Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Wednesday 17th February 2021 (Ash Wednesday)
Readings: Psalm 51; Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
If you use Facebook for more than just tuning into Mass, then the chances are that yesterday you’ll have seen a lot of people sharing photos of their pancakes, eaten en masse before Lent begins. And in normal years, today you would see lots of photos of people with smudged crosses on their foreheads. Because it’s become fashionable in recent years to take a photo of yourself, to share online, after receiving the imposition of ashes at Mass. There’s even a word for it: “ashtag”.
This year, with most churches shut, the equivalent is a slightly lower-tech version: if you type a plus sign, followed by a colon, and then a closed bracket, you get what looks, when you turn your head sideways, to be a smiley face with a cross above the eyes.
But sharing details of our Lenten practices is not something restricted to social media. How many times have we heard people talking about the things they’re giving up for lent – meat or alcohol or smoking? And when I was growing up it felt like there was a competition to give up the most impressive thing for lent.
All of which brings us back to today’s Gospel. From it we learn that making a big deal of your penitential practices was common even in the time of Jesus, who has no truck with it.
‘When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.’
On Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our mortality – we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In the psalm we hear, and join in with, King David’s confession of his sins. Hardly the time to be boasting about our own piety.
The three pillars of Lent are the three things Jesus talks about in our gospel: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. They are all sacrifices in their own way: the giving of time to God, and the offering of our hearts and minds in prayer; the giving up of the things we enjoy, whatever that might be; and the giving of our money to those less fortunate. But they are all things to be done, if not secretly, then certainly they are to be done quietly. Our aim shouldn’t be to have people praise our piety, or our courage, or our generosity – our aim should be to grow closer to God through our sacrifices.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Sunday 14th February 2021
Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
In his book ‘The Compleat Angler,’ Izaak Walton extolled the virtues of fishing, not least for the calmness and many other blessings it brought to the spirit. He quoted Sir Henry Wotton who was also a devoted angler who described it as
“an employment for his idle time,
which was then not idly spent,
a rest to his mind,
a cheerer of his spirits,
a diverter of sadness,
a calmer of unquiet thoughts,
a moderator of passions,
a procurer of contentedness;"
and " it begat habits of peace and patience
in those that professed and practised it."
Those who go fishing can lose themselves in quiet contemplation as they wait and watch for the float to be pulled down when the fish takes the bait. As they wait, they can mull over thoughts and problems.
How good it is to have a pastime or a pleasure in which you can lose yourself, an employment for idle time that is not then idly spent. Such pleasures can help to centre ourselves, to calm an agitated mind, and perhaps even make us more pleasant people.
On Wednesday we enter the holy season of Lent,
the time to place Christ at the centre of our being,
to check he is still the fulcrum that keeps our life in balance. We can all tend to drift away from him, and fail to properly distinguish between what is good and bad, between right and wrong. We may fail to recognise what is sinful and justify or excuse our own wrong actions and bad behaviour.
The Holy Spirit helps us in our discernment, through the medium of prayer. Christ assists us in his teaching in the Gospel. However we need to get ourselves in a right and propitious frame of mind for the Spirit to work on us and for the Gospel to penetrate us.
One of the early Greek fathers, St Diadochus of Photike, drew an analogy from sea fishing. When the sea is calm fishermen can perceive the movement of its depths, revealing the position of the fish, and know where to cast the net. However, when the sea is choppy and the surface disturbed by waves, then what lies beneath remains hidden, and the fishermen’s work is rendered very difficult.
So, he said, if we can be calm then our minds can discriminate between the thoughts and suggestions that pass through it, placing those which are good and come from God in the treasure house of memory, and ejecting from this spiritual reservoir those thoughts which are evil and of the devil.
How good for the soul it is to be able to spend time in calm stillness, like an angler on the riverbank, sifting those thoughts, retaining the good, and throwing out the bad. It is not easy, and we may feel we need to be at peace in order to pray but can only achieve peace by praying.
So we must approach the Lord with the faith of the leper and ask him to calm our troubled minds, and believe that he can.
