Sunday, 25 December 2016

Word made Bread

The Word was made flesh on Christmas Day. Our Lady gave birth to a boy, not a book. From now on, the Law of God would be written not on slabs of stone, not on sacred scrolls, but in a human heart. Truly we believe, in Christ that day God Himself came to dwell among us: the prophesied Emmanuel, “God with us.” And though he only stayed a spell, living that Law of love through to death on a Cross and Resurrection on Easter Day, if we thought that He were with us no longer, we would be in error. Much has happened this year and happens every year to tempt us to think that He is not with us at all. But Christ is not just for Christmas. He is with us still. He is with us in the Spirit, He is with us in each other, but here, now, at this and every mass, He has left us His presence in a most particular way. It was no accident that Our Lord was born in a little town called “Bethlehem:” or in Hebrew, Beth Lechem, “the House of Bread.” You see, He who was made flesh in the House of Bread is made bread for us today, the Mass not something incidental to the Christian life, not something the Church has made up, but from the beginning, the way Our Lord has chosen to dwell among us always.

“All the earth was made glad, for Mary’s womb brought forth wheat, and the birds of heaven made their nests in her. From this, humankind is nourished.” So sang the mystic Hildegaard de Bingen. If it sounds far-fetched, just remember that philosophers, artists, kings and statesmen never really doubted it until about 500 years ago, with a collective failure of the imagination which began around the Reformation and culminated with the “Enlightenment,” in reality a dark age of the human soul. Our mediaeval and more ancient forebears in the faith thought with hearts and minds aligned, rarely sundering the two and living the atrophied intellectual half-life of heartless logic which passes for human reason today. As Christ is Word and Flesh, 100% God and human united in one person, so we have to learn to think with heart and mind 100% united. If we want to understand Christ’s incarnation, we have to burst free from the prosaic thought-patterns brainwashed into us today into the realm of poetry and the deeper truths which hide in the spaces between mere human words, in image, and in allegory.

So let us open our eyes to the Mass today: starting with the bread, the basic stuff which all this liturgy and glory, all the song and robes and incense surround. Think, beyond the handy supermarket loaf, about everything that goes into making our daily bread. Think of the wheat seeds scattered on the fields, assailed by birds and insects, inclement weather or stony ground, yet growing despite all this, lifted high on its stem - like Christ on His Cross, opened up - like the lance in His side, cut down, threshed - like His scourging, cooked by fire - like the baptism He prophesied: and all this for bread, to nourish us and give us life. Think of the salt, not as a health hazard, but for ancient people without fridges, the best way of preserving food, and so a sign of the longevity of God’s presence with us, and of the flavour we are called to give to the life of the world. Think of the olive oil, made from that famed fruit of the Greeks, who stand for us gentiles grafted by Christ to the Jewish root of Jesse through Our Lord’s Davidic kingly line; think of its use in lanterns to light our way like that of the wise virgins, as Christ is Himself our light; think of Gethsemane, meaning “olive press,” or the Mount of Olives, where Our Lord was arrested and taken to be pressed, his blood flowing to cleanse the cosmos. Think of the water needed to make the dough, to make the grains hold together, just as the water of life, the Holy Spirit given in Baptism, holds us Christians together as one body in our one Lord. Think of the leaven, making the dough rise as Christ rose from the grave. Think of the baking, the work of human hands, for Christ shared in our humanity so that we humans might share in his Divine work. Those who have ears to hear, eyes of the hearts awakened, should see that “having a bun in the oven” was for Mary more than just a metaphor.

Let’s open our eyes also to what we do with this bread, take our noses out of the words of the service sheet and observing the actions of the Mass. See how we sing the song of the angels at Christ’s birth, “Glory to God in the highest,” worshipping in this House of Bread as they worshipped in Bethlehem. See how it is brought up and offered by the people - in ancient days, the people baked it themselves and brought it to the altar, for in making it, their hands did Christ’s work. Sometimes we sing “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” from the ancient liturgy of St James, but in the old days, it was done in real silence, echoing the silence of the virgin’s empty womb, the silence of the empty tomb, the silence of the nothingness before creation. See how the angels join us again in the song Isaiah heard them sing in his vision of heaven, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord.” See how the incense and candlelight echoes that same vision bringing the biblical vision of heaven’s temple here to our temple on earth. See how my hands descend like the wings of a dove over the bread as the Holy Spirit descended on Christ’s human body at His Baptism; how I lift Him up in bread as His body was lifted on the Cross; how I cover His blood as He was covered in the tomb; how I break Him as his body was pierced by nails; how finally I unite the broken pieces and hold Him back together to proclaim Him the sacrificed Lamb of God, just as we are held together through His Sacrifice like the grains once scattered on the hillside.

The Word was made Flesh. Now the Word is made Bread to dwell in you always. He invites you to receive Him: not just with your mouth, not just with your mind, but with heart and mind aligned in the dream that has sustained artists, thinkers, nations and empires, the dream of the purpose for which we were made: that His Kingdom come.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A commonly held thesis

Let us test a thesis.
Once upon a time, almost all of the great thinkers, artists, scientists, princes and statesmen believed with the majority of humankind in some supernatural agency, whether God or gods or Buddha. The philosophies and aesthetics of nations and globe-spanning civilisations were underpinned by these beliefs, and there is no way of understanding history or literature without understanding the religious ideas behind them. Only seldom did intelligent people ever question such ideas, so deeply engrained were they, and even more rarely did they reject them outright, rather arguing over matters of detail. Religious beliefs continue to be held by the majority of people to this day.
However, a small minority who predominantly hail from one traditionally affluent and powerful part of the globe have established beyond all doubt that these people, both ancient and modern, have been entirely wrong, and that the leaders and thinkers of the past were ultimately no more enlightened than theocratic thugs and fundamentalists. What is more, this is so self-evident that one does not even need to study ancient thought to dismiss is entirely: there is so obviously no God that twenty minutes on Wikipedia will do.
Does this thesis sound reasonable?

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Prayer for Advent

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

This Collect for Advent Sunday is set for daily use throughout Advent in the Book of Common Prayer. The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon writes:

“This beautiful and moving prayer was written specifically for The Book of the Common Prayer (1549) by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Its structure, style and contents reveal just how perfectly he had mastered in English the grammatical structure of the traditional Latin Collects. It is a most appropriate prayer with which to begin the Christian Year for it is addressed to the Father, “Almighty God,” is centred upon the Lord Jesus Christ, “thy Son,” and looks for the direct help in daily living of the Spirit of the Father and the Son (the Holy Ghost). And it takes specific guidance and inspiration from the Epistle to the Romans.

“As baptized believers, living in a world darkened by evil and sin, but given Light by Jesus Christ who is the Light of the world, we ask for the personal help of the Father, through the Holy Ghost, in order to live not as children of darkness but rather as children of light. Indeed, we pray to be protected by the armour of light (see Romans 13:12). When Christ Jesus returns to earth in his Second Coming he will dispel all shadows and darkness, clear up all doubts, chase away all sorrows and cause the new dawn of the new day of the new age to appear. Then we shall cast off our sleeping apparel and put on the shining dress of the kingdom of God, as we are raised to the life immortal.”

I would encourage readers to make it a part of your daily Advent devotions.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Are you ready? Sermon for Advent Sunday

Are you ready? For some people, a terrifying question in the lead up to the Advent or Coming of Our Lord at Christmas. Terrifying because of all the overtime you’ll have to work to be able to afford the children’s presents, perhaps. Terrifying because of all the preparation and cooking and shopping to do before the family descends, terrifying because of the arguments that might break out with relatives you have to see but really don’t want to. Terrifying because it’s your first, or second, or third, or tenth Christmas alone, without someone important you used to share it with every year. Plenty of reasons for Advent, the season of waiting in deep, dark purple for the shining gold and light of Christmas to be a time of dreadful rather than joyful anticipation.

Well, I suppose I could stand here and try to cheer you up about it all. That’s what a lot of clergy do nowadays in Advent, after all, representing it as a time of comfort, hot chicken soup for our wintry souls. There are modern liturgies for the Advent candles, focussing on peace, hope and joy: which are all well and good, of course. But traditionally, this is not how Advent was seen at all. It’s a period of waiting, yes, but we’d be only have half the story if we thought it was all about waiting for sweet baby Jesus to be born in a cozy manger with chubby cherubs singing round: because it is just as much about waiting for Our Lord’s Second Coming, which is rather different from his first. The old Advent hymn puts it well - incidentally, an organist friend recommended it for our wedding - the one that starts, “oh swiftly come, dread judge of all.”

