Our National Life: Proverbs 8, 1-16 & Luke 22, 24-27
My maternal grandparents lived in Blackburn, Lancashire. In fact I was born in Blackburn. It may not be obvious but I am a proud Lancashire Lad. My grandparents were a particular sort of Anglican. Grandpa George played the organ in the cathedral church. Grandma Grace was a member of various church groups and was heavily involved with various local charities, particularly one that supported what was then referred to as handicapped children. My grandparents were good people but they were also the particular type of Church of England member who felt that there were two things that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company: religion and politics! At this point I need to say that they were probably the only people on who lived on Ramsgreave Drive who read the Daily Telegraph and that they did live in a constituency which was represented by Barbara Castle and then a young firebrand Jack Straw. So maybe admitting that you were a Tory was simply to invite a whole load of ridicule and pain?
Well I can’t help but talk about religion these days, but should I, as a representative minister in the Church of England, talk about politics? I think the answer is yes. And it’s yes for various reasons: first, the Church of England is a national and established church. Our bishops, twenty six of them, sit in the legislature as something called Lords Spiritual. They don’t vote en bloc and they are free to both speak and vote. Over the years our bishops have made a significant difference to the law of the land. Archbishop William Temple was one of the leading advocates for the welfare state and was a co-author of the Beveridge Report. The much sainted Michael Ramsey introduced the Wolfenden Report in the House of Lords and was the first peer to speak in favour of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Recently the Bishop of St. Albans has helped shape legislation with regards to fixed odd betting terminals. Archbishop Justin takes his role as a public theologian incredibly seriously, as does our own bishop, Steven. The Church of England is established by parliament -we are the agent and not the principal – and we are supposed to take a full and participatory role in both supporting and holding government to account. We are supposed to ask, of the state, difficult, challenging, affirming, ethical and religious questions. And, we are also mandated to pray for the country; our liturgy makes this clear.
Our prayers aren’t however limited to praying for the monarch, her ministers and parliament, for to stop here would be truly limiting, for our most important prayer, the prayer of the Church, provides us with the aspirations of faith: a world characterised by God’s values - ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ and a world in which everyone has their base needs tended to ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ If we want to see a Godly world, we need to start with imagining heaven. We live in a world devoid of imagination and aspiration. As Christians we need to be ensure that imagination and aspiration are integral to public and political discourse.
But, secondly, and most importantly I would want to argue, and argue strongly, that Jesus' own ministry was highly political; not party political but political. Jesus was a master at teasing out the ethical and religious questions, with perhaps the most obvious one being this: ‘who is my neighbour?’ This, it strikes me, isn’t simply a question for the biblical age but for all ages. The importance of good neighbourliness, both in terms of domestic and international policy, is something that the church should always hold before the nation’s conscience. Jesus, throughout his ministry, dared to speak truth to power, such that he was able to self-describe as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. Jesus' ministry commenced with his ownership of the Isaiah prophecy and ended with him being charged by the religious elite and sentenced by the political elite. Jesus cared deeply about justice and the plight of the poor. If you think about his healing miracles what they did, alongside the act of physical healing, was to help integrate the hitherto excluded back into community and society.
The issues that Jesus sought to address are all issues that effect our national life and the way we relate to the world and to each other. We, as people of faith, must like Jesus and the psalmist ‘sing of faithfulness and justice.’ Like the writer of Proverbs we must look first and foremost to the religious tradition so that we too are people of ‘wisdom,’ ‘knowledge,’ and ‘discretion.’ We must, as Jesus instructs us act with humility, not seeking to be the greatest, the perhaps self-interested greatest, but the ‘one who serves.’
We, you and I, don’t have all of the answers, or at least not the party political answers, but there again that is not our starting point, for our starting point must always be our faith. As people of faith we must always seek to make sure that we seek God’s ‘good advice and sound wisdom.’ We must always make sure that we are not crudely seduced by ‘pride and arrogance…..the way of evil….and perverted (or politically contrived) speech.’
We may not have all the answers, but what our tradition gives us, for free, is the right questions. I think my grandparents, sorry, were wrong, for if we truly care about ‘our National Life,’ as a Church, we must always dare to speak ‘truth to power,’ whilst making sure that we also hold our leaders, spiritual and political, before God in prayer. Amen.
4th Sunday before Lent: Isaiah 6, 1-8 & Luke 5, 1-11
I wonder whether you have ever had the experience of feeling totally out of your depth or ill equipped to do a job you have been asked to do? I also wonder whether you might have ever had those awful feelings of being inadequate and not good enough? My third wondering is this: have you ever inwardly groaned and asked ‘why me?’ I suppose the last question is the easiest to answer with a straightforward ‘why not you, or even me.’
When I began feeling the not so gentle pull, or was it a push, towards ordination I asked of myself, and God, all three questions. God, in his wisdom, didn’t even bother responding. Instead what He did was let the feelings of being pushed and pulled grow. At times the feelings were so acute and painful that like Peter I wanted to say – in fact I didn’t want to say, I said, ‘Go away from me, Lord.’ The bizarre thing was that God didn’t go away: he stayed, remained and kept pushing and pulling. Out of my experience of discerning my calling I learnt that God is a persistent old something or other. I also learnt that God is persistent for a reason: He wants all of us, you and me, to join in with his plans, his mission, his purpose. In fact this is the very definition of mission: joining in with God’s plans and God’s plan is conversion. God wants all of us, the members of his one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to help in the process of ‘catching people.’ God wants, in the words of our benefice collect, for his church to grow both in number and in holiness. He wants our metaphorical nets to be full to overflowing, and we, you and me, our His fishermen.
