Saturday, 23 November 2019

Hope in a bewildering world


Well that was pretty gloomy, wasn’t it? In the gospel passage (Luke 21.5-19) Jesus spoke of beautiful things being thrown down; good people being led astray; wars and insurrections; nation rising against nation; arrest, persecution, betrayal, family breakdown, hatred.

It sounds gloomily familiar. We’re going to hell in a handcart?

It’s hard, watching the news at the moment, not to wonder what on earth is happening to our world.

On a global level the rules based order of international affairs is being undermined by newly dominant powers, and not helped by those trying to hold on to their place in the world: walls figurative and physical are going up; trust is going down.

Nationally our country has got itself in a terrible stew about over how our common future might be shaped; the less said about General Election campaigns, perhaps, the better.

In families the pressures of finance, be it from Universal Credit or the drive to work more and more for diminishing returns, is corroding the bedrock of society and social wellbeing in the family.

And in many individual lives the stresses and strains of navigating life in a complex and overwhelming world can lead to huge anguish, poor mental health and questions and bewilderment over identity.

And on every level those in power and in positions of influence seem desperate to meet our desires by promising that we can have it all without any cost. We don’t need an election campaign to have politicians, the advertising industry and sophisticated algorithms all telling us what we really want; and yet it is never quite within reach.

It seems, then, that Jesus’ words are less gloomy than at first glance. Jesus unmasks the deep powers of the world which we inhabit and then point to that which transforms the human predicament through hope.

Hope is one of the theological virtues, along with faith and love. As St Paul says, the greatest of these is love, and that is beyond dispute, but love is only complete with faith and hope: these three endure.

Hope has had a bad name because it has come to mean the frothy optimism of the adman and the politician, those people who try to indulge what we want which simply mask or dull our deepest yearnings.

The hope of Christians is not frothy optimism; it is earthed in reality and in the promises of that which endures. With faith and love, St Paul tells us that hope also abides, lasts, endures.

The gospel passage closed with these words: ‘By your endurance you will gain your souls’ (Luke 21.19). That is the hope-filled promise of the way of Jesus Christ. And that endurance is not dependent on our stamina, our own energies, our own self-belief, but is dependent on drinking deeply from the enduring hope of God. We endure when we allow hope to endure; if we shut out the possibility of deep hope, they we will wither and not endure.

Christian hope is a promise that is rooted in heaven and lived out on earth.

That hope is of the life of the world to come; which is a life and a hope that can be lived out now. It is a hope that knows the end of the story; a hope that knows that it is in dying we are born to eternal life.  It is a hope that takes us, with Jesus, to the cross.

Our prayer after communion today will put it like this:

Gracious Lord,
in this sacrament you give substance to our hope:
bring us at the last
to that fullness of life for which we long;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

It is a prayer first and foremost, but also a wonderful definition of hope. Hope has substance and brings us to the fullness of life for which we long.

That hope is literally placed in our hands. Hope is not a credit card in the hand; hope is not a mirror in the hand to gaze upon ourselves; hope is not a smartphone in the hand which draws us more into our selfie-ness: the hope placed in our hand today is hope in the bread of Life, Jesus Christ.

Monday, 11 November 2019

'Reconciling peacemakers: A Remembrance Sermon'

A sermon preached at service for the Civic Act of Remembrance at Fairfield Halls, Croydon

Jesus said: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God’


‘What were you doing 80 years ago?’

There aren’t that many people around now who can give you an answer to that question: I couldn’t.
One person I can ask is my mother-in-law, now aged 97: she lives with me and my family.

80 years ago she was 17 years old. And she still remembers the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, 80 years ago this year.

She remembers the broadcast by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain; the distribution of gas masks; and the beginnings of getting the country’s economy on a war footing as imports of food such as oranges and bananas dried up.

The other thing my mother-in-law was doing 80 years ago was joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force: she was a ‘WAAF’.

