canteen queue, later, and asking one of those same people what they do for a living. All very embarrassing.
And we heard the case of the sheep farmer, who could identify every single animal in his large flock, but couldn’t recognise the members of his own family. And you can imagine how they felt about that!

Then there was the school girl who relied on another person’s distinctive manner of dress to help her work out who they are – but who found school something of a nightmare, because all the students wore the same uniform! So, no visual clues to rely on.

And what the two radio sleuths discovered is that, although some cases of face blindness are caused by an accident in later childhood or adulthood, in the vast majority of cases it’s a lifelong affliction.

Most babies learn very quickly to recognise a small group of people – just as other species might learn to recognise the distinctive sound of their parents’ cries, so they can identify each other within the group –
And prosopagnosia, “face blindness”, is a failure of that survival mechanism to kick in.

For the majority of us, however, that instinct remains with us – we learn to see the things that are important – not only for our survival but also as part of the human brain’s never – ending search for meaning. We pick out the things that interest us, or reinforce our own way of viewing the world – which others may not.
As Dr Rutherford commented, the stories we hear of someone finding the face of Jesus on a piece of toast, or the image of Mother Teresa in a root vegetable, always feature people who are already inclined towards religious belief – we recognise what we have learned to see.

A different example of the search for meaning popped up, out of the blue, at last Saturday’s concert, here. Afterwards, I was approached by a member of the audience, who regards himself as a classical scholar, and who was puzzled by what is painted up above the choir.
There, below the cross of Jesus, are the two words “Salus mundi”. And while there’s no problem with mundi (world) – he didn’t recognise the word salus.

And while many of us who’ve sung in church choirs will have some across the phrase “Salvator mundi” – O Saviour of the world – this phrase, salus mundi is not so common.

So, I thanked him for my homework and said I’d look it up. And I discovered, among other things, that it is the motto for the state of Missouri, in the USA – where it is translated as “the welfare of the world” and that it appears elsewhere to mean “the salvation of the world”, the “healing of the world”.

Through the Cross of Christ we are meant to recognise the saving power of God – to anchor us in present difficulties and to point us to the new order of things that God is creating for us.

Like the old Sunday School joke, the suggestion painted here is that Jesus really is the answer to every question!
Yet, Jesus himself cautions that the answers we seek may not be that clear cut, and not that easy to recognise.

When he predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple – the disciples want to know when and how this will happen. And at this stage of the Gospel, as tensions rise, there are many others who are asking similar questions – trying to force events into some kind of logical and religious pattern that they already know.
But Jesus simply carries on being himself –
doing exactly what he’s always done –
leaving everyone else to wait and see.

And it’s clear from what follows that, though Jesus may be the answer to our problems, he does not offer his followers immunity from hardship, from confusion, from disagreement – but the assurance that , by faith and faithful perseverance, we will come through and out the other side; seeing more clearly what it was all about.
“By endurance you will gain your souls”, he says.

In similar vein, our reading from Isaiah sets before us a vision of transformation – so powerful that what has been simply ceases to matter – a transformation based on a proper relationship with God; not just of individual souls,
but of the cosmos – all things in balance and true harmony with God’s will.

Again, that relationship depends on our learning to recognise the signs of what God is doing – even in the uncertainties of our own lives, and in the messiness of the world around us.

As we head towards Advent, then, perhaps both these readings encourage us to resist the temptation to try and nail down every detail of our lives – what we will do, when and how we will do it – and instead to try to attune ourselves to recognise the signs God gives us:
to see the face of Christ, perhaps not on a piece of toast, but in the face of other people;
in the things that they do;
in the richness of life itself.
And from there to respond and be transformed ourselves by what we see.
Two weeks ago, at All Saints – we ended our Eucharist with a sea of candles – each saint bearing their own light as a reminder that each of us has within us a smaller reflection of God’s own light – which is there not only to guide ourselves, but one another.
Sometimes we may struggle to see that in another person – as if peering at it through fog, as we really don’t get where they’re coming from; or we may experience someone else’s holiness as a rather severe and harsh spotlight on our own inadequacies and failings, leaving us feeling awkward and ashamed; and sometimes we may experience that same light as the gentle, comforting glow of a fellow pilgrim walking the same path with us.