This quiet time of contemplation can have a disproportionately beneficial effect on our spiritual wellbeing. It can enhance our perception of life, the world and the people around us. It can help us to achieve what St Paul recommends in his first letter to the Corinthians not to do anything that would be offensive to anyone. How hard that is when are determined to get our own way and insist that we are always right. St Paul says we should be helpful to everyone at all times which means having our hearts disposed and ready to help whenever it is needed, and not like the postman you may have seen in the news, who refused to help up the lady lying on her doorstep, because he was too tired.
In moments of peace and calm we can perceive our blessings which may be obscured in times of turmoil and agitation. Then we can see what the Lord does for us, and we can be thankful, like the leper who could not contain himself after he was healed, who had to tell everyone what Jesus had done for him. And we can also better perceive our needs, what we need from the Lord, just as the leper knew exactly what he wanted the Lord to do for him.
We are still going through times of great turmoil, the water is at times still rough and choppy, and it can be hard to see where we are in life. I invite you to use this holy season of Lent in the most positive and fruitful way. And if you can do nothing else, just take a moment to be quiet and still, like an angler on the riverbank and see what the Spirit reveals to you.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 7th February 2021
Readings: Job 7:1-4,6-7; Psalm 147:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23; Mark 1:29-39
What do you think of, if I say the word duty?
Perhaps if you were a scout, you might think of the Scout Promise, to do your duty to God and to the Queen.
In the middle of the last century, the archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a document on what they called the duties of Church Membership. And they called on all baptised and confirmed Christians:
To follow the example of Christ in home and daily life, and to bear personal witness to Him.
To be regular in private prayer day by day.
To read the Bible carefully.
To come to Church every Sunday.
To receive the Holy Communion faithfully and regularly.
To give personal service to Church, neighbours, and community.
To give money for the work of parish and diocese and for the work of the Church at home and overseas.
To uphold the standard of marriage entrusted by Christ to His Church.
To care that children are brought up to love and serve the Lord.
Nowadays we don’t talk about duty so much, I don’t think. When I was a scout, not so many years ago, it was never explained to me what my duty to God was, much less my duty, as a fifteen year-old, to the Queen. And the Church of England has also stopped talking so much about the duties of Christians, at least in the concrete way they did sixty years ago.
We now talk about the reasons to come to church – we say, “I come to church because it grounds me for the week,” “I pray because it gives me peace.”
Our talk of duty is one much less well defined.
St. Paul saw it as his duty to preach the Gospel, as we heard in our second reading. He says that he didn’t choose the work – he was called to it by God. In other words, whether he wanted to or not, it was what he had to do. The only reward he says he gets is that people receive the Good News without any charge – it’s given away for free.
Of course, we know that St. Paul regarded preaching as his joy as well as his duty – elsewhere in the Bible he talks about the great joy he gets when people turn to follow Christ. He calls the churches he writes to his children.
Jesus, too, had a duty. “That is why I came,” he says about his preaching mission. That was his duty to his Heavenly Father, who had sent him to preach and to bring the good news. And his duty was to the people he met, too – he saw them as sheep without a shepherd, and so he – the good shepherd – had the duty to care for them, as he did for Simon’s mother-in-law.
One example of duty we have seen in our own day is Captain Sir Tom Moore, who died this week. One year ago many of us had not heard of him. Here was a man who had already lived a full life and done many things as his duty – not least serving in the British Army during the Second World War. When he took up his laps of his garden, it was not a duty impressed on him by anyone else, but one he took up of his own free will.
In our first reading, Job asks, “Is not man’s life on earth nothing more than pressed service, his time no better than hired drudgery?” Captain Tom would have disagreed. Certainly we can think of duty as the sort of thing Job describes: toiling on for ever thinking only of our wage – we can think of it as something we do only because we are forced to.
I know I felt that way when, as a twelve year-old, I was made to get up each Sunday to walk to Church!
When we do our Christian duty though, it’s never about doing the bare minimum to get by, with a scowl, because we feel we have to.
