Last Christmas

So, it has been the last Christmas of the decade and what a great place to end with a ‘Gavin and Stacey’ special on Christmas Day.  After almost a decade it was reassuring to know that not that much has changed in our society, that millions of us could still tune in together, at the same time, to watch a Christmas special.  Perhaps we are not as divided as we feared!  It felt like the old days when we would settle down to watch ‘The Morecombe and Wise Show’ to see which TV celebrity would be making a fool of themselves or showing what a good sport they were.  Angela Rippon, Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn, they all appeared.  But the trip back to Billericay and Barry was heartwarming and I have to admit to shedding a tear as Ness knelt before Smithy at the end of the Christmas Day special.

TV Family

How we used to watch the TV

It was a good Christmas at the Cathedral, or I should say, a good Advent and Christmas Day because Christmas has only begun. But it was good to see so many coming along to carol services and concerts, to special events and then to all the services around Christmas Day itself.

We normally have one ‘Christmas Message’ each, the clergy at the Cathedral that is, that we preach at the Carol Services we are looking after.  In the end I had to have two – pre and post election.  So just for the record these are the two that I have been preaching.  Have a wonderful Christmas and as Stacey said to Gavin, ‘We’ve got to keep the fire burning.’


This was my first homily!

You may be a Lidl food shopper, or perhaps it’s Aldi where you go, or maybe Iceland – ‘Mum’s love Iceland’ so I’m told or you may in fact be an M&S food person, or even, Waitrose but wherever it is you go you may well have picked up from the checkout one of those Christmas catalogues they have lying around to entice you.

To be perfectly honest I like a bit of convenience.  I’ve been flicking through the catalogue from my local food shop, M&S Simply Food to see what I might order to make Christmas Day really easy and non-stressful, at least where the kitchen is concerned.

Turkeylifestyle

Oven ready!

They’ve got ready stuffed this, pre-cut that, perfect roast potatoes, Christmas cakes in every shape and size, puddings you don’t have to boil for three hours.  I’m almost ashamed to admit it, here in the midst of the Borough Market where I could buy all the ingredients and put these things together myself – from scratch.  But, no, I think I’ll go for convenience, again!

It was inconvenient to have a General Election called for today, ‘Just the worst time of the year’ to pinch a phrase from the poet, T S Eliot.  Lots to do, schools and church halls all booked up, so much to distract us and an election to bother about when we could be least bothered.

But a bit of inconvenience goes with Christmas.

When the message reached Nazareth that a decree had been issued that everyone had to be in their home town to be counted, it was very inconvenient if you came from Bethlehem and were living up north in Nazareth.  But there was nothing for it, pregnant wife and all had to be loaded onto a donkey and a week’s journey undertaken.  ‘Just the worst time of the year’.

It was inconvenient for the innkeeper to have a pregnant woman on his doorstep, inconvenient for shepherds having to leave their flocks by night, inconvenient for star gazers to be pulled away from gazing at ‘Just the worst time of the year’. It was inconvenient for a capricious king to be told a new king had been born just the other side of the hill, where stars were shining.

It was so inconvenient.  But God knew there was nothing else that could be done and broke into our reality in the most inconvenient way.  God came as a needy baby, God came in total vulnerability, God came as child to save his children.  It was inconvenient but there was no other way.

And the world stopped what it was doing, forgot all the distractions, and as the poet Christina Rossetti described it in one of her carols, humanity was

‘Thrilled through with awestruck love.’

Whether you’re ready for God or not, God comes to you, God comes to us, inconveniently asking us to live differently, to live better.  God comes to us inconveniently speaking of truth and justice, of peace, of hope; inconveniently holding up the poor and challenging the rich.  God comes inconveniently, even when everything seemed oven-ready!

But we have been ‘Thrilled through with awestruck love.’  We see it in the crib, we see it on the cross.  We weren’t ready, it wasn’t the time, but God comes at God’s time, in our time, bringing us hope, speaking of peace, embodying love.  God has come to bring us home, whether it’s convenient for us – or not.


This is the homily I have been preaching post-election.

I make it no secret that I love Christmas.  Scrooge and I would just not see eye to eye at all – there’s no humbug in it for me, just pure joy.  But am I just really in love with the fantasy of Christmas? For me that fantasy is a bit like the recipe for a Christmas cake, so many ingredients to create that incredible flavour.

The Christmas inside my head is about trees and carols and snow, it has elements of ‘Home Alone’, ‘White Christmas’, ‘Frozen’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, lashings of Band Aid, the Pogues with Kirsty McCall (of course), Noddy Holder, Phil Spectre, Michael Buble, its about a sprinkling of memories of selection boxes, Blue Peter annuals, the Radio Times special, waking up early on Christmas morning and wearing paper hats.  In my head and in my heart there’s such a fantasy of Christmas.

Card-MerryXmas_Snowscene1

The fantasy of Christmas

But if I stop fantasising, just for a moment, I suddenly realise that most of the Christmases that I’ve enjoyed have been nothing like that.  Presents break as soon as you look at them, the turkey is tough, grandma snores in the corner, the tele is rubbish and it rains all day.  Reality impinges on my fantasy and the magic and the sparkle and the glitter and the angels seem to disappear.

