Monday, 18 February 2019

Blessing or woe; yes or no: a decision to be made

A sermon preached at St Andrew's Church, South Croydon

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I wonder how good you are at making decisions.

Decisions aren’t always easy to make.

We might want more information or better information to make a decision. Sometimes we feel we have too much information.

Or, perhaps, we just don’t like making decisions because once we have decided on one thing other options are lost. When I decided to marry my wife, I couldn’t then go around getting married to other people!

Are we like the old joke “I used to be incredibly indecisive. But now I'm not that sure...”

It seems our MPs aren’t very good at making decisions at the moment. They show us the problem when we want everything and every possible outcome, but, when push comes to shove, can’t decide which one we really want! It’s called having your cake and eating it!

Our patron saint, St Andrew, had to make a decision. Jesus said to him, ‘come, follow me’. What a decision. Would he decide to rely on his expertise of being a fisherman and have the security of a steady income, or would he decide to follow Jesus Christ, not knowing where that would take him? He decided on Christ, a decision that would lead ultimately to sharing in a death like Christ’s, dying on a cross, albeit of a different shape, but a decision that led him to abundance of life, blessings not woes.

Another big decision that had to be made was by Mary, the Mother of the Lord. When the archangel came to her would she say ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Her ‘yes’ meant that Christ would be born into the world to teach, to heal the sick, to suffer for us, to die and to be raised from the dead to bring us life.

Mary’s ‘yes’, Andrew’s ‘yes’ to be the Mother of the Lord and to ‘come, follow me’ were strong decisions.

In the Christian life there is a moment known as The Decision. It comes in the Liturgy of Baptism Service: do you turn to Christ? Do you repent of your sins? Do you renounce evil? To which the answer is either ‘no’, and that’s that, or ‘yes’: I turn to Christ; I repent of my sins; I renounce evil.

Once we’ve made that decision, then every morning and every moment of every day we seek to put it into practice.

The questions for each of us are these: what does my decision to follow Jesus Christ look like day by day in my life? How is my life different for having chosen to follow Jesus Christ? How does that big decision affect all my other life decisions?

In the gospel reading this morning Jesus speaks of blessings and woes. He blesses those who are poor, hungry, weeping and hated; he utters woes to those who are rich, full up, smugly laughing and wanting praise.

It’s like Mary’s song, the Magnificat proclaims,

The Holy One has scattered the proud
     in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
     and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
     and sent the rich away empty.(Luke 1.51b-53)

In other words deciding to follow Christ, saying ‘yes’ to him and not ‘no’, means living  life with values that are very different from what normally counts as success in life. The poor receive a kingdom; the rich get nothing more. The hungry are fed; the full up go hungry. The weeping will laugh; the smug will weep. The excluded rejoice in heaven; the successful find their celebrity is empty.

What a decision to make: we decide on life not death, blessing not curse.

In all our decisions as individuals, as a church community, may we be just like the tree with deep roots that Jeremiah describes in our first reading:

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
   whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
   sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
   and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
   and it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jeremiah 17.7,8)

Having placed our trust in the Lord, may we draw on his life and be faithful as he is faithful. May we know him now in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup to be strengthened to say our ‘yes’ to him. Amen.

© Andrew Bishop, 2019

Her presence, our blessing: A funeral homily

A homily preached at the funeral of Doreen Fletcher, a much loved member of the congregation of Croydon Minster

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s a truism to say that every human life is unique. But each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God to reflect his glory and to adore God as the source of our life. And our Maker and Redeemer quite evidently does not have a mould producing identikit people. Even if He did, Doreen would prove the exception to that.

I never had the privilege of knowing Doreen, of being blessed by her presence, except through what others have testified of her. And, from what I have heard of her, it was an absolute privilege to have known her, to have shared something of her life story and to know her as a source of blessing. And clearly from the rich memories and stories passed on to me over the last couple of weeks she was a one off, and is cherished most especially because of that.

We have already heard tributes that have captured much of what you all know of Doreen. The point of a homily at a funeral is to set this life into the wider picture of the life of God, the Blessed Trinity.

For this afternoon we give thanks for Doreen - who she was to us and who she still is - we remember her and comfort one another in the sadness of her death, but we also commend her; we commend her to the God who, as the psalm puts it, searches us out and knows us, who discerns our thoughts from afar, who created our inmost parts and knits us together in our mother’s womb (cf Psalm 139).

So who is this Doreen we commend to God, our Maker and Redeemer, this afternoon?

We can compare the story of someone’s life to a picture. Sometimes when someone dies all we have are sketches, outlines of that person, a bit of shading and some pale colours. But in Doreen’s case there are, like a true masterpiece, bold and exuberant colours, subtler shades, shadows, contrasts, darkness.

