Sermons on this page (for the text scroll down):
Birth of John the Baptist – Rev Sandy Cragg
Trinity 3 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Easter 2 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Ester Day 2018 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Lent 2 – Reverend Jonathan Wilkes
Lent 1 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
2nd Before Lent – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Epiphany 4 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Epiphany Carol Service – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Christmas 2017 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Advent Carols 2017 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
2nd Before Advent – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Remembrance 2017 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Trinity 19 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Bible Sunday 2017 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Trinity 11 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Family Service Trinity 13 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Trinity 6 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Trinity 2 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Easter 2 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Easter 2017 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Lent 4 Evensong – Martin Corner
Lent 4 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Lent 3 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Lent 1 BCP – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Ash Wednesday 2016 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Sunday before Lent – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Epiphany 3 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Epiphany Carols – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Christmas 2016 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Remembrance Sunday 2016 (Civic Service) – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
All Saints Day 2016 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Trinity 19 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Trinity 17 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Trinity 15 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Trinity 9 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Family Service Trinity 7 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Trinity 2016 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Easter 2 Evensong – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Easter Sunday 2016 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Good Friday 2016 Veneration of the Cross – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Maundy Thursday 2016 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Palm Sunday 2016 – Rev David Bell
Lent 2 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Sunday Before Lent – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Candlemas – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Assumptions about God – and one another – Rev Sandy Cragg
Unity in the Anglican Communion? – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
“Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Rev Sandy Cragg
I don’t know about you, but I like to be comfortable – comfy chair, good bed, pillows just right, temperature not too hot and not too cold. And when I go out to eat in a restaurant for a treat, I make sure I choose something from the menu I know I’ll enjoy – no risky experimentation for me. And socially too I like to feel comfortable – I like to know what people expect of me and what I can reasonably expect of them.
This Sunday June 24TH is the Feast of St John the Baptist, which we keep today – and our friends in Kingston Vale will be wholeheartedly celebrating their Patron Saint’s Festival. Now, John the Baptist, there’s someone I certainly couldn’t feel comfortable around. I’m not sure what the modern equivalent of wearing camel’s hair and living in the desert on locusts and wild honey would be, but whoever they are, I wouldn‘t be keen to hang around with them.
I used to think hanging around with Jesus would be altogether easier socially than hanging around with John the Baptist – OK, don’t let Jesus catch you being hypocritical or sitting in judgment on anyone, but apart from that, surely the Teacher who said “let the little children come to me” – wouldn’t he be easy to be around?
Well, re-reading Mark’s Gospel, which is the Gospel set for this current year, particularly the passage set as an alternative for today, Trinity 4, when Jesus stills the storm on the Sea of Galilee, I’ve re-evaluated that idea and it seems to me that in Mark, Jesus specialises in the uncomfortable. He seems to actively seek out risky places, places where extremes meet. He chooses to go to marginal spaces, away from life’s regular, reliable patterns – he’s perfectly comfortable in the wilderness, in a graveyard at a deathbed, in the home of a despised outcast like a tax collector, in gentile territories where God-fearing Jews refused to go for fear of being defiled; he’s perfectly comfortable with people who have illnesses with repulsive symptoms, and with people showing extreme manifestations of mental illness. The disciples are not comfortable of course, any more than most of us would be. And Jesus is so comfortable in that boat on Lake Galilee that despite the rising wind and waves he falls asleep on a cushion in the stern.
Some of the disciples of course were professional fishermen and the story tells us they feared for their lives – they knew about boats and storms and we have to believe them. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked them. Before he stilled the storm they might have given him a dusty answer – but fear of drowning has given way to perhaps a greater fear – how can they be around this man who has only to speak one word and the wind and waves are still?
Life stands toe to toe with death at many of the borders in Mark. Some of the boundaries separate what’s holy from what defiles, and they keep outsiders away from insiders. That’s how dividing lines work – they allow us to keep what’s known on one side and we banish what makes us fearful to the other side of the fence. Jesus either declares that these separations don’t work, or that if they do work he intends to tear them down.
Jesus, I think – and I conclude and say it with the utmost reluctance – is calling us, requiring us even, to be uncomfortable. The disciples, who have the advantage of being with him on a daily basis struggle with this, so often out of their depth, and who can blame them, but Jesus is adamant. If they want to follow him, they must go to the places where he goes, however dangerous; they must meet the people he meets, however disconcerting; they must accept the people he accepts however much their instincts and cultural conditioning rebel. Jesus, after all, isn’t so much easier to be around than John the Baptist – maybe nobody who truly does God’s will is easy to be around. We want – well I want – life to be easy and comfortable.
But as we start to define what is “holy” and what is “inside” we’ve gone off message. I will admit that I do struggle from time to time with our new set up here, particularly if I’m taking a weekday communion service, which I suppose part of me labels as “holy” and the people who attend as “insiders” – and there’s a lot of noise from the cafe end and part of me wants to label that as “unholy”, or at least “less holy”, and the people making it as ”outsiders”. Only that’s not the way the Jesus we meet in Mark’s Gospel would see things. Jesus meddles with b orders not because he has a penchant for chaos but because the reign of God extends divine holiness and a commitment to human well-being to places that we might have thought were beyond the limits. To Jesus, no place is desolate. No-one may be abandoned.
Jesus does not abandon his faithless disciples when the boat returns to the shores of Galilee – he has a lot more to show them yet. And he will not abandon us – he will not abandon me when I fail for a moment to see that welcoming people into the cafe is as holy as giving them wafers and wine, that a word of welcome and a seat in the warm dry indoors is as life-affirming to the homeless as receiving the sacrament is to the faithful.
“Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” He is the one who is comfortable where no one else would be, and who stands beside us when whatever waters we are in threaten to overwhelm us saying, to them and to us, “Peace. Be still.”
Trinity 3 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
It obviously not my place to teach biology but I stumbled the other day across a small piece of information, about a very large figure, which was that, on average, human beings are made up of somewhere in the region of about 50 trillion cells. It sounds a bit like the budget deficit of the United States of America…but in fact its the number of cells that make up you and me. Of course, cells are very, very small things so that quite big things like us are made up of about 50 trillion of them isn’t, perhaps, all that surprising. What is remarkable, even though its not anything at all new to us, is that those 50 trillion cells all originated from just one. One fertilised egg that not only divided over and over again but also differentiated in its multiplication into any number of specialised cells with particular purposes. Cells for blood, muscles, kidneys and bones. Others for skin, brain and hair. Different cells for different purposes building a machine of unthinkable complexity not only with the capacity to sustain, protect and reproduce itself, and so survive, but in doing so to think and fear and hope and love 50 trillion times over all from just one beginning.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which when sown on the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on earth yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs. The mechanics of human fertilisation and growth were discovered in the 19th century but Jesus seemed to be saying something about it rather earlier than that. Though his wasn’t a biology lesson it was a spiritual one in which he was perhaps saying something about the extraordinary and unique nature of human life and its capacity to be a shining glory of creation in which the mind blowing potential of a fertilised egg is reproduced in us everyday – that we all have the possibility for exponential development even in the face of our tiresome human frailty and weakness.
Its a theme that I believe the prophet Ezekiel had addressed before in his prophecy, some of which we heard earlier this morning. Having talked, himself, about planting a sprig that will become a noble cedar under which every kind of bird will find its shade, he goes on to say this:
I am the Lord
and I will bring low the high tree
and make high the low tree
I will dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish
The low I will make high and the high I will make low. The green I will dry up and the dry tree I shall make flourish. I just wonder whether in the context of describing development and growth he is saying that the path of righteousness, the way of the cross, the Kingdom of God is to make us think again, whether that be to challenge our comfort or console our sorrow. I will disturb your status quo so that you are encouraged to look and think again about your life. It confronts our complacency as well as comforting out confusion. To the complacent he will shake the bough and rock the boat but to those in despair and bewilderment he will bring consolation and reassurance. Let me make you think again if you are tempted to blindness and a self assurance that runs the risk of not seeing the truth around you. Let me remind you that confession and the repentance of sins is the starting gun on the spiritual life, as it is for this service week by week. You are not, nor ever will be, the finished article and so a self analysing self awareness is your greatest friend if you are to hope of releasing the potential I have instilled in you.
Let me make you think again, he says, yet let me also make you think again if you doubt your place in the world. If you are weary or heavy laden let me bring you rest, if you are reviled or persecuted let me bring you the comfort of heaven, if you are frightened or lonely, if you are grieving or sorrowful, if you are filled with remorse or self doubt, then know that I have known your travails and remain with you as a guide and strengthener for the journey.
The Kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like…the kingdom of heaven is like….you when you repent of your sins, when you question your complacency, when you face your fears or bear your sorrows or are reconciled to your regrets. Then the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven when you do these and other things and it comes 50 trillion times bigger than when it first started.
Easter 2 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
I spent the whole of last week at a railway station. Ballingham is on the Hereford to Gloucester branch line and we spent the week living at the station there. Mr Beeching put pay to the tracks and trains that ran along them back in 1963 but the station is still there, now home to a three bedroom house with, as you might imagine, a rather long veranda…Inside there were wonderful old photos of the station in use back in its heyday and a short walk beyond the end of the long and thin garden the nearby hill rose up ever steeper and steeper on both sides of the very flat path that led from the house before it plunged into the depths of a dark and erie tunnel, strangely, completely accessible to passers by like us should we have been brave enough to enter into it, with just a tiny pin prick of light looming out of the darkness daring us towards it about a mile away on the other side of the hill.
You might have seen or heard of this week Tracy Emil’s latest work hanging beneath the clock at St Pancras station. Her love letter to Europe – “I want my time with you” it proclaims in neon letters. Railway stations, says Tracy Emin, are vastly important places being the scene for some of life’s most significant experiences: being met, being greeted and, conversely, saying goodbye, bidding farewell. Like airports, they are borderlands between one thing and another, between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the strange , the comfortable and the disturbing. They are the place where we take a risk, begin something new, hope for more or, conversely, where we retreat to in safety, return for consolation or perhaps even confront the unavoidable, face up to the inevitable.
It struck me that a railway station was a good place to go to when reverberating in the glow of the Easter message because the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea , used by the disciples in which to place the body of their dead Lord, is something of station itself. Its a place of endings and beginnings. One story collapses only for another to emerge. So often we pass through stations, coming or going, but we were forced as a family last week, thanks to the help of Cottages For You, to remain there and make it neither our start nor our finish for the week but our home. Perhaps there’s an equal temptation to do the same with Easter. It comes, it goes and in a flurry of chocolate and lifted spirits , neither of which, perhaps, last very long, is soon gone swiftly to be replaced by Bank Holliday gardening and the new term and work and chores. I was lucky indeed to be able – to be forced – to stop but perhaps we all might give a thought for a station mentality and take the prompt to dare to sit still in the uncomfortable place of endings and beginnings where the resurrection finds us.
For at the rolled away stone we are forced to confront the complexity of who we are: despairing and yet hopeful, broken yet beautiful, dead yet alive filled with love and courage and generosity yet also with hate, fear and selfishness. We are not one or the other, we are both, we are an end and a beginning all rolled into one, just as Jesus was not just ghostly heavenly spirit but broken man, with bled from wounds from which he meets us daily, just as he met the disciples in the story today, to speak to our human experience which he shared.
At first glance the resurrection seems to be just fairy tale fantasy filled with incredibility and a challenge to our reason, yet scratch at any part and what you find below the surface is a very believable human story of suffering and sorrow endured, thought about and used so that promise of repentance and forgiveness, freedom and life can emerge for us all. It is not just his story but ours if we make it. I want my time with you. Its the artists prerogative to be opaque and mysterious leaving the consumer to make what they will of their message. If so, then Jesus was something of an artist. I want my time with you, he says from his own station at the tomb offering us a hand, inviting us to respond and promising to be with us always as we do.
Ester Day 2018 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
The caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in the Ardeche region of southern France contain some of the best-preserved figurative cave paintings in the world, dating back to the Upper Palaeolithic era some 30,000 years or so ago. The images created by these ancient artists vary from descriptive details of animals interacting with each other right through to more simple, but no less profound, self portraits. And one of the things that’s fascinating about these prehistoric ancestors of ours is the way that they chose to depict themselves, in particular the way that they decided to leave handprints on the cave walls. Because in some places they had done so with simplicity, nothing more than covering their hand in red ache and then impressing it upon the wall to leave the mark of their hand behind. Think toddler, a tray of paint and a blank sheet of paper and you’re about there. But in other places they decided to be more indirect and sophisticated. In other places instead of using their hand as a tool with which to apply colour they use it as a kind of stencil, placing it on the stone and applying paint all around it allowing colour to spread from their fingers and palms and when removing it from the cave wall leaving the mark of their hand by an absence of colour – a blank “non hand” like a kind of negative.
The story of the resurrection of Jesus is one such negative. Its a presence made real in absence describing and explaining something by revealing nothing in order to invite the imagination to try and understand it. Knowledge is limited, Albert Einstein wrote, but imagination encircles the world. In Mark’s version of the story, all there is is the empty tomb and the disciples are left to wander away bewildered but – the writer seems to imply – invigorated, tantalised, perhaps, by the thought that the empty tomb suggests a new dawn and the pathway to a beginning rather than an end. John’s version, that we hear today, plays for drama a bit more letting us wonder if the disciples’ first thought is that an empty tomb must mean that the body has been taken. Perplexed, they skulk away, a bit lost, unsure. But Mary hangs on and to her is given the full understanding of what this absence means. John joins the dots for us on what Mark leaves unspoken.
The Romantic poet John Keats used the phrase “negative capability” to characterise the capacity of the greatest writers (particularly Shakespeare) to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty. It is, he said, that moment when someoneis capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Easter Sunday is a day for negative capability and because of it remains centrally relevant to human experience because it meets us in the places that are most bewildering to us. If Good Friday is meaningful because it coincides with the reality of our suffering then Easter Day is as profoundly relevant because it meets us in the reality of our uncertainty. For as much as we may struggle to convince ourselves that we are in control, that there are no blank spaces in our lives, the truth of it is that we are too often knocked sideways by our smallness, by our frailty, by our incapacity to be anything other than helpless in the face of temptation, difficulty or sorrow. What the Easter story does is honour that by recognising that there is so much that we don’t know yet suggesting to us that there is enough in our experience to justify our hope that we can endure and thrive. Although we understandably focus on the resurrection appearances, on the upper room and walking with strangers and breakfast on the beach, at its heart the Easter story says, you can’t know everything but that sense of not being alone, that you will survive and cope is real, profound, reliable inspite of the doubts. Fear, death – emptiness – are not the last words.
And so above all it encourages us to have faith. Faith like those about whom Jesus will say in a weeks time, when mildly admonishing Thomas for needing proof, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet still have come to believe”. That’s our chant – a word of encouragement to us, for whom the tomb is forever empty – and a word of warning to the church of our day, hungry as it is for the certainties of numerical relevance and social acceptability. As one of our Lent speakers said to us this year, we are not called to be successful we are called to have faith which by its very nature is an uncertain business.
During this last week I’ve been trying hard not to gloat at the self inflicted chaos that is Australian Cricket. Its not been easy…and now these boys have come home and are weeping on the tele and I feel bad. But I was interested to read what Mike Brierley, the great England captain from 1981 wrote when commenting on the extraordinariness of these men apparently thinking that they could get away with it in this day and age of a camera for every angle and he reminded us of the suggestion that within every outrageous criminal act there is a deep, unconscious desire to be caught. That, unable to stop themselves from doing wrong on their own, they enlist the help of others to do it for them. Perhaps..I don’t know, there may be something in that but if nothing else it suggests the idea that things are not always as they seem in the realms of human experience to which the resurrection speaks so well – where absence means presence and emptiness speaks of promise and death leads to life and, in a world of fear and fury, hope and love lie undaunted beneath the surface waiting for us – for you and me – to play our part in letting them emerge.
Reverend Jonathan Wilkes
Dreams cost nothing. Plans have to be paid for. Dreams cost nothing. Plans have to be paid for. So said Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, John Heenan, in 1958 when the truth about the new Catholic Cathedral for the city became impossible to ignore any further. As you might know ideas for a new Catholic Cathedral in the city were developed in the 1930’s resulting in a scheme being drawn up to build a new Cathedral for Catholics in the north that would dwarf the emerging Anglican building being constructed just across the hill. Since the Anglican Cathedral was to be the largest in the UK deciding to build something that was significantly larger was quite a feat of ambition – if not dented of pride. There was more than a hint of, “anything you can build, we can build bigger”, although it might be argued that the Anglicans were the ones who started it by stamping their mark so hugely over the skyline of the city where Catholics would first encounter England when coming from Ireland. Make no mistake, the Anglican Cathedral said to those who crossed the Irish sea, this is a protestant country.
Call it pride, call it ambition, call it dreams whatever it was, it was quite an undertaking that began its construction in the 1930’s with the laying of the foundation stone for the crypt that was to form the footprint of this vast church. But then war came and all was stopped never to be started again. Post war Britain had more pressing needs to attend to than creating a huge mother church for Catholics of the north and when those abated the costs of constructing the huge building had grown beyond the means of those who might pay for it. Dreams cost nothing but plans have to be paid for, said Archbishop Heenan when recognising that a different idea would have to be thought up if a cathedral was to be built, which led to the commission of a modern building of more modest scale which now adorns Liverpool’s skyline.
On Wednesday we began Lent, inviting us to prepare for Easter with a period of self reflection and prayer. Its an inward season of penitence where we take time to think about what may not be as it should be, not just in the way that we are behaving towards ourselves and others but also in the way that we are allowing others to behave towards us. Second best shouldn’t be left unchallenged for anyone, including ourselves and Lent can be a time when the spirit inspires us to stand up for what is right whether we are the ones being wronged or it is someone else.
And so the reading from Genesis that we heard earlier with its metaphor to explain the presence of evil in human kind: unwittingly led astray like children we are the victims of an outside power that laid waste to our heritage in the bosom of God by preying on our weakness and vulnerability to introduce us to knowledge we were not seeking but now must be beholden to. On the face of it, it rather passes the buck. A little later on from the passage we heard tonight the man blames the woman and the woman blames the snake but take one step removed from that and we might see that all the characters in the story, God included, speak of the human condition as a whole. In each of us there is a snake, a man, a woman and the divine spirit all conversing about the future of human kind and what follows throughout the Bible is page on page of that conversation that might be summed up by the more pithy statement of Archbishop John Heenen: dreams cost nothing but plans have to be paid for.
Its tempting to blame our frailties on someone else. When I was a child I had a favourite sweatshirt that had on the front a picture of a devil, adorned in classic with a fork and steam coming out of its ears and underneath the caption: the devil made me do it. We blame the devil, a snake or someone else – anyone else, anyone will do – but what Lent encourages us to, perhaps, is a responsibility for ourselves and the world we are making. We have to pay for our dreams if we want them to become real plans.
Circumstances matter, of course: that I was pushed to my limit is important to know when considering why I lashed out with my tongue, that I was deeply, deeply hurt is significant when understanding the cause of my anger, that I was empoverished and alone does explain why I took what was more than was mine to have. Circumstances matter and often its the circumstances that need to be repented of and addressed – and repented in the true sense of being turned away from. Often its the circumstances that others must take responsibility for.
But whether ours, or someone else’s, responsibility is another big “r” word for Lent – for dreams cost nothing but plans have to be paid for.
Reverend Jonathan Wilkes
I want to describe for a moment two houses. The first is in Liverpool. Some of you may have seen a lovely little set of programmes on the BBC about 62 Faulkner St not far from the city centre . Faulkner St is a row of terraced houses and the four programmes followed the life of number 62 from its erection in the Georgian quarter of the city in 1841 to it’s current use today as a large family home. It began life as the dwelling of a prosperous couple living upstairs while their servants lived and worked in the basement below before gradually being divided into rooms and apartments as the fate of the city changed and the area became home to poorer people working in the docks or one of the manual industries that sprung up as Britain became gradually more industrialised. So it doesn’t just tell the personal stories of those who lived there but, in charting its developing use, says something clear about the social history of the nation as a whole. One of the more recent residents living there when the house was divided into housing association flats was a man whose life was cut short through contracting HIV and then AIDS when, in the not so distant past, that diagnosis was a certain death sentence. It’s a house that has lived a life and which, by telling of the lives it has housed, says something important and fascinating about how our world has changed so much in just a relatively few years.
The second house is different and stands in the fields of the French countryside just outside a small village. From the outside there is very little to note, other than its Gallic charm, and nothing to mark it out as any different from the others in the area. What’s interesting about this house is what’s inside it. In particular, one bedroom upstairs on the first floor. Because to visit this house and go into this room is to be transported back in time 200 years. In 1815 the house belonged to an unremarkable family who did an unremarkable thing for that time at least in that they sent their son to go and fight for Napoleon in the 7th Hussars which fought against Wellington at the battle of Waterloo. We’ll know the result in a number of ways: we know who won and we know that many young men never lived to see the end of the battle in those days. One young son was the man who lived in that house and slept in that room and who, when he didn’t return, his parents vowed never to change the room that was his but to leave it as a memorial to his life and their love for him. There is, in itself, nothing especially notable about this. Parents had done the same before and have done so sadly since. What is more notable though is that all those others who have lived in the house, down through the ages and generations have also kept it the same. They, too, have honoured the memory of this man by keeping his room as he once left it and t visit it now is to see it as it was on the day when he packed his bag and left for the battle all those years ago – an unaltered memorial, frozen in time, unchanged.
Those who want to save their life will lose it but those who lose their life will save it. We hear today, just as in other places we are told, that the first must be last and the last first and those who would be great must first be last and servant of all. Those who want to save their life will lose it but those who lose their life will save it. Its so easy for Lent to be an external thing. We give things up, we take things on and so we might, there’s much good to come of doing so but the call of Lent is to a consideration of what might need changing within us. Its not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person but that which comes out. The challenge of Lent is to let the internal rooms of our souls evolve and change with the passing of our ages. The exterior of 62 Falkner Street has weathered and decayed, just as all of us do but what’s been amazing about it is how its interior has adapted, adjusted, reordered to continue to meet the demands of its time. Not so the French country home of a lost and mourned son, frozen and rigid, unable to move on and let go.
Lent calls us to another important “r” word – relinquish. At evensong last week I suggested that responsibility was an important Lenten theme sitting alongside repentance as a useful “r” word for the season. Here’s another – relinquish, relinquish. Lent calls us to wonder what we might need to let go of if we are to allow the love of God to flow to and from us. What sorrow, what regret, what fear, what injury, what fury. Come to me all of you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Bring your heart’s voice to me, speak of what weighs you down so that, together, we might lose it and so find the loved one that lies within.
