Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Thankfulness - for baptisms, weddings and funerals (for Remembrance Sunday)

As any Anglican priest will tell you, one of the privileges of parochial ministry is what might be in a throw away phrase termed ‘hatch, match and dispatch.’  It is an honour to help those who come to articulate thanksgiving for the safe arrival of a new life and dedicating them to the God who brings all things into being, to give words to the celebratory love between two people as they commit themselves to each other for the rest of their days, and in a dignified way to acknowledge the pain of a relationship ended by death and to speak and seek hope.

Last week we reminded ourselves that a sense  of thankfulness runs like a golden thread through these weeks of the Kingdom.  As we heard Jesus’ Beatitudes we thought more about a sense of thankfulness for the pilgrim people of God. And on All Saints Sunday, specially the Christian men and women who have heard the call of Christ and who in their ordinary humanity, have been a blessing to others in our journey of faith. It is in their ordinariness that I experience the holiness of God. Through them I continue to see the face of Christ and hear His voice.

Today I am thankful for the church being there at the milestones of life, and in baptisms, weddings and funerals, reminding us of the constant presence of God throughout life, and I encourage you to be too.

Aside from the archaic and maybe even slightly threatening nature of this parable of Jesus - at it’s heart is the story of a wedding. But as anyone will tell you, the time of waiting between fumbling to put the engagement ring on a finger to uttering the closing words of the vow ‘… according to God’s holy law. I the presence of God I make this vow’ can seem intolerably long.  Yet the waiting to wed involves an active waiting with plenty to organise and plan. The privilege of taking a couple’s wedding is meeting a loving couple, establishing a relationship with them, and enabling them to articulate their love for and commitment to each other surrounded by their closest and in the presence of the God of Love, through all things that are to come.

St Paul then brings us to the final stages of life’s dance. Having rejoiced at the enlarging of love as a child is brought into the world - a mystery that induces deep thankfulness in most of us, when our most intimate relationships with others end, we come crashing down.  St Paul, writing to the Thessalonian Christians, speaks of the hope of Christian faith in the face of death because of the Resurrection of Jesus. But as anyone will tell you, the time of waiting between our loved one taking their last breath to the words ‘… earth to earth, ashes, dust to dust…’ can seem intolerably long.  Yet the waiting to commend and commit someone to God involves an active waiting with plenty to organise and plan. The privilege of taking someone’s funeral is meeting with those who mourn, establishing a relationship with them, and enabling them to articulate their love for the person who has died and grief with those who surround them with their love in the presence of God - the Lord of life and death.

Today I am thankful for when the pilgrim people of God - the church - who has helped me to articulate my emotions into words, and walked alongside me as I committed myself to walk with my wife into the future for better or worse, those who rejoiced with us at the arrival of children and consoled us when it gets hard, and who silently wept with us at the death of those whom we have loved as we remember them as we have committed them to God.

The word ‘remember’ literally re-member, means to bring something from the past into the present. It is an emotional act with a strangely physical aspect to it.  As we remember the cost of all war but perhaps this year of all years the human cost of the First World War, and we remember all those who have and continue give their lives in the cause of peace, so we should also remember those who have pilgrimed with us in our life journey.  General Maslov writing at the end of WWII described German children crying as they searched desperately for their parents in a blazing town. ‘What was surprising,’ wrote Maslov, ‘was that they were crying in exactly the way that our children cry.’ After Nazi propaganda had dehumanised the Slavs, Soviet revenge propaganda had convinced its citizens that all Germans were ravening beasts…’

Reflecting on the brutality and inhumanity of Auschwitz, Thomas Merton wrote that in order for something like Auschwitz to happen, ‘…It is enough to affirm one basic principle: anyone belonging to class x or nation y or race z is to be regarded as subhuman and worthless, and consequently has no right to exist. All the rest will follow without difficulty… As long as this principle is easily available, as long as it is taken for granted, as long as it can be spread out on the front pages at a moment’s notice and accepted by all, we have no need of monsters: ordinary policemen and good citizens will take care of everything…’

That is, accepting caricatures of inhumanity can too easily turn ordinary people inhuman. Surely Remembrance must be at least in part about reminding ourselves that other people whoever they are, are not caricatures, not beasts, but other human beings who walk with us in life. These have people children, who cry like our own; who love and commit to love and who grieve at the ending of those relationships by death.  These are women and men, who may be strangers but also could be our friends.

On this Remembrance Sunday I re-member with you those who gave and continue to give their lives in war to maintain our relative peace and long that swords be turned to plough shares and spears turned to pruning hooks and that nation should not turn against nation and not learn war any more as it says in Scripture, but I also re-member all those of God’s pilgrim people - who have rejoiced with us in our joys and weep with us in our sadnesses - including you - those who once were strangers and are now becoming friends as we pilgrim on together knowing the truth of the words of Job revealed in the resurrection of Christ:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,

then in my flesh I shall see God.”

