Trinity 4 (5.7.2020)
The birth of a child is always a sign of hope. It is a new beginning, opening up all sorts of possibilities, both for the child who is born and for her (or his) parents. So it’s good to give thanks and to ask God’s blessing, both on the new life and on those who will care for that life. That is what Sarah and Jeffery are doing today as they bring Brenda to offer thanks for her safe arrival and to surround her with the love and prayers of the people of God.
It’s also good that we have heard those words of Jesus in the middle of today’s Gospel – and, I should point out that they were not chosen with Brenda and her parents in mind. We heard them because this is the point that the Church has reached in our year-long exploration of the good news according to St Matthew. So, Sarah and Jeffery, you have a lot to teach your baby daughter, about living with different cultures and different languages. You will also have a lot to learn from Brenda, because there are things which God has hidden from the wise and the intelligent and has revealed to infants, and they are often things that have to do with wonder and love and joy.
A wise man who lived in England nearly four hundred years ago wrote a book to help one of his friends progress in their Christian life. In it he described the glory of the world which he had experienced as a child, a world in which “eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared.” He also described how the clarity and brightness of that vision faded as he grew older, until the world became grey and empty and meaningless and rather frightening. “I was”, he wrote, “corrupted and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.” An important part of Jeffery and Sarah’s role as parents will be to help Brenda hold on to that original vision of the glory and beauty of God’s creation and of the infinite value of every human being – and to rediscover that vision for themselves.
What is the best way in which they can do that? On the human level, it is for Sarah and Jeffery to love Brenda and to love each other; but it goes beyond that. If we are to hold on to the vision of God’s glory and the wonder of God’s creation we need to recognise that it is God’s creation, and that the God who made it, and us, is the God described by the psalmist: “gracious and merciful, long-suffering and of great goodness”, a God who “is loving to everyone” and whose “mercy is over all his creatures”, “sure in all his words and faithful in all his deeds”, upholding all those who fall and lifting up all those who are bowed down. Even when we can’t see that happening, God is at work, fitting us to the yoke of Jesus; offering his rest to those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, whether those burdens are physical, mental, or spiritual; offering those who are worn out by their care for others, or wearied beyond words by the burdens of lock-down, a place of rest at the foot of his cross.
Two and half millennia ago the Jewish people were wearied beyond words by another lock-down – not because they were coping with a pandemic, but because they had been in exile, far from their homeland in Palestine. A king had arisen in the land of their exile who allowed them to return home, but things had not worked out according to their hopes and they were disappointed and frustrated. Scholars think that it was in that setting that a prophet spoke the word from the Lord that we heard in our first reading. It’s a word of hope and reassurance, a word of encouragement and liberation. It is a word that Christians have always understood as fulfilled in Jesus and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. It reminds us that God’s purposes for us are much, much greater than we can ever imagine and that the hope which opens up for us in the birth of a child is fulfilled for all humankind in the coming of Jesus.
Trinity 3 (28.6.2020)
Trinity 2 (21.6.2020)
When our children were at first school they used to take part in a children’s holiday club which the local churches ran during the summer holidays. I think they enjoyed it. Beatrice must have done, because she went on to become a group leader. They certainly came home each day singing the new songs that they had learned. One in particular that I remember them singing round the Vicarage went like this:
“It’s an adventure, following Jesus. It’s an adventure, learning of him.
It’s an adventure living for Jesus. It’s an adventure following him.”
That sense of adventure lies beneath both our readings this morning. In our first reading St Paul writes to the Christians of Rome about what it means to enter what he calls “newness of life” through our baptism into the death of Jesus, what it means to start living what the Creed calls “the life of the world to come” within the setting of this life. In our Gospel Jesus spells out that following him means, as any adventure means, both risk and reassurance.
It means risk, because, as Jesus warns the twelve, following him can result in conflict – even within the same family, the same household. The values of God’s kingdom, truth, justice, peace, love, are not necessarily shared by those who are close to us, and they are not good news to those who serve the power structures of this world. Sometimes those structures are so completely opposed to the Gospel that following Jesus can be physically dangerous and being “united with him in a death like his” is not just a powerful figure of speech but a real possibility. It is forty years this year since paramilitary death squads murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador while he was saying Mass in a hospital chapel and followed up that crime nine months later by killing four American women, three of them nuns. Those who have come to Genova from Nigeria don’t need to go back forty years to be reminded how dangerous it can be to follow Jesus. And have you ever wondered why Archbishop Angelo is always followed round by two or three solidly-built laymen when he is out and about in his diocese? Even in Genova it can be dangerous to speak out against the corrupt powers of this world in the name of Jesus the Christ.
But at the same time, following Jesus means reassurance. It means reassurance because we are the beloved brothers and sisters of God’s beloved Son and God keeps watch over us as closely as over those two-a-penny sparrows. “Even the hairs of your head are all counted” – which might be a problem for some of us… As St Paul writes, “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” We are already part of God’s new age, the new age that began with Jesus’ resurrection – even if a lot of the time it doesn’t seem much like it – and that has consequences.
It has consequences for the way that we behave, and we will, God willing, be looking at some of them in a week’s time. It has consequences for how we think about life – and death. If, as Paul says, “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed”, then we are freed from that fear of death which is one of the chief well-springs of human wickedness. Jesus told the twelve, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Those who followed the daily reflections from Fr Richard Rohr that appeared on the church’s Facebook page around Easter may remember his comment that the larger-than-life, spiritually transformed people he had met all had one thing in common: they had all “died before they died”. Following in the steps of Jesus, they had been led to the edge of their own resources, and that led them into a larger life. As Fr Richard said, “They broke through in what felt like breaking down. Instead of avoiding a personal death or raging at it, they went through a death of their old, small self and came out the other side knowing that death could no longer hurt them.” These weeks of lock-down, overshadowed by the wider fears raised by Covid-19 have been, and still are for many of us, a time in which we have been led to the edge of our own resources. My prayer is that we will also find it a time in which we experience that breakthrough into a larger life, “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”.
Trinity 1 (14.6.2020)
That photo-shoot of Donald Trump during the first “Black Lives Matter” protest, standing outside a church, brandishing an upside-down Bible, provoked several people on social media to send round once again the video-clip of a painfully embarrassing interview in which he was asked to name his favourite passage, even his favourite verse, from the Bible. To say that Mr Trump was not comfortable with the question (which he didn’t answer) is putting it mildly. It’s an interesting question, nonetheless. How, I wonder, would we answer it?
I think that this morning’s first reading would be pretty high on my list of favourite passages. It manages to fit the whole of the good news about Jesus into eight verses. And by Paul’s standards they are very direct and simple verses.
The first four chapters of Paul’s letter to the Christian communities in Rome are, let’s be honest, pretty heavy going. Paul has been looking back at God’s dealings with humankind from the beginning and noting how often it has all gone wrong – what an English writer a few years ago described (with a slight modification because we are in church) as “the human propensity to foul things up” or “hptftu” for short. And Paul isn’t taking prisoners. Everyone has fouled up. Not just the pagans but Jewish people too. The people who were supposed to be the solution have become part of the problem, same as the rest of us. They’ve been given the Law as God’s blueprint for how to be truly human and instead of sharing it with the world they’ve turned it into a barrier separating them from the rest of humanity, and in the process wrecked the vision that God had shared with Abraham, the man who, above all, trusted God.
And that’s where we start this morning. Look, says Paul, Abraham trusted God, though he had many reasons not to, and God blessed him. If we trust God, as Abraham did – and we have got one huge reason to trust God that Abraham didn’t have – then God will bless us. In fact, as we discover later in the letter, God is already blessing us. It’s just that, because of “hptftu” we don’t recognise it.
