Saturday, December 30, 2023

It's all meaningless!

A sermon at the turn of the year - 2023/2024.  Based on the Book of Ecclesiastes.

We mark the turning of the calendar year together – here in prayer and, in a short while, in covenant to the future….to God’s future, for ourselves, and for our churches.  Others will ignore the turn of the calendar, entirely, preferring to sleep their way into the next orbit round the sun.  Still others will be partying hard, drinking their regrets away, and drunkenly singing ‘auld lang syne’.  Few will, of course, understand what that phrase, auld lang syne, actually means.  Directly translated from old Scots, it can be rendered as ‘old times since’, meaning ‘times long ago’ or times past.  It is, I suppose, a way of honouring the past as we move forward into the future.  It is a call to remember, and cherish, the good things of the past – like ‘old acquaintances’ – friendships which have sustained us on our journey; or perhaps those we have lost through the cycle of the years.

But as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes grimly reminds us, nothing actually changes in reality.  There is a time for everything under the sun, and just as the earth orbits the Sun for another year, so the time for all things will come again.  Time to sow, time to reap, time to live and time to die.  

The Book of Ecclesiastes is a puzzling inclusion in the canon of Scripture.  But it is well worth considering at the turn of a year.  It starts with those strident lines, ‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!’ and the startling statement, by a biblical text, that ‘there is nothing new under the Sun’.  The translation of the Hebrew word hevel as vanity is somewhat disputed.  It literally translates as “breath” or "vapour".  Figuratively, it can be translated to mean “vain”, but also "insubstantial", "futile", or "meaningless". 

So much of Scripture has a trajectory through time.  Its grand narrative is of a Universe created from nothing, then the coming of life, the arrival of sin, then its redemption and ultimately the completion of all things in a new heaven and a new earth.  There is a direction of travel, through the pages of Scripture.  We are encouraged to hold on to the coat-tails of history as we traverse a part of that great road to the future.  But the writer of Ecclesiastes, who may have been King Solomon, has an entirely different view of history.  For him, history repeats itself.  It goes round and round.  And none of it really matters.  It’s all meaningless, futile; vanity.  He underlines his view with some really dark comments.  Like these, (from chapter 1):

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (verse 9).

“Is there a thing of which it is said ‘See, this is new’?  It has already been, in the ages before us” (verse 10)

And then, even more bleakly, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (verse 11).

Even more bleakly, the writer of Ecclesiastes notices the reality of oppression in our world.  In chapter 4, he says this:

“I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.  Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no-one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power – with no-one to comfort them.  And I thought of the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun”!

As we look back over the awful events of the last year, especially in Ukraine, in Israel and Palestine, in the Yemen, and in many other places – we can see exactly what The Teacher means, can’t we?  He is right that power often leads to oppression.  He is right that the most fortunate person is perhaps the one not yet born – the one who has not had to witness the evil deeds that are done under the sun.  He is also right about the circularity of these things – the present wars and conflicts are but the latest examples of such battles in, quite often, the self-same lands.  The quest for power – to have it, to exercise it, to use it for one’s own benefit is at the heart of all such conflict.  It is all futile.  All vanity.  For every tyrant will die.  Every state will crumble.  Every political movement will founder on the rocks of time and reality.

So what is there for us to cling to, amid such a bleak assessment of the passing of time.  Only God.  At the very end of his book, the Teacher offers us this thought:

“[This is] the end of the matter, all has been heard.  Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.  For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or ill”.

In the end, God. God is the author of all, the perfector of all, the judge of all.  God is the yardstick against which every human action is measured – however often that action is repeated in the cycle of history.  God may be a real, living entity, the source of all things, the ground of all being.  Or God may be an idea, an insistence upon the human condition, a constant story against which all human action can be weighed, measured and judged.  But what history demands of you and I, what the ceaseless round of orbits round the Sun teaches us, is that only that there is only one constant presence, one constant idea, one constant Word worth our attention, our commitment, our effort and our life.  It is God.  In the end, it is God.


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Murdering Children - The Holy Innocents

Texts:  Deuteronomy 11: 26-28, 31-32 & Matthew 2: 13-16

In the midst of the joy of the Christmas season, today’s Lectionary Scripture can feel rather perverse.  While we celebrate the coming of our Lord, as a baby, Matthew describes a horrific irony of the story…that Jesus’ birth inadvertently caused the murder of every male child under two years old in Bethlehem.  The church refers to these children as ‘the Holy Innocents’.

That mass slaughter was, of course, ordered by Herod the Great, who wanted to defend his throne from the threat of Jesus, the King of Kings.  Tragically, Herod did not realise that Jesus had no interest in earthly thrones.  As he later said to Pilate, his Kingdom was not of this world.  But Herod did not know this.  Like so many men of power, he saw a potential threat, and reached out to crush it.  He killed defenceless children, in order to defend his own throne.

Suffering is one of the greatest obstacles to people who search for faith.  Stephen Fry, a committed atheist, once said that if he was wrong, and if one day he found himself in front of God, his first question would be ‘what about childhood leukaemia?’ How could a ‘good God’ permit such awful suffering? 

That question is especially sharp, perhaps, for those who have lost a child. Perhaps there were mothers and fathers in Bethlehem who had seen the star, and then the shepherds and the wise men arrive.  Perhaps they understood that this child born in their stable was indeed a special, holy child.  I wonder what they thought of God when the soldiers arrived and murdered their sons.   

And I wonder what the parents of Palestinian and Jewish children think of God, as they continue to mourn their children slain by conflicts of recent weeks.  I wonder what the parents of Holy Innocents of the war in Ukraine think of God.  Suffering from disease.  Suffering from wars.  Suffering from natural disasters.  Where is God in all this suffering?  If he is a good God at all, how could he stand by and let all this suffering go on?  

The Archbishop of Canterbury was confronted with this same question some years ago, when he was interviewed on ‘Desert Island Discs’ on Radio 4.  The interviewer asked him to talk about the time when he lost his 7 month-old daughter in a tragic car accident.  He was asked whether that gave him a point of connection with other people who have lost loved ones in unexplained suffering.  His response was fascinating.  He said (and I paraphrase from memory) that he didn’t claim to understand the reasons why such suffering is permitted by God.  But instead he tends to point people to the young man who was nailed unjustly to a Cross.  

