Sunday, 30 November 2014

Advent Sunday: At the very gates

 Isaiah 64.1-9, 1 Cor 1.3-9, Mark13.24-37

I overheard a small child talking to her mother outside a shop last week. It must have been a hard day because mum sounded quite frazzled even before this exchange took place, but the little girl had seen the Christmas decorations on sale in the shop, and she was full of excitement. “Mum, can we put up our Christmas tree when we get home…” The thought of whatever that might involve was too much for her mum. She thought for a moment, and then, as if she was reading from some book of unbreakable laws, she announced . “No – I’m sorry - you can’t put Christmas trees up until it’s December…”  Well, I suppose  at least she bought herself a few days’ grace …

It was a fascinating little exchange because it illustrated what I think really was the perception of both mother and daughter. December was the month for putting up the Christmas decorations. The celebrations kicked off on December 1, and continued – probably quite frantically – until Boxing Day, at which point everyone collapsed in a heap of tinsel and leftover turkey to recover. At this point , though, that mum had it all ahead of her, and she wasn’t looking forward to it one bit.

Of course, here in Church things are rather different. As everyone else is putting up decorations we are taking them down, stripping the church of flowers, dressing it in sombre purples. And the readings we’ve heard today – well, they’re not exactly Christmassy either. There are no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or reindeer with shiny noses. It all seems to be suffering and calamity. “In those days,” says Jesus ” the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the heaven and the powers of the heavens will be shaking…” Well, Season’s Greetings to you too, Jesus…!

It can be quite difficult explaining to people why the Church is so much at odds with the rest of the world during Advent, with readings full of doom and gloom and calls to repentance.   Are we just a bunch of kill-joys who are never happy unless we are miserable? That can certainly be the case, but it’s not really what is going on when we stubbornly cling to the penitential, reflective nature of these weeks leading up to Christmas.

The fact is that we need to start here, like this, with penitence, with sorrow, with longing, because Christian faith is about reality – my real life, your real life, the real lives of those around us, and real life is not all a bed of roses, or of tinsel either.

Earlier this week I heard an interview with someone who was talking about the introduction of the new Universal Credit system for paying benefits, which is proving very tricky to set up. The interviewee, who’d been brought in to try to sort things out, said that part of the problem was that the bodies responsible for it suffered from what he called “a culture of good news”. That sounded odd. I wondered if I had heard right, but that was what he’d said – a culture of good news. What he meant was that everyone was determined to say how wonderful everything was and how well everything was going, even when it wasn’t. The “good news” was really a lie, of course – the news wasn’t good at all - but it made people feel better in the short term to pretend it was. Perhaps it was a kindly instinct, wanting to sound encouraging. Perhaps it was just defensiveness, wanting to ward off criticism. But the relentless positivity meant that no one could ever admit that anything needed to change or improve, and so nothing did.

We all do this sometimes. I don’t think it is just pride – wanting to look good in the eyes of others. I don’t think it is just laziness either – not wanting to pull our fingers out and make the effort to change. I think it runs deeper than that.

It seems to me that we often take refuge in this false “culture of good news”, because we don’t believe that anything can really be done about the things that are wrong in our lives or in our world. The “culture of good news” masks a culture of despair. What’s the point of admitting things need to change if we can’t change them? So let’s pretend that everything is fine, talk ourselves up, talk each other up, even if there is no foundation for that, even it if means we come crashing down all the harder in the end.

So when the Bible goes all apocalyptic on us, proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh, it’s no wonder we’d rather skate quickly over it. The end of the world is about as bad as it gets, after all, and it certainly beyond any of our powers to sort out. We certainly don’t want to dwell on it with Christmas just around the corner. Let’s hurry on quickly to the baby in the manger, and the angels singing, and all that nice, cosy, tinselly stuff that makes us feel good. There’s a danger, though, that when we do that, we are simply buying into our own version of  that false “culture of good news” and that leaves us not just with a theological problem but with a personal one to, because Christian faith, as I said, is about reality, real lives, yours and mine.

