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.

All Saints’ Sunday

Sunday 3rd November

Choral Eucharist of All Saints

Sung by “Laudamus” – directed by Andrew Hanley

Mass Setting: Ireland in C

Motet: Vittoria – O Quam Gloriosum

Celebrant and Preacher: Revd. Dr. Stella Wood

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.