Advent, I think, should bring all of those things – the path ahead being neither too safe nor predictable, and yet surrounded by signs of hope.
Somehow we need to remain alert and yet patient – drawn on by the vision Christ sets before us, but not so anxious to get there that we miss the vital signposts along the way.
Jesus bids his friends “wait and see” – for us, then, Advent is a time to make sure that we do learn to see, and not just wait.

Doth the lady protest too much?

Sermon given on 20th October 2019

Readings: Genesis 32: 22 – 31   Luke 18: 1 – 8

Yesterday, with the eyes of the world upon us, a decisive victory was won: a victory which will restore our credibility on the international stage; a victory which will have an important bearing on our future standing among our neighbours; a victory which was clearly right and proper.

I am, of course, referring to England’s triumph against the Aussies in the Rugby world cup – a welcome distraction from anything else that may have been going on back home!
And if “perseverance” was a hallmark of that particular match – and of certain individual players within it – it’s also an underlying theme in the various readings set for today.

Firstly, there’s Jacob – who struggles all night against the unknown challenger, whom he then understands to be God himself. In doing so he wins the stranger’s blessing – achieving through sheer determination and perseverance what he had previously tried to win by deceit:
you’ll remember that he had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright by deceiving their blind father, Isaac into giving him his blessing instead. And he’s only alone at the beginning of this struggle because he’s sent the company ahead to try and appease Esau before the brothers meet. And so he has to earn his redemption by his own perseverance.
And then Luke gives us the parable of the judge and the persistent widow. The judge in question is not exactly diligent – he’s not much bothered with the woman’s concerns, but he is evidently unsettled by here, to say the least. She’s keeps pestering him: one translation has him saying “I will grant her justice, otherwise she will keep coming at me” and, in Nicholas King’s typically blunt translation, “if I don’t grant her justice, she will give me a black eye”!

Whatever the cause of her grievance and the strength of her case, clearly this poor widow is not going to give up.

And I want to just step away from the story for moment – to run a bit further with the notion of perseverance – which, in other people, can be both admirable and severely irritating.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta – whose anniversary of beatification was also celebrated yesterday – once famously caused mayhem in a Lindon Marks and Spencer’s food hall.
Having filled a trolley to the brim, and having allowed the cashier to process all those items, she then simply stood and repeated, loudly that the food was for the poor. Eventually the harassed woman on the till called her manager and the harassed manager agreed to donate the goods that this persistent nun had selected. Good news indeed for the poor – perhaps not so much fun for the staff involved – and no doubt absolutely infuriating for the people in the queue behind her!

And that brings into focus the twin questions of “motivation” and “method” – something very much in public debate around some of the protests taking place just now.

Archbishop Justin gave an interesting perspective to all this during a radio interview this week: speaking in the context of the Extinction Rebellion protests affecting the capital, he said that as a Christian, he believed passionately in the right to freedom of expression and freedom of belief – but that part of that Christian belief is that we need to show proper respect for the dignity of all people and proper respect for all of God’s creation.

As a result he was clearly in favour of the right to demonstrate – he was clearly in sympathy with the aims – the motivation – of the climate protesters.
On the other hand, preventing people getting to work, making them late to collect children from nursery, preventing patients getting to hospital for crucial appointments and so on – that was a failure to respect the dignity of fellow human beings, so while he could applaud the protesters’ motives he could not approve of their methods.

And he went on to apply exactly the same principle to other running sores in our society – the protests that are still taking place outside some schools in Birmingham, relating to the content of certain lessons;
demonstrations taking place outside, or near to abortion clinics;
personal attacks on members of parliament and public officials.

Standing up for our deeply held convictions – and “persevering” when challenged may well be admirable, but protestors must always consider the effect any demonstration or “direct action” will have on other people – children and vulnerable adults included.

There is a balance to be struck then between freedom of speech and respect for others’ dignity. That balance, the Archbishop suggested, has currently been lost – and on that point at least I am in full agreement with him!
Coming back to Jesus’ parable – and, again, the questions of motivation and method are important.

In this story, it seems, we are not meant simply to identify ourselves, or the disciples, with the persistent widow and the judge with God. This judge is NOT worthy of the title, let alone comparison with God: he is not really interested in justice at all, just in a quiet life.

Yes, he does the right think in the end, but only to avoid the black eye! In this case the method has a good effect – acquiring justice and making the judge do his job – if only this once.

