A child’s cry

‘There there. Don’t cry. Let me kiss it better.’ There’s nothing that touches the heart quite as much as the cry of a child – in pain, frightened, lost.  The instinct is always to reach out and make it better. ‘There you are – see, you haven’t hurt yourself’ and the tears dry up and they start laughing and running around again.

Hearing the cries of those children wrenched from the arms of their parents at the border of Mexico and the USA was heart-rending and I think that it was probably that which turned public and global opinion so against Donald Trump that he had to make a u-turn and an Executive Order that stopped what he had put in place, the separation of children from their parents when they were entering illegally. I thank God that he did it, that he heard the cries. But the truth is that there are many children still separated from their parents and, by what we are told, without a system in place to reunite them and there are children with their parents still being caged up. It is appalling.

Rosaries

I saw this picture on Twitter.  It claims (and that is all I can say) to be rosaries that were confiscated from people who had been arrested on the border.  Their dignity, their children and even their rosaries were taken from them. I was instantly reminded of my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walking around that dreadful place, the gates of hell on earth, and entering the buildings you are confronted, as you are at Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum and memorial in Jerusalem, with collections of the possessions of those taken to this death camp. The shoes and the walking sticks and the false teeth and the bags are piled together, the ephemera of persecution. It was deeply shocking, sickening.  These things had belonged to people like me.

A few months ago I had the unexpected privilege of being presented to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, whilst I was in Rome. At the end of the brief conversation I was handed a little pouch in which was a rosary with the papal arms on it.  It was such a wonderful and moving gift.  And as I went through St Peter’s Square other pilgrims and many from South and Central America asked me to bless their rosaries, which I was delighted to do.

For those not so familiar with the rosary there are what are called series of Mysteries that take you around the beads, episodes in the life of Jesus and of Mary on which you can meditate and that can then be a springboard for prayer.  There are three traditional sets of Mysteries – Joyful (around the incarnation), Sorrowful (around the passion) and Glorious (around the resurrection and beyond). And as I saw that collection of confiscated rosaries, cruelly taken, I thought of the fingers that would have prayed those Sorrowful Mysteries, with another mother, Mary, whose son was taken from her.

After Christmas we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents remembering the slaughter by a despotic and jealous ruler, Herod, of the baby boys in Jerusalem and we read something to which St Matthew refers as he tells the story.  Its part of the prophecy of Jeremiah.

Thus says the Lord,
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more. (Jeremiah 31.15)

The cries of the children and the cries of the mothers cannot be stopped with a ‘there, there’ but instead we have to sit with the noise of their sorrow in our ears as a constant reminder of what we are able to do to each other, when power and fear and jealousy get mixed up.

There is a text on the United States Holocaust Memorial that is often quoted and rightly so. The words are those of Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was himself held in a Nazi concentration camp and then liberated by the Allies.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

That is why we have to speak out when we hear the cries wherever they come from and just pray that those who have power to make a difference will use that power – and we are not powerless in all of this. The same applies to what is happening in many places around the world, Venezuela, the Yemen, North Korea, the list grows longer every day.

There is always hope. That quote from Jeremiah continues but we don’t often hear it read to us, we stay with the sorrow – but we need to hear these words of propecy as well.

Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
(Jeremiah 31.16-17)

‘There is hope’, there always is.

Lord, as you hear our cries
may we hear the cries of all your children
wherever they are.
Amen.

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Feasting and fasting

The truth is, I’m not very good at fasting.  The suprising thing is that I was, in fact, better when I was younger.  As I became more committed to my faith I used to fast before Mass on Sunday and when I was at college being formed for priesthood the whole routine of the day was geared around being able to fast before the Eucharist because breakfast wasn’t served until after it. But ordination was my downfall.  The excuse was, ‘Well, I need to be able to minister and so collapsing halfway through a service out of hunger would be no good.’ And there you have it, my days of fasting passed away.  I’m not very good at Lent and the permissions we now get and which I have in my turn given, that it is so good to take something on rather than give something up, have done nothing to counter this undisciplined tendency that I have.

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The Feast

I went to another Iftar last week, on the penultimate day of Ramadan.  This one was being hosted by the Metropolitan Police at their new headquarters in New Scotland Yard. It was great to be there. But it was a cheat on my part – I had had breakfast, lunch and numerous drinks all day.  So, whilst I certainly felt peckish when the sun set at around 9.20 and the fast for that day ended, I was nowhere near as hungry or thirsty as the Muslims alongside me. I was sharing in the Iftar but not sharing in the fast!

There has been some criticism levelled at me after the commemoration of the London Bridge attack because we – and I suppose as Dean that means I – hosted a Grand Iftar in the Cathedral itself on the evening of that day of commemoration.  Around 300 people packed the nave for the presentations that were made and the songs that were sung before the fast broke and people formed a long queue for the food.  I’ve been accused of being a ‘Muslim-lover’ which doesn’t feel much like an insult, and destroying the Christian tradition by holding an inter-faith service in the Cathedral.  As some bloggers have helpfully pointed out an Iftar isn’t a service and our Iftar, like the one the Met Police hosted, was nothing of the kind. But if I am being accused of the sin of hospitality then I am guilty as charged.

