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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Buried Treasure: the Parable of the Talents

Here in Keswick, you tend to look up at Skiddaw or across Derwentwater, or around at this little town with its church, market hall and shops and the crowds that surge through the streets in summer. But if you go to the stone circle at Castlerigg, you might think about looking down. This place five thousand years old guards its secrets. Famously you can’t even count the stones: every try gives a different answer. The big mystery is what it was for.  And as you stand on that ancient site, you wonder what lies beneath your feet. What might be buried there, if not a hoard, then witnesses, memories of a world that’s lost to us? You look down, but the grass looks innocently back up at you and yields no clue.

Somewhere, once upon a time, said Jesus, if you had stood in a particular field and looked down and started digging, you would have found buried treasure. A silver talent worth a labourer’s twenty years’ work, a six-figure sum in our money. It’s only a story. But it’s vividly told, this rapacious master who goes away and entrusts his fortune to his slaves so that he can profit from them. Two of them invest their talents profitably and are praised. The third, risk averse or maybe lacking the requisite business skills - or perhaps to get back at his cruel master? – does nothing. He buries his talent, not even playing safe by depositing it in an interest-bearing bank account. I say “only a story”, but the outcome is meant to shock. “As for this worthless fellow, throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” No happy endings there.

I’ve heard sermons without number on this parable that link it to Christian stewardship and time, talents and money. But I’ve never been convinced that the weeping and gnashing of teeth can have much to do with the average Church of England congregation. 

No, the story is about more portentous things. The setting in St Matthew gives the clue. Chapter 25 is the last before we come to the account of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. Our parable is one of three about the end time and the crisis is coming upon the world. Jesus has already spoken about “the day and the hour” that no-one knows but God himself, what we call the parousia or the appearing of the Son of Man in his glory. These three parables draw out the significance of this belief that’s so central to the synoptic gospels. The one before is about the wise and foolish virgins: were they ready for the bridegroom to arrive or not? Hard on the heels of the talents follow the sheep and the goats standing before the Son of Man at the final reckoning. How have they lived their lives? How have they served the Lord who is present in his brothers and sisters? Sobering stories to bring the Year of St Matthew to an end and usher in Advent. 

Now I don’t think Jesus intends us to imagine that God is like that master who deals so capriciously with his slaves. See it as a kind of satire or morality play. The fact that he focuses on such fabulous sums of money is meant to tell us that we are in storyland where normal rules don’t apply and everything is exaggerated for effect. But underneath the playfulness is a deeply serious insight. It is that the decisions we make about the way we live are of much more than momentary significance. Like all the parables, this one drives home a challenge, tells us that our decisions have consequences that determine our destinies. I don’t mean that Jesus is thinking about the afterlife. Rather, those references to eternity are a way of focusing attention on the choices we make here and now. And these choices are life-changing in their outcomes. They imprint themselves on our characters. They control our attitudes and motives. They shape our moral and ethical behaviour. They ask us how purposeful we are in pursuing the truth by which we are going to live and die.

So what do we make of the third slave who did nothing with his talent but buried it? The clue is to look at Jesus’ audience in these last days before his passion. He has already entered the temple, thrown out the money-changers and roundly condemned the religious leadership of his times, among them the scribes and pharisees. What’s his criticism? That they did not read the signs of the times, did not see the kingdom of heaven coming, did not point people towards the salvation that they longed for. Instead they laid burdens on them impossible to bear, drove them into the ground by the sheer weight of obligation, took away their hope. It was a religion that demanded everything but gave nothing – at least, that’s how it’s depicted in the gospels. So I think the parable is primarily about what religious leaders do with the treasure they have been entrusted with. They can put it to use in the world to grow the kingdom’s values of truth, justice, goodness, peace and love. Or they can bury it where it does no work, makes no difference, and changes no lives.

But this is also true for each of us, whoever we are. The talent stands for everything that a wise and loving Master has entrusted to us as the people of God. It’s the most precious treasure we have. It can stay buried, like the bad slave’s money, squirrelled away in the dark like the lamp in the sermon on the mount hidden under the bushel and all but snuffed out; like the seed in the parable of the sower suffocated by the weeds that grew up all round it. Or we can invest in this work God wants to do in us and through us. We can release it, expose it to the clear light of day and help it to flourish so that it becomes something renewing and life-changing and profound.