Duty is a benchmark to help us. I’ve found that on the days when it’s pouring with rain, it’s freezing cold and I really don’t want to get up for Mass, that my duty – to God, and to all of you as your curate – is what gets me going. I get up because I have to, but it keeps me ticking over.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Gimli the dwarf says that “sworn oath may strengthen quaking heart.” A duty, properly understood, doesn’t make us do anything, but rather it helps us to do it.
So what is our duty as Christians, in this year of 2021, amidst lockdowns and pandemic? What is our duty, to God, and to other people?
The same, I think, as it always has been – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
For the first, I think the letter from the Archbishops is still as true as ever – though of course we can’t come to church in person yet.
But we can follow the example of Christ in home and daily life, and to bear personal witness to Him.
We can be regular in private prayer day by day.
We can read the Bible carefully.
And how do we love our neighbour? Well, let us consider Captain Tom again – who looked within himself and asked, “What can I do?” And then, without making a fuss and without drawing attention to our efforts, we can get on with making a difference in our world.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Sunday 31st January 2021
Gospel: Mark 1:21-28
Did you see the inauguration of President Joe Biden a few weeks ago? What an extraordinary ceremony it was, outside the Capitol building, in January, in freezing cold weather. Former presidents and vice-presidents paraded in to their own soundtracks; there were performances from Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga who sang the national anthem dressed in an enormous red skirt. And then there was the religious element. Fr Leo O’Donovan, a Jesuit priest, delivered what was called ‘The Invocation’, which started off as a prayer but became a sermon and a history lesson, telling God what he ought to know rather than asking for much from him. And later there was ‘The Benediction’ delivered by Revd Sylvester Beaman, which began by asking God’s blessing but soon turned into a tirade telling God what they were going to do in America, and how glorious it would be. God appeared to be sidelined, and his blessing superfluous.
It is a risk that anyone who prays will pray selfishly. God knows our needs before we express them, but we still need to express those needs in order for us to address them and express our commitment to working towards a solution. God in whom we live and move and have our being, should always be treated with respect and deference, and the proper way to approach him is with humility,
mindful of his sublime greatness and our human weakness. We should come before him like the penitent tax collector of the parable and not like the self-righteous pharisee who parades his virtues before the Lord.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses that he will raise up prophets and command them to speak in his name. A prophet is in an invidious position, he usually has to tell people what they do not want to hear, but also here God gives the warning that if a prophet presumes to say something in God’s name that is not of God, he will die. No pressure!
Many serious errors, many grievous sins have been committed by those who have dressed up their own prejudices, bigotry and hatred in the guise of doing God’s will. Sir John Betjeman lampooned selfish prayer in the poem ‘In Westminster Abbey’ where a woman prays
Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
Her ‘prayer’ asks for protection of the British Empire, and its forces, with special favour to the whites, and extra special protection specifically for her home at 189 Cadogan Square, and that he won’t let the price of her shares go down! She reminds God of all the good things that England stands for, and then seeks to bribe God with a promise to come to evening service, when she can. After this couple of minutes of talking at God rather than praying to him she concludes:
Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr'd.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date
We diminish God if we if we make God serve our own purposes rather than seek the answers in God’s discernible ways, if we try to drag God down to our own base level rather than let him raise us up to his,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
he says through the Prophet Isaiah
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
How often do we enter into prayer convinced of our own rightness, telling God what he ought to think and wanting him confirm that we are right, rather than opening ourselves to the wise correction of his Holy Spirit?
We are in danger in these times of isolation of getting set in our own ways, as we lack general interaction with other people who will present an alternative point of view and help us keep things in perspective. Our characters, with all their flaws and shortcomings, are all the more strongly pronounced because they are undiluted by company.
However we still have the company of Jesus along the way. He speaks still with the authority that the people of Capernaum discerned. He speaks to us now from the pages of the gospel. His words still possess the same authority for they are more than words from God that the prophets spoke, they are the word of God spoken by the living Word. May his gospel truly have authority over us. May our words and our deeds be governed by his commands.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 24th January 2021
Readings: Jonah 3:1-5,10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Have you ever been so excited for something to happen that you couldn’t wait?
Perhaps you were excited for a film to be released and you went to the cinema at the very first opportunity you got? Have you ever queued outside WH Smith or Waterstones for a book, like people used to do for the new Harry Potters when they came out?