One of the things that has changed in the whole Christian-Muslim-community world of the past few years is the development of the Iftar as being something that people share in together. It is as though this meal has been brought out of the mosque and out of individual homes onto the streets – as around Grenfell Tower last week – or into other places, offices and churches. And it has helped me understand a bit more of what Ramadan and Eid are all about.

I used to think that Lent and Ramadan were equivalents, but I have learnt that they are not.  I may still be wrong but it seems to me that discipline and charitable giving are where any equivalence ends. Lent is a season of penitence and the discipline we choose for those forty odd days is meant to help us focus on that aspect of the Christian life as well as prepare us spitually for Holy Week and Easter. But the discipline is ongoing, it doesn’t begin and end each day, between dawn and dusk.  We are not waiting for sunset to have a bar of chocolate, or a glass of wine, or whatever it is that we are depriving ourselves of. Ramadan is much more about focusing the body and the mind on God, its much more about the deepening of spirituality than it is about penitence and the submission of the body as opposed to the soul. With Ramadan each days fast ends with a feast, the two are intertwined in the daily pattern that is established and which people so powerfully commit to.

Part of the whole inter-faith scene, it seems to me, is about giving us the opportunity to learn something from each other.  These past few years have certainly taught me about fasting and challenged my lack of engagement with it. Being with Hindus last year taught me about living up close to God in every aspect of my life. From Buddhism in these last few years I have learnt about focusing my thinking, what we are calling ‘mindfulness’ and finding in that peace. And from my regular visits to the Holy Land my experience of Judaism has taught me to value community at the deepest level.

But we have a much deeper and richer tradition of fasting in the Church of England than we give ourselves credit for. Thumbing through the Book of Common Prayer brings you face-to-face with some wonderful stuff including this

DAYS OF FASTING, OR ABSTINENCE
i) The forty days of Lent.
ii) The Ember Days at the Four Seasons, being the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after:
1. The First Sunday in Lent
2. The Feast of Pentecost
3. September 14
4. December 13.
iii) The three Rogation Days, being the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
before Holy Thursday, or the Ascension of our Lord.
iv) All the Fridays in the Year, except Christmas Day.

So there are probably 67 Fast Days in the year in addition to the 40 days of Lent – and I keep none of them. Time for me to really think again and to be challenged by my Muslim friends who are now feasting all day as they celebrate Eid. But if I do fast then I must also remember those wise words of Jesus

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6.16-18)

So I thank God for the challenge of Ramadan and pray that I may have the humility to learn from others as they share with me something of their relationship with God.

God,
for the diversity of faith and practice
within and beyond the church,
I give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

The tree of healing

I said last week that I needed time to reflect before I said anything about the first anniversary of the London Bridge attack. In fact I had to say a great deal without the luxury of much reflective time.  But that is the reality of life – you are asked and you have to answer. But as we approached the Sunday, which was the first anniversary – the media wanted to get answers to their questions.  In the welcome that I gave at the beginning of the service of commemoration I said this

Let me be honest, I’ve been fearful approaching this day.  Memories have risen to the surface, tears have once again flowed, scars have been reopening.  The media have been asking me what I hope for this service – my answer has been simple – I hope it helps our healing.  Whatever your hopes are, whatever your pain is, whatever has kept you awake at night, whatever anger or sorrow or guilt you’re feeling, God is here for us, God is here for you.

Love is stronger than hate.  Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death.  It was true a year ago, it’s as true today.

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The Tree of Healing

I was fearful approaching the day, I was being entirely honest. The whole lead up to that weekend served to open up memories and wounds and, I suppose, I hadn’t, until that moment, thought that I was a ‘victim’ of the event as so many others had been. But my needs to think and reflect were nothing in comparison to the family members who came along that afternoon. Those who had been so brutally murdered, slaughtered, that evening were at the forefront of our thinking.  Whether it was in the candle lighting or the completion of the planting of the Tree of Healing, they were the ones we were focusing on.

We had decided last year that a tree needed to be planted and as we cleared the mountain of flowers that had accumulated by the needle at the south end of London Bridge a commitment was made that that would happen.  But most wonderfully the London Borough of Southwark committed to taking those flowers away, composting them and bringing back the compost so that the tree could be planted in it.

One of the moving songs in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ is the circle of life. The lyrics say it all

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life.

Those flowers left as signs of love became the food for new life to grow, like that would bring healing, all part of that circle, the divine circle.

The olive tree, of course, carries huge symbolic power; its oil provides, heat and light to very many people, it helps in the cooking of food and is used to anoint particularly in the tradition of the church.  Priests have always taken olive oil and anointed the sick, as a symbol of our prayer for healing.  Babies and adults are anointed with it as they come to baptism. Monarchs are anointed with it before ever a crown is placed upon them.  But even more significantly for Jews, Christians and Muslims when the dove returned to Noah in the ark it carried a branch of the olive, a sign of peace and of God’s blessing.  This will be our tree of remembrance but also our ‘Tree of Healing’.  Around its pot will be inscribed a verse from scripture that was read at the end of the service as with the families we gathered at the tree.