So, here’s the punch-line: “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, it’s through our trust in God, not any physical mark, that we are part of God’s people. A number of things follow on from that. If we are confident that we are part of God’s people, if we are confident in God’s love, then that is our source of peace. And we can be confident in God’s love because of Jesus, who took on himself all the anger, hatred and cruelty of the world, all that “human propensity to foul things up” – including our pride and greed and foolishness and fear (and the things we are ashamed even to name). He took all of what the thanksgiving prayer calls “the sins of the whole world” – he took it and he nailed it to his cross. “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
That’s the game-changer. That’s what opens up for us “this grace in which we stand”, God’s free gift of life and hope and the promise of glory. That is something to rejoice in, even, as Paul says, to boast in. But it’s more than that. It’s a source of strength here and now. Even if things aren’t going our way, even if we are having a hard and painful time in life, God’s promise and God’s presence give us something to hang on to, even in the dark and difficult times. Listen to Paul’s words again: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us”. And why does hope not disappoint us? Paul tells us right away. “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
That gift is ours already. We are blessed already. Even in all the difficulty of this present time, even amid all the uncertainties about work, and lodging, and food, the racism, the exploitation, the bullying that many are experiencing, we can be confident that God is still at work, bringing hope and blessing and peace to those who put their trust in the love that has been revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord.
Trinity Sunday (7.6.2020)
You’ve made it. You’ve finally made it! You’ve been saving for years for this trip to Jerusalem. And at last you’re here. You’re in the city in time for the festival. You’ve prayed in the temple; you’ve made your offering: and now you’re going to do a little sight-seeing. So, it seems are a lot of other pilgrims. Judging by the clothes they’re wearing they’ve come from all over the place, from Rome in the west to Persia in the east, from North Africa, from the shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian, from places a thousand, two thousand miles away. They’ve come on foot, by sea, by camel, even on horse-back. Now they’re doing the rounds of the royal tombs and the holy places – early in the morning, before the sun gets up and it’s too hot, even in the shaded, narrow streets of the old city.
Then, suddenly, there’s a bit of a disturbance. People are shouting out. It’s a little group – can’t be more than a dozen, mostly peasants from the look of them. They’ve just come out of that building over there. Heaven knows what they’re saying, you don’t speak any Aramaic and your Greek isn’t up to much beyond what you need for buying and selling. But wait a minute. You can understand what they’re saying. They’re talking your language. They’re talking about God, about what God has done, about what God is doing, what God is doing here, now, today in Jerusalem. They’re very, very excited. What is going on? The man standing next to you laughs and says he thinks they’ve had a skinful, but surely it’s much too early in the day for that? Oh, wait a moment: one of them seems to be the leader. He’s hoisted himself onto the counter outside a shop and he’s calling for quiet. He must have heard the man next to you, because the first thing he says is that says they haven’t been drinking. You were right about it being too early. Nine o’clock? The taverns will hardly be open yet. Now what’s he saying?
What is he saying? What is he saying to you, to me, to that great crowd of people from all round the Eastern Mediterranean and across the Middle East?
He’s quoting one of the prophets. Not one of the big boys. Not Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel. He’s quoting Joel. The prophet who got caught up in a plague of locusts. Joel’s one of those prophets who saw natural disaster as God’s judgement on Israel – and he saw the locusts as an invading army carrying out that judgement, in the same way as Isaiah had seen the armies of Assyria and Jeremiah the armies of Babylon. Joel saw something else, too. He saw God’s mercy. Joel saw God’s steadfast love for God’s people, despite their repeated failures. He saw that steadfast love revealed in the restoration and renewal of Israel after disaster. He saw it in the pouring out of the Spirit “on all flesh” – a gift not limited by race or age or gender or status. This is a promise to young as well as old, female as well as male, slaves as well as free citizens. This is a promise that God will renew God’s people, that God is renewing God’s people, by the gift of his Spirit. And the death of Jesus of Nazareth has triggered it.
That’s what John means when he describes Jesus standing in the temple precincts and promising the gift of living water, flowing “out of the believer’s heart”, according to our translation; out of the believer’s belly, even the believer’s gut, according to John’s original Greek. Either way, it comes from the core of the believer’s being. It’s the same living water Jesus promised to the woman of Samaria. It’s the same living water that the prophet saw flowing from the temple to make the ruined land fertile and to bring healing. It’s the Spirit of God, sent forth, in the words of this morning’s Psalm, to renew the face of the earth.
That promise is for us, here in Genoa. God has not abandoned the people in this pandemic any more than God abandoned Israel in the time when Joel pondered the meaning of that plague of locusts. As we open our hearts, our guts, to the gift of God’s Spirit, our thirst will be satisfied. Out of the blood, and fire, and smoky mist, renewal will come. Beyond the darkness, we shall see the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day, when all creation will be restored. “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Easter 7 (24.5.2020)
Well, here we are, back in church after nearly three months away. All of us probably have stories about life during those three months that we are longing to share, stories of struggle for many, but also, I hope, stories of unexpected blessing and of a deepening relationship with God, inspiring stories, embarrassing stories, funny stories. We want, even need, to share those stories, but we can’t – not for the moment, anyway. Gathering for worship is allowed. Getting together afterwards over an aperitivo for a good old gossip isn’t, not even if we wear our mascherine. Welcome to life after lock-down. Welcome to the “new normal”.
There’s a bit of that about the end of today’s first reading, though for a very different reason. The disciples have spent a significant length of time with the risen Lord, learning about the kingdom of God, getting to grips with the meaning of a crucified Messiah. But finally that time together has come to an end. Luke uses imagery taken from the Hebrew Scriptures to describe how that happened. Jesus is taken up into heaven like Elijah. A cloud comes down to hide him from the disciples’ sight, as God came down in a cloud that hid the tent of meeting while God talked to Moses. Then, somehow, that’s it. As the two men in white robes remind the disciples, life goes on. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
So, it’s back to Jerusalem; back to the room upstairs: back to being the Twelve – or rather “the Eleven”. There’s a name missing from that list in verse 13. Welcome to the “new normal” for Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James – but not for Judas, son of Simon Iscariot who has, in Luke’s chilling phrase, “turned aside to go to his own place.” What then are the Eleven to do? How do they become used to this new state of affairs? For them, as Luke tells the story, the answer is obvious. They and the core group of women who had supported them, and Jesus, during the previous three years, with members of Jesus’ immediate family, including Mary, “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”
They committed themselves, in other words, to discerning God’s will for their future, to understanding how to go about rebuilding that first community of believers in the physical absence of Jesus. That prayer to which they were constantly devoting themselves was probably made up more of silence than of words. And the words were probably as short and simple as the prayer of a holy woman in Northern Europe many centuries later, “Lord, show me your way and make me willing to walk it.”
Something like that, I think, has to be our prayer in this time of waiting. We don’t know what is going to result from this easing of restrictions. We don’t know how this pandemic is going to develop. Will it peter out in the summer? Will there be (God forbid!) a second wave of infection? It’s unlikely that there will be a quick solution. Vaccines and treatments take time to develop – and to manufacture and distribute. Masks will be worn for the foreseeable future. Social distancing will continue. If not, more people will become ill – and more will die. So we have to get used to said services with no hymns. We have to get used to not moving round the building sharing the peace of Christ with our brothers and sisters. We have to get used to putting our weekly offering in the bag on our way in or on our way out. Those who use the food bank will have to get used to picking up a pre-packed bag rather than making their own choices. And all of us have to get used to keeping this building very clean indeed.
But we have to remember that all this, like the situation of the first Christians in Jerusalem, is highly provisional. Situations can change suddenly and unexpectedly. The whole Christian story is about such changes – about God intervening in unexpected ways, at Easter and on the day of Pentecost. In the mean time, let us follow the example of that first community in Jerusalem, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer”, and let us pray, simply and directly, as they did, using, if you like, that prayer of Birgitta of Sweden: “Lord, show us your way and make us willing to walk it.”
Easter 6 (17.5.2020)
Things can’t go back to what they were: not for the disciples after what happened in the hours following the conversation in today’s Gospel; not for the Athenians who listened to Paul’s critique of their city’s religion twenty years later; not for us as some prepare for a return to work and all of us move on from this fragmented, online worship that has been our substitute for the Sunday Eucharist since early March. Things can’t go back to what they were.
For the disciples so many things were turned upside down by the events of that night and the three days that followed. Those who had been sure of themselves found that they were neither as brave, nor as loyal, as they had imagined. Those who had expected God to intervene decisively discovered that God’s intervention was not at all what they had anticipated. Nothing and nobody was where they had left off at the end of the supper. How could it be?