Judgment. Well, that’s not a word we like very much nowadays, is it. We’re all told to try terribly hard not to be “judgmental.” And, for a Christian, rightly so, if we truly believe that the only one fit to judge is Christ. But like it or not, that is one third of the message of Advent, and an important third at that - because Advent is a wake-up call, a call to put on the armour of light and rouse from dark slumber, because the Lord is coming and we know not the hour. Jesus is coming: stand by your beds! Cheery stuff indeed.

But before you all rush off to burn your Advent calendars, let’s pause and think about just what that judgment entails, or more to the point, just who it is who will judge us. To help our imagination, we might heed Archbishop Michael Ramsay’s terse caveat: “There is nothing unchristlike in God.” What we know about God, we know through the incarnate human Jesus Christ. So we know that God is not a ruddy-jowelled judge in a grey wig with a gavel in one hand and a black cap in the other. We know that God is not judgmental in the sense of jumping to conclusions about someone because of their reputation, their appearance, even their track record of mistakes. We know that God is a judge born in a stable incarnate among us, who stood with the sinners on the bank of the Jordan, who reached out and offered reconciliation to the tax-collector, the prostitute, the leper, the Samaritan, and even the Scribe, the Centurion and the Pharisee. We know that God is a judge who would rather die for us than destroy us. A judge who smiles at his mother, forgives Peter in his treachery, prays for those who nailed him to the tree. A judge who offers us mercy every day, the chance to turn to him every moment until our last. So Christ’s Second Advent is linked to his First. In the words of the Anglican theologian Fr Austin Farrer, “Advent brings Christmas, judgment runs into mercy.” We will be judged by the God who has revealed himself as love.

Advent is a reminder amid all our busyness that we have a choice to make, and that we need to make it now. Jesus keeps offering us his mercy. When we stand before him in judgment at the hour of our death, and we see his loving face, see the wounds he bore for us, will we be heartbroken and ashamed by promises unkept, harsh words, cruelties and abuses unrepented, unresolved? Will we be oblivious, like the people before the flood, walking in deliberate darkness, pretending we can ignore the consequences of our sin? Or will we be awake, clear-sighted as we walk in the light of the Lord, our sins confessed and our conscience clear, not putting it off for a tomorrow that might never come, but saying and meaning now with all our heart the Advent word: “Maranatha,” “Come, Lord Jesus;” my soul is ready, guide me to Jerusalem.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Today's Taboo Ten Lepers

Talking to lepers was taboo in biblical times. By Jewish Law, lepers had to stay outside the village in their rags and bells to make their coming. But in today’s Gospel they break the boundary and cross over to speak to Our Lord.

The lepers were too scared to break the taboo completely: they kept their distance from all the respectable folk. But when they called, Our Lord doubled the taboo and went to talk to them. He made them clean but they couldn’t go back to him or to mainstream society until the priests had given them the all clear. That was the Law.

One of the lepers clearly didn’t know this, so he went back to Jesus anyway, to thank him. He was double the outcast, because he was also a foreigner, a Samaritan, which might explain why he didn’t know the rules. The taboo is broken a third time now: but Our Lord does not tell the foreign leper off. He praises him. And so Jesus himself becomes a lawbreaker and outsider, compounds the evidence that he should be crucified.

Who are the lepers today? The answer depends on which village you’re standing in. In the village of mainstream society, in these ungenerous days, people with no money are seen as the lepers. In the village of Little England, the foreigner, the immigrant, the asylum-seeker is the leper. In the village of the Church, sad to say, it still seems that gay people are treated like lepers. All these taboos. All these boundaries. All quite wrong.

That is why our church here has to reflect and pray and work hard to reach out beyond the walls and boundaries and taboos to the people that others want to cast out or ignore. It is why we need to keep the church open every day, to run the free legal drop-in service, to put on a new homeless advice drop-in, to keep the AA meetings going, to get a “Living Room” café for people with mental health problems going, to make our garden a place of welcome, to put on gigs that will help the young alt-music fans cross our threshold, to offer masses in foreign languages and support expat communities, to affirm the love in same-sex relationships explicitly in our publicity, to have clergy and volunteers on hand for pastoral work to those in need: all these plans which have come out of the Vision Day. None of this is going to work haphazardly, with volunteers not knowing who does what and people treading on each others’ toes, which is why Martin and the wardens and I will soon be unveiling the organisational structure and role descriptions we have been working on. All of this has one goal: to fulfil the mission of this church in breaking down the barriers that separate people from one another and from God.

But all this brings us to another taboo: the English taboo of talking about money. All of this costs, and on this Stewardship Sunday, we need to think about how much we are giving if we want to fulfil our mission as a church. We have to use what God has given us to break those barriers against the godly, loving and generous vision of society which the Church is called to make real: a reality of which we should be especially mindful as we approach the altar today. For in the Eucharist, God shows us what creation is for. He shows us how ordinary things, the wheat, salt, water, oil and grapes that go to make up bread and wine hide within them the mystery of the purpose of all God has made: how he has given us all things, our money included, not just for own our physical needs but for the final spiritual union of all things with him. And so we break one final taboo, as we eat the very flesh and drink the very blood of Christ Our Lord, by which God breaches the final barrier between himself and his Creation. 

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Guest post: Fr Gareth Powell preaches at Michaelmass

“Humanity should strive towards the Angelic life. By imitating the Angels. Who are exemplers of faithful worship, of doing good, by this imitation we too are lifted up to the generous source of all good, where all things, according to their measure, share in the infinite light of God.” - Dionysius the Areopagite

“If we imitate the heavenly angels in this way, we will find ourselves always worshipping God, behaving on earth as the angels do in heaven.” - S. Maximus the Confessor

What might it mean for you here to have the St Michael and all the angels as the patrons of this community? To some it might seem odd. Having supposed celestial beings as patrons. How might they encourage us in our Christian faith? How might they build up our common life in this place as we seek to be witnesses to the Gospel? So often we feel as though
Which feels rather odd because scripture is full of angels… from the angels guarding the Garden of Eden to them in myriad form in the throne room in the book of Revelation.  Angels with Abraham, angels with Lot, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel all named angels in scripture.  Hosts of them at the Birth of Jesus.  They appear to kings, to the poor. They glorify God in heaven and roam the earth.  They’re messengers speaking for God.  Each instance of their appearing seems to be imbued with awe.  They don’t look different, but their power and presence means that they usually have to start their messages with “Do not be afraid.”  Fearful and wonderful! Some are righteous and some are crooked. Some bear good news others mutiny and rebel. So you would have thought more would be made of them from the pulpit. But alas no it seems. Why? Well, perhaps we’ve become so rational and so intellectually elite that we scorn such quaint ideas.  Unless, of course, we’ve gone off the deep end and into that place where people see angels everywhere… guarding their cars, in the garden like gnomes and fairies, or hovering over babies.
We’ve given up the angels!  We have let them go to those we call superstitious or naïve.  We have turned angels into shadows of themselves and stolen their power.  Their mystery and beauty have become suspect, not fit for our modern times, slightly embarrassing if the question of the existence of angels ever comes up in conversation.
Yet prior to the last century angels figured large in Christian belief. Clement of Alexandria, who lived at the end of the second century, wrote “the spiritual man prays in the company of angels....and he is never out of their holy keeping. Although he prays alone, he has the choir of the holy ones standing with him.” And John Chrysostom, who lived in the third century wrote when speaking of the eucharist, “On high, the armies of the angels are giving praise. Here below, in the Church, the human choir takes up after them the same doxology. Above us, angels of fire make the thrice-holy hymn resound magnificently. Here below is raised the echo of their hymn. The festival of heaven's citizens is united with that of the inhabitants of earth in a single thanksgiving, a single upsurge of happiness, a single chorus of joy.”
And we affirm this same belief every time we gather together to break bread. For at the Eucharist there are a myriad of statements where we declare our belief in that unseen world, present with us, heaven and earth drawn together around the banquet table of our Lord: in the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, we hear – with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven; in the Creed, we say- We believe in one God ...maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen; our confession is sometimes introduced with the words – since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. So here throughout our own liturgy we speak of angels and angelic powers, of heavenly beings gathered around God’s throne.
Yet the likes of Dawkins, Hitchin’s and other so called new atheists suggest that they only possible explanation for our world must come solely through the work of rational science. That we have within our rational grasp, the very working of the whole universe. Such belief in our powers of discovery could seem agreeable given the current rate at which physicists are discovering more and more about our universe, ever expanding the limits of human knowledge and discovery. Yet to place ourselves at the centre of the known (and unknown) universe is to revisit that most ancient of sites - the garden of eden, that story where human pride is depicted as the very birth of sin, where humanity strove for knowledge, to comprehend. A pursuit not un-virtous yet one that alone places us dangerously close to where God should actually be. Saint Athanasius writing in the fourth century warned against exactly this when he said, “I have ever wondered at the curiosity of the bold men, who by their imagined reverence fall into impiety. For though they know nothing of Thrones, and Dominions, and Principalities, and Powers, or the workmanship of Christ, they attempt to scrutinize their Creator Himself. Tell me first, O most daring man, tell me what is a Principality, and what a Power, and what a Virtue, and what an Angel: and then search out their Creator, for all things were made by Him.” Athanasius was concerned that even trying to fully comprehend the nature of angels, and principalities and powers was impossible, let alone trying to fathom the inner mysteries of God.
For Angels represent the very mystery of God’s creation, those unknown elements, that come to us fleetingly through scripture, that speak of the wonder of creation, of its extraordinary character, that is beyond even our own thoughts and capacity to see or grasp. As our dear former Archbishop Rowan Williams said: “Round the corner of our vision things are going on in the universe, glorious and wonderful things of which we know nothing. If we try to rationalise all this away, we miss out on something vital to do with the exuberance and extravagance of the work of God, who has made this universe not just as a theatre for you and I to develop our agenda but as an overwhelming abundance of variety and thing that are strange to us.” To rationalise our world, our universe, is to suggest we can box it in, know it fully.

