Sunday, 24 November 2019

Christ The King

Luke 23.33-43 & Colossians 1.11-20
There are rather a lot of stories in the news at present about people seeking power and about people who hold or have held positions of great influence and power. I’m sure that you can easily bring at least one to mind.
Our Gospel reading today is a major challenge to what passes for power in human terms. It’s a difficult subject. People cry out for strong leadership and clear direction in matters of national policy, military conflict, religion and in workplaces but as soon as that leadership doesn’t behave in the way they feel is right they turn against the people leading and accuse them of not listening. In a worldly situation it will never be possible to provide leadership and decision making acceptable to all.
Is it different with God, accepting his rule and being willing subjects in his kingdom? Well, kind of, but it’s still not straightforward, it depends what we believe the kingdom of God looks like.
Is the whole world ready to consider the fact that we are all God’s children, made to live together in community? Unfortunately not, even many who call themselves Christians have different interpretations of what Christ’s kingship is calling them to do sometimes twisting it to suit their argument or excuse their failings.
We may say to others that your God is not my God if he doesn’t believe in pursuing compassionate solutions which put the interest of refugees first, and which recognise our common humanity. Your God is not my God when the ministry of women is devalued and ignored by sections of our own church or when LGBTQ people are ridiculed and made to feel unwelcome.
Churches Together in England say on their website …’ Our vision is to create the space in which fruitful collaboration and mutual understanding can grow…’ yet, quoting verbatim from The Quakers website, ‘Plans to appoint a further President for Churches Together in England (CTE) have faltered because not all denominations in membership of CTE would accept a nominated President, who is a Quaker in a same-sex marriage.
To view this from the outside with criticism is easy, and I admire those who don’t walk away from situations such as this, but stay to try and build understanding, they are certainly worthy of our prayerful support.
At this time of great division and tension in so many spheres I found an example that shows we don’t always have to go back thousands of years to find wise words, it’s a tweet from a social justice campaigner which states, ‘We  can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist’.
Our lectionary labels this Sunday as ‘Christ the King’, the hinge between Ordinary Time and Advent which starts next week. When we think of Jesus’ kingship in the bible we may recall the time the Magi got King Herod worried when they asked ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews, or when Jesus was in the wilderness and refused an offer to have all worldly kingdoms if he would worship the devil. Perhaps the easiest image to conjure up is that of Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds laid cloaks and branches in his path ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey…’ 
These earlier events have already taught Jesus’ followers that this is no normal king but someone who has come to show them what real kingship is about. But even to them it must have been a challenge to recognise the pinnacle of Christ’s kingship upon the cross with one commentator claiming it to be as nonsensical as ‘being enthroned on an electric chair.’
Even on the radio now certain stories are preceded by a warning to listeners that ‘the following news story may contain harrowing and upsetting elements’ in order that, if they wish to, they can switch channels for a few minutes until something easier returns. So it really makes us think when we consider that the Kingship of Christ and the love of God was demonstrated to us through a situation of sickening violence and appalling suffering on a wooden cross. As Christians this is something we are called upon to prayerfully consider, not avoid, and in doing so we will better understand God’s love for all.
We heard in Luke’s gospel how one of the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus adds his voice to the abuse, ridicule and mockery aimed at him shouting ‘if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself’ but you sense a mood change which would surely have shocked those looking on as the other criminal calls out ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’.
This criminal has heard Christ say ‘father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. He sees that this is a king who doesn’t blame the ordinary people, the carpenters and the soldiers,  carrying out the orders of the powerful. Even in agony on the cross he can’t stop caring for others.
The criminal recognises in Christ a power that sets people free and a truth that doesn’t need to make compromises, surely this is the sort of kingdom we would all like to make our eternal home.
Those who mocked Jesus might have felt affirmed if he had replied in a way that confirmed their view of all that was happening. Some of his followers might even have expected to hear him reply to the call of ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’, along the lines of:-
·       Kingdom what kingdom, do I look like a king to you, can’t you see that I’m finished mate?
·       Sorry who said that, I’ll have to have my royal crown adjusted as these thorns are so tight the blood runs through my eyes?
·       Surely you aren’t taking seriously the inscription stating ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’, are you? That’s just Pilate having a laugh, being ironic, antagonising the Jewish leaders as he scoffed at the idea of me challenging the kingship of Caesar.
Instead we know that Jesus took this last earthly opportunity to remind us that God never stops reaching out in love to us, keen to welcome us into his kingdom.
Despite the obvious fact that the criminal on the cross had done much wrong he receives Jesus personal assurance that he will join him in Paradise making it clear that it’s never too late to turn to Christ and that nothing we do can separate us from God’s love.
As he hangs on the cross Christ continues to throw open the gates of his kingdom to exactly the sort of people that worldly power would turn its back upon.
As we begin to understand the type of kingship we see in Jesus it helps us recognise a clear mis-match with much of what we value. We need to think hard about why we are doing things and if they seem right to pursue them with a degree of humility.
There is a great deal of difference between those that accept positions of responsibility and service aware of their weaknesses and reliance upon the support of others and those that seek self-importance and power. The real question is whether leaders want to rule over or to live in community with others.
One of the primary characteristics of our king, Jesus, is a commitment to solidarity with and in our suffering. The criminal who turned to Christ found him immediately willing to offer hope and died knowing that the Son of God suffered with him.
We know that there is a great deal wrong with our world but we also need to be people who can recognise God’s kingdom when we see it in each other. Despite many terrible things happening in and to our world, as Christians we remain people of hope, seeking peaceful resolution of our differences and not giving up in our efforts to collaborate with people of all faiths and none where this benefits others. We get a glimpse of Christ’s kingship each time we see kindness and forgiveness in action that seeks no reward, even more so when it is for those we don’t know, find hard to help or even like.
In doing these things we are not keeping God’s kingdom to ourselves but allowing others to experience it and share in it.
We each play a part in building Gods kingdom every time we refuse to turn our back on people in need, every time we have the courage to stand up against what we know to be wrong and every time we try to put God’s desires above our own. We could think of it as bringing the cross and all it stands for into our world.
It sounds logical but it’s easy to get worn down and distracted from our good intentions, we run into difficulty, disappointment and even danger for some. It’s therefore important that we support and encourage each other remembering that we are not alone in this. We, together, are the body of Christ and we have the potential to breathe new life into all we see around us.
Christ as a baby, Christ resisting temptation and Christ being adored as he rides into Jerusalem all offer palatable aspects of his kingship. Christ on the cross must be as raw a vision of God’s kingship as we can bear yet it is here that the paradise Jesus talks of becomes a reality for each one of us.
Amen
Kevin Bright                 
24th November 2019

