Monday, 28 June 2021

'His name is John': a patronal festival homily

Preached as a sermon at the Minster Church of St John the Baptist, Croydon. Readings: Isaiah 401.1-11; Luke 1.57-66,80




‘His name is John’! And the name John means ‘the Lord is gracious’.


Today is our patronal festival, that is to say the festival when we celebrate our patron saint.


And that patron saint is St John the Baptist.


A patron, according to the dictionary, can be a couple of things.


First a patron is ‘a customer, especially a regular one, of a shop, restaurant or theatre’. That doesn’t sound quite the sort of patron we’re talking about here. John the Baptist doesn’t drop by to take in a show at the Minster: he’s not that sort of patron.


Another definition is ‘a person who gives financial or other support to a person, organization, cause, or activity’. Well, John doesn’t give us any financial support, he’s not on the direct debit planned giving scheme and he doesn’t use GiftAid. So what are we talking about here?


A patron saint has a deeper function and gives other support.


As Bishop Rowan Williams says, ‘Patron saints are not there to be benign mascots; they are given so that nations and groups and individuals may have identifiable friends in the company of heaven who will give a particular direction and sharpness to the challenges of the gospel.’


What a beautiful thought, that here at this church, we have an ‘identifiable friend in the company of heaven’.


The Christian understanding of the Communion of Saints isn’t of a mush of people who have died, like drops making up a pool, but individuals whose identity is magnified as they praise God and pray for us on earth. So we can have an identifiable friend in heaven.


That patron saint, our identifiable friend in heaven, prays for us: there is nothing more encouraging than to know that your friend, living or departed, is praying for you at the throne of grace.


Our identifiable friend in heaven is an example to us in the living out of the gospel: there is nothing more inspiring than the example of a friend. A Christian friend’s life helps us in being a Christian.


And as Rowan Williams says, our patron saint, our identifiable friend in heaven, ‘gives a particular direction and sharpness to the challenges of the gospel.’


You can certainly say that of John the Baptist.


Before I came to Croydon, I have to confess that I hadn’t really thought a huge amount about him, other than that he was a bit weird, somewhat off putting and rather remote.


I was, of course, aware of his high profile during the season of Advent, when he is identified as the one who proclaims the coming Christ and fulfilling the text of our first reading: John’s is the voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’.


But since I have been here I have pondered John much more. I ask his prayers for me, for you and our church. He has become my friend in the Communion of Saints!


And his example stirs and inspires me in my ministry here, and I hope all of us in our Christian faith.


Accounts of John begin with his childhood: let us rejoice in the presence of children and young people in our midst and ensure they are served and nurtured: that is a gift adult disciples can give to the young.


John the Baptist takes us to the heart of the matter, away from the fripperies and distractions: John leads us to a deep encounter with Jesus Christ.


John knows that his mission and ministry is to point people to Jesus Christ. And that he does.


He makes himself unpopular by speaking the truth, rebuking those who exploit the poor, and the tyrant King Herod, to the cost of his life.


What integrity. John the Baptist puts the grit back into integrity!


John is intensely humble and aware of who he is, ‘I am not worthy to untie the thong of Christ’s sandal’.


John’s blunt and direct: turn away from sin; turn to God.


In all of that John does not want to get in the way of his message: ‘Christ must increase; I must decrease’ (John 3.30). A bit like St Paul saying, ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20)


Ultimately John tells us to look beyond himself to the very heart of the matter, to the depth of the mystery of God revealed in the one he calls the ‘Lamb of God’: it’s my message, not me.


John says to us, as our gritty, personal friend, ‘Behold. Look. See. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.


We sing John’s words at every Eucharist, ‘O Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy upon us. Grant us peace’. In doing so we adore Jesus Christ; and John’s task is realised.


For this is where we come to behold, and to meet, Jesus Christ in his word and sacrament.


In John the Baptist, we have a friend in heaven, whose powerful prayers we ask for in our daily lives as disciples of Christ and in the ministry and mission of Christ’s church.


V. Pray for us, O glorious St. John the Baptist,

R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Finding deep peace in the storms of life

Preached as sermon at Croydon Minster on Sunday 20th June 2021. Readings: Job 38.1-11; Mark 4.35-41.



Last Friday morning I was standing in a queue outside the Lidl on Church Street, in the middle of a heavy downpour, waiting for the shop to open.