For Paul’s Athenian audience his insistence that there was one God “who made the world and everything in it… who is Lord of heaven and earth… [who] does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is… served by human hands” was revolutionary. They were used to a world in which many gods competed for human worship and could become angry and vindictive if they did not receive it – that’s the point of that altar “To an unknown god” which caught Paul’s attention. It was insurance against accidentally missing one. In such a setting Paul’s insistence that there was one God and that God could be known in Jesus, raised from the dead, was so revolutionary that for most of his hearers it was safer to mock him than to engage seriously with what he said, although a few did and became believers.
And for us – well, we can’t be sure what will happen in our daily lives but we are back together in this building as from Wednesday, and that will not be the same as it was before lock-down. If you’ve looked on the website or on the church’s Facebook page you will know how different things will have to be. No singing. No peace. No aperitivo after the service. Only the wafer at Communion. Wash hands before you come in. Keep at least a metre apart from everyone else. And wear your mascherine.
But beneath all this deeply unsettling change, for us, for the Athenians, for the disciples, there is one constant and that is God’s unchanging faithfulness in love. As Paul told the Athenians “[God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things”. God is the God of every nation, not bound to one people or place, unlike the pagan gods, who could be very territorial. God is indeed “not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”
Now beyond that general sense of God’s faithfulness, God’s care for creation and for human beings within the created order – beyond that there is the specific promise of Jesus in today’s Gospel. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” Beyond arrest, trial and crucifixion is the resurrection, and beyond resurrection there is the gift of the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” But, Jesus adds, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
Confident in that promise, and in the eternal reality of God’s faithfulness, we can learn to cope with change as we have learned to cope with lock-down, even though at times we may want to echo the accusing words of the Psalmist: “You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water.” But even that accusation is a reason for praising God, because the God who has proved us, who has tried us as silver is tried, is the same God who has “brought us out into a place of liberty”, so that we can join the Psalmist in saying “in truth God has heard me; he has heeded the voice of my prayer.”
Things can’t go back to what they were, but we can trust God to bring us out into a place of liberty. Things can’t go back to what they were, but we have Jesus’ promise, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Things can’t go back to what they were, but we can echo with confidence the words that ended our Psalm: “Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his loving mercy from me.”
Easter 5 (10.5.2020)
On Friday morning half a dozen of the clergy in Italy and Malta held an on-line meeting with Archdeacon David. It’s something we’re now doing each week, sharing our experience of life under lock-down, encouraging one another and thinking about where we go from here. On Friday we had a few items of good news to share. One of them was that Fr Russ Ruffino in Palermo has just become a grandfather for the first time – though he isn’t going to be able to see the baby any time soon, because his daughter and her partner live in Sweden. But probably the biggest news was that on Thursday the government in Rome came to an agreement with the Catholic Church about re-opening church buildings for public worship. This will be possible from Monday, 18th May – and it doesn’t apply only to the Catholic Church, but to all the Churches.
Now, some of you may be thinking “Great! Two more Sundays and everything will be just as it was!” Well, no. As with the good news that Fr Russ had to share, there were one or two snags. Vickie Sims, in Milan, had studied the text of the agreement and she spelled out what it means in practical terms. And what it means is that every congregation in Italy is going to have to do a lot – and I do mean a lot – of serious thinking about how it manages the return to Sunday worship. That’s because we are, as they say, not out of the wood yet. Corona-virus, Covid-19, whatever you like to call it, is still very much with us. There were no deaths at San Martino on Thursday for the first time in two months, but that day a dozen people died across the region, and there were 94 new cases. So we’re talking about masks, and social distancing, and sanitising, and no singing – apparently a rousing hymn is as good as a coughing fit for spreading infection – and there will have to be quite a few other changes from the way in which we have been used to doing things in the past. The wardens and I will be meeting on-line next week to do some serious thinking about what we do, and about when and how we do it. And we will do our best to keep everyone up-to-date with what is happening and when.
So, in such uncertain times as these, it’s good to be reminded of the opening words of Jesus from today’s gospel: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Things may not be going smoothly. In terms of our life together, and in terms of our lives as individuals they certainly aren’t going smoothly. Living with lock-down has been, and will continue to be, hard for many of us, but in the end – and that end may be a long way off still – in the end everything will be all right. It may not look like it from where you and I are sitting, but God still holds our lives and the lives of those who are dear to us enfolded in the unlimited, unconditional love which created the universe. In that love there is a place prepared for each one of us. So, do not let your hearts be troubled.
“Believe in God”. Some people, particularly unbelievers, try to treat believing in God as if it were the same as believing in fairies. It isn’t. To believe in God is not to believe things about God. To believe in God is to put our trust in God – whatever happens: whether things are going well, or badly, or disastrously. Jesus said these words on the night that he was handed over to suffering and death, the night when Judas would betray him, when Peter would deny him, and when all the other disciples would abandon him. Jesus knew all those things would happen and yet he still offered these words of encouragement.
“Believe in God, believe also in me.” Believe in Jesus because from Jesus we can read off what God is like. As he says to Philip later on in today’s gospel, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”. Believe in Jesus because he has lived the good news which he proclaimed. Believe in Jesus because he bears the scars of suffering, the suffering inflicted on him by human sin, by our self-centred fears and resentments, by our foolishness and pride. Jesus takes all that on himself and he transforms it: and he shows us how we can transform the suffering that we experience. By walking in his way, by living out his truth, we come to inhabit his life, to dwell in him as he dwells in the Father.
Easter 4 (3.5.2020)
Muslims sometimes talk about “the five pillars of Islam”, the five things that are central to their faith, the confession of faith, the daily prayers, the Ramadan Fast, alms-giving and the pilgrimage to Makkah. Today St Luke has described for us the four pillars of Christian life, they come at the beginning of our first reading this morning, when Luke describes how the earliest Christians lived: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” They learned from the people who had been closest to Jesus about his life and death and resurrection, and about what that meant for those who were setting out to follow his way.
“They devoted themselves to fellowship.” When they came together they didn’t just sit listening to the apostles and then go away again. They spent time in one another’s company. They shared experience, particularly experience of what God was doing in their lives.
“They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.” This could be, and many scholars think it is, a reference to the Eucharist, but when Luke uses this phrase elsewhere in Acts, including later in this reading, he means sharing meals more generally. However, shared meals were the setting in which the earliest Christians remembered the meal Jesus shared with his friends on the night that he was handed over. Shared meals were a reminder of that meal.
“They devoted themselves to the prayers.” In the setting of Jerusalem, that probably means the regular daily prayers in the temple. In the next chapter of Acts we read about Peter and John “going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.” Regular prayer, regular time set aside to be consciously with God, was important.
Now, for many of us it may feel as if those four “pillars” of Christian life have been knocked over by the restrictions which have limited our lives so severely during the past two months and which will continue to limit them, though not quite so severely, during the coming weeks. We can’t yet gather for worship – and when we do, it will probably feel very different from what we used to do before the virus hit Genova. The wardens and I have received a letter for the Bishops with a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for congregations as they come out of lock-down. We will be sharing them with you when once we have worked out which apply in our case and how best to handle them. In the mean time, here are four things that we can do during lock-down to prop up those “four pillars of Christian life” until we can come together to set them once more on a firm foundation.
First, “the apostles’ teaching”. Read your Bible each day, especially the New Testament. If you don’t have a Bible, use your smartphone to download one of the free Bible apps available online. The Bible we use in church is the New Revised Standard Version, NRSV for short.
Next comes “fellowship”. That’s probably the most difficult to create under lock-down, but again, if you have a phone, use it to keep in touch with friends, to find out how they are doing. I’ve been touched by the number of people who have phoned or emailed or messaged me during these past weeks to let me know how they are and to ask how I’m managing.
What about “the breaking of bread”? Well, at the bishops’ request we no longer suggest sharing bread and wine during our services on Facebook, but there is nothing to stop you from sharing food afterwards as a sign of the unity which is ours in Christ. In the Eastern Churches they do this by giving special blessed bread to everyone at the end of the Liturgy.
Finally, “the prayers”, the easiest, and at the same time the hardest thing. Make some space, wherever you can find it. Make some time to sit quietly before God, to bring to God your needs and concerns, people you love, people and situations you worry about. Tell God what is in your heart and on your mind – and leave silence to listen for God speaking to you.