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Good news for bad times: Second Sunday before Advent

This is the homily from our Breathing Space Communion service this evening.


Our two readings tonight couldn’t be more different. One, a joyful psalm of praise, the other a rather terrifying warning about future. “There are bad times just around the corner,” as Noel Coward sang. What are they doing alongside one another?

The first thing to say is that there really were bad times just around the corner for the people Jesus was talking to. This passage comes just before  his arrest and crucifixion, when the dark clouds were gathering around him. The Roman and the Jewish authorities wanted rid of him because they saw in him a threat to the status quo, to the uneasy equilibrium they lived with. Judea was always a troublesome province to the Romans, with periodic rebellions, people popping up claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah and what was seen as the cussed insistence on believing in one God. The Romans were baffled by this. They didn’t much care who people worshipped, so long as they were also willing to worship the Emperor. They just co-opted the gods of those they conquered into their already huge pantheon without a backward glance, and they couldn’t understand why this was a problem for Judaism.

Jesus knew when he arrived in Jerusalem for that final time that he was walking into the lion’s den. But he also saw that the trouble wouldn’t finish with him. It wasn’t hard to predict that sooner or later the Romans would lose patience with Judea, that the fine Temple, the city itself, would be reduced to ruins, that there would be times of great suffering. That eventually happened in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and exiled its people. Jesus knew too, that his followers would not have an easy road ahead. If the powers that be had hated him, why would they feel any better about his disciples? Luke’s Gospel was actually written in the 80’s AD, just after that great destruction, and the things Jesus had described here had taken place. In the aftermath of that Roman destruction there had been bitter arguments between the many strands that made up Judaism, including those who followed Jesus of Nazareth, which was, essentially, still a Jewish sect. The Christians had been cast out of the synagogues and many had faced persecution and even death because of the message they preached.