It’s ironic, because the message of the Gospels is all about Good News  – that’s what the word “Gospel” means – but it’s genuine good news we are being offered, not something that’s just designed to shield us from the truth.

To understand the difference, to find Good News that is real, we need to spend time with these uncomfortable readings that say things which we’d rather not hear.
Most of us probably don’t take these apocalyptic words of Jesus literally, but you don’t have to take them literally to appreciate their power.
Jesus can see that disaster is looming. The Romans occupied the land and Israel was always on the brink of catastrophe. It eventually came in AD70, when the Romans lost patience and destroyed Jerusalem, sending its people into an exile which really only ended in the 20th Century.

Whether we take Jesus’ words about the sun and moon and stars failing as literal predictions or not, we can see that those who went through the events which were just around the corner would have felt as if this is what was happening. It wasn’t just a political event for them, but a cosmic one. It affected their whole world and that’s something we can all identify with at some level. Things happen that might as well be the end of the world for us, too, things that change our lives irrevocably. It feels as if the sun has gone out. It might be the diagnosis of serious illness, the end of a relationship or the loss of a job or home. It might be war, which destroys communities for ever, or epidemic diseases like Ebola or Aids, which take away lives and futures. It is International Aids day tomorrow, and a good time to remember that for many, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, this is still a massive scourge, which has wrecked families, wiping out whole generations and leaving children orphaned. Calamity can be just around the corner, and we have no idea it’s coming. And when it does come it can so easily feel as if there is no future left to look forward to.

But the Gospel says that the disaster is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. “When you see these things,” says Jesus, these disastrous things, “ you know that he is near” - the Son of Man, the one who represents God.  The time when things are at their bleakest, when we are faced by tragedy that seems cosmic in scale, as if the stars are falling, is the moment , he says, when God is “at the very gates” , the gates of our lives, the gates of our hearts. This is the moment, if we are prepared to acknowledge our need, if we are prepared to let him, that God can come into our lives anew, and who knows what can happen then?

That’s why Advent matters. These few weeks help us to own up to the fact that actually, we can’t do it; we can’t sort ourselves out, we can’t prevent bad things happening, we can’t, however superhuman our efforts, sort out all the pain of the world. It is the time when we allow ourselves to drop that false “culture of good news” for the truth that leads us to the real Good News, the news that we are eternally loved by the God who comes to us in Christ. When we do that, we find ourselves in a whole new world, with a whole new life ahead of us.
I’d like to finish with a poem by Jan Richardson, which really sums up this message far better than I can. It is called “Blessing when the World is Ending”.

Blessing When the World is Ending
Look, the world
is always ending

the sun has come
crashing down.

it has gone
completely dark.

it has ended
with the gun
the knife
the fist.

it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.

it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the television
the hospital room.

it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins

– Jan Richardson

© Jan Richardson.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Christ the King: Hopeful kingship

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It’s not an ancient feast. It was only instituted in 1925 by the then pope, Pius XI. He wanted a feast that made people think about power, who had it and how it should be exercised. It was just a few years after the end of the First World War, when people had images of that industrial scale, nameless, faceless slaughter in their minds. But the war hadn’t brought peace. Instead communism, fascism and nationalism were on the rise.  Pope Pius had been the previous Pope’s representative in Poland in 1920, when the Red Army of the new Soviet Union had advanced on it. He could see how destructive the new powers of this age could be. Towards the end of the 19th Century the Vatican had lost many of its old territories to the new united Italy, too, so the introduction of this feast certainly had an element of defensiveness about it, reasserting the power of the Catholic Church.

But however mixed the motivations for this feast might have been, I think it has a valid place in the Church’s year. The point that Pius was making was that above and beyond the empires of the world was the kingdom and kingship of God. The Red Army might be on the march, but Christ was on the throne of heaven. Fascism and nationalism might be gaining ground, but God still reigned. He was saying that the power of God is greater than the powers of the world. That included, of course, the power of the Church, though I don’t know if Pius would have seen it this way.

Christ is king, says this feast, not our human ideologies and economic structures, however powerful they seem.

But what does that mean?
Christ is king. It sounds great. But what does it mean?

