In memoriam

When I arrived at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield to begin my training for the priesthood there were various bits of induction that we had to undergo. As far as I remember, we seemed to spend a lot of time learning how to serve at the various services – that was very important because every one was very particular that things were done correctly. We also learnt to sing plainsong. That meant a rehearsal on regular occasions at first and then once a week going though all the chants and antiphons for the forthcoming days. We learnt about what living the ‘Common Life’ meant, how we were to live considerately with one another. We were given our various roles and responsibilities in the College. You aspired to be one of the College Officers but began as one of the many gardeners or with various cleaning responsibilities – I had a number of loos to look after at first. It was a lot to take in before you began studying the things that you needed to study!

But one of the other things that happened is that you were assigned to one of the priests, usually one of the brethren of the Community of the Resurrection, who would then be your Spiritual Director and Confessor. It was expected that you would make your confession and that you would meet regularly with your Director. It wasn’t just that both of these roles were something that was important in developing in the spiritual life and building resilience for priestly ministry, it was also because there was a lot that was happening to you as you began to go deeper into God.

I was thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One was because we were reading the other day Psalm 42 in which verse 9 says

‘Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls.’

And the other reason was that the priest to whom I was assigned died a few days ago.

I was told to meet Fr Simon Holden who would look after me. I continued to meet with him until he moved from the Mother House and I, still being in the area, needed to change to someone who was still at Mirfield. But going along to see Simon over the years was a real joy and an inspiration and, looking back, helped form so much of what has subsequently been important to me.

A rather traditional view of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

One of the things that Simon said over and over again was that God loved me. He must have seen in me something that really needed to hear that simple truth, that God loved me for who I was and who I am. It was his gospel for me, his good news for me. And it was good news. And being ordained and then going into parishes and the Cathedral and other areas of ministry it is something that I have discovered lots of people need to know, lots of people who have gone to church for a long time as well as those who have recently arrived in the community of faith. It was a going deeper into the reality of God who is love. But then, as now, so much of how we hear faith interpreted was condemning. This was affirming, and in its own way challenging. As I was understanding myself and who I was as a child of God, Simon was telling me what God told Peter on the roof of the house of Simon the Tanner in Jaffa

‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 9.15)

It is too easy for us to hate what God has created as good, to call profane what God has made clean. But Simon would not allow that and his repeating time after time of this simple truth that ‘God loves you’ changed my view of God and changed my view of myself. It was a lesson I would never forget and as I look back at the sermons I have preached from being a curate onwards, Simon’s message to me is there beneath it all.

So I thank God for Simon for that profound and life changing truth and I thank God for something else as well. As the church thinks about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Seal of the Confessional and safeguarding, something I have spent a great deal of time thinking about in the last few years as a member of the Church of England’s working party on the subject, I give thanks that it was Simon who taught me how to hear confessions as I was making my confession.

I still use a handwritten card as a prompt for the words that I have to say. I wrote it all out as I was preparing the leave the College. I remember asking Simon if he could dictate the words to me as I wrote them down. At that stage there were no ‘official’ texts available in the CofE so we learnt from our spiritual teachers. There was a particular prayer that Simon always said after the absolution, the traditional words ‘I absolve you’, ‘ego te absolvo’. He would pray

The passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of Our Lady and all the saints, whatever good you have done or evil you have suffered be to you for the remission of sin, the increase of grace and the reward of everlasting life.

Those who have made their confession to me and received absolution will have heard those same words, they were handed to me as gift and I happily hand them on. They thrilled my heart then, they thrill it now.

Our teachers always give us gifts, but not just to keep to ourself. Thank you Fr Simon for these gifts, to know the love of God and to know that all is grace, even the good I have done and the evil I have suffered, all is caught up in the loving purposes of God as I now pray that you are caught in the everlasting arms of the one you taught me is love.

Simon, may you rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

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Preach

One of the things you can normally expect from a visit to church is that at some stage you will have to listen to a sermon.  You can call it what you will – homily, talk, reflection – it will be a sermon, basically.  Getting ready to preach is one of the major activities of the week, reading the readings, thinking about it, perhaps doing some study around the texts, sitting down in a dark room with a cold flannel on your head and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  So it was wonderful when, last week, I was invited along to address a Seminar Supper for some of the members of Sion College which was being held in the gilded splendour of the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall.

For the uninitiated Sion College is a kind of ‘Livery Company’ for clergy, it used to run a wonderful theological library on the Embankment close to Blackfriars Bridge (you can still see the wonderful Victorian Neo-Gothic building which was the home of the College) but the books are now part of both Lambeth Palace and King’s College libraries. So instead the College does a lot to entertain, support and increase the well-being of clergy. Which of those three things I was supposed to be helping with I don’t know.  But I was asked to speak about ‘Preaching through Lent’.