2nd Before Lent – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Martin Creed is an artist from Glasgow who has specialised in imaginative and rather different works of art. All of his works have numbers and are somewhat alternative. So number 88 was a piece of crumpled A4 paper crumpled. Number 200 was a room half filled with balloons. Number 79 some blu tack rolled into a ball and pressed against the wall. But it was for number 227 that he was awarded the Turner Prize in 2001. The piece was simply called, perhaps you remember, “The lights going on and off” and it pretty much did what it says on the tin. The entire installation was nothing more than simply an empty room in which a single light turned on and then off again automatically at five second intervals. That’s good work that, if you can get, isn’t it? Its £25,000 for winning the Turner prize…But actually I think there’s something really interesting about that. If the entire installation, the total piece of art is the room in which it is being displayed then its impossible to know where the gallery stops and where the art begins because the gallery is the art and the art is the gallery. I think that’s interesting because, in the main, I think we prefer things to be defined. We like to know that one thing is different from another, where something stops and something else begins. How many times have I stood in this church when someone has said a swear word and then looked at me and said “oops, sorry Vicar” as if this is a place where swearing is less acceptable than somewhere else. Arguably, this is the place where swearing ought to happen because here, perhaps above all other places, is where we shouldn’t be frightened to be honest about how we are really feeling. But swearing, along with keeping hats on our heads and hands in our pockets, isn’t somehow allowed in here. But what exhibit No 227, the lights going on and off suggests, is that there are no boundaries, no defining lines, that all are one and one are all which, I wonder, perhaps helps us understand something about that famous passage of St John’s that we heard again today: “he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone. The true light which enlightens everyone” A fair reading of that would be to suggest that the spark of God Lives in us all, the true light which enlightens everyone, waiting to be fanned by the choices that we make. That there is no in and out, no place where swearing is more or less acceptable, and certainly no saved and lost, for God exists in all. God is all. God is us and we are God (God has no hands for work but ours no heart to love but ours) and though we might encourage Sophie Bailey in a few minutes to fight against sin and the devil they are not out there but in here, in us, where God is indivisible from us, our true nature, made in his image and likeness, the word waiting to be born in us each day.
For isn’t the truth of us that the light is sometimes on and sometimes off. Sometimes we see through a glass darkly, as St Paul would put it, and at others face to face. Sometimes we are loving, kind and brave while at others selfish, frightened, angry. What’s interesting about that Turner prize winner is that the art is in both the light and the darkness. Both are the installation – its not a cost saving exercise with the artist saying, look to save money you can only look at my piece every five seconds – no in both the darkness and in the light is my art, he says. And it seems to me that that’s what God says too. I take the dark with the light and the light with the dark, God says. Neither is more valuable to me. Though I know what I want for you. I know where your best interests reside but I love you in both and I will hold fast to you through your thick and thin until we get things right, whether that be in this world or in the next, however long it takes.
Epiphany 4 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Liz Deller, one of our churchwardens, and I were at a meeting this week for the churches in our area when, in a discussion about the relative strengths of them another man who I don’t think either of us knew spontaneously interjected to the meeting with something like this: “Can I just add”, he said, “that All Saints Kingston does a most marvellous job of welcoming people. It’s warm it’s friendly and they really make you feel at home there”. It was wonderful to hear and I mention it now by way of saying that this is only possible because all of us play our part in making it so. We are as friendly and welcoming only as far as all of us are and so we have much to thank for the way in which we all try to be hospitable, patient and open with all those who come through our door and much praise, too, to pass on. Well done.
But greatly encouraging as that is we are only as friendly as the last time we welcomed well which is another way of saying that we must always be reflecting on how we can improve – how we can get better – and with that in mind I was learning this week about an important strategy that is followed by the Ritz Carlton in New York and has recently been adopted by a hospital in New Orleans. It’s called the 10/5 rule. The 10/5 rule is followed and adopted by everyone who works at the Ritz Carlton in New York and goes like this: if a member of staff, whoever they are, is standing within 10 yards of a guest to the hotel they must always acknowledge them and say hello and if they are within 5 yards of them they must not only say hello but they must also introduce themselves. For the Ritz Carlton this is an essential basis of the good hospitality on which their business depends, relying as it does on guests feeling positively about their experience before being asked to pay large bills. Now what’s really interesting is how this has been adopted by a Hospital in New Orleans where the instruction to ALL staff – from the most junior porter or cleaner through to the most exalted consultant or senior executive – has been the same: if they are standing within 10 yards of a patient or visitor they must always acknowledge them and say hello and if they are within 5 yards they must not only say hello but also introduce themselves.
What’s fascinating is what’s happened in that hospital to the success rates for treatment which have improved markedly. For two reasons. Firstly because patients and their relatives feel more valued and because they more valued, they feel more positive about their chances of success and so can draw on the finding of recent research which suggests that a positive attitude and frame of mind leads to success generally in life. It’s easy to think that happiness comes from success but actually it is the inverse success comes from happiness. And secondly because doctors and nurses and even porters and cleaners who are personally engaged with their patients are more likely to be sensitive to their needs and alert to their treatment than those who remain impartial. If the recovery of my patient really matters to me, if I know them and care about them as people that I am connected to because I have developed a relationship with them, then I am more likely to be assiduous about their care, more committed to their treatment, more willing to check their chart one more time before going home, more inclined to pester for a second opinion if there are doubts.
All of us taking responsibility for a welcoming atmosphere at this church is only the tip of a many layered iceberg. Yes, it makes this place seem more approachable, accessible, relevant and because of it the faith for which it stands and speaks might just become more possible for those initially unwilling to do more than peer through our glass doors and wonder what might be inside. But it says something more profound than even that. It says that by building links between you and me and between us and the others we encounter, we are all changed. Our interactions may challenge, frustrate, sometimes even hurt as well as console, comfort, the helpfully teach. But being islands that are linked by causeways rather than ships that are passing in the night means that we have an access to a database of human experience which makes us greater and deeper than otherwise we might have been.
By building a webs of connection – inside this place and in the world it sends us out into – is perhaps how we follow the example of Jesus in the gospel story today of both casting out and warding off the evil spirits of our age.
Epiphany Carol Service – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
The feast of the Epiphany is the last main event in the celebration of Christmas. Its a season which began right back on Advent Sunday at the beginning of December where we started looking towards what the birth of Jesus might mean for us and for our world. Now, today, we welcome the Wisemen from the East, travelling from afar with their gifts before remembering that their story had the brooding figure of Herod in its background triggering the end of the Christmas tale as Joseph takes Mary and Jesus in haste fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous actions.
For us in All Saints this year there’s been an interesting circular synergy to our Christmas because on Advent Sunday, when we began exploring the season, we held another event earlier in the day here in church. An unusual one and, as it turned out, quite a controversial one for we hosted an event, organised by the south London interfaith partnership, that enabled Muslims and Christians to be together when celebrating two different special events. Because in the last couple of years, and now this year, too, the birth of Jesus and the birth of Mohammed have fallen at roughly the same time and so we were able to begin thinking about Christmas alongside our Muslim friends, as they were thinking about their own inspirational figure. It was a remarkable occasion which, I think it would be fair to say, was very moving for those who attended and inspired a sense of fellowship among people of different faith. In a world where faith so deeply divides this was a moment of unity and peace.
But not everyone has found it so uplifting. My email in box has been peppered since by Christians, not from this parish, but from further afield, worried that in making space for those of other faiths we were denigrating our own and concerned that persecuted Christians in other cultures would be offended by our open mindedness to different faiths in this one. Many of the comments have been strong and some of them even personal, it being suggested to me that both the fires of hell and the disciplinary wrath of my Diocesan Bishop were surely soon to fall upon me, though, it has to be said, that no-one seemed to be very clear which would be worse…
At the heart of the Epiphany story, there is a search for truth at the end of a hard and dangerous journey. The wisemen travelled a long way led by intuition and faith and when they arrived the only thing it tells us in the gospel story is that they paid homage, having been overwhelmed with joy. That’s all we know. We don’t know anything else about how the journey affected them. We don’t know what it resulted in. All we know is that it moved them, that it was a truth that spoke to their yearning – a resonance – even if it came from a very different cultural and religious setting to their own. The Epiphany reminds us that we often don’t find all that we’re looking for right under our noses but that we need to search (to seek, to knock, to ask as Jesus will tell us) and not be frightened of exploration or risk because the things on which we base our life will remain firm if they are of value.
And now, as much perhaps as any time in history, it teaches us that we must travel. That just as we must seek and knock and ask bravely in our own lives, daily, in order to become the fulness that Jesus promises so too we must travel to one another and not be frightened of the glorious diversity with which God has made the world. For we have nothing to fear from God’s variety. Nothing to fear from God’s inclination for difference (and it is God’s afterall). What we do have to fear is fear itself if our fears lead us not to sensible caution but to suspicion and insularity.
It seems to me that those wisemen that we think of tonight looked that fear full in the face but did not flinch. Taking the road less travelled, the high road, the narrow way – sometimes known as the way of the cross – they reached out across deserts and cultures and faiths in search of something new, secure in what they believed but unafraid of being changed, so that their truth might be mightier because of the journey.
I have a feeling that their spirit of adventure, of courage, of humble but firm faith is just what our world is in great need of today.
Christmas 2017 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
“Nutshell” is a novel about a baby boy who witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of his mother and her lover. Not then, at first glance, very promising material for a Christmas sermon until it is realised that the twist of this tale is that he witnesses this crime from the unique vantage point of his mother’s womb. The whole story is told from the novel perspective of this unborn child narrating what he hears and tastes and feels from the blind safety of his Mum’s tummy. Everything he understands about what it is to be human he understands from her. He knows what wine is because when she drinks it he feels euphoric and then, later, rather sick. He struggles, with her, to keep cool in the temperatures of a midsummer heatwave. He’s moved, as she is, to the tears that he’s only recently learnt to have, by the music of Chopin and Mozart. Above all he is subject to an overwhelming sense of love for her, no matter what she does – and, she kills his father – he loves her because he needs her and he needs her because he loves her. They are one. She is him and he is her and its an experience and a feeling that cannot be surpassed.
So, forgiving he may be, constrained – in his nutshell – he certainly is but inanimate he is not. Faced with the extinction of one half of his donor DNA he does not sit idly by without putting up a fight. Hearing the plan to end his father’s life, filled with remorse and shock, he does the only thing he can think of. He kicks. He kicks and he punches and he wriggles, he fights back against the bladder that’s been competing with him for space and in doing so can – at crucial moments – distract the conversations of those who would do terrible things, disturb their trains of thought, interrupt their plans so that there is then room for doubts to be sowed in their minds, questions to be asked, thinking to be done. It can’t prevent everything that he dreads but does at least allow space for better options to emerge and saves him from the worst of their excesses.
At our crib services this afternoon we sang that great Christmas crowd pleaser “O little Town of Bethlehem”:
O holy child of Bethlehem
descend to us we pray
cast out our sin, and enter in
be born in us today
Tonight’s is a festival that remembers and celebrates how the life of God took human form to walk and talk, to cry and laugh, to struggle and rejoice as we daily do but beyond that it comes to suggest, perhaps to remind, that the life of God exists not just outside and beyond but inside and within our frail human frame. He shares the fate of our existing in no less a way than an unborn baby shares the living of its mother. He hears and tastes and feels as we do, sharing our suffering and joy as we experience it. He is us and we are him, loved and forgiven because we are one. We bear him as we bear the image of God drawn at our creation and he, in turn, must bear the excesses of our folly, living our selfishness and greed as if it was his own.
So forgiving, constrained yet not inanimate. For this life of his that we carry impacts upon us. It cannot determine our course. It must suffer our choices. But if we learn to listen, if we seek a sensitivity to the voice within, then we, too, can be distracted enough to question and think about where our lives are heading and whether they are aimed at the place we want to end up.
In his recent BBC radio series, Living with the Gods, Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum, suggested that Christmas is all that Christianity has left in the public consciousness of our society, and even that only barely so. Yet by discarding religion he wonders if we aren’t trying to do something that no society has ever really tried before which is to live without an agreed narrative about our communal place in the cosmos and time. For what religion does is bring communities together. Translated from the latin, religare, the word means “to bind”. That’s what religion does, it binds people to each other, to themselves and to the society of which they are a part. Its not just about individual belief – that’s another thing – but about how patterns of belief have shaped our world. So Christmas does what religious festivals are supposed to do, its a moment in the year when people are able to think about their obligations across the community, and consider their place in time, and in the future, even if for many people the story behind it has evaporated.
Christmas, then, is a little kick, a little punch, a little wriggle inside the tummy of society, reminding it of what it needs and of what it will lose if it constrains faith entirely to the dustbin of public entertainment or private hobby. Its a prod, a poke for a world and its people reminding them to think again about the choices they are making, whether it be those which make for terror and inequality and environmental collapse, or those which leave us individually impoverished and disrespected, by ourselves as much as by others.
For what this night proclaims is that grace and truth and glory exist as much within us as without us, that we are bound to a presence of love from which we cannot be divided and, because of it, though the darkness we encounter may continue to confuse and threaten, there is a light for us that will eternally shine and cannot be overcome by any fear or travail with which we are presented.
Advent Carols 2017
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
In “The God of Small things” Arundhati Roy writes: “the secret of great stories is that they have no secrets. The great stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t, in the way that though you know that one day you will die, you live as if you won’t. In the great stories, you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and that is their magic”
Great stories have no secrets. Well, if that is the case, then Christmas certainly qualifies as one among the all time greats. We know its beginning all too well – the main players, the goodies and baddies, the big themes of perseverance and hope and longing. We know how it ends, too, both the end of the beginning in flight to Egypt, and the beginning of the end and all that follows in Jerusalem. We know it and yet we come to it again and again, as we do tonight, looking for our reflection and seeking to find in it a light to illuminate our path through the turmoil and confusion of our lives.
The brighter the light the darker the shadow. It was Carl Jung who suggested that all of us have parts of selves that we keep buried in our unconscious. Like the far side of the moon that none of us ever see, there are aspects of who we are – our shadow he called it – that remain hidden from view. Often they are the bits we don’t like, those least desirable furies and anguish that makes us selfish or frightened, ungrateful or bitter, though sometimes it can be the good in us, too, that we leave out of sight, that part which can’t that believe we are worthy of love or adoration. But whichever, this shadow, this far side of our selves we do not see, is darkest when the light is bright. I think its, maybe, why politicians and celebrities invite our scorn as much as our adoration . I think, too, its why faith and the churches which serve it stirs up such strong emotion in people: it offers such great hope yet in doing so reveals the despair that yearns for it.
And so, Advent. Advent, this time of preparation for the birth of Jesus, this getting ready and waking up in time to greet the great light of God born in our hearts. Advent, this penitential season of the church’s year with its shadowy themes of death and judgement, heaven and hell all inviting us to wonder about who we are, and how we got here, and where will we go next. Advent comes in the darkness created by the prospect of great light encouraging us to creep round the side of our selves to peek at what we would not know, so that more of who we are might see the light that is to come.
All this in the comfort of a great story we know so well that comes to us in reassuring familiarity, just like the way that God will speak his word to us on Christmas night. For in a well known form, in the language of humanity, we’re able to hear, he will tell us that in amidst all that there is to fear in the world and all that we would dread to face in our selves, he comes to be with us, we are not alone. Take courage. Persevere. Forbear. Trust in yourselves. Have faith.
2nd Before Advent
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
We cling to our memories as if they define us.
But they don’t.
What defines us is what we do.
Ghost in The Shell is a fantasy, science fiction film about a woman apparently saved from death following a terrible car accident by having her brain removed from her damaged and useless body and placed in a manufactured, synthetic frame , which, to all intents and purposes, appears human but is in fact all robot. It gives her extraordinary physical and technological powers, all under the direction of a human brain. So the film provides the forum for an interesting discussion not only about aspects of artificial intelligence but also more profound questions about what it is to be human, what makes you you and me me, and in that sense it is a very spiritual film which comes to a climax when the central character, the human brain with a robot body, agonises over memories she has from her past and wrestles with what she should do with them, concluding with those words with which I began:
We cling to our memories as if they define us.
But they don’t.
What defines us is what we do.
There are so, so many ways in which history is important. Those who neglect the lessons of history are bound to repeat its mistakes, might have been the only thing we said last weekend on Remembrance Sunday, and each week without fail we begin this service calling to mind our past in order that we might face its truth, understand it’s causes and so have a chance of improving its frailties. International, national, personal history all depend upon us recalling our memories so that the truth which they have to tell us can be absorbed, assimilated, used to good effect.
But I wonder about that word cling – we cling to our memories as if they define us – and wonder if Jesus isn’t guarding us against it in the gospel story today. When I came to read it again this week I wondered something about it, that you will all no doubt have seen for years. I wondered if it was a warning against the dangers of clinging too much to the past, and perhaps in particular the religious past in which Matthew addresses many concerns in his portrayal of Jesus in his gospel. Matthew wrote his story perhaps 30 or 40 years after Jesus had died in the eye of a young Christian community struggling to understand itself within the prevailing Jewish religious culture of their day. I wondered if those in the story that buried their treasure and waited for their Lord to return were the religious conservatives of his day, clinging to the past as if it had to be the future, while those who took modest or even wild risks were those who were willing to explore, to seek and knock and ask, because they realised that their history had only taken them as far as their today and, on its own, could not take them any further without something more. No matter how vital our yesterdays are, by definition, they cannot be our tomorrow. For tomorrow to come, and it will whether we want it to or not, we must add our own part. We must do, whether what we do is nothing or not (and let’s be clear that doing nothing is doing something – there is no value neutral here). What we do with what we have and what we have had is up to us.
These questions challenge us daily in our personal lives. How will we address the frailty and sorrow of yesterday in our living of today. How can we prevent the memories of yesterday from defining us – what sorrow, what anger, what hurt, what regret are we clinging to and because of it dropping like a bolder in a pool of still water. What might we release – the true meaning of the word repent – and so find ourselves floating a bit more easily. They challenge us in our national and international lives. Doing nothing feeds no one in Syria or Yemen, the bitterness and resentment of yesterday makes for no peace or justice tomorrow.
And as, perhaps, for Matthew’s young community of Christians, it challenges us in our religious lives too. It is becoming increasingly clear that the church is facing an unprecedented challenge to its place in the spirituality of our nation and if we are to still have a role connecting heaven to earth then we will need to have the ability and willingness not to cling to the past – not to forget it for sure but to use it as a guide for how we approach the future. In two weeks we will begin Advent the great season in our church’s year where we start preparing to remember the birth of Jesus. Christmas is our faith’s bold and big statement about God’s adaptability, God’s flexibility, God’s willingness to listen to our cries and play a game on our terms. It is, perhaps, a sign, a lesson, a guiding hand for how we should approach sharing the good news that we so enjoy.
Remembrance Sunday 2017
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have a rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours
Dr Leo Marks was a code breaker and code maker of rare genius who worked as the chief cryptographer for SOE, the Special Operations Executive, which undertook dangerous and secretive missions in and behind the enemy lines of Europe during the Second World War. To help send and receive secret messages to and from agents, Dr Marks would issue each of them with a poem, specific to them alone, that they would memorise and then use to encode their messages. In each poem lay a secret structure that would provide the clues to making or understanding their coded messages. Violette Szabo was an SOE agent who, on her second mission undercover in France, was captured by the German army, interrogated, tortured and eventually deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she was executed in 1945. For her courage she was posthumously awarded the George Cross, but before she left on that mission she was given by Dr Marks her own poem that he had composed for her to send and receive messages:
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have a rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours
As we gather on this Remembrance Sunday to sing and march and pray, as we enact once more the rituals of this occasion, we are called again to ponder what the hidden message is in the poem that this day makes us recite:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
This is our poem for today. This is our poem in which is encoded the structure of our peace for tomorrow. These are the familiar words that we must translate, not just into the well rehearsed sentiment of a familiar community gathering – another marker through the year like Bonfire night or the Spring Bank holiday – but as an engine for change, a catalyst for renewal, a hope for making a different world. We have an awful responsibility, you and I, to do more with this occasion and with this day than simply march well and sit up straight. We must honour the lives of those we remember by making the world and our communities a place fit for their memory.
You probably know all about a very famous football team, a team close to our home and, on this day especially, a team that might be close to our hearts as well. The Corinthian football club was founded in 1883 and played at a number of venues in south London before it amalgamated with another team, known as the Casuals, to form Corinthian Casuals based here in our own Tolworth. Corinthians are one of the oldest amateur football clubs in the world and have influenced football all around it. The great Brazilian club side, Corinthians Paulista, takes its name from our cluband none less than Real Madrid play in white because that was the original club strip of our Corinthians. Their dedication to the amateur ideal of sportsmanship and FairPlay even coined a phrase in the English language – “the Corinthian spirit” – which even extended to penalties. They so believed that no one would ever do a deliberate foul that they’d blast any penalty given them over the bar in order to miss, and their goalie would lean against the side post of his goal in order to let the opposition score if one were awarded against them. For a time Corinthians was so influential in our national sport that on two occasions the entire English side to play an international fixture was made up of Corinthian players. Until, that is, war came. In 1914, like millions of others before and after them the Corinthian team of 1913 signed up to go to war. War, they found, was no place for their spirit. Refusing the opportunity to score from the penalty spot was no longer an option and of the 1913 team of 11 only 2 returned.
Today we remember them, and millions like them, who have paid a final sacrifice fighting to ensure that the liberties we enjoy, and the way if life we believe in, remains an option for us to chose. But that we must still chose it remains a question that should unsettle and challenge us. War is no place for the Corinthian spirit, but Peace is. War is no place for stepping aside and letting your adversary score but Peace depends upon it. Not, of course, to allow injustice and cruelty to go unopposed – we must always strive against that – but to make the sacrifices, in our selves and communities and between our nations, in order that tolerance, forbearance and the hard yards of peace are forged. Peace often depends on countless score draws – on games where no one goes away with everything and everyone goes away with something. Peace depends on us adjusting our modern mindset for acquisition, for domination, for “I can have what I want” and instead settling for the thought that true happiness lies in not having what we want, but in wanting what we have, and wanting others to have it too.