This is not to suggest that rationality, scientific enquiry are incompatible with Christian faith, it is to say that they have limits. For we know that when we love someone, that even if spending a lifetime together, whether they be our family, a friend, a partner, that they are an inexhaustible fount of learning for us, that we cannot exhaust our knowledge or experience of them, or of their love for us, and that is just one human person. How much more mysterious is the whole of creation? Were we to limit it, were we to dismiss the very notion of angels, we are cutting ourselves off from wondering at creation, wondering at the gift of life and its abundance, that all that is, is from God. So take time today to give thanks for this wondrous gift of creation, for the things seen, for the things unseen, and pray that St Michael, St Gabriel and all God’s holy angels might surround us and that we might raise our voices with theirs to cry, Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God almighty, who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

- Fr Gareth Powell, Mission Priest, The Community of St Margaret the Queen

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Warm your souls by the fires of Hades

Not very often I get to preach about hellfire and damnation. It’s tempting to go up into the pulpit just so I’ve got something to bang my fist on. I don’t think this legilium would take the impact, somehow.
But hellfire and damnation it is, threatened against those who live richly and leave the poor lying at their gate. People often ask how a God who is love, revealed in the forgiveness of Christ crucified, could threaten anyone with the fires of Hades. In fact, how could there be evil in the world at all?
Many of the ancient church Fathers tried to answer this by arguing that in its own right, evil does not properly speaking exist. Otherwise, if God created evil, then he would not be entirely good. Rather, they said, evil is nothing but a lack of good - a “real absence,” if you like. God made us in his image, which includes free will, and that means that we are free to turn away from goodness, to turn away from true reality as God made it towards the unreality and falsehood which constitutes evil. Only the Good is true, beautiful, real.
For Christians, the source of all that is good, beautiful and true is none other than God himself, infinitely greater than even our wildest imaginings of goodness, truth and beauty, of which the created things around us are just a dim reflection in a dark glass. But even if we only see it dimly, there is something of truth, goodness and beauty in this world - look around this church, for instance - and it all points and guides us towards its ultimate source. If we follow its path, it leads us towards that source, towards God, and helps us get used to his infinite light.
If we freely choose to get used to that light in this world, then when we stand before its source at our judgment, before the very throne of God, then it will be for us a warming ray, enflaming us with pure love, opening our eyes to see God face-to-face.
But - if we freely choose to turn from that light in this world, turn from truth, goodness, beauty, and walk the shadowy path of lies, selfishness, ugliness, then the light of God will not warm us and enlighten us. It will burn and purge and blind until we beg for mercy, and we will have only ourselves to blame. If you choose to stare at the sun through a telescope, you cannot blame the sun for blinding you. And if you close your eyes to the sun completely, you cannot blame the sun because you cannot see.
So how do we get used to the light of God, here and now? One example is that of another man famous for seeing a beggar at his gate, a saint very close to my heart: St Martin of Tours, patron of military chaplains, for reasons which will become clear. Martin was a Roman soldier and a Christian. Once, marching in his Century into a town in Gaul (modern-day France), he saw a man starving and naked, half-frozen at the city gates. He drew his sword, the story goes, and cut off half of his red, Army-issue cloak, giving it to the beggar. I can imagine the Quartermaster’s face. Anyway, that night, the story goes, he had a dream - and in this dream, that beggar whom he had given half his cloak to revealed himself as Christ. The Latin for cloak is “capella,” and so the priests who carried around relics, fragments of Martin’s cloak, became known as “capellani” - or “chaplains.” So we get the modern word from this ancient saint, Martin, who went on to become Bishop of Tours.
The moral of the story is that it in serving the poor, we offer our riches to Christ. We learn to see the world as Christ sees it, in the light of his love, a love which sacrifices self for others. That is how we get used to the light and heat of God’s love, letting it open the eyes of our hearts gently, here and now, so that it does not burn them out at the day of judgment.
We have the pleasure and privilege of welcoming two fellow Christians today into the life of our church who follow St Martin’s example as committed servants of the poor. Mrs Jackson and Ms Dyson have chosen to serve some of the poorest children in our country, work they continue as Head Teachers at our church school. To help them, they have the love and compassion that our own Mrs Trigg and her team have built up at St Michael’s school over the years, but no doubt the challenges of doing the best for severely disadvantaged children will still be severe. I want them to know that they can rely on the prayer of this church - so straight after the sermon, we will start as we mean to go on.

But after we have commissioned our new Head Teachers, we will go as ever to the altar. Let us remember as we go there what great riches Our Lord gives us under simple bread and wine: the fruits of his self-sacrifice, a foretaste of divine love, even his own body and blood. In the mass, for all our spiritual poverty, Christ gives us all that he has and is. The challenge for us is to live the mass in our lives after we have left church today, and give back to him by serving him in the poor and vulnerable of Camden Town, living as those who are convinced by one man’s resurrection from the dead, purified and illumined by the searing flame of his love.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Slaves to Mammon

People complain that our Church talks too much about money, but Jesus talks about it without blushing and often. Today is one example. “You cannot serve both God and wealth,” as our translation puts it. But Luke’s Greek, carrying on the theme from the sentence before, is rougher and more explicit: what he wrote was, “you cannot be a slave to both God and wealth.” We are in the world of the Romans, not of Downton Abbey, and there is a great difference between those paid to live in rooms below the gentry and those who are private property, owned. The Lord says that you can choose only one Master: not one squire, one liege, one employer, but one Master whose slave you are.

As much as we may protest that Britons never, never. never shall be slaves, that is what we are warned against becoming today. Slaves to that of which we naively think ourselves the masters. We say jokingly that we “slave away,” whether to buy the things the salesmen say we need or just to earn our crust and shelter; but we know the joke is not really very funny. It is easy for the rich and poor alike truly to become slaves to their finances. As the 17th-century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert put it, “Wealth is the conjurer’s devil, Whom, when he thinks he hath, the devil has him.” With it or without it comes stress, infighting, jealousy, and always the insatiable lust for more. We think we own it, but whether through the mortgages or the bailiff, or just through simple greed, it can end up owning us.

