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 na├»ve.  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.