The clocks stopped

Yesterday I had the privilege to officiate at the funeral of PC Keith Palmer, a service which was held in Southwark Cathedral. Surrounded by his family, friends and colleagues tribute was paid to a man, doing his duty but in an exemplary way. The readings in the service, which was not broadcast to protect the privacy of his family, were John 15. 12–17 and the poem ‘Funeral Blues’ by W H Auden. This is the sermon that I preached.

The helmet and the rose

In the shadow of one of the world’s best known clocks, in the shadow of a tower from which the chimes announce the passing of the hours and the days and the years, bells which herald news and mark new beginnings, Keith died, doing his duty and it was as if in that moment the clocks stopped.

In moments as terrible as that it’s as though time stops as we try to catch up mentally with what’s just happened. It’s impossible to take in the full horror in a moment, the events of less than two minutes, two movements of those hands in which the injured lay and people were dying.

Keith’s death has affected all of us, in different ways and to different degrees. But for you, his family, that stopped moment in time took away your husband, your daddy. It took away a son, a brother, it took away a colleague and a friend and the friendly face of a friendly policemen at those gates with whom someone had just had a photo taken. A moment, the passing of the hands on the clock stole life and stole so much that we’d valued and thought was safe and secure, so much that’s at the heart of who we are as a nation.

The poet W H Auden describes so well the feeling of grief, of loss, ‘Stop all the clocks’. We don’t want time to move on, how can it when time has taken from us what we love. Grief is an agony deep in the heart of us, deep where love lies, that love we thought ‘would last forever’, that timeless love, killed in time.

Auden ends his poem with a cry of despair

‘nothing now can ever come to any good’

But we can’t allow that to be true, even though every instinct we have, the pain we bear, tells us that that is how it is, now that the clock moves on, we cannot allow it to be true that ‘nothing now can ever come to any good’.

Jesus is speaking to his friends. Time for them is moving on and they’re approaching the events that we’re remembering this week, the week when Christians remember the death of Jesus, the day we call Good Friday. In an Upper Room away from the crowds he washed their feet, the Master became the servant, to teach them how to love and then into their shock and amazement he gives them a new commandment

‘love one another as I have loved you.’

He then says something extraordinary.

‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

Keith was doing his duty, doing what he always did. Then what happened happened. My instinct would’ve been to run away to save myself, to distance myself from the danger. Keith’s instinct was to run towards his assailant and in that act to lay down his life, for his friends, but for more than that, for much more than that.

Keith laid down his life for each one of us here, and each one of you who’ve lined the streets and filled the bridges of this city today, who kept vigil last night, who gathered in the Abbey last week, who laid flowers on Westminster Bridge and in Parliament Square, who’ve posted messages on social media, all who cried in front of their TVs, who listened in disbelief to their radios – we are those friends, known and unknown. He died for the politicians who represent us, he died for the democracy he was protecting, he died for the freedom we treasure. In a split second he made a decision, not to flee but to confront, and it cost him everything – and none of us will be the same again.

There is no greater love than this.

This week we’ll remember Jesus being led to the place of crucifixion, a seemingly broken man. But our Anglo-Saxon forbears thought of him, pictured him, differently. A poem was written a thousand years ago, as if the cross itself were telling its story and in it the cross says

‘I saw then the Saviour of mankind hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me. There I did not dare, against the word of the Lord, bow or break, when I saw the corners of the earth tremble.’

Not a reluctant victim but a warrior saviour, ready to lay down his life for his friends, a heroic act like a person, like Keith, doing his duty in the split second when he could have saved himself.

‘Nothing now can ever come to any good’ says Auden and it must have seemed the same to Mary the mother of Jesus and his friends standing by the cross, watching, as time stopped and the corners of the earth trembled. ‘Nothing now can ever come to any good’ is something you may have thought, or may be feeling.

Auden has the answer though, except he skips over it in his grief

‘I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.’

He wasn’t wrong, love does last forever. Your love for Keith will last forever and the act of supreme love that Keith performed in that split second before the clocks stopped, will last forever and it will bear fruit, fruit, as Jesus said to his friends, ‘fruit that will last’.

The Christian message and the message of Easter is timeless because it’s about eternity, the forever of God in which love and life and truth and hope and goodness and peace are always victorious. They tried to kill it all as they nailed him to the cross, there are those who wish to kill what we treasure and they think they can with random acts of terror and violence, here on our streets and in Paris, Nice, Munich, Stockholm, yesterday in Egypt and in so many places, but they can’t. Because love is stronger than hate and peace is mightier than war and life is the conqueror of death. That’s why we are Christians, because Jesus rose from the dead so that we might rise as well. The fruit of Easter is eternal life, beyond time, the forever love that we’re never wrong about.