The truth is that Christmas is both about our fantasies, let’s call them our dreams, and it’s also about our reality.  Christmas is about the joy of anticipation, the building up of hope, in the midst of the ordinary and the mundane.  Christmas is about arriving in a town in the dead of night and finding that the inns are full.  It’s about being given a stable instead of a warm bed in which to have your baby.  Christmas is about heaven breaking into our harsh reality.

Just as we were about to begin the countdown to Christmas, before we’d even been able to open a single door on our Advent Calendar and enjoy the chocolate hidden behind it, this community was drawn into a second terror attack.  The events on the other side of the river at Fishmongers’ Hall and then on London Bridge, the deaths of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, the injuring of bodies, the disturbing of minds, the reopening of wounds, the stirring up of memories, made for a harsh beginning to the anticipation of Christmas.  But this was the reality in which we started to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I was at a carol service the other day and looking through the order of service beforehand realised that the choir would be singing my favourite carol.  It’s called ‘Bethlehem Down’, the words are by Bruce Blunt and the music by Peter Warlock.  They wrote it together in 1927 to finance a binge drinking session that they were planning for Christmas Eve that year. They wrote the carol, entered it into the Daily Telegraph Carol Competition for that year, won and I suppose drank the winnings!  Perhaps not a great reason for doing it.  But what they produced is deeply poignant and shockingly honest.

When He is King they will clothe Him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown.

In nativity plays in schools and churches across the world a doll is wrapped and laid to rest in a manger, but the child as a man will be wrapped in other cloths and laid once more to rest, in a tomb.  Jesus is born into our harsh reality because we exist in the real world, you exist in the real world and it’s to the real world that God comes, in peace, with hope. We mustn’t allow the fantasy of Christmas to obscure its reality.

But, you know, we also need a touch of the sparkle and the magic of Christmas to shine into the world, we need Disney, we need Michael Buble and a fantasy of Christmas to make us realise the truth of what is so amazing, that God is with us, that heaven touches earth as a child is born.

Feel some of the magic of Christmas now and face the reality of tomorrow when it comes, knowing that when it does come God is with us, God is with you.


Whatever your Christmas was like, whichever of these best describes it, I hope that the new year is full of blessings as we continue to encounter the Living God.

Living God,
your life gives life to the world;
live in us,
live in me,
may our lives reflect your life.
Amen.

Speaking into it

My family has a long tradition of talking too much – it’s somewhere in the double helix of our DNA!  Back in the days when you could be caned at school or have the board rubber whistle past your ear, my mother, was still being punished for talking in class right up to the time when she matriculated.  I have one of those agonising memories of being made to stand in the middle of the classroom (when humiliation had replaced corporal punishment) during a VIth form study period for talking on the back row when we were meant to be working in silence! But some strokes of the cane or a bit of humiliation cured neither my mum nor me of this desperate need to talk.  And I can see the same in many members of my family.  When we get together we all seem to be talking and very few are listening!

Moulton-School-photo-fix

Everyone looks well behaved here!

But, to be honest, it has stood me in good stead.  I and the Cathedral community at Southwark are very grateful to all those who sent messages of support to us during last weekend when we were faced with another terrorist attack in the London Bridge area.  As I said then, it all served to reopen old wounds and stir memories, uncover hurts that still need healing.  On Friday, after returning from our local mosque where I had been for Friday Prayers, I joined people gathered in the nave of the Cathedral at the time when the attack took place and we stood, not talking, but in silence, remembering Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones who were killed and all of those who were in any way caught up in what happened.

But especially around the weekend and immediately afterwards the media were on our doorstep and wanting to talk to me about what had happened.  Colleagues were concerned for me, all these demands being made, how was I doing, I needed to look after myself.  I knew they were right to have those concerns, so I did a bit of thinking about all of that and came to the realisation that for me talking is therapeutic, talking is how I begin to make a bit of sense of things.  I don’t think  I am very different to many other people, it’s just that I was given numerous opportunities to tell the story and to articulate what we were feeling as a community, to put into words things that are at times very difficult to express or describe.  But when you are asked the question, you have to find the words.,

We have a team of trained listeners in the Cathedral and it was good to see that they were being well used last Sunday after the Choral Eucharist.  People just needed to talk and they needed someone who was prepared simply to listen.  The speaking and the listening have to go together – and listening in a good way, attentive, focused, careful.

So I am grateful to the BBC and ITV and Sky and even the Sydney Morning Herald, among others, for doing that bit of therapy for me, asking me the questions and then listening, enabling me to express my own feelings and, I hope, speak of what others are feeling after listening to what they have said.

Whilst all of this has been going on we have been having carol services and carol concerts – I’m in my element, I love Christmas! – and so I have already heard the Prologue to St John’s Gospel read on a few occasions.  And what has struck me is John’s use of the Greek word ‘logos’ which we translate as Word.

Logos.svg

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1.1)

In Greek, the word for the written word is ‘lexis’ but for the spoken word it is ‘logos’.  The incarnation that we celebrate is of the word spoken into our being, the word that God spoke over creation in the very beginning, taking flesh and speaking.  And what is so powerful for me is that the spoken word becomes flesh as a child who must learn to speak, the logos begins by speaking words of complete vulnerability that only his mother can begin to understand.