If this is right, it faces us with important truths about ourselves. What does it mean to be a Christian? What do we do with God’s treasure that he has entrusted to us in baptism? How do we become good witnesses to the One who is present among us and whom the nations long for, this God who is so often hidden from sight? Advent is the right time to put ourselves among the audience and listen as Jesus tells these powerful and urgent parables. For the Lord’s coming changes things and will changes us if we want it to. 

Soon we shall sing Come, thou long-expected Jesus born to set thy people free. Born to reign in us forever, he is the most welcome of guests. When he comes, we shall not hide him away where he cannot be seen or touched, where he remains as one unknown. He will teach us what it means to give our lives to him so that we can testify of him to others. We shall greet him gladly, and bless when we hear him say, “enter into the joy of your Lord”. 

St John’s Keswick, 19 November 2017 (Matthew 25.14-30)

Monday, 13 November 2017

Too Young to Die

A century ago, the Great War still had another year to cut short the lives of Europe’s young. More than 900 Balliol men saw active service. Nearly 200 died, another 200 were wounded. Most served as infantry officers. Their life-expectancy on the Western Front was about six weeks. It’s sobering to go through the Balliol College War Memorial Book online, take in the photographs and read the tributes. I searched for one who could represent the others, someone who died one hundred years ago this month. Edward William Horner was a well-liked member of the college who read Greats and was distinguished as a rower. He was called to the bar but when war broke out he joined the Hussars and went to France. He was injured in 1915 and assumed his war was over. But he recovered and insisted on re-joining his regiment. He died in November 1917 of wounds received in the 1st Battle of Cambrai. He was 29. His tribute speaks about his playfulness and wit, his gift for friendship, his fearlessness, his love of argument. And this: “at times he could be exasperating, but he also had, to a marked degree one of the major virtues of a friend – an infinite capacity for being forgiven”. He is commemorated outside this chapel, and, with all the others, in this high altar that was given as a war memorial in 1927. On this Remembrance Sunday we honour them.
I said I looked at these winsome young faces in the memorial book, but the truth is that I had the unnerving feeling that they were gazing at me. It’s as if they saw in me their peer, someone like them who had come up to Balliol full of hopes and expectations, but who, unlike them, had been allowed to live on, take up my life’s work, marry, have children and grandchildren, retire and grow old able to look back on a rewarding lifetime. When you love life, when you can hardly bear the thought that one day you won’t be here any longer, the loss of these young lives is unutterably poignant. 
Our New Testament reading was about another young man. He too was privileged. He too had a lot to lose: wealth, power and standing. And that little aside where the story says that Jesus, looking at him, loved him, suggests he also had a gift of winsomeness, the capacity to attract people, draw out their affection. He too came to a crisis where he saw the paths diverging in front of him and knew that the road less travelled was the one that beckoned. That road would require him to lay down his life in dying to himself and all that he craved the most. But his riches were too much for the kingdom of God. To set out on that narrower way and find treasure in heaven was too demanding. You sense that Jesus is heartbroken. “How hard it is to have wealth and yet enter the kingdom of God!” 
We mustn’t elide the young man in the gospels with the young who fell in war. Laying down your life for your country is not the same as finding the kingdom of God. And yet… consciously or not, obedience to the call of duty and service echoes the summons of God’s kingdom to give ourselves gladly and willingly in the cause of what is right and good. That is not to ennoble war or impute heroic motives and ideals to those we commemorate today. They did not choose this. They were too young to die. Their deaths were wrong. But it is to say that the ordeals war inflicted on them did bring out the best and the noblest human nature is capable of, like laying down your life for your friends as Jesus said. 
Perhaps the young man in the gospel can help us to think about how we honour our war dead today. I don’t mean simply remember them, though the importance of collective memory can’t be overstated. But honouring means something more. It means recognising our debt to the dead, and unlocking the power of memory to change our lives, the lives we might not, would not have had but for them. Their deaths need to make a difference to us, make us better people, re-orientate our goals for living and reawaken our resolve to heal our broken world.
Here in Balliol chapel every day throughout the Great War, a prayer was said, written by the Master himself. We give thee thanks for the members of this college who have willingly offered themselves and have laid down their lives for us, for our country and for the liberty of the world. Give us grace to follow their good example, that we may never lose heart but may bear with patience and courage, as these have done, whatever thy providence calls upon us to endure. Comfort the bereaved, and grant to all of us that our afflictions may purify our hearts and minds to thy glory . This is a good prayer. It takes seriously the sense of loss. It doesn’t invest war with a glory it doesn’t deserve. It sets the service of the war dead within the widest possible horizons, not just for us and for our country but for the liberty of the world – the kind of enlightened, liberal, global thinking you would expect from Balliol. It asks that we don’t lose heart but allow adversity to show us a way of living more purposefully with patience and courage
Perhaps it was something like this that eluded that rich young man who, faced with the choice of his life, could not rise to the challenge. I often wonder what happened to him after that encounter with Jesus when he went away grieving. Was his sorrow for a moment or a lifetime? Did a sadder and a wiser man come back years later to choose the more excellent way? 
Remembrance Sunday says to us: never forget those who, by contrast, said yes when the summons came. Those young faces in the college memorial book hold our gaze and appeal to us to do in our time what they did in theirs. That is, give ourselves to mending a world that continues to be ambushed by war and the threat of it, do what we can to champion peace, truth, justice and reconciliation, and not least, say our prayers and ask God to have mercy on the whole human family. And begin where we already have influence, in our communities, localities, relationships, wherever God has placed us. Who knows where small things can lead? You might call it “remembering forward”, allowing Remembrance to make a difference to the future we are creating for our planet. This is how to keep hope alive, and save ourselves from being like that rich young man who glimpsed another country “whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace”; yet turned aside from the vision and went away in sorrow. 
Balliol College Oxford, Remembrance Sunday 2017
(Proverbs 3.1-18, Mark 10.17-31)