There’s a parallel story, about a Jew in a Nazi death camp.  The Nazi soldiers taunted him, saying ‘where is your God now?’  The old Jew pointed to a line of dead bodies, hung on gibbets, and then said:  ‘there he is’.  For the Archbishop, and for the old Jew it seems, God enters our world with all its messiness and ugliness.  He shares in our suffering.  He identifies with it.  He takes it on.  In the Christian story, he ultimately defeats it.

Is that then the purpose of suffering?  Does God allow suffering in order to use it? Is it a way of demonstrating his power over even death?  Perhaps that is part of the picture.  But the issue of suffering is like one of those jigsaws that many of us received on Christmas day.  We’ve already begun to put the pieces together…we might have already found the edge pieces and stuck them in place…but the main picture itself is only just beginning to become clear.

But there is a danger that we must guard against in any discussion about suffering.  It’s the danger of believing, as some in Christianity and other religions sometimes do, that everything which happens is ‘the will of God’.  Was it God’s will that Herod should order the murder of the Holy Innocents?  No.  That was Herod’s will. Was it God’s will that Hamas would attack Israel, and that Israel would retaliate with such overwhelming force?  No.  That is the will of the politicians and war-lords of the Middle East, as they compete for power with their guns.   

It is our will, not God’s, that causes so much of the suffering in the world.  God gave humanity a simple choice at the time of the 10 commandments, between a blessing and a curse.  We either choose to live God’s way, and to be blessed beyond measure.  Or we choose to live our own way, and up cursing ourselves.  Why does he give us this choice?  Quite simply because, like any parent, our Father wants us to choose to love him.  Any other kind of love would be unreal, and pointless – we’d be no more than puppets or pets if we didn’t have free will.  But the gift of free will is risky – as any parent knows.  It always carries the risk of things going horribly in the wrong direction.

The doctrine of free will is perfectly adequate to explain evils like the murder of the Holy Innocents.  Evil King Herod murdered them because he had the free will to do it.  But does the doctrine of free will it explain the suffering of disease, or of natural disasters like the Boxing Day Tsunami of 20 years ago?  I think it can – or at least it can begin to.  You see, it is not natural disasters themselves which cause suffering…it is the human response to them.  The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 killed so many people because the affected nations lacked early warning systems, or the wealth required to defend their homes and cities against a known threat, or the wisdom to build settlements away from the ocean’s edge.  People die in earthquakes for much the same reason.,  We now know how to build earth-quake-proof buildings.  But most nations lack the wealth and the wisdom required to do so.

Holy Innocents across the world are dying today, of disease and malnutrition, caused by their immense poverty.  That poverty is not the fault of those children or of their parents…it is the fault of all human beings who refuse to share the world’s resources.  What about Stephen Fry’s child with leukaemia?  The doctrine of free will says they are dying because human beings have spent their entire history fighting each other, instead of working together to find cures for common diseases.  

Natural disasters, disease and malnutrition continue to make Holy Innocents today because of the failure of human-kind to follow the call of God.  We have brought a curse upon ourselves, instead of the blessing which God offers.  If only we would learn how to love, how to share and how to act wisely!

 The choice which God has always given his people remains our choice today.  It’s the choice of all human beings everywhere…on the international stage, as well as in the local parish.  It’s the choice which you and I face every moment of every day.  Will we live God’s way?  Or will we choose our own?  And how many more ‘Holy Innocents’ do there need to be before we make up our minds?  Amen.

Friday, December 15, 2023

John the Baptiser - Prophet and Sceptic

This is certainly the week for thinking about John the Baptiser – he’s the focus of readings all through this week.  Today, I’d like to home in on one particular facet of John’s character – a facet which speaks directly to us today…and it’s this:  John was a sceptic.  After being thrown into prison, by King Herod, John sent a message to Jesus asking ‘Are you the Messiah?  Or are we to expect another?’.  This is the same John who didn’t become one of Jesus’ own disciples.  After having so enthusiastically announced Jesus’ coming, after formally recognising him by pointing at Jesus and declaring ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ – John, weirdly, carried on ploughing his own furrow…doing things his own way.  Some of John’s own disciples left John, and joined up with Jesus: but John himself, carried on angrily calling people to repentance with dire warnings.  He became such an annoyance, to the likes of the King, (over the King’s incestuous marriage) that he ended up locked up, and then beheaded. 

Jesus, on the other hand, preferred the tactic of Love.  John was all about winnowing forks and the baptism of fire.  Jesus was all about loving your neighbour.  John lived on the margins of society, shouting his warnings from the desert.  Jesus entered into the day to day lives of those he came to save.  So, John, it seems, was sceptical about Jesus. 

Scepticism is all around us, isn’t it?  We are – perhaps justifiably - sceptical about the Government’s promises to ‘stop the boats’ or ‘rebuild the NHS’.  We are sceptical even about the great national organs of balance and truth that we’ve trusted for generations, like the BBC or the great newspapers of our nation. 

Scepticism doesn’t just pervade our national life though.  It also pervades our thinking about God.  Just like John the Baptiser, we wonder whether Jesus’ claims to be God’s Son, indeed God himself, can really be true.  And, if we are not careful, our scepticism can drive us to throw aside everything we believe, and on which we have based our lives.

But scepticism is not, in itself, a bad thing.  Scepticism is part of a process of growth.  It’s part of ‘putting away childish things’ (as St Paul so memorably said – see 1 Cor.13).  For a sceptical mind is ultimately a questioning mind.  It’s the kind of mind which asks ‘where does this information come from?  Is it trustworthy?’  Philosophers and theologians have a long name for this kind of enquiring thought – they call it ‘epistemology’ – which essentially asks the question ‘how do we know what we think we know?’.  It’s a question that intelligent sceptics ask about the Bible, for example.  We are taught, by some parts of the church, that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  But is it?  Really?  Or is it, rather, a collection of writings, by ancient ancestors, who were wrestling with the reality of God, just as we do?

Sceptical thought should lead us to deeper thought, and to greater understanding.  When John asked, via messengers, whether Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus said this to the messengers:  "Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached". (Lk 7.22). 

Notice how Jesus doesn’t get angry at John for his sceptical, doubting question.  Instead, he answers the question with a powerful illustration.  And invites John to arrive at a new understanding.  Sadly we don’t know what the results of Jesus’ answer to John’s question were….not least because the poor fellow literally lost his head a short time later.  But we can see that expressions of doubt, and scepticism, were not rejected by Jesus.  Instead, he confronted the sceptic head-on, and gave him new facts to consider.  And this is how the healthy work of scepticism should work for all religious people.  We should never be afraid of doubt, because doubt is part of the process of digging for truth.  Scepticism, used wisely, is the shovel we use to unearth the gold nuggets of real truth. 