But it’s that final verse – which doesn’t initially seem to follow – that is perhaps the key to what’s going on in this story.
“And yet”, asks Jesus, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Suddenly we seem to have lurched from semi-humorous admiration of the power of the “battleaxe” to stern questioning about the second coming of Christ.
Where did that come from?

Perhaps Jesus is asking his disciples what they are going to do with the faith that apparently now motivates them:
will they end up like the lazy judge – doing the right things only when they are called to account, remembering Jesus’ teachings only when challenged to do so – OR, will they be like the persistent widow, passionately concerned for justice to prevail, deeply committed to proper respect for the dignity of all God’s people and all God’s creation?

That I think is the challenge Jesus is issuing to his hearers.

And so to us, and how we can best live out our faith – how do we stand up for what we believe in, how do we remain faithful to our Christian calling, without unduly alarming or inconveniencing anyone else?

Two thoughts.
There is a real strength in lives marked by quiet, faithful, perseverance that can be every bit as compelling as noisy demonstrations and public grandstanding.
And if we can allow ourselves to be guided always by the
the genuine desire for justice and respect for all life – then surely we can trust that we are on the side of the angels.

Out of this world?

Address given at Bishop Wordsworth’s Grammar School – 18 October 2019

Reading – Psalm 8

For the last two weeks I’ve been living and trying to work surrounded by the mess and the noise caused by two electricians – replacing all wiring in our house.
And I would not recommend that experience to anyone!

And so, in the middle of last week, when I had a day off work, I took myself off to the Odeon – largely to get out of the house for a few hours, but also to see if it might give me some ideas for what to you all this morning.
There was a not massive choice of films, midweek, and I ended up going to see “Ad Astra” – a vaguely futuristic film – for which the reviews were mixed: somebody had posted “I still can’t decide whether or not I liked this film” – so my expectations weren’t that high.

Actually, I thought it was fine – and it DID give me something to think about. And just in case any of you might be thinking about going to see – I promise you there will be no “spoilers” this morning – because the line that caught my attention wasn’t even spoken by an actor it was written on the opening frame before the story line even began. “The near future”, it read, “a place of hope and conflict”
Now bear in mind that this was just about the beginning of the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, and that Greta Thunberg had just been giving the UN Leaders a hard time over Climate change.
And bear in mind the fact that today’s assembly comes just as the latest “crunchpoint” in Brexit talks comes into focus – and I thought the twin-themes of “hope and conflict” might be on our minds!

For some people it IS a sign of hope that people are making a stand and bringing climate change to public attention through direct action – and some of those members of the public are thoroughly fed up with the disruption to their daily lives, as we saw yesterday, and THEY are ready to protest about the protesters – there is conflict.

For some people, Brexit offers the hope of a new dawn in our nation’s life – new opportunities for trade – new freedom from the influence of other countries. For some people that same prospect – of life outside the EU – represents a worrying loss of security – financial loss – even loss of influence IN those other countries. And again, the result is conflict – reflecting different visions of the future..
Back to my lonely popcorn fest at the Odeon – and the basic idea of the film was that, when we find ourselves in these messy conflict situations, our natural response is to look “to the stars” (ad astra) – to look for someone or something beyond us to come and sort it out for us.

In the world of politics, we’re told, we live in a new age of strongmen – Putin, Trump and Boris. People seem to want strong leaders who don’t care what other people think of them and will push their own solution forward. And it does seem that, when all is chaos around us, a lot of people will follow leaders like this – no matter what they come out with – simply because they seem “strong”.

That’s not necessarily a good thing!
And I’m not getting into politics here (I know that at least some Y9s can have strong opinions on such things!) – but there is a danger that people with very clear ideas and a strong sense of their own correctness MAY actually not have noticed much outside their own little world of experience – and may not really understand the bigger picture, or the effect their words and actions have on other people, in other parts of the world.

And the basic point of ad astra is that the solution to our own problems – the solution to our worlds problems – is NOT somewhere out there; is not someone out there, but starts with ourselves. Every country, every organisation is made up of individuals – every conflict boils down to individual convictions and individual choices. And the resolution of those conflicts can only come when we learn to trust our own instincts AND to recognise that not everybody sees the world in the same way that we do.

The picture that’s been staring out at you while I’ve been speaking is one of those that prompts a different response from different people.

It is just a collection of stars and planets and space clutter – that we can all see. But some people also see different images within it – the most obvious being a large face.
What you see depends on how your brain works – or possibly on how awake you are after all these words!