And in all that you do, find things for which you can be thankful: the sight of some blue sky, sunlight dancing on the sea, the sound of a bird singing, good news of family or friends, whether here or far away, an enjoyable meal, a goal you’ve achieved – even something as simple as sweeping out a room. All of these things will help you to develop a “glad and generous heart” and will spill over into the praise of God, who brings abundant life in Christ and joyful hope out of lock-down and pandemic.
Easter 3 (26.4.2020)
When we start reading the New Testament seriously, one of the things we discover is how very differently the first Christians did things. Today, when people ask about baptism, whether for themselves or for their children, most churches offer some sort of detailed, careful preparation. It’s all very different from the baptisms described in our first reading this morning. No careful preparation there. Just one powerful sermon from Peter, words that cut his hearers to the heart, St Luke tells us, and a huge and immediate response which resulted in the mass baptism of about three thousand people.
It is very different from what we expect nowadays, but there is one thing that remains the same. Peter tells the crowds in Jerusalem: “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” That applies to us, here, now, just as it did to them then. “The promise is for you, for your children.”
So what is that promise? It’s the promise of life; life lived in a new dimension. That’s what Peter means when he talks about “the gift of the Holy Spirit”. He isn’t promising the crowds “pie in the sky when you die”. He’s offering them a new start now – a new start, with every past failure washed away in the water of baptism, a new start living in the love and mercy of God, a new start walking in the way of God. “The promise is for you, for your children.”
It’s a promise of life and hope in this pandemic-afflicted world. It’s a promise that, however bad things may seem, they are never beyond the power of God to hold and heal and transform. Think of those two disciples in this morning’s gospel, trudging home to Emmaus after a desperate week in the big city. It had all started so well. They had watched Jesus of Nazareth, somebody they recognised as very special – watched him enter the city amid cheering crowds, challenging the foreign army of occupation, challenging the corrupt leaders of his own people. And a few days later they had watched that foreign army, and their own leaders, crush him.
They had watched how “how [their] chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.” They had watched him stumble through the city, carrying his cross to the place of execution. They had watched him die and seen the soldiers make sure that he was dead. So there’s real despair in their words: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” – hoped that Jesus would bring his people freedom and a future.
And the stranger to whom they are telling this story listens and waits until they have finished their tale of disappointment and confusion. Then he shows them how it all fits the way that people have seen God at work down the ages. There’s a pattern of bringing life out of darkness, hope out of death and despair. What happened to Jesus is no different. God is in all the pain of the world as well as in its glory, in the restrictions of lock-down, in the worry of being laid off, in the struggle to save lives in the ITU of San Martino or the Evangelico. God opens up all kinds of possibilities when everything seems closed down, hopeless, dead.
Such is the promise which God makes to us this morning, the same promise that was made to the crowd in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago: that however life may turn out, God will never abandon us. The risen Jesus is alongside us as he was alongside Cleopas and his companion, even though we may not recognise him any more than they did. He is with us to bear our burdens of sorrow and suffering, our fears, our sense of failure. He is with us to share our joys and to share with us his life, which is the life of God. The risen Jesus still comes to us unrecognised. He is still alongside us in the desolation and limitation of lock-down, in our anxiety about family and friends, showing us the pattern of how God works in the world.
And he makes himself known as our living Lord today. He makes himself known in the words of the Bible and in the breaking of the bread, whether it’s at the home of friends in Emmaus, or on YouTube in Genova. “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter 2 (19.4.2020)
On the first Easter Day the disciples were, like us, in lock-down. In our case it is fear of spreading corona-virus even further which keeps us behind closed doors. In their case it was fear of being arrested by the Jewish authorities. In either case, the consequences of breaking lock-down could be fatal. But in both cases lock-down has damaging consequences. It can act as an echo-chamber, amplifying fear. It can cut us off from our support networks, from friends and family, from the people with whom we work, from the faith community to which we belong. For some of us it might feel very much as if we, rather than Jesus, are in the tomb, with the stone rolled firmly across the door and no very clear indication of when it might be rolled away.
It’s into that situation that the risen Jesus comes. All the resurrection appearances in the three Gospels which record resurrection appearances happen to small groups of people, grieving people, damaged people, some of them horribly aware that in these last days they had come to the time of trial and in one way or another had been found wanting. What will he say to them? Luke and John are unanimous. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” “Peace”, to this group of fearful, anxious, hopeless people. And “peace” in such a setting means rather more than “Stop panicking”. “Peace” in such a setting means “Trust me. Everything will be all right.”
And he shows them the reason why everything will be all right. He showed them his hands and his side. The risen Christ still bears the wounds of the crucified Jesus. The resurrection is not a going back to when everything was fine. There is no pretending that the recent past hasn’t happened, no wiping away all the pain and the sense of failure as if they don’t matter – or as if Jesus has now become detached from the rest of humanity. Those wounds are his credentials. They are the permanent, the eternal, reminder that God is in it with us, in all the mess, the darkness, the lock-down, the fear, the hatred, the violence and the sorrow.
God is in it with us. However far we fall, however badly we fail, however much we suffer, God is there, holding us with the wounded hands of Christ. Even when we doubt or despair, God does not give up on us – ask Thomas. He demanded what he thought was impossible, and it was given to him. “‘Put your finger here and see my hands,’ said Jesus. ‘Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” “Trust me. Everything will be all right.”
“Everything will be all right.” But that doesn’t mean we can bypass all the problems of being human, and particularly not the problems of being human at a time like this, when we, or people we know, are suffering, or sorrowing, when they are going hungry, or worried about how long they can keep a roof over their head. The resurrection didn’t suddenly make everything all right, so that we can all live happily ever after. If we are serious about following Jesus, we have to be prepared to accept our cross – and to help others carry theirs.
Now, we cannot do that in our own strength. We can do it only if we are held in the peace of the risen Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. At the present time that means being patient, probably more patient than any of us finds comfortable. It means following the advice of Abba Moses, a reformed African gangster, a violent criminal who became one of the greatest and gentlest of the fourth-century Desert Fathers. A monk came to visit Abba Moses and asked him for “a word” (that is, a saying that would bring him closer to God). Moses said “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” In other words, “Don’t go wandering about in search of advice from another human being. Let God speak to you where you are.” That’s a word for us, if we are able to accept it. Let the restrictions of this present time become an opportunity to draw closer to God. Let God speak to you where you are, in all the frustration and the longing to be up and doing, in all the fear and anxiety which surround corona-virus. Learn to be still, and in that stillness you will hear the risen Christ saying to you, “Peace be with you.” Trust him. Everything will be all right.
Easter Day (12.4.2020)
One spring day, when I was a student, great offence was caused in the community when one of the more earnest members of what we used to call “the God squad” went up to one of the less earnest members and greeted him with the words “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”, only to be rebuffed with a blank look and the question “What the hell does that mean?”
It’s a question some of us may well be asking this morning as we face up to the reality of another three weeks of lock-down – and at this time of year above all others! What does it mean to say “Alleluia!, Christ is risen!” when it feels very much as if we are still in the tomb of lock-down, when people are still dying, and when many of us are sharing the sorrow of Lis and her family as they come to terms with Giancarlo’s sudden death on Friday – and with the implications of the renewed restrictions for the way in which they will be allowed to mark his passing? No bringing his body home. No farewells. No gathering of family, friends and neighbours for a funeral mass at the church in Boccadasse.
There are no easy answers. But then, there never were. Even in Matthew’s account of the resurrection, which plays down the shock and horror of the two Maries when they find the tomb empty and which plays up the sense that God is in control – with the angel rolling back the stone and sitting on it in their presence – even in Matthew’s account the angel frightens the guards into a dead faint and has to tell the women not to be afraid. But they are still filled with fear as well as great joy as they run to tell the disciples what they have seen. The resurrection is not a conventional “happy ending”. It is a story of transformation. Those women who hurry off “with fear and great joy” are transformed from the women who had sat in sorrow opposite the tomb two evenings earlier as Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body to rest.
There’s transformation, too, in our first reading. St Paul reminds the Christian communities in Rome that the resurrection of Jesus does not only transform him, “raised from the dead by the glory of the Father”; it also transforms those who believe, “so we too might walk in newness of life.” We walk, in other words, out of our own small story, the story of which we are the centre, into God’s big story, the story of a love so amazing that, as Isaac Watts recognised, it demands “my soul, my life, my all”, that total reorientation of our values and out attitudes which comes when we accept the uncomfortable truth that “your life is not about you”.
