Sermon for Advent 1A 2022

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

A new year in the Church’s calendar begins today, so Happy New Year. And what a New Year’s Eve party there was the night before last in St Andrew’s, in honour of our patron saint (whose day it is on Wednesday). I heard that there was lots to eat and drink, quizzes, party pieces, a right old knees up.

We’ve now arrived at “Advent” which comes from a Latin word means ‘coming’. But whose coming are we talking about? Obviously we’re beginning to think about God coming as a human being among us, with us and like us, in the person of Jesus. But although the readings today do mention the coming of God, they don’t mention the coming of Christ at Christmas.  So we need to learn from that, that Advent isn’t just about Christmas, it’s rather more far-reaching than that.

In Advent there are in fact three comings of God. The first, is when Jesus, the Son of God came to be born in the stable at Bethlehem. But today we focus more on the final coming of Jesus at the end of the world. But there’s a further coming we need to be aware of, namely, when God enters our lives every day. Every single experience can be an opportunity to make engage with God. And we’re reminded of that day-to-day contact with God in our services and especially in the celebration of the sacraments, as today in our Eucharist.

The lovely first reading from Isaiah invites us to go with God. It says,

Come, let us go to the house of the God of Jacob” 

Isaiah 2:3

Remember that Jesus himself is the real Temple of God. And, because the Christian community is united with Him, doesn’t that make us a part of God’s Temple as well? To be God’s Temple in the world – a awesome responsibility. And so we go to him and with him

that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths”.

Isaiah 2:3

He’ll show us the paths – to follow in our lives, the way that will lead us to meet him on that last day and so that along the way we may lead others to that path, principally through the way that we live our lives.

The Second Reading and the Gospel emphasise the need for preparedness for that final coming of Jesus, whatever form it may take. The first coming of Jesus in Bethlehem also helps us to prepare for that final coming. These readings are a warning and we really need this warning. On the one hand, you probably don’t like to think too much about how or when you’ll leave this world. But it’s a fact.

Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said that there were only two things certain in life: death and taxes. In today’s world there are many people who’re very afraid of death and who don’t want to talk or even think about it. Today’s readings don’t allow that.

Given the extent of the threats to our climate and our world from our reckless exploitation, I can’t help feeling that humanity in general is very like the people mentioned in today’s Gospel:

Before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing till the flood came and swept them all away

Matthew 24:38-39

People were doing very ordinary things. The things that we all do. But they were so busy doing them they failed to give any thought to where their lives were ultimately leading and what the goal of their life was, except perhaps an endless and often fruitless search for happiness – whatever that may mean. They were very busy, just like us. Maybe they were very successful, maybe they made a lot of money, maybe they had wonderful marriages, and lots of exciting experiences… But, they weren’t ready for God’s call at the end of their lives. The question is: how ready am I right now?

Maybe you think: “I don’t have to worry. At my check-up the other day the doctor said I have the heart of a teenager.” (I wish) But how many teenagers end up as statistics in the death toll on our roads every year, or committing suicide? Maybe for them, death is something that happens to other people, to old and sick people, though the Climate Change protests suggest that it’s the teenagers who’re the ones taking notice.

We live and work for today, for tomorrow, for next month, for next year, for our future, for our children’s future… But what about our real future in eternity? Our future with God?

So today’s Gospel says,

Of two men in the fields, one is taken, one is left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left.

Matthew 24:40-41

This could mean that one is taken away by a natural or personal disaster (an earthquake or a heart attack) and the other left untouched. Or it could mean that God takes one away to himself and abandons the other. In either event, the meaning’s the same. Two men, two women who appear to be the same, doing the same thing. But there’s an important difference. One’s prepared and the other isn’t.

The trouble is we don’t know the hour or the day when the Lord will come.

If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into

Matthew 24:43

And, in many ways, that’s a blessing. On the one hand, if we did know, just imagine the anxiety of knowing what the time and the day, on the other hand, imagine the temptation to let our lives go completely to pot knowing that we could straighten everything out at the last minute. So it’s a question of always being ready.

Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”.

Paraphrase of Romans 13:11

The obvious question is, How do I prepare? St Paul writing to the Roman’s has some advice.

Let us give up all the things we tend to do under cover of darkness and live decently as people do in the daytime.” 

Paraphrase of Romans 13:13

Are there dark areas in all of our lives? Things we do, things we say, things we think, indulging in self-centred behaviour; things which we wouldn’t like other people to know about because they do harm to us or to others.

Instead, we need to develop our relations with God and with our brothers and sisters based on a caring and unconditional love for all. That of course includes future generations and those living in areas of the world threatened by the Climate Change going on as a result of excessive consumption. We need to learn how to find God, to find Jesus in every person, in every experience. We need to respect every person as the image of God. We’re to love our neighbours as ourselves, to love everyone just as Jesus loved us.

If, in our words and actions, our daily lives are full of the spirit of Jesus, then we’ve prepared. We don’t need to be anxious about the future or what’ll happen to us. Concentrate on today, on the present hour, the present situation and respond to it in truth and love and the future will take care of itself. Then we don’t have to fear no matter when Jesus makes his final call. Because we’d know he’s was going to say:

Come, my friend. I want to call you now; I want to share with you my life that never ends.

And we’d respond:

Yes, Lord, I am ready. I’ve been waiting for you all this time.

It’d be an encounter, not of strangers, but of two old friends.  

Amen.

The Season of Not-Knowing?

Are you someone who when you’re reading a book, tends to skip to the end to see what happens rather than sticking with the hero through thick and thin. When Andrew and Daniel were young, on long journeys they’d start asking if we were nearly there yet, before we were a couple of miles from home.

Part of the problem is a failure to be content with now. How much of your time do you spend thinking about the past? How much time do you spend worrying about or anticipating the future? How much time does that leave for living in the present?

The spiritual writer Anthony de Mello suggested in his writings that most of us spend far too much time anywhere but in the present. In Advent it’s so easy to think about Christmases past or to have already arrived at Christmas to come. C. S. Lewis wrote a story called “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus” about a land in which there are two festivals that overlap by just one day.

The first festival is called Exmas and for fifty days the people prepare for it, buying and sending cards and gifts, decorating trees and preparing food

But when the day of the festival comes, most of the citizens being exhausted with the preparation, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper become intoxicated.”

The other festival, called Crissmas, starts on the day that Exmas finishes. But those who keep Crissmas, do the opposite, they

rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast.

and then celebrate for several weeks afterwards.

For me Advent is about waiting for the unexpected. It’s a shame to miss all that by skipping ahead to what we think we know happens at the end of the season, on 25th December. To fail to engage with the now part of the story day by day and week by week. To fail to really listen to and reflect on the now part of the story. To have already moved on to the next part, because we know what happens next and it’s more exciting, more interesting, or perhaps more comforting.

This Advent how about really living in the present? Resisting that strong temptation to skip ahead, Enjoy the anticipation. Enjoy the state of not-knowing, because, if you enter into it, almost anything could happen. Enjoy the possibility that something truly amazing might come to pass. That God might just do something in your life that you didn’t expect, and that His coming into the world – your world – might mean that things are never the same again.

Blessings

James

Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King – 20.11.22

Circa 1980 – Guess who?

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

When I was a child, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s,  growing up on a council estate in Rotherham in South Yorkshire, I remember that my friends and I used to play all sorts of games in some rather dangerous places.

One of my particular memories is of us running wild on a building site when the estate was being expanded – no security fences in those days of course – those golden days of yesteryear when we didn’t  feel it was necessary to keep the estate kids safely away from the piles of bricks, rickety scaffolding, rusting machinery and half completed buildings.

One of the games we loved playing involved finding a huge  heap of sand or half completed wall – anything we could climb up on. The first one to the top of the heap or wall would claim the kingdom and shout, “I’m king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal.” The rest of us would charge the kingdom. Some tried pulling the king down. Others tried pushing the king off the castle. We all wanted to take over the kingdom.