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Thankfulness - for the people of God

The four weeks that lie ahead of us are often called the Kingdom Season.  It is not really a separate ‘season', like Epiphany or Lent, but it feels like one and is often treated as one. 

A favourite image of the Church is of a pilgrim people and throughout  the Church year we travel with Jesus in the readings, sermons and prayers.  We witness the birth of Christ, we listen to his teaching, we are there at his crucifixion, and we celebrate his resurrection. 

Everything we've worked for throughout the year is now coming to its conclusion in the Kingdom Season.  This is when we come to understand what this has meant in the lives of Christian men and women throughout the ages.    

November starts with All Saints' and All Souls' Days, but during the next three weeks 23 Christian monarchs, priests, teachers of the faith, or mystics are remembered by name - and the church remains thankful for their witness with a myriad of others both named and unnamed in the lectionary and in our own lives.  The final Sunday of the season celebrates Christ as King.  God's work is completed and we wait for the New Kingdom to be revealed in all its fullness.

It is this sense of thankfulness that runs, often unseen, throughout these weeks as the Christian year draws to its conclusion and as we long for the completion of the work of God in Christ and in each of us. That sense of thankfulness will be a special focus for our thoughts and in sermons over the next three weeks. So today I am thankful for the people of God - and I encourage you to be too.

Jesus says blessed are those people who find life unfulfilling, who grieve the loss of a loved one, who are unassuming and don’t push themselves forward, who strive for that which is right, who do not retaliate, who are good from the inside out, who bring sections of the community together, who are kicked around by others especially for what they believe - they find the favour of God. They will be happy in the end.

This sense of blessedness, of happiness is not the reward for enduring awfulness now. Blessedness says Jesus does not describe a divine future but a present reality, life in the now, but therefore what sort of a world do they describe? Certainly not our own. 

“Blessed are the meek”, says Jesus, but in our world the meek don’t get the land, they get left holding the worthless beans. “Blessed are those who mourn”, says Jesus, but in our world mourning may be tolerated for a while, but soon we will ask you to pull yourself together and move on. “Blessed are the pure in heart”, says Jesus, but in our world such people are dismissed as hopelessly naïve.

Even in an age of austerity our national creed is one of optimism (not mourning), confidence (not poverty of spirit), and abundance (not hunger or thirst of any kind), and it is in service of such things that we invoke and assume the blessing of God. And so we live by other beatitudes:

Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.
Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.
Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.
If we are honest, we must admit that the world Jesus asserts as fact, is not the world we have made for ourselves.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus cannot very well insist that we become poor in spirit if we aren’t, but He can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world. In that sense on this All Saints Sunday, the Beatitudes testify that it matters deeply whom we call “saint.”

Today friends I am thankful for the ordinary pilgrim people of God down the ages who have tried to live out and live by these blessings. They may not have done it perfectly, in fact I rejoice in the fact that in most cases they haven’t. I take heart that most of them are under-educated, lack connections and who never had much but are content with the lot that God gives them.  In that ordinariness I see the holiness of Christ because they have tried to follow Him and it’s that for which I am thankful, for in and through many of them, I have found and continue to find a deeper faith.

I am thankful for Flo Allen a now long dead unremarkable Lancashire lady who lacked status & influence and yet whose simple passion for Jesus helped literally thousands of local children explore faith for themselves.  I am thankful for Canon Ben Eaton a gregarious international American who grew up in the Lebanon, studied theology in Puerto Rico, and served the church in the slums of Equador,in Barcelona and Paris who shared with me an all who encountered him the extravagant generosity and hospitality of Christ in the Eucharist.  I am deeply grateful for Gertie Gascoigne now in glory with her Lord, a now almost certainly forgotten lady of faith who as I shared Communion at home with her, with the consecrated elements balanced precariously on a on a tea stained planter, and in those moments I saw and met Christ for myself.

For these and for you I am thankful.  There isn’t a tricky point to make here save that when God made human beings in His image, He meant that always, and when He promised to come amongst us in Christ I believe that He did and did not mean once only but always. 

What this means on this All Saints Sunday is that today I am thankful for all the Holy Ones of God, whenever and wherever they may be found - including you - because in you I see and hear Christ, I learn from Him with and through you and I am encouraged and supported and challenged by Him through you.  On this All Saints Sunday I encourage you to ponder for a moment on who continues to support and encourage you in your journey of faith, to be thankful to God for them, and maybe if you can - tell them and tell them why.