The poet Carol Ann Duffy in her poem ‘The Virgin punishing the infant’ reflects a little on this.

He spoke early.  Not the goo goo goo of infancy
but I am God.

And God finds a voice and speaks the logos into the world – and for once we listen.

Logos of God,
speak to me,
speak through me.
Amen.

Christmas visitors

This is the text of my sermon delivered at Southwark Cathedral on Christmas Day.  I hope you continue to have a wonderful Christmas.  There won’t be a blog on this site until Epiphany – so happy New Year!  The readings for Christmas Day were Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14

Love them or loathe them, visitors are part of Christmas.  There are those visitors who just drop by, have a mince pie and go – great.  There are those who drop by, sink into an armchair and don’t seem to want to leave and you have to begin that yawning business to give them the hint – or put your pyjamas on – I find that usually works!  And there are those who arrive with their cases packed with everything for a long stay – longer than you thought they were coming for.  And they take over the house with their stuff and you end up having to put people in all the rooms and maybe on the sofas and there’s a queue outside the bathroom and it should be wonderful but it simply ends up being stressful and exhausting.  And then they go and you wave them off, shut the door and say, well that was nice to see them!

One of my favourite Christmas films is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and it’s a lot about visitors and the hell that they bring with them and the unexpected brother-in-law, wife, two kids and the dog.

nativity-main

But of course we also love visitors, connecting us back with family and friends, giving us that great sense of what hospitality means, sharing our life, sharing our table, bringing added joys to the festivities.  But it’s still nice to see them go and to get the place back to yourself!

I don’t like disagreeing with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Henry VIIIth who had the unenviable task of dealing with the king’s divorce – but there’s one thing I have to disagree with him about.  As you probably know, Cranmer was the author of much of the Book of Common Prayer and in that book there are wonderful Collects for every Sunday of the year.  Each one is a work of art in itself.  But in Advent and Lent we have the instruction to keep using the collect for the first Sunday of each of those seasons every day, as a common thread.  So during the four weeks of Advent we’ve been praying at each evensong the same Collect

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;

And it’s that that I disagree with, that little phrase, which the modern Collect, to be fair, has got rid of, ‘came to visit us’.

 It puts into my mind the notion that Jesus is the same as some of the visitors that we have around our homes, dropping by, cluttering the place up, outstaying their welcome, eating all the food, polishing off the sherry, monopolising the TV remote.  God as a visitor does not seem that positive a notion.

The gospel for today is the great Prologue to St John’s gospel.  There’s no mention of Bethlehem, no mention of stables, no mention of shepherds, of angels, of wise men, not even of Mary and Joseph.  To be honest it isn’t very Christmassy at all but it is the greatest piece of theological writing in the Bible.  John’s not writing narrative, he’s not telling us a story, he’s unfolding truth, he’s attempting to express the inexpressible, to put into words the greatest mystery and he says it in these words

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

God did not choose to visit the earth like some pagan God descending from Mount Olympus to frolic with mortals.  God did not choose to come like some ET figure crying out in his heart ‘Phone home’ all the time.  God did not come to visit, God came to stay.  He came not to visit us in great humility as we have been praying, God came to embrace life with great humility.

John Donne in his poem ‘Nativity’ expresses something of the truth of this

There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come.

It was the humbling that enabled God not just to visit but to live, the immensity of our concept of God had to be found in the form of a tiny baby with all of a baby’s vulnerability, all of a baby’s needs, all of a baby’s fragility.  This is what the word becoming flesh means.  That word, which when spoken, as we were reminded of in our Second Reading, created all that is, is the most powerful word that has ever sounded through the universe, and that word is now humbled into the gentle cry, the contented murmur of a baby feeding at his mother’s breast, laid in straw in an ox’s stall.

There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come.

And this God who comes, whose birth at Bethlehem we celebrate is not the unwelcome visitor but the guest that we have desired, the companion, the one for whom we hoped, the blessing for which we longed.

In the Eucharist there’s a great exchange of roles – Jesus is the real host at this celebration, we are here as guests, he is the bread-breaker and also the bread himself, he is the wine-pourer and also the wine himself.  In the same way at Christmas we realise that in fact we’re not the visited but it is we who are the visitors.  As the prophet Isaiah made clear in our First Reading we are those looking for

‘the return of the Lord to Zion’.

The Christmas story is all about visitors but not about Jesus visiting but about shepherds and wise men and angels finding their way to the place where he was born and then returning to their own homes with good news.  They were visiting the one they’d been looking for and finding him, finding the baby, they can return home with renewed spirits, with fresh hope.

We end this year in a very difficult place.  There can be few people around who consider that this is a good place to be.  There are 94 days to Brexit and the clock really is ticking.  I can’t imagine that many of our political leaders are happy with what they’ve achieved this year.  It’s a mess and the sense of uncertainty that is now in London and nationally is very real and very damaging.  And in the midst of that uncertainty we celebrate this Christmas and become the visitors at the door of the Holy Child.