And though we may not see it now, that supreme act of love that, in a split second, led Keith to act as he did, for each of us here, will bear fruit, fruit that will last. For evil to succeed all it takes is for a good man to do nothing. This good man did something, gave everything. Evil will not succeed – it has already been defeated.

Home grown

We all seem to love a farmers’ market nowadays, the place where we have the chance to buy some really fresh food, to meet the person who grew it, raised the livestock, made the cheese, bottled the milk. That’s one of the reasons that the Borough Market that surrounds Southwark Cathedral and that’s constantly full of people is so popular. That’s also why go to any Church Fete or any sale run by the Women’s Institute or any Mothers’ Union cake stall and you’ll find people queuing up to buy the home-made produce.  It was lovely to read this week, for instance, about the woman from Scotland who has just won the best marmalade award.  It must taste home made at its very best, because it is home made.

BoroughMarket

Home grown in Borough Market

 

But when we are using that phrase ‘home grown’ in relation to terrorism it evokes another reaction completely.

The events of last Wednesday were shocking, just as every terrorist act shocks and sickens us to the core. For those of us who have been around London for a while we’ve experienced a number of such incidents, fortunately few in number, but each one stays imprinted on our memory – the Baltic Exchange, Canary Wharf, 7/7 – we will remember how each of them affected us, even if we weren’t any where near what happened.  The senseless and depraved attack on innocent pedestrians crossing one of the best known bridges in the world – Westminster Bridge – packed with visitors to London trying to get that precious selfie with Big Ben – and then the attack on the very heart of our democracy, the Mother of Parliaments and the murder of PC Keith Palmer, an officer doing his duty on our behalf, has left us all stunned.

Then we learnt that this wasn’t done by someone who’d arrived in this country from elsewhere, not a refugee from some notorious and dangerous country, not an immigrant who’d recently arrived here but someone born and raised not far from London, someone who’d been living in the Garden of England, the real ‘home grown area’, living in Birmingham, a convert to Islam, not a young man, headstrong, but slightly older than we would expect in acts like this.  Like so many of the perpetrators of atrocities in the USA this was a ‘home grown terrorist’.  The question we need to ask ourselves is how are these terrorists grown?

What I do know is that all the travel banns that President Trump and others want to impose, all the suspicion directed towards refugees who others imagine are like Trojan Horses waiting to be rolled into our communities is meaningless.  No travel ban, no ring of steel round a country, no walls built to exclude are effective when we grow people inclined to think the unthinkable and commit acts that are against the standards of basic humanity.

The seedbed for growing people with these attitudes and desires is much more subtle, much more dangerous and much more familiar.  It has to be around the ability we now have to do as I am doing now, sharing my thoughts and putting them out there for the world to read.  And this platform, like any platform, can be used for good or evil.  But regulating it when the very place that the attacker was directing his hatred towards, the Palace of Westminster, stands for, is built on, the concept of free speech that is at the heart, the core of our democratic values, is very difficult.

During these days leading up to Holy Week we will at some stage hear read these words of Jesus from St John

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (John 12.24)

It’s true for the farmer, its true for the martyr, it true in the secular and in the sacred worlds.  In the musical ‘Les Miserables’ the students, manning the barricades, sing a rousing song which includes the lines

Will you give all you can give
So that our banner may advance
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs
Will water the meadows of France!

It picks up on the words of Jesus to us but it also reflects something that must go on in the heads of those who choose to commit horrendous acts of terrifying violence against their neighbours, against, as in this instance, their fellow countrymen.

We are not afraid

I have no answers, only thoughts.  All I do know is that, though shocked, London and Londoners are always defiant.  The slogan ‘We are not afraid’ is a powerful one.  Once we are afraid then those who would terrorise us have won.  And Jesus, the planted seed, bears much fruit in the resurrection and to his startled friends, as he walks across the stormy waters, says

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ (Matthew 14.27)

We have to say the same to each other.

westminster candle

A candle burns for Westminster in Southwark Cathedral

 

Since the attack a candle has been burning in Southwark Cathedral and this prayer has been offered to people to pray.  please pray it with us.

God of peace,
God of healing,
on all caught up in the incident in Westminster
send both peace and healing.
Give to those who protect us
courage and commitment;
to those who govern us
wisdom and insight;
to those who are afraid
peace and assurance;
and to those who died
life eternal in your presence.
We ask this in the name
of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

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