Of course, like any human characteristic, it’s possible to take scepticism too far.  At the far end of religious scepticism, for example, we find the ultra-atheists, like every preacher’s ‘boogie-man’, Richard Dawkins.  I genuinely feel sorry for such atheists.  They become SO sceptical of religions, and of religious thought, that they lose all objectivity.  They fail to understand the simple truth that atheism is a faith position, too.  To state, categorically that God does not exist takes just as much faith as stating that God is real.  Both are faith positions.  Neither can be proved objectively.  Sadly, for the most prominent atheists, scepticism is no longer a shovel with which to dig for truth, but a bulldozer to cover over any view which is not his own.

When I was a child, I thought like a child.  But now I am a man, I have put away childish things.  But even now, I still can only see through a glass darkly…and therefore I need to embrace the grown-up, adult-brained task of being sceptical about my faith, and about my own political and world views.  That’s the adult thing to do.   As the Christmas story unfolds around us again, perhaps you might find yourself sceptical about any number of things.  Does it matter whether Jesus was born of a virgin?  What is an angel, anyway?  Why on earth would the civil authorities tell people to go back to the town of their birth to be counted in a census?  Why was the astrology of the Wise Men rewarded when the Bible commands us to ignore astrology? These (and many more) are all good questions to ask. 

And if you honestly seek answers to honest sceptical questions, I promise you that those answers will lead you into a much more profound, much more meaningful understanding of the truth.  You too can unearth – with your sceptical shovel - new understandings of the depth of the story about when God came to town.  A little town. Called Bethlehem.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The mess and the madness of Christmas

 Text: Matthew 11.2-15

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What, then, did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What, then, did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

    who will prepare your way before you.’

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and violent people take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John came, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!


So here we are, in the middle of Advent – the time of waiting, and preparing for the coming of the Lord.  Not that you’d know it from the Christmas displays all over the place!  Yesterday, as I drove our new friends from Pakistan back from the airport, they were amazed at all the Christmas decorations festooning shop windows throughout the town.  Coming, as they do, from a strict Islamic society, such displays of Christmas are really unusual to them.

Of course, I explained to Naveen and his family that I really don’t approve of all this pre-Christmas celebration.  According to the church calendar, Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th of December.  Christmas trees and Christmas decorations absolutely should not be taken out of the boxes until Christmas Eve!  And, of course, they should all come down again on the 12th night after Christmas.  But such traditions mean nothing to the world around us, do they?  The merchants of the world can’t wait to start selling all the presents and Christmas tat we want to buy.  This year, adverts in our local pubs, inviting us to book our Christmas dinners, were displayed in August!    

But, woe betide the grumpy Vicar who tries to push against this tide of commercialism and profit-making!  There’s a story about a predecessor of mine, here at St Faith’s, who once made the grave error – or so it is said – of banning the playing of Christmas carols in the church until Christmas Eve.  This, I’m told, was not a popular decision with the members of the Mothers Union, who wanted to put on a Christmas market in early December.  But I confess to having some sympathy with my predecessor’s instincts.

History tells us, that both I and my predecessor are by no means the first Christian leaders to be suspicious of it all.  During the brief years of the English Republic, under Oliver Cromwell, Parliament passed a law, in 1647, which banned the celebration of Christmas altogether.  The Puritans, who were in a period of brief control, thoroughly disapproved of all the drunkenness and frivolity.  They disliked the waste and the racking up of debt for the purchase of Christmas presents which poor people could barely afford.  Special services and feasting were banned, and fines were imposed on anyone who ignored it.  This was not a popular measure with the general populace, though.  Riots took place in Kent and elsewhere.  In 1652, the Government re-inforced the ban with even tighter rules.  But ultimately, the Puritans lost the battle, and after the restoration of the Monarchy, the full excess of Christmas returned with a bang.

Commercialized Christmas has become a millstone around many families’ necks.  This is even more the case at a time of the steeply rising cost of living.  There are families all over this country who seriously worry about how they can afford to give their children the mountain of plastic toys that children expect today.  Some will go into considerable debt, so that their little darlings won’t think that Santa loves them less than the child next door.  Worse still, at time of environmental crisis, Christmas requires the cutting down of millions of trees, for wrapping paper and cards, crackers and party hats, let alone actual trees to display in our churches and homes.  No doubt huge quantities of oil are used in the manufacture and shipping of all those plastic toys, wrapped in yet more cardboard, to be played with once on Christmas day, and then donated to charity shops and rubbish tips a few weeks later.

But there is little I can do to shift the public mood.  Like John the Baptiser, I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the highway for the coming of the Lord!”. In other words, “make your path towards Christmas one of increasing holiness, increasing charity, increasing reflection on the deep truths of the earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting Nativity of our Lord.”  But I know that I am wasting my breath.   

So, like many who feel like me, I shrug my shoulders, switch on the Christmas lights, and attend the rolling carousel of pre-Christmas school concerts, turkey dinners, and festive concerts.  Until, with everyone else, I slump exhausted in my chair on Christmas day.  People are rarely ready to hear the radical message of Christmas – the uncomfortable truth that Christmas doesn’t arrive with Santa, and stockings, and mince pies, and turkey and plastic toys, and mulled wine and Christmas trees, and concerts and greetings cards and crackers and lights.  It arrives in the depths of darkness, with the cry of a baby, utterly dependent on the love of his parents.  Born in poverty. Born to die.  “Born to raise the sons of earth, boprn to give them second birth”; the birth of the Spirit of God within every human soul.  Christmas arrives with the attempt of a King – Herod - to kill God’s revolution in its cradle – just as Palestinian children are being killed right now in the same streets, in the land called Holy.  Christmas arrives with a radical message of peace on earth, sung by angels, calling humanity to a new way, a better way, the way of radical forgiveness and the constant quest for peace.  “Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the Angels sing!”

Perhaps this is why Jesus later said of John the Baptiser that he was greater than any other person of woman born.  By his choice to live apart from the world, eating locust and honey in the desert, calling the people to radical change, to repentance, to baptism, John was planting his radical ‘no’ to the customs and the waste of his own time.  But, as we heard in this morning’s gospel, as great as he was, John is less than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.  John’s response to the waste, and the violence, and the greed of his time was to stand apart from it all – to disappear into the desert, and to live off the meagre offerings of the land.  But Jesus brought the Kingdom of Heaven into reality…and he didn’t do it in the desert.  Jesus arrived in the midst of humanity, in a town so crowded that he had to be born in a stable.  He lived alongside people, feasting with them, celebrating with them, being one of them, but also apart from them.