And yet our Lord does not counsel most of us to give up all our worldly gain and its pursuit, and get off to a monastery. For some, this radical response will of course be right, according to God’s calling, and serves as an example for us all. But for most, Our Lord’s words here apply. The temptations and the dangers of money - or whatever else it is we crave and truly serve - are our chance for discipline: to show our faithfulness in such trifling, material things and so prove our worthiness to be entrusted with far greater, spiritual treasures. It is a question not of abandoning wealth and the world with all its pleasures, but of what we do with them. Again, to cite George Herbert, the poet-priest, “Gold thou mayst safely touch, but if it stick Unto thy hands, it woundeth to the quick.” Wealth and worldly goods are given not to be kept and coveted, but used for God’s higher ends. So it is that our church here is trying (with some difficulty) to acquire a licence to sell drinks at our concerts, not to store it away in the bank for a rainy day, but to spend on our mission in Camden Town - the new homeless advice service, for a start. So as we approach the licensing hearing a week on Tuesday, please pray for success.

The principle of putting what we have to good use applies to more than just money, though. I have said before that Christianity is not a religion of “either-or,” however much it may be portrayed as such. It is a religion of “both-and.” Not “scripture or tradition,” “faith or works,” “grace or nature,” but both together. Yet in each case there is a priority. This can help us make sense of today’s Gospel, where Jesus tells us on the one hand, that we cannot be slaves to both God and Mammon, and yet that we can use Mammon to further the ends of God. There are Christians who reject, for example, the use of statues, or rings, or Christmas trees, even the use of incense or the making of the sign of the Cross, because they see in these things something in common with the practice of other religions, something even pagan, and think that to take the Christian path we must block off any other route which happens to cross our way. I think that today’s Gospel is one of the many which shows that whatever God has made and given us in his Providence can be used - baptised by the Church, as it were - for the furtherance of his Kingdom, where at the end of time it is written that all things shall be all in Christ. After all, if a Cross of torture can be turned to the vehicle of eternal life, then even filthy lucre can be a sign of purer riches to come. So while some may frown at us using the church for some secular entertainments, we can stand firm in the conviction that it will bring new people through the doors, across the threshold of a building which, believe it or not, the uninitiated often fear to tread, especially the young. If you’re not used to it, just going into a church building can be intimidating. We can make that entry easier, and what’s more, later on, we can use the equipment and experience to put on festivals, drama and music exploring themes of the Christian faith.

None of us, I think, really wants to be a slave, to money or to anything else. Yet Jesus tells us that we must be, and that the choice is stark. We can choose either to be slaves to the attractions this world holds on us, or slaves to the God whose service, as the old prayer says, is perfect freedom. If we freely choose to give all that we have, and all that we are, our money, our memories, our will, our imagination, to God’s service, then we will paradoxically find ourselves liberated from all that enslaves us. If we seek the joint treasure of God’s peace in this world and eternal life in the next We will see truly how little any thing else really matters. We will see that we never really owned any of it anyway, because it was only ever on loan from God, and certainly it has no place owning us. Rather, look to what God has given you - what riches of character, what kindness, or intellect, or bravery, or strength, or sheer will, or sexuality, or even time and money - and as at the altar you receive the immeasurable gift of Christ’s sacrifice for you today, your redemption won by his body and blood, choose how you will be a faithful steward and use what God has given you to help his Kingdom come.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

It's not about the 99%

"Normal people scare me"
This week, I've been taught a lesson in humility. The press caught wind of us applying for a  entertainment and alcohol licence, and I hoped to tell a straightforward story about a parish church trying to serve its parish’s people: which in our case includes the thousands of alternative music lovers who throng Camden Town. Putting on gigs would also help to fund our mission of service to Camden’s poor and vulnerable people, building on the Legal Drop-in to start offering debt counselling, a homeless drop-in service, addiction services and whatever else we might need to do. 

But the story ended up being about me. Flattered by a question about my own musical taste, I threw into a press interview a few kinds of music I like. Funnily enough, of those I mentioned, the genre that caught the media’s imagination was heavy metal, and out of the bands I mentioned on the spot, they managed to pick one out which in its early days released some seriously anti-Christian songs. I said that it was not the kind of music we would be having in the church, and making the mistake of having a sense of humour joked that I wasn't worried about damage to the building, but inevitably the headline ended up being not about a church putting on a bit of live music, but about a heavy metal-loving vicar turning his church into a boozy nightclub. That’s a misrepresentation of our mission here: but I do still think that engaging with the alternative music scene of Camden Town is the right thing for us to do.

I suppose what sold the story was the implication of scandal: this supposedly upright man of the cloth is inviting atheistic, anti-Christian metallers into the church; worse still he is inviting them to drink with him, and to put the icing on the cake, he even listens to their obscene music. 

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees complained about Jesus, saying "this man receives sinners and eats with them." His response was to tell three parables, the first one being the parable of the lost sheep: and the key is, that it's the lost sheep who matter.

It's easy to be complacent about this parable. Of course, you might think, if you've got 100 sheep and you lose one, you're going to worry more about the one that's lost and go out to look for it. But that is missing the subtlety of Jesus' point. We are not the shepherd: we are the sheep. And what Jesus is saying is, if you think you are one of the 99 sheep; if you think, Jesus says with heavy irony, you are one of those "who have no need of repentance," if you think you are one of the 99% "normal" over against the 1% who are not– you've missed the point. Think again. You are the lost sheep. We all are. And it is only by realising just how lost we are, just how incapable we are finding our own way, that we can know the joy of being found by Christ, the joy of heaven itself. 

When somebody says to me, "what is a priest doing listening to that awful, godless heavy metal?", I can completely understand where they're coming from. I don't mean to offend anyone with my musical tastes. But I must say: the parable of the lost sheep shows that we would be going completely against the Gospel if we considered ourselves the righteous 99%, and dismissed the metallers, or the Goths, or the Emos as the lost 1%. Rather, Our Lord is trying to get us to understand that we ourselves are lost - you and me both. He is trying to get us go out to our brothers and sisters who are just as lost as we are, trying to get us to go out to where they are, to understand what makes them tick, why they love the music they love - and he is saying that this is where we find the joy we seek. 

Metal is rebellious. It's angry. It's sometime godless. Perhaps that's why it's so popular in the tumultuous Camden Town. But that anger has a reason. Metal bands are angry with injustice, angry with being rejected and the feeling of being lost, angry with the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the 99% who think they are the "normal" ones. And yes, that anger often comes out in abusive language, in anger at the Church, even anger at God. But God can take it; and so must we, daring to take up the challenge to show that the God so much metal despises is not the God we worship: not the God we know in Christ crucified for the lost, the outsider, the rejected, the despised. 

Put all the metallers, Goths, and black-clad fans of other alternative music together, and we are talking about a vast, international, mostly youth movement of millions of people who feel rejected and alienated and are often angry about it: and if we want to talk with them, to seek Christ with them and in them, first we have to listen to them and welcome them, however hurtful we may find the way their music communicates their grievances with God. Maybe they've got a point. The Church has certainly lost its way often enough to benefit from some of that anger against injustice and hypocrisy. As much as we might come to know God in the still small voice of calm, the peace and sanctuary of our church, perhaps we also need to believe in a God who rocks in the stormy hubbub of the streets and clubs of Camden Town.

Again, it would grieve me terribly if my musical tastes have offended my Christian brothers and sisters: but if we are really the parish church of Camden Town, then I stand firm in my conviction that we need to receive and eat and drink with the thousands of music fans who make Camden Town their home, with the humility to hear them— in full knowledge that we are no less lost than anyone, and trusting in God to bring all his flock home.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Changing places

Rarely these days in the West do many of us find ourselves at dinners with seating plans, where we are placed in order of importance - perhaps weddings are the most common exception. But it is something I have often come across in my years of travelling to Japan. Once, when I was still not really used to the etiquette, I made exactly the mistake that Jesus describes in this parable. I had plonked myself down somewhere in the middle and ended up being politely moved further towards the end.

It’s interesting to think back to whom exactly I was sitting with at the end of the table, and who was up at the top in the best seats. Up at the other end were the men, the oldest in top place, working down towards the more junior. After the men, came the women and children – and not knowing quite where the foreigner should fit in, that’s where they put me, too. Old Japanese men at the top; at the bottom, women, children and gaijin.

We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought that these divisions, these hierarchies of age, sex and race, were restricted to Japan. We have them here, too; and Jesus calls them into question.