That’s what we remember today and its what we must remind ourselves of tomorrow and all the days that come after it. For those that we remember this day speak to us this poem of love from the grave:
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is now yours
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have a rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
must now be yours and yours and yours
Bible Sunday 2017 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
I don’t know if you watch Doc Martin on ITV. If you don’t it’s the story of a Cornish coastal village with various characters – some wise, patient, charming, some angry, ridiculous, wounded – and centres around the goings on of the local Doctor and the GP surgery where he works. The doc of Doc Martin is a kind of magic mix of all that is good and bad in the place. Mostly he’s grumpy, often he’s very rude, but his intentions are true and he’s certainly someone whose aware of his faults and wrestles fairly honestly with them. He is, too, very very good at his job. A recent episode told the story of, among other things, a party down in the local village pub at which sat talking a man recovering from a heart attack with the kindhearted, friendly, but utterly ridiculous village Bobby, Joe Penhale. Their conversation went on for some considerable time with Jo doing all of the talking while his companion sat silently with him but it was getting towards closing time before Jo realized that his silent friend had, in fact, suffered another heart attack and quietly died. The doc was called and on examining him confirmed the worst. “Didn’t you realise that he was dead”, the doc said irritably, to which Joe could only rather miserably say “well no, I just thought it was a good listener”.
Being a good listener takes rather more than just ears to hear with. The very first Christmas I was here at All Saints I preached a sermon describing the mandarin character for the word “to listen” which is made up of four parts. I’m sure you know that Mandarin, spoken in China, is a language that uses symbols rather than letters and that each symbol has its own independent meaning that, when brought together, make up words. So the word for “listen” is made up of four different characters each of which means something else and those four are: ears, heart, eyes and understanding. The character for the word to listen is made up of those 4 components: ears, heart, eyes and understanding. Hearing, the physical reception of sound with our ears is only one part of what it is to listen. To listen fully means to engage our feelings with the information that we hear, to lay ourselves open to being affected by it. And it implies that we will listen with more than our ears, that we will search with our eyes for what information means and then perhaps be open to seeing things differently. True listening, real listening is hard work and may very well hurt.
I remember very early in my Christian life being given a book of prayers by a dear friend which was simply entitled “The one who listens”. Its a pretty good summary of how we might think about God and not a bad pointer for our Christian journey. We walk the road of joy, hope and learning through vales of sorrow, anger and suffering with one who listens to our every word and follows our every move.
Yet on this Bible Sunday we are reminded that God is also the one who speaks and, if we’re to take a glance at even a small print version of the good book, says rather a lot. The word of the Lord came to the prophet Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos and so on and on. The spirit of the Lord is upon me, says Jesus speaking in their line, to proclaim good news and release to the poor and captive. God does more than listen. God speaks , too.
Though I wonder if its tempting to consider our faith in the terms of being told, after all God is God and so who are we to do any other than wait on his word and obey his command. In the parish where I was a curate, written in stone on the wall either side of the altar, was the Lord’s prayer on one side and the ten commandments on the other. We are commanded and its easy to think thats all that there is. Yet real leadership listens. There was a piece of research done a few years ago that you may have seen investigating the essential traits of those who were considered to be great leaders. Top of the list was whether the people over whom they had authority felt listened to, felt heard. Its a lessen for any who bear a responsibility
Jesus is a great leader because, as I suggest is the overarching message of the Bible, he listens to us, knows us, understands us, loves us and in commanding is rooted in that knowing, commanding only from a place of love seeking only our well being and growth. He listens. He listens to you and I this night. What will we say, I wonder.
Trinity 19 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
A friend of mine was telling me the other day an interesting twist to a church service that she had been to. She was telling me that when the liturgy got to the creed -as we will in a minute or two where we state the things that we believe as Christian people – before everyone started to recite it the person leading the service said that they were going to do something a bit different They invited everyone in the congregation to stand up (as is normally the case) and then suggested to them that if they got to a part of the creed that they felt they didn’t believe in then they were encouraged to sit down while continuing to say the words. And then, if they found themselves saying something that they did believe in, they were invited again to stand up. So, sit down when saying things they couldn’t hold to and stand up to those things they did believe. It must have made for an interesting sight. She said it was a cross between some kind of bizarre keep fit class and a game of musical chairs for deranged adults. But she also said that it was inspiring too because what became apparent was that there was no time at all throughout the whole creed when at least one person was standing up, and made an important point about the difference between the Nicene Creed, which we say at this service, and the Apostles creed which is said at evensong according to the Book of Common Prayer. The Apostles creed says much of the same stuff but begins it like this: I believe in God the Father Almighty – I believe, whereas the Nicene Creed begins significantly but slightly different with: We believe in God.
That seems helpful to me because it reminds us that faith is a community endeavour as well as an individual one, that its about us not just about me, and that when we find ourselves struggling with some smaller or perhaps larger point of theology we can draw comfort from – and give ourselves permission to – know that questioning and doubt have been part of our faith, ever since Thomas the doubter stepped out of the upper room just after the resurrection saying “I’m just popping down to the shops does anyone want anything?”
Being a believer is about a whole lot more than whether can sign up to a particular code laid down by someone else centuries ago. Having a faith, is a whole lot more than passing tests, jumping through hoops of belief or behaviour. I’ve suggested before but I think its worth saying again that Christian faith isn’t just about being good its about being forgiven and loved and exploring throughout our lives what it means to be so.
Which I think is something that is pointed to in the gospel story today. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and give to God the things that are God’s. I think its a potentially tricky text because we could take from it that we owe God – we owe God big time and should feel guilty and beholden until we’ve paid our pound of flesh but I wonder if it might mean a little more than that. Give to God the things that are God’s. I wonder if the meaning of that lies in thinking about what we have been given and then working out how to make the best and most of it. That we have been given life. The glorious gift of existence with all the thought and love and hope and joy and sorrow that that brings and that what we are invited to is an exploration of it, an opportunity to try and make it perfect even though we will inevitably and eternally fail to do so. It is a spiritual treasure that we are not to bury, thinking again of another story that Jesus told, a treasure we are not to bury for fear of losing it and so displeasing the one who lends it to us but we are to speculate with it , to risk and dare and venture and invest with it. Invest ourselves in each other and in the world so that we are more than who we once were and so that, though on our own the statement about God we make is intermittent and imperfect – together our voice can strong and our person’s whole.
Family Service Trinity 13 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Here’s a joke some of you might have heard. It certainly did the rounds in our house a few years ago. Question: why is 6 afraid of 7? Why is 6 afraid of 7? Why is the number 6 afraid of the number 7? Answer: because 7 8 9. Seven ate nine! Yes? Get it? (come on, it worked for Bruce Forsythe…) It doesn’t take much to make you laugh – perhaps it doesn’t take much to make you groan…and it doesn’t take much, sometimes, to make you cry either.
That theme that it doesn’t take much is loud and clear in the gospel story this morning because the numbers we’re thinking of today are different ones – not 7 8 and 9 – but two and three. When 2 or 3 are gathered together in my name I am there among them. It doesn’t have to be hundreds just 2 or 3 will do. It doesn’t take many, it doesn’t take much. Just as it doesn’t take much love. It doesn’t take much kindness. It doesn’t take much forgiveness to make a real difference to the way that people feel about others and about themselves. Just as it doesn’t take much thoughtlessness, it doesn’t take much cruelty or judgment to leave us diminished and others belittled . It doesn’t take much.
In my name. When 2 or 3 are gathered in my name I am there among them. I think its quite important to suggest that that isn’t simply turning up and saying “Jesus”. It’s not simply about being on the right team. It’s about living with what that name means at the forefront of our actions. Living with mercy and understanding for ourselves as much as each other. Living with generosity and courtesy and respect and hope which all makes way for the joy and peace that is the promise of God.
It doesn’t take much, just 2 or 3 , and by implication, I think, even one. For when we need God to be among us we need only ask (whatever you ask in my name…). In despair, in sorrow, in fear, in loneliness, in need – perhaps those are the companion with whom our one we make 2 or three – whenever in trouble if we only but ask then the presence and the spirit of God will be there to console and strengthen and help us for the challenges that lie ahead.
Whatever you ask in my name, whenever you gather in my name, I am there.
Trinity 11 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
On our way home from the west coast of Ireland last week we visited the town of Knock a little further north. Knock, like Lourdes in France or Fatima in Portugal and even Walsingham in Norfolk is a placed where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have appeared either to a few, or in the case of Knock , as many as 15 different people. These apparitions are always well investigated for their veracity, as was Knock’s at two different times, and if found to be genuine become significant places of pilgrimage, prayer and, sometimes, miracle. At Knock, there were a couple of interesting things about Mary’s recorded visit. The first was that she didn’t come alone. She appeared with Joseph, her husband, the carpenter, a lamb and St John the Evangelist, who in all the depictions of the event, in paintings and statues alike, was portrayed in a very feminine form. He appeared as a woman. Another really interesting thing was where the apparition took place. It happened outside, at the East end of the church in the graveyard, and so the shrine, as well as having other places of pilgrimage and prayer, has a whole other church built on to the back end of the original where in it lies a series of statuesque figures depicting the scene serving as a backdrop to a functioning and well used altar. Mary appeared not in, but outside, the church.
Who do people say that I am? Some say John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. But you, who do you say that I am. In many ways that is the question that hangs over the entire gospel. Who do you say that I am? Who am I to you? What do I mean to you and how will that change the way that you think and feel and live? Who do you say that I am?
When I come to prepare people for baptism I recite for them the six promises that they will make , either for themselves or on behalf of their child, and after saying them I tell them that we can, if they wish, spend some time talking about what they might mean but at the end of the day what matters is what they think they might mean. I can tell them what I think. I can tell them what the church thinks. But what matters is what they and the children for whom they are responsible will believe about what they say. The church has an important part to play but in the end there’s an important way in which we encounter God outside in the world, in our relationships and in ourselves.
Places of pilgrimage, like Knock or Lourdes, have never really been my spiritual bag. I suppose I’ve always been a bit skeptical and I’ve wondered about the need for tangible miracles in order to believe but I’ve been deeply moved by my visits to Knock and Lourdes. There’s an odour of spirituality about them. They are, as I think the Irish say, thin places and by that I understand places where the divide between heaven and earth seems porous, where the veil seems ripped in two. I was pleased when someone described All Saints to me in those terms once and it is, perhaps, how we might think of Jesus and why we spend so much time trying to cozy up alongside him. Who is he? He’s a thin man, one in whose humanity we find the presence of God.
While we were sitting in the church outside the church where the apparitions had happened 4 young girls came in and sat in a row at the front dressed smartly, hair tied up and this being Catholic Ireland, where everyone knows what to do, they knelt quickly down, placed their hands together and silently bowed their heads in prayer. It seems to me that that is an important aspect of what the church is for: to teach us how to begin in prayer – to give us a spiritual language with which to start – and then to be there when we need a base in which to rest. To be, as I’ve suggested before, a means to an end, though not an end in itself, Who do people say that I am. That’s the church question for there’s an official answer. Its an important one Worth asking and certainly worth answering. But the more important one comes second. But you, who do you say that I am. Our part is to spend a lifetime trying to answer. To go outside and see what the world God made, in us and around us, is all about and then come back in to think some more, restore our energies, practice again the tools with which to leap the divide between heaven and earth and then return to find God and an answer to his question in our daily living.
Trinity 6 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
We were away last week and during it we took the chance to watch a number of films – some good, some not so much. Among them was “The curious case of Benjamin Button” a fantasy about a baby who is born as an old man who then, as time passes, grows younger with each passing year instead of older, eventually coming to his death as a babe in arms. I’ll leave you to decide whether this was one of the good ones or the bad…But it was interesting, nonetheless, and perhaps inspired by the famous “all the world’s a stage” speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It which suggests seven stages of human development:
“At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”
So perhaps the suggestion that we leave this world in not so dissimilar a fashion as we entered it isn’t that fantastic and invites the intriguing thought about what you would do if you were growing younger with your years of experience and not older. How would you use your wisdom if blessed with an ever increasing measure of vitality and youth. There’s much in that old saying that youth is wasted on the young: what would you have done then with what you know now. Just maybe its a question worth asking especially if you view it from a balcony that says: it may not be too late to give it a try.
What perhaps Benjamin Button and William Shakespeare have in common is that both explore the sense that the process of growth is one where we explore shedding aspects of our selves and move towards – return to perhaps – an uncomplicated simplicity of life, which might be one of the ways that we interpret the parable of the wheat and the tares in the gospel today. On one level this seems to be a morality parable. There is good and bad and they live together – in the world and in us – until the final judgement in the Kingdom of heaven when the good will prevail and the bad will be weeded out. But I wonder if there’s another story lying beneath that one, a story which considers our fallen and broken elements not as examples of a regrettable laziness or wilful disobedience but as part of the rich tapestry of humanity that is yearning hopefully for perfection. That along the path of our living we encounter temptation as an integral part of what it is to grow and that our – God given – journey is to explore that nature, play with it, experience it and, in making our mistakes and learning from them, follow the way of Christ to the promised Kingdom. Its why ours is the death and resurrection faith. Unless you take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says, you cannot be one with me. But in order to die to old ways you have to live them first. So, as the parable suggests, growing to maturity is a process of gathering and then shedding, reaping and then burning. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans regret, sans hurt and injury, sans need, sans fear, sans all else that drives our selfishness and squashes our capacity to love and be loved in return.
It reminded me this week of a little saying that St Bonaventure, a medieval Italian Saint, once said about the nature of God: “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” he said. As we grow in learning how to lose our lives in order to find them, learning to surrender ourselves to the higher power of love that made us in the first place and now saves us, our call is to release our feverish grip on identity, on status, on fear on longing, relinquishing our desire to control and take charge and let go into to the infinite circle of God that has no end or beginning.
Trinity 2 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
In my last parish in Paddington we lived in a small house right next to the church which was nestled in the centre of an estate comprising low and high rise council accommodation. One day I was sitting in my office, shuffling papers round my desk as clergy are prone to do, when the phone rang and on the other end was Lil, an 80 year old power of the parish and a formidable and outspoken churchwarden. “Jonathan” she said “I think Danny wants to come in”. Now Danny was our much loved, and now departed, black labrador and about 15 minutes before this conversation, recognising the tell tale eagerness in his eyes as he sat bolt up right watching me work, I had let him out into our small garden at the back of the house to perform his morning ablutions. Lil knew this because she lived on the 17th floor of Princethorpe house, a 21 storey block of council flats that towered over our small Vicarage and she regularly kept a close eye on what went on by virtue of a huge, army issue pair of binoculars that lived on the windowsill of her kitchen and with which, she proudly told Linda and I when we went round for a meal, she could see right into our living room – provoking a midnight order of net curtains when we got home. Keeping an eye on the estate from her perch she had seen Dan waiting patiently at the back door and so had made the call. Shortly after we left there – in a welcome effort to improve the fairly appalling crime figures of the area the whole neighbourhood had undergone a face lift including the re-cladding of Princethorpe House. The theory being that people are more likely to respect and cherish a place, including their neighbours in it, if it starts off looking and feeling better looked after. Lil was pleased. The estate’s coming up, she said. She had lived in that block since it had gone up in the 1960’s and though, understandably, she grumbled when the lift broke down leaving her unable either to get up or get down depending, she loved it. It was home. She felt safe. I had no sense that she considered her living vulnerable or precarious, in fact just the opposite. I think she trusted that, though there were frustrations to her way of life in the clouds, her basic needs for the protection of her life were met.
Following the awful events this week of the fire at Grenfell Tower, I do wonder how the residents of Princethorpe House and other places are sleeping now, and I wonder, too, if some of the anger that has erupted since the fire is driven by a wider group of people feeling insecure about basic things. Its one thing not to have much, especially when those around you have a great deal, but perhaps quite another to have even that to be under threat. We are hard wired to react when placed in fear and so it is not surprising that people are angry and motivated. Quite simply, the trust has gone, leaving only a deeply unsettling sense of insecurity and doubt.
We know well, here in this church, how hard trust can be. Much as we’d like the symbols and metaphors of the gospel story today (Matthew 9:35-10:8) to be our everyday life we know that they are not. We know that faith in God will not always give us authority over unclean spirits – Manchester and Southwark have just shown us that – nor will sickness and disease always be ours to cure, yet still we seek to try and understand the importance of faith and the trust which is its currency: trust in God, of course, but doing so through learning to trust each other and ourselves through which the greater trust in God is made manifest. What trust needs, on a day to day basis is, I think, three things. Foremost is a reliability that people can depend upon, a reliability that ultimately is willing to make sacrifices to achieve it. To be there for you, I’ll set aside my own needs even if it leaves me at a loss. And trust needs a willingness to acknowledge our mistakes. We don’t live in a perfect world. Mistakes get made but trust requires that we have the humility to admit them, and so that, thirdly, we can devote ourselves and our resources to making sure the mistakes are not repeated. If these things are done, then I think there can be trust even if there is still tragedy from time to time. Sacrifice, repentance, good judgement – we’ve heard those preached before.
“Whosoever is faithful in little is faithful also in much and whoever is dishonest in very little is dishonest also in much” (Luke 16:10). If we can get the little things right – day to day in our passing encounters with each other – then the big things will follow. Learning to trust in God, following a faith, starts right here, right now, in amongst us. Let us hope that those – unfortunate – people in authority, in west London and other places, can remember that.
Easter 2 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
I don’t know if you saw a programme on TV this last week called little Boy Blue. It is the story of a young lad from Liverpool – 11 year old Rhys Jones – who was accidentally shot in 2007 when caught in the middle of a gang turf war. This first episode was all the more harrowing because, as the titles say in the first few seconds, this is a true story. You might remember it. As it quickly unfolds, Rhys is rushed to hospital with his mother and father where they help doctors and nurses fight for his life, massaging his feet as the medics work on his heart. After some time the lead Doctor has no choice but to ask if the other medical staff feel that there is any option but to give up trying to save him. All of them know what none of them want to which is that Rhys has died. “We have to let him go” the Doctor tells his father. But then a very natural thing happens. His mother pauses for a moment before then walking dazed but purposeful out of the room and along a number of corridors to find her family that are waiting for news. Walking directly to a niece who works in the hospital she takes her firmly by the arm to lead her back to her dead son’s body “you’ve got to come quickly” she says calmly “you’ve got to tell them to keep going, they’ve said that he’s died but he hasn’t, come and tell them to keep going”. In her shock and in her horror, very naturally, she can’t accept what is real.
Any relationship, but especially our closest, entwine us with eachother. The sinews of our emotions weave and interlace to bind us to one another. In our very closest ties we are just that – tied – grafted like roses to breed something new and its when those ties are broken, by death or other types of loss, we have to endure the terrible process of re-acclimatising to a life without them. We call it mourning. In those first awful moments after Rhys’ death his mother couldn’t accept the reality that overtime she would gradually have to. People respond in various ways but the journey we all face along that road is a hard one that invariably involves in one turn or another, heartbreak and despair, anger and regret, guilt and fear. But one of the ways that people cope as they begin to adjust to a new, unwelcome truth is by taking on board elements of the dead person’s life. A characteristic, a cause, an objective, a belief of the person who has died becomes part of the purpose of those who still live. So its not at all uncommon for people to take up the mantle of the dead by campaigning for something or adopting an outlook, a trait, a perspective – to be kinder because they were kind, to work for justice because that had mattered to them, to live the life that they would have lived in order to keep what they stood for alive and for the dead person to remai a part of the present for those who still live.
I wonder if that thought can be helpful for us as we come to try and understand what the resurrection of Jesus means, both now and what it might have meant to the disciples. Because one way of looking at the resurrection, we could say, is that the disciples coped with the death of Jesus by integrating his presence into their lives – their actions, their thoughts, their selves. That in order to keep him in their present, they took up his mantle and absorbed his character into theirs so that he lived on in and for them. Its a thought that needn’t, at all, diminish a belief in an actual bodily resurrection if we don’t want it to but it is one that allows us to consider a way in which he was resurrected – a way in which his life lived on in reality – if the rational challenges presented to us by our faith get in the way of our ability to believe and find help from that belief. It might suggest that the fact of resurrection is more nuanced than we might always suppose and that it is all the richer for it.
And it lets us sit with the disciples in the story this morning, fresh as they were from the road to Emmaus. Because in our encounter with the person of Jesus through the gospel stories, through our prayers and through our worship, the affect of that encounter leads us to express that life in ours – to let him live in us and we in him as St John would say. As we come to know the person of Christ which consoles, inspires and strengthens us so we are led to let it come further alive in our living, both for our own greater, ongoing benefit, and as part of what we can share in the world for its upbuilding and its growth.
Ester 2017 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
On Chesil Beach is an interesting book by Ian McEwan (set in the early 1960’s) that tells the story of a newly wedded couple’s disastrous first night. Following a modest wedding reception they begin their honeymoon on the Dorset Coast where that first evening is filled with different expectations. The groom, Edward, is champing at the bit to break free from the frustration and restriction of his 1950’s childhood while his bride, Florence, unprepared for the physical intimacies of married life, is anxious and hesitant. Both assume different things about how they will ease themselves into a life giving and productive physical relationship and, because of it, the occasion goes calamatously wrong. Ashamed, confused, angry Florence flees from the bridal suiteand sets off at full pace for a walk along the miles of shingle that make up the beach. Equally, but differently, angry and hurt Edward at first remains in the room refusing to follow but then relents and reluctantly follows her along the shore, though a combination of her tormented energy and the unforgiving shingle underfoot makes catching her seem too hard and, after a while, he stops, looking for a couple of times back to the hotel and then on to her ever receding figure in the distance, before then, in a moment that will define the rest of both of their lives, he gives up the chase and sheepishly trudges back. They never see each other again
The book skips forward to describe their later lives first 15 years on and then a further 10 and at each period we learn that they have developed respectably adequate existences – comfortable, painless, content in an insipid kind of a way, even perhaps, in a certain light, almost happy. Almost…certainly not unhappy, but never glorious. Never magnificent, never ecstatic, never wonderful. Never, the book seems to say, what it might have been had they been willing to face their shame, and brave enough to accept in themselves and eachother what was broken and needy and fearful.
Glory is a big word in the gospels, where its used many times to describe the presence of God: the gory of the Lord shone around, it says – God was everywhere. Its in the Old Testament, too and is why, for instance, the face of Moses shone when he came from meeting God having received the 10 commandments on tablets of stone, though its worth noticing that this only happens when he returns the second time, after the first set of tablets had been broken in anger and disgrace. For glory to shine in the face of Moses, something had to be broken first.
And that’s a good place, perhaps, to begin understanding the meaning of this resurrection. Because what we’re promised today is glory, glory both in the sense of seeing something new about God but also in the sense of grasping some fresh possibility for ourselves. The glory of God, wrote St Irenaeus, is a human being fully alive. Easter tells us what can be if we face our fears and are willing to grapple with our “broken”.