Those of you who know me well will know that I’m a huge Star Trek fan! And there have been several new series in the last couple of years – all of which I’ve been dead excited for. And you know what? They always release the new episodes on a Friday! – which is my day off. Many are the times Fr. Adrian has said to me in the sacristy after Mass on a Thursday night, “What have you got planned for your day off?”, to be told that “It’s new Star Trek Day!” – followed, often, by five minutes or more of excited plot exposition, which he dutifully smiles and nods along to.
And then come Friday morning, the first thing I do when I come downstairs is make my breakfast, and my special day-off coffee, and then I settle down for some avid Star-Trek watching.
This atmosphere of expectation is one we hear about in our readings today. They have different tones, but they all contain the same essential message: “The time is now!”
Jonah, the prophet, preaches to Nineveh that unless they repent within the next forty days, they will be destroyed because of their wickednesses.
St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that the world as they knew it was passing away. St. Paul writes at a time, just after the birth of the church, when it was believed that the second coming of Christ would be soon – within their generation. So he tells them to have as little to do with the world as they can, and not to get engrossed in it.
[Although twenty centuries have passed since then, and most of us no longer believe that the end of time will come in our days, his message is still relevant to us now: now, as then, is the time to leave behind all that holds us back from following Christ.]
In the Gospel Jesus calls his first disciples, and they are fishermen. Simon Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James and his brother John. Notice how St. Mark mentions that they follow him “at once” – they leave their nets, and James and John leave their father, too – as soon as Jesus calls them, they follow him.
When we live in uncertain times we sometimes think of doom preachers – people who stand on corners telling us that “The end is nigh” – watch any disaster film and you’ll probably see someone like this – and we might think that Jonah is one prophet such as this. But when we hear his words, and those of St. Paul, we mustn’t think of these people – the folk such as those who said the world would end in 2012 – but think rather of those first four disciples, who are so excited to follow Christ that the instant they hear his voice they leave all their work, their family, their security behind, to follow him.
And we might be surprised to learn that Nineveh reacts the same way. The first reading abridges the story somewhat – as soon as Jonah preaches to the people, they instantly repent, convert, fast and pray. “The time is now” was as true for them as it was for the fishermen of Galilee.
And what about us? It can feel as though we have been treading water for the past ten months, since the pandemic first began seriously to bite in the UK. I still think back to Lent last year – the lent course which had to be abandoned, the pared-down Holy Week.
Is now the time for us, too? The time for what?
It may feel difficult for us to follow Jesus at this time, when so much that we rely on is denied to us. We may feel like the time is not now, but “eventually” – “eventually” we will be able to worship as freely as we used to.
But even if we walk slowly, let us make sure we walk with Jesus when he calls us, day by day. Making the first thing we do each day be a prayer, commending the day to God. Before we turn out the light at night, thanking God for the day.
It may feel like the world as we know it is is passing away – but the world was made by God, whose love will never pass away.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Sunday 17th January 2021
Gospel: John 1:35-42
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What is attractive to one person may not be attractive to another. We may use that statement to cover up the fact that we cannot see the attraction a certain thing holds for another.
It is a great blessing to be able to appreciate beauty wherever it may be found, whether it be a glorious sunset, a fine painting, a beautiful building.
You may find another person or even an animal beautiful. What you find beautiful you might also call adorable; it lifts your heart and fills you with a sense of pleasure. I keep as a screen saver on my computer a view of the Atlantic Ocean from the balcony of the Hotel Sol y Mar in Isla Cristina in Spain. To anyone else it would be just a beach and the sea, to me it is a beautiful sight, a reminder of happiness and a representation of hope for the future, that one day we will be able to do again those lovely things we used to do.
When John the Baptist points out Jesus to his disciples, he says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’
I prefer this translation of the gospel, others just have ‘Look, the Lamb of God,’ which feels rather ordinary, as you might point out a bird in the garden. The word ‘behold’ is so much more resonant. ‘Come and behold him, born the King of Angels’ we used to sing at Christmas. When the shepherds and the wise men came to the stable at Bethlehem, they did not just look at a baby, and then clear off, they lingered, they gazed at him. They beheld him, and that had an effect on them, it moved them to adoration.