There is one simple truth that we proclaim at Christmas and it doesn’t matter how the preacher dresses it up, what tack we take, the message is the same and the message is true.  What we find when we enter that stable, in which the immensity of the divine is to be found in the weakness of human flesh, is that God is with us, Emmanuel, God is with us, not for a time, not as a visitor, but as the sharer with us of the joys and the sorrows of life, the pleasures and the pains, the hopes and the disappointments.  This is not a come and go God, not the visitor we are eager to see the back of, but the one who makes his home with us and we, our home with him.

We end the year in a very difficult place but we end it where we began it with those simple words on our lips and in our hearts, God is with us.  And whatever it is that we have to face in the New Year that is on the horizon, we never face it alone or without that deep sense of joy and hope that comes from looking into the crib and seeing the child who holds heaven in his yet to be wounded hands.

There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come.

And strong enough to be our Saviour.  God is with us.

Lord Jesus,
dwell with us,
be our guest and be our host,
abide with us always.
Amen.

The fullness of time

At the carol services in the Cathedral I have been preaching this message.  I share it with you here.  Have a very happy Christmas.

What is it that you’re hoping for this Christmas?  What would you really like to find at the bottom of your stocking? All year I’ve been thinking about buying one of those really smart watches, you know the ones, that tell you everything, including the time – and then I look at the price and think, really? Are you going to pay that much for a watch?  But if someone were to buy me one, well, then all that indecision would be over!

Full

You see, unlike it seems many people nowadays, I love having a watch on my wrist, I need to know exactly what time it is.  My life is governed by time, the time of services, the time of meetings, the time of trains, the time of meals.  I keep looking at the clock.

So I was delighted when a new exhibition opened at Tate Modern in September, called simply ‘The Clock’.  The artist, Christian Marclay, has created a 24 hour long film every minute of which shows a clip of another film which includes, somewhere, a clock, showing the exact time that you’re sat there watching it.  It really does take clockwatching to the level of an art form and, for someone like me, compulsive viewing.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time – chronos and kairos.  Chronos is sequential time, the sort of time that clocks and watches record, the time that tick-tocks through the day.  But kairos is another kind of time, it’s the opportune time, the right time, that moment which is the moment when something can happen – and however smart your watch is it can’t tell kairos it can only tell chronos.

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek and so they use both of these words when they’re talking about time and what we’re here to celebrate, the birth of Jesus, took place at both of these times.

In St Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia he says something wonderful, that God sent his Son

‘when the fullness of time had come’ (Galatians 4.4)

and the word he uses for time is chronos.

You see, if someone in Bethlehem had been watching the clock that busy night when the inns were full and the streets were chocked with people still arriving, if someone had been watching the clock they’d have noticed the time that they heard a baby cry.  Someone could have asked them – ‘When did you hear it?’  ‘Just past midnight, I heard a cry, from that stable over there’.

The thing that’s so wonderful is that at Christmas God enters time, our time, the Lord of time and eternity, the ancient of days, enters into what time means, joins in the tick tock of life.  Jesus is born in real time, to share our real time.  It was the fullness of time, the pregnant moment, the ripe moment – it was a kairos moment – the very right time, in a chronos moment, our time.

The clock is always ticking. But Jesus was born at the right time and Jesus continues to be born in our time – because he transcends time.  And whatever is happening in your life right now, whatever is happening in our communities right now, whatever is happening in our national life right now, whatever is happening in the world right now, Jesus is there because he enters into the clockwatching world and inhabits the present moment with us.

That for me is good news and worth singing a carol or two about.

Lord Jesus,
may I recognise you in the now of my life
born for time
living for eternity.
Amen.

100% Christmas

I love having the radio on.  My first choice is Radio 4.  It’s what I go to sleep to and what I wake up to – sleep happens between ‘Today in Parliament’ and ‘Today’. But I can’t work to that – too much talking to ignore.  So I usually listen to Classic FM, Radio 3 is a bit too demanding for me at times whereas the oft repeated tunes on Classic FM are comforting.  But in December I treat myself to a change and move over to Magic.  Why? Well, I have to sign lots and lots of Christmas cards and whilst doing that I find nothing nicer than listening to all those old Christmas hits that Magic fills the airwaves (if that term is right in the digital age) with and especially at this time of the year.  From last week Magic went ‘100% Christmas’ and that, believe me, is no exaggeration.

If so much Slade and Band Aid and Michael Buble and Andy Williams fills you with horror – well you have been warned.  But I’ve been enjoying it.

PWC

The Chairman of PwC reads at their carol service

I’ve also been enjoying all the carol services and carol concerts that I’ve been doing.  The vergers pin a long list of all the special services in December to the back of the vestry door and they mark them off as we go through them like a condemned person in a cell! Livery Companies, schools, charities, the big firms, community groups – they all come through the place, packing out the cathedral at lunchtime, in the afternoon, in the evening.  People, many I suspect who don’t go to church regularly, there to listen to scripture and sing carols and say their prayers.  I have said on this blog before that I believe carol services are a wonderful mission opportunity.  People are in church ready to listen and eager to participate.  This is the good soil of which Jesus spoke

‘Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’’ (Matthew 13.8)

All the elements that make up any carol service are the seed that has the potential for growth.  Those who are a bit sniffy about such services should think again.