Some of you will have travelled through Belgium and northern France across Flanders’ fields and the level plains of Picardy.  In high summer, the yellow corn fields blush with poppies. It is a smiling, happy landscape.

 But then you pass the war graves: rows of marble slabs aligned with mathematical precision, not golden like the lives of young men eager with expectation, not red like the passionate furies of the war they went to fight, but white and stark and cold with death. And you remember how those killing fields were ploughed up and liquified by engines of death, in the collective madness the world found it had walked into, the Great War that “slew half the seed of Europe one by one”. Sleep-walked into, indeed, a narcotic association that fits the black-shadowed poppy whose very profile seems to “hang in sleep”. 
A century ago the Great War still had a year to run. By then the association of poppies to the memory of the fallen had been made. We know how it was inspired by the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we l
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae its Canadian author captured the public mood. The point about the poppy was not just its colour that seemed to reflect the contradictory experiences of war: its passion and perplexity, its pain and its pride.  It was that poppies were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up soil where soldiers fell and the mud in which they lay. 

Fifty years earlier, the historian Lord Macaulay, writing about a 17th century battle in Flanders, foreshadowed the symbolism. “The next summer” he wrote, “the soil, fertilised by twenty thousand corpses, broke forth into millions of poppies. The traveller who saw that vast sheet of rich scarlet could [imagine] that the prediction of the Hebrew prophet was [being] accomplished, that the earth was disclosing her blood, and refusing to cover the slain.”  
“Flowers preach to us, if we will hear” says Christina Rossetti in one of her poems. She is drawing from today’s gospel: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Flowers stand for larger things says Jesus: good, noble, inspiring kingdom-shaped truths in the case of lilies, more paradoxical realities in the case of poppies. For the poppy is freighted with conflict, bloodshed, loss and lament, pride, our duty of care; our anger at this waste of human life. In classical myth it stands for the sleep of death, but can also represent immortality. So by extension, it symbolises our hope for those who have died, and our pleas for the better future we crave, our longings to live without fear of what tomorrow will bring as Jesus says in the reading.  
A flower is perhaps the best symbol we have of a truly innocent way of being alive. It grows because it can simply be itself. It flowers to please nothing and no-one apart from its own unconscious instinct. It realises its own life artlessly, effortlessly, without having to try. Mother Julian would have said it exists because God loves it. So it points to a love that is boundless in its possibilities. If only we could see it for ourselves, if only our world could live like that: joyfully, spontaneously, unafraid, open to the sky and the rain, the breezes and the sunshine!  For then, Jesus seems to say, we would be close to the kingdom of heaven. We would live and breathe not out of suspicion but out of trust. We would not succumb to worry but be sustained by a deep and lasting hope. We would feel after God and find him, would understand that we came from God and are going to God. 