When John says ‘behold the Lamb of God’, he tells his disciples to see and understand Jesus as the suffering servant, the ultimate sacrifice. He is the ultimate lamb, offered in sacrifice to God to atone for sin, but he is more than that for he is ‘the lamb of God’. He is of God, he has come to take away the sins of the world, by dying for us on the cross.
At the end of the gospel, Pontius Pilate declares to the crowd ‘behold the man’, ‘behold the king of the Jews’, the charge against him that will be inscribed on the cross. The Lamb of God is indeed sacrificed.
In the Mass we are invited to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This beholding of Christ is all the more important in this time of live-streamed Masses, because our communion with Jesus is a visual communion.
We receive Jesus by beholding him.
When this church was built, this was the way in which the people communed with Jesus, they beheld him. They might actually have received communion just once a year at Easter, but at each Mass after the priest said the prayer of consecration and the bells rang as he raised up the host above his head for all to see they beheld their Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. This was the moment of grace.
The anchorhold at All Saints’ was built by the altar so that the anchorite could gaze on Jesus in the tabernacle all day long. St John Vianney, the priest of Ars in France wrote about an old farmer who would come into church each day and sit there just staring at the tabernacle. When the priest asked him what he was doing he just said ‘I look at him and he looks at me’. Communion indeed.
In the gospels the look of Jesus was powerful. In today’s gospel he looked at Simon and declared he would be called the rock and he would build his church on him. When the rich young man came to Jesus and asked what he should do to gain eternal life, the Lord looked at him and loved him and told him to give his wealth to the poor. The young man went away sad for Jesus had peered into his soul and seen that he loved his riches before all else.
Let us behold Jesus in the blessed sacrament and rejoice in his abiding presence with us. Let us behold him in our mind’s eye, looking back at us. Dare we ask ourselves what he sees? What do we want him to see; what do we not want him to see. What are the sins we need to confess for the Lamb of God to take away?
The hymn Just as I am, without one plea expresses so beautifully the fact that what the Lord sees in us is beautiful. He loves us for whoever and whatever we are. Though he loves not the sin, he still loves the sinner. He looks on us and loves us, with a love that breaks down barriers. Whatever our worries, conflicts and doubts, however inadequate we feel, when we come to the Lamb of God he welcomes us, he pardons and relieves us. Whatever burden we carry, he can help make it lighter.
Let us come to him, let us behold him. Let us see that he is beautiful. Come let us adore him.
Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt;
fightings within and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, thou wilt receive;
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, thy love unknown
has broken every barrier down;
now to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, of that free love
the breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
here for a season, then above:
O Lamb of God, I come.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, 2nd Sunday in Advent
Readings: Isaiah 40.1-5, 9-11; Mark 1.1-8
When I was an ordinand, training for the priesthood in Cambridge, there was a Norwegian man who used to stand at a junction in the town centre. He was a street preacher, and he didn’t seem to preach on behalf of any church but only on his own authority. He styled himself “The heaven or hell man” – because his question, to passers-by, was “Do you know your destination, do you know where you’re going after you die?”
Most people ignored the Heaven or Hell Man, and a few times he was moved on by the police, after some of his more objectionable preaching was reported to them.
In Cambridge, in 2018, the Heaven and Hell man stood out – he was like a fish out of water. But he would have fitted right in, had he been alive at the time of Jesus. Imagine, if you will, that you are a Jew in the first century BC – living under occupied rule, your freedoms being taken away. Your only hope, your only thing to cling on to, is your religion – which tells you that God will send his messiah, his chosen one, to rule as King.
And so a great many people appeared, as we hear John doing, as wandering preachers, some more wild than others, but many of them proclaiming that the Messiah was coming, or – more often – that they themselves were that messiah.
We hear about some of these in the book of Acts, and the historian Josephus talks about four in detail – but describes the country as having “ten thousand disorders”.
And people listened. This is what the Book of Acts has to say:
Theu′das arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
People listened, too, to John the Baptist – we hear of the crowds going out to listen to him.