The great thing about a priest wearing a clerical collar is that people react. It’s either by studiously ignoring you; or being pretty rude; or being really rather pleased to see a priest and engaging in conversation. To be honest sometimes those conversations can be pretty off the wall and, at other times, really heart-warming and transformative.


So it was that I stood in the rain - dog collar on and umbrella in hand - when a woman struck up a conversation. As we talked, both getting soaked, she spoke about her experience of lockdown.


She talked about her faith and about the church.


She said how the lockdowns had brought her to a greater realisation of her need for prayer and the sense of the power of God working in her life. She sought a power greater than herself in the great storms of life.


The storm of the pandemic blew up as if from nowhere, catching us all off guard.


Sometimes, of course, we know a storm is coming. Storms, literal or metaphorical, are disorientating and frightening.


That’s true of a mental or physical health episode, or when addiction or dependence just can’t be shaken off, or when money has run out, or debt becomes overbearing, or when life just crowds in on us.


So that woman in the queue had sought help from God in the storm she faced. Prayer became her lifeline and kept her in touch with the peace of God which passes all understanding.


She could not still the storm, but she knew someone who could!


That takes us to this morning’s gospel reading.


Jesus has been teaching the crowds about the Kingdom of God (Mark 4.26-34). There were so many people who wanted to hear him that he had spoken from a boat as the crowd stood on the lakeside.


By evening Jesus was clearly exhausted, so they set off away from the crowds on the tranquil Sea of Galilee. And Jesus fell asleep.


Then the storm blew up.


If you have been to the Holy Land you will know that the Sea of Galilee, which is a large inland lake really, is open on one side and surrounded by hills.


Storms can blow up very quickly on the lake, just as they can in our lives too, out of nowhere, and they disrupt and frighten.


The wind squalls around and waves crash in on those in the little boat.


Let’s just observe the detail for a moment. Jesus is asleep, but the experienced fishermen, well used to the storms on Galilee, are the ones who panic, they are ‘at their wits’ end’ as our psalm today put it. (cf Psalm 107.23-29). That psalm is a good commentary on the gospel reading.


What’s going on? What can we extract from this passage as we ponder the storms of life, the confusions, the sense of being tossed about and at the mercy of forces beyond our control?


As our first reading from the book of Job makes clear we fool ourselves when we think we are in control, when we have everything sorted, ordered just as we want it.


An ancient heresy, known as Pelagianism has a modern form: it’s when we say ‘I’ve got it all sorted, mapped out, planned. By my own effort I will overcome’. It is when we believe we don’t need the grace of God.


But, God asks Job, rhetorically, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’


In other words, you won’t find salvation within yourself, but you will when you reach out in faith and trust and cry out to me.


As Psalm 107 says of ‘they that go down to the sea in ships’ (23):


So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble: he delivereth them out of their distress.

For he maketh the storm to cease: so that the waves thereof are still’ (Psalm 107.28,29)


It is when we acknowledge our dependency upon God in the storms of life that we will find our true haven, our place of rest, tranquillity and shelter from the storms.


Storms will blow up again, personal, national, global and spiritual, but we know where to cry out.


As the psalm again says, ‘Then were they glad because they were at rest, and he brought them to the haven they desired’ (Psalm 107.30).


They woke the sleeping Christ and found peace: ‘peace. Be still’.


Christ sleeps, not because he doesn’t care that we are perishing, but rather that he embodies a deep peace and tranquillity that is of God and available to us in union with the Divine Life.


Here we see Jesus truly human; truly divine: gently sleeping; firmly speaking and rebuking the storm. No wonder the disciples ask, agog, ‘who then is this?’


This is the Lover of your soul: Jesus Christ, the image, the presence, the power of God who can calm the storms in your life too.


We call upon him to receive the peace of God which passes all understanding, the peace flowing from the altar, the peace we come to meet now in this ship of faith, meeting Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar:


Sweet Sacrament of rest,

ark from the ocean's roar,

within thy shelter blest

soon may we reach the shore;

save us, for still the tempest raves,

save, lest we sink beneath the waves:

sweet Sacrament of rest.


‘Sweet Sacrament, divine’, Francis Stanfield 1835-1914



Monday, 14 June 2021

Deep roots; flourishing canopy

A sermon preached at Croydon Minster on 2nd Sunday after Trinity. Readings: Ezekiel 17.22-end; Mark 4.26-34




What is the Kingdom of God like?