Camden Town can be frightening. It feels like there is a surfeit of anger and violent emotion on the streets: always someone shouting, threatening, mocking. I sometimes feel afraid when I’m here on my own in St Michael’s, and someone comes in with a clatter, as I never quite know what drugs or mental condition might be influencing them, what state of mind they might be in. It could be elation, it could be depression, it could be mania or aggression. Volunteers here have even suffered violence. This is not always a place where you can feel at ease.

Much of this can be put down to the inequalities in our society - the hierarchies of power which Jesus calls us to challenge. The table I sat at back in Japan was divided first by sex. The men, sitting at the top, were meant to show power, wealth, success in business, strength in drinking; the women, at the bottom, beauty, desirability, servitude, refinement, moderation. Here in England too, the good husband is the breadwinner, the buyer, the family defender, hard-working, independent and strong; the good wife is the housemaker, the spender, the childrearer, supportive and caring. A man who succeeds in money or war is a hero; a woman who does the same is hard and unfeminine. A man who succeeds in sex is a stud, a woman who does the same, a slut. A man whose wife is unfaithful is a cuckold; there is no equivalent word for a woman whose husband sleeps around. Men are encouraged to seek power by violence; women, to be desired and to serve.

Last week, I was on chaplaincy duty to about 450 teenage Army cadets. They were literally queuing up to talk to someone who could give them the time just to listen to the problems they were having in their lives. Some of those problems would make you weep. Many of those problems drove the teenagers to violent responses. But I noticed a clear divide in how they dealt with that violence depending on whether they were boys or girls. There were several incidences of boys losing their tempers and starting a fight with a nearby wall or floor - needless to say, the walls and floors always won. The girls, though, took their violence out on themselves, cutting or otherwise harming themselves. Without exception, the girls hurt themselves, while the boys looked for an external target for their anger.

We expect boys to be violent. When boys fight, it’s a “scrap,” and we smile as we say, “boys will be boys.” We expect men to fight to preserve their honour, and even more so the honour of their girlfriends or female family members. A man who does not is weak. Yet when girls fight, it’s not a scrap but a “catfight.” We don’t take women seriously as agents of violence. Think of the difference you feel about a man who beats his wife, and a man who is beaten by his wife. One the same line, I once served in the TA at a 21-gun salute on Edinburgh Castle. When a woman NCO shouted out the drill orders, members of the public laughed. So I suppose it is unsurprising that boys want to show off their anger violently by hitting walls or floors or each other - that’s the masculine thing to do - while girls quietly take it out on themselves, cutting or burning or starving themselves in secret. Violence is acceptable for boys, while good girls silently suffer.

So here in Camden Town, it’s hardly surprising that in summer, as the women’s skirts get shorter, so do the men’s tempers. Young, poor men are confronted every day with all those things our society says they need to be proper men: money, fashion, flash cars, sexy girlfriends. And because they’re poor, they can’t get any of those things. Frustrated, angry, they seek to prove themselves “real men” by the only option left to them: violence.

And as for poor young women, many continue to buy into society’s vision for them, too: objects of sexual desire, advertising their bodies for the men to compete over and the best prospect to win. That is probably not how they would describe it, of course, encouraged by the modern orthodoxy that we somehow “own” our bodies and have no obligation whatsoever to think of the effect our appearance might have on other people. The secular trend for women to expose their bodies is, I think, only the flip-side of the practice among many Muslims of covering women up completely: both extremes reveal a mindset that women are essentially objects of desire, there for the best man to win and finally unwrap.

Top place at the Lord’s table cannot be won by violence. There are no places reserved by sex or race or wealth or seniority. We, the Church in Camden Town, are called to show around this table a community where the inequalities of this world do not count. We are called to depend on Christ alone, and so utterly that there is no room for ego, selfishness and the desire for power in our hearts; called to have them set on that Kingdom where there is no man or woman, no slave or free, no Jew or gentile, and so to make it a reality in this place, to make Camden Town nothing less than a sacrament of Heaven, where anger, fear, violence have no dominion. To do that, to live in both inner and outer peace, Jesus commands his Church to question and subvert the divisions and expectations our society places upon us.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Baptism at the Feast of the Assumption

As I was eating lunch on Monday, I caught the end of a fascinating programme on Radio 4 discussing the meaning of “Character.” It reminded me that this Greek word originally meant a stamp, the sort you would use to make your distinctive mark on the wax seal of a letter or parchment, for example. Your “character” is the type or mould of the person you are.

This resonates with our talk in the Christian Church of being ‘sealed with the Spirit’ or made in the ‘image’ of God, and is quite fitting today as we contemplate what it was that made the Blessed Virgin Mary worthy of such great honour by God, and by extension what that means for Baby Miles as he is imprinted with the character of Christ in Baptism today.

Our Lord appointed Mary as mother of all Christians as he went to the Cross, yet since the Reformation she has become less a figure of unity for Christians than of division. The early Protestants, even the extreme Reformer Calvin among them, were deeply reverential of the Blessed Virgin, as reflected in the retention of many Marian feasts in our own Book of Common Prayer. This is quite different from the cynicism of their successors, often motivated more by tribalistic anti-Catholic sentiment than by any theological motivation. Even the first Reformers, however, were critical of what they saw as mediaeval innovations to the faith, and one of those, in their view, was the feast celebrated throughout the Catholic and Orthodox Church today, of Our Lady’s Assumption: namely, the celebration not just of Mary’s death, but of her unique privilege in receiving instant bodily resurrection and unity with Christ in heaven.

Just because the Reformers considered this Feast an innovation does not mean that they were right. It is helpful when such disputes arise in the Western Church, divided as it is between Catholics and Protestants, to look further afield eastward to the unbroken tradition of the Orthodox Church, and further back in time to before the schism of East and West, when the Church was truly one. If we do that, we will find that indeed, there is no written evidence in the tradition for this belief until around the 4th century, other than the hyperbolic stories in some apocryphal pseudo-gospels rejected by the Church. And yet, for all the testimony of Mary’s Assumption we do have from the fourth century onwards, interestingly we have found not a word written against the doctrine. Nobody seemed to find it controversial. What is more, for all the efforts Christians went to from the earliest days to preserve and venerate the relics of the saints, never has anyone ever suggested that they have a relic of Mary. Every tomb speculatively ascribed to her has been empty. The evidence strongly suggests that right from the beginning, Christians believed the Our Lady’s body had passed immediately into heaven when she died.

But enough of the material evidence. Whether you believe this doctrine or not is a matter for your conscience, as far as the Church of England is concerned, since in theory nothing which cannot be proven by reference to Scripture is binding on us. But either way, it is worth thinking about the meaning of the teaching. And so, returning to our theme, what is more convincing to me than the material evidence is the evidence of Mary’s character: that is, the sort of person God had made her to be, the sort of person he had chosen to bear and raise his Incarnate Son.

References to Mary’s character may be scant, but we can make reasonable inferences based on what we know of her Son. It is still nowadays said that all people are born equal, as though children were simply empty vessels waiting to be filled up with character by their family and wider society; but given the last century’s research into genetics and the importance of influences on the baby even within the womb, we should really know better than that. Our inherited characteristics and the physical and mental dispositions of our mothers mean that we are not born equal at all, and that is not even taking into account our unequal birthrights of wealth and education. What this all suggests is that for Jesus to be the person he was, the human person, Mary must have been an exemplary person herself. However one believes God chose her, it was she and no one else who was destined to bear Jesus. And yet she was of no noble pedigree: she was poor and of low status in the eyes of the world. The odds were against her, and still she was chosen.

Mary had the character to say to the angel “Yes - be it unto me according to God’s word:” the character to consent to God’s will. Mary had the character to stand by her Son during the hard times of his ministry and the threat of persecution. Mary had the character to continue believing and to support the Church even after Jesus died. But before that, Mary had the character, when she was already a widow, to endure seeing her only child executed in front of her. I can only begin to imagine the horror of surviving my own child’s death, and perhaps this is the most persuasive meaning behind the doctrine of the Assumption. When Mary’s Son was crucified, it is no exaggeration to say that she was crucified too. God spared her the pain of death because she had already felt it.