So, could the simple poppy and the associations we make to it lead us into a new vision of life? “Strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness” says Jesus. That’s as true in armed conflict as it is in every other walk of life. It defines who and what we aspire to be: human beings who live and die purposefully, for good ends, not in vain. War is only just if it is in pursuit of those good ends: freedom and justice and the welfare of the planet and the defence of the powerless and victims. The young men and women of today who sign up to serve in the armed forces know that they may find themselves in some faraway theatre of war, or ambushed by terrorists, or helping victims of cruelty or natural disaster. They need to know why they are there, and how it will contribute to the world’s safety, how it will help establish a more peaceable order where human beings can make a better life for themselves. To be able to think these thoughts and frame an ethical and spiritual response to the challenges they pose is what makes for goodness and keeps integrity intact.  

All of us need to be alive to these questions if we are to remember well and honour the fallen. Only then do we do justice to their sacrifice. McCrae’s poem ends on a combative note where the poppy is not just a symbol of memory and pride but also of the intention to strike down the enemy.  If you had just watched your friend die in the mud of Flanders, you would understand that. But we know what the true enemy is: pride, lust, avarice, greed, wrath, envy and sloth, the seven deadly sins that stalk the earth and degrade our collective and personal lives? Unchecked, they will destroy us in the end. Isn't this what our brothers’ blood cries out from the ground where the fallen have lain and the poppies grow? We need to be worthy of them and construct the better world for which they lived and died. On this solemn day, the poppy can stand for our resolve in Christ crucified and risen to arouse ourselves to do good and serve well, to heal the wounds of history, and keep hope alive. 

St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
Remembrance Sunday 2017 (Revelation 22.1-5, Matthew 6.25-34)

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Core of Christianity

It was a test question, says the gospel. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” What answer did the clever lawyer expect from Jesus? Later Jewish scholars like Moses Maimonides decided there were 613 commandments in the Torah altogether, what we call the law of Moses. 365 of these concerned things we shouldn’t do, as many as the days of the year; and 248 concerned things we should do, the same as the number of bones and organs in the human body. Talmudic scholars loved probing the mystic significance of numbers. Was the lawyer one of these? 
And what was the test? To see whether Jesus equated not eating the sinew of the thigh with honouring your father and your mother? Or not crossbreeding animals with not stealing? Well, Jesus gives his answer. In the order the commandments appear in the Old Testament, they are numbers 240 and 415. We must love God with all our hearts. We must love our neighbour as ourselves. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 
What is Jesus saying? At a stroke he cuts through the labyrinthine complexities of Hebrew law and teaches us, in effect, that everything has to be judged by a single principle, the law of love. That’s the only criterion that matters in the end. Not unremitting scrupulousness, not self-inflicted martyrdom, not self-wounding discipline, not the impossible quest for perfection. None of these things can save us, though good people often fall into the trap of trying to live that way. No, what matters is what’s going on inside us at the level of desire and attitude and motive. This is what interests God. 
And Jesus says that the test of authentic religion is very simple. Simplicity is often a guide when it comes to attitude and motive, like when Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that in our fasting, our almsgiving and our prayer we need to go into our room and shut the door and be alone where only God can see. So he strips away all the tired, extraneous performance of religion, “that moth-eaten musical brocade” Philip Larkin calls it, and says: stay with what really matters. Know what’s essential, what lies at the heart of your faith. And whenever you make a choice about what to do, always ask yourself if you’re acting out of love: love of God, love of your neighbour. That’s the surest guide to doing what is both good and right.
We heard these words in the Lord’s summary of the law earlier in this service. “Lord have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts we beseech thee.” That prayer is an allusion to the Hebrew prophets who spoke about how in days to come God would remove the people’s heart of stone and write his new covenant of love on hearts of flesh. To love God “with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind” is an echo of that great promise. It means the whole of me, everything freely given to God, with nothing held back. For that, says the gospel, is precisely how God has loved us. Everything freely given to us, with nothing held back. “You shall be my people and I will be your God” said the Hebrew Bible. It’s as simple as that.
Or it should be. In one of my favourite hymns “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” the Victorian Catholic priest Father Faber says:
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own. 
That captures the problem of organised religion, or at least how many see it: rule-bound, oppressive, stern. I think of the people who have fallen the wrong side of religion, or think they have, because all they can hear are the fateful “thou shalt nots”: the divorced, gay people, people of colour, women, the poor, the helpless, those who are in prison or locked into addiction: how many, even among our own friends and family, think that religion has nothing to say to them? Here’s a famous poem by William Blake.
I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen;
A chapel was built in the midst
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
If God’s law of love were written on our hearts, how different it would be! The older I get, the more I realise this, the more I want to pare down my carefully constructed edifice of faith so as to reach the core of what it is supposed to mean: loving God and our neighbour because love is how we know God to be, the love that has come among us in Jesus and found us and changed our lives. 
I guess that’s what the gospel is saying to us today, whether we’ve been coming to church all our lives or have only recently begun the spiritual journey. We are here at this eucharist because we see in the bread and wine the symbols of the self-giving that loves to the end. In the broken bread and poured out wine we see the kind of God we worship and have promised to be loyal to. He beckons to us, invites us in, says to us: feast at my table, play in my garden, dream of new worlds, discover what it means to be precious and beloved. Be surprised by a joy you never knew possible. 
And discover for yourself what Jesus means in the gospel, that all of life comes down to loving God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” said St Irenaeus. I crave that sense of aliveness, that deep and wonderful way of being human. It's the only way we shall save ourselves, and heal the world.
Haydon Bridge, 29 October 2017. Matthew 22.34-end 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Saints on the Borderlands