The Kingdom of God is a major concept in the teaching of Jesus. It sounds like a place or destination, but Jesus is clear it’s not like that. Or it sounds like a monarchy, the Kingdom of God, but it’s not to be confused with the trappings of royal power.


Perhaps the Kingdom of God is better thought of as the ‘reign of God’ or the ‘time of God’.


The time of God is both internal - within you – and external, a social and practical reality; it’s here already but yet fully to be revealed; it straddles earth and heaven: hence Jesus teaches us to pray, ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’.


In finding out what the Kingdom might look like Jesus gives us the parables. These are short stories and images from which we can extract deeper meaning. They speak to our imaginations and hearts first of all. Intellectual dissection of them deadens their impact. Just go with them!


The parables give us perspectives on the Kingdom and glimpses of it. ‘What can I compare the Kingdom to,’ Jesus asks, ‘what can I say it’s like? Well, it’s as if…’


A parable is Jesus’ way of saying ‘come with me into the reign and time of God’.


Today we’re given seeds; sprouting seeds; growing seeds; fruitful seeds.


Much of the growth of a seed is utterly unseen, hidden. Deep and sustaining spiritual growth happens hidden and unseen from the world, even from ourselves.


This deep growth is rooted in prayer and faithful understanding of God’s purpose. Like the seed underground it grows despite our activity, or lack of. It’s this spirit that monastic and religious communities adopt. It’s a feature of the monastic life. As a contemplative community of nuns, the Trappistines, says of their life: ‘ordinary, obscure, laborious’.


Our Church of England has been seduced, in recent years, into thinking that glitzy, eye-catching growth is what it’s all about. We have become a church obsessed with harvest and not with the sowing of the seed and the deep patient growth associated with it.


TS Eliot said, ‘Take no thought of the harvest but only of the proper sowing’. We’re not in a high yield results game, but about the Kingdom of God, and that needs proper sowing and cultivation.


Deep roots make for greater growth.


And at the end the harvest is undertaken, not by a ‘grim reaper’, but by Jesus Christ who celebrates the fruitfulness of the adoration of God, acts of love and mercy, moments of revealing the light and presence of God in dark and despairing situations: the time of God.


That fruitfulness comes from patient, prayerful growth: ordinary; hidden; unseen.


This first parable tells us that God’s Kingdom, and being part of it, is about growth with deep roots.


After all, a tree can grow a huge canopy, but without deep roots it has no anchor in the storm and it topples over or in a drought has nothing to draw on.


That’s true of each of us and the church. Without deep roots we topple over, we whither, and this leads to spiritual death. Prayer, faithful receiving of the sacraments, adoration of Christ deepens those roots.


The second parable assumes those deep roots but focuses more on the canopy of the tree.


But first it tells us that great things can come from small beginnings. We see that in Christ. The helpless baby in the manger, is the cosmic Saviour of the world! Twelve disciples propel the Gospel to the ends of the earth. St Therese of Lisieux encourages us: ‘do little things with great love’.


We also learnt that the canopy of the great tree doesn’t just exist for the benefit of the tree. Of course, the branches and leaves exist both to keep the tree alive – photosynthesis and all that – but they also exist to provide shelter to those outside themselves.


In the parable the birds of the air make nests in the shade of its branches. What a beautiful image of the hospitality the church is called to give to people, shading them from the heat of the day and scorching sun. Helping them find their place in the Kingdom of God.


How can we give shade in the scorching sun to the person who is a refugee, homeless, a spiritual searcher, a fugitive or someone whose life has messed up beyond recognition?


These two little parables speak of us being, like a tree, rooted in reality, in the earth, and yet reaching to the heavens.


The cross on which Christ died is similarly planted in the earth and yet reaches to the heavens. Christ’s humanity and divinity laid bare before us.


The arms of Jesus Christ stretched out on that cross, become like branches that invite us to shelter under the canopy of God.


His loving, Sacred Heart wounded and bleeding for us is revealed to the world so that ‘Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith – so that being rooted and grounded in love, [we] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3.17-19).


This reality and mystery we meet now in receiving his body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament and so doing we are standing in the Kingdom, the reign, the time of God.