As Paul writes to Timothy

‘Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season.’ (2 Timothy 4.2)

So I suppose this was about preparing ‘out of season’ for ‘in season’! I interpreted the subject quite broadly so what they got was quite a few of my thoughts about preaching, as well as preaching in Lent.  So if you are interested, read on.

Preacher

A Staffordshire pottery image of the pulpit


Goodness! The audacity that I must have to stand here and speak to you all about preaching.  We’re all preachers and we all live with that pressure that is on us to somehow come up with the goods week after week, festival after festival, season after season, year after year.  Every week as I look in my diary and see that I’m preaching at this or that service I always fear that this will be the week when I get the preacher’s equivalent of writers’ block, that some how I won’t be able to preach, that I’ll have nothing to say.  But some how – and it must be simply the grace of God – I always end up with a text in my hand with which to climb into the pulpit or stand at the lectern.

I want to say first of all that I love preaching – I really do.  And I think that above anything else that shows.  I hope that I never look as though I don’t want to be in the pulpit.  I take seriously what George Herbert says in his book ‘The Country Parson’

‘The Country Parson preacheth constantly, the pulpit is his joy and his throne.’

But then I love being a priest.  My colleagues know that I will leap at the chance to say Mass or do something and am never really reluctant to take on a chance to preach – whatever the occasion.  I was a shy little boy but I was also a bit of a show-off – some analyst amongst you can tell me how that can be – and I have an overriding sin in that I like to be liked.  All of that added together means that I adore ascending those steps and the pulpit lights coming on.  This is my moment, my west end moment, my Mr DeMille moment, lights camera action.  And preaching has to be a performance, it has to be, it is a performance art, like it or not.

Just think about your context for the moment.  10, 40, 50, 80, 100, 200, 500 people have turned up for a service and they are basically going to shut up and watch and listen to you.  In the main they won’t be on their phones, they won’t be whispering to their neighbour, they’re relatively eager and expectant, they want to hear something that’s worth hearing and they want to be able to take something away with them from the service.  That’s a huge amount of expectation to live up to and none of us can achieve it in 10-15 minutes which I suppose is what we give ourselves as a time slot.

Louisa May Alcott, of ‘Little Women’ fame, wrote

“I don’t want a religion that I put away with my Sunday clothes, and don’t take out till the day comes around again; I want something to see and feel and live day by day.”

The sermon has to be part of that week long sustaining just as the sacrament that the people of God receive is.  My favourite passage in the Gospels and my model for everything that I do in the Eucharist is the account of the journey on the Emmaus Road.  I know I’m meant to be talking about Lent and this is an Easter story but it is something that every priest and every preacher should have as a kind of checklist for every liturgy that they’re involved in.

You know it well and I haven’t time to read it to you – but there are some key elements.

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On the road to Emmaus

There’s the opening – the way in which the two travellers are talking over what has happened.  We all arrive at a service with a back story, things that have been happening, that we need to process.

Then the stranger arrives and begins to open up the scriptures to them.  He goes at their speed, just as Philip does with the Ethiopian eunuch. What they have been talking about is tested against the word of God.

Then they arrive at their house and there’s a moment of invitation to stay and to eat. Then the guest becomes the host and bread is broken and they recognise the real presence of Jesus in the midst. Then they head back, they leave, renewed, invigorated, with good news to share.

Emmaus is the experience of the church when we make Eucharist together – we arrive with our stories, we hear the word of God, we are invited to eat, we break the bread and we head back out on a mission. Word and bread are broken – opened up and in both we experience the real presence of Jesus. Because the most important thing is what the two companions say to each other after they’d recognised Jesus as he broke the bread

They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’

Goodness – that is EXACTLY what we want people to be feeling when they listen to a sermon.  Their hearts on fire.  Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, a great Orthodox spiritual teacher of the twentieth century wrote

“One should preach not from one’s rational mind but rather from the heart. Only that which is from the heart can touch another heart. “

And someone closer to home, Richard Baxter put it differently but the force of it is the same

“I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” 

It’s about passion, passion for God, passion for the people, passion for ministry.  It has to be there in our preaching just as it has to be there in our presiding.  We preside each time as though it is the first and the last time, we preach as a dying person to dying people, we preach not from the mind but from the heart informed by the mind.

I always preach as I hope to hear sermons myself.  I hear a lot of sermons in my role as Dean, I’m obviously in a large team of clergy and we’re on a preaching rota.  We’re all committed to preaching but some enjoy it more than others.  But we also have visiting preachers and I have to say that I am more often disappointed than thrilled by what I hear.  Being a visiting preacher is not easy – it’s not as easy as preaching to the people you know, preaching into the community that you know.  But I want to hear a sermon that makes my heart burn within me, that makes me think, yes, but makes me want to respond to God from the very depths of my being.  As the Psalmist says is Psalm 42 – ‘Deep calls to deep’. There has to be a real element of altar call, for me, something that’s going to make me come forward and renew my commitment to Christ and hold my hands open to receive him in the sacrament (that, by the way is why I find it much more of a struggle to preach at evensong – not weddings or funerals etc – but evensong because everyone is so passive).