Each attack on the king was in some way an unspoken demand for proof. “If you’re really the king, prove it. Defend yourself. Show us your power and strength. Save yourself and your kingdom. Because if you don’t I’ll take it for myself.” Each one of us wanted to climb the heap of sand and proclaim that we were king (or queen of course) of all that we surveyed!

It was a great game. We had a lot of fun and I’m sure many of you played very similar games, if not the same!

But when we look back and reflect on how we played, I wonder if it did begin to nurture in us an outlook that has become a bit of a problem.

You see from being children we have grown up – but many of us have never stopped playing the game. We have become adults and ‘King of the Castle’ has become a way of life.

Our heaps of sand or half built walls, our high places are now made up of our personal success and money, power and control or reputation and popularity.

For some of us, the heaps of sand have become our families, our children, or the fairy tale of living happily ever after. Others have climbed the walls of being right, holy, or respectable.

Often our kingdoms have become ways of thinking, political parties, or social groups. Our nation and even our church have become king of the castle playgrounds.

There are all sorts of kingdoms. Each one of us can probably name the sand heaps of our lives, the sand heaps on which we have played king or queen of the castle.

The adult version of king of the castle has become about filling our emptiness, fighting our fear, and ultimately establishing some type of order and control.

What began as a child’s game has become the reality of our adult lives.

For many of us life is a constant scrambling to establish and maintain our little kingdoms, to convince ourselves as much as anyone else that we are okay, we are enough, we are the king or queen. And isn’t that a hard way to live?

Today, the Feast of Christ the King, celebrates and reminds us that playing king of the castle does not have to be the final reality of our lives.

Life can be different. We do not have to spend our lives trying to get to the top of a three-foot heap of sand. We do not have to spend our lives trying to keep our balance on top of a half-built wall as others try to push us off.

Christ the King invites us to stop playing the game. Life does not have to be, was never intended to be, an ongoing game of king of the castle.

If we choose to stop playing the game, it means we must give up our little kingdoms. We cannot celebrate Christ the King if we continue fighting our way up the sand heap.

We can have one or the other but not both.

Today in our service we will again pray, “your kingdom come.” It rolls off our tongues with ease and familiarity.  But I wonder if we really know what we’re asking for and do we really mean it? Implicit in that prayer is the request, “my kingdom go.” “Your kingdom come, my kingdom go.”

It’s one thing to pray for God’s kingdom to come. It’s another to let our kingdom go. After all we’ve been kings and queens of our own castles for a long time. Or at least we’ve convinced ourselves that we have.

It’s not easy to let go of our kingdoms and more often than not I think we try to negotiate a deal with God. “Ok God. Prove you are the king and then I’ll step down. Show me evidence of your kingdom and then I’ll let go of mine.”

The leaders, the soldiers, one of the criminals – they all want the same thing. They want to see proof that Christ is the king. They want to see evidence of his kingdom. We all do. After all, if Jesus is really the king, the one to rule our lives, and we are supposed to believe that – then let him prove it. “Save yourself if you are the Messiah of God. Save yourself if you are the King of the Jews. Aren’t you the Messiah? Then prove it. Save yourself and me.”

At one level I think we want to see Jesus come down from the cross. We want to see his wounds disappear. We want to see a well-dressed king – one with physical strength, military might, and political power. We want to see something spectacular, something beyond the realities of our ordinary lives.

At a much deeper level, however, these demands are about more than just Jesus saving himself from death, from physical pain, from political defeat.  At this deeper level we are crying out: “Save yourself and us from our own unbelief. Save yourself and us from our need to control. Save yourself and us from the fear that this little heap of sand I call my kingdom is all that there is to my life. Show me. Right now. Prove who you are.”

But you know what – he won’t do it – at least not in the way we usually want. Jesus will not offer us proof of his kingship. Instead he offers us the kingdom. He invites us to share in his kingship.

That happens in the silence of the deepest love.