Of course, John is unusual in that he explicitly say that the isn’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or one of the other Old Testament prophets. He casts himself, rather, as the voice crying in the wilderness, prophesied by Isaiah.
John preached in the desert, by the river Jordan. Where would he be today? Perhaps he would be like one of our modern street preachers, or maybe he’d find a spot on the Ouse to conduct his ministry there?
And what would we think of him?
The Heaven and Hell man didn’t have a message of good news. The most generous thing that could be said about his message, is that he wanted to save people from a terrible fate – but mostly he was condemnatory of the way people lived.
And this is what we often think of when we see someone preaching in public – they’re doom-mongers, angry at everyone.
And yet, listen to the words of Isaiah in our first reading. If you’re familiar with Handel’s Messiah, you’ll recognise the words – differently translated – as the opening Aria. Here they are in that translation:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins.
This is not the Bible-bashing, doom-mongering, angry preaching of a man preaching only on his own authority – but the consoling, loving urgings of the one God sends to prepare his way.
What does he say to us?
“Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it.”
“Here is your God.”
How often this year we have longed for someone to say, “Here is your God!” How many times this year have we longed to hear the words of John the Baptist, “Behold the lamb of God”, to see our Lord, to taste our Lord? And now we await him again; though we can receive his body, we await him still: we await his coming at Christmas, and we await his coming on the Last Day, when every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked way made straight and the rough places made smooth.
John’s message was a message of repentance: “Repent!” he said – “prepare yourselves for God’s coming!” What would we do if we knew that we would meet God face to face? How would we live?
Advent challenges us to live life differently. Fr. Adrian has suggested making an Advent habit of midweek Mass. You see how excited John was to meet Jesus; how precious is the gift we have of meeting him day by day?
Come. Come once. Come on Mondays, when often I’m here on my own.
He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms – let us be gathered into his arms this Advent.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Advent Sunday, 29th November 2020
Gospel: Mark 13:33-37
If you are in a strange country you may well need to be alert. That is the case when visiting the Holy Land: you need to watch where you are going, I have seen pilgrims take a tumble down the steep Mount of Olives; you need to pay attention and not get lost or left behind, the crowded streets of old Jerusalem are like a labyrinth; and sometimes, unfortunately, you have to be alert to people who might rip you off, or even steal from you. It is no worse than many tourist destinations and the guides are vigilant and know who to watch out for. On one pilgrimage, our guide arranged a sign with us. If ever he said the words, ‘hot chocolate’ it meant ‘hold on to your handbags’ because there were pickpockets about. So he might say ‘there is the Dome of Rock built in the Seventh century and covered in HOT CHOCOLATE, beautiful golden tiles.’
It is always better to prevent a problem than have to solve one, better to prevent a theft not just because of the distress it would cause, but also because of the inconvenience and difficulty of replacing a stolen passport or credit cards.
Keeping awake and being watchful is a central theme of the season of Advent, which we begin today. Once the church is stripped of flowers, the purple robes and frontals are brought out it is a sign in the church that something wonderful is about to happen. As the purple of Lent is followed by the white of Easter, so the purple of Advent will be followed by the gold of Christmas; just as a purple sky precedes a glorious sunrise.
Advent comes like the bell of an alarm clock, a wake up call. Jesus says we should keep awake and be busy, like workers ready for the return at any minute of an absent boss. We are told to look for the signs of the coming of the kingdom. We can only really see all those signs if we are truly awake.
Sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on our mental and physical wellbeing. Not being able to sleep might be a sign that something is wrong, that we are anxious about something. Not getting enough sleep might lead to poor concentration and memory loss.
We can also suffer from a spiritual drowsiness, when we are not tuned in to what the Holy Spirit might be trying to say to us, when we fail to see warning signs that we need to curb or modify our behaviour. In the present time of restrictions it is easy to fall into a slough of despond, of gloom and self-pity.
The prophet Isaiah complains, in a rather immature way, that God allows the people of Israel to go astray and harden their hearts against God. Why does he let them misbehave, and not prevent them? God has given us free will to choose righteousness or sin. We can equally well choose either. Isaiah sees that we are like clay in the hands of God the potter. If we would allow him to guide us then we shall be moulded into the people he wants us to be. We will be his own special creation.