Bearing in mind this  gloomy picture, what Jesus goes on to say is quite surprising. I don’t know about you, but if I knew that bad times like these were coming, I would want to be as ready as I could be for them. I was never a Scout, but I do like to be prepared. But Jesus seems to suggest the opposite for his followers. “Make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance,” he says. Why? He goes on to say, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Depending on themselves and their own cleverness won’t be the answer in these dark times. They won’t have the answers, or the resources, no matter how carefully they prepare. What will carry them through – in life or in death – will be the knowledge that they are loved and upheld by God.

And that’s where our Psalm comes in. “Sing to the Lord a new song” it says, a song about God’s greatness, God’s love, God’s faithfulness.  Sing it “with the harp and the voice of song, with trumpets and the sound of the horn”  And if you can’t remember the words or the tune, listen to the world around you. Let the sea make a noise, let the rivers clap their hands, let the hills ring out with joy. I love that. Rivers don’t actually have hands, so how can they clap them? What does it mean for a river to praise God? Surely it is just by being what God had created it to be. Rivers praise God by flowing, by being "rivery". Hills praise God by being "hilly". They’re not trying to be clever, to be better rivers than the next river, or more hilly than the next hill. They just are what they are, and that’s enough.

In the same way, it seems to me, we are called to rest in our own identity as children of God, beloved of God, God’s creation and delight, especially in times of trouble. We don’t have to figure life out or rescue ourselves. That’s God’s job. And, living or dying in him, we are safe. We can’t fall out of his hands, whatever happens.

Jesus trusts that when he died on the cross - the pain was real, the fear was real, his death was real, but the loving faithfulness of his Father was real too, and its reality trumped all those other realities.  That’s why Jesus tells his followers not to try to come up with some clever defence when they are dragged into court, why he assures us that, though there really may be “bad times just around the corner” – none of us knows what tomorrow may bring -  God is around the corner too, and that is what matters.
Amen 




Sunday, 10 November 2019

Living hopefully: Remembrance Sunday

Audio Version here

Isaiah 43. 15-21, Romans 8.18-25

If I were to ask you how hopeful you feel about our world, our nation, life in general at the moment, on a scale of 1 to 10, I wonder what score you would give? Minus numbers are permitted! 

There might be some optimists here who believe that everything is just fine but my guess is that many of us are disturbed by the political instability and uncertainty we see around us. Debate between political parties and individuals is increasingly polarised and vicious. Truth seems to be an optional extra. Trust is thin on the ground.  Even experienced commentators, who’ve seen governments come and go for decades, haven’t got a clue what is going to happen next.

And it’s not just domestic politics that worries us. The climate crisis is already having an impact on communities around the world, especially those already prone to flooding, drought, hurricanes or wildfires. People are losing their homes, their livelihoods, and even their lives, and its effects aren’t limited to the places directly affected. Climate change is causing mass migration, both because land can’t support the people who live on it anymore, but also because conflict is erupting over access to water and other natural resources, driving the refugee crisis that is touching us all. That’s why climate is relevant on this Remembrance Day, because it’s becoming a cause of war.

War doesn’t come out of nowhere. It starts with small arguments, petty disputes and resentments often rooted in greed and fear. It is fuelled by lazy stereotyping which demonises others, carelessly hurtful language, a lack of respect for the humanity of those we disagree with, which leads us to feel that we can ridicule and speak ill of them without it really mattering. These impulses lurk in all our hearts all the time– they are part of being human – but when they start to become an accepted part of our public discourse, as they seem to be doing now, we are on dangerous ground. 

But what can we do that will make any difference? 

One hundred and sixty years ago, on 24th June 1859 to be precise, a Swiss businessman called Henri Dunant arrived in the town of Solferino in Northern Italy. He’d come for a business meeting with Napoleon III, the Emperor of France at the time.  But France was at war with the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Solferino had just, rather unexpectedly, become the front line. The day before Dunant arrived a huge and bloody battle had taken place there. Twenty three thousand men, from both sides, lay on the battlefield, injured, dying or dead. No one was doing anything for them. That was how warfare was at the time. If you were injured you just had to take your chances. Armies provided very few resources to care for their own wounded, and no one felt they had any responsibility at all to care for their enemies.