I feel a strong kinship with Herefordshire. In Northumberland where I live, the borderland of the English Middle and East March is part of our identity. Marcher lands are of a piece, whether they are on the margins of Scotland or Wales. But my links with this county are more personal. My wife grew up in Ledbury, so this is historically her cathedral. Before that, my mother, a Jewish war refugee from Germany, found refuge in England and was sent to be looked after in the same town, in Ledbury not many doors down from the black and white house my wife’s parents would buy a few years later. It’s a coincidence that’s beyond curious.
And your native saint Thomas Cantilupe offers another connection. Not every cathedral is lucky enough to hold the shrine of a saint, but Hereford and Durham, where I was dean have that in common. The original Diocese of Durham reached up to the Scottish border where most of our northern saints came from, especially our beloved Cuthbert. Cantilupe, too, belongs to the borderlands, as the title of your Dean’s fine book Saints and Sinners of the Marches suggests. Maybe there is something about borderlands that fosters sainthood, and grows holy lives that we can admire, learn from and emulate.
Why do I suggest that? 
In Cuthbert’s and Cantilupe’s times, border regions were not safe places. You only have to see how the marches are peppered with castles and fortifications to see that. In these lands, fought-over for so long, life took on an uncertain, provisional character. Identity was less settled, institutions less permanent. Perhaps only the church provided a bigger perspective, a longer view, stood for stability, offered hope. In a debateable land, who can say what reassurance and safety this Cathedral that Cantilupe knew so well offered to people whose loyalties and allegiances were blown this way and that with the changing winds of history?
Our epistle reading from the Letter to the Hebrews offers, I think, a perspective on life in the borderlands and how it can grow saints. Abraham, says the text, “was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land.” And this sense of being on a journey in a strange land, never quite belonging, walking the borders of another country, is echoed in what follows. “They (these people of faith in the Old Testament) confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland;…they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”
“What’s a saint?” yell the demons scornfully in Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius. We could answer that question in a thousand ways: “a bundle of bones / which fools adore / when life is o’er. / Ha! Ha!” Who doesn’t love belting it out in Elgar’s great oratorio? But here’s an answer I like, from Graham Greene in his novel The End of the Affair. “For if this God exists…if even you with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all… It’s something He can demand of any of us: leap.” The idea is that you only have to give yourself a little height by leaping, stretching, craning your neck even, in order to see beyond yourself and your little world. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” asks Robert Browning. To glimpse heaven and then to find your life is changed because of what you have glimpsed – maybe that’s the essence of sainthood. And the reason we love our saints is precisely because they have seen what we long to see, touched heaven, and point us to the way in which we can do the same. 
This is what the writer to the Hebrews is getting at. He says that those who lived and died in faith were, in a sense, living on the borderland of two worlds. Their feet were firmly planted in one world, but they could gaze across to the other, as Moses on the brink of the promised land took in the landscape before him. “As it is they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” he says. That’s the language of the border where two landscapes meet, two countries, two realms. In the marches of the spiritual life, on one side there is this world where we are called to live as good citizens and faithful followers of Jesus, where we must be loyal to the Lord who is the way, the truth and the life, and through his death and resurrection embrace and embody the living hope that is the gift of the gospel. On the other side there is the new heaven and the new earth that we look forward to when we confess our faith “in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”. 
You could call it the city of God as Augustine did, or the kingdom of heaven, or the new creation. The point is that it is not far from each one of us; it is within our reach if only we will feel after him and find him in whom we live and move and have our being. In the north we sometimes speak of holy sites like Lindisfarne as “thin places” where the borderlands of earth and heaven seem almost to merge. And perhaps the saints like Thomas of Hereford and Cuthbert of Lindisfarne are thin people for the same reason that they have had the courage to leap, in Graham Greene’s image, and glimpse for themselves the glory of a world transformed, Jerusalem the golden, “blessed city, heavenly Salem, vision dear whence peace doth spring”. 
Isn't that an answer to the question, what's a saint? The saints belong to these borderlands because they look into both worlds of our human experience – the world we know because we live here, and the new heavens and the new earth that for now we only long for and on our best days, glimpse a little. The shrine of St Thomas Cantilupe is an ever-present sign in this cathedral of a life lived on the borderlands, this man who in purity of heart, in suffering and in healing looked into the world to come and embraced it. Thomas can help us be borderlanders too, people of the spiritual marches who know “we have here no abiding city, but seek that which is to come”. We can pray “thy kingdom come”, not as a wishful thought or a beautiful dream  but as a sure and certain hope, because of the saints who have already leaped towards it and who stretch out their hands to us to help us reach for it too. 
Hereford Cathedral, The Feast of St Thomas Cantilupe, 1 October 2017
Hebrews 11.7-10. 13-16; Matthew 24.42-46