What does it mean to say that Christ is king if you are suffering from Ebola, or have just lost your family to it?
What does it mean to say that Christ is king if you are homeless and living on the streets as winter sets in?
What does it mean to say that Christ is king if your life has gone haywire, if you are suffering from depression that nothing seems able to lift, if some terrible wrong has been done to you for which there is no redress?

If that’s your life, then simply declaring that Christ is king won’t do, however loudly and splendidly we proclaim it.

Most people throughout human history would have assumed that the first job of a king, or any other leader, was to keep their subjects safe, to provide for them. The word Lord comes from the Anglo-Saxon Hlaford, which means loaf giver. If you couldn’t come up with the bread to feed people, how could you expect them to follow you?  Often people feel the same about God. “What does it mean to say that Christ is king when this bad thing has happened to me?” they ask, quite understandably.

There aren’t any easy answers to that question, and it’s not a new one. People throughout the ages have asked it. We live in a world in which bad things happen, often for no reason we can fathom. It’s no surprise that people sometimes lose their faith in these situations.
What truly ought to surprise us, though, is that is that so many others keep theirs, or indeed find faith for the first time. Yet, in my experience,this is what often happens. “I wouldn’t have been able to get through this” they say, “if I didn’t have my faith to support me.” The tough things might still be tough. They may be clinging to faith by their fingertips, but they know it matters to them that they hang onto it, because God is in their somewhere. They may have met him in the stillness of prayer or in worship or in the words of the Bible. They may have met him in the love of others – often we need others to hold onto faith for us for a while when we can’t hold onto it ourselves. However it has happened, though, they’ve discovered that they’re not alone, and that’s given them the strength they need to keep going.

It seems to me that the Anglo-Saxons may have been wrong to equate Lordship with loaf-giving. Of course people will follow someone who fills their bellies in the short-term. But what we really need in times of crisis isn’t just short-term sustenance, but long-term hope. We need a sense of confidence that we can get through this, that there is a future, even if it is different from the one we’d imagine, that something good can come out of the present mess, even if we don’t get to see it this side of death.  A good leader has to believe that there is a future worth leading people towards, otherwise, why would they bother to lead at all? They have to be hopeful that the situation can change, and they have to be hopeful as well for the people they are leading, believing that they are worth encouraging, that they matter.

Paul felt that way about the Christians in Ephesus. My guess is that they weren’t too different from any of the rest of us, each one a mix of good, bad and ugly, each one with their faults, but Paul looks at them and gives thanks for their faith and love. These are people, he says, who are called by God to a “glorious inheritance”, people with a future, people whose lives are of such great value to God that he sent his son among them to go through the darkness of death with them. They may think they are just Joe Bloggs from some back street of Ephesus, but Paul tells them that God thinks they are worth everything he has. “I pray…that you may know the hope to which he has called you” he says. If each one of them knows this for themselves, then they will surely treat themselves and each other with the care and respect God wants them to.

To go back to those questions I asked earlier, what does it mean to say that Christ is king when you are in the midst of a catastrophe like Ebola? Well, perhaps Christ’s kingship – that hope for the future - is seen in the shape of people like Will Pooley,  the nurse who went to Sierra Leone to help, contracted the disease and then, having survived, has gone back to help again. Scientific opinion, he says, suggests he is now immune – probably – but I’d want a bit more than “probably” if it were me. His actions show his sense of hope for the future of Sierra Leone and its people – they are worth the risk he is taking. I don’t know whether Will Pooley has any religious belief at all, but I am quite certain that God is present in the work he is doing, and that the Ebola hospitals where he and so many others are working , and often dying, are holy places.

And that brings us to the Gospel reading which is also about holy places, places where people have encountered God. What is the difference between the sheep and the goats in the parable Jesus tells? Both groups met the same people – people who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, in prison. The difference is that only one group saw them as people who had a future, people for whom they had hope.