The leaders are scoffing at Jesus. He responds with silence. The soldiers are mocking him. He responds with silence. One of the criminals derides him. He responds with silence. All are demanding proof. None are getting what they ask for. Jesus does not take himself or the criminals off the cross. He doesn’t answer the leaders. He refuses to respond to the soldiers. He is silent.

In that silence the other criminal begins to understand. It’s not about getting proof of Christ’s kingship – it’s about letting go of our own kingship. It’s about coming down from our little heaps of sand and realising that we already are, and always have been, royal members of God’s holy kingdom.

This realisation underlies the criminal’s cry, “Jesus remember me. Remember me not because of what I have done or left undone. Remember me in spite of those things. Remember me not because of who I am, but because of who you are.” His cry to be remembered is the cry of one who has emptied himself of everything, has let go of every last kingdom, and whose very life and existence are entrusted to the God who remembers. That is the reign of Christ.

The reign of Christ does not mean we now have all the answers, that everything is fixed, that there is no more pain, or that every problem has been eliminated. Jesus will not take us off our crosses. Instead, he gets up there with us. He does not fix our lives. Instead, he enters into the reality of our ordinary existence. We are remembered – and right here today, in the reality of our everyday lives, in the midst of our pain, in the midst of our dying, in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of our guilt – Christ the King says to us, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Amen

May God bless you and all those you hold dear during this coming week and always.

Fr Simon

We did Remember

In Flanders Fields

BY JOHN MCCRAE

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Reflection for Remembrance Sunday – 13th Nov 2022

Matthew 5:1-12

Every year well over 40 million Poppies are sold in aid of the work of the Royal British Legion. Poppies now come in many different forms: the traditional paper ones, but also large plastic ones and increasingly knitted ones, they’re projected onto buildings and also form public art installations, like the 888,246 ceramic poppies used in the “Blood swept lands and Seas of Red” installation at the Tower of London in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI or the hundreds of knitted poppies cascading from the War Memorial in Lairg to mark the 100th anniversary of its dedication in 1922.

In his book, “Where the Poppies Blow”, historian John Lewis-Stempel writes of how the soldiers in the trenches engaged with the natural world through the horror, and boredom, and filth, but sometimes unexpected beauty of the trenches – “above all, nature healed, and, despite the bullets and blood, it inspired men to endure”.

Did you know that many of the British soldiers spent much of their time in the trenches gardening. Some of these were for the necessary and practical purpose of producing fresh food to keep them relatively healthy. Actually by the end of the WWI it’s suggested that the British Army was self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. But it wasn’t just fruit and veg, they also made small flower gardens at the rear of their trenches.

Will you please send as soon as possible two packets of candytuft and two packets of nasturtium seeds?

wrote Captain Lionel Crouchto his father in Chelmsford in 1915.

Life in the trenches was often extremely boring.  For about four years of the Great War in many places neither side advanced or retreated more than a few miles.  So the cultivation of a garden was something to do. Some stretches even ran a sort of “Britain in Bloom” to add a bit of competitive edge.  Of course at another level these gardens were a powerful remembrance of home and those lost.  In a life which often seemed so randomly cruel, they provided the soldiers with a modicum of control and order in their disordered and horribly distorted world. 

It’s out of this unique environment that the Poppy emerged as the defining symbol of remembrance for British society.

Before the war, in the untilled soil of northern France and Belgium the Poppy did’t normally thrive in the way that the blue cornflowers did and filled the same role in the French popular imagination as the Poppy does in the British.

But this was a unique environment, in which the Poppy – which reminded so many soldiers of the cornfields back home in England, thrived. The artillery barrages of both sides, ploughed and churnedup no-man’s land and the explosions helped spread the poppy seeds around the mud churned land.The nitrogen of the explosives as well as the rotting remains of dead animals and soldiers created a very fertile environment in which these poppies flowered abundantly. So it wasn’t a poetic image, but a reality of this beauty in a seemingly God-forsaken place, which led Canadian Physician John McCrae on the day after leading the prayers at the ad hoc funeral of one of his dearest friends to write.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

John Macrae

From those words written in 1915, through the first Poppy Appeals of the 1920s, through to the millions we see at this time of year across our country, the simple red Poppy has become a most eloquent expression of the deep sorrow and gratitude that so many feel for those who’ve given their lives in time of war.

