Sermon for the Eve of the State Funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II – 18.09.22

Photo by Katie Chan provided under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

In this period of national mourning for our dear Queen Elizabeth II, we arrive today at the eve of her state funeral.

Just ten days ago, on the 8th September, we all heard the sad news that she had died peacefully, surrounded by her family at Balmoral.

I’m sure that like me, many of you had seen news clips of her earlier that week, greeting the new Prime Minister, the 15th  PM that the Queen had greeted throughout her 70-year-reign. Whilst she did look frail, her face beamed as she greeted Liz Truss, just as it had on so many occasions throughout her life.

On the morning of the 8th, news broadcasters reported that the Queen had been encouraged to rest and was under the close supervision of her doctors, but who among us expected her death to come so quickly? My feelings when I heard the news were similar to those that I’ve experienced when the health of an elderly or sick relative or friend begins to fail and I’m sure many of you have been through the same. “Is today the day?” we ask ourselves. The 8th September 2022 was one of those, “It is today” days.

Something I have enjoyed watching on television or reading about over the years was the Queen during various church services– commemorations, funerals, thanksgivings and Sunday services. She took her faith seriously. While she read the newsletters for the service, I have no doubt when it came to the prayers, that she knew them from memory and by heart. She paid attention to endless sermons, and I’m sure she considered them later in the day when Sunday lunch was over. Did she always like the music the choir and organ provided, plus hymns and anthems sung by the congregation? Who knows? She was very good at keeping a straight face that didn’t disclose her feelings. Still, she sang the hymns, probably not even needing the lyrics printed in front of her. 

Her Majesty was never shy about mentioning her faith, especially during religious holidays like Christmas and Easter and at times when something spiritually uplifting needed to be said. As Defender of the Faith and head of the Anglican communion throughout the world, she made sure her people saw her attending church regularly.

But the Queen did more than just talk about her faith, she lived it. She praised those who did good deeds for others, recognising their efforts while humbly keeping her own efforts private. She undoubtedly trusted God to guide and help her, probably never more than at the death of her beloved husband of seventy-three years. 

The Queen’s relationship with Our Lord taught her how important it was to love people, even those who had hurt her or her people. Yes, rules were rules, and sometimes she had to be what seemed quite harsh, but she didn’t do it capriciously. I remember seeing her face in newsreels when she visited the site of the Aberfan disaster in Wales where 144 people were killed, most of them children. She hadn’t wanted to go, but ultimately, she did. I imagine it must have been hard for her to contemplate those deaths, perhaps thinking of how she would feel had one or more of her own been in a similar situation. 

I’ve also seen film reels of her enjoying visiting people around the world, watching their singing and dancing, seeing their world, and learning things that might become important years later than the actual date of those visits. Of course, she delighted in dancing herself and I think you’ll probably have seen the films of her at the Ghillies’ Ball.

Her relationship with Jesus also taught the Queen what it meant to be human. It is often difficult to keep a straight face when something happens, whether it is humorous, tragic or incomprehensible. Still, Jesus continued with his work, regardless of circumstance, and so, following his example, did she. I think she understood duty in the same way Jesus did. God had sent Jesus with a mission. Elizabeth had been consecrated to a job that had come through her father, himself consecrated to the same position. Elizabeth said in a message after the 9/11 attacks, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” Jesus knew the same thing, just two thousand or so years earlier.

Many of us will miss her but, seeing her frailty just a few days before her passing, I am sure many of have felt some consolation by the circumstance that she had a peaceful death. It feels a bit like losing a mother or grandmother but there are many years of memories that pictures, books and newsreels will continue to bring up, and I’m sure we are all glad of that.

I hope God met her at the gates of heaven personally. As humble as she was in most cases, I can imagine her face at seeing God waiting to welcome her to her new mansion, her new heavenly home. And I can imagine that Philip probably had the barbecue already going as well. 

May Elizabeth and Philip both now rest in peace and rise in glory together. They’ve left a big void in the heart of our nation.