Sunday, 24 September 2017

With a Twist of French: a sermon at a music festival

Today this Hexham Abbey festival “with a French twist” reaches its climax. I’d better own up at once to being an ardent Francophile. My love of France and its people, their rich legacy of art, literature and intellectual life, their heritage and landscapes has if anything been strengthened through the torturous Brexit we are inflicting upon ourselves.

At the end of this service we shall hear the Final of Louis Vierne’s first Organ Symphony. After that we are going to enjoy CĂ©sar Franck’s Violin Sonata, one of the greatest ever written. Franck was a Belgian by birth, but he lived and worked in Paris and thought of himself as entirely French. His final church post was as Titulaire and Maitre de Chapelle at Saint Clotilde with its CavaillĂ©-Coll organ that was the love of Franck’s life and the inspiration for much of his music. Vierne was his pupil and later Organist Titulaire at Notre Dame. I tell you all this because of something Vierne said about his teacher. He wrote in his memoirs that Franck had “a constant concern for the dignity of his art, the nobility of his mission, and the fervent sincerity of his sermon in sound….Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal: Franck was all these.”

That phrase sermon in sound is striking. A sermon, literally, means a word or a speech, a conversation, a discourse. What we intuit about music is that it’s just that, a form of speech that communicates in ways that ordinary words can’t do. I want to be careful here. The crafted words of literature and liturgy, of drama and poetry do have that capacity, and the way they touch us can feel like our experience of music. For great art somehow knows us and reaches into our deepest selves taking us far beyond the power of ordinary speech. It awakens our imaginations, stretches our horizons, kindles our spirits. And if we have ears to hear, music it speaks to us of life in all its tragedy and glory. It speaks to us about ourselves. It speaks to us of God. “Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal” said Vierne. Beyond the earthquake, wind and fire, or through them, or in them, we hear the still small voice of God’s Spirit.

What we listen to and how is something the scriptures take seriously. In the ancient world and still today, the body's orifices are regarded as needing scrupulous attention because they are the channels by which we are connected to the outside world. In particular, what we see and hear has the potential to uplift us or corrupt, and everything in between, because it allows the world beyond the boundaries of our bodies to penetrate. Seeing well, and even more gearing well, are highly significant. When Israel made a covenant with God, it was couched in the language of listening. “Tell us everything that the Lord tells you,” they say to Moses “and we will listen and do it.” In Proverbs there is a repeated call to find wisdom by paying attention: “My children, listen to me and be attentive to the words of my mouth”. When Jesus says “I am the good shepherd” the test of his authority and his integrity comes down to listening: “the sheep hear his voice…they follow him because they know his voice”.