There’s a very significant repetition in the gospel story today. “Go quickly and tell the disciples that he has been raised from the dead and is going ahead of you to Galilee where you will see him”, Matthew reports and because its really important he repeats it just two verses later by having Jesus say “Do not be afraid Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee where they will see me” Now Galilee means something in this context. It’s a code, code for what is broken because Galilee was where the disciples got it wrong. Galilee was the place where they tried to be greatest but not least, first and not last, to save their lives rather lose them. Galilee was where they didn’t understand and were human and fallible and failing but its only in Galilee that Jesus will appear to them. Matthew’s message is clear. If you want to experience the resurrection of Jesus then you need to be in the right place, you need to go and face where you get it wrong. Unwilling to face their broken, Florence and Edward couldn’t find glory, but it shall not be so for you, Jesus says to the disciples, and by extension, he says it to us too.
But if you do go, you will see me. If you go, if you face your truth then the promise is of a human life fully alive. What Easter tells us is that we can dispense with the idea of inevitable. That there is potential and there is possibility and that faced with our choices – as a world, as a nation, as people – we can still decide to keep going and not turn back from the hard yards that are the truth of human life. This isn’t some sprinkle of divine fairy dust where Jesus wavs a wand and all is well. It takes the facts of life seriously but interprets them afresh to draw new and surprising conclusions. So the call is not to stand still but to get up and grasp nettles with the promise that, if we do, we will be met, we will be strengthened, we will be enlivened by the God who meets us in his son and offers us a glorious possibility for the future.
Martin Corner – Lent 4 Evensong
SAVING THE WORLD
What to make of our world, of history, of the events—sometimes depressing, sometimes appalling—that go on around us all the time? There is a danger that as Christians we separate all that off; that we make faith a private matter, that we settle for the world as it is, regretfully no doubt, but unable to see where faith has any leverage.
But the writer of John’s gospel says that God sent his Son into the world, ‘not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved’ (John 3, 17). So something is intended for the world, not just for us as individuals. And there are times when the world itself seems to cry out for saving, as it staggers from catastrophe to crime to disaster, from Mosul to Westminster Bridge to famine in the Horn of Africa.
Saving—salvation—means moving from a bad place to a good one. So the first step is to recognise the bad place, to see what makes it bad. The place which is history, which is the events of our world, is a tangle, an inseparable confusion of good and evil. Alongside the intended evil, which is plentiful enough, there is the unintended evil, and the evil that flows from the intended good. Countries freed for democracy become racist authoritarian nationalisms. We cheer on the calls for freedom of the Arab Spring and end up with chaos and slaughter.
There are two common reactions. One is despair, to conclude that human affairs are irredeemable. The other is to believe that we can think or plan our way out of these entanglements, that by taking thought we can separate the good from the evil, contrive history as a utopia, without alienation or evil or suffering.
Well, a lot can be done by taking thought and acting rationally; certainly that’s better than the alternative. But in essence both these responses are mistaken. We shouldn’t despair of human affairs; after all, God apparently thinks the world worth saving. But we shouldn’t imagine that it is in our power to purify history, to separate its strands. The entanglement is where we are. That is in part what Christianity means by original sin.
That conclusion can feel like a prison: we can hardly bear to live our history, but there is no way of not living it. We’re stuck with what we have, with no other perspective.
A pause, here, for expectation management: this is a hint, not an answer. We are in Lent, following Christ’s movement toward the cross, the narrative of his Passion. This is often presented as a kind of divine pageant, formalised and slightly unreal. But it was, of course, an event in history, in the very same entanglement of good and evil that we inhabit. There were evil intentions that lead to evil; there were good intentions, some of which also lead to evil. When the High Priest Caiaphas said that it was better for one man to die for the people (John 18, 14), he probably had in mind the slaughter that would follow if the Romans felt threatened by the crowd following Jesus. He may have said those words with a heavy heart. But neither he nor Pilate could have plotted a purely good course, even if they had wanted to.
So once again the entanglement, the unloosable knot of history. But at the centre of it stands an action, the action of Christ, which is pure gift. Here there is no calculation. Jesus doesn’t go to the cross for a cause, or to make a point. He simply and purely gives himself. He doesn’t know what the outcome of that will be. We know that its outcomes have been sometimes good, sometimes evil. But Jesus simply gives.
In the presence of such giving—in our own time Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Janani Luwum, even a policeman doing his duty at the gates of Parliament—a crack seems to open in the prison walls of history. Something else is going on. There are realities beyond the trap in which we find ourselves. And as we glimpse that, the salvation of the world doesn’t seem quite such an unreal dream.
Rev Jonathan Wilkes – Lent 4
When I heard that Martin McGuiness had died this week I was reminded of an exhibition that was on in London a few years ago – The F word: images of forgiveness”. It was an exhibition of photographs taken of people who had undergone experiences of extreme suffering and pain as a result of the cruelty, ignorance or culpability of other people. Beneath every picture was a brief description of how each person had suffered and the ways that they had tried to cope with their appalling experiences. And often they were pictured alongside those who had been the cause of their suffering, victim and perpetrator sharing the same space. And so there was Pat Magee, the man responsible for the Brighton bombing in 1984 standing shoulder to shoulder with Jo Berry whose father Anthony was killed by him. Or Christo Brand, a warder at Robbin Island prison in South Africa where political prisoners like Vusumzi Mcongo, a black activitist, were held and with whom in the picture he shook hands and smiled. To see the exhibition was not only to be deeply moved but also to be left with an uncomfortable sense of how dangerous it is to talk too cheaply about forgiveness. And so I wondered what people were feeling about the death of Martin Mcguiness.
For there were at least two of him to remember. There was the IRA commander for whom there would be people alive today who are suffering still, if not because of the work of his hands, then, perhaps, at least at the work of his sanctioning. And then there was the political leader – one half of the chuckle brothers – whose apparently genuine and warm relationship with Ian Paisley was deeply moving evidence of the power of reconciliation.
Forgiveness is in the DNA of our faith. How many times shall I forgive my brother, says Peter to Jesus, 7 times (picking a number that sounds like quite alot)? Not seven I tell you, he replies, but 77 (picking another number to imply something boundless, infinite). And yet I suspect that most of us, if we are really honest, can admit to times when to begin thinking about forgiving someone just once would be a stretch let alone 7 or 77 times. And, of course, forgiveness isn’t about forgetting. Those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat them and as one woman in the exhibition whose sister had been abducted, horribly tortured and killed by Fred and Rosemary West wrote “forgiveness means first giving up all hope of a better past” but not forgetting it though, perhaps what the chuckle brothers teach us, as have people like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Ghandi, is that the past doesn’t have to have the last word on who we are.
Events again reminded us this week of how challenging forgiveness is. I suspect that if I used an F word of the four letter variety from this pulpit you’d be surprised, unsettled, shocked even but it strikes me that forgiveness is an F word far more dangerous than any swear word I could ever utter. For how do we talk about forgiveness when innocent people are mindlessly slaughtered leaving wives and husbands and children mothers, fathers, and sisters utterly broken by grief and loss. How can we? How can they? How do they in Mosul or Belfast or Gaza? How should we in London and how do we, in the face of our own individual and private grievances and slights and injuries. On this mothering Sunday I find it hard to imagine that Mary actually swallowed with the meekness implied in the story this morning the trade off of a substitute for her beloved son so needlessly and so painfully taken from her. For let’s not forget that Christianity only helps, only means something and makes a difference, if it is genuinely rooted in human experience and history. There’s a broken mother here today who must have railed and spat at the injustice in her misery.
How do we begin to forgive and how do we begin to be forgiven. Its dynamite which is filled with unbelievable energy but can, of course, be very dangerous to handle. Perhaps the chuckle brothers should have the last word because what they seemed to have decided was that no matter how stomach churning forgiveness is and no matter how humiliating, actually, it is to be forgiven the alternatives are hopeless and pointlessly self destructive. The only way out of the vicious circle of agony is to let go which, I know I’ve said before, is the literal meaning of the word – aphesia, forgive, let go. Let me go. Let you go. Lose in order to find.
Rev Jonathan Wilkes – Lent 3
A few days ago I was sent this poem by Sylvia Plath called, the Mirror:
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful ‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Mirrors are interesting things. Like the old saying about cameras they never lie although in this day and age of photoshopped pictures perhaps it is only mirrors that really tell the truth, as Sylvia Plath suggests but I think we could question her assertion that they have no preconceptions and that, therefor, they are not cruel because the picture in a mirror depends a great deal on the predisposition of the person looking into it. Isn’t it true that if we’re feeling good about ourselves, if our confidence is high, our self belief is strong, the more likely it is that our image will seem thinner, younger, more striking, in my case less grey…The camera does now sometimes lie and as long as there have been reflections people have seen themselves in different – often unnecessarily cruel – ways depending upon the state of their emotions and mind. If a person’s eyes are a window into their soul then how those eyes perceive their reflection gives a hint of their inner world.
Now I am a lake – the poem goes on – A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Who we were, who we are, who we will one day be. All of these look back at us from the frame on the wall and all three are central questions to this season of Lent that we now travel together and in which the story of Jesus plays the part it always does but with even greater intensity offering us a mirror in which to see ourselves as we really are. As we really are. Not as we fear we are, or resign ourselves that surely we must be, or kid ourselves because we’d like to be. But as we really are. As the Samaritan woman says in the gospel story this morning, “he told me everything I had ever done” He knew me inside out and yet, the message of that story is, he respected her, valued her, treasured her inspite of the frailty that she bore. Often the preconceptions are cruel and not the truth. Lent invites us to look beyond our tinted sight to see the truth of God’s love for us and the vision of goodness and capability that he sees.
When babies are very young they come to understand themselves as individual people by seeing themselves mirrored in the face of others most especially in their mothers face. If she smiles, if she approves, is delighted and tender, compassionate and forbearing then they’ll come to feel that they matter and that the trials and tribulations of their nature, and the vicissitudes of the world, can be negotiated, survived, managed, conquered. But if it is judgement they see or impatience or a sense of inconvenience at the demands they make, then they’ll doubt their capacity – their right – to cope, to battle, to thrive.
Lent shines the face of Jesus into our hearts to let us look again at what we are so that we might find a fresh way of seeing who we might become. It invites us to see the truth of who we are – of who we really are – not as we fear, or are resigned to, or wish we could be but who we really are and to trust that the face of God at which we look shows us the mercy, compassion and hope of what God deeply is. We’re invited to see it for ourselves and show it in our own role as objects of reflection for others. To show them their worth in the eyes of our souls.
And to do all this encouraged by the promise that God makes to Joshua that we might be strong and courageous not to be frightened and not to be terrified for the Lord our God is with us wherever we go.
Rev Jonathan Wilkes – Lent 1 BCP
With Lent’s great emphasis on repentance, a turning around – metanoia the greek word for repentance – a turning around from one way of life, and perhaps one way of looking at life, to another there is of course a great concentration on sin and the temptations that lead to sin. So we hear the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness and the model for us that we should do as he does and find the inner strength to face our demons and resist the allures of the devil.
Just before Lent we had that reading where Jesus goes beyond the actions of our temptations to the inner drives that lead to them. Do you remember? You have heard it said in ancient of times you shall not murder but I say to you if any are angry with brother or sister you are liable to judgement, or again, you have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery but I say to you anyone who looks at a woman (or man) with lust has already committed adultery. The purity of living we’re called to demands our thoughts as well as our actions. And though there’s much sense in this – that if we don’t even think about doing something wrong then we’ll be less likely to do it the end – the trouble is that it doesn’t allow us to have an inner world. It leaves us nothing private and implies that the all seeing all knowing God is lurking in a cupboard of our consciences, peeking at what we’re doing when we think we’re alone. But don’t we need to be able to shut the door on the world and have a play with some thoughts and feelings sometimes. If for no other reason than because they come to us very often unasked for, uninvited. I suspect that most of us don’t wake up in the morning and think to ourselves “ooh, I’m really going to try and be small minded today. I’m really looking forward to the first chance I get to be critical of judgemental”. Its not how it is. Most of us start the day with the best of intentions, with the real hope that we will be patient and loving, generous and kind. Most of us know well that it is far better to treat other people as we would want to be treated ourselves.
So what happens? Well, human nature happens. The ebb and flow of need and security courses through our veins, sometimes meaning that we are frightened or hurt, and working off those hidden bits of us that are, anyway and so we become less than we want to be, and quite possibly less than we are. But a lot of that we work with inside. We wrestle and filter and try making the end result often a great deal better than it might have been even if it wasn’t all that we want. Temptation is very often something that ends in the mind as much as it begins there, for which we should be proud, and which should remind us that having temptation is not a sin but actually part of the way that we become sinless and that, as the great man said, it is by our fruits that we shall be known.
Rev Jonathan Wilkes – Ash Wednesday 2016
When I was a Vicar in Paddington every week I used to help with our Church School’s sports club. This was a big event in the life of the children and we had to limit the numbers we could take to 30. Every Friday evening after school we would gather in the playground and then walk 10 minutes to the local recreational facility to teach the kids for an hour and a half about Football and Rugby in the winter and Cricket and Netball in the summer. They loved it. But among the fun and the exhaustion I will remember one thing. There was a day in late autumn, after we had been playing football for about an hour and the floodlights on the pitch was just taking over from the dusk which was now settling, when, mid flow in the middle of the game, two young muslim boys called out to the teacher who was in charge: “sir, can we go now” to which he waved them off. I assumed that they were having to leave early but I was wrong. Because what they did was run over to their bags at the side of the pitch and sit down for 5 minutes to have a dink of water and a snack to eat. At first, I didn’t understand what this was about but then I remembered. It was Ramadan. It was Ramadan and these two young Muslim boys were breaking the fast that they had held since before 8 that day. For what must have been 9 hours they had eaten and drunk nothing. Throughout the day, during school, for the length of most of a football match. They had eaten and dunk nothing.
Somebody asked me this week “why do we give things up for Lent” to which there’d be a variety of answers and not all of them very good so its worth thinking about. I’m sure its the same for Muslims but what struck me, as I saw those two young boys break their fast by devouring their snacks was that, at the very least, what it did for them was mark the season of Ramadan as something to be considered differently. Their fast set aside Ramadan as special and particular, no ordinary season, in order that they might be encouraged – forced even – to appreciate and understand something of its meaning all the more. The fast was not the point itself but merely the means for reaching the point. Isn’t it so easy to think about what we’re giving up for Lent rather than think about why we’re doing it.
We begin tonight a special time, a holy season, marked with the sign of crucifiction with which, of course, Jesus lived his risen life. See the marks in my hands, see the hole in my side. So perhaps that’s where the why begins. Lent is about preparing to know resurrection life in ours. To be ready to break ground on new living. To remember that for us to step out we must first look in. That the seeds of our future’s growth are sown in the soil of understanding, understanding who we are and what drives our thoughts and actions. This requires an honest look, not only at our frailties, but also at the wounds which inspire them. The disappointment, the heartbreak, the injury that led us to defend and protect our fragile hearts. The Ash of this Wednesday focusses the mind on repentance but the turning around, which is at the heart of the meaning of the word, applies as much to the causes of our imperfection – the sorrows, the dents, the unasked for injury – as to the part we play in our life’s wrongs. For let’s not forget that lovely greek word aphesia. Aphesia which means not only forgiveness, the last act in the cycle of repentance, but also “to let go”. Thats what repentance ends up with. That’s what Lent calls us to prepare for. To let go of a past which holds us back and take up afresh the future which calls us forth from the empty tomb.
Rev Jonathan Wilkes – Sunday before Lent
I was hearing the other day about a man who has committed himself to being a door to door poet. What he does, apparently, is go from house to house knocking on doors and offering to write a poem about the people who live there. If they agree he asks them to tell him about their lives. Who lives there and what they do. Their hopes and dreams. Their sorrows and fears. And then he goes away to return the next day to recite for them the poem he has written, aiming to capture something of their living, and in doing so hoping to help find some new perspective for them to see, some new insight, and so release in them an energy for moving forward.
It seems to me that we have lots of clear images for God. To name but three there is God the father, creator of all. There is Jesus the shepherd, taking care of his sheep There is, of course, Mary mother of God balancing with tenderness the almighty maker but I wondered as I heard about this door to door visitor whether a poet wasn’t a bad image to have for our Saviour. Because creators and shepherds and even mothers are very powerful, very effective, very strong images for God. You know, the maker of heaven and earth can surely be relied upon to fix my problems. If the sheep gets lots then the shepherd will find it – no doubt. If the baby has needs the caring, careful mother will meet them, no matter what they are. These are very reassuring, embracing, safe images for what God can do.
Reassuring, encouraging, important and true images for us as people of faith. They say something clear and vital about what a faith in God can do for they give us courage in the face of the overwhelming, hope in the presence of despair. Yet isn’t it also true that our experience of God isn’t of a cosmic Mr Fixit. That alongside hearing those inspiring words in the book of Joshua that we should be strong and courageous, not be terrified or dismayed because the Lord our God is with us wherever we go. Alongside hearing that, isn’t it also the case that we can still feel small and weak, frightened and lonely, no matter how often we ask God to help us. Isn’t it the case that in the face of difficulty and distress, when we ask for comfort and help, our experience is a bit like hearing a knock at the door and finding that when we open it there is only a poet is standing there offering to write us a poem. A poet whose gift it seems is that of listening to who we are and what we’re about and then offering us a nugget of insight, a summary of our essence that might then release some flow of our natural spirit for life and love and deep joy.
Invaluable, and true, as the strong clear pictures of the everlasting are this less gratifying image meets our experience well and is signalled in this season of Lent which begins on Wednesday for it reminds us that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. it is the path of suffering, the road less travelled, the narrow way where the first shall be last and the last first. Poetry isn’t easy or straightforward because life, very often, isn’t easy or straightforward.
We were reminded of that last week when the church’s struggle with sexuality was brought to the fore again. Once more we saw how difference is difficult – and implacable. How many times have I been infuriated by the conflicts I see of Israelis and Palestinians or Irish protestant and catholics thinking to myself how can you make such dreadful agony of disagreement. Surely there is one thing worse than not getting absolutely your own way. Surely that thing is the death and slaughter that you inflict and suffer. Why can’t you see that? And yet, as an absolute supporter of the right of people in same sex relationships to marry and be blessed as I am, I too sat there trenchant and angry at those who saw things differently from me. I need to remember how complicated and difficult difference is. I need to make sure that I keep tight hold of my anger and indignation because unharnassed it doesn’t help. I need to make sure that I continue to see the spirit of God in those I disagree with for we were all made in God’s image even, all the while, I strongly and persistently maintain my disagreement with them. I, at least, need to do that.
Creator, shepherd, mother – poet. All of them see potential which is what the story of the transfiguration we heard earlier is all about. For a moment the dullness of humanity is infused with the light of God. The distant reality made present now. As the church wrestles with difficult things, and as we struggle with our day to day lives and take those lives into the reflection and sobre assessment of Lent, there are many worse images that we might have in our minds.
Epiphany 3 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
We all have laundry. We all have laundry and we all always will have laundry. Its life. We have laundry not just because we spill our coffee or get splashed from a puddle or let our lunch dribble down our front, we have laundry also because there are things that we emit and secrete which need to be cleaned off. Sweat and dead skin and things you’re not used to people talking about in sermons all come off and out of us and mean that if we don’t clean our clothes as we clean our selves then they’ll know that we’re coming from rather a long way off. Laundry is part of life, yes, part of the events that ebb and flow through our days, but also a part of the inevitable consequence of our heart continuing to beat in our chests – a natural by product of what it is to live. Laundry is a chore, laundry is a discipline, laundry is something that has to be done but laundry is something that we accept and accept without guilt or regret or any sense of judgement. You know we don’t come to feel that we’ve done anything very wrong just because the basket is full. We may get fed up that there’s another wash to do but we don’t feel less of ourselves because of it.
And so laundry might be a helpful way to think about some of the more tiresome aspects of our humanity which is, I think, the context for us to wonder about the call that Jesus makes in the gospel today – to Peter and Andrew, James and John as much as to you and me – a call to follow him. Because every day we are confronted with spiritual laundry, the regrettable by products of what it is to be us and its a challenge which comes to us not just because someone irritates us and we want to thump them, or someone hurts us and we feel wounded, or someone or something frightens us and we feel scared, not just because of the events that ebb and flow through our days but because all of us bear the ingredients of what it is to be a perfect person and are left scratching our heads over the recipe book wondering how on earth to make good with it. All of us were given at birth the nature for what it is to be human. We were given anger because without it how can we possibly defend our precious life. We were given greed so that we know to fill up when food is plentiful for the time when it isn’t. We were given fear so that when something dangerous comes along we’d know to scarper sharpish and we were given lust so that, without thinking about it, we’d remember to make more of us. All of this and other aspects of our nature are God given and good yet our precious task is to learn how to use it wisely which isn’t easy and isn’t achieved at the first time of asking. So we need to get washing. We need to visit the laundry by tending to our fears and sorrows and the things that enrage or hurt us.
The baptism service that we’re about to have has some wonderful imagery and symbolism in it. There’s the candle, the great light chasing away the shadows of death for those who sit in the dark. There’s the cross invisibly written on our foreheads as an eternal reminder of the lengths God will go to find us. And there’s water. What do we do with water? We drink it, we swim in it, we mix it with whiskey and we wash with it. Water is the thing with which we let the detritus of the day be taken away and its the first symbol we’re given in our Christian lives, and with it the promise that whatever mistakes we make in trying to harness this extraordinary power we are born with to become children of God, whatever mistakes we make, we can let the waters of God wash them away to have a fresh slate and a new beginning.
Follow me – Jesus said and says to all of us – and I suggest that he didn’t say follow me and you’ll never have to wash again but rather just the opposite: follow me and we’ll wash everyday. We’ll go down to the river every day and wash and laugh and wash and cry and wash and scream and wash and wash and wash because there’s nothing to be scared of in your laundry. Nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be humiliated by. No stain I cannot move, no blemish I cannot shift.
I am the way the truth and the life. I am the resurrection. I am the Daz! I am the Cilit Bang! I am the mother of all Fairy non bio’s.
Believe in me, abide in me, follow me.