I heard some great sermons when I was growing up.  We always went to the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and I remember great preachers and great sermons that made me excited to be a Christian in the catholic tradition and which played their part in my vocation.  We hear a prayer fairly regularly which contains the line

‘continually stir up the gift that is within you’

Sermons should stir up the people and stir up the preacher.  It’s our only chance to do this and waste the opportunity and you have wasted so much.  No one will leave your church saying how perfect your manual acts were this week but they will leave church talking about the sermon; no one will experience that deeper conversion because you know your purificator from your lavabo towel or whether it’s a slug or three drops of water into a chalice – but the sermon can convert the heart within the context of a well prepared and well performed liturgy.

But I was asked to speak specifically about preaching through Lent and I need to do that.

I think that with whatever we’re doing during Lent there are a number of important factors to bear in mind.

First, Lent is a journey that we are making – from the wilderness to the cross to the empty tomb. The whole concept of journey and pilgrimage is a huge one nowadays.  People like that kind of talk and so we need to acknowledge the journey and make the most of the concept.  This means that the same person preaching each Sunday, with a theme and a purpose is not a bad thing.  It makes sense of the season and the person who is preaching becomes the accompanier.

Second, people are still quite eager to learn during Lent.  Sermons are not the place to do teaching – that is not their purpose and certainly not nowadays.  But how the sermon can lead to what happens in Lent groups or discussions is an important one to think about. The Wendy Beckett book last year on ‘The Art of Lent’ was great and very popular and placing an image in the hands of people as part of the sermon keys into the need for visual stimulus. Get to the National Gallery and buy some postcards!

Third, people often feel guilty in Lent that they are not doing enough, that they haven’t given up the right thing, that they haven’t taken something on, that they are crap at serious religion and the greater understanding that we now have of the practice of our Muslim sisters and brothers makes us even more guilty.  So preaching should be encouraging and intended to helping people respond corporately – as Muslims do – rather than individually might be really helpful – a week when you all abstain from alcohol, a week when you all do a good deed – that kind of thing.

Fourthly, Lent can be exhausting – certainly for clergy but also for others who are in church.  So take advantage of the fact that Lent is in two halves and make a big thing of Mothering Sunday using another title for it – Refreshment Sunday – and then give a real change to the Sundays after.  Treat Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday and Easter Day as a distinct grouping.

Don’t preach at the Mass on Palm Sunday – there is enough already that is going on and the reading of the Passion should take the Gospel and Sermon slots if done properly.  Be imaginative with Passion Sunday.  The gospel this year is about Jesus in the House at Bethany and the wonderful line about the fragrance of the perfume filling the house – so anoint each other with fragrant oil for the journey we all face with Jesus – preach about that. After all, whether St Francis said it or not it is true

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” 

This is Year C of course and so most of the gospel passages are from Luke’s Gospel.  We of course get the Temptation on the First Sunday – so what do you say about that this year? “One does not live by bread alone.” So what is truly life-giving?

The Second Sunday involves a moment of confrontation but ends with that great quote which we then use in the Eucharist “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” What does that mean as we hear it week by week?

The Third Sunday makes us deal with some tough stuff about what happens to the innocent but is also about giving each other another chance and the gardener saying to the landowner that if next year the tree doesn’t come up with the goods “you can cut it down.” Hard words!

Then on the Fourth Sunday/Mothering Sunday we have the opportunity, if we don’t go for Mothering Sunday readings to read what we used to call the story of the Prodigal Son – but maybe we should call it the story of the ‘Parent with two difficult sons’ which must be one of the greatest stories along with the Good Samaritan and ends with that memorable line “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’ Remember that it is also the Sunday after we may have crashed out of Europe as a result of Brexit – how will you handle that!?

I hope this has stimulated some thoughts from you.  There’s more I could say about preaching – humour of course, using up-to-date references from contemporary culture – Mary Poppins Returns – pace, voice, language – avoid telling people what it means in the Greek unless it is REALLY interesting and making yourself open and vulnerable in the process.  They want to see that you believe it.


Many a preacher will pray before they preach, words from the psalms (Psalm 19:14) which we could pray for all who have this ministry.

May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
my strength and my redeemer.
Amen.

Pray

It’s always good when someone asks you a question that comes from left field, as it were.  I was attending the Resolve course at Southwark Cathedral last week.  It was the third of four sessions and we were looking at the soul after looking at the body and the mind in previous meetings.  In the conversations that happened afterwards one of the members of the small group that I was in asked, in a very interested way, why those of us who were Christians prayed.  It was a good question because it made me really think about what was a reasonable answer I could give.