CDays

A great Christmas book

So I’m a bit immersed in Christmas I’m afraid and even the book group of which I’m a member has been reading a very Christmassy book.  We chose Jeanette Winterson’s collection of short stories and recipes  ‘Christmas Days’.  Twelve stories, twelve recipes each prefaced by a little personal tale.  It is a fantastic book and would provide a wonderful way of celebrating the Twelve Days when they arrive.

So in my world all of this is lovely and exciting.  But my question to myself is, who stole Advent, or did I give it away? There is a challenge to me in Dr Seuss’ book ‘The Grinch who stole Christmas.’

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” 

There is a lot more to Christmas but part of that is always discovered in Advent.  The vergers’ list begins to tail off at the end of this week and we will get a little bit of Advent back.  Perhaps then I should switch off Magic and sing instead

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

Lord,
may I find the space
for eager expectation
in the coming days
and at Christmas
know the fulfillment
of your promises.
Amen.

Stirring it up!

I simply can’t believe that we’ve reached the final Sunday of the Christian year – but we have. It’s the Feast of Christ the King and one of the two Patronal Festivals of Southwark Cathedral, a day on which we celebrate the St Saviour, Jesus, element of our posh ‘Sunday’ name – The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.  But this feast that brings the year to its conclusion is a pretty modern creation. The feast was first introduced into the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, but then it was at the end of October, just before All Saints Day.  In 1969 it was moved to its present place in the church year and given the proper title “Domini Nostri Jesu Christi universorum Regis” (Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe).  It took a few years for the rest of the western church to catch on but for most of us we now share in this final celebration of the year.

But, of course, for Anglicans this can never replace, in our inherited memory, the real name of this Sunday – ‘Stir-Up Sunday’.  That title comes from the Prayer Book Collect for the day.

STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

pen-sketch-christmas-pudding-making-mother-cooking-for-kids

Stir-Up Sunday

And that is why this is the traditional day for getting the Christmas Cake, and perhaps the Christmas Pudding, made.  They need plenty of heavy stirring if all the ingredients are going to be properly incorporated.  I know there are people out there who like to make their pudding a year in advance and pride themselves on it.  But I’m just not organised enough for that.  To be honest I most often resort to ‘shop-bought’  as my mother would have described it (though she also always bought a Mrs Peek pudding when none of us wanted to eat it and she had to eat the whole thing herself).  But if you like to cook your own and don’t have any time here is a recipe I found that takes no time at all.

A Cheat’s Christmas Pudding

You need:

    • 1½ x 411g jars luxury mincemeat
    • Grated zest of 1 large orange
    • 2 tbsp brandy
    • 50g self-raising flour
    • 1 tsp mixed spice
    • 50g fresh white breadcrumbs
    • 1 egg, beaten.

To prepare:

Empty the mincemeat into a large bowl and stir in the grated orange zest and brandy. Then stir in the self-raising flour and the spice together and stir into the mincemeat mixture with the breadcrumbs. Stir in the beaten egg. Spoon into a greased 900ml pudding basin.

To cook:

Cover loosely with greaseproof paper and microwave on high for 8-10 minutes.

christmas--z

Lovely

Enough of that – but you will notice there is a lot of stirring still.  Like making bread I find that you can get rid of a great deal of frustration and aggression doing something like that – and if you happen to be feeling frustrated at the moment (I can’t imagine why) then making a pudding or a cake may be just what the doctor ordered!

Christians have a reputation though for doing a bit of stirring.  When Paul has arrived in Caesarea Maritima he appears before Felix the Governor.  The accusation against him was put by Tertullus who said

‘We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world.’ (Acts 24.5)

Paul was a stirrer, an agitator, he was out there mixing it up and people who rely on stability for their power don’t like it.  Being accused of being an agitator, a stirrer, is a serious business and it still is.  You only have to look at the public reaction to the actions of environmental campaigners last week at some of the notorious junctions in London to see the truth of this.  Yet it is part of our DNA, part of our mission and that was why Christians were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17.6), agitators, stirrers.

So when you use that wooden spoon to properly incorporate all those ingredients look on it as a symbol of our calling and may this Sunday be the celebration of the King and the Kingdom which is always turning the world upside down – and don’t forget that the church too needs a bit of a stirring as well!

God, stir us
out of complacency
and into
action.
Amen.

Living God in Jerusalem – ‘and there were shepherds’

Believe it or not we are gearing up for Christmas! It is only a couple of months away and as soon as December begins at Southwark Cathedral we will begin welcoming the thousands of people who will want to join us to sing the carols and hear the readings about what happened in that little town of Bethlehem two thousand years ago. I was thinking about that as we drove into the Judean wilderness today.  Our goal was three-fold – the beautiful Wadi Qelt on the side of which is St George’s Monastery, the baptismal site at the Jordan River and Jordan, the oldest continually inhabited city on the face of the earth and the lowest.

IMG_3336

The barren beauty of the Judean wilderness

To get there meant driving down the road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Either side of the road can be seen Bedouin camps and in the early morning coolness flocks of sheep and goats were being led out to find pasture amongst the scrub.  Often the one leading them, however, is not some wizened old man but a young child.  It is often the case that, just like David, the shepherd is nothing more than a child.  David went out armed with his wit, a sling and a bag of pebbles to keep his father’s flock safe from harm.  These young people equally head out into what appears to us a harsh and challenging environment but which to them is home.