There are a lot of things going on when we turn away from people in need. We might be afraid or exhausted, or have no idea how to help, but fundamentally, whether we like it or not, if we ignore the suffering of others we are saying something about whether we think there is any future in them and for them. If we knew that the person we were allowing to die of starvation in some famine struck land was the one person in the world who had the secret that would cure cancer, would we want to keep them alive? I bet we would. Yet who knows how many gifts are wasted because the people who bear them never get the chance to thrive, or even to live?  It’s not just about economic or scientific usefulness either. Love is worth nothing in economic terms, yet we know that if it was a loved one of ours who was in need, we’d go to the end of the earth to help them if we could. Their love makes all the difference to our lives. The person we write off as hopeless might be or become  the irreplaceable person in someone else’s life, the person who unlocks their potential and their power to love others. Who are we to know? Doesn’t that make them of infinite worth too?

A medieval theologian called Meister Eckhart wrote that “Every creature is a word of God.”  Which of God’s words isn’t worth hearing? What might we miss if we aren’t listening to some of what he says?  
After all, in Jesus’ parable, it isn’t the helpers who are the king in disguise, it is those who need the help. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” he says. Christ the king is found not just in those who give, but in those who receive too, in the whole, holy encounter. If we believe in God, we have to believe in people and hold onto hope for them, because God is present in them.

Christ is king, but, as Pope Pius wanted to remind people, his kingship doesn’t look like the kingship that most of the world, through most of history, has experienced. It is discovered when we find ourselves hoping, believing, trusting, that God is at work around us, even when everything seems to say he is absent.

I am reminded of the extraordinarily brave words of the parents of Abdul-RahmanKassig, the US hostage recently murdered by ISIS. “Our hearts are battered,” said his mother, “but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail as the One God of many names will prevail.”  Rather than letting the darkness overwhelm him,” his father went on “he has chosen to believe in the good – in himself and in others…. his life is evidence that he’s been right all along; one person can make a difference.”  Do we dare to believe this, for ourselves and for others too? Do we dare to live out that belief? The just and gentle rule of God takes hold in the world little by little whenever we do.


Monday, 17 November 2014

Second Sunday before Advent: Taking ourselves seriously

The prophet Zephaniah sounds like a real bundle of fun. Even the start of his prophecy is stark – “will you just shut up and listen to God for once” he begins, but frankly you can see why people might not want to.
We don’t know much about him, but he was probably writing in the couple of decades before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, and you didn’t have to be a prophet to see that the storm-clouds were on the horizon. Like anyone of his time, he assumed that if disaster fell on a nation it was probably that nation’s fault, and he didn’t have any problem with the idea that it was God’s punishment on them. Most people now would take a very different view of God, and would be horrified at the suggestion that he would deliberately inflict the kind of misery that Zephaniah describes.

Despite that, though, his words can still have something to say to us. He rails against people who say that “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm”. Not only are they blind to the other people around them, they are blind to God too.  They bury their heads in the sand, unwilling to accept that anything will disrupt the flow of their lives. They live in a bubble, entirely self-contained, sure that it can be “business as usual” for them. It’s an attitude we can just as easily find today. Climate change? What climate change? It is depressing to see people still trying to insist, in the face of all the scientific evidence, that it’s not happening, when communities in the poorest parts of the world are already being affected by it. We can fail to see the link between cause and effect in other ways too. If we allow inequality to increase, eventually it will come back and bite us, in the shape of social strife and the hollowing out of communities that we all, in the end, depend on. The Ebola crisis could have been averted if money had been ploughed into research to develop vaccines and treatment a generation ago, when it first emerged, but it wasn’t, because there wasn’t enough money in it. Now we see the result, and see that we are all threatened.  We tend to assume that if we’re ok, that’s all that matters, but sooner or later the chickens come home to roost. And when calamity falls, it affects everyone, whether they were actually to blame or not.

Zephaniah saw people behaving with no concern for justice, or for anyone except themselves. He could see that this would weaken the whole nation and make it all the more vulnerable to attack, and less able to cope with the aftermath of conquest. In the end, this would affect everyone. Maybe it wasn’t the “full and terrible end …of all the inhabitants of the earth”, but it would feel like it.  We don’t have to see this as punishment inflicted by God to see the truth in what he says. Actions have consequences. What we do matters, and often in ways that we hadn’t imagined.