Just as in the real world – some people will look out at the universe and see only random events – random things that exist purely by chance; some people will look out at the same things, and recognise patterns and universal laws and a beautiful logic to everything – and some people will see the imprint of God behind all that.
Same world – same universe – same cosmos – different reactions from different people.

And that only becomes a problem – only causes conflict – when we fail to recognise, or respect, those other insights – when we other people’s views as a threat to our own.

There is no magic solution out there – there is a wonderfully chaotic mix of different ideas and experiences around us, that can produce hope just as easily as conflict – that can make our own world that much bigger and more awe-inspiring.

From the Christian tradition that I choose to belong to there is a mantra that says:
“Look up – look out – look within.”
Look up and see the stars and the vastness of the universe, look up at the mountains and the amazingly complex life-systems of our own world;
look around you and listen to what other people are noticing – to what other people are going through in their life;
and notice your own feelings, your own ideas, the things you’re not sure about: what is going on in your head and your heart?
Then piece it all together and see what you get.
The basic instruction in all that is – keep “looking”.

Don’t just accept what you’ve been told is true;
don’t believe every single news feed or post that pops up on your phone;
don’t assume that presidents or prime-ministers or anyone else necessarily see things better than you do;
don’t just listen to the people who agree with you.

Keep searching for truth, when what you see and hear is confusing; keep searching for answers to the problems you recognise; keep searching for the things that you can do to help turn conflict into hope.

Dedication Festival 2019

Sermon preached on 6th October 2019                                                                                    (Readings: 1 Chronicles 29: 6-19 & John 2: 13-22)

I haven’t had chance this year to make my customary trawl through the Visitors book to see people have made of this place – but I did have a quick glance at Tripadvisor to see if there were any notable comments online. And I’m just going to read just two of them – that caught my eye mainly because they were totally misplaced!

The first spoke in glowing terms about this “unusually grand parish church”. Which is not unreasonable, except that it had been posted on the site for Old St Mary’s – which may well have been very beautiful, once upon a time, but even then was hardly exceptional!

But then on the site for this church came the only post with a negative rating, which said,
“Pretty much a waste of time. You don’t get anywhere near it and the tours cost a fortune. If the weather is bad you will know a new level of suffering.”

Well I was pretty dumbfounded by that – you can get pretty close to most things here, our church guides (as far as I know!) do not pass the hat round for a tip, and the weather is hardly more of an issue in here than it is anywhere else.
And then {our Parish Secretary} Christine Matthews said – do you think they’d been to Stonehenge? And then all became clear – this post is also in the wrong place, but ruining our ratings!!

By any measure we do have a remarkable Parish Church here – pretty unique even today – even moreso back in 1845. There are many precious artefacts and works of art in this building – which is why last year we were designated as a Major Parish Church, alongside the likes of Bath Abbey, Wimborne Minster and Christchurch Priory. Compared to them, we are really quite small and modern – but significant nevertheless.

As always, at Dedication, I’d like to go back to basics and consider why this is all here: what possessed Sydney Herbert and Countess Ekaterina to spend such huge sums of money on creating this building?

I’d like to think that the answer lies partly in David’s description of the Jerusalem Temple: for David the opulence of God’s house is seen as a reflection of God’s own generosity, and it is built in order to inspire others to give freely in return.
And those sentiments are echoed here,
not only in the external inscription, on the Cloister, which describes this place as “The Lord’s Temple”, but also the less than subtle inscription on the gallery – taken form the reading we heard – “All things come from you O Lord, and of your own do we give you”.

If we stick with our Scripture readings for a moment, we also have to square what is here with Jesus’ own reaction to the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He was not amused to find money changers in his Father’s house – clearly they offended his sense of that building’s true purpose.

It’s worth reflecting perhaps, that the problem is not money itself: I really don’t think we need to worry too much about our postcards and tea towels.
What annoys Jesus is that the Temple authorities have made it impossible to enter the House of Prayer without first buying the live offerings necessary for ritual sacrifice.
In 1st Century Jerusalem – you simply had to pay to pray.
That’s what incensed Jesus.

And, Jesus also distinguished between the literal, stone Temple and the living temple of his own body – and, by extension, the metaphorical “body of Christ”, the Church.
And so we’re reminded that, however grand our places of worship may be, they are only ever temporary “visual aids”, pointing us to the greater and eternal glory of God.