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Durer’s image of praying hands

Others in the group gave their responses, a lot about the ongoing conversation that we have with God, the idea that it is always there in the background, in the way that T S Eliot talks about it in his poem ‘Little Gidding’, part of the ‘Four Quartets’.

And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

There was also of course something about the kind of ordered prayer that we engage in in church, the words that we’re given to pray.  I made the point that I was obviously ‘paid’ to pray, that it was part of what I’m required and called to do on behalf of the church.  But all the talk also made me think about how important prayer is, to me, as a response to situations where I simply cannot do anything else.

The news emerging from Zimbabwe is disturbing and distressing.  The Diocese of Southwark has had a partnership link with four of the five dioceses in that country for many years and the Cathedral is part of that, having a direct partnership link with the Diocese of Masvingo.  That is the most recently created of the dioceses, in the rural south.  The people we have been able to get to know are simply wonderful led by Bishop Godfrey and his wife Albertina.  Coupled with that is the relationship that has grown through the Cathedral Shop with the ArtPeace project based in Harare.  The artists who produce the stone carvings we sell are a resilient and talented bunch of people, supported by the Jesuits, and through our contact here in the UK we get to hear their very real stories of dealing with the poverty that has blighted the country.

The recent protests and the violent response of the army and police has affected all these groups of friends.  Members of artists families have been beaten and some have taken refuge in the Jesuit house.  The situation in Masvingo, away from the capital, is difficult as well.  And what can we do?

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The prayer vigil underway

Well, we have been praying.  After the Choral Eucharist last Sunday members of the congregation spent time before the map of Zimbabwe that is in the nave of the Cathedral holding a prayer vigil.  Few words were said, most of the time was spent in silence, candles were lit and people focused their attention on the map and the people that lay behind it – holding it all before God.  The wonderful thing is that the people for whom we are praying are so encouraged by the response that we have made.  They believe in the power of prayer and the promises of Jesus.

‘Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18.19-20)

It’s an encouragement to pray and an encouragement to agree on the words that we want to pray, agree on the purpose of our prayer.  So when I was asked to write a prayer for others to pray in response to the crisis I was delighted to do so and even more thrilled when I learnt that our friends in Zimbabwe are also praying, using the same words.  Please pray with us – I’m not sure what else we can do at the moment – and I believe that this is an effective response in itself.  God’s will be done.

May there be … no cry of distress in our streets. (Ps 144.15)

Loving God,
strong and merciful,
we hear the cry
of our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe
and we place them into your hands.
May the hungry be fed,
the sorrowful consoled,
the injured healed,
the hopeless encouraged
and the dead have new life in you.
May justice flow like a river
and may your peace rest upon them.
Amen.

Awe and wonder

There is nothing more wonderful than watching a child walk into Southwark Cathedral for the first time.  Our Education Centre provides this opportunity for thousands of children each year, bringing them into the cathedral and inviting them just to stand and look around.  Many of them will never before have been in such a large building and they can easily be filled with both awe and wonder. And however well travelled, however old we are we can often experience those same feelings when we are suddenly surprised by beauty.

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The glory of Sainte Chapelle

Like many people last week I watched the first episode of Danny Dyer’s royal romp through his family history.  Since discovering his royal antecedents in ‘Who do you think you are?’ we have heard Danny mentioning it not it’s true in Albert Square but on the many other shows on which he pops up.  This history show, ‘Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family’, quite unlike any other that I have seen, I thought was fantastic.  When there is nothing else on, as is so often the case, when relaxing after a hard day of awe and wonder, I look on the BBC iPlayer for a history documentary programme that I haven’t seen.  So I have been watching Dan Snow unfolding in a three hour series the 12 days that saved England, the story of the Armada.  It was full of scholarship and lots of moving model ships around maps of the channel and I learnt a lot.  But it was short on laughs.  That was not Danny Dyer’s take on history!

As part of this first programme Danny quite literally followed in the footsteps of his 26x grandfather St Louis, King Louis IX of France, who brought the crown of thorns to Paris and to enshrine it built the glorious Sainte Chapelle on the Ile de la Cite.  Danny walked the streets in a simple chemise such as his sainted relative would have done bearing a replica of the crown of thorns and followed by a group of people singing the Benedictus and entered the chapel. There is a baldachino over the altar that allowed St Louis to climb and hold the Crown of Thorns aloft so that the members of his court, gathered below, could look with awe and wonder at the great sight of the crown of the Universal King.  This was the best moment of the show for me.  Danny enters the glory of this chapel and looks around. “I’ve never been in a building that’s more godlike,” he says, staring up at the soaring beauty, the walls composed of the most sublime stained glass. “If God was gonna have some windows, they’d be his windows.”