Isaiah lets out a great cry for God to rend the heavens and come down. But we Christians believe that has indeed happened, the veil of the temple was rent in twain at the death of Jesus, and that which separated us from God has been removed, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. In Advent we prepare to celebrate that wonderful realization at Christmas.
One thing I notice about taking pilgrim groups to the Holy Land is that as the week goes on the people become holier; the sense of the closeness of the encounter with the Lord makes them more attentive to each other. I remember once going into the Church of Ecce Homo at the end of walking the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, the guide could tell that one of the pilgrims had had his pocket picked, because of the behavior of some youths in the street. The word went round the group that this pilgrim had been robbed, and they spontaneously organized a collection among themselves. At the end of the Mass we had to give the pilgrim bad news and good news. The bad news was that he had been robbed, but the good news was that his fellow pilgrims had collected more than had been stolen. He was quite overcome and gave the money to charity. It showed how spiritually alert and aware the pilgrims had become, they were ready to spring into action immediately. They had been moulded by the potter’s hands.
We look forward now to a certain date, the celebration of the day of Christ’s birth at Christmas, but beyond that we look to an unknown date, the day of Christ’s return.
The Lord puts us in a position of trust, to be about his business. Let us be alert and awake that we may see the work that needs doing and be active in carrying out the Lord’s business.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Christ the King
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
There’s a show on TV – I don’t know if you’ve seen it – called the Undercover Boss. On the show, the director of a company, or one of his or her deputies, disguises themselves as an ordinary person and goes and works there. In one episode, it’s one of the directors of Paddy Power, who swaps his suit for jeans and a leather jacket, and poses as “Sam,” an unemployed IT specialist who needs a job – and goes and works on the shop floor.
And this undercover boss story is, in a way, at the heart of the Incarnation, and we hear it explained beautifully in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, where he tells the Christians there that though Jesus was divine, he emptied himself and took on the form of a servant, and having been born as a human, he became humbler yet, by accepting death on a cross.
Today’s feast has the wonderfully extravagant title of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – and although we usually shorten it to “Christ the King,” by doing so we lose some of the awesomeness of this fact – that Christ is King not only of the Church or even this world, but of all creation.
It makes the incarnation even more dramatic. Christ, who rules over the whole universe, comes to earth and is born as a humble baby. It’s said that if you throw a handful of sand into a great cathedral, the cathedral will be more full of sand than the universe is full of stars…and yet it is to us that Jesus comes.
And in our gospel today we hear that Christ does not simply identify with humanity, but with the lowest of humanity. He tells the sheep and the goats, that when they did or did not serve the most humble of humanity – the hungry, naked, cold, imprisoned and sick – their actions, good or bad, were done not simply to the lowest of the low, as humanity might consider them, but to the highest of the high.
Although God himself does not suffer – in heaven he is never hungry, nor thirsty, nor cold, nor sick – he identifies with those who do. On earth Jesus felt all the sufferings of humanity, and on the day of judgement, he tells us that when one of his children is hungry, thirsty, cold, naked, sick or imprisoned – it may as well have been him.
We are living in a time of great suffering. It’s almost ten months to the day since the UK recorded its first case of Coronavirus, since when more than fifty thousand people have died. We have been cut off from seeing friends and family. We have lived with the fear that something we cannot see or touch could kill us or those dear to us. And, of course, our worshipping life has been disturbed. I know that some of you have not received the Blessed Sacrament since the middle of March – for those who have been able to attend church, worship since then has been stripped bare of hymn-singing, we have not shared the peace during Mass nor coffee after it.
We have been hungry for the Body of the Lord; we have been thirsty for his precious blood. We have been afraid of sickness.
But in all of this, God has not ceased his eternal reign, nor has he abandoned us to face this alone.
We have suffered much, but we are fortunate – we have suffered, most of us, in the comfort of our own homes, with as much as we like to eat and a bed to call our own at night.