Why do we behave like this, when we know deep down it will end in tears? There’s perhaps a clue in our Gospel reading. Jesus tells the story of a man who goes on a journey, leaving three of his servants in charge of varying amounts of his money. Two of them get to work, investing it, taking risks – and when the master comes back they have doubled his investment. They couldn’t guarantee that this would happen, and maybe some of their investments didn’t work out – perhaps they’d hoped to treble the money. But at least they did something.
The third one, though, just buries his money in a hole in the ground, and when the master comes back, brushes off the mud and gives it back. The master is furious. The money could have made him new friends. It could have helped others, built up a bank of social good, strengthening his community, which would have benefitted everyone in the end. But all the servant wanted to do was live a quiet life. “I knew that you were a harsh man” says the servant, as if that were likely to endear him to his master.
Jesus is telling us that we need to take our responsibilities seriously as members of the human race, children of God, his servants. What we do matters.

God isn’t the harsh master of the parable – parables are stories to help us explore faith, not neat allegories where x means this, and y means the other. God certainly isn’t the avenging despot of Zephaniah’s vision, but the point both of them makes is true. We are each given a precious gift, the gift of life, and we are called to use it in a way which brings love and justice, not simply for our own purposes, but for the good of all, because we are all in it together in the end. If we can do that, when the days of reckoning come, as they always do sooner or later, we will be ready to meet them.

In the silence tonight let’s take ourselves seriously, as God does, as people who make a difference, whether we mean to or not.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday 2014

I don’t know how many of you have been to see the art installation of ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London over these last few weeks. Many people have commented on how moving it is. 888,246 poppies; one for each British fatality in the First World War. The scale of the work is impressive, but so also is the fact that each one of those poppies represents an individual, someone with a name, a story, family, friends, people who mourned and missed them.

But for all its impressive scale, those poppies are really only scratching the surface of the impact of the War. It only counts those who died, and it only counts the British forces.
This was a World War, involving many nations, and it wasn’t only those who died who were affected by it. So here are some bigger numbers to think about. If we were to count the dead of all the nations who fought we’d need over 8 million poppies to include them all – that’s ten times as many, ten Tower of London moats. If we add in those who were wounded we’d need another 21 million. If we counted all those who fought – and surely no one came back untouched by what they’d seen, we would need over 65 million poppies. That’s how many troops were mobilised – 65 million.

Even then we wouldn’t be counting the women widowed, the children left fatherless, families who had to care for returning soldiers who never fully recovered physically or mentally. We wouldn’t be counting the civilians who were killed, injured or made homeless, the merchant seamen, the munitions workers whose jobs were dangerous…

This was a war that affected everyone, and its impact was long lasting; it shaped the following century in all sorts of ways. The current conflict in the Middle East has its roots in the rather arbitrary boundaries drawn after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War 1.

That’s why I called our Seal Church Remembrance  project “The Long Shadow” because it seems to me that we’re still living in the “long shadow” of that conflict. I’ve been asking people to think about how the First World War affected their families, and people have responded with all sorts of stories, which you can see pinned up at the back of church. There isn’t time to tell them all, but perhaps I can give you a flavour of them. There are stories of those who fought ,like Private Leonard Holdstock, who, as he advanced towards the German lines, saw his friend cut down by machine-gun fire, calling for his mother as he died. Private Holdstock was badly wounded too, but his relative, who told the story, wrote “When he finally recovered his senses everything was quiet and as he looked around he saw a German officer with a stretcher party, looking for wounded. The officer “finished off” any wounded who were deemed “too far gone”. On seeing this he thought he’d better look more alive than he felt and dragged himself to the stump of a tree upon which he rested.
Luckily he was picked up by the stretcher party and on doing so the German officer remarked in perfect English, “Today it’s you Tommy, tomorrow it could be us”.