‘The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ (Revelation 22.2)

But as moving as all that was, as emotional as it was as we all gathered on London Bridge at the end of the service it was the Grand Iftar held in the Cathedral later that evening which spoke so powerfully to me.

For the two weeks before the commemoration a group of twenty of us had been meeting to rehearse a ‘play for voices’. The script ‘Testimony’, had been put together by local writer, Michelle Lovric, from the memories that we had been sharing with her over the last year.  She had turned our reflections back into an account of that evening and afterwards.  It took thirty minutes for us to ‘perform’ and we had practised it, in her apartment and in the Cathedral, on many occasions over those weeks.  But standing there and speaking my own words and hearing my friends speak their words to a nave full of people was emotional and powerful and staggering.

Part of that was about being reminded of what happened, part of it was hearing about what had happened to others, part of it was about realising how strong our local community has been, and part of it was about recognising how much I had depended over these months on God and on my sisters and brothers.  The Iftar began with the Borough Market Choir singing ‘Lean on me’

‘Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friends, I’ll help you carry on, for it won’t be long, till I’m going to need somebody to lean on.’

Bill Wither’s words are powerful. It was part of the healing for me. But I’ve got a lot more thinking and praying and talking to do.

Lord Jesus,
you do not forget us
and hold us in the palm of your wounded hand;
as we continue to remember the events of a year ago,
the dead and the injured,
the traumatised and the sorrowful,
heal our memories,
bind up our wounds,
calm our fears
and remember us in your kingdom.
Amen.

Broken Beauty

This is the sermon I preached this morning in Southwark Cathedral.  The readings were Deuteronomy 5.12-15; 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; Mark 2.23-3.6

One of the joys of Sunday – for me – apart from being here with you of course – is watching ‘Antiques Roadshow’.  What could be more quintessentially British – a bunch of well dressed, well spoken people in the grounds of a stately home talking in the sunshine about a piece of pottery – and envious, intrigued and delighted faces looking on?

But then, horror of horrors.  The pot that was grandma’s, given to her after the war by an old spinster neighbour who looked after them as children – there’s always a good backstory – the pot has been repaired, it isn’t perfect after all.  The owner looks closely as the expert points it out.  Eagle eyed they’ve spotted where the damage has been concealed.  It would’ve been worth millions but now ….

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Broken Beauty by Alison Clark

Alison Clark is with us as our Artist-in-Residence, part of our commemoration of the events one year ago when terrorists attacked our neighbourhood, the events we’re marking all day, but especially this afternoon as the families of those who died in that attack, people who were injured and representatives of so many groups of people caught up in the terrors of that night gather here to remember the past and look forward to the future.  And in the evening, with the local Muslim community, we will be hosting a grand Iftar and local people will be sharing their memories.

Alison is calling her work, ‘Broken Beauty’ and as part of it she’s employing a Japanese technique called Kintsugi.  Instead of concealing damage to a piece of porcelain the Japanese repair it using gold, the scar is not hidden but glorified, the damage not avoided but confronted.

St Paul in our Second Reading likens us to clay jars.  In the world of the Corinthians into which Paul was speaking, these jars were as commonplace as plastic bottles are to us.  They were used for everything, transporting, storing, but they were fragile and the rubbish heaps that archaeologists dig through testify to that.

Paul suggests that we’re as fragile as these clay jars and that that fragility is not a mistake on God’s part.  This is who we are.  We were made from the clay of the earth and God breathed life into us, but ‘remember you are dust and dust you shall return’ says the priest to us on Ash Wednesday.

We are very easily damaged, very easily scarred.

Jesus is in the synagogue.  It’s the Sabbath and there were rules about the Sabbath, handed down from God to Moses, the rules we heard in our First Reading.  And then a man approaches Jesus.  He has a withered hand.  It meant he couldn’t work and people look on him as cursed.  It was the day when no work could be done but it was a day of blessing and Jesus gets to work and tells the man as the others look on

‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

The hand was repaired but the hard hearts of those ready to condemn Jesus for making good what was bad, for showing compassion, those hearts couldn’t be changed, until they were broken.

‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’

Paul’s powerful words spoken into the fragility of our lives speak to our community today.  Those with such hard hearts that they sought to destroy what was beautiful here have not succeeded.  Yes, eight lives were lost and eight families and eight groups of friends will be grieving today in a way I cannot imagine.  Yes, numerous people were injured, physically and mentally and they bear the scars.  Yes, this church was damaged and this area was scarred.  But what is fundamental about this part of London, what was fundamental about this community was not destroyed but was strengthened – that deep sense of inclusion, that deep joy in diversity, that absolute passion for life.