Amen

Fr Simon

Queen Elizabeth II during a visit to the Royal Dockyard Chapel in Pembroke Dock, Wales.

Sermon for Pentecost 14C (Creation 2) – 11th September

Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10; Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Yesterday morning in my morning prayer, I came across this verse from Philippians:

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be innocent and genuine, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like bright stars.

Philippians 2:14-15

I have heard many people paying tribute to our late Queen over the past few days, but I haven’t heard it better expressed than Paul’s words to the people of the city of Philippi.

Luke 15 contains three parables, the two that we heard this morning (the lost sheep and the lost coin) can you think what the third one is? To give you a clue they all result in celebratory meals. You’re all familiar with these parables and their context, you’ve all heard endless sermons on the subject.

The first starts “Which one among you?” and that question invites you personally into the story of the lost sheep, the second starts “Or what woman?” again inviting you personally in the story of lost coin. In both cases that means you. According to Cosmo Lang, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the abdication crisis which put George VI our late Queen’s father on the throne and set the path her life, Jesus purpose ins starting this way is to emphasise God’s care for each and every individual.

Now in the many stories that we’ve heard over the last few days, what has come across to me is precisely that same thing, her care for each and every individual that she came across in the course of her duties. Even in very brief exchanges people felt that they had her full attention and that she really cared about the answer when she asked them a question. A really important quality in a role where it would be so easy to give the impression that you are just going through the motions.

The setting for this morning’s parables is: “All the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near in order to hear him” Why? What is it about Jesus that attracts tax collectors and sinners ? Let’s avoid glib answers about Jesus having a magnetic personality and try to understand what Luke’s saying and I would have to admit that it’s a bit a of a mixed message; Jesus is clearly seeking to bring sinners to repentance. But where in Luke does Jesus actually scold or correct a sinner? The short answer is that he doesn’t.  Instead he eats with them. Luke reports four instances where Jesus eatswith sinners, as a result of which He gets criticised, but interestingly Jesus never comments on the sinners’ behaviour. So what’s going on?

The problem I suspect is the term sinner. Well aren’t we all sinners? In Luke’s world, Jesus distinguishes between sinners who repent and “the righteous who have no need of repentance“. Sinners are those who’ve turned away from God, who are just fine on their own.  Is that ultimately not the cause of the climate crisis, turning away from God and interpreting having dominion over creation as being a right to exploit? The late Queen had dominion over us all, but did she exploit us?

Repentance is as Evening Prayer in the Scottish Prayer Book puts it in the Absolution “amendment of life”:

The Almighty and merciful Lord grant you Absolution and Remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Scottish Prayer Book evening prayer

Notice the petition is asking God to grant “true repentance” it’s not demanding the penitent show it. In the two parables this morning the shepherd and the woman concentrate on the ‘lost’ and leave the rest, because they don’t need attention at that point. Jesus embraces the people the rest of religious society rejects.

As ‘good Christians’ we tend to avoid taking sides on many issues and when someone does, such as the Bishop of Leeds speaking about the serious dangers faced by the poor in times of austerity and hardship, all hell breaks loose (well at least on the letters pages of the Church Times).  Our society seems to have no inhibitions about branding people as losers. The Church should take sides with those who lose out  and the really big losers as a result of the Climate Crisis are the people who live in many of the poorest countries on earth.

There are too many in positions of influence and power who are only too ready to scapegoat people who they see as “sinners” because they place an undue burden on the rest of society. Sinners, who are refugees or benefit claimants or migrants from parts of the world where changes in the climate makes life very difficult indeed. Sinners who for whatever reason have fallen on hard times, through no fault of their own. Sinners who though previously respectable members of society now suffer from ill-health Sinners who have addictions. Sinners who are not like us. The list could go on. Eating with sinners means taking sides.