We can paint in the bold colours of her ‘larger-than-lifeness’, her fantastical stories, which teetered on the brink of plausibility; the antics of arriving at services at the Minster after the advertised start time and positioning herself at the front of the church; participating in the crib service as an angel processing around the church in her shiny red mobility scooter festooned with tinsel, headlights on full beam.

And there are the subtler shades of her spirit of determination and tenacity, or of her devotional life that found expression in quieter moments, for instance on Maundy Thursday during the Watch of the Passion before the Blessed Sacrament; and, as Fr Chris Moore has written, ‘she had the ability to draw some of us around her, so that her presence became our blessing’. What a subtle yet powerful gift.

And, as is well known, there were darker shades and shadows in Doreen’s life; the darkness of cruelty at the hands of those who should, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, have been the ones to give care, be they her parents or nuns to whom she was entrusted; the stalking shadows of illness and huge physical challenges. She experienced profound loneliness whilst loving the company of others. Doreen surely knew the meaning of the word resilience before it became fashionable: she lived it out.

This is something of the picture of Doreen that we commend to God this afternoon. There is so much more that could be said, so much more we could paint in.

Doreen’s life was not heroic, but it was saintly. That’s not to over-idealise her or romanticise her, but what also shines out of the picture of her life is her identification with Jesus Christ who, through his incarnation, passion and death, identified with her. To quote Fr Chris again, ‘The death of Jesus on the cross gives human suffering a new value and a new dimension…Doreen’s suffering, while lamentable, gave birth in her some truly Christ-like qualities’.

You were part of the picture of her life, and she of yours. Doreen asks questions of each of us: how do you look at other people? What is the picture you see of them? Do you judge by mental capacity or physical ability, or do you behold a child of God, as you are yourself?

The vision of the Gospel is one of human lives, our world and all creation – currently groaning in travail – transformed, renewed, completed (cf Romans 8.22; Revelation 21). Doreen goes on that journey before us, and with the whole company of heaven now encourages us on our journey as her brother and sisters in Christ. God, her Maker and Redeemer, and ours too, sees the whole picture and loves her for it.

+ May she rest in peace. Amen.

© Andrew Bishop, 2019

Friday, 8 February 2019

Shine as a Light in the World

First preached as a sermon at the Parish Eucharist at Croydon Minster, on the feast of Candlemas, the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. The readings were Malachi 3.1-5 and Luke 2.22-40.

‘Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’.


‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day’. (Genesis 1.1-5)

Spirit, water and light all feature in those opening verses of the book of Genesis.

Since our celebration of the birth of Christ some 40 days ago Spirit, water and light have been features of our reflections, because a New Creation has been inaugurated.

The Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove on Jesus at his baptism in the river Jordan; water transformed into wine at the wedding feast of Cana; light that shone out from the crib of Bethlehem drawing the Magi, who followed the light of the star, to Christ.

And Spirit, water and light connect to our celebration today of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

In the beginning, the Creator Spirit of God moved over the swirling waters bringing light and life and beauty: the same Spirit bound together and gave life to the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of death; the same Spirit overshadowed Mary that she might be the mother of the Saviour; the same Spirit empowered the disciples, as the Church, to take the Good News to the ends of the earth; the same Spirit was poured out on each of us when we were baptised and leads, guides and equips us now; the same Spirit makes present Jesus for us in word and sacrament, and in our daily lives. And it was the same Holy Spirit who brought Simeon to the Temple on the day that Jesus was presented there, following Law and Custom.

Water is the source and signifier of life. Where there is water there is life. The Temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus was presented, sat on a great wellspring, and valleys run out from there; hence another vision of Ezekiel when water flows out of the Temple bringing life to everything it touches, even into the waters of the Dead Sea, that becomes teeming with fish.

The psalm says ‘With you, O Lord, is the well of life and in your light do we see light.’ (Psalm 36.9)

Icon of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Jesus is both light and life. This is what Simeon sees in him. Simeon, as we know, has been longing for this promise. He sees Jesus in the arms of Mary and Joseph and with joy, and perhaps some relief, he says,

‘Lord, I, your servant, can now die in peace because your word has been fulfilled. I have seen the light which is the salvation of all nations and the glory of Israel’. (Paraphrase of the Nunc Dimittis, Luke 2:29–32)

And Anna, who knew the sorrow of bereavement and grief, also sees new hope, new promise, light and life in this child.

In the midst of the beauty of this light there are dark words as Mary is warned that a sword will pierce her heart. What can this mean? Perhaps it wasn’t until her Son was arrested, beaten and led to the cross that she came to know.

The darkness of the world, its power games, manipulations and dis-ease intrudes on this scene. Sin stalks our world.

Yet this is why Christ came; to bring deliverance from sin, from the cold, gripping darkness that stifles life and light and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Yet Christ’s light shone out even on the cross; his death is the fulfilment of his glorification. The scene recalled at Candlemas has rightly been called bittersweet.

