November 11, 2018 § Leave a comment
A sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday, 11 November 2018.
Tonight the BBC will broadcast a film by Peter Jackson, the Director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Stunning technology has allowed him to
bring archive footage from the Great War to brilliant life. Those who fought become as real as the people sitting next to us. They could be in the armed forces of today. It should not be easy viewing. We will not have the excuse of grainy black and white pictures to distance ourselves from the carnage. One hundred years will be as if they had never been, and this will be us.
The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old. The words come from a poem by Lawrence Binyon called For the Fallen. Published in 1914, the poem (written overlooking a Cornish beach) thinks of the dead across the sea. As Remembrance commemorations took hold after the war, Binyon’s stanza became their centrepiece. Of course, we have no personal memory of all this. But we are re-minded as we think of the events and the people of that and other conflicts, and in that sense we remember. Here are three of the seven verses.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
I have presided at many acts of remembrance where Binyon’s words have been central, and once I got the order wrong. The feedback from veterans of the Second World War was rapid and clear, and I’ve never done it again. They forgave me, and made me an Honorary Normandy Veteran, a deeply humbling privilege. Have you noticed that Peter Jackson has deliberately changed the order? He says ‘they shall not grow old’. Binyon wrote ‘they shall grow not old’. The English teacher in me has been reflecting on that. Is there a difference between ‘not grow’ and ‘grow not’? I think there is.
To say that the fallen do not grow old is logical and factual. They are fixed forever at the cruelly youthful point of their death. They will not live to full age, continue their relationships, see their children grow, not their children and the generations to follow. They are as unmoving as their names on their memorials. In my previous two churches such names have been a profound feature: York Minster holds the names of 19,000 Second World War aircrew, and of hundreds of women who died in the Great War. Beverley Minster contains 16 sets of regimental colours and holds 8,000 names of those from East Yorkshire who died in the Great War. So many lives stopped, cruelly never to age as we do.
But I hear more than that when I say ‘they shall grow not old’. Remembrance is a living and developing observance. What we call to mind changes as the world changes, new facts emerge, new perspectives are offered, new interpretations and representations, like Peter Jackson’s film, are presented. We reassess. We reaffirm the instant response to work with all we have to prevent such carnage, and apply it afresh to new situations.
What does commemorating the ending of dreadful conflict in Europe say to a Europe considering how nation states might relate and commit themselves to each other? What does the presence of combatants from different countries, of different colours and faiths say to a nation struggling with matters of inclusion and integration? What does the forced movement of peoples in war say to those today who are refugees from violence, poverty and climate change?
In that sense the Fallen grow in our remembering, even as they remain at the age of their falling. Not old, their sacrifice grows and deepens and affects and challenges. They died for this world, as well as the world of a century ago. The church uses the word ‘remember’ in a similar way, Sunday by Sunday. The early unjust death of a young man not one hundred but two thousand years ago is ‘re-membered’ not as a fact of ancient history, but one which grows as it is brought to mind, and takes flesh in us. The power and presence of Jesus Christ, who died and was raised means that we grow, we look forward, we work towards a vision of the Kingdom of heaven where war will be no more, where our differences are enfolded and defused through the death of one man, the Son of God, for the whole world.
And as we remember the eternal sacrifice of Christ, the rest of Binyon’s words remind us that The Fallen do not remain in the past. Their memory grows.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
Today, a century from the end of the war to end all wars, in the light of Christ we commend all who have died in conflict, knowing that, as they are young in life, they are known in eternity. And we commit ourselves to work for a world where righteousness triumphs and all live in peace. The Fallen deserve no less.
They grow not old. We will remember them.
March 17, 2018 § 1 Comment
I was privileged to be Chaplain to the annual conference of Diocesan Children’s Advisers at High Leigh this week. The topic was “Blessed…?” – reflecting on the finding and bringing of blessing is situations of trauma and brokenness, and in times of joy and peace for children. As an example, 1 in 30 children of school age has lost a parent or sibling. Blessed are those who mourn?
The 48 hours were profound and challenging, as well as hopeful and affirming. I wrote what I wanted to say at the final Eucharist at the last possible moment. It’s raw and not researched. Here it is.
John 10. 11 – 16. The Good Shepherd.
In the last two days we have inhabited the hardest places, for ourselves, with others, and for the children we serve.
We have struggled to find and to bring blessing. We have wondered about fairness and rightness and justice; and wrestled with the theology of an invitation to find blessing in the depths where God is undoubtedly present, but which God has at least allowed and might also have formed.
We have wondered then what is “Good” about our Shepherd, even as we have acknowledged the grief of that Shepherd, and the utter identification of that Shepherd in everything we have encountered.
In these days I have turned back to some foundational doctrines of Scripture and the Church Fathers:
- There was never a time when God was not
- There is no place where God is not.
- There is nothing which God cannot redeem.
In these times of brokenness and trauma we long to be people of peace, healing, friendship and acceptance. We long to be people who can agonise with others without explaining; people who can make connections without restricting, people who can hold others with the wounded hands of Christ; people who can rage at God and rage with God and rage for God.