Epiphany Carol Service – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
When Albert Einstein died in April 1955 his brain was removed and divided into sections before being, effectively, pickled in alcohol and stored. Some 20 or so years later researchers carried out some experiments on his preserved intelligence and discovered that the parietal area of his brain was 15 percent larger than in other men of a comparable age. The parietal area, in case you are wondering, is that part of all our brains that deals with maths reasoning and visual-spatial thinking something that Einstein did rather a lot of. The conclusion seems to be, as occupational or physiotherapists have always told us: you use it or lose it or in Einstein’s case, use it a lot and it will grow and develop greatly. Which is the thinking behind how all our brains grow especially in our first months of life when the area of them that deals with relationship is developing fast. The frontal cortext is that part of our brain where we manage feelings and negotiate our interactions and we’re born with it unassembled. It comes in unformed pieces and we make it into something that will be of infinite use to us through the care and love of those who look over us in those first days. When we are protected. When our needs are met. When we are treated with understanding and kindness chemicals are released within our brains which stimulate growth and make pathways. Use it, and have it used, and it will grow and develop greatly.
We tend to think quite a bit about Jesus as an adult. There is a great deal of focus on his birth and first moments but then only the occasional reference to his developing years, like the story of him getting separated from his parents when on pilgrimage to the Temple, before he suddenly appears at this baptism and begins the relatively short lived ministry (perhaps only three years worth) leading to his downfall-cum-crowning glory at Holy Week and Easter. But those early years must have been very fruitful for his development. Granted the advantage of those divine genes but to be that wise, that balanced, that mature, that good at understanding and relating must have taken a great deal of skillful nurture. Give me the child when he is seven and I will show you the man, Aristotle wrote, but actually an awful lot is set down in just those early months.
So as we ponder the infant baby today, adored and worshipped now by kings as much as by shepherds and their sheep, we might think not only of the importance of childhood and the role we have in preserving and protecting it for those young in our society for whom all of us have a part and responsibility to play. But we might also consider that Einstein’s brain wasn’t that size at birth. That his parietal area grew to be that oversized because he practised at using it, he worked and struggled and strived to understand the mysteries he uncovered and because of it his brain responded and grew stronger giving him the ability to do more of what he was called to. Use it a lot and it will grow and develop greatly.
Practice community and community will grow. Try to love and the ability to love will develop. As this new year starts around the world we are being presented with models of society that are tending towards the individual, a focussed concern on the back yard behind our house when history tells us that when the draw bridge is pulled up conflict and animosity can easily follow because dialogue and understanding tend to wither. As we negotiate our way we’ll need to remember what the baby that will grow to be a light to lighten the world taught us: that sharing our backyard knowing our neighbour so that we can love them, building communities large and small, near and far is the way to peace and joy and that what those wise men knew is something for us to consider: that stay at home kings never found anything but rather reaching out and going many extra miles to meet the stranger and understand our neighbour, no matter how hard or long or uncomfortable that may be, is how abundant life is found.
Christmas 2016 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
“The universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple” so said one of our most eminent evolutionary biologists who goes on to say, but “in an extravaganza of detail…” it has become “amazing and deeply satisfying to all those whose senses have not become dulled by familiarity: the very fact that we have evolved the brain power to understand our evolutionary genesis redoubles the amazement and compounds the satisfaction”. Its not often that I quote Richard Dawkins from the pulpit but there’s something quite delicious about doing it. And he might question the comparison but actually those words of his sum up pretty well the suggestion that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. How the lifeless simplicity of the stars and the planets found their way into the extravagant complexity of life. How the building blocks of creation have exploded into the amazing detail of human consciousness. How it is that the same atoms and molecules that form the hills and make the fields find their way into producing us with all our thought and feeling. The word became flesh. The word – the creative principle, cosmic wisdom, benign force – became human. God is present and part of who we are though its not often realised that the reverse is also true. There’s a, perhaps, little known verse in the Bible that says something deeply profound about what God is. Its a little phrase that Isaiah uses. See, says God (he writes), I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. I have inscribed you, branded you, engraved you on me. Maybe its not often that we think of God with a tattoo but perhaps we should. God can’t be God without us, he is saying just as, what this night tells us, we can’t be us, without God. Its part of our nature a silent, invisible, DNA like element that makes us who we are. And so there is a relationship of mutual dependence between us that cannot be escaped. Though that idea of dependence has a difficult ring to it for our deeply independent modern mindset. We speak of “dependent” characters with pity and concern, we worry about dependency on drugs and alcohol and try to avoid a dependent mindset in those who need handouts or state aid. Dependency can be a passive and constricting thing. Not good.
Yet it needn’t be thought of entirely in that way. Think of the air that we breathe or the food that we eat. We are utterly dependent on those things to live our lives yet we don’t question the sense in it. Nor do we doubt that dependence on parents for learning how to speak or act or love is anything other than natural and good. Dependence and independence are written into the ground rules of our existence as two sides of our life’s coin yet the temptation is to think that because we have been given power to become children of God – or evolved the brain power to understand our evolutionary genesis – then our calling must be to move from the one to the other. But that need not be the only conclusion we draw. Because what this night suggests is that the truth of who we are cannot be told without acknowledging that we have a natural, inherent dependence on what Einstein called “the mysterious force that sways the constellations”.
Especially, perhaps, in this rather independently minded year. From Brexit to Trump people have said: we will not have it as it has been, we will not be ignored, we will be heard and for those who are being neglected by globalisation’s march to ever greater productivity these are important concerns but we should be wary of letting the significance of that cry distract us from the eternal wisdom which this night represents: namely that mutual dependence is at the heart of God and at the heart of godly living. Richard Dawkins suggested himself that his 1976 book, the Selfish Gene, was misnamed because, in fact, in it he describes the opposite, in it he explains altruism. That because we all share versions of the same genes – because we are inscribed, branded, engraved with the same stuff – we are naturally inclined to help each other. Creation has moved from simplicity to extravagant detail because life, whether in cells that make up organisms or people who make up species, cooperates in order to thrive. Alongside mutation and selection, cooperation is the third rule of evolution. The simple truth is: we need each other and we do well when we remember it.
What Christmas does is remind us of our hope, the hope that lies in realising how the forces of creation are built within us, that the Lord of heaven and earth is bound to us in an everlasting love that has been played out in weeping like us, bleeding like us, suffering like us so that our experiences of sorrow and longing, fear and regret are known and understood and, because of it, a cosmic energy, imagination and courage can be ours. It reminds us that the word becomes flesh and dwells among us – the principle behind creation, the wisdom of the heavens, the force of goodness – becomes a reality when we recognise the extent to which we are made of the same stuff and that we thrive when, as Homer described, “taught by time, our hearts have learned to glow for other’s good and melt at other’s woe”. Its a spirit of cooperation perhaps most needed in places well beyond our relatively peaceful home here in Kingston but its a spirit that begins with us and in us in our hearts and in our homes and in our fervent commitment to the wellbeing of people who live many miles from here. For Christmas presents us with a vision of the essential interdependence that lies at the heart of God, a reliance that we are inescapably part of, giving us light to guide us through our darkest times and power to fill our lives and our world with glory, grace and truth.
Remembrance Sunday 2016 (Civic Service) – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
In the summer, the Mayor and I went to watch football. Now I like the Mayor and as it happens, I’m one of the Mayor’s Chaplains this year, but going off to watch football isn’t something we do very often. But this was a special football match, that took place on a special day,in memory of something more special than perhaps words can say. It took place on July the 1st this year, 2016 exactly one hundred years to the day after the battle of the Somme began in France during the 1st Great War and it took place to commemorate not only all those who fought and died on that day and the days that followed but in particular one man fighting with the East Surrey regiment, our own local band of brothers, who went off to war from the streets and houses of Kingston and Surrey.
Billy Neville was a Captain in the East Surrey Regiment and in the height of summer 1916 was due to lead his soldiers from the trench in which they had dug in for many weeks over the top to face a hail of bullets in an effort to take the German lines that lay a few hundred metres in front of them. Everyone, Billy included, was very, very scared and so he set upon a cunning plan. What if, somehow, he thought they could be distracted from what lay ahead. What if, at the moment of truth, they could think of something other than the hail of lead and death that spat at them from the guns in the German lines. What if they could make the fearsome task that lay ahead just somehow slightly less daunting. And so it was that he brought a football back from his leave and on the 1st July 1916 told his men that at the vital hour he would be kicking it into no man’s land in front of them and then urge them to run like boys in the playground after it in search of the goal they needed to score. Whether it distracted them from their fear is not known but it helped them move forward and they reached their goal and took the German trench that was their target, even if Billie didn’t live to tell the tale, dying as he did that warm summers day.
They may have been distracted from the gruesome terror of war but the point of us gathering like this each year is that we must not be. We must not do anything other than give the cause of justice and peace for which Billie and his comrades gave their lives, in that war and the wars that have followed, our utmost attention. In our community or any other, in this country or in someone else’s, we must play our part in bringing the spirit of reconciliation, tolerance and respect so that, less and less, the awful terrors of war may be resorted to or accepted or quietly slipped into unthinkingly.
There was another football match this weekend the international – anything but friendly – contest between Scotland and England where the teams face sanction for wearing a poppy – an apparently political symbol – on their armbands. Perhaps like you, I am delighted to learn that the Football Association thinks that there are some things more important that world cup qualifying points and I’ve been reminded of the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who once said that “I am puzzled by which bible people are reading when they say that religion and politics don’t mix”. There some things, there are some causes which transcend the realm in which they reside. The cause of peace is one such cause. The cause of peace is one which is not confined to one smart day when we stand solemn and quiet in ordered rows to pause for a moment or two trying to connect with a sentiment that we think relates to another world. The cause of peace is today’s agenda. Today’s and tomorrow’s and all the days that follow. Every day is a Remembrance Day. Every day is a day to think how you and I might act more gently, with greater courtesy, with greater respect and with a spirit that seeks to find reasons to forgive and understand long before finding excuses to shout and hollar. After the massacre at the Bataclan in Paris a year ago one man – whose wife was killed – has written: you will not have my hate. You will not have my hate. Every day is a day to remember to chose mercy and reconciliation over the cancerous forces of hate.
As one of football’s greatest managers once said “Football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that”. The stark truth is: peace is a matter of life and death and today we say that there is nothing more important than it.
All Saints Day 2016 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
It’s alright. It’s alright. It’s alright.
Once upon a time there was a little girl and a little boy growing up in the 1950’s. They were friends as well as siblings and they shared a bedroom together at the end of a long corridor. At night they slept soundly, having first talked in hushed tones before dropping off to sleep but on occasion one would wake, needing the loo in the dark hours, and it was then that their agreement came into force.
What they agreed was this. Because the corridor was long, and in postwar austerity, always unlit, they each feared the walk through it in the dark to the toilet. They were young and the darkness inspired thoughts of the unknown and so it was agreed that, if one woke up needing to go, they would wake the other and, while they felt their way to the end of the corridor in the darkness, their sibbling would lie sleepless, all the while calling out in a whisper until the other returned: it’s alright. It’s alright. It’s alright.
It seems to me that throughout the ages, that’s what the saints have heard and said, that’s what the saints have seen and shown, that what the saints have received and given. That it’s alright, its alright, its alright. That in spite of the terrors that threaten or the difficulties that drain or the struggles that overwhelm, there is an immoveable source of love to sustain and strengthen. They heard it as did Joshua, son of Nun and successor to Moses, when God said to him “do not be frightened, do not be terrified for I am with you wherever you go” or in the words of Jesus recorded by Matthew, the gospeler, “remember, I am with you always even until the end of the age – for ever” and in the thoughts of Paul who wrote that “there is nothing that can keep us – not in death or life – nothing that can keep us from the love of God in Jesus”. They’ve all said that its hard, its frightening, and that it doesn’t always turn out as we might hope, but they’ve said that its going to be alright, its alright, its alright.
We spent the week in Norfolk by chance in a village, Happisburgh, that had one of the country’s best 1000 churches, as determined by Simon Jenkins, in it. Simon Jenkins wrote a good, if incomplete book, about England’s churches, as All Saints Kingston doesn’t feature, but in it he tells of one 18th century Vicar of Happisburh who noticed that no one was coming forward to have their children baptised. On enquiring, he discovered that this was because the relatively poor people of the village didn’t feel able to afford the cost of a party to celebrate their child’s baptism, and so, not wishing to be embarrassed, were having to forego the service entirely. So, the enterprising Vicar thought upon a solution and, himself, arranged a party at his own expence, to which all of the parish were invited, and so because of it, on one day alone, he baptised 170 children.
No, is the answer, I’m not going to…
But it does highlight how easily, perhaps, we are distracted from what really matters in our believing and might prompt us to wonder what are the things that dog and drag our enthusiam for the treasure that lies at the heart of faith. You know, does it matter if we can’t believe in every word of the creed or that our church asserts some things we can’t agree with? Is it a problem that we don’t come to services as often as we think we should (not forgetting that warning of Gerard Hughes that the greatest danger to a person’s heart is a hardening of the oughteries – or the catchphrase I like to use: never do anything in church that you don’t want to do). Can we still believe that we are among the beloved of God if we aren’t as kind to our neighbour or as generous to the stranger, or as forgiving or patient or kind as we feel we could be. Just perhaps these, and others, are peripheral matters at the outskirts of what the saints knew and showed, for perhaps what they understood is that Christian life is not about being good, it is about being forgiven and being loved and it is from that forgiveness and love that goodness then can then flow. Its alright. Its alright. Its alright that we find ourselves flawed and broken and sinful because the promise of the saints is that we are known and we are understood and in that knowing are connected with a spirit of goodness that can make saints of us all.
Time passed for that little girl and little boy. They grew up to live lives, to follow careers, to marry and have children. And then, one day, one of them contracted cancer that none of the doctors could fix and so, from afar, the other wrote a letter that simply said: this is me, saying to you in the dark:It’s alright. It’s alright. It’s alright.
Death confronts us with the fact that we control much less in our lives than we would like and lets us not forget that, in the end, we are in the palm of another’s hand. What the saints remind us of is that this is both a scary and a reassuring thing, all at the same time, and that we negotiate it by learning to trust the voice which says to us, in the little things and in the big:
its alright, its alright, its alright
Trinity 19 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Next week its the Breakfast run. This is one of the early morning running races that happen in Kingston through the year and every time it happens I comfort myself that as the hords get ready to run their race that starts at 8 o’clock, they can at least hear the church bell which rings five minutes before the service calling the 8 o’clock faithful to worship and so just perhaps one or two of them might get curious and come another week when there would be less need for lycra or deoderant. But then it dawned on me that they won’t think the bell is for the service calling the faithful to worship. They’ll just think its the organisers giving them a five minute warning – and so reminded me that context is everything. Perspective, viewpoint is so important. One little bell is a call to worship for some and a call to warm up to all the rest. How we understand events and the facts that make them up will depend on our outlook and the way that we chose to interpret. Its why the task of having a faith and belonging to a religious community is so much more than simply turning up and doing what we’re told because – first – we have to work out what we’re being told and sometimes that’s more complicated than we might imagine.
I understand that Francis Bacon the painter always insisted that his paintings be viewed through glass not to protect them but so that the person looking at them would be able to see his picture but also perhaps see their own reflection in it as well. Its how we might think about reading the bible or hearing the stories of Jesus when read to us. Where can we see ourselves in the picture that is being described…like the one this morning which at first glance seems a bit odd. Maybe our first instinct is to wonder why Jesus seems to be trashing the idea that a person might treat his slave with some kind of courteous sevility. Let’s be honest, he’s saying, no one tells a worn out slave to put his feet up and rest at the end of a hard day. You make them do what’s expected of them. It doesn’t seem very Jesus like, does it: the last seem to last here, not first. So, maybe, his point is elsewhere. Maybe he’s using the story to say something about not expecting to be praised or thanked for what we have chosen ourselves to do and maybe, further, he’s floating the idea with us – as I was saying a little last week – that faith is an understandable response to living and that to tend to (it as we are here today, now) is not the exception to the rule but the rule by which we find meaning and purpose and a path to the fulness of life Jesus speaks of elsewhere.
And I just wonder if we can’t hear in the first words of today’s gospel a desperate bid to please Jesus. Lord, increase our faith! the apostles, slightly piously perhaps, say to which Jesus is reported as being pretty sharp in response. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you’d be able to the move trees, he says. I just wonder if we’re hearing him say here: don’t suck up – stop trying to be teacher’s pet, this is life, get on with it. Just maybe we sometimes need to hear something in a similar vein. Just sometimes, maybe, we can fall into the trap of thinking that God has to be pleased in order for him to love us. That we have to be perfect in order to earn God’s pleasure. That our perspective, our viewpoint, our interpretation of faith is that we are unworthy of God’s favour if we’re making mistakes and getting things wrong or simply failing to overcome the inevitable messiness of being human. Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect, Jesus famously is reported as having said. I wonder if that isn’t fine in an ideal world but pretty shoddy for the real one.
Yet I think the point of faith and the message of the gospel is that God’s love is freely given: a grace, an unmerited favour, generously bestowed and that our part is to learn how to live in the glow of that light, our part is to see our reflection in the pictures of God that we see; the forgiver of sins, the healer of hurts, the selfless sacrificer. Our part is to see ourselves in that life of God and know not only that we belong there, belong being a part of the life of God on earth, but we deserve the divine high regard as children in whom, in spite of all our frailty and shortcoming, God is well pleased.
Trinity 17 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
When we were on holiday in Lourdes we saw another statue of St Peter with a withered foot. I say another because I’ve mentioned here before the statue of St Peter at the Vatican in Rome – a large imposing figure with strong features and rugged looks all except for his right foot which is smooth and smaller than the other because of the centuries of pilgrims who have reached up to touch, some even wiping a hankie over it to then spread across their face. It has always struck me that this action has made it a holy relic, not because of some magical reference to Peter but simply because of the yearning that millions of pilgrims have brought to it. That foot – both the one in Rome and the one in Lourdes which was like it – has assumed a holiness because of the longing and need and hope that countless people have invested in it. They may have taken an invisible dusting of bronze with them but they have left their faith alongside many others and through it given an interesting piece of art work some holy significance.
It seems to me that something similar happens when we gather to celebrate communion. The collection of words we use: bread, take, do, remembrance and the others mean nothing on their own – not even in the right order – they need our faith, they need our longing and hope and sorrow in order to become what they end up being: sentences powerful enough to change the world by the transformative promise they offer to each of us individually. It seems to me then that faith, and the religion that serves it, is a response. A simple human response to the realities of living. We believe not because we have to but because it makes sense of our experience and gives a means through which the obvious mysteries of life might begin to be understood. Its a thought which suggests perhaps that we don’t need anything to convince us – a word used in the gospel story this morning. “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. The story of Lazarus and the rich man is maybe one of the harder stories for us to hear given the relative comfort that we enjoy when compared with the horrors we know of in Yemen or Aleppo or Sanghat and I suppose that the point of the story is to suggest some mechanism of consequence whereby our natural inclination for self interest and protection will stir us into action for others. If I do nothing then I will suffer as they do.
But I wonder if we really need such an arm held up our backs. Because belief, and its consequences, need not be imposed upon us for they come from within. They are innate to us. They rise from inside and we reach out for bread or bronze feet in order to meet them. Faith then, I wonder, is inborn, a “comes as standard” feature of our human software that we decide to explore or not throughout our life. As is our sense of compassion, the sorrow and generosity we feel at the need of others. Something in us knows that “when one suffers all suffer” as Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “when one suffers all suffer”. It wasn’t admonishment or warning I think to write that it was an understanding of how things are. We know it, we feel it because it resonates with our own sorrow and longing. Because we reach out to bread or bronze in hope and heartbreak we are able to know in some small way the agony of others when it confronts us and because of it we are moved.
Never do anything in church that you don’t want to do. That’s the phrase I use around here that nobody quite believes. We don’t need the threat of an eternal fiery damnation in order to be moved to action on behalf of those in need. We have only, perhaps, to look inside at what we want, which is for those who endure a suffering we understand on some level to find the comfort and support we would wish for ourselves.
Trinity 15 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
For our holiday this year we drove to Portugal – which, incidentally, is rather a long way. It meant that we had stops in both France and Spain en route and so spent time looking at places – their buildings and sights – without always being very clear about what it was that we were looking at, partly because we didn’t bother to buy a guide book for every place that we stopped at and partly because our knowledge of French, Spanish and Portuguese doesn’t extend much beyond nouns. Bread. Milk. Wine. Toilet. Usually in that order. What we found was that it is both strange and liberating to view a thing without knowing anything about it. Strange because invariably in life our perception is funneled either by instruction or experience, so allowing us to place what it is that we are seeing in some kind of a context. But liberating because it let us see things without the blinkers of someone else’s opinion. The places that we saw weren’t important or beautiful or moving because someone else told us that they were. They were striking because they struck us – or not – without explanation. As TS Elliot might say we saw each place as if for the first time.
It occurs to me that we may spend quite a lot of our lives running between the strange and the familiar. The known and the Unknown. Because on one hand, like the seasons of nature that move on before us or the circle of the church’s year, we return again and again to the same place. Summer ends, Autumn begins. Harvest, All Saints, Advent, Christmas. They come round every year, again and again, familiar, comfortable, known allowing us not only to revisit them for the benefit of discovering something that we hadn’t seen before – a thought, an insight, an idea – that hadn’t occurred to us the last time we came this way (the last time we celebrated Harvest as we soon will, the last time we heard Jesus advise us to prepare well as he does perhaps today) but it also reminds us that living is more than a simple progression towards perhaps a rather uncertain end. Its tempting to see life as a one way street that we start in infancy and travel through adolescence, young, middle and then old ages before then coming to the end, either with a relatively positive frame of mind, satisfied with what we’ve achieved or experienced, or alternatively with some regret, not finding a happy answer to the secret question we all may at some time ask ourselves: what have I done with my life?
But the church’s year, or the turn of the seasons, remind us that we live on a planet that spins on an axis, as well as in a world that will one day come to an end. Returning again and again to the same place is normal and right. Friedrich Neitzsche once wrote that “when we are tired we are attacked by ideas that we conquered long ago”. When we are tired we are attacked by ideas that we conquered long ago. Regression is an inevitable part of growing up, repeating is an unavoidable aspect of learning which happens not in simple straight lines but in confusion and with frequent visits to the failure shop. Its why we have confession at the start of every service. We seriously own up to our recent shortcomings and earnestly promise not to do them again but we’d be joking if we really thought it was going to happen that way. What matters is our intention and the direction we’ve set our face to travel in. The journey of a Christian is like the spiral staircase that leads up our church tower to the bellringing chamber above us. Again and again we return to face the same direction but each time a little bit further up , each time in a different place along the road.
The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. Arguably, the Christian journey is not a glorious march to victory and perfection but a means by which we can explore more richly the depths of our human nature and there to find our truest selves, resting gently in the God who is the source of all that is.