This then, is the trick that we inheritors and progenitors of the Kingdom need to learn.  Being a grumpy old moaner about the waste and frivolity of Christmas actually gets us nowhere.  Running away screaming from the silly season may be very appealing, just as it was for John the Baptiser in the desert.  But joining in, embracing the madness, and finding ways to turn eyes away from the darkness, and towards the light of the world….that is the way of Jesus, and the way of the kingdom.  Being born into the muck and the chaos of humanity – that’s the way of Jesus.  Being present for the poor shepherd, the misguided wise man, the homeless drunk, the struggling parent: that is the way of the Lord.  And that, my friends, is the true message of Christmas.     


Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Schism in the Church of England - Part 2

Two weeks ago, as some of you may remember, I preached about the impending schism in the Anglican church, over same-sex blessings.  I won’t repeat what I said then – you can look it up for yourselves online.  But just for a little context, let me repeat my main points.

I talked about how the recent decision of the General Synod had led to a stern response from the Church of England Evangelical Council – and some actions on their part which are likely to lead to a permanent schism.  The core issue, I suggested, is the view that different Christians hold about the authority of Scripture.  I said that there are some who hold the Bible in very high regard, and call it ‘the Word of God’.  There are others, like me, who believe the Bible to be an important collection of Scriptures, inspired by God and the story of God, useful for teaching and instruction, but ultimately pointing towards the true Word of God, Jesus.  I went on to suggest that Jesus is our ultimate authority on all matters of doctrine – and that if Jesus was silent on a particular, specific issues (like permanent, faithful, same-sex unions) we would be wise to turn to his more general principles of love, forgiveness, and tolerance – ‘charity’ in other words.

So far so good.  No-one who heard that sermon here in church seemed to have any difficulty with it.  At least no-one tackled me at the door, afterwards, and told me that I was mistaken.  But the same could not be said of when that sermon hit the internet, a few hours later.  Since then, the sermon has been viewed about 3,000 times, and I have been pilloried by a very vocal and angry sub-section of the Christian church.  I have been called a heretic, and godless.  I have been repeatedly commanded to repent of my apostate views.  Multiple single phrases of Scripture have been posted on my YouTube page, intended to imply that I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an unworthy teacher, and an enemy of Christ.  It’s been quite a challenging fortnight – I can tell you!

It is clear that I have touched a raw nerve among a certain section of the wider church who cling persistently to the idea that the Bible is the sovereign, immutable, inerrant Word of God.  Why this may be, I’m not certain.  No doubt there are a number of reasons – and each person who has so pointedly struck out at me will have their own reasons for doing so.  For some, it may be a semi-autistic need for certainty – and an inability to live in the grey theological world of mystery, between black and white immoveable statements about the things of God.  Others may be hiding a unconscious belief in patriarchy, or they perhaps have misogynistic tendancies – since the Bible clearly defines the superiority of men over women (for all practical purposes). If we no longer consider the Bible to be the Word of God, this means radically re-evaluating our views about male headship of churches and the family – and that’s a challenge to some people.  Some, no doubt, hold their firm views as a result of the teaching they have received from loved and respected pastors – without ever having tested such teaching against the wider wisdom of the church, through the discipline of theology.  Some people are intellectually lazy, and are quite happy to have others do their thinking for them.

The saddest part of the debate for me is that lack of historical knowledge among my detractors. They do not seem to realise, for example, that the status of Scripture has been a real and live debate in the Christian church throughout its history.  The early church councils and synods wrestled with it, constantly – including centuries-long debates about which books should be considered ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the Bible.  Those debates have continued right through the church’s history – and even today, different version of the Bible, with different books included or excluded, are published by different sections of the church.  

With regard to same-sex unions, my detractors are ignorant of something called ‘adelphopoesis’ – or ‘brothering’.  That was a formal liturgical ceremony in which two people of the same sex could be legally and formally joined together as ‘brothers’ (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more).  It was a common ceremony up until the Reformation, and shows that historically, the church was rather more tolerant of same-sex unions than many, today, suppose.  

Today, we are invited by the Lectionary to consider St Ambrose.  He was a Bishop of Milan, in the 4th century, who was prominent in the battle against a heresy known as Arianism.  Arianism was a theological view held by many clergy and bishops of the time.  It was centered on a discussion about the divinity of Christ.  Essentially, Arians believed that Jesus was the son of God, begotten by God, but not God himself.  He was not, in other words, a member of the Trinity – but rather, a created being, through whom God then brought the world into being.  Arianism is strongly reflected in Islam, in which Jesus is highly venerated, but not treated as God.  Muslims reject the concept of the Trinity.

It was – and remains - an important distinction – especially in discussions around the exact purpose of the Crucifixion.  If one believes that God himself went to the Cross to redeem us, that’s a rather different picture from the idea of God sending his son to the Cross.  If it is God who hung on the cross, taking upon himself the sins of the world, then we know that we have a God who loves us literally to death.  But if God only sends his son, as a ransom for sin, then God is open to the accusation of being some kind of distant deity, and angry judge who needs appeasing, and at worst a cosmic child-abuser.  

These were vital issues for the early church.  They argued about it constantly.  Various edicts were issued by Bishops and Emperors for the burning of books on Arianism, and even the execution of anyone found in possession of such materials.  And it is a debate which still rumbles on in theology today – especially (as I’ve already mentioned) in the treatment of the divinity of Christ by Islam, but also by Unitarian Christians.  

Doing theology seriously, you see, requires us to live in the grey world of mystery.  As I’ve often stated, our tiny brains are simply not up to fully comprehending the mystery and majesty of God.  Any of us, at any time, might consider that we’ve reached firm and unassailable knowledge about God.  We may be utterly certain that we are right about, for example, the authority of the Bible.  Or we might imagine that we have completely comprehended God’s opinion about same-sex unions, or the divinity of Christ, or the efficacy of prayer.  But serious students of God, who’ve read the history of the church, and thought hard about the theological questions of the ages, soon come to the conclusion that all our supposed knowledge is provisional.  At any moment, the Holy Spirit is likely to shake us out of our certainty, rattle our complacency, and knock down the ivory towers of certainty that we love to battle over. 