80 years ago my late father-in-law was 18 years old. He had joined the army and was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Artillery following his training as a gunner at the Woolwich Military Academy.

My mother-in-law’s war saw her working at airbases around the country from deepest Cornwall to the very north of Scotland – in what she remembers as the hottest summer she has ever known –
to being on the liner sailing in convoy to the Quebec Conference when Churchill met Roosevelt for key discussions about the course of the war in Europe and working in the Cabinet War Rooms, off Whitehall.

My father-in-law’s war saw him commanding 30 Indian troops when he was only 19 leading men in fighting in North Africa, and then in the campaign through Italy.

Today is clearly not just about my family stories. But it is about stories, like those of my mother and father-in-law, which are woven into the fabric of our national life.

You might have your own family stories, some distant, some far more recent and possibly quite raw.

We all have our nation’s story and experience, which still shapes who we are today.

On Remembrance Sunday stories and experiences –  whether from the Second World War, or the First World War, the Korean War or Northern Ireland, the Falkland’s War, Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Syria – stories and experiences are remembered and shared, so that we may resolve that never again
should this happen in our world.

What started 80 years ago this year – in 1939 – lasted for 6 years. 6 whole years of global warfare,  
resulting in the death of an estimated 70–85 million people – military personnel and civilians, men, women and children – killed in action, dying by starvation or disease brought on by war, or by genocide, most notably the Nazi Holocaust.

Like a pebble dropping in a pond war sends ripples throughout nations, communities, families and individual lives: health and wellbeing, physical, mental and spiritual is affected.

No part of the world is left untouched: the earth is wounded, God’s creatures in the animal kingdom are harmed. The ripples of war continue down the generations as people live and struggle with loss and grief and absence.

Remembrance Sunday calls to mind both the worst depravity of human nature in war and violence
and also the greatest glory of human nature in sacrifice for others: the risking of lives that others may be free to live.

Remembrance Sunday asks us not just to remember what we were doing at such and such a time,
or what was happening in the past, eighty years ago or whenever but it taps into a deeper human memory of how we might live our lives in freedom, fullness and abundance.

In this country many faith communities search their scriptures and traditions to shape a peace-filled world. With Her Majesty the Queen, our nation draws deeply on the message of blessed peacemakers in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches peace and urges reconciliation.

Reconciliation means reaching across boundaries of hurt or pain. Tearing down walls of division: like in Berlin 30 years ago. That’s true for relationships on a global, local and personal level, between warring nations, within torn communities, or within families and relationships.

The message and priority of reconciliation is for all men, women and children.

We need reconciliation now more than ever given that our nation and communities are at odds over Brexit, traumatised by austerity, terrified of burgeoning knife crime and unsettled by a General Election campaign.

If someone asks you in 5, 10, 50, or even 80 years’ time: ‘what were you doing in 2019?’
I wonder... what you would say.

On this Remembrance Sunday I hope I could say, I hope you could say: I was playing my part in reconciliation; I was reaching out beyond my comfort zone; I was engaging with people different from me I was being a peacemaker.

Do that and you will be honouring, in the deepest way, the legacy of those who we remember today who fell in war, so that the story of our nation would be one of liberty, safety and prosperity.

Today let us renew our commitment to honour those who died that we might live by shaping our nation’s story that each and every one of us can be a reconciling peacemaker.

Monday, 4 November 2019

'Can one be a saint without God?'

Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on All Saints' Sunday, 2019


What’s it all about?
            Big questions.

The French writer, Albert Camus,
            in his novel La Peste -
                        which was written in 1947 in the aftermath of the Second World War -
asked a big question:
            “Peut-on ĂȘtre un saint sans dieu?”

Great question! (What does it mean?!)

In English it is this:
            "Can one be a saint without God?”

That’s Camus’ question,
            and he goes on to say,
                        “That's the problem, in fact the only problem, I'm up against today."