When St Wilfrid founded this great abbey in 674, it was as a Benedictine community. (Yes, it was rebuilt as an Augustinian priory in the twelfth century, but let’s not forget its Benedictine origins.) The Rule of St Benedict is one of the classics of Christian writing. One of its great themes is obedience: to the scriptures, to the Rule, to the abbot, to the voice of the community, and most of all, to God. The word obedience is derived from the Latin obaudire whose root audire means to listen. The very first word of the Rule underlines that idea of serious listening. “Hearken to the voice of the Master and incline the ear of your heart.” Listen! Pay attention! Train your ears to respond. And when you hear, try to discern the prompting of the Spirit and let your open ears be a symbol of open hearts and open minds – open to God, and open to the wisdom of the inner voice of truth and conscience.

The capacity to listen well is basic to the good life. We know what it is like to be talking to someone who is looking away from us, only half paying attention, not caring enough to lend us their ears. Often it’s the distraction of some other voice, some more important person glimpsed over the shoulder, some better song than ours that's more worth listening to. And if our attention spans in modern life have never been generous, the worldwide web and social media have tended to shortened them still further. Four minutes, some say, is the limit. I’ve already been preaching longer. Who has the patience any more to sit through a Bach passion or a Beethoven symphony let alone a Wagner music-drama?

And that’s our challenge in these times. To let ourselves become overstimulated, incapable of investing time and effort in what is worthwhile is a besetting sin of our age; a craving for what belongs to the instantaneous, the immediate here and now, while we lose the judgment to decide what we should and shouldn’t pay attention to. Here is where music can teach us. There is no quick gratification in great art. You have to invest in it, take the time it takes, surrender to it. Music you give yourself to rather than merely play in the background is an opportunity not only to learn how to listen well, but to grow in the attentiveness that takes the larger and longer view and allows us to see our "instants" in a larger setting. It's how we become open to what the eighteenth century French spiritual writer De Caussade called, in a wonderful phrase, “the sacrament of the present moment”. It’s a gift, but we have to listen out for it, be attentive and open. Then, listening can be a life-changing event. For whenever life is touched and transformed, we can be sure that God is among us.

Back to Vierne and Franck and the phrase a sermon in sound. Cathedrals and abbeys like this one are sometimes spoken about as “sermons in stone”. You look around you as you sit a great building listening to great music. And aren’t you drawn, if you have any feeling, to think to yourself, there is something here that is bigger than me, older and wiser than me, something that touches me, speaks to me, compels me to pay attention? Maybe the music we have been enjoying in this festival has spoken to us, moved us in some way, opened once more the doors of our perception? If so, I call that an experience of God’s presence and his very self. And I think of Jesus walking the shores of Galilee, calling to anyone who would listen, inviting them to hear his words and find their lives changed. Can music call us to new ways of being alive in God’s world, new depths of wisdom and insight, new treasures of human experience to enrich our lives and share with others?

Music preaches the best of sermons if we will sit and listen. Of such is the kingdom of God.