It was both the most innocent and sophisticated reaction to what is there and a soul responding to the grandeur of God. I was reminded of the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘God’s Grandeur’

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God’s windows always open on to divine grandeur and that was what Danny was pointing us to.

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William Blake’s interpretation of Jacob’s dream

Jacob is alone in the wilderness; he is journeying.  Night has fallen and he needs to rest.  He takes a stone and uses it for a pillow and he lies down to sleep.  A window in heaven opens and the angels of God ascend and descend on a ladder between earth and heaven.

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ (Genesis 28.16-17)

Look and look again and allow your heart to be moved by the glory of God – it is all around us.

God,
surprise me with your grandeur,
thrill my heart
with the beauty of your presence.
Amen.

5-4-3-2-1

Those of you who watched the television between 1978 and 1988 may have seen (by accident maybe) a game show hosted by Ted Rogers and made in good old Yorkshire called ‘3-2-1’. Apart from Ted acting as host the other notable star of the show was a dustbin (yes, this is correct) called ‘Dusty Bin’. This was a robotic bin made by a chap in Leeds (there was cutting edge technology on the show) that appeared at various stages.  Reflecting back on the demise of the show Ted Rogers commented that “The Oxbridge lot got control of TV and they didn’t really want it. It was too downmarket for them. We were still getting 12 million viewers when they took it off after ten years. These days if a show gets nine million everyone does a lap of honour.” It was a shame because I loved watching Ted do this amazing thing with his fingers counting down ‘3-2-1’ – I could never do that, I still can’t.

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The good old days of TV

Which is all a stupid way into saying that I was introduced last week to a rather longer sequence of numbers, ‘5-4-3-2-1’. In the run up to Christmas we were promoting a course that we were to run in the New Year at Southwark Cathedral.  It’s called ‘Resolve’ and is a take on the idea of New Year resolutions and encourages participants to make small changes which could have a big effect.  The first week those in the group thought about the body.  This last week it was the mind.  I wasn’t at the first one, I was at the second.

In the small group discussion that took place we began talking about the practice of ‘Mindfulness’.  One of those in the group with me shared something with the rest of us which she practices and which I have since resolved to do.  So I thought I’d share it with you.  It’s around this idea of ‘5-4-3-2-1’.

The good thing about this is you can be anywhere when you do it, at home, on the bus, in church, on a park bench.  And it is very easy to remember. So here goes.

5 – what 5 things can you see around you?
4 – what 4 things can you feel?
3 – what 3 things can you hear?
2 – what 2 things can you smell?
1 – what 1 thing can you taste? or, what 1 good thing can you remember?

Some people describe this as a coping mechanism.  I can imagine it could be that.  But for me it is about being aware, deeply aware of myself in the present moment and using all of my senses or most of them (it depends what you do with the 1) to enhance and ground that awareness.

Last week the American, Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, died.  In her poem ‘Sometimes’ she draws our attention to this simple concept of being aware.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

When Jesus was on the hillside above the Sea of Galilee he was teaching the people in what we now call ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ (it wasn’t a sermon, it was sublime teaching). But at one point he says this

‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.’ (Matthew 6.28)

lillies

Consider ….

The people were so engrossed in what Jesus was telling them they perhaps hadn’t been mindful of what was around them. Jesus literally calls them to their senses.  ‘Look around you’, he is saying, ‘be aware’. He was teaching them, but there were lessons to be learnt just by looking, just by being present to what is happening around them.  The people looked and what he said made sense. That section of teaching of course ends with a marvellous statement about being present in the moment.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ (Matthew 6.34)

Focusing on the now, focusing on what the 18th century French Jesuit, Jean Pierre de Caussade, called ‘the sacrament of the present moment’ in his book ‘Abandonment to Divine Providence’, is what we do when we become mindful of the now, what we can see, what we can feel, hear, smell, taste.  And it is a sacrament because this deeper experience is grace-filled and we find God in it, the God of the present moment.  So this is my resolve, to be more present to the present. Try it.

God of the present moment,
bring me to my senses,
that I may know your presence with me,
in the now.
Amen.

Praying for the Brexit Vote

I was asked by the Association of English Cathedrals to prepare another prayer for use today as we watch our elected representatives in Parliament debating and, finally, voting on the Prime Minister’s plan for our withdrawal from Europe.  I had prepared one for the previous vote, but as we know, that opportunity to vote was withdrawn.  In this instance I was inspired by the readings for this morning.  In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul was writing to a church facing internal challenges, jealousies and disagreements.  He addressees these full on.

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Whatever our views we are called to pray for one another and those charged with leadership in this as in every nation.  So please pray.