It’s worth remembering too that this church has not stood unchanged since 1845: the central mosaics that dominate the Altar now, were only added in the 1920s. Like the Holy od holies in Solomon’s temple, which was covered I gold, the apse is meant to speak to us of the beauty of heaven – possibly something which this community needed in the years following the First World War.

And in less dramatic ways, this building has evolved in ways that were intended to make it more comfortable – heating, lighting sound systems and a toilet.
None of them of great theological significance – but important in making it easier for some of the people of God to come and worship here.

As you know, this time next year we will reach our church’s 175th anniversary of dedication – and we intend to use that occasion to launch an appeal to help us equip the building for our work now, and for future generations.
And that’s providing one of the biggest challenges that our PCC has faced for some time: what is realistic target and scope for our ambitions?
What should our priorities be if we can’t do everything we’d like to? And I would urge you to pray – whether or not you are a member of PCC – that we get those decisions right.

We’re told that there’s not much point spending large amounts of money of conserving our precious artefacts unless and until we’ve replaced our current heating system. And that presents another set of challenges – how much can we realistically expect to spend on a heating system; what would actually keep us warm as well as preserving the building; and can we do anything to reduce our impact on the environment?
And that’s before we even get onto the question of facilities – whether or not we are equipped to cope with increased numbers of visitors, or the varying needs of those who come here for services or other public events.
Behind all those aspirations and decisions lies a dilemma which many churches have faced – whether it’s better to invest in “mission” (to spend money in order to make new things possible and so to connect with more and more people) OR whether to invest time and energy in more focussed “mission activities”, in order to bring in more people who we then hope will bring the money with them.

In truth, I think we probably need a bit of both – to use what we have been given wisely, and con fidently, so that new live may flourish here; and, at the same time, to be smarter and more persistent in inviting people to come and see what is already here – within this stone temple and among this living temple that we form together.

However we decide to do that, I hope that we can focus our efforts NOT simply on maintaining the building, or on restoring it to what it was – the whole project could then become simply a millstone and a barrier to growth. Instead I hope we can be inspired by what is here, by each other, and by God, to find a clear vision of what we need this building to do for us now, and of what it can be with, a little imagination and, perhaps, a hefty dose of determination.
Such a vision, I suggest, will be centred on Christ’s own vision of the Temple as a house of prayer.
I remember clearly the first time I came into this building through the Cloister door – to be met yet another text, painted above the arch – the text which would have greeted our patrons as they entered through that same entrance:
“My house shall be a house of prayer for all the people”.

If that was Christ’s understanding of the Temple, and if that was Sydney and Catherine’s ambition for this place, then we’re in good company if we make it ours too!

Whatever we aim for, and whatever we ultimately manage to achieve, let us hope and pray that we can do our bit to make this truly a place where many different people can come, and marvel at what is here and,
whether they worship among us or not,
to make sense of the Divine presence in their own time
and in their own way.

May this building be always a house of prayer for all people, and may God raise us up as living temples to his glory. Amen.

“Like tears in rain”

Sermon preached 24th February 2019
Back in 1982, the film producer Ridley Scott gave us the science fiction film “Blade Runner” –
which predicts life in 2019.

And, as is always the case, some of those predictions proved more accurate than others.
At the time we were pretty amazed by the idea of computers that you could just talk to and they would instantly work things out for you – today “Alexa” always seems to have an answer for everything.

On the other hand, there is no sign yet of the flying cars which captivated some of us at the time.

There ARE signs that we have messed up the earth’s weather patterns, as the film predicted.

The assumption made that we would all be chain-smoking cigarettes, however, has proved as wide of the mark as the predicted fashion in clothes.

Central to the film’s plot are a number of “Replicants” – highly sophisticated robots or androids which are made to mirror human behaviour very precisely and marketed with the slogan “more human than humans”. In the “real” 2019, that’s something we don’t have, yet, but which are perhaps not so very far away.

Advances in Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) coupled with research aimed at developing robots with more human, physical, traits have led to the anticipation of precisely this kind of “non-human being” not only in more recent films but in the real worlds of science and commerce.

Back to the fictional world of Blade Runner and, as so often when art imitates life, the story-line suggests a deeper reality about our human nature. And that is the ability to “reflect” – to look back over our lives and consider: could we have done things better, is this the way we are meant to live, is there more to life than this?