In the Poppy we’re remembering the sacrifice of those whose names are written on the war memorials in our communities, many marking their 100th anniversaries this year and next. In the Poppy we glimpse an image of the bravery and brutality of war.  Perhaps we see in this simple flower, and in its short and brilliant flowering, the image of a generation cut down all too soon. 

But rather than simply looking back, in the Poppy we should also look forward. In the trenches flowers became a sign of hope and deep spiritual epiphany. That in these simple flowers emerging through the mud and rubble of that seemingly God-forsaken landscape of no-man’s land, something good and something beautiful might and could and should emerge.

God has given us the capacity to remember. Where would we be without it? How sad it is when dementia robs people of their memories. Yes, memory is a great gift, but it comes with the obligation to remember well; to remember fully; to learn the lessons of the past and to apply them intelligently. In this we all have our own part to play. Today let us try to remember the past in a way that better equips us for the future.

In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew we heard the beginning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”. In these, the Beatitudes, we hear the promise and blessing that God reveals to us in His sonJesus Christ. 

What’s striking about them is that these blessings begin not with those who are comfortable in life, or in the happiness that we might wish for. Blessing emerges instead for those, like the soldiers of the trenches, who dwell in darker places of life – the sorrowful, the persecuted, the hungry. And it’s through these places that we come to know and understand the promises of God for comfort, for mercy and for the kingdom of heaven.

In the Poppy we see the same picture. That even in the shattered, broken reality of the trenches something new and positive might and should emerge.

So as we wear our Poppies, as we lay them in remembrance we not only look back with sorrow and thankfulness, we look forward with joy and hope and recommit ourselves to the truth and blessing that we might be peacemakers, and that by so doing we may truly become the children of God of love and peace.

Amen

We Will Remember Them

So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.

Ewart Alan Mackintosh

Sermon for Third Sunday before Advent – 06.11.22

Job 19:23-27a  • Psalm 17:1-9  •  2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17  •  Luke 20:27-38

Well, here we are in November and the church year is beginning to draw to a close. As well as everything associated with The Season of Remembrance, our thoughts also turn to the end times, the return of Christ, and, as we will confess in the Creed later on in our service, “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Our Scripture readings during these weeks generally reflect this emphasis and so it is with what we have heard this morning. Our Holy Gospel for today, from Luke 20, speaks about “The God of the Living and the Children of the Resurrection.”

The original setting for this text was during Holy Week, in Jerusalem, as Jesus was teaching there. His opponents were lining up, taking turns, trying to trap him in something he might say. For instance, some of his enemies tried to catch Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Caesar, thinking that no matter which way he answered, they would trap him – that he would either say something to incriminate himself with the Roman authorities or else he would anger the Jewish nationalists. But Jesus saw through their trap and answered with a brilliant response that actually put them on the spot.

That challenge didn’t work and so along come some Sadducees wanting to try their hand with a trick question, aiming to make Jesus look bad.

“The Sadducees,” you say? Who were they? Well, I’m glad you asked. A little background will help us understand where they’re coming from. The Sadducees were a group within Judaism that had certain distinctive beliefs. For one thing, the only part of the Hebrew Scriptures that they accepted as authoritative was the Torah, that is, the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Another distinctive belief of the Sadducees was that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.

They did not believe in the resurrection, so they were “sad, you see.” (Sorry I just couldn’t resist that rather lame attempt at humour and of course I am just kidding about the name)!

But the fact is, that unlike other groups within Judaism, such as the scribes and the Pharisees, who did believe in a bodily resurrection, the Sadducees did not. And that is what lies behind their question here to Jesus- a question that they hope will trip him up and make him look bad. So, they frame a ridiculous scenario in order to pose a question that will make a belief in the resurrection look absurd.

Here’s how it goes: “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.”