Dunant was horrified at the scale of the suffering he saw. But instead of turning tail and running away, he decided to do something about it. He went to the nearby towns and villages and mobilized the women who lived there. He organised medical supplies, food and water for the injured of both sides. The women who responded to his appeal, inspired by his vision, called those whom they nursed “tutti fratelli” – all brothers. It didn’t matter to them which side they’d fought on. If they needed help, they got it. We might take this for granted now, but at the time it was revolutionary, something completely new

That traumatic, life-changing experience inspired Dunant to found what is now the International Red Cross. The Geneva Convention was born from it too, setting protocols for the way nations should behave in war, protecting those who are injured or taken prisoner. Indirectly it was the foundation of the whole idea of international standards of justice, but it all started with one man who decided to do something new, something loving, in the face of evil. 

Dunant was one among a long line of people who’ve chose hope over despair in times of war, who have refused to settle for “business as usual”  - the endless cycle of retribution – and who’ve changed the world for the better as a result. 

Around the same time as Solferino, Florence Nightingale was revolutionising the care of the wounded in the Crimean war, and, in the process, transforming the whole idea of nursing from a haphazard business which no self-respecting woman would want to be part of, into the respected and skilled profession it has become. A century later, the peoples of Coventry and Dresden, both bombed almost to obliteration, chose a path of reconciliation after World War 2, and still work together for peace. Our own welfare state and NHS grew out of the darkness of war, when rich and poor were thrown together and saw each other’s lives more clearly.  At the darkest moment of the war, when there was no guarantee that Britain wouldn’t end up under Nazi rule, William Beveridge chose to believe in a better future in which what he described as the   “giants” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, were defeated.  The system he created may not be perfect. It may be creaking at the seams. It may need reform. But it is a whole lot better than what went before it, which was nothing for many people. In more recent times, Nelson Mandela chose to forgive those who had imprisoned him, an almost unimaginable act of generosity and courage. He  paved the way for a new beginning for the people of South Africa. None of these people had a magic wand to wave over the suffering of the world. None of them was perfect. But when everything around them spoke of despair, they chose to open their eyes, and the eyes of those around them to a future that could be different, to do something new.

In a few minutes the choir are going to sing a setting of some words from the book of Isaiah. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace.” Those who act hopefully in the face of hopelessness are messengers like that, people who announce good news to us all, the news that the future doesn’t have to be the same as the past, that there can be another way to live, that love is stronger than hatred. .

Our Bible readings today gave us the same message. The cubs read us another passage from Isaiah’s prophecy. Like most of the Bible , it was written in times of trouble. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Its people were in exile in Babylon. It looked as if it was all over for them, that they would never go home. But Isaiah tells them that God is “about to do a new thing.”  “Do not remember the former things” he says. Don’t get caught up in revenge, locked into old patterns of hatred and fear. This is the God who can make a new way, a way in the wilderness, a path through the sea – roads where we would never imagine there could be roads.

In the New Testament, St Paul talks about a new creation coming to birth. Giving birth can be hard work, and painful too, but at the end of it, if all goes well, there is new life, a new beginning, a new future.  Paul, and those he wrote to, had every reason to despair. They followed a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who’d been crucified by the Romans as a troublemaker, but who they said had risen from death.  They were committed to living a way of equality, love and respect for each other, breaking down the social order which separated slave from free, Jew from non-Jew, male from female. None of this was likely to endear them to those in power – the same people who had crucified Jesus. Many were killed for their faith, including Paul himself.  This new Christian movement had no money, no buildings, no armies, no influence, no seat at the tables of power. It ought  to have been doomed before it started, and yet here we are still telling the story of Jesus two thousand years later, still inspired by his life, death and resurrection, still finding in it wellsprings of hope for our own lives and for the world.

Hope might sometimes feel fragile and hard to find, but in reality it’s remarkably difficult to kill off entirely. It’s a bit like bindweed or ground elder, weeds which you can dig up, poison, burn year after year, but which grow back, and even multiply, from the tiniest root! Speaking as a gardener I don’t much like bindweed or ground elder, but you have to admire their stubborn tenacity, and I think hope is a bit like that. Just when you think it is all wiped out, there it is rising again in the lives of those who keep on keeping on, the often unsung heroes who build community, care for their neighbours, staff foodbanks, man helplines, care for those wounded by war, work for reconciliation, protect the environment, steer troubled teenagers away from crime. It’s there in everyone who “publishes peace” and “announces good new” as the song we’re going to sing puts it, reminding us that there are other options than war and hatred.