There are stories on the board of soldiers who won medals, like my husband’s grandfather, who won the Military Cross and Croix de Guerre, but who somehow never really settled to anything in peacetime. There are stories of men too young to enlist legally, who lied about their ages to join up. One of them, at the age of 16, was killed at the Somme. His body was never found, but his mother lit a candle every night in the window just in case he might come home.  That was why I thought it was appropriate to put our candles in the windows today.

But alongside the stories of those who fought, there are the civilians’ stories too. Stories of women nursing the injured, perhaps working for the first time outside the home. Stories of women supporting from a distance, like Ann Bassett, who lived in Seal, and made over 100 shirts for soldiers during the war. She was rewarded afterwards with a basket of flowers. There are stories of civilian casualties – a draper’s assistant killed in a daylight bombing raid, something we normally associate more with the Second World War.  

There are stories of men in reserved occupations, farming or fishing, and men who were not fit enough to fight. They had their own challenges to face, given white feathers in the streets by people who had no idea why they weren’t in uniform and didn’t stop to ask.

Then there were the families left without the father, brother, son or husband they loved, and those who found that the man who came back was profoundly changed, like my own grandfather whose few months at Gallipoli left emotional scars that lasted the rest of his life.

Not all the effects of the war were negative. It shook up old expectations of class and gender. For some it provided the springboard into a whole new life; we also have stories of people who had been in service, but didn’t return to that way of life. However good the change though, no one would have wanted it to come at such a cost.

Do read the stories if you get the chance, and it’s not too late to add your own. The display will stay up in church till the end of the month, and then I will put the stories in a display folder to go at the back of the church.  

Our two Bible readings today came from thousands of years before the First World War, of course, but both of them could have found a place on our story board if we had been compiling it in their time, because they also speak of the individual cost of war and conflict. The first reading was the lament of David – later King David - on hearing of the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan in battle with the Philistines. David and Saul had been at loggerheads for many years – Saul was jealous of David’s popularity – but David mourned his loss anyway. He was God’s chosen king, deserving of respect. Jonathan, his son, was David’s dearest friend. When I hear service personnel talking today about war I often feel I can hear the echoes of David’s words. They speak movingly of the camaraderie they found in war, and the deep, deep wounds of losing friends who had faced battle with them. “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished.” Death strikes so suddenly, so randomly, in times of war. It has no respect for rank or status or how well you were loved. You mourn the loss of a comrade as if it were your own, knowing that if the bullet had gone a few metres to the right or left it would have been you who died.

Our second reading, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus, might seem at first glance to have nothing to do with war at all. We are so used to thinking of the crucifixion in religious, cosmic terms that we forget its flesh and blood reality. This is the story of a young man, in his early thirties, who falls foul of an occupying army, a young man who, to them, is just another troublemaker. He has been preaching change, freedom from oppression. It is non-violent change he advocates, the love of God that welcomes and transforms all, but that’s neither here nor there to the Romans. Any change is dangerous, so they crucify him, just as they have done many others before him.. It was always going to end this way – it didn’t take any kind of genius to see that they would have to get rid of him. So he is mocked and tortured by the soldiers, nailed to a cross, as an example to those who thought things could and should be different. It is a scenario that’s been repeated throughout human history in times of war and occupation. Most of those deaths have been swallowed up into obscurity, but each one was an individual too.

For Christians though, this death is special, and has never been forgotten. That is not because Jesus suffered more than others, and it’s not because, as an innocent man, he didn’t deserve to die like this; no one deserves to die like this. It is special because we believe that in it we see God revealed in a new way, and that helps us to understand and to bear all those other deaths we witness and endure. During Jesus’ life, those who knew him had the sense that they were seeing God at work in the world, God with them, sharing their lives. The crucifixion, on the face of it, looked like the withdrawal of that blessing, a total failure. But those who had eyes to see realised that even here, in fact supremely here, God was present. It’s the Roman centurion who realises this in Mark’s account. “Surely this was the Son of God!” he says. It is his job to see that Jesus dies; he can’t turn his head away. But, forced to watch, something about the way this man dies reveals to him that God is at work even here. And the good news is that if God is present in Jesus as he goes through the darkness of death, he can also be with us when we suffer, giving us hope and strength, teaching us to live differently, bringing light in our darkness.