I said that we are not born equal. In the world’s terms, that is true. But there is one sense in which we are born equal: and that is in the eyes of God. In the eyes of God, we are born quite equal to Mary, and indeed all the saints: and that is because all humans are born in the same image of God, the same essence of humanity which Christ adopted and so perfected. We are born with that image, that character, imperfectly stamped, fuzzy at the edges and hard to discern. In Holy Baptism, when we like Mary say “yes” to God’s will, he stamps our souls firmly in the character of Christ. Over life, the image gets more and more blurred - by sin - and so in his goodness, Christ gives us his Eucharist, the sacrament of his very body and blood, to impress his image ever more firmly and renew it, sharpening up the edges. And all this leads us to the promise Christ gives all the baptised, which we believe Mary to be the first after him to have received: the promise of Resurrection to eternal life.

Parents and godparents, it is up to you now to give your assent for Miles to receive the character of Christ. You are promising now to bring him up in accordance with that character, and to encourage him as best you can to grow into grow up in the life of the Church, in due course receiving the Eucharist which is his guarantee of eternal life. It is a grave duty but also a source of joy. If you seek an example of someone who has walked that path to perfection, you need look no further than Jesus’ Blessed Mother, whose character led her so faithfully and unbendingly into his eternal Presence. Amen.  

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Tents and Transfiguration

“It is good for us to be here” (Lk 9.33)
Is it? 
Given recent news, you might question whether now is a good time for us be up the mountain or the altar steps contemplating divine light.
Yet Peter, James and John were no strangers to persecution themselves, and still they thought that the glory of God they saw in Jesus was invaluable: worth their lives, in the end. 
This is because they knew what they saw, from their own Jewish tradition. From 16 October this year, if you go into Hendon, you will see tents in many people’s gardens, out for the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkoth, where the Jewish people will camp for a week in memory of God’s command to them to set up tents in the desert during the Exodus. The “roughly eight days” that Luke mentions at the beginning of his account of the Transfiguration (Lk 9.28) was that very week of the Feast of Tabernacles. This is why Peter offers to set up tents for Moses and Elijah, too, when he sees them with Jesus. They are at the final day of the Feast, and Peter sees Jesus bringing it to a dramatic culmination. But he knows, too, that the Feast of Tabernacles is not just the remembrance of a past event, but like all Jewish festivals, foreshadows also a hope for the future: in this case, the future dwelling of the just in God. When Moses and Elijah vanish in the cloud, Peter knows that the need for tents is over: in Christ, the promise has been fulfilled. The Kingdom is revealed, here and now. 
The disciples also know the spiritual significance of mountains, first from their own experience with Jesus: the mountains of his temptation, his Beatitudes, his frequent retreats of prayer. They will come to know the mountains of his agony, Crucifixion and Ascension too, in due course. But they know also the mountains of Horeb, Sinai and Moriah. They know of Moses ascending to behold God’s glory on Sinai, and the cloud covering it for six days (Ex 24.16). They know of the cloud and the pillar of fire leading their people to the promised land. And they know of Isaiah’s vision of God’s Glory, his kabod, in the heavenly Temple (Isa 6.1-4). Now they see in Christ that selfsame glory, the glory which belongs to God alone. Jesus’ face changes - Matthew says it “shone like the sun” (Mt 17.2) - and his clothes become whiter than anyone could bleach them, according to Mark (Mk 9.2-3). And with the glory comes that same cloud of God’s presence, the Shekinah, which led their people to freedom. That freedom is now theirs. 
When Peter, James and John hear the conversation between their Lord, Moses and Elijah, their Jewish tradition again informs them of its meaning. Jesus talks about his “departure,” or in Luke’s native Greek, his “Exodus.” The Jewish people’s ancient journey is to continue through a new desert, and the destination is Jerusalem, where it shall be fulfilled. Fulfilled, note, not replaced or destroyed: Christ is the fulfilment of the Law represented by Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah, not their replacement or destruction. The new promise fulfils and completes the old without taking anything away from it, and it is the same promise: namely, that the just may dwell forever in God’s glory, in the freedom of the Kingdom. 
Make no mistake, that vision of glory is the treasure beyond all price to which true religion aspires; and it is not to be sought only in times of plenty. The fourth century St Gregory of Nazianzus, in what is now Turkey, delivered an improptu homily during a dreadful cattle plague and drought in which he made it clear that our end is to see “the ineffable light” and “contemplate the holy and majestic Trinity that shines clearly and brightly and unites itself wholly to the entire soul. This alone” he said, “I take to be the kingdom of heaven.” (Or 16.9) He takes the theme from St Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians: 
“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ 
(2 Cor 4.3-6)
This sense of seeking the light, the vision, the beauty of God, which are all contained in that one word “glory,” and finding in it the source of knowledge or wisdom, has been called the core of St Paul’s theology. You might well expect it to be so, seeing as it was just such a vision of light that thrust him to his knees on the Damascus road and brought him to Christ (as, I might add, it was for me). St John too puts the indwelling of God’s glory right at the foundation of our faith in the Prologue to his Gospel (1.14), where he says that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt (literally, “set his tent”) among us, and we beheld his glory.” The glory of God is fundamental to the Christian story, in its Jewish origins, the birth of our Saviour and, foreshadowed in the Transfiguration, at his glorious Ascension; so, it should be fundamental to our story, too, that our future may be the consummation of Christ’s past.
And yet in the contemplation of ancient history and a projected future, we risk losing sight of the present, which brings us back to Peter’s words. Is it “good to be here,” now? Or to make an alternative translation of Luke’s Greek word kalos, is it “beautiful” to be here? 
Well, that depends on how we are looking, what eyes we are using. You remember, probably from a wedding, how St Paul says to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13.12), “now we see in a mirror dimly” (or, in the King James, “a glass darkly”), “but then we shall see face to face.” We have the mirror. The mirror is Christ. In him, the glory of God is reflected, and if we look at the world through this glass, we can see that glory shining already among us. To be sure, we will see it perfectly only when our own transfiguration is complete; but for now, we can see it and moreover reflect it on the world around us, however ugly it may be.  
That, after all, is what Peter, James and John had to do; because what they did not know was that their Exodus to glory would take them through the Red Sea of Christ’s Passion. They did not know that God’s glory would evermore, in Pope Benedict’s words, “bear the mark of Jesus’s wounds.” Yet this is what they would face when they went back down the mountain, and it is what we of the Church must all face as we descend from the heights of prayer into the missionary theatre of the world. Without suffering, there is no glory. Glory for the Apostles, in the words of Paul, meant being ‘pressed in on every side, yet not crushed, perplexed yet not to despair, persecuted yet not forsaken, smitten down yet not destroyed, always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh’ (2 Cor 4.8-10). As our brethren continue to face persecution, we should not expect any less for ourselves in this world. 
And yet: we must never forget to keep going back up the mountain, to withdraw for the same reason Jesus did. He went up the mountain to pray; and if we really go apart and devote ourselves to seeing the glory of God, then, to quote Archbishop Michael Ramsey, “he is at hand to change us by his Spirit into the same image from glory to glory.” (CEA 156-60) The pursuit of God’s glory is not a mystical panacea, but the gospel of Transfiguration, changing the world from glory into glory, a revealing of the world in Christ’s light which conquers because it convinces us enough to say, truly, even in this world, “it is good, it is beautiful, for us to be here.” 

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Superessential Bread

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? 
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. 
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, 
So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? 

Jesus taught us to pray, “give us our daily bread.” Ask for bread, and you will not be given stones. Knock, he said, and the door will be opened to you. All you have to do is ask: and if at first you don’t succeed, keep on knocking. 

So where’s my Mercedes Benz? Why am I still knocking around in an eight year-old Golf? Maybe I’m not praying hard enough, not knocking long enough, not persisting. 

But let’s face it, most people do not get what they ask for when they pray, even when they are asking for much more important things than a nice new motor: even when they’re asking for world peace, for a cure for their loved one’s cancer, for a roof over their head, for the security of knowing when they will get their next meal, just for their daily bread; and yet we keep on praying, so unless we are completely misguided, fooling ourselves, there must be something more to Jesus’ words. 

Our Lord tells us in Lk 11 that prayer is indeed about asking. It is about knocking at that door, waiting outside, acknowledging your absolute dependence on God, entrusting yourself to his provision, yes. But what we are asking for when we pray for our daily bread is not as obvious as it seems. 