We can never stop peeling back the layers of knowledge about God.  That’s part of the great beauty, and also the deep frustration of theology – once called the Queen of the Sciences.  And its why, despite the slings and arrows hurled at me by people lucky enough to be completely certain they are right, I will continue to call myself an honest and continual seeker after Truth.  And I hope you will continue to seek that Truth with me.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Schisms in the Church of England - on the Feast of St Clement of Rome


A reading from the 49th chapter of the First Letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, on the nature and character of Love.

Who can explain the bond of God’s love? Who is able to recount the greatness of its beauty? The height to which love leads is beyond description. Love binds us to God; love hides a multitude of sins; love bears all things and endures all things. There is nothing vulgar in love, nothing haughty. Love has no schism, love creates no faction, love does all things in harmony. Everyone chosen by God has been perfected in love; apart from love nothing is pleasing to God.  

(1 Clem 49.2-5)

Luke 14.7–11 – on practicing humility.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.  But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’  


On Sunday last, I invited us (among other matters) to think about where authority lies, in the Christian Church.  There is, you see, a great divide in the church.  On the one hand, there are those who believe the Bible to be the Word of God (to be treated as authoritative, straight off the page, in all matters).  On the other hand, there are those like me who consider the Bible to be an important collection of Scriptures, inspired by God and the story of God, useful for teaching and instruction, but ultimately pointing towards the true Word of God, Jesus.  On Sunday, I argued that all matters that divide Christians today should be held up to the light of Jesus.  His views are the most authoritative, and only when He speaks on a given matter should we assume that God is speaking.

So, on matters about which Jesus is silent, – we are wise if we keep largely silent too.  I’m thinking about such matters as same-sex marriage, female priests, transgender politics, capitalism versus socialism and a great deal more besides.  But, if we are compelled by events to offer an opinion, we are wise if point people to matters on which Jesus was anything but silent – such as the principles of love, faithfulness, tolerance, judging-not, welcoming all, forgiving all, loving our neighbour, caring for the downtrodden, and the breaking down of barriers between people of different opinions on religious matters.

Where we think authority comes from really matters.  It is hugely disappointing, therefore, to hear that some of our brothers and sisters in the Anglican church are taking authority into their own hands, at the present time – based on their own understanding of the Bible as the Word of God.  Last week, as you may have heard, the General Synod voted, by a very slim majority, to trial services which could be offered to same-sex couples after a civil marriage.  Despite the careful, prayerful thinking of Synod on this matter, people in the church who think of the Bible as the Word of God are not happy.  Some spoke at the Synod, and called the proposed trial ‘blasphemous’ – because, in their view, it contradicted the ‘clear teaching of Scripture’.  

The Church of England Evangelical Council has seen fit to establish alternative arrangements for oversight by bishops (for those clergy who are unhappy about Synod’s decision).  They are also establishing a fund into which evangelical churches are being encouraged to pay their parish share – instead of to the Dioceses in which they live and work.  These actions will create a fracture in the church.  This is not the Anglican Way.  The Church of England has always been a place where Christians of different traditions and quite marked differences in theology have nevertheless been able to remain together under one roof – sharing our resources, to enable the weakest churches to survive, and the Kingdom of God to thrive.  

The question of where authority lies has been a running sore in the life of the church, throughout its history.  Today is the feast-day of Clement of Rome, an early Bishop or Rome who is believed to have been, effectively, one of the first Popes.  We don’t know much about Clement, really – but we do know that he had occasion, in the closing years of the first century, to write a stern (and very lengthy!) letter to the church in Corinth.  The church leaders in Corinth had been deposed by their congregation.  We don’t know why, but Clement ascribes the sin of jealousy to the troublemakers.  We can only guess at what the actual issues were.  Clement’s letter to the Corinthians reminds the congregation that their leaders were in fact appointed by the Apostles of Jesus, and he demanded that they should be re-instated.  In other words, Clement appeals to the authority of Jesus – not the Scriptures.  

In his letter, Clement cries out in frustration, using words that resonate in the present disputes of Anglicanism.  He says:  Why do we tear and rend asunder the members of Christ, and stir up factions against our own body, and reach such a pitch of folly, as to forget that we are members one of another? (1 Clem 46.7).  Instead, in the words of our first reading today, Clement appeals to his readers to mark the characteristics of Christian love for one another:  “Love has no schism, love creates no faction, love does all things in harmony.”  (1 Clem 49.4)

In our Gospel reading, Christ himself gives a passionate and graphic plea for humility.  He uses the illustration of a banqueting table – but what he is pointing to is the necessity of humility in all things.  I passionately disagree with my brothers and sisters who would place the stricter teachings of the Scriptures over the loving and generous teachings of Jesus.  But, in humility, I have to acknowledge that I may be wrong, and they may be right.  For we only see through a glass darkly (as St Paul said), and none of us really knows the mind of God.  So the last thing I would seek to do is to separate from those with whom I disagree.  Rather, with St Paul and St Clement, I would prefer to exercise the kind of love that bears all things, hopes all things and endures all things, for the sake of fulfilling Jesus’ prayer, in John 17, ‘that they may all be one’.

God preserve us from those who would allow honest, prayer-soaked disagreement over matters of human sexuality to further divide the church.   God forbid it.  Please. Amen.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Be Prepared - Part 2

 Readings: 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11  &  Matthew 25.14-30

A week is a long time in politics, they say.  And it’s also a surprisingly long period between sermons, I find!  I wonder how many of you remember what I said last week?  Even I had to go to my blog and look it up!  So, for those whose memories are as short as mine, let me just remind you of the main points. 

Last week, I asked you to think about the promised return of Jesus.  I suggested to you that rather than him returning on some future date (on a cloud with lots of angels and trumpets) that in fact Jesus has already returned, that he is returning all the time, and that he will continue to return in the future.  I suggested that much of the end-times narrative of the Bible is, in fact metaphorical – and that what the Bible is really saying is ‘Be Prepared’!  (You might recall the picture of me in my Cub Scout uniform).  Be prepared, that is, at all times and in all places, to join in with Jesus’ activity in the world today, here and now.

I had a wonderful example of such preparedness, this week. I am currently supporting a Christian family in Pakistan, who reached out to us, to St Faith’s, through the internet.  They are moving to Havant, to take up work in the care sector – because, God knows we need more care workers in the UK.  There are lots of political issues that their decision raises – about the funding of our health service, stripping other nations of their health-care workers, and all the rest.  But that’s for another day.  The reality, for this particular family, is that right now they need help to acquire some accommodation, and all the furnishings they will need to set up home.  I have been praying for guidance as to how to help them.