I mentioned earlier that story of the mother who put a candle in the window in case her soldier son might come home. We put our candles in the windows here today as a prayer for all those whose stories we remember, and those whose stories are unknown, precious individuals, whether we know their names or not. Our “Long Shadow” project has, I think, brought some of those people home who were lost in war, or just lost in time, and made us aware of them in a new way. But I pray that our candles can also remind us that in God’s love, shown in Christ the Light of the world, we can all be brought home, assured of his welcome and his presence, in war and in peace, in life and death.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

All Saints: God's children now...

When anything extraordinary happens, whether good or bad, and the media turn up to interview local people about it, you can guarantee that someone will say that “you don’t expect things like that to happen around here…” We are always somehow surprised when a local person becomes an international sporting success or film star. We are just as surprised when some dreadful crime is found to have been committed by someone who lives around the corner from us. We just don’t expect it to happen in our own backyard. That is equally true of the saints that populate Christian history. We’re not surprised to find saints in Rome or Canterbury, but we probably don’t think that the place where we live is likely to grow saints of its own. In our case, though, if that’s what we think, we’d be wrong. Just down the road in Kemsing is the place where one of the most famous saints of the Anglo-Saxon church was born and grew up. Since Kemsing and Seal were one parish until 1874, I think that means we can claim her as ours too…

She is known as St Edith of Wilton, since  she ended up at Wilton Abbey, but this is the place where her early faith was formed. There was a very significant shrine dedicated to her in Kemsing in the Middle Ages. It was a stopping-off point on the pilgrimage route to Canterbury. The sacred well dedicated to her is still there, of course, by the Post Office. It was known as a place of healing, particularly for diseases of the eye – I don’t suggest you try it now… The Reformation stamped out many of the traditions associated with such shrines, but Edith has never been forgotten – our local girl made good.

It’s hard to be sure of all the historical details of her story; it has been much embroidered over time, but we do know that she was the daughter of an Anglo-Saxon king, known as Edgar the Peaceable. The name makes him sound like a fine upstanding chap, but actually he was anything but. He was only called Peaceable because  there were no major wars during his reign. In fact he was a bit of a lad. As a young man of about 18, having come to the throne a couple of years earlier, Edgar took a fancy to a noblewoman called Wilfrida. She was living in what was effectively a boarding school attached to the abbey at Wilton, schooled by the nuns there. Depending on which version of the story you prefer he either eloped with her or abducted her – it probably doesn’t make much difference though, since I doubt she had much choice in the matter. Having made off with her, though, he installed her in a royal residence which happened to be in Kemsing. There was no chance he would marry her; she wasn’t important enough for the dynastic marriage he would need to make. But that didn’t seem to bother him. Very soon she was expecting his child, and Edith was born in 961. Mother and daughter stayed at Kemsing through Edith’s childhood, but eventually Wilfrida managed to persuade Edgar to let them both return to the abbey at Wilton , where they  both became nuns – Wilfrida was eventually abbess there.

Edith soon gained a reputation for her goodness and piety, and evidently made a deep impression on those who knew her. Legend says that Edgar wanted her to become abbess of some other important convent, so he could spread his family’s influence around a bit, but that she refused. She wasn’t going to be used as a political pawn. Sadly she died very young at about 23, but very soon there were moves to have her declared a saint. Dunstan, the archbishop of Canterbury was all for it. But by this time Edgar had died too, and King Canute was on the throne, and the story goes that he was much more sceptical about this young  woman’s sanctity.  He had known her father, Edgar, and knew the kind of life he’d led – Wilfrida wasn’t the only woman he had had his wicked way with – he had at least one other illegitimate child. Canute declared that he couldn’t imagine that any child of Edgar could ever be holy enough to be a saint. To settle the argument he ordered that Edith’s body be dug up, since it was believed at the time that if you were a saint your corpse would be preserved intact.
Down they dug into the grave until they came to Edith’s body. Miraculously it did indeed look as fresh as the day it was buried. Canute leant into the grave to get a better look, at which point, says the story, Edith sat up, punched him  on the nose and then lay down again. Canute got the message!