Now, let’s just take a pause here. The Sadducees are citing one of the laws written in the Torah. It’s the case of what to do when an Israelite man dies childless, what to do so that that man’s name does not die out, but so that his line will carry on and have heirs and keep that man’s land and property within the family. This was a big deal in ancient Israel, according to God’s plan at that time. And so the provision in the law of Moses was that in such cases, which would be relatively rare – in such cases of a man dying childless, if that man has a brother, then that brother should take the widow as his wife, which would do a couple of things: it would carry on the deceased man’s genealogical line and his allotted family property, and it would also be a way of caring for the widow, who otherwise might be economically vulnerable.

So that’s the set-up, the premise for what follows, the marriage prescribed in the Law of Moses. That part, the Sadducees state correctly. But then they take this law to the extreme, to get at what they’re really driving at, which is to make a belief in the resurrection sound ridiculous – to make Jesus sound ridiculous.

So anyway, here they go: “Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife and then he died without having any children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died.” Do you get that? Instead of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” they’re painting a picture of “One Bride for Seven Brothers.”

“Afterwards the woman also died.” Well, no wonder! Attending so many funerals would get anybody down!

OK, so the ridiculous scenario is this: The one wife had been married to all seven men.

And the question comes – “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”

The Sadducees think they’ve got him! “Try to wriggle out of this one, Jesus! Let’s see you try to defend your silly belief in a bodily resurrection now!”

Well, guess again!

Now this incident is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and our text in Luke does not include the first thing Jesus says back, which is, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” You see, the Sadducees did not know their scriptures well enough, they did not understand them, and they also underestimated the power of God to do something as great and wonderful as to raise up the dead.

And they don’t understand the temporal nature of marriage, either, that it is an estate established by God for this life only, but not for the age to come. Jesus says, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” You Sadducees don’t have to worry about “whose wife she will be,” because she won’t be the wife of any of them at that time. The estate of marriage is for this life only.

Those who attain to the age to come and to the resurrection from the dead do not marry, “for they cannot die anymore.” Thus there is no need to carry on the line, to be fruitful and multiply, there’s no need to make sure the one left behind is economically secure.

The promise of the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come is a promise not just for the ancient nation of Israel, for the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a promise also for us today.  God’s promises do not have an expiration date.

Dear friends, this is how we are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead: We are worthy solely because of Jesus Christ. What has He done to make us worthy of everlasting life? He has conquered death! By his death he has destroyed death. That is, when Christ died on the cross, he took away the guilt of all our sins.

God’s own Son has died in our place, and if we are trusting in him for forgiveness, when our time comes we will not die but live. Christ himself rose, victorious from the grave. And you, beloved child of God, you have been joined to Christ, and so you will rise with him!

May God bless you and all those you hold dear during this coming week and always.

Amen

Fr Simon

Sermon for All Souls 2nd November 2022

Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 23; Romans 5:5-11; John 6:37-40

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from his prison cell on Christmas Eve, 1943 wrote:

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. 

At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent that the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. 

Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

November is a month for remembering. All around people are wearing poppies, a symbol that we remember the lives of those lost in war. But this evening, we come, possibly with some trepidation, to remember quietly those who we’ve loved but see no more.

It isn’t easy to remember, when remembering brings back the pain of our loss. It isn’t easy to remember when the relationship we shared had its difficulties or when we feel that there were things we wanted to do or say but didn’t get the chance. Sometimes remembering is perhaps the last thing that we feel that we want to do or are able to do…

The Christian faith has a strong tradition of remembering. As Jesus approached his own death he shared a simple meal with his friends. He urged them to bring Him into their presence every time they broke bread or drank together. He knew that he was going to die but he wanted them to know that in spite of that he’d never leave them.

This act of remembrance like the Eucharist that we will share together shortly, is about life and all that lies ahead and not simply about something in the past. For many of us there are times of day or simple acts that remind us of someone we’ve lost. Sometimes the act of remembering will trip us up as momentarily we forget what’s happened, at other times the act of remembering can be a great comfort and strength.