Hexham Abbey Festival, 24 September 2017

Friday, 8 September 2017

In Memoriam John Fitzmaurice Petty, Provost & Dean of Coventry

I remember the first time I met John Petty. It was exactly thirty years ago. The Provostship at Coventry Cathedral was vacant. I had been Vice Provost there for just a few months. You can imagine that no one was more exercised than I was about who the new boss would be. The Bishop told me that his candidate would be coming to look us up and down, and that a colleague and I should go and meet him at the station and take care of his visit. They say first impressions count. Off the train he stepped energetically: lean, elegant, eager, expectant, and with a look of intelligent curiosity as if to say: Im not taking anything for granted and neither must you. Lets see how this goes, and what God might be saying to us about the future. 
Not long afterwards, in January 1988, John was installed as Provost. No-one who was there will ever forget the great procession of people from St Johns, Hurst, streaming down the steps from the ruins led by their former and much-loved incumbent. It seemed that the entire town had turned out for the occasion. This is the best job in the Church of Englandannounced John from the pulpit. Perhaps we should all feel like that about our ministry. I did at Durham, so John was only partly right. But I think everyone in Coventry Cathedral that day was heartened by the way he spoke about his new role and the enthusiasm he brought to it.
John came to Coventry with a long and solid experience of parish ministry. He was ordained priest in 1967, so this year marked his fiftieth anniversary. His curacies in Sheffield and south London formed him in the tough realities of urban life where the church has never had it easy or straightforward. So he relished the challenges of mission and ministry in Ashton Under Lyne and earned wide respect and affection for his complete commitment to the place and its people. He loved them and they him. Some of his parishioners were in tears at that great installation in Coventry. That sense of loss was both telling and moving. 
This earthy parish experience John brought to Coventry. He was no armchair theoretician. He aspired, I think, to be a practitioner for whom Christian prayer, service, mission, pastoral care and lived human relationships were the best evidence of the gospel that he knew. John loved the Cathedral. He had big ambitions for it and from his first day set about realising them with both energy and flair. Whether it was the international ministry of reconciliation symbolised by the cross of nails, or the spirituality of the place nurtured by liturgy and daily prayer, whether it was outreach to civic leaders or day to day involvement with the lives of ordinary people, he gave everything. He grasped avidly every opportunity to champion the Cathedral in the wider world. Some of us wondered whether he could sustain this furious pace. As I got to know him, I realised that this was simply the way he lived loving life so intensely, grasping it so joyously that he could not hold back from giving himself totally to it, in his work, his leisure, his relationships. We have heard earlier in this service about John the human being the husband, father, friend. To see him cycling round Coventry said it all. As did the study light in the Provosts House which would be on well after midnight every evening of the week bar Friday.  
But it takes more than hard work to make a good leader in any walk of life, especially in the church. One of his colleagues said that what was remembered about John was his visibility in the Cathedral, walking the nave several times a day in his cassock to talk to the staff and volunteers whose names and the names of their families and even their pets he remembered with unerring accuracy. He was an instinctive, warm-hearted pastor who was genuinely interested in people and cared about them. He was a natural encourager. The residents and staff of Mount House here in Shrewsbury know this from his years as their chaplain. One of the personal commitments that lived this our was a project he initiated called Remember Our Child, a ministry of prayer and pastoral support for parents who had lost children. John enjoyed the big public ceremonies, but just as characteristic was Johns capacity to reach out in quiet intimacy to those who were hurting years and even decades after experiencing this most painful of all bereavements. 
We who worked with John remember how his leadership style was to give space for his colleagues to flourish in their own roles. As his Precentor, I knew he completely trusted me with the Cathedrals worship and music, even when it came to organising the Royal Maundy service in 1995 and many other events where my job was to put the Cathedral and him personally on a public stage with all the scrutiny this brought. He knew how to delegate. He was proud of his team and was lavish with his praise for them. He wrote copious letters in his unmistakeable blue felt-tip to thank people, cycling round to deposit them at the central post-office in the small hours to make sure they arrived next day.  
Today we gather up the strands of Johns life both public and personal. We give thanks for him and celebrate all that he was and continues to be to us. In my mind as I remember him is what I heard him say a thousand times about Coventry Cathedral, that amazing place that holds together like no other place I know the brokenness of death and destruction with the healing, life-giving spirit of what has risen out of the ashes. To walk from the ruins into the new Cathedral is to walk from Good Friday into Easter he would say as he gazed at Graham Sutherlands tapestry of Christ in Glory, in my view the greatest work of art in a building crammed with treasures of the twentieth century.  
This funeral takes us on that same journey from Good Friday to Easter. For while we grieve Johns loss and feel our own mortality on a day when its natural and permitted to mourn, nevertheless we come here in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead. In our reading from Corinthians, St Paul speaks about this movement from transience to eternity, from glimpsing to seeing and knowing. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.Paul is able to say this out of his conviction that while faith, hope and love abide, the greatest of these is love. Perhaps thats how we need to remember those who have died, whom we love but see no longer: to allow the mercy and grace of God to shape the way we hold them in our hearts and memories. What will survive of us is lovewrote Philip Larkin, the twentieth century Coventry-born poet. What sustains us all on our journeys is the love from which nothing can separate us, not even the final journey all mortals must make in the dark shadow of death.
This was Johns faith. He held it unwaveringly. It saw this good man through a lifetime of devoted service. It was his reason for living, his nourishment, his inspiration, his joy. It will not have failed him at the gate of death. May he rest in peace, and at the last be received in the outstretched arms of Christ in glory.  
At St Chads Shrewsbury, 7 September 20171 Corinthians 13