BISHOP HASSAN & MRS MARGARET DEHQANI-TAFTI – A Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday Next Before Lent

Preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, Sunday, February 26th, 6.30p.m.

Ps 84, Eccles 48:1-10, Matt 17:9-23

Today’s readings are around the theme of Transfiguration – I spoke about that this morning, and will put that Sermon on our website.  Then I was reflecting on our experience of worship, and how we have to return to the rest of life, and all the trials and difficulties that may include.  I quoted the comedian, Milton Jones, in his book of ’10 Second Sermons’ [Milton Jones, 10 Second Sermons…and even quicker illustrations, p. 20],  who puts it like this: ‘If we’re on a journey: in the same way that the services are not the motorway, a Church is not the Services’.

But this evening, I want to take a rather different tack, which was inspired by an obituary in the Church Times at the end of last year.  It was to Margaret Dehqani-Tafti, the widow of Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the first Iranian Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Iran.  And, as we think of Transfiguration, and the message of the Gospel, I want to tell you a little bit about Margaret and Hassan and their family.

After they fled Iran, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment, they came to Winchester, and lived in the Diocese for many years, where they were a very gracious and prayerful presence.  As I knew them, I bought his book, in Edinburgh in October 1985, called ‘The Hard Awakening’, which tells their story, not long after the tragic events of the Iranian Revolution.

First, a bit about Margaret, who died last October.

She was the youngest of three sisters, born in 1931 in Iran to missionary parents, William and Margaret Thompson. The Second World War prevented her returning to England for education; so she stayed in Iran until the last years of secondary school, and began a deep and enduring relationship with the country in its culture, language, and people.

Hers were parents with foresight; for they did not stand in her way when, aged only 18, she wanted to marry Hassan, a priest of the diocese of Iran, and 12 years her senior. Many others thought it unwise, and there was definitely a sort of colonial opposition to their union. But Margaret had met her life partner, and, although she spent some time in England training to be a nurse, that was cut short when, at the time of the oil crisis in 1952, she returned to marry in Iran.

In 1961, her husband succeeded William Thompson as Bishop of Iran, and Margaret, a fluent Persian speaker, provided practical and emotional support, both for their family of one son and four daughters, and for Hassan’s gifted but demanding ministry in Iran; and, from 1976, also as the first President Bishop of the newly formed Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East.

[See: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/9-december/gazette/obituaries/margaret-dehqani-tafti]

Meanwhile, Hassan:

was born on 14 May 1920 in the village of Taft, near Yazd, in Central Iran, and was brought up by CMS missionaries in accordance with the wishes of his mother, who died when he was five. Educated at the Stuart Memorial College in Isfahan, it was in his teens that he became a committed Christian and leading member of the Isfahan youth group. At his baptism in 1938, he retained his Muslim name of Hassan, but added the Christian name of Barnaba — son of consolation — reflecting even at that early age his concern to hold within himself a gospel rooted in the culture and religion of Iran.

He graduated as a teacher from Tehran University in 1943, and offered himself for service in the Church, but first had to serve for two years in the Iranian Imperial Army, where his knowledge of English led to his appointment as an interpreter to British officers serving in the country.

From 1945 to 1947, he worked as a layman in the diocese under Bishop William Thompson before being selected for ordination. After training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, he was appointed Pastor of St Luke’s, Isfahan, in 1949. He served there for ten years until he was transferred for a short period to St Paul’s, Tehran, in preparation for his consecration as Bishop in Iran in succession to Bishop Thompson in 1961.

In 1976, he was elected the first President Bishop of the newly formed Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, a calling that required him to help bring coherence and a sense of togetherness to Churches in a very disparate Middle East and North Africa, facing the impact of oil wealth, a resurgent Islam, and the seeming intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Islamic Revolution of February 1979, meant that a whirlwind struck the little Church in Iran. The priest in Shiraz, Arastoo Sayyah, was brutally murdered. In the next five months, the Church’s institutions — hospitals and schools — were expropriated, and its bank accounts were confiscated. Only the people and church buildings were left.

