Thursday, March 28, 2024

Maundy Meanings

Maundy Thursday is one of those feast days that carry a lot of meaning.  Layer upon layer of meaning, in fact.  So depending on whether you’ve chosen to sit on one the comfortable new pews, or one of the old rickety chairs, this extra-long sermon is going to be either a great pleasure, or a great pain!

Let’s deal with the word – first.  ‘Maundy’ is said to come from the Latin ‘mandate’ – or command.  It refers to verse 34 of tonight’s Gospel reading, when Jesus commands that we should love one another, just as he has loved us – by serving each other.

Another suggestion that ‘maundy’ derives from the French, ‘mendier’ (pronounced ‘maundy-ay’) – meaning ‘to beg’.  It remembers a time when Monarchs and Lords would distribute charity to beggars, on their way to the celebration of the institution of the Last Supper.  The distribution of Maundy Money at Worcestshire Cathedral by the Queen, on behalf of His Majesty, is an echo of that practice.  I can’t say that I like the idea of monarchs and lords dispensing charity to beggars on their way to church.  It feels a bit to much like ‘trickle-down’ economics to me.  But today’s practice of Maundy Money does at least honour the service that its recipients have given.

Another grand tradition of Maundy Thursday is that Bishops perform the Chrism Mass – during which Holy Oils are blessed and distributed to parish churches for use in baptism, confirmation and healing ceremonies throughout the year.  The oils, blessed by the Bishop, are a sign of that our little parish church is part of a much larger family – the Diocesan family, under the headship of our Diocesan Bishop, Jonathan.   This morning, clergy from the around the diocese gathered with Bishop Jonathan in the cathedral – including clergy from the Isle of Wight who looked a little bit grreen in the gills, considering the windy weather.

But Maundy Money, and the Chrism Mass are really just peripheral issues to the main purpose of Maundy Thursday.  The proper title for the day is ‘The Feast of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper’ – or the Holy Communion – or the Mass – or the Eucharist.  Whatever your preference is!  Together, we are invited to reflect more deeply on the deep significance of the service that stands at the heart of our worship, week by week.  It’s a good opportunity because, whilst we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least twice a week at St Faith’s, its deep meaning can sometimes be lost among other theological ideas which are being expressed or explored during those services.

Maundy Thursday is our chance to strip away such distractions, and focus on what Jesus was trying to convey to his disciples on that “last night, before he was betrayed”.   The readings we’ve just heard convey to us that there are many layers of meaning, depending upon on whose account of the event we focus. 

According to Paul’s account, the significance of the Last Supper was undoubtedly the symbolic offering of bread and wine, by Jesus, as symbols and signs of his body and blood. Jesus said ‘do this in remembrance of me’ – and perhaps we should focus for a moment on that word ‘remember’.  Our ‘members’ are our limbs, our organs; the parts of our body.  When we talk about being ‘members’ of a club or a church, we’re talking about individual people.  To ‘re-member’ something, then, is to bring together, in our minds eye, separate body parts, or people, into one collective whole.  

In remembering Jesus, we are invited to draw together all that we know about him…all that we love about him.  We remember the totality of his life, teaching and example.  We draw hope and inspiration from his death on the cross, where his life was ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’, whatever that phrase may mean, theologically.  We bring these and many other remembrances together in our minds, prompted by the beautifully simple words, ‘this is my body’.  ‘This is my blood’. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’.

And there’s more!  We don’t just bring Christ together in our minds, we also come together to do this act of obedience and worship.  The church has long-since taught that if I were to celebrate the Eucharist on my own, in splendid isolation, it would not be a valid Eucharist.  We believe that Jesus intended the Lord’s Supper to be an essentially communal act.  This is something we do together.  We literally ‘re-member’, bring together, the living members of the body of Christ, every time we enact this service.

Today, we are also offered John’s account of this famous last supper.  Intriguingly, John (the most theological writer of the Gospels) makes no mention of the words of Institution at all.   Instead, John re-members how Jesus started the whole evening off, by washing his disciples’ feet.