Yesterday, I wandered into church and came across someone (who will remain nameless for now) who is in the process of clearing out the house of her recently deceased mother.  The kind woman asked me whether I knew of anyone who could make use of some of her mother’s things – such as bedding and the like.  So I told her about the family from Pakistan, and how they were due to arrive in Havant in a month’s time, and that they will have only the clothes in their suitcase.  The kind woman then said that she would start sorting out things that the family will be able to use in their new home (whenever we can find one for them!) – like kitchen equipment, bedding and towels and all such things.

What a brilliant example, of being prepared to respond in situations when Jesus is working!  Kindness and generosity, in the face of worry and anxiety on the part of the Family, is a brilliant example of God at work.  I feel privileged to be in the nexus of God at work in their lives, and honoured to have ‘been prepared’ to take the leap of faith to support people I’ve never met.

A week is a long time in the Church of England too.  Especially, I suggest, for members of the General Synod who met this week in London.  The Synod was grappling with the vexed question of issues around the marriage, or blessing, of same-sex couples.  A compromise has been reached, which (as is the nature of most compromises) has left both sides in the debate unsatisfied.  I won’t go into the details here – you can read all about it in your own time.  But I would like to make a couple of observations, which I hope will be generally informative.

The first relates to this morning’s gospel reading.  You’ll know, of course, that a talent was a coin, at the time of Jesus.  Today’s gospel is therefore, on one level, about how we invest our money in the work of God.  But, by serendipity, the fact that coins were called talents means we also have the opportunity to think about the talents, abilities, and innate human qualities that each Christian brings to the task of building the Kingdom.  In ‘being prepared’ to join in with the action of Jesus, each of us brings the person we are, the person that God has made us to be.  Whether we are English, or Pakistani (for example).  Whether we are rich or poor.  Whether we are differently-abled, or typically healthy.  And, for the purposes of discussions about same-sex marriage, whether we are straight, gay, or any of the spectrum of genders and preferences in-between, we come as we ARE.  We come as God made us, and how life has shaped us.  And we bring ourselves, and the talents we have been given by the master, to the task of building God’s kingdom.  Jesus receives us as we are, and welcomes ALL to his table.  Jesus welcomes EVERYONE to the feast, and to the holy task of Kingdom building.

And finally, to those who want to hold on tenaciously to the Bible’s so-called ‘traditional’ views of marriage, even to the point of driving a split in the Church of England, I want to say this:  please be very careful about the weight of authority you assign to the ancient Scriptures of a middle Eastern tribe of between two and three thousand years ago.  As I’ve said before from this pulpit, shockingly, the Bible is NOT the word of God.  Rather, it is a collection of writings, from a wide variety of authors, written across a number of centuries which all point to the true Word of God, the Logos himself, Jesus.  Jesus, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, is the ‘author and perfecter’ of our faith.  He is the light of wisdom in the darkness of human ignorance. 

On the topic of homosexuality, Jesus said not one word.  But he did speak of the Kingdom principles of love, faithfulness, and preparedness to move where the Spirit is leading.  He specifically did not want us to be shackled to ancient Scriptures, but rather to him – the God who fulfils the Scriptures.  What does it mean to fulfil the Scriptures?  I think it means that all Scriptures need to be held up to the Light of Jesus.  If Jesus said to act this way, or that, even when such action appears to contradict the Scriptures, then we follow Jesus’ lead, not the dead letter of an ancient text.  Take for example his teaching on revenge.  The Hebrew Bible specifically teaches ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’.  But Jesus quotes that Scripture, and then says ‘But I say, forgive your brother, constantly’. 

So to any who would invite me to place religious dogma over Jesus clear instruction to love and serve one another, I say no.  To anyone who would invite me to join a schism in the Church of England, over the single issue of whether two faithful, loving people can have the blessing of the church I say; “I’m prepared.  I’m equipped.  With the talents he has given me, I’m following Jesus.  I will bless such faithful, committed, love”.   And I hope you would say the same too.  Amen.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Be Prepared!

Readings: Matthew 25.1-13 and Thessalonians 4.13-18

For a few brief years, when I was very young, I had the pleasure of being a cub scout.  I loved it.  We got to go camping, and to learn woodcraft.  We had fun evenings of games and enjoyed working for our various badges.  In my day, we had to wear what is now considered a rather old fashioned uniform, complete with garters to hold our socks up, a scarf in the colour of our troop, and of course a woggle.  We even used to use the chant ‘dib dib dib’, ‘dob dob dob’!  Once a year we would go out and terrorise our neighbours with the offer of ‘bob-a-job’ – when we would inexpertly clean cars or sweep driveways in return for a few miserable pennies.  But I loved it.  I even became a ‘sixer’ – which meant that I was put in charge of a group of six younger boys – which taught me, at a very early age, something about leadership.

All those activities were designed with one over-arching premise in mind.  It was the motto of the Scout movement: ‘Be Prepared’.  Lord Baden-Powell, when he founded the Scouts, wanted boys to be as prepared as possible for whatever life would throw at them. Through the badge system, boys like me were encouraged to learn skills like cooking, or how to make a camp fire, or how to build a shelter.  We were also encouraged to open our minds to the wider world, with badges about first aid, or even astronomy.  In many ways, the cub scouts prepared me for many of the situations of life, in which I’ve needed to get stuck in, work out how something works, or exercise some leadership skills.   Scouting is a brilliant movement – it taught me to ‘be prepared’.

Being prepared is, of course, at the heart of Jesus’ parable about the Bridesmaids and their oil lamps.  Jesus encourages all of us to be prepared for his coming.  If you’ve heard me speak about the second coming of Jesus in the past, you’ll know that I’m a little bit suspicious of those Scriptures which appear to foretell the arrival of Jesus on a cloud, like some sort of Greek god coming down from Mount Olympus, flying through the skies.  Thinking about our first reading of today, I think the Apostle Paul was being rather more poetic than literal, with all his vivid descriptions of Christians rising up to meet the Lord in the air. 

We need, as always, to think about the context of Paul’s words.  He was writing at a time when many Christians thought that Jesus would literally return from heaven. A lot of the New Testament contains rather fanciful promises of that happening, imminently, and while many who were then alive were still living.  It was, I believe, a view and a hope that was grounded in fear; fear of persecution, fear of being abandoned by Jesus.  In particular, Paul was addressing the fear that the Thessalonians had – a fear that those among them who had died would miss the return of Jesus.  As Greeks, the Thessalonians quite probably had the rather dark Greek notion of a world of the dead, which was separated for ever from the world of the living.  Paul’s rather poetic writing was a way of offering hope to a fledgling church that their efforts to build God’s Kingdom on earth were not in vain.  And he was assuring them that the promises of God, through Jesus, were as real for the dead as they are for the living. 