At many performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ this Christmas a treble will sing out the recitative

There were shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. (Luke 2.8)

It’s appropriate that a child sings it, not to remind us of the sound of the angels but of the reality of the shepherds.  And perhaps those who heard the angels and headed down the hill into the town were not a bunch of rough tough men who had seen it all before but some young children who were eager to see a new-born baby, just like children often are.

One of my favourite John Rutter carols is the ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol’.  This was Rutter’s first carol, written when he was just 18 and it retains a freshness as we hear it – and perhaps a great deal of truth that we still see in a Bedouin flock in the early morning light.

Going through the hills on a night all starry
On the way to Bethlehem
Far away I heard a shepherd boy piping
On the way to Bethlehem

Angels in the sky brought this message nigh:
“Dance and sing for joy that Christ the newborn King
Is come to bring us peace on earth
And He’s lying cradled there at Bethlehem.”

“Tell me, shepherd boy piping tunes so merrily
On the way to Bethlehem
Who will hear your tunes on these hills so lonely
On the way to Bethlehem?

Angels in the sky brought this message nigh:
“Dance and sing for the joy that Christ the newborn King
Is come to bring peace on earth
And He’s lying cradled there at Bethlehem.”

“None may hear my pipes on these hills so lonely
On the way to Bethlehem;
But a King will hear me play sweet lullabies
When I get to Bethlehem.”

Angels in the sky came down from on high
Hovered over the manger where the babe was lying
Cradled in the arms of his mother Mary
Sleeping now at Bethlehem.

Lord Jesus,
however old or young I am,
may I welcome you with equal
awe and wonder.
Amen.

Living God

It was 25 years ago that an Australian rom-com film hit our screens and changed our language. The film was called ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and was all about a dancing competition. Sounds familiar? As far as I understand it it was that film that gave the title to the BBC show that for many people has become must-see television, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, and the way in which the word ‘Strictly’, as the shortened version, has dropped into everyday language.

Dancing

Dancing without fear

But for a sequins and sparkle film, it also came up with a phrase which I’ve found really helpful this year. One of the characters talking to another says this ‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived.’

This has been a tough years in many ways and for very many people. As a nation we have experienced horrific terrorist acts in Manchester and London. We watched with horror as Grenfell Tower burnt on our screens and seared its way into our memories. We’ve seen refugees fleeing war and the Rohingya fleeing oppression. We have seen a gunman shooting from a Las Vegas hotel into a crowd of music fans. We have seen families without anything in the blockade of the Yemen. We have seen so many things that have made us weep.

Fear has dominated so much of the year – the fear of Brexit for some, of no Brexit for others; the fear of the newcomer and the stranger; the fear of nuclear standoff in the Far East; the fear of the unknown becoming known.

For the community in which I live and where I serve as Dean all of that became very real for us on the 3 June when on an evening when the crowds were out, having a great time in the London Bridge and Borough Market area, three men, armed with a van and knives wrecked havoc, mowing down people on the bridge and going on the rampage in the streets around Southwark Cathedral. As soon as I heard something was happening I headed out of my house close by and tried to get to the Cathedral to open the doors as a place of refuge and safety. But I couldn’t get any where near. The police held me back and I found myself on the main street, Southwark Street, filled with vehicles with blue flashing lights, pavements filled with the injured and the traumatised being tended to.

I don’t mind telling you that I was petrified. I’d seen this on the news, in the movies, but this was the evening when I lost my innocence. Terror came to our streets and we suffered.

All of that followed the attack on Westminster Bridge and the Manchester Arena; the attacks on Finsbury Park Mosque and Parsons Green tube would follow. These were a terrifying few months that we lived through that took from us the young and the hopeful, friends, colleagues, those who were dedicated to helping others, the innocent and vulnerable.

That evening when I got back to the Deanery it all felt hopeless, everything that we sought to stand for, inclusion, cohesion, all those buzz-words of communities nowadays, seemed to be under attack. But the new day dawned and we got on with helping one another through the grief and through the horror to a better place.

Amongst the cards that we will have received for Christmas will be many, I suspect, of a scene in a stable, of a baby with its parents, some sheep and oxen and donkeys looking on. It all happened a long time ago, in a foreign land but each year we remember again something as simple and ordinary as the birth of a baby but something as wonderfully profound, according to Christians, as God living along side us, ‘God with us’.

Beuronese Nativity

A baby is vulnerable, helpless, dependent, humanity at its weakest. The child quickly knows how to get attention, crying out, for food, or warmth or comfort but relying on someone else to provide all of those things, unable to do anything for themselves. And this is how God, Almighty God, enters into the world, not in strength but in weakness, and shares the vulnerability of what it means to be human. That immersion in what it means to be human would take that baby from that crib to a cross, where apparent weakness would be on display for the whole world to see. But this, as we have discovered is the way in which God works.