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1.25)

God of wisdom and strength,
who challenge us in our foolishness,
and support us in our weakness;
give to those who lead us
a desire for that which is best,
a commitment to that which is honourable,
a love for that which is true
and a passion to serve the common good.
In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

‘The drowned world’

This is the sermon I preached at the Choral Eucharist on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ.  I thought you might like to read it.  The readings were Isaiah 43.1-7; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17,21,22

What’s your earliest memory?  Amazingly, given how momentous the event is, none of us, so it seems, remembers being born.  Those of us baptised as babies don’t remember that. To be honest I find it hard to think of what my first real memory is because I get confused with the memories that other people have given to me, telling me about what I did up the nurse’s dress, for instance, when I was laid as naked as the day I was born in the scales at the Welfare.  I don’t remember that though my Mum clearly did!

I don’t really remember the day my sister was born upstairs in our house.  I’ve been told that I kept asking whether Mummy was alright and whether the baby was alright every few minutes after it’d happened but I don’t remember it.  I suppose I really remember getting lost – in the market in Leicester near Lineker’s stall and grabbing some other woman’s hand and particularly getting lost in Scarborough on the only good day of the holiday, on the zigzag path, running on ahead and then getting lost but finding my way back to the boarding house where we were staying.  I was seven and I do remember it and my family have never let me forget it.

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For Jesus his baptism was a not to be forgotten moment.  He’d come to where the crowds were gathering by the River Jordan, to listen to John’s uncompromising preaching and then, when everyone else had gone down into the water, to follow them.  It was a moment that he wouldn’t forget because that was also a moment of affirmation for him, a moment of declaration as the Spirit descended and the voice of the Father was heard.

But like many of the moments of revelation in the Bible, like many in the Gospels, this was not so much for Jesus – affirming as it must have been – it was a moment for us. As Jesus would say elsewhere, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine’.  (John 12.30) We may not remember our own baptism but in some way we share in this act of baptism of Jesus, we’re baptised with him, we enter the waters with him, we die and we rise with him.  As St Gregory Nazianzus wrote

‘Jesus rises from the waters; and a drowned world rises with him.’

If baptism is about being reborn, re-entering the experience that none of us can remember, and emerging refreshed, cleansed, grace and light filled, then each time we celebrate this feast we remember again the enormity of what happened by that riverside and the profound nature of the epiphany that took place there.

Because this of course is all about epiphany.  Last week it was wise men who we were remembering, strangers who made their way from distant lands to the threshold of the house where Jesus was and they knew him as the promised one of God.  Next Sunday we’ll be taken to Cana, to a wedding where the wine had all been drunk.  Jesus takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary, he takes water and it becomes wine and he’s revealed once again, as a miracle worker, as one who held creation in the palm of his hand, but perhaps even more importantly for us, the one who will transform our poverty into riches, who will make wine of the stuff of the lives of those around him.

We heard some of the most powerful words from the Old Testament in our First Reading.  These words of Isaiah are staggering to me, they change the way that I look at life, they are words that give me confidence when my confidence is flagging.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.

My sisters and brothers, this is the God who is being revealed to us, the God to whom we bring ourselves as meagre gift, the God with whom we die and are reborn, the God who will take the water of who we are and transform it into the wine of the kingdom.  This is Jesus who will pass through the waters, through the rivers with us and we will not be drowned, who will walk through the fire with us and we will not be consumed.  This is the God who is alongside us and that is the truth that is at the very heart of the Christmas celebrations that we’ve just enjoyed, the alongside God alongside us.

The antics in Westminster inside and outside of Parliament last week were a disgrace, name calling, threatening behaviour, intimidation.  We reap what we sow and at the moment we’re reaping a whirlwind in our society and in our city.  The deaths of Lee Pomery killed on a train in front of his 14 year old son and then the brutal murder of Jayden Moodie, himself just 14, will be things that we will not forget.  But they reveal a level of brutality and anger, a willingness to undertake violent acts, a basic lack of humanity that’s simply staggering and frightening.  It’s as though Pandora’s Box has been opened and wickedness and intolerance and an abandonment of civil and civilised behaviour has been unleashed.

Whatever happens this week in Parliament as our MPs take part in the ‘meaningful vote’ as it’s called, whether we get the deal or no deal, whether in the end we remain in Europe, there’ll be a huge task of reconciliation and community rebuilding to be undertaken, and undertaken by the likes of us, who believe that rebirth is possible, that ‘the drowned world’ can rise with him, to use St Gregory’s words.

I can’t remember anything else quite like this.  I can remember entering the Common Market, I can clearly remember decimalisation, I remember the three day week and the winter of discontent, the electricity strikes, I remember Mrs Thatcher snatching our milk off us, I remember the Gulf War, I remember so much but I don’t remember this level of division that now exists – and it must grieve the heart of God.

But God says to us

‘Do not fear, for I am with you …you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.’

God says as much to his son as the waters break and Jesus re-emerges from that deep watery womb into the life of the world and God says the same to us, the drowned world.