As far as we know, we are the only species that has this faculty – the others being more concerned with survival and the challenges of the present moment – and, in some ways, it’s a mixed blessing.
The fictional Replicants of Blade Runner, being “more human than humans” also have this ability. And being also more intelligent than humans – are rather better at it.

They also have only a very limited life-span – being designed to function for just 4 years – and so it is that one of them, named Roy Batty, delivers a rather poignant monologue as he senses that his time is drawing to a close: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”, he begins, offering a couple of examples,
and then concludes that “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”.

At that point I have to remind myself that this is just a line from a science fiction movie. Those of us who necessarily find ourselves reflecting on life, death and the meaning of both, will recognise that sense that –
no matter how powerful or challenging our own experiences may seem to us, there WILL come a point when they are “lost in time” – when we and those who knew us are gone – and all that we have seen and felt will simply be absorbed into the vast ocean of human history – “like tears (lost) in the rain”
But then, not all lives are forgotten.
Some people go on to far greater significance after death than ever they achieved in their own lifetime.

That’s certainly true of the composer J.S Bach.
And it’s also true, I think, of the poet/priest George Herbert, whose commemoration falls later this week.

Having achieved some prominence as public orator at Cambridge and as a Member of Parliament, he then came here as Rector of St Peter’s Church and of St Andrew’s at Bemerton and died in relative obscurity. And yet, more than three and a half centuries later, he’s considered one of the giants of English Literature, a celebrated hymn-writer and his writings on pastoral care were still referred to in training clergy well into the 20th Century.

So why should his words and deeds live on in a way which is not true for most people? Why are his tears still visible in the rain?

One thing is certain, it wasn’t due to the length of his life: he ministered here for just 3 years, dying at the age of 40.
And so perhaps it’s more to do with the quality of his life – the way that he lived – which has secured his place among the notables of human history.

Like the best film-makers, and artists of every kind, Herbert took careful note of what life was really like for those around him – the good, the bad and the mundane.

His book “The Country Parson”, records some of the challenges he faced in church – from persuading parishioners not to talk or sleep during services to rebuking the gentry who purposely arrived late for services, so as to avoid their poorer neighbours.

Herbert did not simply pretend that all was well – either in church or in the backbreaking toil of rural life at the time: His hymn “Teach me, my God and king” serves as one example of his attempts to give meaning and purpose to those experiences of daily life.

Herbert was clearly not so caught up with the visions of heavenly glory that he was obsessed with the life to come after this one, or that he saw faith as some escape from it. He used his learning and his Christian faith to engage with that reality and to improve things where he could.
Yes, of course, he must have had some sense or vision of how things could be – and a conviction of how things should be – but underpinning that was a willingness to start with and appreciate what was already there.
Bizarrely then, I’m left wondering if the legacy of George Herbert might be an encouragement to be “less humanoid than the humanoids” (thinking back to Blade Runner’s “Replicants”) and to become more like the rest of the animal kingdom! By which I mean that we should try to live more fully in the present moment – neither allowing ourselves to be hamstrung by disturbing experiences in the past or by anxiety about the future.

Instead, we might allow that animal instinct for survival – to help recognise the things which threaten our well-being and the sustainability of the planet – whether those threats come from other people or from our own patterns of behaviour – and then to act on that instinct to drive us to change the behaviour that threatens us,
and also to sense when we might be interfering in someone else’s territory, and leave well alone.
If our human capacity for reflection can then help us to accept that we will never see all that there is to see in this life; that the world will never be exactly the place that we might wish it to be, and that there will always be others who see things differently, then perhaps we can learn to appreciate all that is around us, and live with gratitude for the good that is already there, and neither regret nor fear what might have been or what might yet be.

To live fully is to live each moment in thankfulness to the God who sees each raindrop – not just the rainstorm – who knows and accepts each one of us more fully than we do ourselves, and to whom we will always be significant and precious, throughout this life and beyond.

May God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

We will remember….

Address given on 11th November 2018 – the Centenary of the Armistice

I’ve been surprised, over the past few weeks, at the number of messages that have “pinged” onto my phone and across my computer screen – all headed up with just three, short, words.
Sadly, those three words have NOT been “I love you” – which might have been rather nice! What I’ve been seeing are the familiar, and starker, ones which appear at the bottom of the children’s banner: “Lest we forget”.

Of course it isn’t surprising that that motto is popping up around us at this time of year – it would be strange if it didn’t. What surprised were is the images that have appeared with it.
More often than not, it seems, those images are of veterans – of soldiers who are alive – who fought in wars and survived.