Broken beauty sums it up.  We carry in our fragile, earthenware body the death of Jesus, as he bears on his hands, on his feet, in his side the marks of the violence we inflicted on him.  And God has glorified it, the Lord of the Sabbath, brings us blessing, so that the life of Jesus is always visible in us.

And to remind us of the truth, of broken beauty, bread will be taken and it will be broken. It’s the only way we can share it.  We hold in our hands the brokenness of God who touches our scars with his own wounded hands and makes them shine with a glory like his own.

Lord Jesus,
you do not forget us
and hold us in the palm of your wounded hand;
as we remember the events of a year ago,
the dead and the injured,
the traumatised and the sorrowful,
heal our memories,
bind up our wounds
calm our fears
and remember us in your kingdom.
Amen.

‘Excuse me!’

One of the many privileges of being the Dean of Southwark – and there are many – is my daily commute. Seven minutes of gentle strolling along Bankside and Clink Street is all it takes to get from the Deanery to the Cathedral, watching the river and gazing at the City skyline with its every growing number of high buildings.  I live at 51 Bankside and so the walk takes me past 1 Bankside, the famous Anchor Pub, outside of which Tom Cruise sat in Mission Impossible, but even more importantly than that, where Pepys and Dr Johnson drank.

Bankside

Part of my daily commute

But at whatever time I make that journey – and it’s usually very early – I never have the path to myself.  It seems to be one of the city’s favourite running and jogging routes and Lycra clad individuals run towards me and past me all the way along.  It does make me feel even more ashamed of my lack of fitness but that’s another matter.  But then there are also the people making their way to work – some lovely friends who are heading to the Salvation Army offices on Victoria Street who always give me a cheery ‘Morning’ but mostly people with their heads down and there headphones or ear buds in.  They’re in another world.

I caught part of ‘Woman’s Hour’ on the radio last week.  The item that I heard was all about what was called ‘Pavement Etiquette’ and whilst it was very much, and rightly so, about the safety of women out alone on streets, it made me think about this.

There’s something very British about how we behave on pavements.  Gone are those old standards of not allowing a lady you are accompanying to walk by the gutter. But any kind of regulation – as has been tried, so I believe, in the past – is fiercely resisted.  We will queue for hours in a very orderly fashion but no one is going to tell us how to walk or forbid us crossing a road where we will.  Boris’ removal of street barriers in London gave us the freedom once more to wander at will, not like those foreigners who can be prosecuted for jaywalking!

But it isn’t that that bothers me as much as the times nowadays that I can’t seem to anticipate which way someone is going to move when we’re walking towards each other – and you get into that embarrassing dance of both moving the same way – a kind of ‘Pedestrian Jig’! Because they haven’t noticed I am there, on the same pavement, until it is too late – and not even an ‘Excuse me!’

The advice from Jesus, to be honest, on this matter is slightly confusing.

‘Greet no one on the road.’ (Luke 10.4) he tells the seventy as they prepare to go off on mission.  But then Jesus meets so many on the road, it’s where most of his ministry takes place, out there on the ‘pavement’, on the street, by the roadside, greeting and being greeted.  Obviously the instruction to the disciples was because they were, literally, on a mission, an urgent task, and nothing could distract them from it. Set the pace and don’t stop. But it’s not an instruction for how we behave when we’re walking.  Instead the road to Emmaus, meeting the two walkers, is a much better model.

‘Jesus himself came near and went with them.’ (Luke 24.17)

Walking with Jesus

Walking with Jesus

The problem is, when we isolate ourselves, whether walking or whatever we are doing, we become oblivious to the other person, there’s no ‘Excuse me’ any longer, because there is only one person in the world that I am inhabiting.  As John Donne so famously said

No man is an island,
Entire of itself

But we can often behave as though we are an island. So I’ll continue enjoying my daily walk – but it would be even better if there were others walking with me.

Lord Jesus,
may I recognise you on the journey
and walk with you.
Amen.

Warming the heart

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

In every generation there are great story tellers, Homer and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, Blyton and Rowling.  They all tell their stories and those stories, which we then tell to each other, help to interpret truth to growing generations.  Among my favourites is Hans Christian Anderson.  By the harbour in Copenhagen sits the Little Mermaid testifying to the power of his storytelling.  But my favourite amongst the stories he tells is ‘The Snow Queen’, which, as the story begins, we hear ‘Tells of the mirror and its fragments’.

A new generation know a bit of that story through the work of that other great storyteller of our times, or rather an interpreter of stories, Disney, because Hans Christian Anderson’s great story can be glimpsed, just about, in that popular animated movie, ‘Frozen’.

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Heartlessness on the Israel -Gaza border

Both versions of the story centre on what happens when a shard of the evil mirror or the frost from Queen Elsa’s hand, enters the heart.  The heart at the very centre of the person is frozen, dies, is turned to stone.  Humanity is lost, love is lost and, as in those final moments of the film ‘Frozen’ on the icy wastes of the harbour, it takes an act of true love to bring the warmth and life back to the heart.