Once we have grasped that, truly grasped it, in our heart and our gut, not only in our head, then a new world becomes possible. Many years ago, Bishop John Taylor described to a gathering of young people in St Albans how he had recently visited Bedford Gaol to confirm a group of prisoners, men under lock-down for the crimes which they had committed. But despite the patrolling prison officers, the barred windows and the security doors, they told Bishop John that they had at last found freedom, a freedom in Christ which had liberated them from the compulsions and addictions which had brought them to that place of imprisonment. Their old self had, indeed, been crucified with Christ so that, even though they were behind bars, they were free.
A year or two earlier another Bishop, Desmond Tutu, had written these words at the height of the struggle against the permanent lock-down of black people that was the apartheid system:
“Nothing could have been deader than Jesus on the cross on that first Good Friday. And the hopes of his disciples had appeared to die with this crucifixion. Nothing could have been deeper than the despair of his disciples when they saw their Master hanging on the cross like a common criminal. The darkness that covered the earth for three hours during that Friday symbolised the blackness of their despair.
“And then Easter happened. Jesus rose from the dead. The incredible, the unexpected happened. Life triumphed over death, light over darkness, love over hatred, good over evil. That is what Easter means – hope prevails over despair. Jesus reigns as Lord of lords and King of kings… Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, his will for us will prevail, love will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness.”
Barely ten years after he wrote those words the apartheid system was dead and buried and Nelson Mandela was president of a re-born South Africa, the “rainbow nation” to which Desmond Tutu, by now Archbishop of Cape Town, wrote these words of encouragement:
“Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.”
So for us, in a nation beset by pandemic, a land locked down, a community in mourning, the risen Christ comes bringing freedom and hope and joy. “Victory is ours, through him who loves us.” His word to the women, the angel’s word to the women, is also his word to us. “Do not be afraid.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Palm Sunday (5.4.2020)
Despite the bright spring weather, we continue to live in dark and dangerous times. All round the world, people are suffering and dying. All round the world, Christians are not meeting to remember the death and resurrection of their Lord. Here in Italy there are worrying signs that the bonds of solidarity which have sustained us since the beginning of last month are beginning to fray, as work dries up, money runs out, and there’s no food on the table.
Just now, as we heard the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, we were reminded how quickly the bonds of solidarity frayed, and broke, in the last week of his life. Judas’s betrays him. The disciples desert him. Peter denies him. Add to that the hostility of the crowd and the mockery coming not only from those with power, the soldiers, the religious and civil leaders, but also from those sharing the same sentence of death. Jesus is as isolated in his dying as any patient struggling for breath on a ventilator in San Martino.
And we remember that crucifixion works in a very similar way to the corona-virus, depriving its victim of the ability to breathe. Jesus, and the two bandits alongside him, will self-asphyxiate as the weight of their body, sagging from their outstretched arms, prevents them from expanding their lungs in order to inhale. They can try to lever themselves upright, until the pain from ankles shattered by the piercing nails forces them to drop down again. And in the end body-weight will win. That grim parallel is yet one more reminder that in all the darkness, the desolation, the despair, the dying, God is in it with us.
God is in it with us. There is no situation so desperate, so unendurable, that God’s gaze of love will turn away from it, no abyss so deep that, however far we fall, those outstretched arms cannot catch us. Not even the devouring depths of hell can be barred against the self-giving, suffering love of the Christ who, for our sake, “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”
Fifth Sunday in Lent (29.3.2020)
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” How many families around the world, I wonder, not just China or Italy, or Britain, or Spain, or the USA – how many families are echoing those words of Martha and Mary? They might not be addressing them to Jesus as the two sisters did. They might be addressing them to a government, or a department of health, or a hospital administration. “If those testing kits had been here…” or “If that protective clothing had been here…” then brothers or sisters, parents, friends, colleagues would not have died. There were more than nine hundred new deaths in this country on Friday; the biggest total for a single day anywhere in the world so far.
So many people in mourning. So many people crying from out of the depths, like the Psalmist. “Lord, hear my voice.” So many people echoing Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother (or sister, or mother, or father, or child) would not have died.” And those who mourn today, unlike Martha and Mary, cannot have the comfort of neighbours, friends, kinsfolk coming, whether from down the street or from a distance, to pay their condolences, to offer the support of their presence in a time of loss and sorrow. Nor can they gather together to offer prayer, whether at the bedside of the dying, or in church or at the graveside.
But the Lord is here. He is present in the healing activity of the doctors and the care of the nursing staff, in the faithful commitment of paramedics and ancillary workers, all those who knowingly put themselves in the line of danger in order to save, if possible, the lives of others and in order to keep going the vital work of treatment and care. He is here, too, in the loneliness of the ITU and the struggle to breathe, in the tears of family and friends. Jesus weeps now, as he wept then, because he is love. He weeps with the bereaved. He also weeps at the human thoughtlessness, the complacency, the deafness to warnings – all those self-centred, uncaring attitudes that St Paul sums up as “the flesh”, and which have made this crisis so much worse than it need have been. “To set the mind on the flesh” is indeed death.
And yet, as the Gospels remind us again and again, death does not have the last word. Suffering and pain do not have the last word. God’s offer is life and peace, a life and peace secured by the one who raised Lazarus from the dead and who was himself raised from death – not, like Lazarus, to complete his earthly course and die again – but to the life of the Godhead. Faith, in other words total trust, in Jesus, the resurrection and the life, opens the way to a life that the death of our physical bodies cannot stop, because it is the life of God.
Now, that kind of trust can be seen in two people in today’s Gospel. It can be seen, blazing, in Martha’s declaration “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”. It’s there, too, in what she says after her half-reproach to Jesus for not arriving while Lazarus was still alive, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” It can also be seen, earlier in the story, in one of the disciples. While the others are trying desperately to dissuade Jesus from returning across the Jordan into Judaea, Thomas, the Twin, simply says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
There, in a nutshell, is the essence of discipleship. “Follow Jesus and die.” There’s a parish in England which adopted those words as its mission statement. It’s a good motto for us, too, in this time of pandemic – not in the sense of behaving stupidly, putting ourselves and other people in danger, but in the sense of letting God put to death in us “the things of the flesh”, what the old Prayer Book calls “the devices and desires of our own hearts”. They imprison us far more securely than any government restrictions, more securely than Lazarus’s grave-cloths. In his own good time Jesus will call us out of the tomb that has been dug for us by fear and foolishness and pride – our own and other people’s. Until then, with the Psalmist, we wait for the Lord; placing our hope in his word. “For with the Lord there is mercy; with him is plenteous redemption and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.”
Mothering Sunday (22.3.2020)
The whole of Lent so far has been strange as we have wandered through this corona-virus wilderness, but today is probably the strangest day. Mothering Sunday is supposed to be about posies and simnel cake and saying thank you to all the mums in church. But all the mums, like everyone else in Italy – and pretty well every other country in Europe – are self-isolating. The florists’ shops are all closed by government order. Sorry about that.
On second thoughts, though, is it that strange? Our readings this morning remind us that being a mother is not all posies and cake. It includes suffering and loss and letting go. We can see that in what happened to the Levite woman in our first reading. The background to that story is grim. It’s about attempted genocide by the Egyptians against the descendants of Israel. The Egyptians were worried. Their king had told them, “The Israelite people are more numerous and powerful than we.” So the Egyptians put Israelites to forced labour. But that didn’t kill them off. Then the king tried to bully the Hebrew midwives into killing all the male children born in their communities. But the midwives outsmarted the king. So the king issued an order that baby boys were to be thrown into the river Nile. And that’s where the Levite woman comes into the story.
She and her husband had a baby boy. He must have been at least their third child because, as we shall see, he had an older sister and, as becomes clear a lot later in the story, an older brother as well. And he was gorgeous, “a fine baby”. So his mother didn’t throw him in the Nile as the king had commanded. She hid him for three months. But as he grew bigger he couldn’t be hidden any longer and she decided that the baby had to go into the river. But to give this fine baby a chance to live, his mother didn’t just throw him into the water as the king had commanded. She made a reed basket into a little boat and placed it in one of the reed-beds on the edge of the river where someone, a fisherman, perhaps, or one of the river boatmen, might find the child and take pity on him.
