Saturday, January 25, 2020

A Sermon on the Eve of Brexit

1 Peter 1 & 'Blessed be the God and Father' by S S Wesley

I’m going to let you into a little secret.  Our Musical Director, Graham, confessed on Friday evening, that he doesn’t like this evening’s anthem, very much!  (Graham’s only been with us for a few months, so he hasn’t yet learned the cardinal rule that anything said within the earshot of the Rector might get repeated in a sermon!)

But, despite his personal antipathy towards the anthem, Graham chose it for tonight because it is a setting of some of the words of our second reading.  I think I know why Graham doesn’t like it much – it is after all a rather strange mishmash of tempos and tunes.  There are strange passages of recitative, which don’t sit well on the ear – and which are tricky to conduct. 

As I’m sure Graham already know, the whole anthem actually has a rather interesting history.  It was composed by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, father of John, when he was organist at Hereford Cathedral.  On Easter Day 1853, the Cathedral Choir could only field a rank of trebles, and a single Bass – who was the Dean of the Cathedral’s butler.  Which goes to show that the myth of packed Cathedral Choirs and pews is exactly that…a grand myth.  Churches have always struggled to fill all the available pews.  We, who spend our time singing praise to God have always been a faithful remnant of our communities.

So, in 1853, confronted with just the sort of challenges we face, Wesley had to come up with something dramatic, which would make the best of the resources he had available.  And so Blessed be the God and Father was born.

We don’t know why he was attracted to this particular, rather obscure and theological passage of the first letter of Peter.  Perhaps it was a set reading for the day on Easter Day 1853 – I haven’t researched the ancient lectionaries.  But the words he chose from Peter’s letter are only partly co-terminus with the reading we’ve just had.  Wesley actually chose sections of text from tonight’s reading and from later verses in the same chapter.  He welded them together, to focus on a number of primary messages – some of which just happen to work rather well for the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity!

There is not the time to focus on the totality of theology contained in these verses.  Frankly, a sermon could be preached on every phrase.  Peter no doubt had a meta-narrative in his mind – which flavours what is an almost incomprehensibly dense theological statement.  Here’s what I think he was mainly trying to say…

First, he gives praise to God – literally, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’.  He praises him because, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has offered us a ‘real and lively hope’ of our own salvation.  This is the good news that Peter is anxious to communicate to his readers – the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. 

That is, of course, a message which is common to all Christians.  We will disagree on the exact mechanism by which Jesus offers us salvation.  For orthodox and evangelical Christians, it is faith Jesus’ death on the cross, and his taking the penalty of sin, which will be uppermost.  For more liberally-minded Christians, the focus is likely to be more on following the life of Jesus, and making it real today.  But from whichever side of the theological divide we come, we can all agree that Jesus is the focus and centre of our hope of salvation.  It is because of Jesus, that we have “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for” us “who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time”.

But, Peter goes on, this hope should have consequences for the way we live.  Jumping to verse 15 of Peter’s text, Wesley reminds us that “he who has called you is holy.  So be YE also holy, in all mannner of conversation”.    For Peter, words have power, and holy words even more so.  He encourages all followers of Jesus to be holy in the way we speak.  Such advice might have been well heeded during the centuries of hatred and division between Christians.  Perhaps if phrases like ‘Popish Scum’ or ‘Protestant Heretics’ had not been so liberally banded about during those years, the Church might have been far better able to draw in the communities it was called to serve.  Perhaps the choir of Hereford Cathedral, in 1853, might not have been reduced to a few trebles and a lone bass.

Peter then expands on his theme.  Not only should our conversation be holy, but we are called to ‘Love another with a pure heart, fervently’.   It is perhaps Love, more than anything, which has been missing in the cut and thrust of theological debate over the centuries.  This morning, I preached on the human obsession with ‘being correct’ – it’s a sermon you can read on our parish website if you are minded to do so.  We have fought with each other over the correct way to worship, the correct time of life to baptise, the correct organisational structure of the church, the correct attitudes to marriage and human sexuality.  And in all these debates, time and time again, we have forgotten the primary imperative – ‘to love one another with a pure heart, fervently’. 