‘I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (Ezekiel 36.26)

It’s the promise of God through the prophet Ezekiel, it’s the life of which St Peter speaks so eloquently to the enraptured crowd on that first day of Pentecost.  The apostles, with Our Lady, have been locked away in the room that’s become for them both security and prison ever since, in an expression of true divine love, in that space Jesus broke bread and shared it, poured wine and drank it, gave them his body and blood and washed their feet.  But that warmth of divine love was replaced by the chill of fear.  The windows were bolted, the doors were barred, their hearts were locked until the wind blew out what locked them in and fire warmed their frozen hearts.

George Herbert uses another metaphor to tell the story in his poem ‘Whitsunday’.  Instead of a frozen heart, a stone heart, he likens it to an egg being hatched.

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

The mother bird sits on her eggs not allowing them to get cold.  She uses her own heart’s heat to warm those eggs until life breaks through the shell and the chick takes wing ‘and flie away with thee.’ It’s a wonderful image.

Pentecost brings us to life, like a hatching egg, a tender heart brought to true life, so that that heart beats with the beat of God, the rhythm of life is the rhythm of God.

The heartlessness of so much around us needs challenging.  Watching the horrific scenes from Israel last week as live ammunition was used on unarmed protestors on the Israel/Gaza border, seeing how the administration of the USA could heartlessly and for purely political and ideological reasons make a change to the status of Jerusalem by moving its Embassy and so unsettling and threatening what is always a fragile paece, registering how our own government deals with the status and rights of long term residents of this nation, our friends and neighbours, all these things remind us that the cold, frozen heart is not just something that can exist in the individual but in the structures that we create, in the places and communities that we inhabit.

When Jeremy Irons was in this Cathedral a few weeks ago reading to us T S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ he read these words

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror

The descending dove hatches the egg, warms the heart, turns stone to flesh and brings us to life, so that our heart beats in time with the divine heartbeat making Easter live for the whole of creation, as what was dead was brought to life.

PentecostHeart

A heart warmed by the Spirit

As Peter says to the listening crowd

“You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

(Acts.2.28)

This is a story really worth telling, the truth of God come down from heaven which gives life to the people and thaws the frozen heart and makes flesh the heart of stone.

Come, Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your people
and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Amen.

A piece in the jigsaw

So, thanks to all of you who liked the fact that I took a break last week from the blog (I took that as a positive and caring response) but I said I might tell you about what I was up to. So here goes.

I have a couple of friends with whom, over the last twenty years I’ve enjoyed an annual ‘city break’.  It normally happens at this time in the year, a good time for wandering around cities.  Over the years we’ve ticked off a great many of the European cities.  But we had not been to Malta.  So that is what we did.  We found a lovely, quite luxurious hotel just outside of the new gates to the city near the new parliament house designed by the architect of The Shard, Renzo Piano, and had four days there.  It wasn’t long enough, of course, there is so much to see on this little island and we only touched the surface.

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The beauty of Malta

People had told me that it’s lovely and they weren’t wrong – particularly if you keep clear of some of the ‘resorts’ which looked fun but weren’t the place for much sightseeing! Valletta with its Grand Harbour and the Three Cities across the water, it’s bastions and churches, the amazing Cathedral of St John, are simply beautiful.  The little streets, built on a simple grid pattern, with their overhanging enclosed balconies, were delightful.  We walked miles, seeing as much as we could and eating the Maltese speciality – rabbit (where the rabbits live on such a rocky island defeats me – we never spotted one in any field – perhaps because they are on every menu!).

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Not a rabbit in sight!

But being a bit of a pious thing I was especially looking forward to catching up with St Paul.  pilgrimages over the years from Southwark Cathedral have taken us into Turkey where we have been to places where St Paul had been – Ephesus for instance; we have been through Greece visiting all those wonderful Pauline places, Thessalonica, Philippi, Corinth and, of course, Athens.  We’ve been so many times to Caesarea Maritima on the Israeli coast where Paul was held.  And some years ago we visited the church on the outskirts of Damascus which marked the place Saul fell from his horse and we walked along Straight Street in the city itself along which he was led, blinded by the light, and saw the gatehouse from which he was lowered in a basket. We’ve been to Rome and it’s outskirts and walked along the road where Paul walked as he arrived at

‘the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns’ (Acts 28.15)

But what these few days in Malta gave us the opportunity to do was to encounter on the ground what we read in Acts 27 & 28.  Just to remind you of the rather swashbuckling story, Paul had been arrested and was being taken as a prisoner to Rome to stand trial.  It was a journey by boat across the unpredictable Mediterranean.  They set sail from Crete and then got caught up in a dreadful storm that lasted 14 days.  Those verses from Psalm 107.25-30 speak of that experience on the boat that the writer of Acts paints so vividly.

For at his word the stormy wind ariseth : which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep : their soul melteth away because of the trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man : and are at their wits’ end.
So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble : he delivereth them out of their distress.
For he maketh the storm to cease : so that the waves thereof are still.
Then are they glad, because they are at rest : and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.