Our two parables share the same structure. One sheep is lost from a larger group, someone goes to great lengths to find the lost one and the finder invites friends in for a celebration. Interestingly the second story goes into great detail about how the woman who lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully. She can’t rest, she can’t relax, she doesn’t feel right until she’s found it. Now who doesn’t know that feeling, I know I do? Perhaps I should be throwing a finding glasses party on a regular basis and invite everyone in to celebrate it!

But I digress. As with most of Jesus’ parables, in these, there’s something that seems out of place. That something is to be found in the totally disproportionate lavishness of the celebrations when the lost is found. Now I ask you would a shepherd really throw a big party over the finding of one lost sheep (“Which one of you does not do so?”)?

I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

If the lost coin is of such concern to the woman, would you really expect her to want the expense of a party (“What woman would not?”)?

I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

So as we reflect on this, we’re invited to recognize the extravagant joy with which God, present in Christ, welcomes sinners – that is “those who recognise their need of repentance” but remember “the righteous have no need of repentance” and “the self-righteous don’t recognise their need of repentance” they’re just fine, they can look after themselves can’t they?

In response to the charge that Jesus associates with tax collectors and sinners, His response is, “Well Obviously.” Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus dines with the poor and the rich, the tax collectors, sinners, and the Pharisees. In these parables, Jesus invites us to find God’s image in all people and especially in those that seem lost, for “nothing will be impossible with God

By the way that third parable is the Prodigal Son, the Queen’s favourite parable however was the Good Samaritan. 

Amen

Sermon for the First Sunday in the Season of Creation 2022 (04.09.22)

Today is the first Sunday in the Season of Creation – which lasts until the Feast of St Francis on 4th October. During this season, we spend time together thinking about the planet which we share with countless other human beings and other forms of life. You may know that our study group, led by Rev James, began earlier this week and we have a number of special ‘Stations of Creation’ services planned in the next few weeks – so keep a look out for those – a great opportunity to think a bit deeper about the current crisis our planet faces.

The theme for the study group this coming week is Water: The source of life and as part of it those attending will be considering some stories in the bible where water plays an important part.

Stories not unlike those of baptism in the River Jordan, Jonah on his way to Tarshish being tossed overboard and swallowed by a big fish and of course the great flood from which Noah and his family were saved.

And what about the parting of the Red Sea – a miracle performed by God through the prophet Moses. I imagine it to be both awe-inspiring and terrifying – you may remember the scene in The Ten Commandments – the film released in 1956 starring Charlton Heston as Moses.

You know how the story goes, after the Passover, which spares the Israelites’ firstborn children but kills those of the Egyptians, Pharaoh finally agrees they may leave his country. It’s now been seven days since the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt and Pharaoh changes his mind. He and all the chariots of Egypt pursue God’s chosen people to the water and are about to overtake them.

With their toes touching the Red Sea, it appears that the Israelites will either be slaughtered or drowned. In their panic, they cry out to Moses and he knows his people are scared, so he reassures them. And then he prays to God who tells Moses to stretch his hand out over the sea, causing a mighty east wind to blow all night long. The waters split apart, rather like an axe splitting wood, the waters become walls on their right and on their left.

The Israelites march through the parted sea on dry ground during the night, with God’s pillar of fire overhead. When the Egyptian pursuers follow, God instructs Moses to raise his hand a second time sending the waters crashing down, drowning them in its depths. Recognising the great miracle that had occurred, Moses and the people of Israel sang the Song of the Sea, and Miriam led the women in song and dance.

In this season of creation, as we intentionally reflect on the earth around us – it sometimes feels like we are bit like the Israelites on the edge of the waters, watching the Egyptian chariots draw closer and closer. Sometimes we, too, feel like we are in an impossible situation when faced with the vulnerability of this created world, with no way out.

Yet even though we might feel like the Israelites with our toes touching the edge of the Red Sea, we know that our situation is different. We know that there is danger in thinking we are too much like those fleeing Israelites. Because if we follow this line of thinking, we might come to believe that God will intervene in a similar way. That God will save us from the fires of our warming earth.

Perhaps if we trust enough.