In doing so, John shifts our focus.  He wants us to perhaps focus a little less on what we might personally receive from the Eucharist. I think John might not have approved of those Christians who even today talk about ‘making MY communion’.  Instead, John invites us think about what we might give as a result of the Eucharist.  John tells us the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet.  He prompts us to ask what service WE can offer to the world that Jesus calls us to transform in his name.

What if John’s Gospel was the only one we had?  How different would the church be if our primary ceremony was not the receiving of bread and wine, but rather the washing of each other’s feet.   What if our most prized possessions, as a church, were not a silver chalice and patten, or even a cross, but a jug of water and a towel?  What message might that communicate to the wider world about our mission to Love God, and love our neighbours?

So, Maundy Thursday comes at us with a blizzard of meanings.  I hope these last few minutes have opened up some of them.  But Maundy Thursday hasn’t quite finished with us yet!  At the end of this service, we will strip the Altar bare, and carry off the consecrated body of Christ into the lonely seclusion of the Lady Chapel.  By doing so, we will remember how Jesus was himself carried away from his disciples.  How bereft must they have felt?  How lost, how frightened they must have been!  Perhaps this loneliness might remind us of those we know who are feeling lonely and lost tonight.  Perhaps we might reach out to them, wash their feet, metaphorically, and offer them a touch of God, and sense of communion too?  Amen. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

On the feast of Thomas Cranmer

 Today we remember Thomas Cranmer, author of the prayer book whose words we still use, Thursday by Thursday in this place.   Born in Nottinghamshire in 1489, Cranmer was recruited for diplomatic service in 1527. Two years later he joined the team working to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and duly pronounced the Aragon marriage annulled. After the death of Henry VIII, Cranmer became a chief architect of Edwardian religious change, constructing two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, in 1549 and 1552, and the original version of what would later become the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Following King Edward’s short reign, Queen Mary’s regime convicted Cranmer of treason in 1553 and of heresy in 1554. Demoralized by imprisonment, he signed six recantations, but was still condemned to the stake at Oxford – where the position of his martyrdom is still marked in the street.  Struggling with his conscience, he made a final, bold statement of Protestant faith. Cranmer was an impressively learned scholar, and his genius for formal prose has left a lasting mark on Anglican liturgy. He was burnt at the stake on this day in the year 1556.

Cranmer, like his colleagues Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake by a Catholic monarchs in the turbulent years following Henry VIII.  But we should also remember the often unnamed Roman priests who hid within, and were sometimes forcibly dragged from, secret closets in the great Catholic houses of the land.  Both sides in this horrible period of English history had men and women of great courage, who lived by the light they had been given at the time.  They believed earnestly in the central tenants of their faith, and earnestly believed, whether they were Anglican Catholics, or Roman Catholics, that their particular expression of the church was the right one.  It was a belief for which they were prepared to die, and yes, sometimes to kill.

We are recognising, therefore, that there was true Godliness and great courage in martyrs on both sides of that divide.  But we also recognise that there was terrible error and great evil committed by those who ordered the martyrdoms on both sides!  The only way that we can confront these two opposing truths is with humility. 

First, we are invited to personal humility, as we stand in awe of the strength of faith, the holiness and courage of those who witnessed to their understanding of God right up to the point of death.  Would I, would you, have the courage to do the same? 

However, we also need to express some corporate humility too:  for all the times that condemnation has turned to violence, of either the physical or verbal kind.  In the Reformation Era, there was a see-sawing of religious life in England at the time, as one monarch replaced another, and the balance of power shifted between Anglicans and Romans, depending who was on the throne.  In those swings of power and opinion, it is frightening to remember how quickly the oppressed became the oppressor.  How quickly zeal turned into hatred and then violence.

The Reformation, in that sense, is a stark warning to theological warriors of today.  Arm-chair theologians, as well as many pressure groups within the church, still argue with each other about what God thinks is ‘right’ on any number of issues.  Christian social media is sometimes a very nasty place. Everyone has their own opinion on a wide range of subjects. These range from which political party is nearer to the Kingdom of God (a good question for Election Day!) to vexed questions around human sexuality.  Or Christians love to debate the question of a woman’s right to choose, the correct mode of dress for priests.  These are all important topics, (and there are many more like them) that inspire real vitriol.  There are, for example, large parts of the Anglican Communion who are presently pulling away from Canterbury, over recent decisions of the Synod around the blessing of same-sex marriages.  Oh to have their sense of utter certainty!