 So that’s our local saint .
The last part of the story might not be true…but I think it says something about Edith which probably was. This was a woman who had been born in circumstances that were far from ideal, the unplanned result of what was probably a rape, but Wilfrida had no chance of making a good marriage after this.  It’s a good job she evidently felt a call to convent life, because if she hadn’t it is hard to know what else she could have done.

It would have been easy for Wilfrida and Edith to have been consumed with bitterness, but they weren’t. They decided not to let their past dictate their future – our history doesn’t have to fix our destiny. Instead they found within the difficulties of their lives real and living faith in God which enabled them to serve others and make a difference to the world around them.  They chose to make their own lives, and what lives they made. Wilfrida was also made a saint eventually.

The truth is that those who we call saints are often people who at the time would have seemed to those around them  unlucky, awkward, cursed rather than blessed, people with no obvious success or attractiveness to recommend them. Jesus’ words to his disciples in today’s Gospel reading sum that up. The disciples had seen the crowds flock to Jesus, needy people, battered people, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” as the Bible puts it. I can just imagine the disciples rolling their eyes and tutting as yet another leper, yet another woman hysterical with grief because her child was ill, yet another man whose life had gone off the rails, yet another prostitute stretched forward their grubby hands to try to touch him. What was the point of helping these people? What use would they be to God’s mission? Surely the chaos of their lives was proof that God wanted nothing to do with them? Surely they should be written off, as people were probably inclined to write off Wilfrida and Edith.

But Jesus takes his disciples aside and calmly, cooly overturns all those unspoken thoughts in the words we now call the beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, he says, the meek, the mournful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those who don’t play the power games of the world – the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. In them God is doing a holy thing, he says. In them, the kingdom is at work.  The rewards he talks about aren’t some arbitrary prize they are given after death. They grow out of the situations they face. When we are poor in spirit we don’t have the security that comes from wealth and status, but that means we value much more the loving support of others and the loving support of God. It is impossible to be comforted unless we truly mourn. Being hungry and thirsty for righteousness, knowing we need it, is the first step on the road to justice and peace. Jesus knew the truth of this because this was his experience.

In John’s Gospel he says “I am the Way – no one comes to the Father but by me”. Being a Christian isn’t a matter simply of praying the right prayers or believing the right things; it is about following a way, the way that Jesus walked before us, which led  through the squalor, hardship and shame of the cross. Yet in that suffering, not despite it, hope was born. Our first reading, from the book of Revelation echoes that truth. It starts out sounding like a fairly standard image of an earthly court rank on rank of loyal subjects, waving palms and cheering, a glorious throne surrounded by triumphal music. But who is on the throne? The sacrificial Lamb,  that symbol of the crucified, humiliated, powerless Christ.

Our natural sense is that when things are falling to pieces around uswe must be doing something wrong, but God doesn’t see it that way. That is the message of Jesus’ beatitudes, and the message of his life too. When Wilfrida found herself pregnant, unmarried, ripped away from her own family down the road in Kemsing, I doubt whether she felt blessed. When Edith was growing up, illegitimate, dependant on the whim of a father who might or might not support her, I doubt whether she felt blessed either. And yet they discovered the blessing of God in their vulnerability. It taught them things they couldn’t have learned any other way. And that meant they could become blessings to others.

“Beloved” says the letter of John, “We are God’s children now”. Now when we are in a mess. Now when our lives have gone awry. Now when our plans seem to be backfiring.  “We are God’s children now”  he says, but then he goes on, “what we will be has not yet been revealed.”  History doesn’t have to determine destiny. The things that have happened to us, the things we have done, are not the last word. God has that word, and whatever it is, it will be a word of love.

So let’s thank God for our local saints, for Wilfrida and Edith. Their lives remind us that the things that seem like the end of the world can, in fact be a new beginning. Others may think we will never amount to anything. We might think that others will never amount to anything. But God sees us all as his beloved children, heirs of his kingdom, and if we can see that too we are truly blessed.