For if I truly love you, I will not insult you, beat you, or even burn you at the stake just because you have a different understanding of what correct theology looks like.  If I truly love you, I will listen to what you say, and thoughtfully consider whether there is merit in your words and in your understanding.  If I still profoundly disagree with you, but still love you, I will seek to maintain the bond of love.  I will continue to be your brother, and to walk with you along the road of faith.

Because I will understand that “all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away”.  We are, each of us, fragile, failing, growing, withering, temporary, provisional, creatures.  In all humility, none of us can claim to know the true mind of God.  All our theological learning and arguing has only scratched the very outer surface of the reality which is God.  God is infinite.  I am very finite.  God is the author of all being.  I am but one being.  What else can we do, but love one another, fervently, and give blessing to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Living “Word of the Lord who endureth for ever”?

Whether this sermon has engendered any new appreciation for this evening’s anthem in our Director of Music, I shall wait eagerly to find out.  In the meantime, let me leave you with this passing thought.  This week, the United Kingdom will exit the European Union – or at least cross over the starting line of the process.  That will be a subject of great rejoicing for some, and of profound sorrow for others.  We have all tried to grapple, with different levels of interest and attention, with the Brexit debate.  We have perhaps all made the mistake of assuming that our position was the correct position to hold.  The reality is that Brexit is a finely balanced political judgment, involving questions of economics, immigration, national resources and political alliances which few of us are truly able to grasp.  The Brexit question, like God, is very big.  And, for myself, I can only say that my brain is very small.

Into this situation, I believe that Peter can speak even more powerfully.  As we move forward into a pre-post-Brexit era, let us continue to love one another, with a pure heart, fervently. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Arguments Factions and Fighting - Sermon for Christian Unity

Texts:  1 Cor 1.10-18 & Matt 4.12-23.  Epiphany 3.

Arguments, factions and fighting.  Sadly, these have been features of the life of the church, even from the earliest days.  In this morning’s reading from the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear Paul addressing such arguments, factions and fighting head on.

He certainly wastes no time getting to the point.  His entire letter contains some of the most beautiful, poetic Scripture ever written, especially his famous hymn to Love in chapter 13.  But most of this beauty is a response to the reality on the ground…the reality that the Christians in Corinth were at each other’s throats.

What is it that drives such factionalism?  What is about a people who know that they have seen a great light, and who have heard Jesus’ call of ‘Follow me’, who nevertheless feel the need to argue with each other, so passionately, about matters of faith? 

It was certainly the case for the early church.  The first great debate centred around circumcision, and whether or not non-Jewish Christians should be subject to the same rules as Jewish ones.  Intriguingly, St Paul and St Peter found themselves on opposite sides of that debate, until Peter received his famous dream.

Other debates throughout the centuries have centred on the correct ways to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, or on the correct time of life to administer baptism, or the correct way to govern the church.  More recently, the church has been grappling with correct approaches to the question of marriage and same-sex relationships.  In the Roman church, the question of the correctness of a celibate priesthood has once more raised its head.

The key word in all these debates, past and present, is the word ‘correct’.   Human beings seem to have an inbuilt desire to be told what to believe, or how to behave.  We want to know where the dividing line is, between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’.  It is inherent in us. 

Much of this is rooted in our childhood.  As St Paul ruminates in the letter to the Corinthians, ‘when I was a child, I behaved like a child, I thought like a child’.  One of the characteristics of childhood is that we have not yet learned right from wrong.  We need to be taught the difference between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ behaviour.   And so we adopt a mind-set which is dependent on external authority – we become dependent on others to tell us how to behave; on our parents, or our church, or our Government, or our teachers.