The hardest lesson to learn in these debates is the lesson of humility.  It’s salutary to remember that Jesus himself never wrote down a single word.  Instead, he spoke in stories and parables, designed to creatively expand our thinking and often leading us to ask more questions.  We have taken The Word, the Logos, the creative speaking of God, and turned it into logical, rule-bound, codified letters on a page.  And we use them to batter our theological and intellectual opponents.

So to those who, with their left brain, want to nail their theological opinions to a stake, I urge the lesson of humility.  Sometimes, the most honest answer to the great questions of our age has to be ‘we don’t know’.  God’s Kingdom is not yet fully revealed, and our ability to understand the mind of God is limited at best.  At the very least, we need to grasp that when we offer our opinion on matters such as sexuality, political alliances, abortion, the monarchy or any number of other weighty matters, we must do so in a spirit of humility.  And, unlike the warring theologians of the English Reformation, we must never, never, never, offer violence in word or deed, to those with whom we might disagree.


Saturday, March 16, 2024

A Sermon for St Patrick

 A sermon for St Patrick's Day

(St Patrick's Day is 17 March.  He is believed to have died on that day in the year 461 C.E.)


Kennar is supposedly an Irish name.  Although as Rex likes to remind me – it is also Welsh.  It might also interest you to know that the name Kenner has possible German/Jewish roots, coming from the root word ‘to know’ – to ‘ken’. Perhaps you remember the old song ‘Do ye ken John Peel’?

Apparently the name ‘Kenner’ was sometimes used as an insult.  A ‘ken-ner’ was a ‘know-er’ – or as we might say, a ‘know-it-all’!  Since that description couldn’t possibly apply to me, I’m going to stick with the idea that Kennar has Irish roots – especially on St Patrick’s day.

As with so many ancient saints, and like my own misty ancestry, it is difficult to get to the actual truth about Patrick.  One thing we can say, with some certainty, is that he was not born an Irishman.  Which is fun to point out to Irishmen.  As much fun as pointing out to Englishmen that St George was Turkish, and to Scotsmen that St Andrew was Jewish.  In fact, the only Patron Saint of the British Isles who was actually born in the land they represent was St David.  As Rex surely knows.

All the ancient writings about St Patrick agree that he was a Roman-Briton born in about the year 390 of Christian parents in the latter years of the Roman Empire in Britain. The exact place of his birth has never been identified. Claims from places in West Britain as far apart as Dumbarton and Cornwall have been made; but present day opinion favours the neighbourhood of Carlisle.

It is said that he was captured by Irish raiders when he was sixteen years old and taken to Ireland as a slave. After six years of caring for animals, he escaped and seems to have gone to continental Europe. He eventually found his way back to his own family, where his nominal Christian faith grew and matured. He returned to Gaul and was there trained as a priest and much influenced by the form of monasticism evolving under Martin of Tours. When he was in his early forties, he returned to Ireland as a bishop, ministering first at Saul near Downpatrick, and later making his base at Armagh, which became the centre of his See. He evangelized the people of the land by walking all over the island, gently bringing men and women to a knowledge of Christ.  Although he faced fierce opposition and possible persecution, he continued his missionary journeys.

Patrick left two pieces of writing which are accepted as genuine, his Confession and a Letter to Coroticus. These are of immense value as they reveal Patrick the man, humble and aware that all he achieved was by the grace of Christ. Irish Christians today, of all traditions, equally identify with this holy man and draw inspiration from his life and writings.

There are many legends of Patrick – but the most famous are probably the two about the snakes and the shamrock.  For the legend of Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, a degree of scepticism is probably in order.  According to natural historians and fossil hunters, Ireland had been devoid of snakes ever since the last ice-age, 10,000 years ago.  Certainly, no fossils of snakes since the ice retreated have ever been found.  Like many such legends, the power of the story is encompassed in its myth.  The snake has always been seen as a symbol of evil, ever since the serpent in the Garden of Eden.  Patrick certainly succeeded in pushing pagan worship from Ireland in his time, and many would have regarded paganism as evil, in those days.  Perhaps the chasing of snakes from Ireland was always intended as a metaphor for Patrick chasing the dark forces of paganism.