Pray enough.

Believe enough.

God will save us, despite our careless behaviours or our polluted waters and skies. After all, doesn’t God promise, “behold I make all things new in creation”?

Now just park that idea for a minute and we’ll come back to it later.

Let’s go back to the beginning, the very beginning when God creates humankind in His own image. “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:27–28).

“God said to them, have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Now I believe dominion means that we have sovereignty over and responsibility for the well-being of God’s Creation. We are called to cultivate and care for the Earth in the way that God does – that is with love and wisdom. We are called to exercise dominion in ways that allow God’s original creative act to be further unfolded.

The word Dominion comes from the Latin word domus – meaning house, temple, or even the dome over the earth. And so just as we care for members who share our individual houses, individual domus, we are also called by God to care for the fellow inhabitants of our earthly dome.

To be a wise and holy householder we are to do this out of compassion, not just for ourselves or our children, but for all people, and all people’s children. And their children’s children. And their children’s children’s children. We live under this dome together, so we must care for one another and show empathy for one another’s pain.

With this in mind, the fact that the climate crisis is perpetuated primarily by human beings and primarily affects other human beings should be of our utmost concern. It’s about justice. We as human beings are all created by God, in the image of God and loved by God. We are all equal in His eyes. And as we are all created under this same dominion or earthly dome – we should care for one another in such a way. 

Recalling the story of the Red Sea today reiterates this call to community. We are reminded of God establishing the people of Israel as His own people and how He saves them so that the covenant with Abraham may be fulfilled. We hear about valuing community and doing all we can to protect our lives together.

As we focus on the environment during the Season of Creation, we are called to look at the land we share with our communities and around the earth. We are called to look at how we treat land – both the developed and undeveloped spaces. How are we caring for the creatures displaced by urban sprawl? How are we caring for the people living in the lands of food deserts? How do we care for the common spaces that are naturally wild? Do we have an interest in the places we do not own?

So, just come back to that idea that we parked.

A number of young activists have been telling us a lot lately that “we have 14 years or so to turn the earth around or else it will be too late.” Sometimes as older people, we find it hard to hear these apparently angry younger voices and I honestly have no idea where they get their numbers or even if they are true. But what I do know is that they deeply believe that what they are saying is true and they are calling us out on our sometimes selfish and careless behaviours.

Fourteen years – that feels an awful lot like being backed into a corner with no further options. Will God intervene? Will God save us, despite our careless behaviours or our polluted oceans?

God’s biblical promise is not that He will forever save us from ourselves and our selfishness. The promise is that God will forever stand with us, urging us to move in the divine way of unity and wholeness with all created beings under this shared dome. I don’t believe our God will swallow up the CO2 levels or cool the oceans or extinguish wildfires through a heavenly breath. But I do fully believe that our God will continue to remind us that we are connected to one another.

While God may not intervene to save the planet while we stand idly by, I do believe that God is in the process of saving us. God is working on us and through us at this very moment to turn us toward the healing of the planet and the healing of all people living together under this great dome.

Amen.

May God Bless you and all you hold dear in this coming week.

Fr Simon

Sermon for Pentecost 12C – 28th August 2022

Proverbs 25:6-7; Ps 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

R S Thomas

The Kingdom by R. S. Thomas 

It’s a long way off but inside it 
There are quite different things going on: 
Festivals at which the poor man 
Is king and the consumptive is 
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look 
At themselves and love looks at them 
Back; and industry is for mending 
The bent bones and the minds fractured 
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get 
There takes no time and admission 
Is free, if you purge yourself 
Of desire, and present yourself with 
Your need only and the simple offering 
Of your faith, green as a leaf. 