But the world into which we are born is so confusing.  Just when we think we’ve got a handle on what kind of behaviour or attitudes are ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, the world will throw us an example of exactly the opposite view.  So, for example, we are taught that ‘stealing is wrong’…but it’s ok for a starving man to steal an apple, or for an international company to steal the resources of a poor country.  For, certainly, no-one does anything to stop them.

Or we are taught that coveting is wrong…but its ok for us to desire all the wonderful clothes, gadgets, kitchen cabinets and cars which are paraded before us on the television.

Or we are taught that murder is wrong…but its ok for airplanes and drones to drop bombs from the sky, regardless of collateral damage to innocent women and children.

You see, all morality is contextual.  It’s easy to create a moral rule in one’s own context.  But whether that rule turns out to be universal depends entirely on the context of everyone else.  Help me!  What am I supposed to do?

Confronted with this hard reality of life, many religious people turn to the Bible in the hope that it can provide some certainty…some direct-from-God instructions about what is correct and incorrect.  But, sadly, we find that the Bible itself is full of contradictory positions on a whole range of moral topics.  The 10 Commandments condemn murder, theft and covetousness, but this does not seem to have been a problem for Joshua as he led the people of Israel on a murderous rampage through the land of Canaan, stealing the very land from under the feet of the Canaanites. 

The 10 commandments teach that adultery is wrong, but when King David effectively murders a man so that he can possess his gorgeous wife, he receives little more than a divine slap on the wrist.

And so, the child within us, who longs for simple rules and guidance, feels itself confused and at sea.  We reach out for religious leaders who sound authoritative.  We hold onto those leaders who can quote reams of Scripture to support their own hypothesis about what is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’.  We end up following those leaders, like children after the pied piper, because they seem to know the way - often because we ourselves have not bothered to read the Bible for ourselves. 

Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Pope, the Prophet Mohammed, John Wesley, Joseph Smith of the Mormons, George Fox of the Quakers, Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s witnesses, Billy Graham, or any number of world-wide evangelists and teachers who claim that they have received a unique insight from God.  They know what is correct or incorrect.  And so we will follow them.  Like children.  Even though they lead us into direct opposition with brothers and sisters from other parts of the church.  Exactly as St Paul found was happening with the followers of Apollos, Cephas and himself.

Into this confusion, Jesus speaks to the child inside of all of us and says ‘Follow me’. 

To follow Jesus means to follow his Way.  It means living as he lived, and taking our cues about what is correct or incorrect behaviour from him.  Here is the leader who would not condemn the woman caught in adultery, the one who promised paradise to a thief on a cross.  Here is the leader who welcomed the stranger, and ate with the outcasts.  Here is the leader who offered healing and forgiveness to all.  Here is the leader who steadfastly refused to argue the finer points of theology, but who instead spoke in ambiguous parable.  Here is a leader who poured himself out for the benefit of others, living simply with only the basics of life.

St Paul said that when he became a man, he put away childish things.  For him, that included the assumption that he could be an arbiter of correctness, with the right of stoning to death all those who opposed him.  Instead, he became an evangelist of grace, truly grasping that rules, rights and wrongs were childish and contentious matters.  All that mattered for him, as a grown up follower of Christ, was God’s grace – which was sufficient for him.  As he said in this morning’s reading, he stopped using eloquent wisdom, and spoke only of the Cross, the ultimate symbol of God’s grace.

Here, then, is our example.  Here is our path to take.  In this week of prayer for Christian Unity, we who follow Jesus are not invited to proclaim and pronounce on rights and wrongs.  We are simply called to proclaim the good news of a graceful God…who loves us, and saves us, even when we are in the wrong.


Sunday, January 12, 2020

Pilgrimages, Baptisms and Becket

A Sermon for the Launch of 'Becket 2020' - a year of focus on Thomas Becket, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1170).  Preached at the Cathedral Church of Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, Portmsouth, U.K. on 12th January 2020

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The calendar has turned over, once again.  Another year gone, and another comes into view. 