As for the shamrock – that is rather a more believable story.  It is said that Patrick was trying to explain the dogma of the Trinity, during his evangelistic tour of Ireland.  He seized upon the shamrock, with its single leaf with three ‘bumps’ as a useful way of illustrating how one God could exist simultaneously in three persons:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  There’s no reason to be sceptical of such a story.  It’s what good evangelists do: they use what is around them to draw their listeners into the life of faith.  Jesus talked about boats, and fishing for men, and Samaritans, and sowing seeds – because those images meant something to the people of his day.  Patrick used the shamrock, because it was a familiar plant to all the Irish.

Traditionally, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.  But, recent scholarship has uncovered documents which refute that claim.  At the time of Patrick’s arrival, there were already a small number of Churches in the land.  But Patrick’s extraordinary mission certainly fanned the flames of that early faith – and he is responsible, without doubt, for the spread of Christianity all over Ireland.

By the way, the obligatory drinking of Guinness on St Patrick’s day has no historical, legendary, or even metaphorical link!  That’s just a clever marketing ploy!

So what might St Patrick have to teach us?  He’s undoubtedly one of the great Saints of the British Isles.  Well, I think there a few strands worth pulling out from his story…

First, Patrick appears to be someone who didn’t let nationality get in the way of his ministry.  Born a Roman-Britain, travelling extensively in Europe, and then adopting Ireland as his home, Patrick didn’t let national borders stop him telling the good news.

He was fearless in his proclamation of God’s love, even to the warlike, pagan, Irish tribes.  When you or I feel fearful of letting our friends know that we go to church, let alone that God loves them, perhaps we could all do with a little of Patrick’s courage?

His use of the shamrock was inspired.  It was a great example of using something culturally relevant to engage people with the reality of God.  Whilst I love our ancient traditions here at St Faith’s, we must never forget that our communication of God’s love needs to be culturally relevant too, especially if modern people are to hear the good news.

And finally, there’s this.  According to our best scholars, Patrick arrived in Ireland at a time when Christianity was weak, and small.  Only a tiny proportion of the population were Christians.  It sounds rather like our own times, when you think about it.  Only around 2% of the population can be found in English churches on a Sunday – which is quite startling, especially to those of us for whom our entire lives are centred around the church.  Patrick saw that the need for God was very real, and very present, in the society he went to serve.  We too need to grasp the importance, and the urgency of that task.  Amen.

Friday, March 1, 2024

The laws of an angry God

 Texts:  Exodus 20.1-17 & John 2.13-22

There are two vitally important bits of social theology before us in today’s readings.  The first is the Gospel story of Jesus chasing out the money changers in the temple.  That story has inspired an internet meme in recent years, which goes:  “When people ask ‘what would Jesus do?’, remember that the answer includes making a whip out of ropes, turning over tables and hounding people out of temples!” 

The question at stake is whether anger can ever be justified.  And the answer seems to be that yes, anger at injustice or exploitation by powerful elites over ordinary people very certainly can.  That’s what the money changers represented, you see.  There was a law, in Jesus’ time, that the offerings people made to the temple, or the money they used to buy animals for sacrifices, had to be Jewish money.  Roman coins were a symbol of occupation, and therefore only the Jewish shekel would do.  So the money changers offered people a way to change their roman coins – but they did so by charging a fee – and making a nice profit for themselves.  Many of the people who used the temple were, of course, poor.  This Temple Law therefore penalised every one of them, to the profit of the money changers.

The same practice goes on today, by our banks and our exchange bureaus.  According to the Bank for International Settlements, trading in foreign exchange markets averaged US$7.5 trillion per day in April 2022.  It is challenging to find out how much profit is made from these transactions – but you can be sure that the total runs into billions.  Every time that a migrant worker in the UK (probably working on minimum wages) wants to send money home to their family for essential items like food or rent, the money-changers make a profit for themselves.  Every time a UK charity or church wants to send money for famine relief, or to build water-towers, the money-changers still make a profit.  The wealthy make a living off the backs of the poor.  Again.  Is it any wonder that Jesus was angry?