We long to be people who inhabit the mystery of God and share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings…
…and who, with humility and with faith, proclaim the death of Christ until he comes, and all is enfolded in eternity. Amen.
March 13, 2018 § Leave a comment
God of all,
In the blessing of children you revealed your kingdom.
Teach us to welcome, not to despise;
to be humble, not to oppress.
By your Spirit
make us a blessing, not a stumbling block,
that your children may find life in all its fulness
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make His face to shine upon you
And be gracious unto you
The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you
And give you peace, and give you peace
Numbers 6. 24 – 26
Music by John Rutter
March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
From Exodus 4, 5 and 6
The Lord said to Aaron, ‘Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.’ So he went; and he met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him, and all the signs with which he had charged him. Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites.
Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped.
Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’
But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’ Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.’
But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labours!’ Pharaoh continued, ‘Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!’
That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, ‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, “Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.” Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labour at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.’
So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, ‘Thus says Pharaoh, “I will not give you straw. Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.” ’
So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. The taskmasters were urgent, saying, ‘Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.’ And the supervisors of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, ‘Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?’
Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, ‘Why do you treat your servants like this? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, “Make bricks!” Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.’
He said, ‘You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, “Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.” Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.’ The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.’ As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. They said to them, ‘The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odour with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.’
Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.’
March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
This is for Morning Worship on Thursday 15 March for the Children’s Ministry Advisers National Conference
December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
All my sermons are on the church website, but some seem to be worth sharing more widely. This is tonight’s.
Years ago I remember watching an animation. It started by looking at an ordinary human being, rowing a boat. It quickly zoomed out, flying away from the person, showing them on the lake, the lake in the city, the city in the country, the country on the planet, the planet in the solar system, and on to the far reaches of the universe. Then we returned to the person, zooming into the person’s body, showing us the detail of skin and blood vessels, and even further, to cell and molecule and atomic level. We then zoomed out, back to the person again, rowing the boat. But now you saw them in a new light, immensely complex, and in a new context, within an infinitesimal universe. The film is called Cosmic Zoom, and it’s on YouTube – here. I’m pleased to say that, having seen it as a child (it was made in 1968) I remembered it pretty well.
I was reminded of it because of the first chapter of the Letter to the Colossians, our second reading this afternoon. It has a similar feel, ranging from the day to day life of a new church: messages sent from Colossae to Paul via Epaphras, to the outer reaches of the universe and of human longings and imagination: Christ, the image of the invisible God, the maker of all things. Paul knows the people he is writing to, and wants to support their ordinary daily life in Christ. And he knows the God he is commending them to, and Christ the head of the church. Our daily life has to be seen in its detailed complexity, and in the context of the whole spiritual universe.
The beginning of Colossians appears at various points in the church’s pattern of Bible readings, and often at this time of year. It’s a passage which will help as we use the end of one year and the beginning of another to put ourselves into context, and to use a review of the past to enable a plan for the future. I’m trying hard to avoid using the word ‘resolutions’, but you know what I mean. What Paul is doing here is praying for the new church he has helped to bring into being. Praying is about the future as well as the present. When we pray we are imagining things as they should be, as we would like them to be. To quote Frank Senn, the Lutheran liturgical scholar, intercession is about ‘the world done aright’.
It’s worth unpacking this a little. When we pray that something should change – that a person might be healed; that a violent confrontation might become peaceful; that an injustice may be righted – when we pray in this way it is because we have a vision of the world as it should be. We are made for health, not illness, peace not war, right not wrong. To pray for these things is to align ourselves with God’s vision for the world as it will be, with the values and practices of God’s kingdom. Far from being the fulfilment of selfish desires, true prayer is about going beyond ourselves to discovering life in all its fullness. True prayer is about finding God’s desires, not our own.
To make resolutions is to desire a future and to create practices which will bring that future into being. Those resolutions need to be put into context too. Paul prays that the Colossians will be ‘fruitful’, not so that they can pile up wealth and success and be filled with pride, but so that what God will for the world will be brought to fruition. His prayer is that they will grow in ‘every good work’ and in ‘the knowledge of God’, that they will be able to cope with whatever is thrown at them, so that they will know the hope of the church and of the saints, the light and life of God. To put this into context he gives them that amazing universe wide vision of Christ, the ruler and creator of all things.
Why be fruitful? For the sake of the Christ who holds everything in his hands. Why grow in good works? For the sake of the one who is the head of the church. Why endure all things with patience? For the sake of the one who was the firstborn from the dead. Why give thanks to the Father? Because the fulness of God was pleased to dwell in his beloved Son. We might apply that to our own resolutions as a church, and as individuals. Why seek to welcome new people as disciples? Why feed and shelter the homeless? Why welcome a refugee family? Why look for young people to make a commitment of faith? Why engage with this community and contest for the role of faith in the public square?
Not because it will make us feel better, however much I’d like to slap some positive statistics in front of the Daily Mail and say ‘what about this, cynical media.’ Not because we’ll be shown to be a success, and gain affirmation and self satisfaction. Why resolve to do all this? Because in prayer we align ourselves with the love and literal passion and demands and challenges of the God who is in and over all things in Jesus Christ. This is the big picture. And just like that animation, in the Kingdom of Heaven the macro and the micro are one and the same. Thanks be to God.