The haven they came to was St Paul’s Bay and the island was Malta.  Acts 28 then tells us about they were warmly received by the local people who had seen them shipwrecked on a little island just off the coast and who built a fire where they could dry off. But a snake came out of the brushwood and attached itself to Paul – who didn’t die and so proved himself holy to the people.  You can see a wonderful painting of this event in the Diocese of Southwark (you don’t need to travel to Malta to engage with this story) because it forms the wonderful reredos on the east wall of the chapel at the Royal Navel College in Greenwich.  There is Paul, illuminated by the fire, with a snake dangling from his hand.

Paul was then taken to meet

‘the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days.’ (Acts 28.7)

The place where this happened is the magnificent walled city of Mdina.  It really is a treasure, beautifully restored, magnificent buildings and standing there, where Publius lived I realised that here was a real man who heard the word of God from Paul and was converted by him.  Acts then tells us that Publius’ father was ill and Paul healed him and the rest of the islanders brought their sick to Paul, who were also healed.  It seems that Paul lived there for three months and in the neighbouring town of Rabat, just outside of the city walls of Mdina, you can go down into St Paul’s Grotto, where he lived until there was a ship to take them on the final leg of their journey to Rome, where martyrdom would await him.

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St Paul in his grotto

It was like adding a piece in the jigsaw for me, my jigsaw of Paul.  I’m not sure if Paul and I would have got on, I think I would have preferred to hang around Peter to be honest.  I’m not sure Paul would have liked me and I don’t warm to everything that he writes.  But then I’m not that different to many of those who began travelling with him but decided to leave him, for one reason or another.  But this complex man gave his life to mission, to getting the Good News of Jesus Christ out there and the lands of the mediterranean are a witness to his travels.  And real people, like Publius, like those who saw the snake hanging, like those who brought their sick, met a man whose eyes had been opened to Jesus on the Damascus Road.  So thank God for the people of Malta and their faithfulness to the Gospel – I hope they served Paul a bit of rabbit as well!

Living God,
as you were alive to Paul,
as you came alive to Publius and his companions,
be alive in me
as I witness to your life.
Amen.

More tea, Vicar?

One of the things that a curate used to have to do – back in the day, as they seem to now say – was to develop the capacity to drink a huge number of cups of tea in an afternoon without having to ask to go to someone’s loo! This was in the day when we did that very old-fashioned thing called ‘visiting’.  Our day was divided into three.  The morning was for doing stuff like going to Morning Prayer and Mass, taking assembly, writing a sermon, doing some admin and taking the Sacrament to the sick and housebound.  Then after lunch you embarked on visiting – some planned, some ‘cold calling’ – and you did this until it was time to go back to church for Evensong.  Then you had your tea and then you went to meetings in the evening.  It was all very straightforward.

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A perfect cuppa

And when you arrived in someone’s home the first question you were asked was ‘Would you like some tea, Father?’. The answer could be never anything else but ‘Yes – that would be lovely!’ because accepting hospitality was all part of the deal.

The thing that I notice about Jesus is his willingness to visit people in their home and his eagerness to accept their hospitality.  Some of his greatest encounters with people were during a meal, like in the house of Simon the Pharisee, who had a lot to learn about true hospitality.

But the people of east Leeds, where I was walking the streets each afternoon, knew all about it.  A nice tea-tray, with a few Hobnobs, maybe a piece of home-made cake and nourished we would sit and chat for half an hour.

So, last year when I was asked if we would be willing to bless the first of the new tea harvest, the First Flush Darjeeling, for one of the stalls in the Borough Market, I, of course, said ‘yes’.  The owner of Tea2You, Rattan, had seen what we did for another trader in the Market, BreadAhead, our local bakery.  They produce a Lammas loaf with the flour milled from the new grain.  They bring it to the cathedral and we use it for the celebration of the Eucharist that day.  It’s a very ancient – Anglo-Saxon – tradition.  There isn’t the same tradition with tea, well, not in this country.

But given the relationship between vicars and tea I felt I couldn’t refuse.  In his memoir one Revd Sydney Smith, wrote this

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

I think he meant, before we started drinking tea over here, because of course the tradition of drinking this beverage is ancient.  But I too am glad that the tradition was brought here.

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Blessing the tea

So last week we repeated the blessing.  Rattan and his staff with friends from the Borough Market brought some of the newly picked and dried Darjeeling, the very first and tender leaves, to the Cathedral and we blessed them and gave thanks for the harvest.  It is all in the tradition spelt out in the law of Moses that the first fruits be brought to God.

The Lord said to Aaron, ‘All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the Lord, I have given to you. The first fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the Lord, shall be yours; everyone who is clean in your house may eat of it. Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.’ (Numbers 18.12-14)

We read a poem “Song of Seven Cups” by Lú Tóng.

The first cup caresses my dry lips and throat,
The second shatters the walls of my loneliness,
The third explores the dry rivulets of my soul
Searching for legends of five thousand scrolls.
With the fourth the pain of past injustice vanishes through my pores.
The fifth purifies my flesh and bone.
With the sixth I commune with the immortals.
The seventh conveys such pleasure I am overcome.
The fresh wind blows through my wings
As I make my way to Penglai.