Well, as we heard in our reading, it wasn’t a fisherman who found him. It was Pharaoh’s daughter. It was the daughter of the king who had given the order for the death of that baby, and many others. She saw the child and sent one of her maids to take him out of the water. And like those midwives earlier in the story, Pharaoh’s daughter outsmarted the king, her own father. She took the child even though she recognised that he was “one of the Hebrews’ children”. And thanks to a brilliant piece of work by the baby’s big sister, he was given back to his mother to be nursed. A happy ending? Well, not exactly. Think about it for a moment.
The Levite woman had given up her son. Now to her great joy she had received him back, but she knew she couldn’t keep him. One day she would have to hand him back to the daughter of the great enemy of her people, to be brought up among their oppressors. That really is a loss and a letting go. So too is Mary’s in this morning’s Gospel. She was one of the little group of women standing near the cross of her son, watching and waiting as his battered and bleeding body drew closer to death. Painters and sculptors, poets and musicians have for centuries tried to imagine what it must have been like to be her, of all women, to be there, of all places.
In our world today, there are thousands, millions of women, who have experienced something of what the two women in today’s readings experienced: women who live in war zones; women whose lives have been devastated by natural disaster; women who have survived epidemics that their children didn’t. They know what it is to suffer and lose and let go. And it isn’t just mothers who have lived in extreme situations. Every mother, to one degree or another, knows the pain of letting go, when a child starts school, or goes away to work or to study, or finally moves out of the family home. That experience of loss is honoured by God, who also knows the pain of letting go, as the children of God’s love go their own way, turning their backs on brothers and sisters, crucifying the Son of God afresh. But God, like the Levite woman, waits patiently to receive us back, to nurture us to maturity in Christ.
Third Sunday in Lent (15.3.2020)
Two weeks ago I shared my memories of a group of students fifty years since journeying along the edge of the great Iranian desert, the Dasht-e Kavir. On our way to Iran we spent a couple of nights in the Turkish town of Doğubayazıt. It was, to say the least, an interesting experience. Doğubayazıt stands on a plain, surrounded by some of Turkey’s highest mountains, including Mount Ararat, but despite that, unlike Genoa, it sees very little rain. The hills around are bleak, barren and brown. We were told at the hotel where we stayed that the town had running water for two hours each day. On the basis of our experience, we decided that those two hours must be between two and four in the morning.
It was a sharp reminder to people who take water for granted – you turn on the tap in Italy and there it is – a sharp reminder that in some parts of the world water is very scarce and very precious. We were able to survive on bottles of Coca Cola and of a Turkish orange drink called Yedigün. The Israelites in the desert didn’t have that option when, early on in their travels, they pitched camp at Rephidim but found that there was no well, no spring, stream or pool to provide them with a drink and to water their livestock. So, understandably, they had a go at the man who had brought them there. “The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” And when he tried to fob them off they became angry, complained that he was trying to kill them, and threatened him with violence, until God intervened at Moses’ prayer and provided them with water from the rock.
It’s a slightly different scenario in today’s Gospel. This isn’t set in the desert. This is in town – or at least on the edge of a town; Sychar, “a Samaritan city” according to St John, a town which took pride in its ancient well, linked with the patriarch Jacob. But despite these differences, the story John tells, like the story in our first reading, is still a story about thirst and how it was quenched.
Or rather, it’s a story about two thirsts.
It starts off as a story about the physical thirst of Jesus and the tiredness which made him sit down by the well while the disciples went off in search of food. Then a woman comes out of the city to draw water. Now, that’s very odd. The time for collecting the day’s supply of water is early in the morning and John pointedly tells us that this was midday. It looks as if this woman who, as we discover, had a rather colourful marital history might have been trying to avoid the other women who would have gathered there early in the morning to draw water and to gossip – quite possibly about her. That’s when we discover that this story is about another thirst, not a physical thirst, but this Samaritan woman’s spiritual thirst for some sort of meaning in her life, for a reality and a truth which she has not found in her varied relationships nor in the centuries-old stand-off between Jews and Samaritans. She wants – though at first she doesn’t quite understand what she wants – she wants the water that Jesus will give, the water which will become “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”.
For us, in this season of Lent which has been so badly disrupted by the corona-virus pandemic, it is easy to complain about the people who have brought us to this point. We may well be feeling tired and defeated, or even panic-stricken and overwrought, as the figures for new cases continue to climb, not only in Italy but across Europe. Those feelings may be made worse by the fact that at present there can be no physical gathering of “church “to encourage and sustain us. But by God’s grace we live in the age of social media, often criticised for their negative aspects but enabling us to live in connection with one another even when we cannot look on one another’s faces. That is what we are doing now through this virtual Eucharist, and through the various means which are appearing each day on our Facebook page, on the church website and through the various WhatsApp groups and networks to which we belong. And as we connect with one another we also connect with Christ who gives us the living water in which our deepest thirst is satisfied.
Second Sunday in Lent (8.3.2020)
First Sunday in Lent (1.3.2020)
Sunday next before Lent (23.2.2020)
Last week I had to go back to the UK for a couple of days. Someone who had been a key figure both in my congregation in High Wycombe and in the wider community had died and I was asked to take her funeral. It was a quick visit, so I was travelling light, taking with me not much more than my robes for the service and a change of clothing.
On Wednesday, Lent begins. Lent is the time of year for all of us to travel light. The fasting, self-examination, and works of mercy which are the hall-mark of the next six weeks are not about showing how holy we are but about helping us to get rid of clutter and draw near to God. Lent is a time for dropping all the excess baggage which weighs us down as we follow Moses and Elijah and Jesus up the mountain. It’s a time – the time – to focus on the essentials of our Christian life and to cut out the background noise which prevents us from hearing those three words spoken by the voice from the cloud in today’s gospel: “Listen to him.”
“Listen to him.” Those words put us, and all who follow Jesus, on the spot. Who do we listen to? What “mood music” do we pick up in these distracted times? There are so many different voices competing for our attention and our allegiance that it can be far from easy to discern the voice of Jesus our Lord. The blare of the news headlines, the blast of the front page, the booming echo-chamber of social media, the chatter of friends, all threaten to drown out the voice of Christ. So let’s stand back for a moment and think what it might mean to use the coming weeks of Lent to listen to God’s Son, “the Beloved, with whom [God is] well pleased”. Let’s think what it means for us, here, now, in Genova in spring 2020, to encounter God, not in the mountains which surround this city, but in the depths of our heart.
I’d suggest that we listen for Jesus in the obvious places: in the words of Scripture and in the silence of our prayer. Follow a daily programme of Bible reading. I know some people do that already. If you’re used to using the internet, you can log on to the Church of England website and share in the daily pattern on offer there. The Jesuits also have a good resource. Serious engagement with the Bible day by day is an important way of listening to God, letting God cut through the “noise” of everyday life, to encourage us, to challenge us, and to transform us.
That is best done within the framework of regular prayer, and when I talk about prayer, I don’t mean simply filling God’s ears with a shopping list of wants and wishes – whether for ourselves or for other people. When I talk about prayer, I mean that encounter in which we are truly open to God’s transforming love, “entering the cloud” where God speaks to us at the deepest level of our being. Like Moses in our first reading, we have to go up into the mountain, and into the cloud; and that journey can take a very long time. There are no quick fixes, no buttons we can press to make God “answer our prayers”.
During the coming weeks there will be events to help us listen to Jesus. At midday on Wednesdays in March we shall look at how each of the Gospels tells the story of his suffering and death. Each Thursday between now and the beginning of Holy Week the church will be open from the beginning of morning prayer at 9.30 a.m. until the end of evening prayer around 6.00 p.m. for people to drop in and spend time consciously in God’s presence. There will be resources to help us to pray. There will be things to do, pictures to ponder, books to browse through, ideas to explore. But the most important thing is simply to be there, like the Peter, James and John in this morning’s Gospel, not trying to tell God what to do, not trying to build things in our own strength, but simply listening to what God says to us through the Beloved.
On Wednesday, as we set out once more into the wilderness of Lent, we may find ourselves in that cloud which an English priest 600 years ago called “the cloud of unknowing”. As we enter into it, as we listen out for the Lord, may we find him saying to us, as he did to Peter, James and John, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And may we know his presence transforming our lives with the bright light of his glory.