Many people have abandoned God because he does not give the daily bread people think he should. And more people have abandoned the Church because they think her main duty should be to run a bread queue. I’ve been asked, quite seriously, why the Church doesn’t sell off all our buildings, sack all the staff, and give the money out to the poor. The assumption is that we are here mainly to provide for people’s material, physical needs, and that the fact we do not means we are failing. It is easy for us in the Church to acquiesce in that sense of failure, whenever we see all too clearly that we cannot house the homeless, feed the hungry or heal the sick even just in Camden Town, so heavy is the expectation from a public that just does not see the point in anything other than material, physical goods and care. 

Actually, though, the prayer which Our Lord taught us as the basis of all true prayer does not ask for material sustenance at all. That is in fact not what the phrase “daily bread” means. Nor should it, since God has already given the world enough food and resources for everybody, if only we shared them out justly - surely it is impertinent to ask God for what he has already given us. No, the “daily bread” of the Lord’s Prayer means something quite different, you may be surprised to hear. It is a matter of translation. The New Testament is written in Greek, and the word for “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer are quite strange. There is a perfectly good word for “daily” in Greek, but it is not the word the Gospel writers use. Instead, they report Jesus as using the very strange, philosophical-sounding word, “epiousios.” It is not found anywhere in any other ancient Greek writings, which makes it very difficult to translate. The second century Latin-speaking Christian, Tertullian, took it to mean “daily,” and this translation has stuck throughout most of the Western Church; but when St Jerome, great 4th-century translator of the Bible came to render this word into the Latin which most of northern Africa and western Europe spoke in his time, he was far more literal. ‘Epi’ means on or over, and ‘ousios’ means existent; so Jerome translated ‘artos epiousios’ as ‘supersubstantial bread,’ bread which, like the manna of the Old Testament, has a supernatural and spiritual quality to it. The bread we are asking for in the Lord’s Prayer is not, after all, our daily sliced white from Tesco; it is none other than the spiritual Bread of Life which Jesus had, after all, spent so much of his ministry talking about, and which he so dramatically gave to the Apostles the very night before he died. 

The Church needs to remember that Our Lord is not telling us to pray for our physical sustenance, but for the Bread which sustains us for eternal life. Echoing the story of Martha and Mary which we heard last week, it is true that we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, of course. But this is only an offshoot of the Church’s truer and deeper calling. If we ask only for physical nourishment and offer only physical nourishment, ask only for physical healing and offer only physical healing, we sorely miss our calling, which is to nourish and heal the human soul. That is what we, the Church, offer that secular support agencies, the local council, the NHS, do not and would not want to. It is not their job: it is ours. So while as Christians we must make political and economic decisions informed by our faith, and speak out for just redistribution of the world’s resources, and while we must offer practical succour for the needy, that is not our first job. It is no good at all for us to feed up and nurture people with the daily bread that meets their physical needs in this world, if we are withholding from them the greatest treasure we have: the true and living Bread, medicine of immortality, without which, truly, we have no life in us. 

So, as you come to the altar today to receive the bread of the Sacrament, I urge you to pray about how you might share that gift, and give others heart to pray not just for their daily bread, but for the Bread of Life which is Christ himself, the living Word of God and so help the world to know the joy of resting in utter dependence on Him. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

St Michael's Church, seeking the light of the world in Camden Town

Light: an image employed in so many religious traditions to denote purity, clarity, unity. And yet, we know that light for all its purity and unity can be divided: white light into the three primary colours, and the infinite spectrum thereafter. In fact, it is the very differentiation of light that allow us to see anything at all, the different wavelengths striking our eyes ready for the brain to translate into images.

“The Lord is my light,” sang the Psalmist of the ancient Jewish Temple. And so Christians believe, with Jews and many others besides, that there is indeed just one primal light for the illumination of the world, one spiritual spiritual light that gives all things meaning, source of all insight, wisdom and vision: and that one light we call God.

Yet many centuries later came a man with challenging words. “I am the light of the world,” he said. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” And so it is that those who came to call themselves Christian saw in Jesus a differentiation in that one true light, as the light walked among them in the darkness of their violent and corrupt world: the Father’s Son.

The challenge of Christ’s words did not end with his death; for before he went to the Cross, he had another surprising thing to say to his friends about the Divine Light. “The Lord is my light,” they already knew; “I am the light,” they came to believe; but had he not also said, “you are the light of the world”? And so it came to pass, after Jesus had left this world, his body ascended to heaven, when his chosen Apostles met and were enkindled as though by ghostly flames rising from their heads, as symbolised to this day in the Bishop’s mitre - on the day we know as Pentecost or Whitsunday. A third refraction of the one holy light: the Holy Spirit descends and gives new birth to the Church.

Three persons, one God: the classic Christian definition of the Trinity. One light, pure and invisible even to the eye of the soul, refracted into our perception. But the refraction does not end with Pentecost. Through the ages, millions of people like tiny facets on some vast prism have refracted some glint of that divine light, each in their own particular way. The great saints of our religion and others, too, are the obvious examples; but the Christian faith teaches that absolutely every person, every single one, is made in the image of God and has something of that divine light to refract and reflect.

Nobody here can doubt that there are plenty of dark corners to life in Camden Town; but the narrative of the Church shedding light into darkness has been too often overplayed and abused. St Michael’s is thinking and praying through what exactly our mission here in Camden Town is: what precise ray and shade of God’s light the lens of this church is shaped and moulded to shine here. Yet we must not get trapped in that metaphor. We need to look out for where that light is already shining in the many people and organisations of goodwill already working here, to see how we can reflect off each other and help each others’ share of the light grow brighter. We need to look out for where that light is already shining, too, deep in the hearts of those whose lives are most obviously blighted by darkness and to help enkindle the light within them. And we need to look out for the darkness in our own hearts, in our own Church, and be open to light that others may bring.

At St Michael’s, we offer a range of community services and want to offer more, to help with more; but if that was at the heart of what we do, we might as well raze this expensive old building and build a community centre. But the beauty of this Victorian masterpiece, which has been called a “sculpture in light,” makes manifest the the primary role of the Church: namely, the worship of God, by which we believe that the divine light is kindled in human hearts. That is why we have invested so much Heritage Lottery Funding on relighting the building, improving the sound system, and making our history better known: not just heritage for heritage’s sake, not just to become a viable venue for gigs, but because beauty in itself is a reflection of God’s light and love. We hope that this church can offer Camden Town a venue, artistic and cultural, yes; a sense of local history and shared identity, too; a Christian community dedicated to loving service and cooperation with our neighbours, of course; but fundamentally, a place of sanctuary and peace, a resource for learning the truth, goodness, beauty and wisdom of God, and so worshipping him here: a light that gives glory to the the heavenly Father whom I believe every one of us shares.

Trinity 8: A tangible stake in the future?

“A tangible stake in the future” is how the Prime Ministerial candidate Andrea Leadsom defined having children last week, claiming an advantage over the childless Mrs May.

Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 would have agreed with her. It was a standard ancient Jewish belief, in fact maintained by the Sadducees right up until Christ’s days, that the only ‘afterlife’ was the one you lived through your offspring and successive generations. This is why the fact that they had no children mattered so much to Abraham and Sarah: the end of their ancestral line meant that their family would not live to reach the promised land. It was a very physical, earthy faith, as you might expect of an ancient farming tribe. So, Jehovah himself - the name of God translated “Lord” in the Old Testament - appears to them as three men, and Abraham duly prostrates before them, the honour due to God alone. The Lord reiterates his promise, that Sarah will indeed have a son to carry the family line to the promised land. This Old Testament, Old Covenant or promise, is one of prosperity for the chosen people’s future generations: a one point lead so far for Mrs Leadsom.

But Mrs May can take heart, because the New Testament of Jesus Christ gives us a radical reinterpretation of the Old, as we hear St Luke proclaim quite markedly in the tenth chapter of his Gospel (Lk 10.38-42) and the story of Martha and Mary: matronly Martha busy, active in the kitchen, while maidenly Mary sits contemplating at our Lord’s feet. St Paul may well have had this pair in mind when he wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthian church (1 Cor 7.34) about married women being anxious about the things of this world, while virgins could devote themselves to spiritual concerns. Part of the message of this episode surely conforms to the reading of later Christian monks and nuns, namely the priority of the contemplative life of prayer over the active life of service. But for people of New Testament times, it also makes the controversial point that God’s promise for you is not bound to the hope of future generations, not dependent on bloodline or nation, the direct opposite of the teaching of the Sadduccees: now God is present with you, God visits you, regardless of your married state and capacity or desire to procreate. God’s New Covenant is not just for your children and your children’s children: it is for you.