        History has proved, time and again, that belief in a literal second coming is a mistaken belief.   Countless prophets over the centuries have announced that Jesus will return.  And they’ve all been wrong.  There is a resurgence in such prophecies at the moment, because of the establishment of the state of Israel.  Some are even hoping, in a rather macabre way, that the present conflicts between Israel and Palestine are the early salvos in the war of Armageddon, which (they hope) will be a pre-cursor to the bodily return of Jesus.  Such prophets have, I think, a rather weak understanding of both Scripture, and of history. 

So what are we to think of Jesus’ reported promise to return?  I hold the view that the return of Jesus is not a one-time event.  Rather, it is something which has happened, and is happening, and will happen, all the time.  It happened when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost.  It happens whenever his teachings are obeyed, and when world is made a better place.  Whenever a warrior acts out of mercy, and withholds from bombing hospitals and schools, Jesus returns.  Whenever an armistice – a ‘ceasefire’ is declared between warring nations, Jesus returns.  Whenever a soldier, or a doctor, or an ambulance driver lays down their life out of love for humanity, Jesus returns.  Whenever a homeless person is supported on the road to housing and security, Jesus returns.  Whenever a lonely person is offered companionship, Jesus returns.  Whenever a wealthy person gives from their wealth to help another human being, Jesus returns.

What then does it mean for us to be prepared, as Jesus teaches in the parable of the Bridesmaids?  It means being constantly alert for the ongoing activity of Jesus in the world – and it means being prepared to get on board with what Jesus has been doing, is doing and will be doing.  It means being prepared never to turn down an opportunity to bless another person, or to sacrifice for the well-being of all humanity.  It means being prepared to put our shoulders to the wheel in the task of building God’s Kingdom on earth.  Are you prepared?  Are you prepared to join in with Jesus?  Amen.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Anxiety, panic and fretting...on the Feast of Margery Kempe



Philippians 3.3–8a

For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

Luke 15.1–10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’


Today is the feast of Margery Kemp.  She was born in King’s Lynn in Norfolk in the late 1300s, a contemporary of Julian of Norwich. She received many visions, several of them of the holy family, one of the most regular being of the crucifixion. She also claimed to have conversations with the saints.

She was much sought after as a visionary, but she was also endlessly in trouble with the Church.  She was a bit of a campaigner, to be honest – who thought she knew better than the rest of her society about the things of God, and didn’t always know when to keep silent.  She was rebuked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was more than once imprisoned.  Nevertheless, Margery seems have experienced long periods of close communion with Christ, and developed a strong compassion for the sins of the world.  Her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, recounts her remarkable life. She died towards the middle of the 1400s.

On the one hand, we might like to rejoice in Margery’s amazing and miraculous visions – which clearly sustained a great faith.  However, on the other hand, in our post-miraculous age we may prefer other explanations for Margery’s visions.  Thanks to modern medicine, and especially our increasing understanding of the mind, we know that hallucinations are often the result of some sort of stress or anxiety.  We also know that people who experience hallucinations tend to see those things on which they are most fixated.  So, people who live on a diet of horror movies will hallucinate horrible visions.  But those, like Margery, who focus on holy and beautiful ideas are most likely to hallucinate those things. 

These days, we might say that Margery was clearly a holy woman, who had spent much time in prayer and study, but who, when anxiety about the world overwhelmed her, tended to hallucinate visions of Godly things and people.  This is not uncommon.  There are even people who visit this church who claim to have visions or voices from God. 

Even in the non-scientific age of the Bible, wise teachers knew that it was important to treat such visions and prophecies with care.  St Paul taught that anyone with such apparent messages from God should bring them to the leaders of the church, for testing.  Perhaps Paul, too, was suspicious that not all visions come directly from God, but rather from the creative depths of the human mind – especially in times of great anxiety.

Anxiety is, of course, a normal human reaction to the changing circumstances of life.  It’s part of our natural protection mechanism – our ‘fight or flight’ instinct.  We cast around for threats to our security, or comfort.  We are on our guard…and that makes us anxious.  We become more alert…less likely to sleep…and therefore more anxious.  For some, the reaction to anxiety is to shut out the world, turn off the news, and bury our heads. For others, action is the name of the game.  We might try to allay our anxiety by joining marches to Parliament (which parliament rarely notices), or we might gain some relief by ranting about whatever worries us on social media.  For some, though, anxiety about the future manifests as hallucinations, either visual or auditory – stemming from a deep hope that God has the world under control.

In our first reading, St Paul describes the kind of anxiety that he has lived with, all his adult life.  There’s an almost Trumpian level of boasting on display as he talks about all the ways that he tried to work himself up into being acceptable to God.  He was ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church; righteous under the law and blameless.  (You can just hear Donald Trump at this end of that list can’t you?  ‘No-one has ever been more righteous-er than me!’).

There’s a lot of anxiety on display in today’s Gospel reading, too.  First, there’s the anxiety of the Pharisees and scribes.  They were anxious about this new charismatic preacher in their midst, who appeared to be leading people away from their way of doing religion.  They were anxious about losing their authority – losing their power base.

And then, in Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, his main characters display anxiety too.  The shepherd is anxious about his lost sheep.  So is the woman who has lost her coin.  Both the shepherd and the woman are offered to us as pictures of God. 

We need to be careful about making God in our image – but there is a sense in which Jesus sees God as being anxious about the spiritual fate of his children.  The Scriptures offer us a picture of a God whose whole being is anxiously focussed on the salvation of humanity. 

Ultimately, it’s God’s sheer passion – anxiety if you will – for his children which saves us.  Paul ultimately discovers that all anxiety about faith, all his chasing after righteousness was ‘rubbish’ compared to the experience of finding out that God loves us, anyway.  You may be interested to know that this passage of Philippians contains one of the rather more fruity uses of language, hidden away in the Bible.  The word translated as ‘rubbish’ in our Bibles is really much closer to a strong word for manure, beginning with shshsh!   Paul says that all his achievements, all the things he was anxious to please God about, they are all ‘muck and manure’ compared to the surpassing joy of knowing Christ – and knowing that Christ has done all that is necessary to save us.  We have no need to try anxiously to earn God’s favour – because he is already favourable towards us. 