I hope you notice that I refer to a year, not a decade. Because I am among those pedants who insist that the new decade does not begin until 2021!  (I was expecting an appreciative round of applause at that statement….oh well!)

The earth has travelled around the sun 849 times since the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, our patron saint at this Cathedral.  At the end of this year, we will mark the 850th anniversary.  It sounds like a long time, doesn’t it?  That is until you break it down into average lifetimes.  Assuming 50 years for an average of medieval and modern lifetimes, only 17 generations have come and gone since those days…days when a conflict over power and authority between state and church could lead to the brutal murder of an Archbishop of Canterbury. 

It feels like a long time, because of our short lives.  But in the measure of eternity, it’s a blink in the eye of God.  As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us in tonight’s reading, the heavens themselves are the work of God’s hands, but they will perish while God remains.  He will roll them up like a cloak.

To those with an eye for history, the conflict of Becket’s time has many resonances with our own.  The people of that time are not so different to us, and their politics feel familiar.  The King of those days, Henry II, sought to take power back to England from the European super-state which was the Catholic Church.  The King’s vision was largely unfulfilled until Henry VIII wrestled those powers away from Europe in his own version of Brexit. 

It is fascinating, and tragic, to see history replaying itself in our times.  The tragic murder of Jo Cox by a fanatical supporter of disengagement from Europe has particular resonances with the murder of Thomas Becket.  No-one officially asked Jo Cox’s murderer to slay her, and historians agree King Henry did not officially sanction Becket’s murder.  The oft-quoted phrase ‘who will rid me of this troublesome priest’ is believed to be a later re-framing of the tale.  But fanatics, on all sides, will often be prompted into extreme action by careless words like ‘traitor’ and ‘troublemaker’. 

For us, in this Cathedral and Diocese, another ancient parallel with Becket’s time will emerge in the coming months – and that parallel is the theme of pilgrimage.  As we journey towards the 850th anniversary of Becket’s martyrdom on the 29th of December, we will be encouraged to ponder our own journeys and pilgrimages. 

Our spiritual journeys usually begin with our baptisms.  On this day of the Baptism of Christ, we are encouraged to reflect on the beginnings of our own journeys. Thomas Becket’s baptism was significant, because it took place, according to tradition, on the same day that he was born – either because he was sickly, or because his parents weren’t taking any chances over medieval infant mortality rates.  Thomas is, of course, my namesake, and its rather a nice co-incidence to find that, like him, I was also baptised immediately after my birth – because I too was a sickly child.  So it is rather fun for me to share with Becket the notion that the commencement of our earthly and spiritual pilgrimages coincided rather nicely at our births. 

His parents could not have guessed on that December day in Cheapside, London, that Becket’s journey would see him become first a friend, and then an enemy of the King of England – and then a focus for the devotion of millions.  In our first reading of tonight, the people of Israel could not have known what awaited them on the other side of the river Jordon as they went through the metaphorical baptism of crossing its waters. None of us can know where our pilgrimages will lead…that’s in the nature of what it means to be human.  Like Becket and his parents, all we can do is pray for God’s grace to lead us onwards.

We know, of course, that pilgrimage to holy shrines was a massive part of medieval life.  After Becket’s martyrdom, his grave elevated Canterbury to enormous prestige as a focus for pilgrimage – second only to Rome, for a time. But travelling from London to Canterbury – as Chaucer did – was not the only way. 

But many do not realise that there was another route too….from Southampton to Canterbury.  It was only recently re-discovered, on a medieval map of England, from 1360, called the Gough Map.  Happily for me, as Rector of Havant, we discover that ‘The Old Way’ as it is now called, followed a line from Southampton right through Southwick, Havant, Emsworth and Chichester. 