Although I was frightened that evening and though I felt hopeless I didn’t want the fear to overwhelm me or the hope I do have to desert me. Because I knew then as I know now, I believed then as I believe now, that God is with us and that when we look into the manger and see the baby we see the hope of the world, we see the Living God.

Some years later when he had begun his ministry and called his disciples to follow him, Jesus was talking to them. In the course of what he said he told them

‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ (John 10.10)

The ‘they’ is us, you and me, and this is what we are celebrating when we give our presents and sit and eat and spend time with family, an abundant celebration because of an abundant gift, the fullness of life. And that is why that line from ‘Strictly Ballroom’ is so important – ‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived.’ Jesus wants us to live life in its fullness, not a life diminished, half-lived because fear is traumatising us. A fearful life is no life and when we simply give into the fear of where we are going as a nation, of where we are going as a global community, the fear of the person we don’t know, of the one who believes something different to me, looks different to me, acts differently to me, the fear of things that are beyond our control, once we allow ourselves to be taken over by that fear then life is not being lived as it should be. What is more we end up unable to deal with any of the things that have the potential to make us fearful.

That baby in the manger, that child in his mother’s arms, the God who is with us, is the one who desires for us life and gives us life – so that we can live it, fully, and dance if we can. This is the Living God.

Living God,
your life gives life to the world;
live in us,
live in me,
may our lives reflect your life.
Amen.

Ponderings

There’s such a lot to think about at Christmas.  For all of us the pressure is on in one way or another. Personally, I’ve always found it hard to get all the stuff done in church and all the stuff done at home.  I’ve never failed – yet – but there always comes this crisis moment, like this weekend, when you realise that time is running out and you have to get things done and you ask yourself, ‘Where am I going to find the time to do it all?’  Anyway, it all focuses the mind and helps when you are trying to imagine, desperately, what to buy for certain individuals!

At the same time as struggling this reality I hear myself telling people to use this precious time of Advent for that deeper level of preparation, ‘take time’, I say, ‘don’t just get caught up in all the frantic busyness; take time to think.’ Physician heal thyself!

St Luke uses a lovely phrase about Mary in his gospel, something that has always stayed in my heart as I have thought about Mary and the example she gives to me, gives to us.

mary-pondering-2

Mary ponders

 

After the shepherds have left the stable, after they have greeted the new-born Jesus, Luke tells us this

‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.’ (Luke 2.19)

That word ‘pondering’ is the translation of a Greek word ‘sunballousa’ which means “placing together for comparison.” Mary treasured the experiences, she stored them up, so that like someone taking one piece out of a valued collection she could bring out the memory, bring out the experience and, metaphorically, turn it in her hand, like a precious object and look at it from every angle.  It’s a beautiful way of thinking about what we do with our memories, pondering them, pondering on them, properly valuing and curating them.

We can use the word ponderous however, quite negatively. It seems to imply someone taking too long to think about something, as though thinking should be a quick thing, instant, reactive instead of this beautiful, meditative way that Mary shows us.

I was pondering on this in the last few days because we have seen a week that has involved remembering.  On Wednesday we were joined at Southwark Cathedral by Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.  Charles and Camilla had come to visit the Borough Market and the community at the Cathedral six months after the terror attack on our community.  They came to see how we were getting on.  The next day they were in a packed St Paul’s Cathedral across the river remembering another community, the community that died and the community that survived in the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

gbd_prince-charles-duchess-cornwall-southwark-cathedral-02-171213

A moment for pondering in Southwark Cathedral

 

The service they attended in Southwark Cathedral was small and quiet, a simple Service of Light on the Feast of St Lucy, as the sun set outside and the Christmas lights illuminated the shoppers in the Market.  By comparison the service in St Paul’s was huge but full of poignant acts, children singing, scattering hearts, relatives clutching the photos of their dead loved ones – pondering.

We will sing the familiar and beautiful poem, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Christina Rossetti, many times this Christmas and we have probably sung it many times already.  In one of the stanzas it says this

But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

Part of the process of pondering is to be able to kiss and love the love the memory – that is the treasuring that Mary displays. That is hard when the memories are painful, when they are terrifying.  As she stood at the foot of the cross, not so many miles where she had first held her baby in her arms, Mary’s treasury was given new and harsh memories, the images of the agony of her son, his painful final words, his last breath and as she collapsed into the waiting arms of her fiends and John, the new son given to her from the cross, Mary’s heart, pierced by the predicted sword, was full to overflowing.

Mary, the eternal ponderer, has to be a model for me of what I do with the good and the painful memories.  I must not seek to forget, not try to forget but somehow, somehow to treat every memory, even the most terrifying, as to be ‘placed together for comparison’, to learn to ponder.  It will take time.

Lord,
teach me to ponder,
like Mary,
and to kiss the memory
however hard.
Amen.

The greatest gift

This is the text of the sermon I preached on Christmas Day in Southwark Cathedral.  Thank you for following this and my other blogs during the year.  Your support and encouragement means a great deal to me. The readings for the day were Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14.

I love Christmas, I mean I really love Christmas, but even so, in the run up to this great day, there’s one question I cannot bear – ‘What do you want for Christmas?’