In the short piece I read at the beginning, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of how, as we work through our grief, we develop a new perspective on the one that we love but see no more.

We don’t just remember them as a saint but start to remember them in all the richness of who they were, in the things that drove us mad, as well as their more positive traits, and we’re grateful for it all.

As we remember the things that made us laugh and the things that made us cross, the things that made us proud and the ways they could embarrass us, it’s as though the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are coming back together again…

When we lose someone dear to us, it’s as though a jigsaw puzzle has been thrown up into the air and all the pieces have been scattered far and wide. As we remember, the pieces start to come together – only the picture isn’t quite the same. We have to look closely at what is emerging, but there, in the new picture, is the possibility that we can still love the one we’ve lost and that the life we shared with them is one of the things that has shaped the person we are today.

As we remember tonight we should be encouraged by the words we heard from Wisdom:

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them … Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.

Wisdom 3:1,9

Hope for the Souls of the departed, but also for us that they have left behind.

And also by Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome so frequently heard at funerals:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Romans 8:38-39

So absolutely nothing, not even our grief, can separate up from the love that we’ve shared with those we’ve lost – love is stronger than death because love is of God.

Memories don’t just connect us to the past, memories are also what connects us with the future, with hope and new life. As we remember, as the fragments of the jigsaw come back together again and we see exiting new possibilities emerging, we become ever more aware of the bond of love that cannot be broken. As Bonhoeffer says:

gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” 

Amen

A Sermon for All Saints 2022

A Last Beatitude (Malcolm Guite)

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organise the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

In this poem, Malcolm Guite points to something that underlies today’s celebration. Saints are simply people through whom we catch a glimpse of the unknown God. God can and does reveal Himself to us through the people around us. He doesn’t need their permission or even their awareness that they’re revealing God to others – it may be just a smile or a helping hand or a kind word or it may be a prophetic cry that will change the course of history. 

Every year on the first of November (or thereabouts) we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. In our worship, we consciously join ourselves to the saints in heaven. We put into practice our faith in the idea of the communion of saints. Now you may be wondering why we honour all the saints at one go. Well in the early days of the Church, martyrs were remembered on the anniversary of their death. The first three centuries were times of persecution for Christians and as a result, the number of martyrs increased dramatically. The number of free days for new saints in the calendar decreased rapidly; so finally in the fourth century, this day was set aside each year to commemorate all the saints who couldn’t be fitted in with a day of their own. 

But this day is also a reminder to us that we are all called to be saints of God. All Saintstide is a reminder to us of our call to holiness. Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic theologian, commented that “the Church in Heaven is all saints, but the Church on earth is all sorts”. There are all sorts of us in the Church of God. All sorts of denominations. All sorts of theologies. All sorts of liturgies. All sorts of personalities. And we are all, all sorts of us, called to be the saints of God. We the people of God have potential to be all sorts of saints. 

As Pope Francis once said:

The Saints are not supermen and neither are they perfect. They lived normal lives marked by sadness and joy, hardships and hopes, before reaching the glory of heaven. But when they witnessed God’s love, they followed him with all their heart, unconditionally and without hypocrisy; they dedicated their life to serving others, they bore suffering and adversities without hatred and responded to evil with good, spreading joy and peace.

We’re all called to walk along the path of sainthood. Probably a rather difficult thing for any of us to accept. We probably don’t think of ourselves as being particularly holy; besides, aren’t we supposed to be humble? 

So today we remember all those Christians who have lived before us. We celebrate that we are surrounded by a community of believers, those from every age who have served Christ and who have lived the life of faith. We celebrate that we are on that same path of becoming. C.S. Lewis wrote, 

How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.” 

So how do we come to the place where it becomes irresistible to us and we accept our call to holiness? 

It begins, I suspect, by recognising that even the greatest of the saints was a real person. A real person with real struggles and that should convince us of their humanity. So what does it mean to be one of God’s saints? Mother Teresa who died in 1996 was often referred to as a living saint. In 1982, during a visit to San Francisco to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis of Assisi, the diminutive nun was asked how it feels to be called “a living saint.