It is said that when Henry II felt the political-need to do public penance for the death of Thomas Becket, he rode on pilgrimage from Southampton to Canterbury - right past the door of St Faith’s Church in Havant – possibly even stopping to pray within our hallowed walls!

Sadly, I have to tell you, according to the Gough Map, Portsmouth was bypassed by pilgrims in those days.  Instead, they either stayed in Havant (where there is some local evidence of a monastery once existing) or in Southwick.  But, like many who have gone that way since, I’m sure they enjoyed the view of Portsmouth from the top of the hill!  Unfortunately, I don’t think they had our modern day access to the refreshment provided by Mick’s Monster Burger stand.

Happily, The Old Way is now in the process of being revived as a Pilgrimage Route by The British Pilgrimages Trust.  As a Diocese, we are currently giving thought to how we can add value to this route, and to the experience of pilgrims who will walk it, passing through our Diocese.  If you want to know more, then Canon Jo and Dr Ruth Tuschling are taking the lead on this project.

Journeys and pilgrimages are, of course, integral to Christian and Jewish stories.  Such journeys include the culmination of 40 years in the wilderness, as we heard from the book of Joshua just now. Such journeys certainly include the East to West perambulations of the Magi, and the flight into Eqypt of Jesus. 

Each of these journeys, and many more, invite us to consider our own unique journeys too.   Any journey worth its salt includes obstacles along the way.  For the Israelites, it was the Jordan river – waters which God held back for them for a second time.  For the Magi, the obstacle was a politician – Herod.  For Henry II and the Old Way pilgrims, it was Portsdown Hill!  And our spiritual journeys are always strewn with obstacles too.

What are the obstacles which stand in the way of our own forward momentum?  Perhaps they are bad habits we need to shed.  Perhaps there are broken relationships which cry out for healing.  Perhaps there are attitudes or ignorances we need to confront.  Each of us has such obstacles before us, and each of us, this year, will be invited to step up to them, confront them, and move beyond them.

Thomas Becket’s own pilgrimage came to an abrupt and untidy end in the midst of a conflict over power.  But even his death was transformed by God into the penitential pilgrimage of a King, along the Old Way.  Becket’s death sparked a religious revival in Medieval England, the likes of which we have rarely seen.

You see, that’s what God does.  God takes the worst that humanity can do, like enslaving a nation, murdering an Archbishop, or nailing his Son to a cross.  God then transforms it, and reshapes it, into something life-giving, and something which pushes us onward, ever forward, on our own life’s journey.


Friday, January 10, 2020

The Baptism of Christ

Matthew 3.13-17 & Isaiah 42.1-9

There’s a lovely cartoon image doing the rounds on the ecclesiastical social network at the moment.  It is a picture of Jesus, as a toddler, standing on the surface of his bath.  Not in his bath, you understand – but standing on the surface of the water, as only Jesus can.  In the background of the picture is Mary, his Mother, with a cross look on her face, and a speech bubble with the word ‘In!’

Some people would find that picture offensive.  It suggests that Jesus was being ‘naughty’ – but I think there’s a deeper message at play.  We know very little about Jesus’ childhood.  We only have one story, from a chapter earlier in St Luke, of the boy Jesus at the Temple. 

But with the eyes of our imagination, we can infer some things.  We know, for example, that he was capable of testing the limits of his parent’s authority – exactly what happened in the Temple.  We know also that while Jesus was wholly God, he was also wholly human.  Like all human beings, he needed to learn and grow – to fulfil all his potential.  No doubt, as for all humans, that learning process required some testing of the boundaries.

St Luke records that ‘Jesus was around 30 years old when he began his work’ (Luke 3.23).  So we can infer that he took around 30 years to grow, to mature, to read and understand the Scriptures – 30 years to plan and then execute the Work which he was sent to do.  And his Baptism was the point at which that ministry began.  It was his ‘coming-out’ party; his ‘prom’ (as American children might say).  This was the moment when he chose to reveal himself to the world, by the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove, and with God’s words ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased’.