So, to go back to the question I started with, on a scale of 1 to 10, how hopeful are we this morning? The answer, it seems to me, is in our own hands. The hope that God calls us to roots itself in our hearts and lives, when we choose to act hopefully, to listen respectfully, to speak of others in the way  we’d like them to speak of us. It grows in us as we learn to look for God’s new creation in every situation, however bleak, and treat everyone we meet as a child of God, beloved and precious to him, just as we are.  If we can do that, then hope will never die.
Amen

Monday, 4 November 2019

Two journeys: All Souls

Isaiah 49.9-13, Rev 21.1-2, 15-25

In a few minutes the choir is going to sing a lovely song written by John Bell, a member of a Christian community based on Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Philip and I went to Iona a couple of years ago. The island feels very remote now – it takes two ferry journeys and a long drive across the mountains of Mull to get there - but in the Middle Ages it was a very important place, in the middle of the seafaring route between Ireland and Scotland. It became an important centre, not just for the monks who lived there, but also for the people of Scotland, so important that they buried the bodies of their kings there. A 48 are recorded as buried there, along with 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings. And that’s where this song comes in. The words are modern, but the tune is an ancient one, and, according to legend, it was the tune that was played as the bodies of those kings were carried across the water to Iona, to their final resting place.

On the day we were there, the sea was calm and still,  and the island was bathed in warm spring sunlight. Standing at the ferry port on Mull, looking out across the channel between it and Iona, you could just imagine those funeral boats with their precious cargo gliding serenely across the water. Hopefully you’ll be able to hear that in the music.

The song is called “The Last Journey” for obvious reasons. The image of death as a journey is one we are all familiar with. At the end of a funeral, almost always, I will lay my hand on the coffin and say,

“Go forth upon your journey from this world, O child of God
in the name of God the Father almighty who created you;
in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered death for you;
in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you;
in communion with the blessed saints,
and aided by angels and archangels,
and all the armies of the heavenly host.
May your portion this day be in peace,
and your dwelling the heavenly Jerusalem.”

It’s actually a prayer that is supposed to be said as someone is dying, but I’m not very often there at that point, and, in any case, I think it is good for us all to hear it as we let the person who has died go on their journey into the hands of God, into the joy of heaven, however we imagine that to be.

We heard one vision of heaven in our second Bible reading tonight, from the book of Revelation. The writer describes a beautiful jeweled city, with gates made of single pearls – that’s where the idea of the pearly gates comes from.  The gates will never be shut by day, we are told , and there will be no night, so we needn’t worry about arriving after hours! In other parts of the Bible, heaven is described as a feast, a safe lodging place, or a beautiful garden where there are streams of water that never run dry.   Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, which is engraved on his tombstone, simply envisages it as home. The message of the Bible is that, whatever it is like, it is the place where all is made well. That’s the journey we think of first at a funeral.

But there’s another journey happening when we lose someone we love too; the journey we must make, as we grieve, whether we like it or not. I’m a bit wary of talking about the “journey of grief”, partly because it is such a cliché, but also because it implies a steady progress in a particular direction. It often goes with talk about the “stages of grief” – usually listed as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and I am equally wary of those. It’s true that we might do all those things when we grieve, but we probably won’t just pass from one to the next, moving steadily in the right direction. Anyone who has actually grieved for anyone or anything will know that it can often feel more like we are wandering around in circles, in the dark, in a fog, with no idea whether we are getting anywhere at all, and aware that at any moment we might fall over a cliff or down an unseen mineshaft . We can find ourselves in all five stages in the course of a day. It can be one step forward and two steps back, or we can feel like we are going nowhere at all, and don’t want to either.

But there is a journey happening, however chaotic it feels. Even if we are sitting still, time is passing, and the world is changing around us. And sooner or later, we wake up in a different place, and find that our perspective has shifted, just a bit. We can’t help it. New things happen, experiences we haven’t had before. New friends come into our lives. We go to places we’d never been to with the person who has died. Life goes on, whether we like it or not. It can be quite a challenge. People sometimes feel a sense of disloyalty to the person who has died if they let themselves get engrossed in something new, and grieve all over again that they can’t share it with them. But we know that those who truly loved us would want us to be happy, to live and smile again.