Here are some words of the prophet Jeremiah to conclude:


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)


Monday, 7 June 2021

Life in the Household

 Preached as sermon at Croydon Minster 6th June 2021. Readings: Genesis 3.8-15; Mark 3.20-end.

‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’




Our gospel reading is a tale of two households; two very different households!


One is the household headed up by the adversary of God, the enemy of our human nature, Satan, a.k.a. the One Who Scatters (‘o diabolos). This is a household at enmity, marked by division and fracture. It’s a dystopian household where egos reign and clash, where no attempt is made to relate graciously to one another. It's typically human, and Genesis identifies it as human behaviour from the beginning, embedded in who we are.


The other household, by contrast, is empowered by the Holy Spirit. In this household people seeking Christ, come together and relate to one another, in deepening and flourishing relationships. The words of a psalm come to mind: ‘how very good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity’ (Psalm 133.1).


This is the work of the Holy Spirit: God’s capacity to weave together disparate people; a bit like us now.


In fact, just like us now. This passage is pointing to the indispensability of the Church in the unfolding of the Gospel and the deliverance of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not an ‘out there’ remote dream, but God’s reality blossoming through the Church, the web of relationships around Jesus Christ, in heaven and earth.


Life lived in this household of Christ, has three key implications for us: ecclesial, political and personal.


Ecclesial. That means things to do with the Church. The Church is the household of God where we are schooled and our habits shaped in ways that deeply echo the Kingdom of God: here we relinquish egotism, we give up self to become truly ourselves, in Christ.


As Jesus died on the cross this re-fashioning of relationships began. Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ And to his beloved disciple he said, ‘Here is your mother’. ‘And from that hour’, we read, ‘the disciple took her into his own home’ (John 19.26,27) It shows Jesus’ words in action: ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’


Discipleship is the commitment to, and way of patiently growing within the household of Christ, marked by the sign of the cross.


Audaciously, we claim in baptism that our relationships in the Church go even deeper than race or heritage, biology or shared DNA: we are brothers and sisters in Christ as those who seek the will of God. That’s a big claim at a time when, in the culture, identity and affiliation is framed in terms that divide rather than reconcile.


By placing ourselves here this morning at the Eucharist we come to shape our lives, preferences and habits towards Christ, towards life in the Spirit, in the many mansions of the Father’s house.


We are here because we are inhabitants of the household of faith, hope and love; the household of Christ; the household of the Church!


There is a political dimension to being part of the household of Christ. Politics is the ordering of the polis, the polis is the shared space of a community’s life, what we call ‘society’ or ‘the culture’. As Christians we need to be confident that we should engage in the life of society and the culture, influence and shape them after the Kingdom of God.


If the values of the household of the Church mean anything, they mean that we have something to say to the big questions of our day: how we order our lives together as human beings; what the household of our nation, or global society, could look like. That means speaking about taxes, vaccine availability, the environment and such like. All the more as the G7 meets this week.


St Augustine of Hippo, the great North African bishop of the fourth century, didn’t shy away from how we order society to reflect the Kingdom of God. He wrestles with this theme in his great work De civitate Dei, City of God, where he contrasts the city of those who do the will of God and those who refuse it: totally today’s gospel theme.


We pursue a just and equitable society, where there is no want, where everyone can be free and honoured, where the burdens of the weak are supported by the strong. That’s not because we’re of the left or of the right, but because it’s the vision found in the gospels and in the Book of Revelation where the earthly city is swept up into heaven gathered around the throne of the Lamb.


That is why the Church engages wholeheartedly in politics, it’s about shaping our local, national and global household, so that all may be brothers and sisters of one another.


To stay locked in, or withdraw, makes us just quite worthy, probably good and pious individuals. We can and should shape society. And we can do much better than sniping at politicians or blaming those who think differently from us - I am thinking of the Bishop of St David’s here – for politicians have rolled up their sleeves to shape society. Do pray for all Christian politicians around the world.


This may all sound big and highfaluting. The vision of Christ’s household is even more than global; it’s cosmic. But it is also deeply personal. Not private. Personal.


Ultimately we have to ask, how do I order the household of my own soul, mind and body? Is it a place where the Holy Spirt leads and guides; is it divided amongst itself; does it reflect the Kingdom’s priorities? Is the household of my soul filled with faith, hope and love?


Brothers and sisters! That is a big task. As we gather at the altar in our household let us rejoice in one another, and commit ourselves to live out the coming Kingdom of God.