Trinity 9 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
Those are the somewhat famous words to be spoken by the priest officiating at a funeral as a persons body is committed to the ground or for cremation. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. They’re words that the Ash Wednesday liturgy pick up on when the sign of the cross is imposed on our foreheads in ash with the words “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. It’s very moving though not so much on the year that I got confused and exhorted a line of faithful and in the end rather bemused people to “Turn away from Christ and be faithful to sin”. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
They are words that are grounded in a very simple physical fact that we emerge from a fusion of the tiniest egg and sperm to consume the fruits of the earth and culminate as giants of evolution only to return again to the very thing that has fueled our various transformations. From dust we have come and to dust we return. It’s a concept that Sigmund Freud used to observe something vital about human living because he recognised that, all things being equal, human beings veer towards the known. They tend towards that which is familiar because our behaviour is invariably driven by previous experience. It’s as if every time we experience something – an act, a feeling, a thought – it draws a map in us, it creates a blueprint from which to inform our future response and action. Our instinct is to navigate the world on the basis of our previous experience of it. And Freud had a name for this. He called it the Death Instinct recognising that the one act we can all be sure of undertaking in our lives is the act of dying which we reflect in an inherent inclination towards the familiar, a veering towards the known. From dust we have come and to dust we will return. Pavlov showed It most notably in dogs. You remember Pavlov? Every time he fed his dog he rang a bell at the same time to accompany the dog’s drooling until the day when he just rang his bell and didn’t feed it, and the dog drooled as much as if a juicy chicken were in front of him, even though it wasn’t.
We are conditioned by experience no matter how inconsequential and that experience closely informs how we will face the world. It’s why change is often so hard to bare and creates a discomfort that can be expressed as anxiety or anger or simply bewilderment. Its hard to face something for which we have little or no internal map. We don’t like it. It’s why grief is a process that can’t be hurried for it takes time for us to build new maps – new ways of living in the world – without the person of significance that we grieve being any longer with us.
And it’s why, today, arguably, we’ve just heard about the most challenging words written in the Gospel. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Ask and the answer will be given. Seek for new maps. Knock on the doors of previously unentered rooms. Ask for answers you haven’t yet heard.
Not all experience is limiting of course. Just the opposite. Experience is to be evaluated, considered, discerned, learnt from. Experience is gold dust. Yet I was watching a programme about space time the other day – a programme I didn’t begin to understand – but what I think was saying is that not only is there space in which we exist but there is also time so that even if we come back to exactly the same place we’re in a different moment in space time. Meaning that nowhere is exactly the same as it was before because time has passed, time has changed, even if the place hasn’t. Nothing is the same. Everything is always different. Everything is always new.
So we always need to be ready to adapt, to learn new things, to view the world with an open mind, one that is ready to be surprised by what might be ahead, that recognises that everything is always changing even if we can’t see it. Ready to drop old patterns even when they seem reassuringly familiar and have stood us in good stead until now. Ready to leave the instinct for death and reach out for the instinct for life.
Ready, in short, to seek, knock, ask.
Family Service Trinity 7 – Rev Jonathan Wilkes
So I dont know if you can see it – probably not – but I have here a safety pin. Safety pins are wonderful things for pinning things, whether those things be nappies or replacing a button or I’ll be honest and say that there’s a piece of my clergy robes that would fall about my knees if it didn’t have a strategically placed safety pin holding it up. Safety pins are good things. But wearing a safety pin on your lapel or the outside of your shirt has been suggested as a good way to show support just now for some of the immigrant populations of our country who, in the wake of the Brexit vote a couple of weeks ago, are too often at the moment experiencing abuse or aggressive unkindness at the hands of people using that vote to express unwanted views about people from differing communities. A safety pin, so the suggestion goes, can indicate to a person who might be feeling vulnerable or afraid that the person wearing it is a safe place, and can be relied upon to stand up for them, stand with them in the face of any aggression or abuse.
The gospel reading today just happens to be that familiar one about the Good Samaritan. What often gets lost in the story is the fact that Samaritans were unwanted people in the community that the story was written for. So often we think of Samaritans as saintly types, you know, they’re the ones we call when feeling desperate, but they were the outcast and they were the foreigner. The Samaritan in the story would have felt to alien and very different from the man he ended up helping. The Samaritan looked beyond the differences that he lived with to see the humanity of the man who lay by the road, something that the others in the story spectacularly failed to do, and the suggestion is that we must do the same if we are to live the truth of the gospel.
One safety pin is quite hard to see, but a hundred of them makes a bigger impact and so the thinking goes that if we all decide to stand together, if we see the humanity that we all share, if we all decide to make clear what we believe to be true and good, then we can make a big impact together. Whatever we feel about the result of the referendum, whether we think its a good thing or a bad, we’re in the business of making it work – together – of making it be the best it can be. Yes that begins with giving confidence to financial markets. Yes that begins with negotiating a good deal for our trade but those are things for the Governor of the bank of England and the Prime Minister to do something about. What we can do is stand together and live into existence the kind of society we want to have in this country, which begins by recognising the humanity that all of us share: black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor, Jew or Samaritan, Polish, Syrian, Iraqi. For God became human in the person of Jesus so that humans – all of them – could be like God.
Did you read or hear a really rather a significant piece of news this week about the affects of attendance at religious services. “People who go to church live longer”. I know we’ve heard stories a bit like this before but just think about it for a moment. Now the study was only in women and women in a certain age group but that was presented by Harvard University, who had undertaken the research, as simply being a fact of the study they had undertaken and not a suggestion that the results couldn’t be applied to other groups. Women who went to church more than once a week – there’s always something that spoils it – lived on average 5 months longer than those who did not and were 33% less likely to die before the age of 76 -33%!. That’s a third! That’s fantastic. Think what we are saving the NHS? and, you know, maybe it can be traded off like carbon emissions. So, if you come to church more than once a week you could drink a third more booze, eat a third more ice cream, go to the gym only 2/3’s as much as you do now. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you?
Although, of course, the question for many is just the reverse. The question for most, present company quite probably excepted, is why would you. Why do you? Why believe. Even this wonderful article was at pains to point out that the study didn’t prove anything about the existence of God. “Philosophical or theological questions about God were not addressed”, it said. Why would you, why would you believe, why do you?
Well, in a funny way, I just wonder if this rather mysterious feast of the Trinity seeks to help us with that. Today we mark how God is known to us in three ways – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Its a potentially confusing aspect of Christian theology that might leave us scratching our heads a bit and wondering if we’re any the wiser but I think at its heart it is saying to us that belief in God is more of a response to our experience than it is a choice within it. Its a fact of life rather than a lifestyle choice.
There’s an important moment in the film about the life and love of CS Lewis – Shadowlands – where he is despairing at the terminal illness of his wife, Joy, and finds himself subject to the ministrations of the pretty useless Chaplain to the College where he works. Rather haplessly the Priest tells him that he always has his prayers to comfort him to which Lewis replies with passion “I don’t pray because it brings me comfort, I pray because I can’t do anything else, I pray because I can’t stop myself”. Its an exchange which points to the thought that we don’t chose to be spiritual. Its what we are, whether we like it or not and all that religion is is a means by which we cater for that fact, much as going to the Dentist or taking excercise is just looking after ourselves. Faith is at its best when it helps to explain our experience not dictate to it – when it meets us in our living and helps to find meaning in it – rather than telling us what we should think or what we should do. Even the command to love can be seen as only wise words of advice about what makes human life most fulfilling.
Though it might appear that lightening during a thunder storm is a top down event, in fact it is as much about the ground as it is about the sky. Positively charged particles on the ground must rise up to meet those negatively charged in the clouds in order for lighting to appear. In much the same way our faith is not only something that we receive symbolically from above, it is something that we, ourselves, reach up for. Something that comes from within us and seeks connection in the beyond. What Trinity Sunday suggests to us is that it is in the flurry of relationship with that which existed before our creation and then inspired it, that met us in our humanity and shared our life and now sits with us in all our joy and sorrow, that an understanding of the eternal can be glimpsed and the meaning of the temporal can gleaned.
Why would you believe? Well, maybe so that you can live another five months – though I suppose it might depend on what those months were, if it was winter would you bother?… but maybe so that, as the feast of Trinity perhaps says, however long you live your living can make better sense and the purpose of your days be found more clearly.
Easter 2 Evensong
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
There’s a really interesting greek word I just wanted to think about with you for a moment or two. Its the word xenos, xenos which for the most part means a ‘stranger’. For instance its used in Matthew’s gospel for the great parable about the sheep and the goats. Do you remember? the one where Jesus says “for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat I was thirsty and you gave me drink I was a stranger – xenos – and you took me in” and when people he’s talking to don’t quite remember when they did that for him he tells them that it was when they did it for the least members of their community that they then did it for him. So xenos means a stranger. But it also means something else, something quite bizarly else. Because as well as meaning stranger the word xenos can also mean “a friend”. The opposite. How mad is that? I guess if you’ve spent any time studying ancient Greek you’lll know its not that mad – its par for the course. Xenos can mean both a stranger and, its opposite, a friend.
But the reason why is interesting because in the thinking of the ancient world any stranger, who walks past your door, should and must be welcomed as a friend, invited in, made to sit down, given something to eat and drink. Why? because in the thinking of the ancient world, strangers might possibly be a visitation from the Gods and so to play it safe and to ensure that there was no risk a God wasn’t ignored, all of them should be welcomed and looked after. This shouldn’t surprise us. We only have to think back to that story in the Old Testament about Abraham sitting under an oak tree at Mamre and, seeing three travelers, invites them in and kills the fatted calf for them. They were strangers that he called friends and in Christian theology the whole episode has been interpreted as a possible visit from the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or to that parable of Matthew’s gospel. When you did it for the least members of your community you did it for me. When you did it for the least valued – the stranger – you did it for me. So, Xenos, a stranger, also means the opposite, a friend.
Sometimes, the same thing can be both a stranger and a friend. Sometimes, something can be alien, fearful, unnatural, unwanted, yet at the same time welcomed, valued, embraced, treasured. Which takes us to the heart of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The cross, a symbol of shame and failure, an instrument of torture and control, foolishness to those who are perishing, as Paul says is also the means by which the presence of God is most clearly seen, the solidarity of Jesus best explained, the sign of life and hope to those of us who follow him and the way in which the life giving transformation of faith can take place. In denying ourselves taking up our crosses and following him, in becoming the least and the last, we are not losing our lives but finding them we are not dying but rising again.
The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead not only serves as a precursor to the resurrection of Jesus himself in John’s gospel – a pointer for what lies ahead – but also, now heard again in the light of the Easter joy we are living, gently reminds us that the transformation from death to life that Jesus achieved is something that we can – we must – experience too. Dying to sin, as Paul puts it. Dying to our broken humanity – whether in the ways that we are less than we might be or in the experiences of regret and sorrow and shame that we endure (our sufferings) – living these, facing these, enduring these can be coupled to the process of coping with them, overcoming them and, in the end, letting the redemption of God draw near.
Easter Sunday 2016
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
There is a tribe in Mexico, an ancient community of people who have kept at arms length the developments of the modern world, that has an interesting and particular way of greeting each other. Rather than greeting each other, as I suspect that we do, by saying something like, “how are things” or variations on that theme, they make a subtle but important distinction and ask instead “how are you seeing things”. How are you seeing things. Not how are things but how are you seeing them, how are you experiencing them, what do they mean to you, how are they affecting you. Its an interesting distinction not least because it puts at a little more arms length the happenings of life over which we have no control. The events, dear boy, events. So much of what happens in our lives we can’t control. What we can do something about is how we respond to them and, ultimately, how we let them make us feel about ourselves, and others and the world around us. What’s happened doesn’t matter so much as how it makes us feel and what are we going to do about it.
It was very much a question for the disciples. How were they seeing the things that they were seeing and what did it mean when they arrived at the tomb and found it open and empty. Their reactions range from the perplexed, this morning, to the conclusion jumping of other accounts: “where have you laid him” Mary asks, she thinks, the Gardener in John’s gospel “tell me, sir, so that I may take him away”. But quite quickly their perplexity and fear turns to amazement and wonder and gradually they come to realise that things weren’t as they might appear and that their perspective – how they should see this thing – needed to change.
What they, and we with them today, are invited to consider is an entirely new way of seeing the same old things about which we live. Far more than just the suggestion that life is to be viewed half full rather than half empty which would be a crude and rudimentary interpretation of what’s being proposed. Its not just that tragedy and despair are inevitable but compensated for by some tokens of joy and fulfillment , at least some of the time, but the significance of this day lies in the fact that within the sorrow and compromise of living lies the possibilities for life and wholeness regardless of it.
Its not that light is at the end of the tunnel, a thinking that our inevitably linear procession through Holy Week to Good Friday and then today might suggest, but that there is light in the tunnel itself. Here, now, even when the promised land of the perfection our heavenly father calls us to is an eternity away. Its not just that the darkness doesn’t overcome the light but that the light shines in it regardless.
Easter day every year invites us to appreciate a kairos moment. The word kairos indicates an ancient greek concept for the supreme moment: a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens, everything comes to fruition. Easter is such a moment because in it we are invited to see how though the fallibility of our imperfect world cannot be ignored or erased it can be transcended and infused with the potential for transformation, both in a future to be worked towards and in the here and now. So it invites us to see things differently. To wonder whether so much of our unhappiness is to be found in how we feel about what happens rather than in the events that happen themselves. That’s an easy thing to think about sitting here now, less so when the Doctor wants to see us, or the ends don’t meet after a costly month or the last guests leave when the funeral’s over. Less easy then.
Yet, regardless, what this day says is its not just that death is not the end but that in death there is life – in the recurring deaths of heartbreak and disappointment and fear, now or in the future, in that death there is a voice calling us saying that we are loved, we are enough, we can survive, we can learn to build love and forbearance in the face of anger and hatred and that the primal instincts given us by creation can lead to better things than the selfishness and greed and defensive aggression that we so often make with them.
Easter tells that God has done more than just reassure us that all shall be well. This week I’ve been suggesting an old wisdom which says that reassurance rarely reassures – that what we need is not to be told that everything will be alright or that our heartfelt worries aren’t as bad as they seem. What we need is to be heard in our fear and touched in our sorrow and despair. To be understood, to be met because then our God given ability to cope and thrive can engage with our reality and make sense of it. Today God does far, far more than simply reassure us. On Good Friday we were met in the distress and sorrow of our reality and now the two dazzling men at the tomb tell us to look at that which is expected or apparently obvious, and see something different, see something new, to see things as God sees them and know that they are infused with goodness, hope, light.
Good Friday – Veneration of the Cross 2016
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
If a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst. If a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst and in those two short linesThomas Hardy summed up pretty well why we’re here today. Good Friday and Easter days are two sides of the same coin which drops spinning and today lands on tails, or heads perhaps depending on how you see the world. There can’t be one without the other. There is no better without, first, worst and to pretend otherwise lessens the appreciation of both, though our challenge for today is to see how tempting it is to yearn so hard for a world without struggle or sorrow that we pretend it could be so and, because of it, miss something of the glorious beauty of living. Brenne Brown, an American researcher, has done some work to try and understand what it is that people who feel a strong sense of worth, belonging, love have that others who don’t feel such a sense don’t have. And what she discovered, after years of building up data through conversations, focus groups and questionnaires, was that those with a strong sense of worth and belonging and love have three clear and distinct attributes that are underpinned by one practice, one way of living in the world.
The three attributes are these. People with a strong sense of belonging, who feel loved and worthwhile are people who, broadly, are compassionate, they are people that have had tangible experiences of connection with others and they are courageous – and the last of these is understood in the literal sense derived from its etymology: courageous from the old french or Latin coeur meaning heart. Courageous people are people who lived wholeheartedly, unafraid to be seen for who they are. Its this last that leads to the one practice which this group of people share: the ability to live vulnerably. People with a strong sense of worth, belonging, love are able to live with vulnerability. They are people who can risk sharing their feelings even if they may not be reciprocated or valued, they are the first to say that they are sorry even when responsibility for offence may be shared, they are willing to admit their mistakes even though others may make more and they’ll float an idea even when the mood around is guarded or unadventurous. People with a strong sense of worth, belonging, love are so because they are willing to make themselves be vulnerable in order to find a truth or discover what might lie beneath. Vulnerability is birthplace of all that we hold dear: love, joy, peace.
The trouble is, vulnerability is hard, its costly, it takes risks that cannot always pay off or if they do then not without the cost of sorrow and so the suggestion is that we numb our vulnerability in subtle and not so subtle ways. The chief medical officer took a stand against one of them at the beginning of the year. I suspect it isn’t often that we look to the chief medical officer for hints on our spirituality but at the start of the year she acted to promote ours by decreeing that only 14 units of alcohol a week was a safe limit to be drinking. Too many numb their stress and sorrow or frustration at the dullness of life in the comforts of alcohol, damaging our livers and stomachs but muting our spirits and shielding us from painful opportunities for growth. But numbing comes in other more subtle ways. Vulnerability is avoided when we need to be certain. In faith, in politics, in science as an answer above all else certainty may protect us from the confusing subtleties of living but it blinkers us from seeing more widely. When we hide behind walls of perfection that require us to live mistake free – invulnerable to criticism, maybe, but divorced from the reality of human living. And when we pretend that what we do and how we behave doesn’t really impact on the lives of others then we are putting off for a rainy day (or in the case of our children and the environment many rainy days) the true impact of our actions which a more vulnerable and honest approach would let us face, and fix, now. We’ll adopt any means to avoid the discomfort of vulnerability.
Yet there’s a problem for those of us of faith because if we were looking for a word to sum up Jesus’ life vulnerable would be it . As the great hymn in the letter to the Philippians has it:
Christ Jesus was in the form of God
but did not cling to equality with God
but emptied himself
taking the form of a servant and born in human likeness
obedient to the point of death –
even death on the cross.
His very being as much his life was vulnerability with its three components: compassion connection courage. Courage, not just in the sense of brave (which surely he was). Though feeling fear – if it be possible let this cup pass from me – yet doing still what he must – yet not my will but thine be done – an accessible bravery we can all imagine emulating but courage, too, in the sense of whole hearted living that wasn’t afraid to show who he was in order that genuine connections and relationships could ensue from it. And compassion too – a suffering with I was reflecting last night on a little saying which suggests that reassurance rarely reassures reassurance rarely reassures. That what helps people is not to be told that everything will be alright or to have explained to them how their concerns might be misplaced or inflated. What helps people is to have their anxiety understood their worries acknowledged their suffering met. Because then their own innate, God given strength and ability to cope can kick in but for that to happen we need to know that the reality of what we are experiencing is accepted and not dismissed. What the crucifiction of Jesus says to us is that our human experience is met head on by its creator, that it is touched in a profound and meaningful way and because of it powers of creativity and transformation can be released in us. But that is only possible if the depths of feeling we experience are met like with like in a suffering with, a compassio.
Not so long ago I visited a national trust property in the Fens. It was the standard big house with many fine rooms in one of which was a project to restore some of the house’s damaged ancient literature. Many old and important works by the famous and the obscure had been damaged not by fire but by the flood caused by a leaking roof, and in the way of things these days, the National Trust had a project to restore them on site so that everyone could see it going on. The process was simple but counter intuitive because to clean the stained books of water damage they were gently soaked again in water. It seemed mad to inflict on them the very punishment that had led to their demise but that is exactly what happened and exactly how they came to be nearer their new state than before. What happens is that in their second dousing a highly pure form of water is used which washes away their stains and releases the pages from the very marks that sullied water had brought them in the first place.
What this day says is that it is by suffering that suffering is redeemed. By his pains we are healed. The Cross tells us that suffering – both large and small – that human disappointment and unfulfillment, that frustrating imperfection and weakness, that mild, nagging selfishness which is the way of all of us, that irritability and cussedness and impatience, that they are all human and are met in the experience of Jesus. Met, in such a way, that they can be exchanged for the light of Christ we will sing on Sunday morning.
If a way to the better there be it exacts a full look at the worst. The stain of weakness and suffering in our human experience is cleansed by the idea that the creator has entered our sorrows with entire vulnerability to meet us so that we might see that they have not the last word on our living but that a further understanding of what it is to live and thrive can be ours if we but chose it. If a way to the better there be it exacts a full look at the worst. Today we look full square at our worst through the lense of his and in faith hope to see a way to the better for us all.
Maundy Thursday 2016
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
You may remember that news story from a few weeks ago about the difficulty that some asylum seekers who had been housed in Middlesborough were experiencing because the company that housed them had refurbished all their accommodation with the same kind of door. Each of the houses they had used were given a clearly bright coloured red door and so it was clear to anyone passing down the streets in which they lived which house was occupied by an asylum seeker and which was not. It was unclear exactly whether this was by bad luck or insidious design, whether the managing company had simply got a job lot of bright red doors at a knock down price and used them for all the houses that they needed to refurbish or whether someone, for some unpleasant reason, had wanted to alert the local population as to where asylum seekers were going to be living. But whether it was simple misfortune= or unpleasant discrimination didn’t really matter in the last analysis. At the end of the day frightened, longing people miles from home in a country for which they held great hope were subjected to a marking out that opened them to abuse and suspicion.
One of the things we remember tonight is a resonant but different kind of identifying. For the last supper that we recall] is a remembrance of the Passover that Jesus and his disciples had gathered to share where they remembered how the door posts of the Israelites were marked with lambs blood so that the angel of death might Pass-over that house as he set to slaughter the Egyptian population in his efforts to give God’s chosen people a running head start as they took off on the Exodus. The sign on their doors saved them but it marked them out, too. Marked them for suffering, for trial, for tribulation, for hardship, for a journey that would do more than get close to breaking them and would cause them to doubt themselves, their leaders and the God for whom they journeyed but would, in the end, lead them to salvation and a land of promise and peace.
Whether its by luck or design, whether its by the accidents of fate or the carelessness or intention of others, the journeys that we travel in our lives are marked with the realities of suffering in some way or another but what makes the remembrance of this supper so important is that it tells of how= the forces of creation have remained available to us so that we might find strength and hope in the difficult journeys that we have to travel. Tonight begins a statement that Jesus is going to make in the next three days about how the presence of God works in the world, which is: that we are met in our suffering we are met, with compassion we are met.
There’s an old adage that goes like this: reassurance rarely reassures, reassurance rarely reassures. That what helps people is not to be told that everything will be alright or to have explained to them how their concerns might be misplaced or inflated what helps people is to have their anxiety understood, their worries acknowledged, their suffering met without any pretensions to having them solved. Because then their own innate, God given strength and ability to cope can kick in but for that to happen we need to know that the reality of what we are experiencing is accepted and not dismissed no matter how good the intentions may be. Whether it is by luck or design our lives are troubled by struggle and suffering. Whether we’re newsworthy asylum seekers or not, whether we are victims of terror or not, the truth is life is sorrow, even for the most blessed and fortunate and what this Holy Week does is honour that, meet it have compassion for it: (com – with, passio – suffer). Suffer with, suffer with is what Jesus does. First he serves, kneeling down to wash our feet, and then he suffers. Serves and suffers so that we might be touched, met, known, loved and so by it strengthened to make sense of the terrible beauty that we live.