I had no problem answering it when I was a kid, then I had a huge list of wants. I remember one year, for some unknown reason, I wanted this Space Station kit that I’d seen in the shops. Santa brought it. Then I wanted a bike and a magic set and then a cassette tape recorder when they came in and I was a little older so that my sister and I could tape the charts every Sunday evening by holding the microphone right up to the radio. Now when someone says to me ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ I simply don’t know. Partly, I suppose, that’s because I have too many things already, partly because if I want something I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy it and not have to wait for a birthday or Christmas to come along, partly though because I simply don’t know.

A time for giving and receiving

A time for giving and receiving

So I do hope that Santa brought you what you wanted for Christmas. I was only commenting to my colleagues the other day that we don’t get as many secular readings at carol services nowadays, the Dylan Thomas, Pam Ayres type of readings that we used to hear a lot of. One of the most popular was Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas’ published back in 1954. In it he bemoans the commercialisation of the festival and the kind of presents that we give to each other, even in post-war Britain of the 1950’s

those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
and hideous tie so kindly meant.

Things haven’t much improved it’s just got more expensive and more difficult.

But still the question is asked, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ That really difficult question. So I might say in response ‘Surprise me!’ I hate it when people say that to me ‘Surprise me!’ – well, I would if I knew what you wanted, if I knew what you needed but I haven’t got the foggiest idea. So it’ll have to be Amazon vouchers again and then you can choose for yourself – it lets me off the hook.

But God knows exactly what I need, God knows exactly what you need. God was in no doubt what we needed, even if we didn’t know that that was what we wanted, he knew that there was only one gift to give.

Isaiah paints a wonderful picture of a messenger arriving. It’s a messenger who’s coming not with stuff we don’t want to hear but with a message that will change lives, our lives, a message that will change the world, a message of pure gift.

all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.

The one, who both the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews and John, in the opening of his gospel that we’ve just heard read, describes as the pre-existent one, the one who was there at the beginning, who’s beyond time, beyond place, beyond our experience suddenly enters time and place and our experience.

The reason that I love Christmas is nothing to do with the bath salts and scent and the hideous tie but it is to do with the true gift, because anything we give to one another, anything that you received today, anything that was contained in the sparkly paper, beneath the bows and the glitter, however expensive, however carefully chosen, however lovingly selected, however appropriate, is as nothing with what was found by shepherds and wise men in a stable behind an inn in a far off country two thousand years ago.

God did not enter with power and triumphal fanfares but in the cry of a baby taking their first gulp of air and in the gentle singing of angels on the night breeze. God enters the world not in power but in vulnerability, not in strength but in weakness, not as a warrior but as a helpless infant, laid in his mother’s arms and drinking from her breast. God comes to us as child.

Archbishop Rowan Williams expresses it with such beauty in his poem ‘Advent Calendar’

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

We with shepherds and angels and wise men can do nothing but kneel before the manger in awe and wonder at the extraordinary inhabiting the ordinary, at the divine embracing our humanity, as, in the words of St John

the Word became flesh and lived among us.

It’s been a year that, try as we might, we won’t forget in a hurry when for all of us the political landscape has changed beyond recognition, when the liberal values of inclusion and the celebration of diversity that we’ve been seeking to celebrate in this place over decades are being questioned, when we’ve moved from truth to post-truth. It’s been a year when we’ve seen the very best aspects of our human nature and the very worst, and even in these final days in the run-up to Christmas of innocent people being caught up in horrendous acts of terrorism.

We’ve watched helpless as thousands have died and even more been displaced in war, on the streets of Syria, in the fighting in Yemen and elsewhere. We’ve seen countless people drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean simply seeking a place of safety. And at the same time we’ve seen what we can do when we put our mind to it on track and field and in the other arenas of sport. We’ve seen boundless generosity through our ROBES Project, the warmth of the people gathered to welcome refugee children arriving in Croydon from the Jungle Camp. It’s been a year that’s taken us to the highs and to the lows of human and community existence.

And it’s to this very real world that God comes, this very real world that God shares. God enters the dangerous place to be with us, alongside us, walking the same path. God deliberately chooses to be vulnerable, at risk, defenceless, needy, dependent upon the undependable nature of so much human love and kindness.

What did we want for Christmas? We wanted, we needed a saviour and that is what God gave, himself, to you, to us, the ultimate gift, the gift that really does keep on giving, the gift that really is not just for Christmas but for every day, in every place and for every person.

God's greatest gift

God’s greatest gift

The 16th century English Jesuit priest, Robert Southwell, wrote a poem called ‘The Nativity of Christ’. He expresses the truth of the generosity of God to each one us so beautifully.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

And the God who knew our need then knows our need now. In the birth of Jesus, God enters time then but for all time, not just in the past but in the present for the future. John Betjeman recognises that fact as he draws his Christmas poem to its conclusion when he writes

That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

What do we want, what do we need? God knows, he knew then, he knows now that we need Jesus and whether in Our Lady’s arms or in the priest’s hands he gives Jesus to us and Jesus gives himself to us, bread and wine, body and blood – the true, the only gift that we desire. Receive the gift with open hands – God knows we need it.

God, gifting yourself to humanity.
with open hands may I receive you,
with open heart may I serve you
and gift myself to others.
Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

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