With those words of reassurance and in that moment of revelation Jesus heads off into the wilderness, it wasn’t over yet.  There was much more to be discovered, there was a testing epiphany to take place and it would take hard days for him to realise what was God’s will.  We emerge from the waters with Christ and perhaps we also have to expect the wilderness with him as well.  That is the way it might be.  But God is with us, we have God’s word for it and I remember that God has been with us in the past and is with us now and will remain with us, through the water, through the flames and we will not drown and we will not burn, we will not be consumed, for we have God’s word for it.

And in this most divine liturgy in which bread is broken and wine outpoured we will experience the God who places his very being into our hands, the vulnerable God sharing his vulnerability with us, the strong God sharing his strength with us.

We remember, we forget, that’s life, but in the days that lie ahead of us know this now as Jesus knew it then, that God is with us and God’s spirit rests upon us. In this time of huge uncertainty that much is certain.

The baptism of Jesus

At the west end of Southwark Cathedral is a large and beautiful icon telling the story of the baptism of Jesus which is the feast that the church celebrates today.  The icon stands close to the font and below it is the water stoop – the place where visitors can remember their own baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, as they enter the sacred space.

I wrote a meditation/explanation of the icon and I thought I would share it with you today.

The icon was written (painted) by the celebrated Norwegian icon artist and scholar, Solrunn Nes. She is the author of ‘The Mystical Language of Icons’ and other books. Solrunn brought the icon with her when she led an Icon Writing Retreat at the Cathedral in Holy Week 2014.  Icons are stylised theological statements in which the worshipper and viewer is invited through the window they provide into deep truth.

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The icon of the Baptism of Jesus

If you read Matthew 3.7-17 the icon becomes a representation of the scripture

When John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ 

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

If you look at the icon you see first of all the figure of Jesus.  In some versions of this icon he is naked, he is more discreetly dressed in this one.  He stands in – or is it above – the waters.  Perhaps the icon is reminding us of the way in which we are told in Genesis 1.2 that God ‘hovered over the face of the waters’.

The river is of course the Jordan and it teems with fish.  It is living water and in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of the Spirit of God in terms of living water (John 7). It is also a reference to Ezekiel’s vision

There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. (Ezekiel 47.9)

To the left and right of the river is the landscape. The rocks are mountainous and are a reminder to us that the mountain is the place of encounter with God (Moses, Elijah, the Transfiguration, the Ascension) and also that Jesus will go from the river to the Mount of Temptation (Matthew 4.1-11 and cf Mark and Luke). I don’t know why the rocks are of different colour.

On the left hand side is a tree with an axe in it.  This is a reminder of John’s words of prophecy as in the text above

Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3.10)

The figure to the left of Jesus is St John the Baptist.  He reaches out to baptise the Lord.  Remember this is not the same baptism as Christian baptism.  This was a baptism of repentance and not of incorporation into Christ in the name of the Trinity.  It is true that Christian baptism includes a washing of sin and regeneration but the principal focus must be on becoming a member of the body of Christ.

Matthew describes John in this way

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3.4)

The figure in the icon seems to be dressed differently from this though his clothing is camel coloured and there appears to be a belt.  But his long hair and beard describe a man of the wilderness.

To the right of Jesus are four angels.  After the temptation of Jesus which follows his baptism Matthew says

 Suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4.11)

The angels at the front are holding towels or perhaps clothes with which to wrap their Lord and ours. In the retrochoir of the Cathedral you will find in the screen between St Andrew’s and St Christopher’s Chapels an angel in the same position holding a towel.  It is a lovely, practical, caring image.  Angels are ministers as well as messengers and we see this in this caring depiction.

Above Jesus we see first a dove descending on him.  Matthew in the text above describes it thus

He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. (Matthew 3.16)

It is important to remember that the Spirit descends like a dove.  The Spirit is not a dove but like a dove.  From beneath the dove are three rays representing the Holy Trinity.  The dove descends from God who is not depicted but suggested at the very top of the icon.  Everything flows to and from the symbol at the very top.  The two mountains bow towards it and direct our eye and attention to God who is the source of all things.

Finally, the writing is in Greek.  In the halo around Jesus’ head are letters that mean ‘He who is’ and equivalent of ‘I am’ which is used extensively in John’s gospel.  Above Jesus are two sets of letters IC XC which is the abbreviation for Jesus Christ and at the very top of the icon it simply says in Greek ‘The Baptism’.

You may see some other things that I have missed – but this is the glorious complexity of icons.

Beneath the icon is a bowl containing holy water.  This is for you to dip your fingers in and make the sign of the cross with.  It is a reminder to us of our baptism.  Holy Water and the Font (the place of baptism) are always located close to the main door of the church to remind us that this sacrament of Baptism is our entry into the church and whilst we can only be baptised once we can be constantly reminded of it.