Reading: Isaiah 50.4-9a
Epistle: Luke 19.28-40
Rev David Bell
The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen’ Luke 37b
To have been there. Just to have been there. In amongst the multitude of disciples. Singing in the procession. Watching Jesus and hearing the song of welcome. Seeing the city of Jerusalem and the temple about half a mile away down the mountain path and across the Kidron valley.
The noise and the excitement. Jesus advancing towards destiny, Always on foot before, but now he rides. And his supporters shout and sing. A time of anticipation.
Could they hear us in Jerusalem? Were they ready for the good news to those living on the margins of acceptable society? Here was their King.
Would they too praise him for all the miraculous deeds that he had done…all his teaching? Or would they leave it to the in inanimate stones to shout out instead?
Walking, running and stumbling, we form a royal procession with a king on a borrowed colt and without any grand symbols of regal power. Just people, excited and fizzing. Singing a chant from the psalms: ‘Blessed is the King!’ For once, Jesus doesn’t seem to mind this praise. In fact he seems to embrace it!
Jesus was Lord before his birth, at one with the least and the lost. Listening…and offering an invitation to share in salvation. Through Jesus, God is at work.
Of course we sing and shout. Our King is of God and the key to salvation. The chains of death have been smashed. We run and trip enjoying this time of anticipation.
All Jesus’s ministry has lead up to this moment. Towards this city.
This King was advancing. Ready, as ever, to challenge the views and authority of the religious establishment. The Jewish leadership in the city.
Would this outsider, the one with nowhere to lay his head, find a welcoming home when we entered the city?
This joyous procession, noisy and blessed, would contrast sharply with another procession. One that would occur later inside the city and heading out again…towards the cross. This time without the company of the crowd of disciples.
After a monumental clash with those in the city who most certainly do not recognise the arrival of Jesus as the arrival of salvation. A clash of profoundly different understandings of God, salvation and religious authority.
After the judgement, this second procession begins. To have been there. Just to have been there. Our Lord is followed by the crossbeam carried by Simon and followed by sad and tearful women. No riding this time. He walks and stumbles. A King who humbles himself. A friend of suffering and sorrow. A saviour who is in amongst our pain. On this procession only the stones offer silent praise.
The way of the cross is our way. We are people of the cross. It is our marker, to be like Jesus to others in their suffering and in their joy.
But we can also long to be in the happy band throwing their cloaks down before the Messiah’s steed. The shouting and the singing. The time of anticipation.
Watching our Saviour advance towards his goal. Having submitted himself to the divine plan. The new creation. The new relationship for all people…with his Father, the God of mercy and compassion.
Walking, running, laughing and stumbling. Singing and shouting: Glory in highest heaven!’ and seeing that glory in one man here on earth. To have been there. Just to have been there.
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
In the summer I found myself sitting on a bench in Savannah, Georgia. Savannah has a feel of the American deep south – fiendishly hot, well ordered with just a hint, even now, of this is how we live and no one is going to tell us otherwise. We were just passing through but we took the time to find the bench I was sitting on because it was the location for the opening and closing scenes of a famous American film called Forest Gump. In case you don’t know it, Forest Gump is a very simple soul who, without really ever intending to, achieves all kinds of things. He is the American dream personified. A war hero in the Vietnam War who, by a stroke of freakish luck, comes home to own a runaway fishing business and then develops into a celebrity by spending his life long distance running. It appears that Forest, who is a charming but simple man, has everything that the American dream can offer: glory, wealth, fame. Anything’s possible, the film (and nation) seems to say, and Forest has it all. Yet that bench in Savannah has the last word because Forest starts the film sitting on it talking to a woman who’s waiting for a bus, and Forest ends the film sitting on it talking to a woman who’s waiting for a bus. Forest goes no where. And he is a simple man, the American dream is for simpletons, the film seems to say, who don’t change and don’t go anywhere.
Contrast this with some of the other characters Forest encounters like his cousin Jenny who is beautiful and loving yet falls foul of drugs and prostitution, or Buppa, his army mate, who is killed in Vietnam, or the Lieutenant who’s injured in the war and then has to face the horrors of his memories whilst being forgotten and discriminated against because of his injuries. All three are casualties , all three suffer at the hands of the American dream , yet all three grow as people, all three develop as characters and learn through their experiences while Forest is just Forest: innocent, simple, good – but going nowhere.
I think its a film that has something to say about a certain view on life in America but I also think it has something to say more widely about the make up of a good life and taps into some of the wisdom of this season of Lent. Because it reminds us that the way of the cross is the way to fulfillment and peace. And that’s not an exclusively Christian claim, because other faiths clearly speak of themes that the concept of the cross taps into, but it is to say that Jesus wanted us to appreciate, in a different way, limitation and suffering and disappointment and perhaps to see what value lies in them.
For isn’t our inclination to reach for comfort, safety and success whenever possible? Which isn’t surprising for we’re hardwired to survive and comfort, safety and success are survival mechanisms. But, and perhaps its a bit obvious to say it, we’re hard wired for death too: survival is an option, death is a certainty and somewhere along the line fulfillment and peace should take that into account. So perhaps it is that fulfillment is only possible if we are at peace with death. Yes, death in the ultimate sense of our life ending, but death, too, in the temporary visitations of disappointment and suffering and limitation for if these can be accepted as friends who will inevitably come to stay from time to time (rather than Scrooge like ghosts to be ignored or shrunk from) then we have the chance to grow as people, to develop as characters, to learn from our experience. We go nowhere if all we are willing to accept is glory, fame and wealth. We progress if we will pay the price of the cross: of pain, humiliation and failure.
The word “decide” has at its root a word meaning to kill. To commit suicide is to slay oneself, to commit fratricide is to kill ones sibling. To decide something, then, is to slay other options so that there is only one left – the one you have decided to take. Lent is a time to make a decision, a decision to lose our lives, lose the safety, comfort and success for our living, in order that we might then find them in a new way. If any want to become my followers let them take up their cross and follow me, for those who want to save their life will lose it but those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.
Sunday before Lent
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
“While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light.”
I was reading the other day something about how the brain absorbs information. As I understood it , apparently, as it receives incoming information about the world outside and our experience of it, the brain biologically clusters that information into specific groups, organising the incoming stimuli into configurations so as to be better able to make sense of it. So on this, almost cellular, level we are meaning seeking creatures hard wired to try and make sense of our surroundings and our experience. What this does for us is two things. Because, arguably, when we have meaning we can have control. Meaning allows us to face random and threatening events and give them order and when they are ordered we can work out how to deal with them – have control over them. So meaning gives us power. But the other thing that having meaning does for us is give birth to our values which we translate into codes of behaviour. What we understand the world to mean allows us to develop our ethics about how to live in it. So our questions about life, the universe and everything – the “why do I live” questions – give rise to answers for the “how do I live” questions.
That link between meaning and values, is a very important one not least because it works both ways. For if the question about “why I am here” finds the answer in “how I live my life” then its reasonable to turn the equation upside down and suggest that we can work out what the purpose of our living might be by looking at the way that we find it sensible to live. Which is, I think, what that little piece from St John’s gospel we’ve just heard read is trying to say to us. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light. I have a very vivid memory of an early biology class I once had when first at secondary school. We were being taught about the benefits of vitamin B and in which food stuffs they could be found, one of which is carrots. “Its why you should eat your carrots” the teacher told us “though not too many”, after which he proceeded to tell us a cautionary tale about a man he had once read about who had become obsessed with vitamin B deficiency and died of carrot poisoning. Apparently, so the teacher said, when he was found, he was a very clear shade of orange…
We are, in fact, what we eat and what St John perhaps was trying to say is that we are how we live. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light. To have faith we must risk faith. To have love we must live love. We learn what our lives mean by living the meaning we want them to have. As we now face the start of Lent on Wednesday, encouraged as we are to use this time to make some change, take some step in the direction of what we hope might emerge from our believing we might think on John’s words. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light. To become the children of God we must intend to live the life that God would have us live and living that life will help us develop a further understanding of why we are here and what we are for.
So live in love that love may live in you and follow its trail for where it leads is to the source of all love and meaning and purpose are there to be found.
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
9.30am 31st January 2016
Recently, I shared a train journey with an archaeology lecturer at Kingston University. She was on her way to the museum of London where she and some students were going to take part in a workshop about significant moments in the history of the city. One of the activities they would do, she told me, involved a hessian bag and a black brick. What happens is that the workshop leader would invite each student to put their hand in the bag and feel a brick that they had not seen before. Then, when they withdrew their hands from the bag, they would find that their fingers were covered in black soot. “Congratulations” the workshop leader would say “you’re now covered in smoke from the great fire of London”. As a way of getting people to be in touch with history, and so enthused by it, I thought that was pretty good.
What the hessian bag and the black brick allows is for people to have an encounter with something that otherwise is entirely intangible. It lets them experience the history of centuries before, not just talk about it but know it in a real way. Today is the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemas. Its perhaps an undervalued festival that actually has a very neat summary of something essential in our faith at its heart. Because its a feast that looks back and forward at the same time. On the one hand it looks back to Christmas, to the the birth of Jesus and all that that promises us about God being here and being here to love and accept and forgive, but then, on the other hand, it points forward to the coming of Lent, to the time of reflection and contemplation and honest looking at what might not be right in our lives. So it is a festival that’s all about both consolation and challenge, reminding us that we are both loved unconditionally, with all our imperfection and mess, no matter what we do and what we are, but at the same time we’re called to keep moving, keep going, trying to be better.
But it is also a festival that has another name. In the Eastern Church it has the greek name of “hupapante” which means meeting. It is the feast where we remember that the old man Simeon met the young baby Jesus and for the Orthodox this seems to have been the notable thing about the occasion. Its a meeting for Simeon that clearly moves him:
Lord, now lettest though thy servant depart in peace –
I can now die happy –
because I’ve now seen everything I need to make sense of my life
and know that meaning and love
are eternally given
not just to me and my religious friends
but to everyone.
Its wonderful stuff but as meetings go its quite one sided. Maybe not surprisingly Jesus doesn’t say much, doesn’t really feature but rather it is Simeon who is left to spell out the significance of the encounter, a reminder perhaps that, like him, we too are left to work out what our silent meetings with God might mean and then find the words and actions to explain them to an unknowing world. In a minute we’ll take bread and wine or receive a blessing there at the altar. Its our way of reaching back 2000 years to touch the life of Jesus – not a black brick in a hessian bag but the spiritual body and blood of Jesus – for us to experience and know. Its our way of meeting with Jesus, making him real and bringing him here. No longer a figure from history but a reality in the present. Its a reality that can enliven and strengthen us to face the complications of who we are: the failing, mistaken, imperfect, hurt and sometimes hurting people that we are. Its our way of kneeling at the foot of the cross (as we prepare to take up that cross and follow him). Our way of asking for blessing to help us live, and through our lives, to give life to others.
Assumptions about God – and one another
Expectations were high of the young Teacher – his newly launched ministry must have been the talking point of the entire region, word of the healings and exorcisms spreading like wildfire through the towns and villages of Galilee. And now he was back in his home town – and hot property.
The good citizens of Nazareth, perhaps understandably, made some assumptions – they assumed the young Teacher was going to put Nazareth on the map, because where else would he make his Headquarters? He was a local boy after all, one of them. The opportunities the town would have, the improvements they could make with all the increased trade and so on. And the poor would benefit too – the widows and orphans would share the new prosperity. So they all spoke well of him – true, he’d made that gaff when reading from the scroll of Isaiah, he’d left out the crucial bit about God taking vengeance on their enemies (that’s in the bit just before today’s passage starts), but he was young, they’d forgive him that.
So they made assumptions about Jesus, and they made assumptions about themselves – that they understood the will and mind of God. And then Jesus made it clear that it was no gaff that he’d refused to read the verse about God taking vengeance and that his understanding of the Father’s will and mind were very different – that the Gentiles too were encompassed in God’s love, and that his Mission was for the healing and salvation of all, especially the excluded, not for military victory and vengeance for Israel. This was not, definitely not, the kind of Messiah they had looked for – and so they turned on him. They were so sure they knew the will and mind of God they didn’t even give his Son a hearing but tried to destroy him.
It’s all too easy to think we know the mind and will of God and it can be hard to accept that maybe we’ve been wrong. Take the issue of women priests and bishops – it took a long, long time for change to come about and that’s because it took time for enough people to realise they had made assumptions about God’s will and mind that couldn’t be justified in either scripture or theology. If we’d waited for everyone opposed to change their minds we’d have waited for ever – there came a point when we had to move forward, still keeping those who don’t approve in the flock and because we are moving forward they will, in their own good time, look up from their old assumptions one day and understand things differently.
Now the Anglican Communion has been faced with the decision whether to wait for those who condemn gay relationships to change their minds, or to move forward by supporting the Dioceses in the USA who have married gay clergy and bishops.
There is a natural human inclination to respond with fear – and sometimes aggression – to those who are different from us when we first encounter them. And there’s also a human inclination to assume that God responds to these people as we do – that God condemns what we fear and fail to understand. Sadly that’s what we see happening not just in some of the African churches but also in some churches in this country, even though Society around us has become so much more tolerant of all kinds of difference.
Yes it is possible to find passages of scripture that condemn homosexuality. This human response of fear and condemnation toward those who are different isn’t new – it will have been just as strong thousands of years ago as today. And there were also powerful social factors at play influencing these attitudes. I shan’t take the time to go into these now but for anyone who is interested there are printed notes to this sermon which look at those passages and the social factors prevailing when they were written and they’ll also be on the church website.
What did Jesus say about gay people? Nothing recorded in the Gospels, indeed in the only references Jesus makes to sexual behaviour he condemns the injustice towards women of divorce as practised in that society, and he condemns the hypocrisy of lecherous men who stone to death others for adultery. Injustice and hypocrisy were of paramount concern to Jesus. Jesus, who came so much closer than anyone before or since to the mind and heart of his Father, was very sure that these – injustice and hypocrisy – were the things that interfered with our relationship with God.
So perhaps we need to ask ourselves – if we are convinced that God’s love encompasses all people, straight or gay, and that there is nothing in scripture of theology that condemns a committed and faithful relationship between two people whatever their gender and indeed there is plenty in both scripture and theology that approves and recommends it – if we support the Anglican Communion’s sanctions of the US churches, don’t we risk committing these very sins of injustice and hypocrisy?
Those who aren’t ready to accept gay relationships can’t be coerced, any more than those who can’t accept women’s ministry. We need to walk alongside them lovingly. But we also need to walk lovingly alongside those who have perhaps been ahead of us in discerning the mind of God Above all we need to walk lovingly alongside those who have been most hurt by this decision – the Church’s gay members.
All of us, whatever our stance on this issue, need to overcome our instinctive disapproval of those who are different from us – and that includes the liberal among us learning to love the illiberal. Whatever our differences, the one assumption we can safely make is that what unites us – God’s love for one and all, gay or straight, liberal or conservative – is infinitely greater.
Unity in the Anglican Communion?
17th January 2016
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
For Christmas I gave my wife, Linda, a book. You may have seen it, or ones like it. Its written in the style of the old Lady Bird books for children which used to cover any number of confusing and complicated matters of life trying to put them in simple and straightforward terms. This one, however, is aimed at an adult audience because its called “The Lady Bird book of the Husband: how it works”. Let me read you a couple of excerpts. The text is accompanied by lots of lovely pictures all depicting scenes from the 1950‘s and it begins thus:
This is a husband.
He may look complicated,
but in fact he’s very simple.
He runs on sausages and beer.
The husband knows many things.
For example he knows how many stairs there are,
in case he arrives home late at night
unable to see them properly.
The husband finds some things very difficult.
Being wrong is one of these things.
When he is wrong,
the husband will refer to the times he was right,
even if they date back many years.
And so it goes on
Now they’ve made a series of these books: there’s the Lady Bird book of the Wife, the Lady Bird book of the Hangover – though the two aren’t related – and I can thoroughly recommend that the Lady Bird book of Mindfulness would make a very good read for Lent, but I’m waiting now, particularly in view of the events this week, to see published the Lady Bird book of the Anglican Communion, which will probably need to be a bit longer and I suspect won’t be nearly so funny. Because you might have gathered how the meeting of Anglican leaders that took place this week in Canterbury to discuss deep differences within the Communion was concluded. The Episcopal Church of America has had its involvement in the wider Anglican Communion restricted for three years because it consecrated as Bishop an openly gay priest which represented a fundamental departure from the Communion’s agreed teaching. There will be many on both sides who are dismayed by this move. For traditionalist Christians this won’t have gone far enough and for those who are pained by what they see as the church’s discrimination against gay and lesbian people this will be a huge disappointment. We’ll each have to make up our own minds as to where we stand on this not least because, I suspect, that it will be a significant issue in the not too distant future for our own church here in England. And perhaps because of that, we should think, a little bit, about whether unity within our church – staying together – is important to us, and what price we’re willing pay in order to maintain it.
There are practical reasons why unity is important. Money might be one of these. If we split apart then quite possibly the halves we split into might have one significantly richer than the other. Now, we could say, like Jesus in the reading today, what concern is that to you and me, money shouldn’t buy our consciences, we should do what we think is right. But money is needed in order to provide ministry in places where the solace of a working church overrides other concerns. So, if we find ourselves feeling frustrated with our Bishops we should remember that they are often faced with impossible choices. And if, every time, we disagreed about something we split apart then where would the world be? Our differences are a frustration but they are also the places where we grow. Its what relationships of commitment do for us: they provide support but they challenge us too, which is why God thinks they’re such a good idea. And we could wonder what it says about ourselves if we support the notion that we can hive off bits that we don’t like. Doesn’t that go against all our experience that tells us we must live with the bits of ourselves that we find unappealing? We must learn to embrace them so that they might be changed and we might improve. On a personal level, we can’t amputate dysfunction. It has to be worked through.
But for those who believe, as I do, that the church’s current teaching on homosexuality is wrong, that the Bible’s injunction to love and honour all overrides other more specific comments, and that in the battle of contradictory statements which is the bible’s tease, loving our neighbour as God has made them trumps everything. To those of us, events this week will feel like a great set back which disappoints and dismays and one in which we may need to work out what price we’re willing to pay for unity when the debate comes even closer to home. We’ll need to decide how patient we want to be. We’ll need to decide how patient we should be. Thankfully we’re gradually coming to accept in the church that there are circumstances in which divorce can be the best option available.. After all, ours is a church that’s built on a divorce and that we are disunited from some of our Christian neighbours can be a fount of great creativity in the way we relish our differences and still live together in peace and love – though we know, too, that its not always the case and there are too many examples where schism has led to bloodshed.
So, that might be where this ends up. Though I did just wonder if we heard, in the Arhcbishop’s apology to gay and lesbian people on Friday evening, actually the voice of someone who recognises that sometimes the world knows more about God than the church seems to, and that he is willing to lead us in that direction. As well as someone who believes its worth fighting hard to keep the baby from flying out the door with the bathwater, because unity is a good and pleasant thing, as the psalm says.
In that task he needs our passionate concern, our focussed engagement and, by God, our prayers.
Epiphany Carol Service
10th January 2016
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
In the recent film Bridge of Spies, the character played by Tom Hanks is a lawyer who has to defend a Russian spy, played by Mark Rylance, in 1950’s America. I wont give the plot away, but you can imagine that 1950’s America wasn’t a great place to be caught spying for the Russians and so Mark Rylance’s character is up against it somewhat. But running through the film , like a spine at the beginning, middle and end, is short repeated interplay of dialogue between these two central characters. On each occasion, Tom Hanks, the lawyer, aware of the precarious position that his client is in, asks him, “Don’t you ever worry?” to which Mark Rylance calmly replies, ”Would it help?”. Don’t you ever worry? Would it help?
The angels have had something to say about worry throughout the Christmas story. “Fear not”, they say, to Mary and Joseph when telling them that Mary will give birth. Notice that they doesn’t say, “there’s nothing to be frightened of”, but rather, “don’t be afraid”. Its a subtle but important distinction because there’s plenty to be frightened of in our world, plenty to give us cause for worry and concern, but the angels repeat to us the great refrain of God throughout the ages: fear not, have courage, you are not alone as you face all that lies ahead, we’ll cope with it together. I am with you. The season encourages us not to waste our energy on worry but to have courage in the face of our demons, both within and without if, for no other reason, than that courage is so much more exhilarating than fear.
And today it reminds us to be pragmatic. ‘Having been warned in a dream (quite possibly by angels again) not to return to Herod they left for their own country by another road’. There is plenty to be frightened of and we need to be canny as we negotiate it. Getting where we need to go wont always be straightforward. There aren’t often easy answers to the questions that we face whether you’re a country deciding to go to war or not, or an administration deciding what to cut or a person passing someone homeless on the street or any of us as we struggle to balance our own needs against those of others, there often aren’t easy answers to life’s difficult questions. There may be right ones but rarely do they sit underneath a shining star.
The feast of the Epiphany reminds us to be like the Wisemen and set off, set off in faith, not knowing where the star will lead or what the road we travel will be. To begin a journey the ending of which we cannot be sure of but clear of one thing that nothing is found which is not first sought, no answers are given to those who will not ask, and that a door rarely opens unless we dare to knock on it.
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
“What are you doing that for”, my wife Linda asked when she saw me writing this sermon. “Sunday morning”, I said. “Don’t be ridiculous”, she replied “there won’t be anyone there and even if they are they wont be listening”. So, well done for being here today and you have my wife’s permission not to listen for the next 7 or 8 minutes.
On Wednesday one of our family joined the hords at the cinema to watch the latest Star Wars film. Which I’d like to see it myself not least to find out what they’ve done with Darth Vadar, the ultimate anti hero who battles the force of goodness that fills the story lines. In one of the earlier films we were able to witness the birth of this great magnet of evil. Darth Vadar began the stories as another character: a lad called Anekin Skywalker who at first seems to be a boy of great promise and great promise of goodness, but, like the myths around Satan, falls from grace and greatness to become the antithesis of what he might have been. The seeds of his evil are described by Yoda, the wise Jedi leader, who has it suggested to him that Anekin is destined from greatness. Yoda thinks for a little while and then says wistfully, “perhaps, but there is great fear in him, and fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hatred and hatred leads to suffering.