But here is the good news. Mission and evangelism isn’t the preserve of just one person. The onus isn’t solely on you or me. It’s a joint effort. Listen again to the words of the gospel: ‘So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to help them.’ God doesn’t want us to sit in splendid isolation aimlessly dropping our lines into the water. He wants us, his people, to work together as colleagues, partners and, yes, friends.
The amazing thing about God, about Jesus, is that he identifies and commissions ordinary people, people like you and me, to be His partners in mission. He asks all of us to help ‘catch people.’ He asks us to be humanity's safety net. He asks us to catch people through sharing our stories, our gospel testimonies, and by acts of loving kindness. He asks all of us who are members of his ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ to be his friends, colleagues and partners. Divine partnership and Godly friendship are the very essence of what it means to be catholic and apostolic.
When we say yes to God’s invitation to be God’s partners in mission I can promise you that something truly amazing happens. It happened to the prophet Isaiah who came before God and said: ‘Woe is me. I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts,’ it happened to Peter, and it happened to me. What happens is that the questions I asked at the beginning of this homily recede and dissipate. They cease to be the real questions. They recede and dissipate because what happens is this: God reaches out and touches us. He touches our hearts, enlarges our minds and anoints our lips: this is truly what happens. And, when this happens, we start to become individuals in community who partner with God in ‘catching people.’
To catch people is our noblest calling, to partner with God is our greatest privilege, to be touched and anointed by God is the very source of our liberation. Like Isaiah and like Peter, all we need to do is to say ‘yes.’
Let us together, in partnership, be God’s people catchers in this place,
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Candlemas. Luke 2, 22-40
I suspect that most of us here have seen, or perhaps, even been to an Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical. I have often wondered why they didn’t produce a musical based on the first few chapters of Luke’s gospel. The plot line is brilliant and list of characters diverse and, it seems, that every significant encounter includes some form of anthem or hymn. Luke’s gospel has given to the church the great canticles which we either sing or say at morning and evening prayer: the Magnificat, the Benedictus and, of course, the Nunc Dimitus. Sometimes, I think, we lose the significance and meaning in these canticles amidst the beauty of both their words and the choral music to which they are set. So, it’s good to be able to offer a homily based on the words of one of these canticles; the Nunc Dimitus.
Let’s pause briefly and consider the scene into which Simeon, spontaneously led by the Holy Spirit, offers his song of praise. A young couple, Mary and Joseph, have brought their baby boy to the Temple for the ritual of cleansing; Mary’s cleansing. Mary, not Jesus, is supposed to be the centre of attention. Purification is supposed to be the theme. In the Temple Mary and Joseph, the young couple, encounter Simeon and Anna, who are both old and, at least in Anna’s case, single. It’s all very All-Age. The Temple, like the church, is supposed to be a place that welcomes, affirms and ritually includes all. A place where young and old coalesce, mix and mingle. So far, so good, but then something incredibly strange happens.
Simeon, ‘led by the Holy Spirit,’ deflects the attention away from Mary, who has come for purification, and towards Jesus and in this one moment we are provided with an insight – a gloriously divine insight – into the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is an attention shifter! The Holy Spirit’s work is to make Jesus the absolute centre of attention and to declare that Jesus is the route to salvation. Yes, our rituals – processing the gospel, swinging the thurible, censing the altar, singing hymns, listening to anthems and so forth are important but only to the extent to which they point away from us and towards Jesus. Our rituals, liturgies and worship have no meaning, or currency, in their own right; they are given meaning through the work of the Holy Spirit (if you are at all interested this was the subject of my dissertation) whose role is to direct us towards the Christ, the Messiah, or in Simeon’s terms the ‘light for revelation.’ Simeon, through this story, this narrative, tells us something remarkable. Simeon is the first to say the route to salvation is through Jesus Christ, through faith, and not through the strict observance of religiously prescribed protocol. But Simeon says, or sings, something even more shocking: he dares to proclaim, again led by the Holy Spirit, that salvation isn’t the exclusive preserve of one group of people, or race, its the gift of grace made available to all; Gentile and Jew alike. And, for this we should all be truly pleased. In fact like Simeon and Anna our response should be joy, praise and thanksgiving.
Today’s Gospel reading invites us to ask many questions of ourselves. It asks us to consider the extent to which we are a truly All-Age church, welcoming young and old alike; it asks us to consider the extent to which our worship and rituals are soaked through with the Holy Spirit; it asks us to reflect on the breadth of our hospitality and inclusivity; it asks to be honest in asking whether we might sometimes prefer the safety of protocol to the vitality of change. It asks us to consider the extent to which we are light bearers, always pointing away from ourselves towards Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. We need to answer these questions so that we, like Simeon, may when the time comes ‘depart in peace,’ whilst in the meantime praising God with the infectious and life giving joy of Anna.
Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice really should have produced a musical based on the early chapter of Luke!
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