Jesus’ baptism then was a turning point in his life, as it is for us.  It was the moment when he put away childish things (as St Paul was later to say).  It was the moment when he embraced the future that God had planned for him. 

For us, baptism has a similar tone.  By it, we are born again, filled with the Spirit of God.  We are given, like Jesus, a new start, a turning point.  God puts away the darker sides of our human nature, and encourages us into the light of his presence.  We are marked with the cross, the sign of Christ, as a signal that we are His for ever.  Our parents and our God-parents lift us in prayer, and place us in God’s hands.  It’s a momentous moment for every human being.

There are, as you will know, many arguments about when Baptism should take place.  Indeed, there are large numbers of Christians, especially Baptists, who believe that baptism can only be given to an adult, when they make their confession of faith.  But in the traditional churches, we have always believed that Baptism should happen as soon as practically possible.  That’s because we draw an important distinction about what is happening, spiritually, at the moment of baptism…   

We believe that baptism is a sacrament – that is ‘an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality’.  Baptism is God’s gift to us, whoever we are, whatever age we are, whatever we have done, or whatever we might yet do.  It relies entirely on God’s action, not ours.  It is God who causes us to be born again.  It is God who fills us with his Spirit.  It is God who ignites his light of love in our hearts.  It is God, through Christ, who washes away our sins in the water of baptism.  There is nothing we can do to deserve this.  We cannot make God act – he acts because he chooses to, out of grace and mercy.

Believers in adult-only baptism, though, believe that baptism is requires the faith of the person being baptised to be real.  In other words, they believe that God needs something – namely our repentance and our declaration of faith, in order to act. 

This is a subtle distinction, I know.  And I hope that your eyes aren’t glazing over!  But ultimately, it comes down to different ways in which God is perceived.  The traditional churches teach that God acts to save us because he is God; and because his mercy and grace, literally poured out in baptism, are unstoppable forces.  We baptise all who ask for it - and their children - because Jesus commanded us to do it.  It’s a simple as that. 

Believers in adult baptism, on the other hand, hold that there are pre-conditions to God’s activity – and that, essentially, he withholds his Holy Spirit until certain conditions are met. For ’Baptists’ the conditions are that the person being baptised has to have repented and confessed…they have to have ‘done something’ to earn God’s favour.

Frankly, I don’t know who is right about this.  And I guess that none of us will ever know until Jesus comes again – and then we can ask him!  What I hold onto, in the meantime, is that we are all called by God, whoever we are, to walk in the Light of his Love.  We are given, every day, the fresh start that is symbolised by our Baptism.  We can choose, every day, to put away childish things, and to begin the work that he has given us to do.  Just as Jesus did.

Following the example of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, we are to be signs of God’s new Covenant - his new Testament - with humanity exemplified in baptism.  We are to be a light to the nations - and God knows the nations of the world need such a light at the moment.  We are to open blind eyes, and bring into the light all those who sit in darkness.

How shall we fulfil such an awesome mission?  By following the example of Christ himself.  After his own baptism, Jesus went off into the desert to spend time thinking and praying about how he would live out his own calling.  As we reach the end of our five year mission plan, we are going to be doing something of the same. 

Over the coming months, leading up to our Annual Meeting at the end of April, the PCC will be inviting us all to spend time thinking about how we, as God’s people, can respond to the call to bring light into the darkness of our neighbour’s lives.  What might God be calling us to do, in God’s name, over the next five years?  There’s no doubt that God is at work among us - but what does he next require of us.  How shall we live out our own baptism and confirmation charge of being lights to the world?  How shall we partner with God to carry out God’s mission to Havant?

Perhaps as the choir sings their anthem we might ponder that question, individually.  The anthem is a setting of that beautiful prayer that God will send down his Love Divine, just as he did upon Jesus at his baptism.  What might the sending of his Divine Love into Havant look like?  Ponder this, as we listen to the choir…