And there is certainly nothing wrong with that – it’s just that, when I was at Primary School, and we learned about the poppy and what it stood for, we were taught very clearly that they were to remember the people who had died in the world wars.
And that was it – that’s what poppies are for – that’s who we mustn’t ever forget.

That was, of course, before the Falklands war and more recent conflicts involving British Forces and which have changed our perception even of what it means to remember the fallen.

But still I have that strong sense, instilled in me as a child, that Remembrance is about the dead.
Now, after seeing “lest we forget” in all those messages with veterans in them, I realise I might need to think again.

We shouldn’t forget those who fought in and survived any conflict. Even if they were physically unharmed – they still faced the same traumas and the horror of war, and many faced the very real possibility of death, day by day.

And shouldn’t we also remember those who serve in our armed forces today?
They live with the possibility that they may yet face the grim reality of war: even if the technology and means of fighting have changed somewhat, human fear and bravery have not.

Today I want to push our Remembrance even further.

The more observant among you may have noticed that our first reading was given by a 13 year old boy wearing medals from the First World War – so, clearly not his!

Those medals belonged to Henry’s Great-Great-Uncle, Captain Gilbert Norris, of the 13th Battalion King’s Regiment Rifle Corps – who was killed in action just months before the armistice in March 1918, at the age of 31.
Perhaps, then, we also ought to remember that – even a century after the Great War – there are still families who are affected by it, and by every conflict since. Those families are incomplete – not only because of the lives that were lost, but also the lives which might have been – those who may have been born if circumstances had been different.

The make-up those families,
the make-up of their communities,
the make-up of our society is different than it would have been without war – different than it should have been.

And so I think that it is right to remember – the fallen, and their comrades and successors, and also their loved ones and neighbours – lest we forget the full cost of war.

The author of Ecclesiastes – from which that first reading was taken – speaks of “a time for war, and a time for peace”.
And within that one phrase, is contained the twin-reality – that war IS sometimes necessary if we are going to prevent an even greater evil from succeeding and overpowering us, even if we recognise that war is never “a good thing” – that there are never really any winners.
And, secondly, that peace is to be prized – to be protected and not simply taken for granted – that peace demands just as much effort and self-sacrifice as war.

Today, thank God, our young people are not being slaughtered on the battle fields of France – but we do hear far too many reports of random acts of violence on our streets.
Today our old people no longer live in fear of the air raid siren – but many do live in fear and in isolation.
Today there is no single aggressor seeking to destroy our nation, but there are worrying signs of extreme nationalism and other forms of extremism in many nations.

Is this the “land fit for heroes” which was promised after the Great War?
Is the world of today a fitting legacy to all those who fought and died in two world wars?

Unless and until we can answer “yes” to both of those questions, then we must keep on remembering and working to establish the peace for which so many have fought and died.
To borrow the language of Ecclesiastes:
Now is a time to heal divisions;
now is a time to build up society;
now is a time to speak up for what is right.

Peace doesn’t just happen by accident;
communities and nations don’t flourish by accident.

If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past,
then young and old must work together
to grasp the reality of the world we live in today – undistorted by either the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia or the carefully filtered news-feeds of social media;
and young and old must work together to shape a more just and stable society – both here and elsewhere:
lest we forget the experiences of our ancestors and sacrifice our future on the altar of human selfishness and pride.

Truth is complex;
human society is complex;
peace is complex;
but all three are worth fighting for – one way or another.

A man’s world?

Sermon preached 21 October 2018

Amongst the burning issues of the day, it was reported this week that, after 60 years, Kleenex is changing the name of their “Man-size tissues” to avoid the charge of sexism. How many women will want to be associated with the new term “extra, extra-large”, I’m not sure, however.

It’s funny how certain names or descriptions do rankle with some people, however. I can remember hearing a different objection to the term “man-size” when I was at school. “Surely”, someone said, “a “man-size” tissue should be the same size as a man!”

Words are funny things – and once you’ve got a certain image or interpretation stuck in your mind – it stays lodges there – for good or ill!

Kleenex is only one of a number of advertisers who’ve opted to “mind their language” in this way: most of us will remember the launch of the Yorkie chocolate bar – a chunkier alternative to the Dairy Milk bar than that ruled supreme until then. Yorkie came with the strap-line“not for girls”.
That strap-line disappeared a long time ago – but I wonder, in retrospect, if it wasn’t actually very clever bit of reverse psychology: telling chocolate-loving women that it wasn’t for them – they couldn’t have it – probably resulted in increased sales as many went out and bought the bar out of sheer spite!