Bishop Hassan protested against the injustice of these violent seizures, but the response was the looting of his house, and his own temporary arrest and interrogation, followed by an attempt on his life one night in October 1979. Two gunmen entered his bedroom and fired at point-blank range, but, miraculously, the bullets narrowly missed his head, although one injured his wife’s hand as she flung herself across him to protect him.

A week later, he left Iran for the meeting of the Anglican Primates in Cyprus. After much inner turmoil, he took their advice not to return to Iran, but his wife and younger daughters did. In 1980, tragedy was to strike. In early May, his secretary Jean Waddell was shot and wounded – and that is another story in itself – and on 6 May his only son Bahram, a lecturer at Damavand College, Tehran, was found shot on the roadside near the college, possibly by government agents.

His death left a lasting scar, but for Bahram’s funeral in Isfahan five days later, which he could not attend, Bishop Hassan wrote a remarkable and moving prayer that was to become much translated and circulated around the world. It concluded with the following lines:

O God,

Bahram’s blood multiplies the

  fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls:

So when his murderers stand

  before thee on the Day of Judgement

Remember the fruit of the Spirit

  by which they have enriched our lives,

And forgive.

For the next ten years, he continued as Bishop in Iran, but in exile. Bishop John V. Taylor invited him to be Assistant Bishop in Winchester Diocese, as a base from which he could continue his ministry. He wrote extensively, communicated with Iran by phone and letter, and travelled within the province as President Bishop until 1986.

He took great delight in the doings of his three daughters, their husbands, and his six grandchildren. His funeral took place on the 88th anniversary of his birth, the 14th May, 2008.

[https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2008/16-may/gazette/obituary]

The Book, called ‘The Hard Awakening’, in which he tells the story of those years around the start of the Revolution, is dedicated:

To Margaret, my wife,

Who endangered her life for me,

And to the memory of

Bahram, our only son

Who gave his life for both of us,

And for many more.

And it has this inscription opposite the title page, from a poem by Hafiz, a 14th-century Persian mystic and poet, called ‘Love’s Awakening’:

Love seemed at first an easy thing –

But ah! The hard awakening.

The photograph on the cover is of the bullet holes in the bedsheets when the gunmen burst into his room and tried to kill him.

Still today, there are similar stories of persecution, of Christians being murdered for their faith, and in this Parish we have a special link with ‘Open Doors’, a charity which supports the persecuted Church, and with which Pat & John Bloomfield keep us up-to-date, and for which they encourage us to pray.

As we think of Transfiguration, as we move into Lent, we can remember the depth of suffering some people have to face because of their faith in Christ, and the way in which some can maintain their faith in God even in the most difficult of circumstances.

 

‘TIS GOOD, LORD, TO BE HERE – A Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Lent

Preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, Sunday, February 26th, 9.30a.m.

II Pet 1:16-21, Matt 17:1-9

This Sunday Before Lent, in our Lectionary of readings, is Transfiguration Sunday.  Both readings we have heard are about the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top – either telling the story of Jesus himself on the mountain top in the Gospel Reading; or reflecting on that story years later, when the author of II Peter writes ‘We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty’.

‘Transfiguration’ is a tricky word to translate.  We could use the Latin ‘Transformation’, or the Greek ‘Metamorphosis’, or the more commonly used ‘Transfiguration’.  Whichever word we use, it’s about one thing being changed into another, or, to put it another way, something being revealed for what it really is – in this case, the true nature of Jesus.

In the Orthodox Church of the East, icons are vital to the well-being of the Church, and the Icon of the Transfiguration, of which we have a copy here, is thought of as the foundational icon of them all.  The essential thing about the Icon of the Transfiguration is that it reveals what some of the Orthodox call ‘The Light of the Eighth Day’ [See, e.g., Gregory Palamas at http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/38767.htm].  This is the light of the end of the Book of Revelation, the light which needs neither Sun nor Moon to make it shine, the light in which we will all bathe after the end of time, the light which will sweep us all up into the love of God at the end of all things, the light revealed by Jesus on the mountain top, and seen by Peter and James and John.

Icon of the Transfiguration-Ma14

The Icon of the Transfiguration

And what is Peter’s response to this vision of glory, when Jesus is transfigured, and Moses and Elijah appear with him?  In the words of the Transfiguration hymn we sang before the Gospel:

’Tis good, Lord, to be here,
Thy glory fills the night;
Thy face and garments, like the sun,
Shine with unborrowed light.

‘It’s great here, Lord, with you in glory and with the others – let me build three huts for you, so that we can stay here and enjoy the glory.’

I hope that’s a sentiment we could echo this morning:  ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here’.  Good to worship and witness together, to be together in this ancient and prayerful building, and to be, I hope, stronger together than we would be apart.

Good to be together for what Milton Jones, very appropriately after last weekend, describes in one of his 10 Second Sermons: ‘Church should be like everyone arriving with one piece of the jigsaw’ [Milton Jones, 10 Second Sermons…and even quicker illustrations, p. 20].

But it’s not only when we are gathered that the Church is important; it’s also when we are scattered.

The last verse of the hymn I’ve already quoted is:

’Tis good, Lord, to be here.
Yet we may not remain;
But since Thou bidst us leave the mount,
Come with us to the plain.

Milton Jones [ibid.] puts it like this: ‘If we’re on a journey: in the same way that the services are not the motorway, a Church is not the Services’.

Our time together on a Sunday morning sends us out for our Christian lives lived in the rest of our week, in all the different places where we find ourselves.  Here, in Church, is the Service Station, if you like, where we are re-fuelled and refreshed, re-awakened to God’s Word, and his presence in Word and Sacrament, and re-charged to go out from here to serve him in all that we do, and with all that we have.

Jesus, with Peter, James and John, had to come down from the mountain.  And, in fact, none of them had very long to bask in the glory.  The next story in Matthew 17, which we shall hear at Evensong this evening, as soon as Jesus comes down from the mountain, is of Jesus meeting the crowd, healing an epileptic boy, and straight after that he predicts his death.  And that’s so often the case for us, as well.  We may have a wonderful time of worship, but then, as soon as we leave, the reality of life crowds in on us again – but it is precisely there, in the realities and difficulties of everyday life, that God is to be found.  Not just on the mountain top, but out in the real world as well.  If our faith doesn’t do anything for us on a Monday morning, then what we have done on a Sunday hasn’t really been very helpful.

‘’Tis good, Lord, to be here’, but, Lord, when we go, ‘Come with us to the plain’, be with us in the day to day realities of our life, in our relationships with others, in our family or health problems, in all the joys and sadnesses of everyday life.

‘’Tis good, Lord, to be here’.

One last quote from Milton Jones [Ibid.]: ‘Church is a bit like being a member of a gym.  Some people like the idea of going but don’t.  Others go, but aren’t really training for anything.  And some actually use it to help them with the race they’re running.’

What is the race we are running?  What are we training for?  You could say we training for mountain climbing!  We’re training to be up there on the mountain top with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, Peter, James and John.  We training here on earth to be Kingdom Builders, so that we may join in God’s work here, and finally be with him for ever in heaven, where the Kingdom of God will be complete, and we’ll live in the Light of the Eighth Day, on the mountain top for ever.

That’s quite an exciting race to be running, and one that is worth the training!

At the end of the Service, in the Blessing, I shall pray:

Send us out, we pray,

to shine with your light,

to forgive with your generosity,

to love with your kindness

in the world where you send us,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

THIS IS HOLY WEEK 2017 – HERE’S THE PROGRAMME OF SERVICES FOR THE WEEK

Lent begins on March 1st – Ash Wednesday.

It’s a great opportunity to learn, to pray,k to review our lives and our spiritual journeys.

We have an extensive programme of events – services, study groups, Lent Lunches and more.

We suggest that you tap in to the events which will help you keep a ‘Holy Lent’ – but the idea is to use the space creatively during Lent – not to feel you have to attend everything.

Click HERE for the programme, which is also available in the Parish Magazines or in Church.