The original Italian text of the sermon preached at the United Service on the Second Sunday before Lent (16th February 2020).
La scelta di celebrare congiuntamente questo culto proprio oggi non è stata casuale. Domani è il 17 febbraio e molti tra voi sanno che si ricorda un momento importante della storia e per la storia della chiesa valdese: nel 1848, il 17 febbraio, i valdesi videro riconosciuti anche per loro dei basilari diritti civili fino a quel momento negati. E questa data – questo il senso del culto congiunto in questo giorno – non è importante solo per i valdesi, ma per noi protestanti tutti, in un Paese che spesso ancora oggi ci considera, almeno in parte, corpo estraneo.
3rd Sunday before Lent (9.2.2020)
Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2.2.2020)
Christmastide ends today. The tree and the greenery were taken down three weeks ago. The crib will be dismantled, perhaps later today, certainly before next Sunday. The colour of the altar-cloth will change tomorrow from the white of Christmastide to the green of what our Catholic neighbours call “ordinary time”. After today Peter will take a break from stoking up the incense until we come to Easter in ten weeks’ time. It’s a time of change. We’re on the threshold of something new – in the church, as in political life across Europe.
It was a time of change for Mary and Joseph in this morning’s Gospel, as well. Six weeks after her child’s birth Mary can resume her place in the wider community outside the family home. At the same time Joseph will make the offering that redeems, that pays for, the life of a first-born male child. Because he is a poor man, Joseph doesn’t take the usual lamb to the temple to be sacrificed. He offers two turtle-doves, or young pigeons, instead. So far, so very normal – as St Luke emphasises by reminding us twice in as many verses that what Mary and Joseph are doing is “as it is written in the law of the Lord.”
Then suddenly it isn’t. Suddenly it’s anything but normal. Two people, a man and a woman, totally unconnected, detach themselves from the crowds of worshippers and sight-seers visiting the temple and head straight for this young couple and their six-week-old child. And, while the man takes hold of the baby and starts saying some quite amazing things about him, the woman starts buttonholing the other people in the temple and telling them how special he is. She, by the way, is ancient in first-century terms. In a world where medical care was very basic it was only, as the Psalmist said, “by reason of strength” that people made it into their eighties. But Anna was not only old; she was also recognisably a devout and holy woman. “She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.”
Luke tells us very little about what Anna said to the people she met. He doesn’t need to. Simeon’s words tell us all we need to know about how special this six-week-old baby is. Simeon’s song speaks of his own coming death, of God’s salvation, of light and glory, picking up themes, and echoing words, from the songs sung by Zechariah and Mary in the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel. God is present in the midst of his people. God is acting here and now. The promises of old are being fulfilled. All of this is “according to [God’s] word.” Which is why, for Christians, Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple has long been linked with the prophecy of Malachi which we heard a few minutes ago. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”
Now, for Malachi, that coming is distinctly double-edged. God’s holiness, God’s justice, will make his coming unendurable for human wrong-doers. People who use hidden power to manipulate others, people who play havoc with human relationships, people who distort or pervert the truth, people who exploit the poor and the powerless, who reject the stranger in their midst; all of them are still around – and sometimes in positions of high authority. Even though they may not fear God, they are all under God’s judgement. So are we, when we misuse our power (and all of us have the ability to help or harm). So are we when we undermine relationships, when we twist words, when we abuse or exploit or harm others. We too will feel the force of that refining fire. We too will go through the wringer of judgement.
But God’s judgement is the judgement of love. The child who gives flesh and bone to God’s salvation does not kill; he gives life. In time he will give his own life, piercing his mother’s heart with the sword of sorrow, so that the light of God’s love may be revealed to all peoples. We will fall before the infinite goodness of God, but by God’s infinite mercy we will rise. For, like Simeon, we have seen God’s salvation in the Christ who changes lives as he comes to his temple, not as a six-week-old baby, but in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
Conversion of St Paul (26.1.2020 – transferred)
Who is this Jesus? Last Sunday we heard how Andrew and his fellow-disciple were invited to “Come and see”, to spend time with Jesus and find out where he was staying, or abiding, or remaining. Today we have heard the story of a fiery young rabbi from one of the Greek-speaking communities in what is now southern Turkey whose view of Jesus was very different. He would not “come and see”, thank you very much, because he was convinced that Jesus was a man who had led the Jewish people astray and that he was cursed by God. The Law of Moses, after all, laid down that those who were put to death by “hanging from a tree” (a definition which included crucifixion) were under God’s curse. He was also convinced that the tiny groups of disciples who followed the teaching of Jesus must be hounded to destruction, not just in the Jewish heartlands of Jerusalem and Judea, but wherever they were to be found disturbing the good order of Jewish communities in the Roman province of Syria.
Saul, you see, stood for clear, firm borders around the chosen people of God, defining who was “in” and who was “out”. He stood for lives lived in accordance with the Law of Moses, for purity of conduct in every aspect of life, which meant behaviour that marked Jewish people out from the rest of the ancient world as sharply as did their avoidance of pig-meat, their refusal to work on the seventh day of the week and their practice of mutilating their male children. And in Saul’s eyes, the followers of Jesus were a threat to this purity, because of their openness to individuals, and indeed whole groups of people, whom strict Pharisees like Saul would cross the road to avoid.
So, there was Saul on his way to Damascus with authority to root out these disturbers of the peace in the Jewish community there, to arrest them and take them back to face the religious courts in Jerusalem. That was when he had the experience that was to turn his life upside down. It’s one of those stories in the Acts of the Apostles that St Luke tells three times, because in Luke’s eyes it was of so very important, like the story of Peter’s visit to the Roman officer Cornelius in Acts 10, which gets the same treatment.
Saul has an experience of the risen Jesus, Christ in glory, a vision which so disturbs him that he loses the ability to see. That vision disturbs Saul because it reveals to him that God has vindicated a crucified man. Jesus revealed in the blinding light of God’s glory is very definitely not under God’s curse. That vision turns Saul from being a fierce opponent of those who followed the way of Jesus into being an advocate who argues powerfully for that way. Rabbi Saul of Tarsus is on his way to becoming St Paul the Apostle.
As God reveals to Ananias, Saul is to be “an instrument whom [God has] chosen to bring [God’s] name before Gentiles and kings.” So, in a sense, when we celebrate the “conversion of St Paul” we are celebrating the fact that we are here this morning, that because of Paul, and all those others down the centuries who have “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for [Jesus’] name’s sake” – because of them the good news of Jesus has been preached not just in Israel and Palestine, not just in Roman Syria, but across Europe and Africa and Asia and the Americas, from Japan to Johannesburg – and beyond.
Today, as we thank God for a life turned upside down nearly two thousand years ago, we thank God also for a life that has only recently begun. Fumiko Anna arrived in this world in the small hours of 24th November last year, the Feast of Christ the King. In a few minutes’ we shall ask God’s blessing on her, on Hanako and Claudio her parents, and on Kenjiro, her big brother. And we pray that as she grows she will come to know Christ the King as the guiding presence in her life, perhaps not revealed in the blinding light that overtook St Paul on the road to Damascus, but in the love and mercy that she receives from Christ through the members of her family, the constant renewal in faith and forgiveness which is our shared Christian experience. We pray, too, that when she comes to baptism her eyes may be opened to the wonder and beauty of God’s creation and that she may be filled with the Holy Spirit to carry out whatever task God has appointed for her.
Epiphany 2 (19.1.2020)
When people think of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, they tend to focus on the very beginning. That’s not surprising. The beginning of John’s Gospel is something we hear every year at Christmas, whether as the Gospel on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or as the last of the Nine Lessons in the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”.
But if we want to know what St John’s Gospel is actually about, we need to move past the prologue and further into that first chapter, to the passage we heard just now. It begins with a quick recap of “the story so far – or at least the story we heard last Sunday, with John the Baptist telling his disciples that Jesus is the one for whom John’s preaching prepared the way, the one on whom the Spirit descended from heaven like a dove, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and who will be sacrificed because of human sin. But John’s testimony to Jesus moves us on quickly to a new situation, because the two disciples who heard what John had to say about Jesus decided to find out about him for themselves. “They heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus”. And the rest of the chapter is about what happened next.