Another related piece of earth-shattering news this week was that strongman actor Daniel Craig – who plays 007, James Bond – had been seen abut town wearing a papoose – a soft pouch – in which he carried his baby daughter. This was deemed inappropriate by commentator Piers Morgan – but quite who asked his opinion was less clear! And soon there was a back-lash from young fathers posting online images of themselves carrying their children and comments criticising Morgan’s own attitude to male roles and role models.

The question of what is and is not appropriate for men or women is, of course, one that has vexed the Church at various stages in its development.

In the 1980s and 90s, when Yorkie bars were still advertised by chunky male truck drivers with the strap-line not for girls, some in the church felt similarly excluded by the phrase “equal but different” – which was bandied around with some frequency by those arguing against the ordination of women as priests.

On the one hand it was pretty innocuous – reflecting the statement in Genesis that God created all humankind – male and female – in God’s own image.

The problem was that, like most sentences with the word “but” in the middle of it, it’s the second half that really mattered – “different”. And so the implication was that, while it was rather nice that so many women were feeling called by God to serve the church – there are certain things that just “aren’t for girls”.

Quite rightly the question has continued to be asked as to who defines such roles – are there differences implanted by God – or just role-descriptions defined by a man-made institution?
25 years on, I wonder how we react to the statement that women and men are “equal but different”.
Behind much of the discussion and rebranding exercises of recent decades has been an issue of power – or the perception of power.

The question of whether men and women have equal access to certain professions, whether they can ever achieve the same levels of influence or receive the same reward for their labours has been picked over in the public arena – not least because TV and Radio presenters were among those professions where the “equal” part of the equation was seen to be somewhat lacking!

And the presumption that certain roles are only for men or only for women has been increasingly challenged of late – when it appears that one group is actually trying to keep hold of their own power and influence at the expense of the other. “Oh, it’s not really suitable for you, Dear” really meaning “I want to keep this job for myself, thanks.”
The issue of power is there, I think, in today’s readings: the writer of the letter to the Hebrews recognises some mortals as being called out by God to exercise a specific role – ultimately leading to Christ’s extra- extra-special status.
And Mark’s Gospel illustrates the tension between the disciples: James and John clearly recognise Jesus’ own importance and want to be there alongside him in glory. The others react angrily, perhaps seeing in this a “power-grab” – these two seeking to make themselves important, basking in the reflected glory of the leader.

In both cases, the ground-rules are rewritten, however: In Hebrews, Jesus the high priest “learns obedience”.
In the Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that to follow his example means a life of service and sacrifice, not glory and power. Whether or not James and John, or the other grumbling 10 really understood that point, is not clear.

Switch back to our own times, and increasing calls for strong leadership – in both Church and political life – and we have cause to wary: the “strong man” is definitely on the rise just now – Putin and Trump being only the 2 noisiest examples. And there are plenty who would cling to their coat-tails, basking in perceived glory rather than questioning their leadership, or speaking up for those who become increasingly power-less.

Again, the leadership exemplified by Christ the High priest – Christ the anointed one – is rather different.

Christ “the source of eternal salvation for those who obey him” will always be there, bridging the gap between God and humanity – ensuring that all have access to the true source of power and life, God’s own self.

The strength of any community, any society, any Christian denomination – depends not on the robustness of its leaders, but on the ability of all its members to work together for the greater good.

Whatever power structures are in operation – every organisation depends almost entirely on the army of people who quietly get on with keeping things running – some up front, some behind the scenes. And, if anything, that’s even more true for the Church than any other.

I really don’t think most people in England could care less who is the Archbishop of Canterbury, or whether he or she is a “strong leader” – but they DO notice when local congregations take an interest in their community and when those congregations are seen to be truly open and inclusive communities of love.
Perhaps the message that we ought to proclaim today, then, is not that men and women are “equal but different” but that all of us – irrespective of gender – are “different but equal”.

We are each unique – with difference far more complex than just male or female – each seeking to respond to God’s individual call to us.
We are all equal in God’s service –
all equally loved by God.

The power to save ourselves,
the power to save humanity from its own weaknesses,
is not man-sized at all, but God-sized!