Eternal Father,
who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit,
that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

The Crown

With the coming of this new year I’m eagerly anticipating the launch of Series 3 of ‘The Crown’. It will be great to see the wonderful Olivia Colman – fresh from taking on Queen Anne in ‘The Favourite’ – playing Her Majesty The Queen after Claire Foy.  Wearing a crown is becoming a bit of a theme for her at the moment.

I decided this year to do my own Christmas Crackers – well, when I say that not quite like my mother did who made them one year from scratch!  I bought empty ones and put my own, specially selected, gifts so that each person got something useful rather than a tape measure, plastic comb or magic fish that can tell your personality! But the empty crackers did come complete not just with a snap but with a joke and a hat.  So at Christmas dinner we pulled them, the gifts rolled out, the jokes were told and the hats went on our heads.  But I suddenly realised that the hat that we are traditionally given to wear in our crackers is a crown.

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The famous Galette des Rois

Some years ago I had a couple of occasions when my post-Christmas break coincided with the Feast of the Epiphany.  One of those breaks was spent in northern France and the other was in in the capital of Majorca, Palma.  Both celebrated Epiphany with enthusiasm but slightly differently.  In France we took the opportunity to taste the lovely Galette des Rois, the King’s Cake, which is traditionally eaten on the Feast and throughout the month.  In the windows of the pâtisseries can be seen these frangipane tarts finished off with a paper crown.  As with our own tradition of putting a silver threepenny bit into our pudding, these galettes contain a féve, a charm, and the finder of it gets to wear the crown.

In Palma, Majorca the celebration of the Feast begins in the harbour.  Three resplendently dressed and crowned kings arrive by boat and climb onto floats that then tour the centre of the city.  As they go along they throw handfuls of sweets out to the children who crowd the pavements to see them. The arrival of the kings reminded me of that lovely carol we sing

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

That’s a traditional English carol from the 17th century.  As Bethlehem is landlocked it was either written by someone who had no idea of geography or the ships referred to are actually camels, often known as ‘ships of the desert’ (their rocking motion certainly makes me feel sea sick).

But all of these traditions continue to promote the popular notion that we are talking about the arrival of kings to the stable in Bethlehem.  That is further reinforced as we sing together that most popular carol ‘We three kings’ and listen to the choir singing the amazing anthem ‘Three kings from Persian lands’ by Peter Cornelius.  It’s enough to make the preacher throw their hands up in horror!  After all, the Bible doesn’t mention kings at all, certainly not St Matthew who is the one who gives us this story.

magi

Magi – and no crowns in sight!

It’s Magi that we are talking about, wise men, astrologers, readers of the stars and of the signs, maybe Zoroastrians, perhaps from Persia, certainly not crown wearing kings.  There may have been three but Matthew mentions no such number, it’s just that three gifts are mentioned – gold, frankincense and myrrh – and that is where the traditional number came from.

But there was a king, it’s just he wasn’t dressed as one.  Matthew tells us

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  (Matthew 2.11)

On arriving at Herod’s court they had mentioned that they were looking for a king; in the stable they found him.

T S Eliot’s famous poem, drawing so heavily on the sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes to His Majesty’s court at Whitehall in 1622, concludes like this

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.

These wise men saw that the old crowns and the old kingdoms were passing away, the old dispensation was finished.  They had seen a new king and the signs of a new kingdom.  So it’s ok to take the hat that falls from the cracker, the crown on the galette and to wear it – but not in memory of kings who were not kings but in celebration of the one who is the true king of the true kingdom, Christ the King.

This is the alternative Collect for the Feast of the Epiphany from the Church of England’s ‘Common Worship’.

Creator of the heavens,
who led the Magi by a star
to worship the Christ-child:
guide and sustain us,
that we may find our journey’s end
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

An Epiphany gift

One of the many joys of being Dean of Southwark is the wonderful talent that is to be found in members of the congregation.  I never cease to be amazed, and thankful.  One of our very regular 9 o’clockers, Sue Reardon Smith, sent me one of her poems for Epiphany and I asked her if I could share it with you.  She said yes and so here it is, an Epiphany gift from her to us. Sue commented to me that still so long after writing it she can remember that service.

StGervaisSleepingMan

EPIPHANY AT ALL HALLOWS CHURCH BARKINGSIDE

They offered him gifts of gold,
frankincense and myrrh.
Through the glass doors
he came, cascading
his worldly goods in
a shower of plastic bags.
He shouted the gospel,
sidesmen herding him
like an errant sheep
away from the altar.
Sinking into a pew
intoning out of step
he stayed out the service.
Peace be with you.
One man shook his hand.
Last to kneel for the Eucharist,
his woollen hat removed
revealed a bristling
Christmas-shelter haircut.
They knelt and paid him homage.
Back down the aisle
clutching at pew ends,
behind thick glasses
he wept.
They left for their own country.
He just left.

Sue Reardon Smith
9th January 2008

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