So, to my anxiety, and to yours, I say this:  let us use the coming days to rest in the Lord.  Let’s take time to rest in the loving gaze of our heavenly father, to contemplate his teachings, and receive the power of his love.  Then, perhaps, freed from anxiety, we too might be given visions, or at least nudges from the Holy Spirit, about how we can play our part in building God’s Kingdom of Justice on earth.  Not anxiously. Not expending our energy on fruitless frustration and worry. But, calmly, trustingly, stepping out each day to play our part, in the place God has put us, in building the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

All Saints 2023


Revelation 7.9–17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’  I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Matthew 5.1–12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


I always look forward to All Saint’s Day.  It gives me an opportunity to remind you of my list of funny and quirky saints – most of which I have culled from a book by the priest and broadcaster, Richard Coles, called ‘Lives of the Improbable Saints’.

For example, have you ever heard of St Ronald of Buckingham?  Apparently, he was born into the world like any normal baby, and immediately preached an amazing sermon.... before promptly dying.  Then there's St Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher.  It’s a great name isn't it?  It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints secrete a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds.  Apparently, St Theophilus’ body did just that, in copious amounts!

Then there's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet –because he was a scholar and compiler of information.  I like to imagine the scene in Heaven when God told Isodore that the Church has just designated him as the patron of the internet?  "I'm the Patron Saint of WHAT?!"

And then there's the number one weird saint of all time...the Patron Saint of finding a parking place - Saint Mother Cabrini.  Apparently, in New York, car drivers circling a block can be heard muttering this prayer:  "Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini - find me a space for my driving machiny."

All these Saints are jolly good fun, but there is more than grain of truth in many of them.  Sometimes, saints become patron saints because of the terrible things they were made to suffer for their faith in Christ.  So, for example, St Apollonia is the patron saint of dentists, because she had all her teeth extracted as a punishment for believing in Jesus.  And let’s not forget our own St Faith... roasted alive on a griddle-iron, for refusing to give up her Lord.  I could tell you a lot more horror stories...but it’s a bit early in the morning for that!

So, All Saints is a good time to be reminded of extraordinary lives of the Saints who now ’from their labours rest’ - as we sang at the beginning of our service today.  But are there saints among us now?  

The Bible refers to all true believers as ‘saints’.  So the answer to my question must be ‘yes…there are saints among us today’.  There are, and must be, those who yearn and hope for the final revelation of Christ, just as John envisioned in our first reading of today.  They are those who constantly seek to purify themselves, to make their robes white, because of Christ.

Or, if you prefer, from Jesus’ lips in the Sermon on the Mount, the saints – the blessed ones - are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  They are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart.

But is that me?  Is that you?

Our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox church have an insight to offer.  They teach that all Christians have the potential to become so like Christ that they can become kinds of gods themselves.  Orthodox theology calls that process ‘deification’ – and it’s a goal for which all of us are encouraged to strive.  

But what does it look like, in practice?  Much has been made recently of the secular sainthood of the medical profession, tirelessly exerting themselves on behalf of the population, still grappling with Covid and historic levels of under-funding.  Other secular saints will be recognised recognised by name in the King's new year honours list.  

        Locally, we have our own saints - like St Margaret of Tait, who has been championing the Langstone Millpond.  We have St Graham of the Organ, who has been developing not one but two junior choirs.  We have St Sandra of the Servery, always willing to whip up a brew and a slice of homemade cake for the weary visitor to the church.  And there are plenty more too.  St Bill of the Monday Club, the other St Bill ...of the Bells.  St Bruce of the Servers, St Alan of the Stewards, St Shelley of the Pallant - and of course, I have to mention St Clare of the Shop!  SO many of you act and live in saintly ways - you make me feel quite inadequate, and decidedly proud of you all! 

But are saints measured by what they do?  Yes, of course…to an extent.  The true nature of our heart is often demonstrated by our actions.  But what about those who cannot do anything?  Is it possible to be a saint who is tied by illness to the hospital bed, or trapped at home by infirmity?  Well, I want to say ‘yes’ to them too.  Being a living saint is not just about what we do.  It’s about who we are.  To be a saint is to become more and more like God.  Being a modern saint is about cultivating an attitude toward the world which mirrors the attitude of Jesus himself. 

But how?

Well, here’s a way of thinking about an answer to that question.  There’s been a thought winging its way around social media recently.  It’s one of those ‘feel good’ sayings that we all encounter from time to time, which gets lots of people clicking ‘Like’.  This particular one goes something like…

“I don’t care if you are black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor.  If you are good to me, I’ll be good to you”.  On the face of it, it’s a nice thing to have said – essentially ‘all that matters is how we treat each other’.   

But it’s not a particularly Christian thing to have said.  Being nice is not an exclusively Christian virtue.  Jesus calls his followers beyond human nice-ness.  He calls us to extraordinary love, in the pursuit of holiness.  If Jesus had written that ’meme’, he might have added – “It doesn’t even matter how you treat me.  Even when you insult me, or beat me, or kill me...I will still love you”.  

Christian love is the kind that says ‘Father forgive them’, even when ‘they’ are nailing you to a cross.  Christian love is unconditional – like the love of Jesus, who we strive to be like.  It is a love which does not stop even when, like St Faith, we are being tied to a roasting griddle iron. Or as Christians in Palestine have been discovering this month, being bombed by an apparently war-mongering neighbour.  It’s a love which sees beyond the poor behaviour and poor choices of failing human beings, and which begins to see all humanity as God sees us – children - who often fall down, and constantly need picking up and hugging from time to time.  

Now of course, I realise what a challenge it would be to continue to offer love to a bomb-slinging madman or, say, an abuser of children, or a corrupt politician.  Simple common sense says that, of course, society needs protecting from this kind of behaviour.  But hate is never the right response.  Hate only produces more hate.  The ONLY possible remedy against hate, is love.  It won’t always work – but it’s the only path worth even trying.  And it’s the path of Jesus.  It’s the path of holiness.  It’s the path of saint-hood.

Of course, that kind of holiness is beyond human norms.  It’s super-human, in fact.  It’s not something I would find easy to do, on my own.  But, with God’s help, and by God’s grace, maybe I could love someone that much.  Maybe I too could be considered a saint.  Hmm...St Thomas of Havant....has a bit of ring to it….

And if we are open to it, we can all take up the challenge to become Holy ones, deified ones, Saints, ourselves.