And then I blessed the tea using these words

Generous God,
you visit the earth and water it,
you make it very plenteous
and from the soil
you bless us with food to sustain us
and drink to cheer us.
We thank you for the tea harvest
and for this First Flush of Darjeeling.
We thank you for tea planters
for tea pickers
for tea merchants and importers.
We thank you for all who make tea
at home, in the market, in our teashops
and pray that all who drink it
may be calmed, strengthened
and comforted.
May your blessing rest on this tea
and those who will enjoy it
for you are God,
Father, Son and Spirit,
Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,
now and for ever.
Amen.

And then? Well, it was time for another cup of tea, brewed in the market, the cup that cheers, for which I am always happy to give thanks to God.

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Enjoying a cup of ‘blessed’ tea with Rattan and Darren

Creator God,
for the food we eat,
for the drink we drink,
for this bountiful
and beautiful earth
we give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

A hostile nation?

This is the sermon I preached in Southwark Cathedral today. I felt I had to. The readings I refer to are Acts 4.5-12, 1 John 3.16-24 and John 10.11-18

The flag of St George is flying proudly from the Cathedral Tower. In the Borough Market, people are celebrating the St George’s Festival. Morris dancers are limbering up. Helmeted children get ready to stage fights against paper dragons. What could be more English, what could be more British?

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The image of St George in Southwark Cathedral

Shakespeare put the words and the images into our minds and into our mouths, the mythology of England that’s played out at this time of the year. What heart can fail to be stirred by those words from ‘Richard II’

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Of course, St George was not English and never came here. He’s not exclusively ours and in fact is Patron Saint in one way or another of 24 countries, more than probably any other saint. People think that he was Palestinian but no one’s certain. And we hadn’t had anything to do with him as a nation until the Crusades when the soldiers returned wedded to this martyr warrior, this saint for conquerors who was established as patron in 1350 usurping St Edward the Confessor who was our Patron, the kindly, good king.

But that shouldn’t stop the celebrations, these few facts, rather than the fantasy, and we fly our flag with pride. But as we do so, we have to ask ourselves, as Christians, the question, the vital question, what kind of nation are we, what kind of England, what kind of ‘other Eden’, what kind of country do we want to be?

The image of the Good Shepherd is probably as far removed from the images of St George as we could possibly imagine. But it was that image that first captured the imaginations and the hearts of the early followers of Jesus. As they were being buried in the catacombs outside of Rome it wasn’t the cross that they drew around their tombs, but more enigmatically the symbol of the fish, ‘Ichthus’, and it wasn’t the crucified Christ who they pictured but the shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders.

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‘I am the Good Shepherd’

It was the image of the Good Shepherd that attracted people, the images that Jesus describes in the Gospel reading for today, the shepherd and the lambs.

Lambs, for some reason, produce in us a variety of responses but mostly ones of affection.

Blake, the other creator of the mythology of England, wrote in his book ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ two parallel poems – ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’.

Blake writes so tenderly and brilliantly

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.

He is the shepherd who is himself a lamb, we are the lambs and called by his name and he draws us into one fold, with one shepherd, a people who know his voice and who know, to use St Peter’s words from the First Reading, that

‘there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’.

The Lamb of God, who is the Shepherd, is the saviour. And the pastoral and the caring and the loving and the salvific image that this set of ideas creates inspired those first Christians in their believing, inspired the likes of George, a Palestinian Christian in his own fearless believing – not the dragon slayer but a lamb of the same flock as we.

St John in our Second Reading challenges the early church, challenges those early Christians

‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’

What kind of nation are we celebrating as the flags fly and the Morris Dancers dance and the dragons are slain and what kind of nation do we wish to be? What kind of England, what kind of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? What kind of ‘other Eden’ to use Shakespeare’s monumental words?

The scandal of the way in which some of those of the Windrush Generation were being treated, which became clear last week, cast a shadow over our nation as the leaders of the Commonwealth gathered here, cast a shadow over a nation already overshadowed for some of us.

What did those in government, which ever government it actually was, of whatever colour, think that they were doing, denying the rights of people who arrived here, at our invitation so long ago, people who’ve been our neighbours and our friends for so long, who’ve helped the Church of England to survive in so many places in spite of the way in which in so many of our churches Caribbean Anglicans were effectively frozen out? What kind of hard, uncaring, unjust and inhospitable people are we who seek to create what seems to be called a ‘hostile environment’ rather than a hospitable nation? Thank God that some of our bishops amongst so many others stood up and made the government think again – but the very fact that they had to think again makes my blood run cold.

We will be brexiting, I’m sure of that. I remain, unashamedly as you know, a remainer but I also know that the path we’re set on seems inevitable. Much of the passion behind leaving Europe seemed to be driven by a desire to be a different kind of country, but what kind of country will that be?