Its only a Hollywood movie, I know, but I think its hit upon a piece of wisdom that we can see clearly played out in this post Christmas story that we come to today. Herod was much afraid and all of Jerusalem with him and because of it, and the anger and hatred which followed, there was terrible suffering, with wailing and loud lamentation. It is easy to see those who perpetrate terrible attrocities as unspeakable monsters, and in one sense that is what they are. Herod, Hitler, Bin laden and countless others throughout history are painted as brutish barbarians, beastial demons who have lost touch with their humanity to inflict unimaginable terror and tribulation upon innocent victims, and part of our remembrance today is for those who have, and are still suffering at the hands of such terror. But its less easy to imagine the places that they come from in order to get there or to see in them the little frightened boys (or girls) that once decided never to be vulnerable again and so chose to escape from it by inflicting terrible suffering on others, rather than feel it themselves. I don’t say this to illicit sympathy from them, though my reading of Jesus is that he would call us to it, but rather to let this story remind us of how fear is at the root of much dysfnction in the world, and that the likelihood is that it wallows somewhere near the basement of our own imperfections, making us be less than we can be.
If it was easy to fix, we’d do something about it, but often our fears are deep rooted and, most important of all, justified at least in some sense. Our fears of being accepted and liked, our fear of failure all come from an essential fear that, in some way we are not worthy of love or can’t trust that it will come no matter what we do. Somewhere along our line, this will have been a real experience that we’re right to be wary of. In one sense, rather than having lost touch with their humanity, the barbarians of history have come to feel it too keenly and so I don’t think it is too fanciful to say that we can contribute to the causes of justice and peace more globally by looking at the fear that perhaps lies at the roots of our own anger and hurt, in order to dissolve the hatreds and fury we may experience.
So, this gruesome festival perhaps offers two thoughts. Firstly, to admit, quietly but with honesty and perhaps not without pain, where our fears lie so that light might shine on them and their power to direct our behaviour can be subverted and, secondly, to see again the essential message of faith. That we are loved. The world in its various forms may tell us otherwise. Our human experience may lead us to doubt it but we are, deeply, profoundly, without reserve, loved and lovable. Its why Jesus came, its why Jesus died and its what Jesus said in between.
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
Theodore Roosevelt, a complicated and sometimes mistaken man, who at the age of 42 became the 26th and youngest President of the United States of America, gave, in 1910, what became known as his Man in the Arena speech:
It is not the critic who counts (he said);
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man
who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly;
who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if he fails,
at least fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be
with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
His gender language was for his time but his words, I think, do suggest quite well for today the way in which Christmas tells the story of God in the arena – God in our arena. Yes, in the noble sense of one who lived among us and spent his life in a worthy cause, who knew great enthusiasms and experienced both defeat and victory when his face was marred by dust and sweat and blood on the cross. So, yes, in the sense of God in Jesus but also, through that, in the sense of God in all of human life. God in all those who strive but in doing so who err, who come short again and again, for there is no effort without error and shortcoming.
For in becoming flesh the word accepted the inevitability of weakness, of failure, of sin not just as a rather regrettable by product of human life, a kind of side effect that has to be tolerated or endured, but as a natural and maybe even creative aspect of what it is to live and grow and so it challenges any inclination we might have to see our mistakes and the fallibility of our human nature as some kind of a dead end to be reversed from, and directs us to the wisdom that permeates ours and other’s faith which tells us that endings and beginnings are often two sides of the same coin.
“What we call the beginning is often the end” TS Elliot wrote in Little Gidding “and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from” It wasn’t for nothing thatin telling the story of his birth the gospel writers drew references to his death: a secular power seeking to have him killed, a gift of myrrh to be used at his burial, a borrowed place to be born in just as a borrowed tomb would be where they laid him to rest. In the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. The story of Christmas tells us that endings and beginnings are closely linked, that they’re part of the same process and can’t be separated, because it wants us to see, that when our failure makes us feel at a dead end, when our shortcomings make us feel foolish, when our mistakes make us feel unworthy they are, in fact, only a precursor to the next beginning that lies round the corner.
The word became flesh because it matters that we understand how our sense of wellbeing and the degree to which we feel valuable and loved doesn’t depend on how apparently successful we are or how much we achieve or whether we happen to avoid making a mess of things. We are loved because we are and that love wants us to make something of our living even if the price we pay is the odd moment or two with our face in the mud.
In the myth of his name, Narcissus, a greek hunter renowned for his great beauty, was lured to a pool of water where he fell in love with his own reflection because he couldn’t recognise who it was and thought it was someone else. Like all enduring myths it has important things to say about how to negotiate our living. The story of Narcissus is often our story when the prospect of seeing ourselves in what we really do and think is just too awful to contemplate. When the image that we like to have of ourselves doesn’t match the reality of our thoughts and actions. Its then that we may reluctantly let God forgive us but forgiving ourselves is invariably out of the question because to do so would mean having to admit that there’s truth in the unpalatable image that we see. The trouble, though, is that God can’t forgive us if we wont forgive ourselves, which is where our understanding of just how he is in our arena counts for everything.
For if our image of Jesus is as meek and mild, the little Lord, no crying he makes: divine, perfect, inhuman then we will never accept that we can be worthy of his love. But if he is truly in our arena, sharing the dust and sweat and blood with us prone as we are to error and stumbling, coming short again and again as we do. If we can see ourselves in his broken humanity then he is no less God and we far more able to feel his divinity close to us and strive to spend our lives in a worthy cause of becoming his children.
The word became flesh and dwelt among us. It entered our arena: to share our sorrows, to strengthen our resolve and comfort our flagging spirit and to show us that we are not cold and timid souls, but rather filled with the grace and truth and glory with which he knew first defeat and then magnificent resurrection victory.
Advent Sunday – 29th November 2015
Rev Jonathan Wilkes
When I first started work I worked in a hostel for homeless people on the Old Marylebone Rd in central London. It was located in a five storey converted Town housewith 7 bedrooms upstairs and a room at the front of the house on the ground floor that the Director used as an office. I will always remember the day that I knocked on the DIrector’s door to ask him something or other and found him sitting at his desk in the large bay window facing the room with his back to the road. We’d been speaking for a while when, as he answered one of my questions, he spun casually in his swivel chair to look for a few moments absentmindedly out of the window before, then, re-turning again to continue with what he was saying, and at the very moment that his field of vision left the road outside his window and returned to the room, I saw, very clearly, behind his head a Police motorcycle outrider zoom down the road. Quickly it was followed by another and then two more, blue lights flashing on them all. And then, after a short pause, a stream of black Range Rovers – 3 or 4 of them – zipping by before, finally, a large black limousine with the unmistakeable flag of the United States of America flying from two small poles on the left and right sides of the bonnet. Then, a couple more Range Rovers and a few more police motor cycles and then the road was quiet. And just as the last Police bike left my vision in the window my Director, who had been facing me all the while and was still speaking, turned again to look absentmindedly out of the window completely unaware that the leader of the free world had just passed 18 yards from his head.
Its easy to let Christmas pass us by. In a flurry of food and festivities and fearing that you’ll forget to send someone a card or be upstaged by their gift, its easy to be so busy, so preoccupied, that the event goes by largely unmeant – a trial to be completed with relief. Thank God, we’ve got through Christmas for another year
Its a festival that its easy to miss. I don’t just mean the religious significance thought about by those with a more active faith, but the wider meaning more readily accessible to all . The Christmas of popular culture that invites us to treasure our friends and family and the principles of generosity and peace. Its easy to miss those in the tornados of shopping, the Tsunami’s of food, the earthquakes of family reunions.
And just perhaps its tempting to want to look the other way when Christmas looms, aching for it to pass yearning for it to be over, for all that it suggests and reminds us of. We don’t have to be an Ebenezer to find Christmas a painful and perhaps miserable time.
Yet Christmas is all about presents – those we give in order that we might receive from our giving – and those we receive
and so learn a bit more about the grace to be loved.
Christmas is all about presents – being present amidst the hurly burly of the economy’s vitamin shot – present to the principles the festival offers:
a chance for gratitude, a moment to acknowledge long suffering, patient, commitment, football in the no man’s land of our fractured relationships. Present to each other, present for each other.
Christmas is all about presents – its a present day, a day for the present, for now – for don’t we need more than ever to hear the message of the angels: Peace on earth, good will to all in Paris, in Rakka, in countless other places of suffering and strife. Don’t we need – you and I – to understand more fully, how we are not alone, how the creator is with us to enliven and offer courage, how we are understood and so can find understanding and meaning in our lives. The festival that lies at the end of this Advent season is one that remembers our need and hope now, today.
Get ready, Advent says, be sober, be vigilant, trim your lamps and stay alert, be ready to meet him. And rejoice, rejoice for Emmanuel shall come.
Sermon 6pm Evensong
3rd Sunday before Advent.
Remembrance Sunday. November 8th 2015.
Reading: Isaiah 10.33-11.9
Epistle: John. 14. 1-29
Reverend David Bell
‘You know him because he abides in you and will be with you.’ John 14.16b
‘He will bring back to your mind everything I have said to you’ John 14.26
We have nearly all of Chapter 14, of John’s gospel, served up to us tonight. Jesus has washed the disciples feet and, knowing his time has come, is about to venture out, across the Kidron valley, to a garden where he would be betrayed and arrested. Before that though, John takes us into the private conversation (between Jesus and his beloved disciples). A conversation that they would always remember (and cherish). He tells them of his close relationship with the Father – how they both dwell in each other – and how the disciples too will be able to be part of that existence, after he has left them. A ‘brother helper’ will be with them forever, he says – to help them remember and guide them in their actions. In describing this ‘Holy Spirit of Truth’, he says ‘You know him because he abides in you and will be with you.’
And by abiding in them, they will be taught by the spirit how to remember.
Verse 26: He will bring back to your mind everything I have said to you. This includes the central words of the Lord’s supper: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ when the Messiah commanded his followers to take bread and wine (to take and eat) to remember him. So in the Christian church the principal and defining act of worship, Holy Communion, is an act of remembrance.
Unlike reminiscing (which can be a comforting kind of recalling the past, especially private moments) remembrance is much deeper.
Jesus required a dynamic and transforming ‘remembering’ from his disciples….. and priests today (Jonathan and myself included) are called to be ‘rememberers’ – bringing people back to all that Jesus said and did, so that they can make a difference in the world (no matter how small or great) …so that the world could be what God had intended it to be.
Today, especially, is a time for that transforming remembering, when more people than ever across the country have come together to pay tribute to the fallen of two world wars and more recent conflicts in the Falkland Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan. At the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield, the names of 16,000 men and women have been added since the end of the second world war and each Spring new names are added. This National Memorial and the thousands of local war Memorials, including our own in Union Street, are a poignant reminder of the cost of war in human lives and a reminder that people are still giving their lives for their country.
The Archbishop of Canterbury said in his sermon in St Paul’s in March that it is important to remember not only the men and women who lost their lives but those left behind, (parents, wives, husbands and children) learning to cope without their loved ones…..and I would add those who did return from service but who have been affected adversely (physically or mentally…or both). Their war goes on and getting back into normal life (if there is such a thing) can be another battle in itself.
Before embarking on a dangerous mission, serviceman Jeffrey Lucy wrote to his wife: If you have this letter, I am no longer around. This was not written to make you cry, but to let you know that because of you I lived a happy and complete life. Because of you I was able to experience what real love is and how wonderful the feeling, to truly be in love.
Jeffrey did return home…..but later took his own life as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Another soldier, Jeffrey Dale, on returning from active service in Iraq, wrote:
‘Even after all the battles I’ve gone through personally (since returning); the anger, nightmares, & the depression…. I’ll always be proud of what we accomplished. I’m not the man I was before I left for Iraq and I’ll never be him again. War changes you. For some it’s for the better and others for the worse but the experiences I went through are mine and I’ll reflect on them every day for the rest of my life for good or bad … That was my war’.
We are called by Jesus to be effective in remembering so that we may each think of one small thing to act on for the benefit of our neighbour……. which may reveal the love of God seen in Jesus. And we all earnestly look forward to a time when reminders (that we all need to change) are no longer necessary.
And that real remembering, as Jesus encouraged in his disciples, will have truly transformed us.
Remembrance Sunday 2015 – 8th November 2015
Reverend Jonathan Wilkes
In New York City, at ground zero where the two Towers of the World Trade Centre used to stand, a new and vast shining building reaches into the Manhatten skyline. Beneath it, in the actual footprints of where the two towers once stood, is a memorial to the 3000 or so people who died on September the 11th 2001. Some of you here today wont remember that, on that day, terrorists flew commercial airplanes into the two huge office blocks that dominated the New York skyline, eventually bringing both buildings crashing to the ground and, with them, taking the lives of over 3000 people there. The memorials, set in the footprints of the two towers, are all that remain now though they are, like the buildings themselves, awe inspiring in their size and meaning. Rather than reaching up they sink down in two vast holes both layered by 3 stages of waterfall into an unseen well below. Around the four walls of each hole, water flows streaming down, first to one layer, then another and finally into the well in the middle, with an unseen, perhaps infinite bottom. Around the four walls of both sites, the names of all those who died that day are engraved in the granite: Ira Zaslow, Wesley Mercer, Dianne Gladstone and so it goes on and on and on and on. As a memorial it is very powerful. The ever flowing fall of water down into a seemingly bottomless pit speaks of a nation whose tears are everlasting and whose grief can never end.
Standing there this summer, trying to comprehend it all, I wondered what were the signs of hope. The falling water into an unseen well perhaps suggested that, though the lost had fallen like the towers, they had fallen into the eternal where, perhaps, they are at rest with God and I imagined that the water itself was recycled, perhaps offering the thought that the dead are reborn to live forever in the hearts and minds of those who loved them. But its the new Tower that I suspect speaks most clearly to a nation whose pride was dented as much as its heart was broken that day. The Tower seems to say: we will not be daunted, we will not be broken, we will come back stronger than ever before which begged the question for me, as I stood there wondering how many others had died because of the events that occurred in that place, what makes a nation, or a people, or an individual strong. What makes a country great. What makes a person admirable.
Last weekend I was talking to someone from New Zealand before the Rugby World Cup about the fanaticism of his nation for their national game that is to such an extent that, according to him, the rate of domestic abuse in New Zealand clearly rises – it spikes – in the immediate aftermath of a game of rugby if the All Blacks lose. We were both relieved, as much as pleased, at the result of the match though scapegoats for unresolved rage have been around forever. One of the things we remember today is the atrocity of the second world war where Jewish, and other, people were persecuted,with the aim of extinction, because hating another is often easier than facing what is hateful in ourselves. Humiliating someone else is preferable to facing our own shame.
We honour best the men and women who sacrificed so much of their tomorrows in order that we might have a today not by building great Towers of defiance that claim our strength but by developing the self awareness to see that war is made in us all and that the responsibility for conflict, of varying kinds, lies in all our hearts. We wouldn’t dream of letting a rugby match turn us into animals. We wouldn’t dream of persecuting people for their faith but the people who do and the people who have are no less people than we are.
We share their nature as much as their flesh and bone and we take steps toward preventing others from behaving as we would not by searching ourselves for the instincts that they have and seeking to redeem them first in us, so that we can have an authority to say something to them.
A strong nation. A great people is one that can bear the burden of injury and insult and to it bring the cooling waters of mercy and forgiveness. It is one in which the life changing culture of profound hospitality and welcome generosity, mercy, kindness, forbearance and love can grow. That is true defiance. That is how we don’t surrender and that is how we make sense of the sacrifices we rightly honour today.
Sunday, 18th October 2015 The Feast of St Luke
Luke Ch 10 vs1-9
Reverend Jonathan Wilkes
Most of us, I think, will know that prayer attributed to Margaret Thatcher and made famous by Francis of Assisi – or was it the other way round, I forget – anyway, it goes like this:
“Lord, make me an instrument of you peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.”
And then it goes on:
“O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”
Its a lovely prayer and full of the spirit but I just wonder if St Luke, whose feast day we celebrate today, might have been trying to say something different, if not contradictory to us, in the gospel reading today. Because if you think carefully about the story we heard, of Jesus sending out into the towns and villages of the countryside the 70 disciples to share his message and do his work, you’ll notice that something slightly different to that message, conveyed in the prayer, is being said.
“Whatever house you enter say ‘Peace to this house’ and if anyone shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person. Whenever you enter a town and people welcome you eat what is set before you, cure the sick and say to them the Kingdom of God has come near you.”
When people share in peace, when you are welcomed, then the Kingdom of God can come near. People’s response, people’s disposition to your offer is everything and makes things possible. The effectiveness of the mission rests on how it is received.
Its a theme that crops up in other ways elsewhere in the gospel not least at the beginning and the end. “Be it unto me the servant of the Lord,” Mary the mother of Jesus says when the angel tells her she will conceive and give birth to a son, “let it be according to your word”. The world holds its breath. Mary could have said “no”but she didn’t, she agreed, she cooperated. Or much later in a different setting “Lord you will never wash my feet” Peter says to Jesus at the last supper, who replies “unless I wash you you have no part with me”. Mary agreed, Peter resisted but then deferred. Both came to understand that they needed to receive if they were to play their part.
When people share in peace. When they welcome, then the Kingdom of God can come near. Without their welcome, without their inclination to be peaceful the miracles of body, mind and spirit could not take place. But with them, the Kingdom could draw near. The story seems to say that our response, our open reception, our acceptance of the offer given to us, determines how effective it can be
Its tempting, I think, to see that story just from the perspective of the 70. To think that the message for us is all about being one of them. Being a disciple being one who sacrifices all, who gives up purse and sandals to go out like a sheep amongst wolves. Yet the Kingdom of God only draws near when the 70 are well received. On their own they can do nothing. They need the right reception in order to do their work or be of any use.
And so it might be in our day to day faith; to see our ministering to one another’s needs
as a key element in what we are called to do but perhaps not miss the point that unless we let ourselves be loved we cannot do much loving for anyone else. Love your neighbour as yourself, Jesus was fond of saying, but its not much of a gift if the love we have for ourselves is a bit shrivelled and meagre.
So, Maybe we need to rewrite Margaret’s prayer”
“O divine Master, grant that I may seek
To console because I am consoled,
To understand because I am willing to be understood,
To love because I let myself feel love;
For when I can receive then I can give;
If I can pardon myself then I can pardon;
and it is in dying to self reliance then I can be born to eternal life”
Its a subtle shift which points to a way of living that relinquishes the need always to be in control. One where we’re willing to trust – ourselves as much as eachother in order that we might trust God. To admit our longing for consolation and our desire to be understood. To be as gentle with ourselves as we’d like to be with each other, so that when the Lord Jesus comes knocking, in whatever form that may be, we’re able to acknowledge our need of his visit – can welcome him – and so know that the Kingdom of God has come near.
Sunday, 15 May 2016 – Pentecost
Reverend Sandy Cragg
You may have heard that this week is “Dying Matters Week”. Maybe a few of you heard it and thought “that’s the last topic I want to think about right now” – but it’s an important one, which is why the Church of England is one of the sponsors of “Dying Matters”. Many of us here of course are a generation or two away from death and we don’t always want to contemplate the fact that inevitably one day we will lose much loved parents or grandparents.
My own mother in her last years would say to me, “I’ve been thinking about my funeral” and I would reply, “don’t talk like that, you’ve got years to go yet” – because I didn’t want to think about losing her. And then one day I realised that I do this for other people – not just here in church but even complete strangers on a bus or train spotting the dog collar have occasionally seized the opportunity to have a chat about their funeral. So, feeling very ashamed, I said “OK, tell me what you want.” And when she’d finished I said – because my mother’s refrain ever since I could remember had been that she wanted to be buried in Wales – I said “and you want to be buried in Wales.” She looked at me as if I’d gone raving mad – “you’ve always said that” I reminded her – “I didn’t mean it like that”, she said. “Put me with your father – of course.” Of course. And I realised that all these years she’d just been expressing homesickness for her native land- and that if we hadn’t had that conversation, I could have made a terrible mistake.
It isn’t just the practical details of funerals etc that we think about when we contemplate death, our own or that of a loved one. Though they are important, not least because siblings trying to organise a parent’s funeral without any guidance can disagree, even fall out, but coming to terms with how we feel about shuffling off this mortal coil is of vital importance to making a good and peaceful ending.
In our middle years we’re busy – work and family keep us anchored in the present, and any spare attention is likely to focus on the future. But when we reach the stage that our bodies are telling us that our future on this earth isn’t long – or indeed if we receive a premature diagnosis of terminal illness – and we no longer have the energy to be very occupied in the present, then our thoughts turn to the past.
The lucky ones can look back on a life well-lived, goals achieved, happy relationships and for them acceptance of the finality of earthly isn’t hard to achieve. But for those who look back over what seems to them to be a history of failure, it’s much harder and depression and despair can result. Most of us probably lie in the middle somewhere – overall life has been OK, good even a lot of the time, but perhaps there is some sort of unfinished business.
A few years ago we decided to try to trace an old friend we’d lost touch with – he’d left for Canada at the same time as we left for Singapore and we never managed to re-connect. A Google search quickly and easily brought up ……..his obituary. Opportunities not taken in earlier years may close down. All of this is the background to the final years of our lives.
That’s the human element to “Dying Matters” – where does God come into it? How can the Christian story help people to come to terms with their own mortality and face death in peace and tranquillity?
I know many people do wonder, and sometimes ask, what happens to us – if anything – after death? My answer is that I don’t know, can’t know, but I do know and believe in a man who did – Jesus of Nazareth walked more closely with God than any other human being before or since, and Jesus taught his followers that, through the mystery of his death and resurrection, their relationship through him with God the Father would transcend death. And that will be good enough for me, unless and until I meet anyone as close to God as Jesus who says something different.
Today of course is the Feast of Pentecost. God has been present on this earth in the life of Jesus, but this presence was necessarily limited by time and space. After Jesus’ death and resurrection his presence among his followers, although significantly changed, continued for a time – but the Ascension marked the end of this earthly presence. They must cope with his absence – and they discover in this absence a new kind of presence, a presence not limited now by time or space. A presence shared with us that informs and transforms our present, our future and our past.
For people looking back over their lives at things they bitterly regret, without the power or opportunity now to change them, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, whether we actually perceive that presence or whether our only sense is of absence
– is not just the best, it’s the only hope they can have of rescue from despair.
I’d like to close with a poem by Denise Levertov, a clergyman’s daughter who came back to the faith she earlier rejected later in life – it’s called “Suspended”.
I had grasped God’s garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The “everlasting arms” my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling; even so
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
(from “Evening Train”)