Today your grief may be sharp and new, still knocking the wind out of you on a daily basis, looming large and inescapable. All you may be aware of is the absence of the one you’ve lost, and the pain of it.  Or you might be at the point when you can remember that person with tender love and gentle gratitude, but know that their memory is just one part of a life that has much else in it. No one can tell you how long you should grieve, or how. It’s your journey, and it takes as long as it takes, a whole lifetime sometimes. But God’s promise to us – and you’ll hear it in the song we’re about to sing – is that God has “vowed to be near” us wherever we are, wherever we are going, forwards, backwards, or round and round in circles. In life and in death we travel with him, and find that he is there to meet us at our destination too.

Amen

THE LAST JOURNEY
From the falter of breath,
through the silence of death,
to the wonder that’s breaking beyond;
God has woven a way,
unapparent by day,
for all those of whom heaven is fond.

From frustration and pain,
through hope hard to sustain,
to the wholeness here promised,
there known;
Christ has gone where we fear
and has vowed to be near
on the journey we make on our own.

From the dimming of light,
through the darkness of night,
to the glory of goodness above;
God the Spirit is sent
to ensure heaven’s intent
is embraced and completed in love.

From today till we die,
through all questioning why,
to the place from which time and tide flow;
angels walk in our dreams,
and magnificent themes
of heaven’s promise are echoed below.

Copyright: John Bell, the Iona Community


Sunday, 3 November 2019

All Saints

Audio version here

Ephesians 1.11-23, Luke 6.20-31

“Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship”. That’s what today’s collect – the special prayer for All Saints’ Day said.

All Saints’ Day has an ancient history. Christians started celebrating those who’d inspired them in their lives and in their deaths  from the earliest days of the church. Often they met at the tombs where they were buried, especially on the anniversary of their deaths, so they were as close as possible to their mortal remains.  These people whom they’d known and loved now stood, they believed, face to face with God.  But though they might have gone from human sight, but they were still very much part of the family, just like those we love are. It was just that the family, “that communion and fellowship” stretched beyond the bounds of earth, beyond the bounds of human time and space. Living and departed were part of one “mystical body” the body of Christ, which connected and enfolded them all in God’s love.

Individual saints usually had a particular feast day, but soon there were more saints than days of the year to celebrate them. What could be done with those who didn’t have a day set aside for them?  And what about those who weren’t remembered by name, the ones whose suffering, whose love and devotion, had gone unnoticed? Shouldn’t they be remembered too? So the Church decided to declare a sort of catch-all day – All Saints’ Day – and on this day we celebrate the whole family of God, seen and unseen.   This day reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than the here and now, the world we can see, touch and hear. This “communion and fellowship” is one of God’s gifts to us.  We aren’t meant to be trying to live our lives out of our own, individual strength, but as part of a community. Hallelujah! Because if you are anything like me you know that you need all the help you can get!

St Paul says, in our New Testament reading,  “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints…” He’s not talking about those who have died. He is talking about the love the Ephesians have for each other, and for their brothers and sisters in other Christian communities. Church communities, like all groups, can easily get fractious, careless of one another. Rivalries and bitterness can take hold, and spill over into hatreds which can split them apart and set them at loggerheads. At its worst we end up burning each other at the stake, but it all begins with low level meanness of spirit to one another, sniping and spreading malicious gossip. Remembering that the person we are moaning about is, in God’s eyes, a saint, just as we are, his child, his beloved, is a powerful way of nipping that in the bud.  The word “saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus”  which means “set apart, chosen for something special.” Seeing people like that should transform the way we treat them.

Paul underlines this when he reminds the Ephesians that they are called to discover “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints”.  The blessings of God are not theirs alone. They come from, and are meant to be enjoyed with others - even the others who are difficult to love, or perhaps especially those people!

Jesus makes the same point in the famous passage from the Gospel which we call the Beatitudes. It’s all about community. How can the poor, the hungry, the mournful, the persecuted be seen as blessed, as he says? It’s not that poverty or hunger or grief are good in themselves, things that make us happy – they are miserable experiences which we wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, wish on our worst enemies. But Jesus doesn’t say “happy are the poor” ,he says “blessed” are the poor; blessing and happiness aren’t the same thing at all.