We know that many have not been so fortunate. Many have lost their jobs, and have been hungry. We saw this in the half term holidays with the mighty efforts of Marcus Rashford and those inspired by him, feeding children who otherwise would go hungry. And the Night Shelter has opened once more, but in spite of its wonderful new building, government restrictions mean that they can only currently host six people per night – and so there are still people camping in the walks or in Hardings Pits because they have nowhere else to go.
These are the people of whom our Lord says, “I was hungry and you fed me; naked and you clothed me.”
Our Lord, Jesus Christ, is King of the Universe. In his kingdom none are hungry; none are cold; none are sick.
Let us work to build his Kingdom, so that on the last day, he may say to us:
“Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 15 November 2020
Reading: Matthew 25.14-30
Simon Reeve is one of the best travel presenters on television, but due to the current restrictions his travelling has been rather curtailed of late, and he presently has a short series on Cornwall. You may have seen the first part. There were two lots of people I thought particularly interesting: the Taco Boys and the man who ran the Camborne Foodbank. Both of their stories have a bearing on our gospel reading today, the Parable of the Talents.
The Taco Boys were a group of enterprising young men who had set up their own business selling filled tacos, the tasty Mexican snack, from a converted horse box on the beach during the summer. The pandemic presented many challenges but also opportunities as tourists flocked to the coast. They made sacrifices for the sake of their business: they couldn’t afford to rent accommodation and so lived and slept in their vehicles beside the beach; through hard work, long hours and determination, they have now made enough money to be able to open up a café in Exeter, there being no suitable places in Cornwall. They had a great idea, and were adaptable in making it successful.
We do not know what the men who were given the five and two talents did to create such an impressive return on their master’s investment. They had been given a large amount, the equivalent of thousands of pounds, and they doubled their money. No wonder the master was so pleased with them. However we know exactly what the man given the one talent did: he dug a hole and buried it in the ground; and it made nothing.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the need to be adaptable and flexible. That may well be the key to businesses thriving or even surviving, as was the case with the Taco Boys. It is the same with life, it rarely turns out how we might like it to be. We can hope that problems will just go away, but they usually won’t. We can wish that someone will wave a magic wand and make everything all right but they don’t. We have to do what we can to face our challenges and make the most of our opportunities, for God helps those who help themselves.
This has been a difficult time for churches such as ours, and the restrictions have meant that our fundraising has been massively reduced and we have not been eligible for any government grants. We have enterprisingly managed some fundraising but we remain dependent on and grateful to those who regularly give to our churches, and continue to do so through the lockdowns.
The other remarkable person in Simon Reeve’s programme on Cornwall was Don Gardner who ran the Camborne food bank. Cornwall is often depicted as an idyllic coastal county, but the prevalence of second homes has pushed locals out of the housing market, and the seasonal nature of employment leaves few opportunities for work in the winter, and there is much poverty. Don Gardner has run the foodbank for 16 years. He set it up with his wife, and it has grown as demand has increased, feeding more than 500 families a month. Don agreed to be interviewed and filmed despite the fact that the funeral of his beloved wife of 53 years was due to take place the next day. He described his motivation in the prayer he offered each day on waking: 'Please Lord help me to make a difference to someone today'.
He had often struggled to raise the £60,000 per year to run the food bank, which must have been a cause of great worry to him. He could have shrugged his shoulders at the poverty around him, he could have been overawed by the immensity of the task, he could have buried his talent in the ground, but he didn’t because he was motivated by the need to make a difference to at least one person a day. And now, his work has been blessed with an abundant return: £160,000 donated by the public in just five days after the programme was broadcast.
As Christians we should not expect swift returns for our labours. ‘The faithful do not reap a quick harvest they have to wait for it to ripen slowly’, one early writer has said. The master of the parable was away a long time. We are each endowed with talents that we can put to use to be of service to God and neighbour. Life is not as we knew it, the pandemic continues to present many challenges, but let us not despair and bury our talent in the ground; instead let us be adaptable and industrious; let us confront our challenges and make the most of our opportunities; let us make it our prayer to make a difference to one person each day. Then we may hear the voice of the Lord say to us ‘well done good and faithful servant come and share your master’s happiness.’