Today then we move from crib to cross, from Bethlehem to Calvary, Incarnation to Redemption. At the end of our liturgy a procession will move from our crib to the font of this church.

 As we turn to face the font we will be bearing candles as a sign of the light of Christ. At that fountain and well of life in Christ our candles will be extinguished. The extinguished candle gives us a hint of the ash that will mark the start of Lent in a few weeks’ time.
The font at Croydon Minster with
crucifix in the background
(made by Trinity School for a production
of Murder in the Cathedral)

There’s a deliberate echo here of baptism. When Matthew and Joseph were baptised last week they were marked with the sign of the cross and we presented them with a candle and said, ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.’

The light of Christ is a light that all who bear the name Christian are called to shine out, not just in the comfort of a Sunday morning but every day in the shadows of a broken world and human lives. We endeavour to shine out at work, at school in the places where we encounter other people and seek out God.

At the end of every Eucharist we are sent out to love and serve the Lord, and we say that we will in the name of Christ. Working out what that means is a task for each of us wherever we spend our lives and time.

Perhaps the key is in those words of baptismal commission: ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’.

Shining out with that light is about living lives modelled on Christ our Light: being people who are Christ to others, and see Christ in others; loving, compassionate, healing, a source of blessing, trusting in God in all that we think and speak and do.

May Christ the Light of the World, in the power of the Holy Spirit, bring us the refreshment of his life. Amen.

© Andrew Bishop, 2019

Disruptor & Embodiment: The Lord Comes to his Temple

First preached as a sermon in Croydon Minster at Evensong on 3 February 2019, the transferred celebration of Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. The readings were Haggai 2.1-9 and John 2.18-22.


Today is the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, an event described in St Luke’s Gospel when Jesus’ parents brought the 40 day old child to the Temple to make a sacrificial offering, according to Jewish Law, at which point Simeon and Anna recognised him as the consolation of Israel and Simeon spoke the words we know as the Nunc Dimittis.

Our two readings this evening draw further on the theme of the presence of Christ in the Temple: this is Jesus Christ the great disruptor, as well as the embodiment, of the Temple.

Embodiment. The Collect for the Presentation of Christ notes that Christ was presented, ‘in substance of flesh’, in other words presented as fully human, sharing our flesh and our blood: what we doctrinally name as the Incarnation: the fullness of God dwelling in the human body: Jesus Christ. As St John puts it, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). He is a human body: God, embodied in human flesh.

Disruption. The prophet Haggai describes a great shaking up, not just of a building on earth, the Temple in Jerusalem, but a shaking up of the heavens and earth, because the Temple, the meeting place of God, humanity and all creation, is construed as something far more expansive than the focal point of that one building. And that shaking up will lead to a greater glory of the Temple. That promise of prophecy is left hanging, as it were, and is picked up again and brought to fruition in our second reading.

The disruptor of the Temple, and the embodiment of it: Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple and then declared: ‘destroy this temple and, and in three days I will raise it up’. (John 2.19). He then conflates his body with the Temple, as the disciples realised later, for he was speaking of the Temple of his body: destroyed on the cross, raised in God’s resurrection power.

You and I are members of the body of Christ through baptism; so our bodies are holy, presented to the Lord and precious, in his sight. So Paul writes ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? (1 Corinthians 6.19)

That is why Christians are careful about how the body is treated and viewed. We must care for our bodies, and value the bodies of others. The body is not an object; it is the essential dwelling of a person. As Thomas Merton puts it, ‘to love another as an object is to love them as a ‘thing’, as a commodity which can be used, exploited, enjoyed, then cast off.’ (The power and Meaning of Love, pp. 6-8). This is what pornography does. It makes the body a ‘thing’ to be looked at, not the intimacy of a person to be adored.

One of the dangers of modern life, when we are told that we makes us human is our capacity to think - I think, therefore I am – is that our bodies become optional extras. Our identity is thought to be in our minds not in and with our bodies, and so we can do what we like with them.

The body is more precious than that. The body is not just like an old pair of shoes to be cast off when we die, not just an inconvenient vehicle for the mind. The promise of the Resurrection of the Body is a body transformed not disposed of.

So where does that connect with our readings tonight and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; the Temple which he disrupts and embodies?

St Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, ‘By the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is spiritual worship’ (Romans 12.1)

The language of presentation and sacrifice is the language of the Temple, the place of encounter with God. Our understanding as Christians is that the Temple is not located in one place geographically but rather the expanse of the Temple wraps the whole world which God fills. As the psalm puts it, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is: the compass of the world, and they that dwell therein’ (Psalm 24.1).

What we do tonight, and every morning and evening, is re-place ourselves in Christ our Temple through whom we encounter the Living God. The Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer uses this powerful phrase: ‘And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee’. So may our prayer in this temple ‘rise before [the Lord] as incense, the lifting up of our hands as the evening sacrifice’. (Psalm 141.2)

© Andrew Bishop, 2019