Possibly, people see Jesus in me,” she replied. “But we can see Jesus in each other. Holiness is meant for all people.

The Bible’s full of helpful tips on this. For instance, today’s readings see God’s faithful saints being called to praise God’s saving acts and promises in Psalm 149, an angel giving hope to an oppressed people by explaining that empires and rulers will be destroyed by God and replaced by “the saints of the Most High” in Daniel. In Ephesians we’re reminded that we shouldn’t take God’s promises for granted, that it’s through the “seal” of the Holy Spirit that we are living in God’s power and protection, and in Luke, Jesus gives us teaching on values that sound like a pretty steep hill to climb. In it Jesus addresses a large gathering, saying, “Blessed are you…” So begins the teaching that has become known as ‘the beatitudes’.

So who are the blest ones? Who is it that God favours? Who is that God looks wearily at? Who is it that Jesus warns of troubles and woes? God blesses the poor, those who are hungry or tearful and those who are persecuted, or rejected because of their faith. No surprise there, and we can perhaps imagine the crowd murmuring their agreement, but then Jesus changes tack. He draws attention to the opposite, and delivers a warning to the rich, those who are well fed or joyful and to the well-regarded. 

While it seems obvious that God blesses the poor and the sad, do we really believe that God curses the rich and the happy?

The Beatitudes can be seen as a set of values intended to shape how we understand God, the world, and our place in it. Rather than seeking ways of being blessed ourselves, through poverty, hunger, or sadness, we should respond by seeking out those who’re in need, and sharing what we have. 

Is Jesus not actually saying, woe to you who tenaciously hang on to your riches, fullness, and laughter, ignoring those who are poor, hungry and sad.

On All Saints Day we’re reminded that ‘Saints’ who are blessed by God, not only those who society at large recognises as being of exceptional virtue, but also the vulnerable, the forgotten and the outcasts. 

Blessèd are the ones we overlook
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.” 

Amen.

The Season of Remembrance

We are now entering what some call the ‘Season of Remembrance’. It starts with All Saintson 1st November (though this year we will celebrate All Saints on Sunday 30th), followed by All Souls on 2nd and continues with Armistice Day on 11th until Remembrance Sunday (this year on 13th). It’s a time when we remember the Saints of the Church, those men and women who are recognised as having an exceptional degree of holiness and who are felt to have a particular likeness or closeness to God. We remember also friends and family members, who we have loved but see no more. And of course we remember those who’ve given their lives in the armed conflicts of more than 100 years. In churches and communities across the United Kingdom, all of these events are marked with public acts of worship and of remembrance.

On April 5, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and teacher, was arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into prison; on April 9, 1945, he was executed. Whilst incarcerated, he wrote a collection of the letters, essays and poems. They were addressed to his parents and to a friend, and form an extraordinary picture of a sensitive man whose faith and dedication to service never wavered, whose spiritual depth enabled him to overcome the most trying of circumstances.  Tain CoS Film Club will be showing a film about him on Friday 11thNovember at 7:30pm (see Diary).

He was a man of great faith, intelligence and compassion, who understood so well the problems of the modern world. Resisting ease and compromise, he was constantly ministering to his fellow prisoners right up to the time of his death. He was a saint, a friend to many and a casualty of war and therefore part of each element of our Season of Remembrance.

One of the short pieces that he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge is called “Stations on the Road to Freedom”. In it there’s a short verse on each of four ‘stations’ on that road: Discipline, Action, Suffering and Death. This last he described as “the supreme festival on the road to freedom”. The verse on Death reads as follows:

Come now, Queen of the feasts on the road to eternal freedom! 
O death, cast off the grievous chains and lay low the 
thick walls of our mortal body and our blinded soul, 
that at last we may behold what here we have failed to see. 
O freedom, long have we sought thee in discipline and in action and in suffering. 
Dying, we behold thee now, and see thee in the face of God.

“Stations on the Road to Freedom” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Blessings

James