The Kingdom” by R S Thomas

By all accounts R.S. Thomas, the Welsh clergyman and poet who was born a little over 100 years ago and died 20 years ago at the age of 87, was a miserable old so-and-so whose life appeared to be full of paradox. He was a fierce defender of Wales and the Welsh language and yet wrote his poems in English. Like Wordsworth, he was inspired by nature and the land and yet in his work, but was not very positive about the people who lived and worked on it. He married an English woman and sent his son to an English boarding school although he despised England and the English and when in his 70s he wrote his autobiography in Welsh, he entitled it Neb meaning nobody and referred to himself throughout in the third person as the boy or the rector.

In his poem “The Kingdom” which I read just now, he breaks each line before the end of the sentence, which makes it tricky to read. The result maybe underlines the paradox of the Christian life: we await the coming of the Kingdom (like the end of the sentence), anticipating it, but not quite seeing it …

Luke tells us this morning about a parable that Jesus told whilst receiving hospitality from a leader of the Pharisees. He’d noticed two things about the gathering – how, perhaps with the honourable exception of himself, those present were the great and the good and also that they all jostled for places of honour at the table. So he told them the parable of the wedding banquet. 

Jesus’s parables aren’t generally studies in social manners. So this parable isn’t really about how to decide where to sit at table, when you’re out for dinner and there isn’t a seating plan, nor is it really about who to invite to your dinner parties though it does have implications for both these things. The parables of Jesus generally illustrate aspects of the Kingdom of God. So this parable tells Jesus hearers that the way that God values each of his beloved sons and daughters isn’t by the same standards that the world uses to value people.

If we assume that we’ll have an exalted position in God’s Kingdom, as a result of what we think isimportant, we might be in for a shock, as we find that our Host gives the place of honour, that we’ve assumed is ours, as a result of pride, to someone that we’ve overlooked, to someone that we didn’t give a second thought about, to someone who seemed to us to be of little or no importance.

R S Thomas wrote that as a priest he “moved in unimportant circles, avoiding, or being excluded from the busier and more imposing walks of life.” He claimed that the critical praise he received for his writing was due to “a small talent for turning my limited thoughts and experience and meditation upon them into verse.” Despite having a “small talent“, he’s often ranked among the most important Welsh poets of the 20th century.

Since I was ordained, I’ve been blessed to work amongst people that’ve welcomed and nurtured me. In that time, I’ve learned a great deal from clergy but more importantly from congregations, that is from each of you, whether or not you knew that you were one or my teachers. But that’s the point of the parable, R S Thomas, +Mark, Simon, and I don’t by virtue of our ordination have a special place in the Kingdom. We, like each and every one of you, and also all those who we encounter in the streets of our towns and villages and on buses, on trains and in shops, are welcome at the wedding banquet where honour is based not on worldly status but on the criteria of God’s Kingdom.

We get some idea of what those criteria might be from Jesus teaching. Today, Jesus pretty bluntly calls on those around him to renounce self-righteous pretensions and humble themselves before God and to show love to all. The Kingdom of God isn’t an exclusive club for the pious, it’s open to all, no matter what their status in society, no matter what possessions they have, no matter what they may have done, no matter what they look like, no matter what their race or colour, no matter what.

Or as the book of Proverbs and the Letter to the Hebrews put it:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Jesus taught His disciples that they should share their resources and excess with others so that they don’t starve or become ill and are properly clothed, love enemies, bless those who curse them, pray for those who abuse them; if someone steals their coat, give them a shirt too, give to all beggars, and lend with no expectation of repayment. The Spirit anointed Jesus (and us) to bring good news to the poor, release of the incarcerated, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.

Wealth and position are a blessing when shared and used for the betterment of humanity, but we mustn’t confuse privilege with blessing.  Individually and collectively we need to remember all this when during the coming autumn and winter, many in our communities including teachers, nurses, civil servants and others that aren’t usually thought of as in need of food banks and other assistance, won’t be able to afford the rises in the cost of living and will need whatever help they can get.

The Kingdom as R S Thomas put it is:

… a long way off, but to get 
There takes no time and admission 
Is free, if you purge yourself 
Of desire, and present yourself with 
Your need only and the simple offering 
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

The Kingdom” by R S Thomas

 Amen.