I guess that for many people
outside, and within the Church,
asking if one can be a saint without God
            is not the most pressing problem they up against.
Other things probably feature somewhat more highly.
But on this All Saints’ Sunday it is an important question.
            Can one be a saint without God?
In other words:
            do you need to believe in God,
                        does there even need to be a God,
                                    for you, or me, to be a saint
            or ‘to do to others as you could have them do to you’?

And that brings us back to what a saint is.

If a saint
            is simply
                        a virtuous or a heroic person,
                        a great role model or an all-round ‘good egg’
            then, frankly,
                        God need not come into it.

And for many people today that is enough.
            I can live my life by a set of ethical norms,
                        even if they’re shifting norms,
                                    which ultimately say that
            if I am a good person, then that’s sufficient.
Or I can just look after Number One
            because there really isn’t anything much beyond me anyway.

For Albert Camus those answers were not enough.
            Can one be a saint without God?

I am not claiming Camus as a Christian, but
            that question posed a problem for him,
            because it got to the heart
                        of what human existence,
                        and purpose
            is all about.

Does it come down to God or not?

Of course,
it does.

The saint
            is one who lives no longer for themselves but for God;
the saint
            is one who so rejoices in
                        and acknowledges
            the gift of life in Christ
            that death cannot conquer them;
            the saint is one so shaped and led by the Holy Spirit
                        that all their points of reference
            take them back to the Father.

The Roman Catholic Church has a very well established process for declaring
            someone to be a saint.
It’s known as Canonisation.
It is when the Church declares that,
            having examined the virtues of a particular man or woman,
they are worthy to be a model for faith;
            that their prayers for us make a real difference in our lives;
                        and that their life is a mirror of the life of Christ.

That last point is the most decisive
            because the saint mirrors the life of Christ,
                        and they do so with a texture
                        and flavour
            that only they can bring to it.

Thanks be to God for those saints, to whom we can put a name,
            and in some cases a face too.

As Anglicans the nearest that we can claim as a ‘saint making process’
            is when someone is baptised.
                        That’s using the word ‘saint’ in a different way.
                        The Church is filled with the saints,
                                    with a small ‘s’,
                        who are being formed as Saints
                                    with a capital ‘S’.

Baptism incorporates us,
            grafts us,
                        into the life of Jesus Christ.

It’s the ultimate declaration that you can only be a saint with God.

            they only make sense
                        when we know ourselves to be creatures of God
                                    who are brought into a relationship with him
                        as his sons and daughters.

Made in the image and likeness of God
            as his creatures;
restored in the image and likeness of God
            as his children:
                        his saints

The life of a saint is a sign
            that contradicts
                        the standards, mores and ethos
            of a self-sufficient way of life.

Not all saints were nice;
            some were rude;
                        many would be misfits in contemporary society
but all share the deepest sense that they are utterly dependent
            on God,
                        the source of all being and life,
                        the One for whom we exist.

If you want to be a saint, you’re not going to do it without God.

You cannot make yourself a saint;
            you can only yearn and desire to be a saint.
And that is the deepest yearning
            of the Christian:
mirroring Christ;
            hungering for Christ;
                        being Christ
in, and for, a world that thinks it can do it all by itself.

This life –
            the life of the saint –
is shaped and fashioned by the Holy Spirit
            who binds us together and brings to the Father.

One can never be a saint in isolation,
            and the testing bed of the saint is lived out in service
                        to the poor,
                                    the needs of others
                        and a life shaped in honouring the giftedness of all creation.

It is a life that draws from beatitude –
God’s blessing –
and returns everything in beatitude.

The Eucharist continues that work of forming saints
            as we hear his Word
                        and receive his presence
            into our bodies
            in the intensity and breadth of the sacrament of his Body and Blood,
                        as we unite with the saints of all the ages,
            with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to proclaim:
holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts,
heaven and earth are full
            of thy glory.
Glory be to Thee, O Lord most high.