Blessing is what happens when we open ourselves up to God and one another rather than trying to go it alone. If we are in need or trouble we are far more likely to do this, and when we do, we often discover love and support which we hadn’t known was there - that’s the blessing that hides in these dark times. That love and support, the knowledge that we matter to others and to God, enables us to keep going, and maybe eventually even to find we are richer because of what we’ve been through.

But Jesus goes on, “Woe to you who are rich now”. “Woe to you who are full, laughing, convinced you’ve got it made”. Why ? Because those people are kidding themselves that they can be entirely self-reliant, that they will never suffer weakness, never need help. They might be ok at the moment, because life just happens to be going their way, but when the wheels come off, as they do for all of us sooner or later, they may find they have no one to turn to because they’ve imprisoned themselves in their own lonely self-sufficiency.

Even our enemies are meant to be part of our community, says Jesus in this Gospel reading, people who need and deserve our care and attention. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,” he says, “pray for those who abuse you.” It’s very tempting to want to have nothing to do with people we disagree with or who have hurt us, to pretend that we have nothing in common with them, that their lives don’t matter. But it’s never as simple as that. If we treat others badly, whoever they are , whatever they have done , however justified we feel, in the end we’ll do damage to the whole community, the community we all have to live in. That’s something to remember as we approach another General Election in what is certainly the most bad-tempered, vituperative political atmosphere that I can remember in my lifetime.

I came across a wise piece advice from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism earlier this week. In 1774 he gave three pieces of advice to the electorate of his time,”One; to vote, without fee or reward for the person they judged most worthy. Two; to speak no evil of the person they voted against. And three, to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” Wherever we stand on the issues that confront us at the moment, these are wise words. As our collect says, we are “knit together”, not just with the saints, living and departed, but with everyone. If we damage others, “sharpening our spirits” against them, we end up damaging ourselves.

As you know, I spent my sabbatical this year studying the way local communities told the stories of their  local saints – saints like our own St Edith, who was born down the road in Kemsing.  If you were a medieval worshipper here, Edith would have mattered to you because she had lived in the same place you did, walked the pathways you walked, seen the landscapes you saw. And now she stood face to face with God in the courts of heaven, and, in a sense, that helped you to feel that your life, your experience, your concerns were present there too. Protestant Reformers were scathing about prayer directed to, or through, saints – we don’t need them!, they said – Jesus is the only mediator between us and his father!  They destroyed the shrines and statues which had meant so much to those who visited them, and many local saints fell into obscurity. Of course, they were right in a way. We don’t need someone to speak for us to God. We can speak for ourselves, but the saints were more than just the divine equivalent of your MP, representing your concerns, they were friends – friends in high places – but nonetheless friends. It was as natural for them to ask the saints to pray with and for them as it is for us to pray for and with one another in the living community of the church.

I’m not a great one for parties or big social events, but I know that I feel a whole lot better about them if I walk into the room and realise that there are some familiar faces there already, friends who are glad to see me and include me in their conversation. Praying with the saints is a bit like that. It just makes prayer more companionable somehow. It’s not just about me and God, in a private huddle, but about me and God and my brothers and sisters in Christ, and the whole of creation beyond that too.

That matters not just for our prayer life, but for the way we live the rest of the time too. Here at Seal Church community is important to us, and we put a lot of effort into building it, within and beyond the church family. But we shouldn’t be complacent. There are still plenty of lonely people out there, people who crave connectedness, but don’t know where to start to find it. We often think of loneliness as being a problem of old age, but recent studies show that the loneliest people in our communities are often young adults, who, disproportionately, have to move often to find and keep insecure jobs and short term rented housing, and maybe work unpredictable shifts or combine jobs in the “gig” economy.  How can you commit yourself to a community, join a club, volunteer, come to church, if you don’t know where you will be next month, or what you will be doing next week? People often blame the internet for destroying face to face communities, but in reality, their smartphone may be the only way that some people are able to connect with others at all.

All Saints’ Day might seem like a colourful but rather antiquated celebration, but it seems to me that if we take it seriously, it’s a very precious and necessary reminder of the importance of community. It challenges us to find ways of building and maintaining community here and now, not just through putting on social events, or running clubs, but by the kind of society we shape through our political and economic choices too.  All Saints’ Day is a reminder that we’re meant to need one another, that we’re given by God as gifts to each other, that we are not meant to be alone, in life or in death.  When we know that, and show that, we discover that we are truly blessed.
Amen