The shepherd who we celebrate today is not some soppy, romantic individual. The shepherd works hard to protect the sheep, to save the lambs, to find the lost and bring the straggler home. As Jesus says to his listeners

‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’.

But the fold is as large as the love of God and Jesus makes that clear

‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.’

We say that as a community in this place we believe in inclusion. If that is really true then I believe that we will need to witness to that even more powerfully and even more openly in the months and the years to come.

There are some who wish to change the nature of this country and have been working at that, feeding the fears and the insecurities and the prejudices of some, who also need pastoring. We’re called to stand with the Windrush Generation some of whom will, in those early days, have driven us to work, mopped our brows in hospitals, delivered our babies, cleaned our offices, served our food, put up with our abuse and whose children are now some of the leaders in our society and our church. And we need to stand alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters, we need to stand alongside refugees, we need to stand alongside those who still suffer prejudice as a consequence of gender or sexuality. That is our calling and as we gather as a congregation at our Annual Parochial Church Meeting that is what we need to affirm, again, and again and again and again.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd and his love enfolds all, we’re all included and enfolded in the fold and that is the ‘other Eden’ where the lambs are fed at the shepherd’s hand and where love is the banner under which we sit. If this sounds like a rallying cry, it is.

Fly the flag, for it bears a cross, the Saviour’s, the shepherd’s, the sign to the world of the God who out of love, not out of hostility, came and died and rose for you and for everyone of our neighbours, the fruit of the tree of another garden, the fruit of the tree of ‘the other Eden’, the tree of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – and tasting of that fruit opens our eyes to the truth.

God,
give us the courage
to be the people
you call us to be.
Amen.

Looking for evidence

I don’t know what Maths classes were like when you were at school but for me, after a bit of talk and chalk, we used to have workbooks handed to us, with lots of questions, that had to be answered.  Obviously our teachers weren’t stupid but it didn’t take me long to find that the answers to all the questions were printed at the back of the book.  So it seemed obvious to me that you just copied the answers from the back of that book into your own Maths book, take it to the teacher and, hey presto, the job was done. ’10/10 please, Miss!’

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Does it bring back memories?

But the teacher had this annoying habit of sending me back to my desk with the instruction that I had to show the ‘workings out’, that I had to write down the formula with the numbers in it to show how I had got to the right answer.  She was no fool – and as I was and am still useless at Maths that rather stumped me.

Show me the workings out, show me the evidence.

Thinking about it I suppose that I lost confidence with the government (in general not specifically) and with politicians (in general not specifically) when the whole Iraq war ‘weapons of mass destruction’ debacle hit us.  We were told so clearly that there was evidence that these WMDs existed and were ready to be deployed.  We had to go in and take these out so that this particular political despot could not threaten his people or us.  And there was nothing behind it.  ‘Show us the workings out’ and they couldn’t.  So whether it be with the poisoning of the Skripal’s in Salisbury, or the chemical attack in Syria, I find it hard to accept that when I’m told there is evidence, that there is evidence.  I understand that no one is going to come round to my house to show me the evidence but deep down, in my stomach, I just wonder what the evidence is and its veracity.  And then we launch an attack whilst we are still in the process of verifying the evidence.

So I have a lot of sympathy for Thomas in the Upper Room. Coming into that room on the evening of the first Easter Day to be met by an ecstatic group of his friends telling him that they had seen the Lord, but without any evidence apart from their excitement, I can entirely understand why he then said

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ (John 20.25)

He needed the evidence right there in front of him, he needed to handle the evidence.

But didn’t he trust his friends? He’d known them for so long, been through so much with them, you would have thought that if they all were telling him this that he would have believed them, without needing to touch and see, without needing that physical, irrefutable evidence.  But Thomas wasn’t like that, ‘show me’ was important to him, vital if he was going to believe.  And after all it was a matter of life and death, of death and life, for each of them and for us.

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Carravagio

Of course, in so many things I have to trust.  But trust, like respect, is earned and easily lost.  You trust until the basis of that trust is broken and then you find it hard to trust again, something big has to happen in order to win it back.  As one translation expresses the words of Jesus

‘Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.’ (John 14.1)

What is remarkable is that this is  said on one of the other occasions mentioned in St John’s Gospel when Thomas is there and involved in the debate.  The first time we meet him the disciples are about to travel with Jesus to see Lazarus who has died.  On this second occasion Jesus speaks of trust and the third occasion is in the Upper Room.  From that first response of Thomas to Jesus and the others when Jesus tells them that their friend Lazarus has died

‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11.16)

a reckless kind of response, we find someone who appears more hesitant as time rolls on, until he sees the evidence and then makes that great declaration of faith that we utter sotto voce as the host is raised before us at the Mass

‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20.28)

He believes, he trusts, he declares his faith and is willing to pick up that initial recklessness and die with Christ, for Christ, which is what the tradition tells us happened.

But as far as Syria goes I need my trust rebuilding before I can accept something without the evidence.  Like my Maths teacher, I need to see the workings out.

Lord,
teach me how to trust and to question
to question and to trust.
Amen.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark