A Sermon preached at Fordingbridge and Breamore Churches on the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, July 22nd, 2018, by Canon Gary Philbrick.
Ps. 42:1-7, II Corinthians 5:14-17, John 20: 1-2, 11-18
Lord God, take my words and speak through them,
take our minds and think through them,
take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
St Mary Magdalene is a really significant figure in the New Testament. At twelve mentions in the four Gospels, she occurs more often than most of the Disciples.
So, let’s start with what we do know about Mary Magdalene, before moving on to what we don’t know.
The most likely reason for her name, Mary Magdalene, which distinguishes her from the many other Marys in the Gospels, is that she came from the fishing town of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about three miles North of what was then the brand new City of Tiberias, founded by the Herod Antipas, who is mentioned in the Gospels, and named in honour of the Roman Emperor, Tiberias. So Magdala was part of the very Romanised section of Israel, although that doesn’t mean that Mary herself was part of the Roman community.
Her first mention – and this is really important for the later part of our story – her first mention is at the beginning of Luke, chapter 8: ‘Soon afterwards [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources’ [Luke 8:1-3].
So, she was part of that group of at least reasonably wealthy women who travelled with Jesus and his Disciples, and who supported him in his ministry. And, apparently, this group of women had been cured of various illnesses, both physical and mental. In Mary’s case, we are told that ‘seven demons had gone out’ of her – a detail that is also mentioned in the so-called ‘Longer Ending’ of Mark, a later addition to the rather abrupt ending of Mark 16.
This introduction of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 is quite early on in Jesus’ ministry, so it appears that Mary and the other women supported Jesus for quite a while.
And all four Gospels are agreed that Mary Magdalene was there at the time of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, although the four Gospels have slightly different accounts of what happened. In Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, just after Jesus has breathed his last, and the centurion has said, ‘Truly, this man was God’s Son’, we are told, in similar words to those we’ve heard from Luke’s Gospel: ‘There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem’ [Mk 15:40-41]. Those verses give a fascinating insight into Jesus’ ministry to women, in contrast to much of what the Gospels say about his ministry to men.
Matthew, in chapter 27, repeats Mark’s words, although, apart from Mary Magdalene, he names the women slightly differently [Matt 27:55-6].
But, after Jesus has been buried in the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, Matthew adds, ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb’ [V. 61].
Interestingly, Luke, who is very sympathetic to women, doesn’t mention Mary by name at the crucifixion, but simply refers twice to ‘the women who had followed him from Galilee’ [Lk 23:49, 55]. And John, like Mark and Matthew, names Mary Magdalene as one of those ‘standing near the cross of Jesus’ [Jn 19:25]. So we have good evidence that Mary was present for the Crucifixion, and probably the burial, of Jesus on the first Good Friday.
At the Resurrection, all four Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was among those who came to the tomb early on the Sunday morning. In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the women are sometimes described as bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body, but in all of them it is the women who discover that the stone has been rolled away, and that the tomb is empty [Matt 28:1, Mk 16:1ff., Lk 24:1ff, esp. v. 10]. We’ve become so used to this, but the fact that it was women who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection, in a society where women’s testimony in courts of law was considered of very dubious reliability, is really significant.
But it is in John’s Gospel, in the passage set at the Gospel Reading for today, that the most significant encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus takes place [Jn 20:1-2, 11-18]. Mary finds the tomb empty, runs to fetch Peter and ‘the Disciple whom Jesus loved’, usually thought of as John, and then is in the Garden by the empty tomb, when she sees whom she thinks is the gardener, but we know is Jesus, and she discovers that fact when he addresses her by her name. His words to her, ‘Do not hold on to me’ [V. 17], are often known by their Latin translation, ‘Noli me tangere’, and this scene has given rise to a whole series of paintings, both in the Western and Eastern traditions of art, such as the second of the icons on the hymn sheet you have.
St Mary Magdalene is clearly a really significant figure in the New Testament.
But I just want to pause for a moment to reflect on what the Gospel’s don’t say.
If you can remember as far back as the beginning of this sermon, we heard how Mary Magdalene was introduced in Luke, chapter 8, along with the other ‘some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities’ [Lk 8:1-3]. But at the end of Luke 7 [36-50] there is a really important story about Jesus being invited to a meal at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and a woman, known to be a sinner, comes in and washes Jesus’ feet with her hair – it’s worth reading, as it’s a very moving story.
But what the Luke doesn’t say is that this woman was Mary Magdalene. And, as we’ve heard, he introduces her in chapter 8 in a very different way.
John’s Gospel has a similar story in chapter 12, where it is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anoints Jesus feet with expensive pure nard, leading to an interesting dispute with Judas about the poor.
And yet, by the 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great, in a sermon on the story at the end of Luke 7, remarks, ‘This woman, whom Luke calls a sinner and John calls Mary, I think is the Mary from whom Mark reports that seven demons were cast out’ [Patrologia Latina 76:1239]. This comment has had a very unfortunate effect on Mary’s reputation, and she has been assumed to have been a prostitute, and portrayed as such in in lots of different ways – think of the song in ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’, or Dan Brown’s book, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, with its supposition that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married, and had children – for which, although it’s a cracking good story, there is no historical evidence at all. And just in the common imagination of who Mary Magdalene is. He was a very naughty Pope to say such a thing about her!
There is a tradition, reflected in the icon of Mary you have on the sheet, where she is holding an egg, that she became a leader in the Early Church, and preached, amongst others, to the Emperor Nero. She is said to been the first to have used an egg as a symbol of the Resurrection, as we still do at Easter today. As with so many other women in Scriptures, we simply don’t have the evidence to know clearly – we know that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was around in the Early Church, but very little is said of her in the Acts of the Apostles or the other New Testament writings, and it’s the same with Mary Magdalene.
What we do have in the Gospels is a picture of Mary as a faithful disciple, a supporter of Jesus, both financially and by her presence in Galilee and Jerusalem, a part of a group of well-of women who had been attracted by Jesus’ message, and stayed with him through the trauma of the Crucifixion, and were witnesses to his Resurrection.
What might we learn from her story?
Faithfulness in discipleship; following Jesus through thin and thick – we often have to go through the ‘thin’ in life, before we get to the ‘thick’; the importance of financial support for the mission of the Church.
And, above all, as we reflect on the encounter between Mary and Jesus in today’s Gospel, the importance of looking for Jesus in the unexpected places – in the gardener, in the person we bump into in the street, in the member of our family whom we find most difficult. If we are able to look and to listen through our tears and frustrations, we will hear Jesus calling our name, as he did in that one word he said in the garden on the first Easter Day – ‘Mary!’
Jesus calls each of us by name, and when he calls our name, it is with love, as it was with Mary. So often, we are so preoccupied with our own lack of worth, and poor image of ourselves, that we miss the gentle, loving call of Jesus on our lives when we most need it. As we hear in the Book of Isaiah, ‘I have called you by your name, you are mine’ [Is 43:1].
We’ll keep a few moments of quiet to reflect on what we have heard of Mary Magdalene’s story and significance, and, if you wish, to look at the two icons on the hymn sheet – in the silence we might reflect on how we are called by our names, and we are loved by Jesus.
And then, after a pause, I’ll read a poem by Ann Lewin, whom some of you have met, and who wrote the book we used for our lent Course this year.
Known by Name
Who were you, Mary
From whom devils were cast out?
Did you disturb respectability
By washing his feet with tears,
An uninvited guest;
Or in embarrassing extravagance
Pour precious ointment on his head?
Were you notorious in your day,
Or a woman in the crowd from Magdala,
Who found new purpose
Being set free to love,
And used your gifts
In faithful ministry?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
Perhaps, like all of us,
You were a mixture:
Damaged and healed;
Longing to be loved,
And struggling to relate;
Passionate and reserved
By turns, working out
The important moment
Was when you heard your name,
And answered and were sent,
No longer clinging to what kept you safe,
Strong in the power of the risen Lord,
To witness to new life.
[Ann Lewin, Watching for the Kingfisher, p.68]
A sermon preached at Godshill, Hale and Fordingbridge Churches on St Swithun’s Day, July 15th, 2018, by Canon Gary Philbrick
a.m.: Ps. 20
Lord God, take my words and speak through them,
take our minds and think through them,
take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
That’s a challenging Gospel Reading.
As part of the Sermon on the Mount, and following on from the Beatitudes, Jesus said to the crowds: ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ [Matt 5:43-4, 48].
That really is a ‘counsel of perfection’! Can Jesus really have thought that his fallible friends, the Disciples, could ever have been perfect, let alone the large crowds who have come out to him on the mountain?
Or, more likely, is he exaggerating to make a point? Even bad people love those who love them back. But, he says, I tell you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’.
And what sort of perfection does he mean? What would it be like to be perfect, if we could follow his command?
I think that if we could grasp what Jesus is trying to tell us in these verses, then the Christian life would become a lot less complicated, and a lot more inclusive and appealing. If we could really learn to love everyone, our enemies and our friends, those we like and those we can’t stand – if we could really learn to love everyone, then everything else would fall into place. Love would be the benchmark for all of our actions.
I’ve had a week of really interesting conversations – with the 30 or so teenaged Air Training Cadets during the ‘Padre’s Hour’ on Tuesday, as we discussed forgiveness, suffering, hatred and cannabis!; with the little children, KS1, of Hyde School on Wednesday, as we talked about the story of the Little Red Hen [FB: It’s in the Children’s Corner here if you want to remind yourselves of the story] – and the two possible endings to the story; with the Year 6 children of Breamore School as we planned the End-of-Year Service for this week, and their contribution, reflecting on ‘Everyday Heroes’; and with some friends who kindly brought a take-away with them on Friday night, and wanted to talk about prayer.
And all of these conversations boil down to love – love of God, and love of our neighbour. Love should be the benchmark for all of our actions.
Today is St Swithun’s Day. No doubt the weather forecasts were broadcast from Winchester Cathedral this morning, where he is buried, as they usually are on his Feast Day, and you probably know the poem:
St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare
Or a Buckinghamshire variation has:
If on St Swithun’s day it really pours
You’re better off to stay indoors.
There is probably some truth to this saying – if it’s unsettled on July 15th, it probably will be for the coming weeks, and vice versa if it’s fine – which it looks like it will be this year.
Swithun was Bishop of Winchester from 852 until his death in 862 or 863. Little is known of his life that can be traced with historical certainty. Swithun was born of noble parents in Wessex, an area that was in the process of becoming the most influential of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and he was educated at Winchester Minster. When he had passed boyhood, he received clerical orders from Helmstan, Bishop of Winchester, and was chosen to become Chaplain to Egbert, King of Wessex, and given the responsibility for the education of Egbert’s son Ethelwulf.
On the death of Helmstan, he was appointed as Bishop of Winchester by the now King Ethelwulf, with the consent of the clergy. He was elected and consecrated on the 30th October, 852, by Abp Ceolnoth. During the period of his office the Kingdom of Wessex grew in reputation and influence throughout the land, despite Viking attacks. The post of Bishop of Winchester also grew in importance and influence during the time of Ethelwulf’s reign.
Later legends give Swithun a reputation for compassion and evangelism, but it is his intellectual ability and learning for which he was first remembered.
He is credited with having caused the Latin Annals of his See to be edited and so to have contributed to the later compilation of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, the most influential history of Anglo-Saxon times.
He was a builder and his works included a stone bridge across the Itchen at the eastern gate of Winchester. The statue of him in the Great Screen at Winchester Cathedral shows him holding a model of the bridge he built – there is a photograph in Partners this week.
His kindness is illustrated by a legend of his making whole a basket of eggs carried by a market-woman that was broken on his bridge. When crossing the bridge, she was jostled and dropped her basket of eggs. The saint took pity on her – and made her broken eggs whole.
These sorts of legends are common about saints, especially famous ones, and, like all the legends surrounding St Nicholas, they often have a basis in a grain of historical truth.
As evidence of his humility it is told that when Swithun was about to dedicate a Church, he always went to it on foot however great the distance, going by night to escape observation. I often wonder whether he came to any of our Churches in the mid-ninth century.
His humility caused him, when dying, to ask to be buried outside the main door of the Cathedral in a place where he would be trodden on by the feet of passers-by and receive raindrops from the eaves. He died on 2nd July 862 or 863 and was duly buried just outside the threshold.
However, some 90 years later, when the new Saxon Cathedral was being built, Ethelwold, the great Bishop of Winchester at that time, decided to move Swithun’s remains into a shrine in the Cathedral, despite dire warnings that to move the bones would bring about terrible storms. Swithun was duly translated on July 15th, 971 and, though many cures were claimed and other miracles observed, it apparently rained for forty days as forecast.
His commemoration in popular culture seems to date from this period rather than from his life.
In 1093, once the initial phase of the current Norman Cathedral next to the Old Minster had been completed, Swithun was again translated, apparently without incident, to the Retro-Quire, which was then enlarged around 1200 to cope with the flood of pilgrims coming to his shrine. The Shrine lasted until the 1530s when it was destroyed under the reforms of Henry VIII, and very little of the original Shrine and of St Swithun remains.
However, you’ll be pleased to know that in the 12th century, Bishop Reinhald, formerly a monk of Winchester, travelled to Norway, taking Swithun’s right arm with him, and it was placed in the newly-consecrated Cathedral in Stavanger, dedicated to Swithun, and there it remains to this day. And we still maintain links with Stavanger Cathedral to this day.
One or two things we might want to note from the life of St Swithun.
He was a monk in the Benedictine Community of Winchester. One of the great strengths of the Rule of St Benedict is the notion of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger in the name of Christ.
The second strand of the life of St Swithun is his concern for the poor, for the marginalised. He noticed people around him in need – the old woman whose eggs got broken, for example, or the fact that the poor of Winchester needed a bridge across the river, so that they could trade more effectively.
And the third strand of Swithun’s life is his intellectual life. He was a life-long learner – one of the great themes of education in our day. How do we continue to be learners, in our Christian lives as well as in all other parts of our lives? How do we stop ourselves getting stuck intellectually and on the journey of faith?
The four PCCs of the Partnership have been working on our values, what we really think we are about as the Churches and Parishes of the Benefice. And the phrase we’ve come up with, after much prayer and discussion, is ‘Growing in Faith, Reaching Out to All’ [Repeat]. I hope it’s a phrase which will resonate with you, and be memorable enough to guide us in our praying and our decision-making: ‘Growing in Faith, Reaching Out to All’.
It will begin to appear on Partners, PCC Agendas, Parish Magazines, the website, and so on.
It’s a cross-shaped phrase [Explain].
St Swithun was a great Bishop of Winchester, by all accounts a genuine human being, and a great Patron Saint of the Diocese, and his ministry seems to embody the values we have discerned for ourselves: ‘Growing in Faith, Reaching Out to All’.
A Sermon preached at Fordingbridge and Sandleheath Churches on Trinity 6, July 8th, 2018, by Canon Gary Philbrick.
Ps. 48, II Cor 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13
Lord God, take my words and speak through them,
take our minds and think through them,
take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
I, along with Nicky and Rachel, had the wonderful privilege of attending the Celebration Service for the 70th Anniversary of the National Health Service in our Cathedral at Winchester on Thursday. The Cathedral was almost full, the Service had been wonderfully crafted, and there was a number of highlights.
Before the Service, a Filipino Choir from Southampton General Hospital sang, and that was great. Another choir, the Basingstoke Hospital Male Voice Choir sang an extremely moving version of the old revivalist hymn, ‘When the storms of life are raging, stand by me’. And the Cathedral Choir sang wonderful anthems by Vaughan Williams and Elgar.
The preacher was the new Bishop of London, Sarah Mullaly, known to many locally from her time as Canon Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, before becoming one of the first women Bishops in the Church of England, as Bishop Suffragan of Crediton. Before that, though, she was the Chief Nursing Officer for England, the most senior advisor on nursing matters to the Government – amazingly, it was during her time in this post that she trained part-time for ordination and served as a Self Supporting Minister. Her sermon included praise for all those from overseas who have come here to work in the National Health Service. And she reflected on compassion, which I’ll come back to later.
But the real highlights of the Service were the Testimonials given by two NHS workers. One spoke of her mother, who completed her training in 1948 and started work for the new NHS, and how she, the daughter, had followed in her footsteps. And the other, amazingly, had been working for the NHS for 55 years, always in what started out as Casualty, and is now A & E, and she’s still working at Southampton General – she didn’t look old enough to have been working for that long, but she did tell us that her mother is 104, and still fit as a fiddle.
These personal stories of those with long connections with the NHS made me reflect on a number of things, starting with the fact that I’d never really thought about the fact that I was born when the NHS was less than ten years old. Nowadays, ten years goes by in a flash, but then, it seemed to me as a child, that the Health Service had just always been there.
Which made me wonder whether anyone has memories of what it was like before the Health Service was formed? [Any thoughts?]
It was just after the trauma of the Second World War that the Health Service was founded; there was still rationing, and bombed out houses, and people still suffering from the war. And, of course, the National Health Service was founded against the wishes of a large majority of doctors throughout the country, who, for a variety of reasons, some good, some selfish, didn’t think it was a good idea.
It was an act of enormous political courage, to go against the wishes of such an influential group of people, and many who weren’t doctors, to stand up for the principal that, just as education should be open to all, regardless of wealth or social status – a battle that was won in the late nineteenth century – so should health care be available to all, based on need, and free at the point of contact.
Many of those who fought for a National Health Service did so out of their Christian convictions; alongside many who were not coming at the project from a faith perspective. But, whatever the motivation, it was a deeply Christian concept, drawn from the historic traditions of the country, the traditions of health care provided by the Church over many centuries. And, of course, going back to Jesus’ own ministry, as we heard at the end of our Gospel Reading this morning, when he sends out the Twelve to cast out demons – what we might now call mental health – and anoint with oil and cure the sick.
It’s worth reflecting on the links between the words we use in this area: hospital and hospice, both linked with words such as hospitality and hotel, and all deriving from the Latin word, hospes, which means both host and guest. Interestingly, host has developed to mean just the one providing hospitality, but the original Latin, hospes, meaning both host and guest, recognised that you can’t be a host without someone to host, and you can’t be a guest without a host – they are both relational terms.
The NHS Values are Christian values – and, of course, they are shared by much wider faith and non-faith communities. We heard them in the Service on Thursday.
The NHS values are:
- Working together for patients.
- Respect and dignity.
- Commitment to quality of care.
- Improving lives.
- Everyone counts.
They are a magnificent set of values, aspired to by the great majority of the 1½m employees of the Health Service.
Now, there are problems, of course. As we all age and have greater health needs, we put the NHS under greater strain; more and more effective treatments are discovered, which inevitably cost more; many of us would have died of illnesses in the past which are curable now – and we have some of those in the congregation this morning. There are the difficulties of recruiting and retaining enough staff, especially while a number of European nurses and others wonder about their status here after March next year.
And there are failures or care – such as those we have been reading about at Gosport Hospital recently.
But, as the Bishop of London said in her address on Thursday, ‘The National Health Service was born out of a vision of healthcare available to all, regardless of wealth or status. Born out of a belief in something called the Common Good’.
She went on to reflect on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with its question at the end, ‘Who is your neighbour?’ And she said, ‘Ask any nurse on any ward in this country this question and I am pretty sure of the answer you’d get: the patients they tend and care for. The NHS embodies this Gospel vision of compassion for all, regardless of age or race or religion’.
And she ended by saying, ‘We are here today to give thanks to God for our NHS and to pledge ourselves anew to make it the best we can. To ensure it serves all who need it with humanity and dignity and compassion. In the coming months and years there will be more pressures upon it. More change. More difficult decisions. We pray today for those making those decisions that they might be true to the vision of the Common Good which inspired the creation of the NHS seven decades ago’.
I thought we’d have a few moments for reflection on our own experience of the Health Service, both good and bad; to think of those who staff the NHS, and to pray for its future, and then I’ll read a poem.
These are the Hands
for the 60th anniversary of the NHS
These are the hands
That touch us first
Feel your head
Find the pulse
And make your bed.
These are the hands
That tap your back
Test the skin
Hold your arm
Wheel the bin
Change the bulb
Fix the drip
Pour the jug
Replace your hip.
These are the hands
That fill the bath
Mop the floor
Flick the switch
Soothe the sore
Burn the swabs
Give us a jab
Throw out sharps
Design the lab.
And these are the hands
That stop the leaks
Empty the pan
Wipe the pipes
Carry the can
Clamp the veins
Make the cast
Log the dose
And touch us last.
© Michael Rosen, reproduced by permission of United Agents (www.unitedagents.co.uk) on behalf of the author
Very occasionally when watching an old film, usually set in London, the street scene will include a man with a sandwich board declaring something like “Repent your sins, the end is nigh”. The only sandwich board I have seen in real life is some poor chap who stands on the A303 somewhere near Andover advertising a pub during opening hours. Like the sandwich board men who have disappeared so has discussion about sin. The church plays it down nowadays perhaps because people see the church as judgemental, goody-goody, and self-righteous if it does call sin out.
There are of course many types of outpourings of sin, of the Ten Commandments written down by Moses, eight are things you must not do. The two readings tonight seem to me to be about stubbornness and disobedience. The king refuses to accept that God is supreme and Adam of course went and ate the apple from the tree when he had been told specifically not to.
I don’t think many of us set out deliberately to sin do we? Do you get up in the morning and think “I’m going to be really bad today”? But there are times in life where we come up against it almost as a dare or just because we wish to rebel. Honour they father and mother is one of the two commandments that doesn’t have a “not” in it, but oh, what an opportunity there is to “not” honour your mother and father. My mother, a primary school teacher who I and Margaret both had the unfortunate opportunity to be taught by, was exceptionally good at pointing out what we should not do. Given this I spent 3 years of my life finding as many opportunities as possible to rebel against her instructions. I may have shared this before. Given we lived in Grantham in Lincolnshire; you may wonder why the school decided that the year four trip would be to Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. Over 100 eleven year olds cooped up in coaches on one of the hottest days of the year for several hours. We had all been given some pocket money to enable us to but a souvenir but we were instructed, by Mrs Ward, that the one thing we were absolutely not allowed to buy was a pen-knife. Well, challenge laid down, I set off for the gift shop to locate the pen-knives, made a purchase and whilst showing it to my friends cut my finger so badly that eventually I had to own up for fear my life-blood was ebbing away. Needless to say this resulted in the wrath of mother and endless threats as to what she would do to me for several weeks to come. It was, however, the best pen-knife I ever had; I discovered when she eventually reunited it with me. Was it worth it – you bet your life it was. I was the hero of the hour. Have I repented – no.
But disobedience can get us into far worse trouble than a cut finger and being grounded. Fortunately for us though, disobedience to God gets us into far less trouble than it did in Old Testament times. For the Old Testament is full of the vengeful God, the God that punishes, the God that brings terrible things to bear on those who disobey him. If we had started this service at the beginning, instead of where we now do, we would have all repented of our sins, meekly kneeling on our knees, as the prayer book puts it. And here’s the big difference. One act of utter obedience changed the whole relationship we have with God. The only person “without sin” gave up his life so that God would begin a new covenant with us which allows us to be forgiven, no matter what the sin. He didn’t need to go to Jerusalem when he knew the chief-priests were after him. He didn’t need to announce his arrival in such an obvious way which wound them up even more. He didn’t need to stay there when he knew Judas Iscariot was going to betray him, and he may well have been released by Pilate if he had answered his questions differently. But he knew what he had been asked to do – he says to God “if you can take this away, please do so”, but when God doesn’t he stays the course, he is obedient to the last and he suffers the most terrible fate as a result.
But does this really give us carte blanche to do whatever we want to because we know we can have the slate wiped clean? That rule doesn’t apply in society does it? Well, the cynic might say it does when you look at the list of possible crimes that can be committed before action is taken, especially with car crime and robbery. In some places now the police won’t even attend a burglary because they argue they are too stretched to do so. But in general society still exacts punishment for crime. Despite what I’ve just said, our prison population is as high as it has ever been. In secular life we don’t forgive as readily as God forgives. Just take the case of John Warboys, the convicted rapist, due to be released after serving his sentence. Only now are ways being found to try to get him for other crimes so he is never released. Of course the difficulty we have is that unlike God, we have no way of knowing if that person has utterly repented and has changed. The only way we will find out is if he or she is released and then what happens as a result and of course if it goes wrong, out will come the knives. But clearly God will forgive that person. Jesus does exactly that as he hangs on the cross, telling the repentant criminal hanging next to him that he will go to paradise. My guess is that Jesus saw into his soul and saw the absolute repentance of that man.
Where does that leave us then? And of course we are not just talking about simple disobedience now are we, for sin can manifest itself in much more evil ways. Clearly we can forgive huge sins. Just look at some of the reconciliations between allied and German or Japanese soldiers from the second war who have surpassed the hatred to form bonds which have lasted until death. Torture has been forgiven in the name of peace and being able to move on. But it can’t be easy can it? How does a mother forgive someone who has murdered her son, yet it happens.
Fortunately few of us will ever be placed in such situations but we do face sin every day in our lives. People hurt us, people say things which cut into us, sometimes it is intentional, and sometimes it’s just carelessness of actions or thoughts. Families are torn apart, relationships ruined, over relatively trivial things, because sometimes we would rather keep the hurt than let it go. How many times have I heard, “I have a brother but we haven’t spoken since…” I come from a tiny family. I knew my parents, two of my grandparents and I had an aunt and an uncle. All my other relatives were a more distant link than that. I didn’t have the opportunity of brothers, sisters, cousins and I’m certain I lost out as a result. I married into a huge family and now I have a reasonably significant one of my own, three children with spouses and almost six grandchildren. I look at families that have split and I wonder, how could that have happened, how could they have lost something so precious? Things have happened in the family I am now part of in the past which could have caused rifts but I thank God that every time at least one person on the wrong end of the issue has been gracious enough to forgive.
So I guess my message is this. From one sinner to another, and I very rarely dispense advice, but I’m going to make an exception tonight. Over the next two weeks we will watch Jesus take the most excruciating journey, the ultimate sacrifice for every one of us here, a man without sin, nailed to a cross and left to die in agony, for us – to give us the chance to start again, to be free of all the things that mark us. So tonight I leave you with this – if there is a hurt you can forgive, if there is something which has separated you from another – forgive it, let it go, especially if it stemmed from some petty disobedience, for God has forgiven our disobedience time and again, and will continue to do so as long as we ask for it. Amen.
There’s no two ways about it, the gospel reading today isn’t full of joy although it does end with Jesus offering hope to those who follow him. Why isn’t it joyful, because it’s about death. It is said that there are three topics to keep away from avoiding conflict, discussions that talk about sex, politics or religion, but I’d also add another which we don’t like to talk about – death. It’s a paradox in many ways because it is the one thing that we will all end up doing at some point, so in many ways it is the most normal and natural thing, but the logic of that argument doesn’t take into account the things that make us human – relationships, love, trust, reliance on each other – all the stuff that comes from the heart. Whilst it is completely normal when it happens it hurts because all the stuff of relationship is lost and the greater the relationship, the more it hurts those left behind.
I make no secret that when my great friend Andrew died just over 3 years ago, I struggled for months. I ended up finding someone I could talk to about it because I could not come to terms with it. That made me feel guilty at the time – he was my friend, but he wasn’t my husband or my father, what right did I have to feel so lost? I came to realise with help that it isn’t the level of relationship that regulates grief; it’s the depth of it. Andrew and I clicked at a level where we had a deep trust of each other. He enabled me to sing in public, he was there as a sounding board if I needed one and I for him, and we both loved single malt whisky in equal measure but I suspect the latter wasn’t the root of our relationship. It turned out he wasn’t “just” a friend, he was everything a friend could be, and I was poleaxed by his loss. So whilst death is an everyday occurrence it is far from simple to deal with when it happens to someone you are close to.
I don’t know if it is the case or not, but if we spoke about death more, perhaps it would be less scary. But is it also the case that if we really told each other what our relationships mean we might feel more comforted when we lose someone. How often have you heard someone say “I wish I had told them that…”, or “I never got so say…” I have no idea if the British are more reserved than other nations, but we do seem to have a tendency not to express our feelings good or bad. We don’t whoop like the Americans, we don’t wail when in deep distress like many eastern and African people do. Just think about the last disaster you witnessed on the news in somewhere like Egypt, husband, wives, mothers, wailing in deep, deep anguish, but that isn’t our way is it. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry” we often hear when someone breaks down during a eulogy – why – why do we feel ashamed to show our grief?
So when the Greeks came visiting Jesus I suspect they were somewhat taken aback when he started to tell them he was about to snuff it. They had heard of his miracles and the amazing things he had done and suddenly he started to talk about his death. I wonder what their reaction was?
But he wasn’t just talking about his actual death I don’t think, nor just about anyone’s actual death. He was also talking about the loss of opportunity when we fail to grasp it. A plant grows, it produces fruit and seed and it dies – it has gone, yet if we plant the seed next year and it grows then the old plant lives on too, its death has brought life. How often do we cling on to something which is only just about alive because we are too frightened to let it go and replace it with something which will bring so much more.
Through my dealings within the deanery I am involved in working out how we re-use the ordained post that we release at Hyde which has been gifted to New Milton. It was clear that the post at Hyde whilst doing good, could never have the impact that it can have in New Milton. So we worked out how to look after Hyde, Harbridge and Ellingham differently, and in effect the post of vicar died.The plan is to start a new resource church in New Milton – a church plant and use the now dead vicar’s post as the person who will lead this new church, but we had to let one thing go to start another.
The reason we can start a resource church in Milton is because two other deaths already happened. St Swithun’s church in Bournemouth had closed, first as a CofE and then as a free church. It was empty but it was surrounded by many students and young people. Holy Trinity Brompton, the founders of Alpha took a leap of faith, took the building on and sent some of their people to start a renewed church and now in its fourth year it has over 600 mainly young people worshipping every Sunday. A short while later St Clement’s church in Bournemouth was also about to close. Its congregation of a few older people had decided they could no longer continue. St Swithun’s was asked if there was any way it could help and so they planted into St Clement’s which is still open and now has over 100 worshippers each Sunday. But there is a twist to this. St Clement’s still had that small faithful group of older people and the people from St Swithun’s knew their brand of worship wouldn’t suit those people, so as well as introducing all the new stuff, they honoured and kept the existing and they even increased the number of times the existing was available, so now that church which was at death’s door is flourishing and still giving life to those who had remained faithful to it. Whilst it didn’t die, it took the congregation to decide that their way of life might have to go if survival was to happen.
So what do we cling onto – a job we can do but we don’t enjoy, a relationship that isn’t all it should be, a house that costs us every penny we earn but which isn’t a home, material stuff so we can keep up with next door, but which doesn’t make us happy. And why, mainly because we are afraid of letting it die because we don’t know how that will make us feel and we fear change and we fear loss even though whatever it is might be causing us pain – “better the devil you know”. I don’t tell you this to make me look good, but when I left HSBC several people I knew who I thought were really fulfilled and who had big houses and nice cars, who I thought might judge me, came up to me and said “I wish I’d had the courage to do that because what I do really doesn’t fulfil me” and I was shocked.
So back to the reading – if Jesus hadn’t died, our slate wouldn’t have been wiped clean, we would still have the relationship of the Old Testament people with God, a vengeful God who visited retribution. But it’s not like that for us is it – we can mess up time after time after time and ask to be forgiven and we are, but what pain did Jesus have to endure for our sake? New life was given that day, Christians were born as we now are because Jesus put away the bad stuff and bargained for us a new relationship with God and as a result, as it says in the reading, “the ruler of this world”, what we might call the devil or evil, became less powerful. Yes evil still exists but we have the power in God to overcome it.
And personally – what should we let die so we can spring forth new life – what conversations should we have to make dealing with real death more bearable? What should we do as a church? It is said we are slowly dying, so what do we let go, and what do we dare to do instead. Do the maybe 500 or so of us that make up the worshippers in Avon Valley need 7 churches, no we don’t, but can we bear to part with any of them – for that is like a death. Buildings are very important, they witness to the world that we are here, they hold memories of changes in our lives, baptisms, weddings, funerals and much more, but at the end of the day WE are the church and it might be that we need to define ourselves differently in 2018 to 1818 or 1518 if we are to do God’s work in these places. I’m not suggesting it has to happen, but I do think it’s a conversation we should have, death and all its trappings are difficult to deal with, especially if we can’t bring ourselves to talk about them. But if we can what amazing things might happen as a result?