Many unbelievers, and not a few believers, too, think that the Christian faith is all about the hope of the afterlife: the promise of Heaven and the threat of Hell. Yet as Our Lord’s visit to Mary and Martha shows, God’s promise is just not for a “stake in the future.” It has a certain urgency to it. He tells Martha to stop fretting. There’s no time for that. In fact, says the Lord, there is only one thing you need, and whatever it is, he has not come to promise it for a later date. Mary already has it, he says: it is not to be taken from her. It is not a brood of offspring. It is not a patch of promised land. It is Christ himself, whom Mary has simply received. As St Paul writes to the Colossians (1.28), the mystery is Christ in you. Christ himself is the hope of glory.

This Gospel comes at quite a fitting time for us at St Michael’s as we “reopen” today to Camden Town and continue to think about our mission, our vocation here. I hope you have now seen the paper I left in church last week following up on your comments and ideas at the Vision Day, so full of energy and enthusiasm. Our Lord’s visit to Mary and Martha does not dismiss that energy, our action and busyness - our Legal Drop-in, work with the homeless shelter, political engagement, practical provision for people in need. After all, Jesus accepts Martha’s active welcome, and calls us to love our neighbour in action, not in thought alone. He does not dismiss these works of ours; but he does make clear our priority.

The very purpose of humanity is the love and worship of God. We are made precisely for the Sabbath of which Christ is Lord, made like Mary to rest in him. So, the Church’s primary role is to make possible the worship of God. For this to happen, as individuals in the Church, our priority must be to come to know and love God more deeply and fully. If we don’t do that - if we expend so much energy on performing good works that we have none left to listen, learn and pray - then I fear we will be building on a house of sand, still putting our hope in our abilities to “build a better future” rather than in the presence of Christ among us and the transformative power of his grace in our hearts. We need to make sure that whatever we offer here springs not just from our own will, but from the fountain of God’s love opened in prayer.

I am open to continuing our conversation about the mission of this church. Sundays at 12 takes a break in August, so on the 7th and the 14th at noon, I’d like to offer the opportunity for open discussion based on the Vision Day and my response to it that was handed out last week. In case you want to talk to somebody more neutral and one-to-one, my friend Martin Moore of Sprint HR is going to make some hours for individuals to book in with him to talk about your particular place in the life of our church, focussing on what you already do, what you want to do, and what you would like to change - dates to be confirmed. The reorganisation work will keep going on in the background. Then, in September, I hope to be able to come back to you with a detailed mission plan incorporating as much as possible from our extended deliberations together.

I would urge you to think and pray not just about what we might do, but following Mary’s example, also how we might be: how we might open ourselves and others to the transforming presence of Christ in our midst here and now, for conversion of the heart is the only lasting foundation for the peace that Camden Town and indeed our neighbours in Nice so sorely need. We open ourselves to him now as he offers himself for us in bread and wine.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Heavenly Kingdom and European Union

The 1st of July, 1681. Oliver Plunkett, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, is executed at the Tyburn on the false accusation of a ‘Popish Plot,’ having spent thirteen years, many undercover to escape Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan scourges, ministering faithfully to his people. Amid all that political turmoil, when a Christian bishop feared for his life in these very islands simply for teaching the Catholic and Apostolic faith, I find a letter he wrote to his superiors quite illuminating: “God knows that I think of nothing else, day and night, than the service of souls … Political or temporal matters have no part in my life: neither in my mind nor on my lips nor with my pen are they given any place.” He wrote this after he was sentenced to death. His duty as a priest, he maintained right to the end, was not to make bold political statements, even when his life was forfeit, but to tend to the spiritual needs of his countrymen.

What a contrast with some of the senior clergy of the Church of England today, who seem compelled, indeed who think they have the right, to use their public office, their pulpits and their social media feeds to express their political opinions - not because their lives are even remotely at threat, but because they are unhappy with the popular will expressed in the recent EU Referendum. According to the blogger Cranmer, the Dean of Manchester has publicly accused the Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser of racism on Facebook; the Dean of Exeter has denounced on Twitter everyone who voted “Leave” - that is, the majority of the people in our nation under our Church’s spiritual care - as “stupid.” The retired Dean of Durham, meanwhile, has claimed that Leave voters are in league with the French Front National. Far from concerning themselves with the spiritual welfare of those committed to their charge, these priests have taken it on themselves to denigrate the very people they have been appointed to serve.

And what a contrast then with the ministry to which Jesus appointed those seventy-two disciples, sending them out in pairs ahead of him to prepare his way. The harvest is rich, says the Lord, but the labourers few: and yet these labourers seem more intent on burning the crop, condemning it, than on nurturing and harvesting it. They are effectively excommunicating the majority of their compatriots who do not acquiesce to their enlightened views. You ware like lambs among wolves, says the Lord: do not expect your ministry to be easy, so not expect everyone to agree with you straight away; but be patient with people, let your first words to them be “Peace be to this house!” and bring them the Good News that the Kingdom of God is near. What peace is the Church offering this nation in its time of turmoil by sneering at the majority of its people? What Kingdom is it that the comments of these condescending clerics proclaim?

A priest has the right only to preach the teaching of the Church, and to use the pulpit to score political points is an abuse of our station. I have no intention here of setting out my views on the rights or wrongs of Britain leaving the EU. But what I can and, I think, probably should do is take the reality of our present political situation and see where we might further or, for that matter, hinder the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven where we are now.

The idea of the Kingdom is a powerful one: God the Father enthroned in splendour, the Lamb sitting at his right hand, thronged with angels singing and offering incense, the white-robed faithful united in praise all round. An image of harmony, of order, of unity: not a unity of crushing absorption into the godhead, but the Trinitarian unity of a God who is at once one and three; a unity allowing for distinction, individuality, even as the disparate members find a common identity in Christ.

No political structure, for that matter, no political leader, has ever achieved the harmony promised in the vision of the heavenly Kingdom, despite the efforts of various Empires, Republics, Soviets and Reichs. Inevitably we veer either too much towards a unity of absorption, crushing individuals into a straitjacket of a system, or we lurch off into the chaos of everyone looking out for himself, every person, every nation an island with only their own interests at heart. No one political system or ideology can make an exclusive claim to divine favour and none deserves the exclusive blessing of the Church, whether capitalism, socialism or whatever: the Church must not be the Tory party at prayer, but nor must it be the spiritual wing of the Labour movement. The Kingdom of heaven is beyond party politics, and no one movement has the right to the allegiance of every Christian.

The Kingdom is also beyond political models and regimes. I think we can safely say that the Kingdom does not look much like an isolated island nation setting its face stubbornly against the world. But then, the Kingdom does not look much like a bloated bureaucracy governing a members-only club of first world nations, yet deaf to individual countries’ entreaties. Caricatures, I know: but neither completely empty of truth. And anyway, we are living in a country that has descended into caricature as its entire frame of debate: the caricature of the metropolitan liberal elite versus the unthinking, racist masses. Again, there is truth in both of these stereotypes. There have indeed been racist incidents fuelled by the promise of Britain leaving the EU. There has also been appalling snobbery and superiority among those who lost last week’s vote.

It is perhaps verging into speculation to say that had our British political leaders listened to their people these last decades, and had our European political leaders listened to the requests of our Prime Minister, had they gone to their citizens and subjects with respect and heralding peace, rather than than with arrogance, ridicule and condescension, the result might have been rather different. But what I can say without speculation at all, with utter certainty, regardless of where you stand on the Britain’s place in the EU, is that the Kingdom of Heaven looks nothing at all like this country as it stands now, bitterly divided, a state of two nations.

It is up to us as Christians now what to do about it. Do we join in, like the deans, with the demonization of those who hold different views from ourselves, pat ourselves on the backs at how enlightened we and our friends are? Do we shut ourselves off, like the proverbial “Little Englanders,” and take this as an opportunity to put our heads in the sand, run away from the world? Or, like the martyr Bishop Plunkett, do we do what Jesus commands: go out into the great harvest, expect to be attacked by wolves, yet wish our brothers and sisters peace, listen and show love, reason with opposing opinions rather than merely scorn them, and so show something of that Kingdom which is higher and more beautiful and more stable than any worldly Union or any sovereign land.