The second item of social theology before us is the 10 commandments. In older times, we would have recited the commandments together on all the Sundays throughout Lent.  And in Tudor times, the law of the land required that the 10 Commandments should be inscribed upon wooden tablets – and placed at the East End of the church for everyone to be constantly reminded of them. 

But, what can I say about them in just a few minutes, here on a Sunday?  I’m sure that none of you would thank me for a 10 point sermon!

Well, let me be concise: the plain fact is that today’s society couldn’t care less about the 10 Commandments!  If you ask the typical man or woman in the street what the basic rules of society should be, they will often say things like ‘bring back the 10 Commandments’ – and then they will merrily go about their lives in complete ignorance of what the commandments actually teach.

What do I mean?  Well let’s look at them in two groups – for we can split the 10 Commandments into two headings – just as Jesus did. 

First, there’s the group of Commandments which are about God, and our relationship to God.  Worship God only, don’t make graven images and idols, don’t take his name in vain, and set aside a Sabbath day to rest and commune with God.

Secondly, there’s the group of Commandments which are about how we live with each other – or, in Jesus words, how we can ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’.   So let’s look at those two groups – and examine whether my statement, just now, that today’s society couldn’t care less about them actually holds water.

First – the commandments about loving and worshipping God.  The word ‘worship’ is a contraction of ‘worth-ship’ – in other words, giving something its worth, or expressing the worth that we assign to a given thing, or person.  So when some random oil paints, carefully applied to some canvass, sell for millions of pounds, society is assigning a worth to that painting.  (It’s tragic, isn’t it, that we assign much more worth to the scribblings of a dead artist than we do to the life of living, but homeless person?) When a society revels in celebrities, or expensive fashion, or the lastest car, it is giving worth-ship to those things. 

Ultimately, the thing we choose to make our personal god, is the thing that we invest most of our spare time, resources and energy into.  Each of us must judge for ourselves.  But I guarantee that each of us has, at some time in our lives, made something or someone else into a kind of god.  Something that commands all our love, energy, devotion and spare time.

To any of us who have developed such a god (with a small ‘g’), the Lord God Almighty, creator of the Universe, says to us, “Oi!  You there!  Look over here!”  The 10 Commandments invite us to put our primary focus back towards the source of all things, towards the energy, creativity, power and beauty that is actually at the root of everything which we choose to make into a god.  The facial perfection of a film-star?  It comes from God, the ground of all beauty.  The wisdom of a great philosopher?  It comes from God, the ground of all wisdom.  The power of that twin-turbo super-charged car you love to polish?  It comes from God, the ground of all power and the author of physics.  The mischievous laugh of the grandchild or the pet you are obsessing over?  It comes from God, the ground of all family and love. 

The 10 Commandments call us back to the source – and to a right focus on God, who is the ground of all being.  And then they encourage us to act in God-like ways towards our neighbours.

The second group of Commandments are all about the way we live together.  Murder, adultery, lying, stealing, and covetousness are all bundled together, along with the command that we should respect and honour our parents – the older generation who have much to teach the young. But murder, adultery, lying, stealing and covetousness are so normal in our society, that we don’t even blink anymore when we see them in our national life.  No, no-one cares anymore.  We just accept our leaders’ disregard of the 10 commandments without a second thought.  We have lost the passion of the one we call Lord who chased the thieving leaders of his day out of the Temple.

No, my friends, the hard and irresistible conclusion has to be, as I said 10 minutes ago, today’s society couldn’t care less about the 10 Commandments.

So?  What?   What are we to do about this?  We have a choice.  We have always had a choice.  We have the same choice that inspired Moses to bring these commands down from the mountain.  We have the same choice that Jesus gave to his followers.  We can choose to roll over, let the lies, the murder, theft, adultery and covetousness consume us, as it consumes our neighbours.   We can carry on shifting our focus away from the source of all gods.   Or we can repent….turn around…and focus our lives, our attention, our time and our devotion back to the centre.  To God, to author and perfecter of all things, and the ground of all being.   And that, my friends, is what Lent is all about.   Amen.