Now, John never tells a story just because it happened. None of the gospel-writers do. They tell stories which tell us something about who Jesus is or about what it means to be a disciple. And the passage we heard just now does both these things, although in one important respect it sets a timer ticking rather than telling us straight out.
The timer starts ticking when John’s disciples ask Jesus “Where are you staying?” Now, on one level, that’s a question we might ask of anyone we meet for the first time. When we are introduced to someone who’s just moved to Genoa, or who is studying here, or on holiday, the natural question to ask is “Where are you staying?” Jesus doesn’t answer, he simply says “Come and see”. So they do. “They came and saw where he was staying and remained with him that day.”
So where is Jesus staying? We don’t find out the whole answer until we get to chapter 15, which describes the talk around the table at the Last Supper. That is when Jesus tells all the disciples – except Judas Iscariot, who has already left – that is when he tells the disciples “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” That is where Jesus is staying – the Greek word St John uses is the same there as in chapter one, where it is translated “stay” and “remain”. “Stay”, “remain” and “abide” are all the same word in Greek, but in English versions of the Bible it is usually translated differently. Jesus is staying, remaining, abiding in the Father’s love – and if we stay with him, like Andrew and the other unnamed disciple, so do we. That’s central to John’s message.
So what does it mean for us to stay with Jesus? First of all it means listening to Jesus, listening to what he says, which may not what always be what the preacher says he says, and not drowning his voice out with our own words. It means reading the Gospels slowly and prayerfully, letting the words sink in, reflecting on which, if any, have a particular impact on us, and why. It means spending time with him in prayer – and again that sometimes means keeping our words to a minimum. A bishop I know is fond of talking about prayer being like basking in God’s presence, like a sunbather basking in the warmth and glow of the sun. Staying with Jesus also means sharing his life, the life he offers us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, “feeding on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving”, as the old Prayer Book says.
But it doesn’t stop there. Andrew and the other disciple “remained with [Jesus] that day”, but they didn’t leave it at that – at least, Andrew didn’t. “He first found his brother Simon… [and] brought Simon to Jesus.” Jesus is Good News (capital G, capital N) and good news is something to be shared. That is our calling: by our words and our actions to share the good news of Jesus, not by beating others over the head with it, but by living his commandments, living in love and peace with all, showing in our lives the attractiveness of Jesus so that others may also want to “come and see” and that, in the prophet’s words, “[God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth”.
Baptism of Christ/Epiphany 1 (12.1.2020)
It is nearly six months since Bishop David’s most recent visit to Genova: which means that it’s nearly six months since five adults and one child were baptised, and all the adults (with two others) confirmed, in this church. So it’s a good time for us to be thinking about today’s two readings, which talk about the baptism of Jesus and how God, as St Luke writes “anointed [him] with the Holy Spirit and with power. It’s a good time to do that because the message for those seven adults, and for young Michelle, on the day of their baptism and confirmation is the same message that was delivered by that voice from heaven at the end of today’s gospel reading: “This is my Son (or my daughter), the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It’s the same message, because by his death and resurrection Jesus has not only won for us forgiveness of sins through his name; he has also made us his brothers and sisters, baptised, as St Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome – baptised into his death so that we might be raised to newness of life. That’s newness of life now, not after we’re dead. We are God’s children, his beloved, now: not because of anything we have done; not because we’re special; not because we deserve it: but simply because God loves us, loves us so much that in Jesus God has shared human life from its very beginning to its bitter, painful end, from the womb to the tomb, in order that we may share God’s life eternally.
There are many powerful pictures in the New Testament which try to explain what the community of Christians is: a royal priesthood; a living temple; the flock of Christ – like the sheep in the mosaic above the altar. Or we could see ourselves as branches of the true vine; as God’s field, planted and waiting for harvest; as God’s building. All of those are important and helpful pictures, but one that speaks very powerfully to many Christians is St Paul’s picture of the Church as the body of Christ, working together for the sake of God’s kingdom, collectively “the Beloved, with whom [God is] well pleased,” continuing the work of Jesus here and now.
So what is “the work of Jesus”? How do we, like Jesus and John the Baptist, “fulfil all righteousness?” How do we work out the meaning of our anointing “with the Holy Spirit and with power”, that newness of life which is ours through our baptism and confirmation? Well, let’s listen to what St Peter told Cornelius and his household in our first reading.
First: Peter’s words remind us that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable.” So, Christians are to be people who build bridges toward others, not walls and barriers against them.
Second: Peter speaks about Jesus “preaching peace”. That has to mean peace with God and peace with other people, not holding grudges, not stirring up conflict, not putting others down, keeping control of thoughts and words as much as actions. A great Russian saint of the 19th century once said “Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation.”
Third: Peter describes how Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” Again, that’s to do with bringing people together, enabling them to become part of community. Very often the miracles of Jesus are about restoring women and men so that they can share fully in the life of God’s people, whether they are lepers, or seriously disturbed like the man in the cemetery at Gadara, or ritually unclean like the woman with the twelve-year haemorrhage, or physically incapable like the paralysed man. All of them were cut off, one way or another, from normal life and Jesus opened the way back for them. For them it needed a miracle, but very often when we meet people who feel cut off from the world around them it needs less than that, a phone call, maybe, or a kind word, or a friendly gesture.
In these three ways we can know ourselves to be God’s beloved children, but none of them can be achieved in our own strength. As God’s beloved children, we must pray that the Holy Spirit will alight upon us as it did upon Jesus, God’s beloved Son.
Events during the past few days have brought the homeland of the wise men sharply into focus, but not in a good way. The assassination in Baghdad of a senior commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on the orders of Donald Trump is a powerful reminder that Middle Eastern politics is a high-stakes game. As indeed it was in the time of Jesus. So when the wise men arrived at King Herod’s court asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they were treading, as we might say, on very thin ice.
They were treading on thin ice because, in the later years of his reign, Herod took great care to eliminate anyone who might have an eye on the throne. He had his favourite wife killed – and her two sons. Just before he died, he had his eldest son killed, too. So the wise men’s question was not exactly tactful, particularly if they were, as Matthew says, “magi”, members of the priestly clan from Persia. If they were, Herod would have seen them as representatives of a hostile foreign power – Persia was part of the Parthian Empire with which his Roman masters had been at war on and off for more than half a century. No wonder the king was frightened! And if the king was frightened, the people of Jerusalem knew him well enough to be terrified. When Herod felt insecure, he became angry. And when Herod became angry, people died. So the chief priests and the scribes of the people probably answered Herod’s invitation to the palace with deep foreboding rather than enthusiasm. They would have recognised that it was their heads on the block.
So they must have blessed whichever scribe it was who dug up from the depths of memory those words from the prophecies of Micah that diverted the king’s attention away from them and to the little city of Bethlehem, five miles or so to the south. Bethlehem, David’s city, the obvious place for a new king to be born. And an obvious place to play on Herod’s insecurity. Bethlehem is, above all, the birth-place of David, the king of Israel by whom all other kings of Israel were measured.
And according to that measure Herod fell far short. He was painfully aware that most of his subjects refused to regard him as the legitimate king of Israel. He was not Jewish. He was not of royal birth. He was the Romans’ puppet – installed by Mark Antony and confirmed by Augustus after Antony’s defeat at the battle of Actium. He had survived for over thirty years by a mixture of efficient government and extreme ruthlessness. But the people hated him. They hated his reliance on foreigners, on his army, on his fortresses. A claimant to the throne who came from the city of David would be a real threat to his power. That’s why Herod asked the wise men to “search diligently for the child”. He could not trust any of his own people to do that – for fear they would be seduced by dreams of replacing him with a king like David.
This whole episode leaves me pondering three points. First: that God uses the events and the personalities of history to fulfil his purposes. The God whom we worship, the God who has come to us in Jesus, does not operate in a purely private sphere of “personal religion”. God is Lord of the whole of human life – and that includes the realm of politics as well as everything else.
Second: that God’s purposes cannot in the end be thwarted. Even when human fear and wickedness seek to block his way, they end up somehow clearing the path, as Herod’s court did in redirecting the wise men to Bethlehem. A Herod, a Hitler, a Stalin can use cruelty to suppress people’s awareness of God’s presence. Secular western culture can use ridicule to encourage indifference and discourage commitment. In the end, their efforts are useless: because the God who is revealed in Jesus is unconditional love and love is infinitely stronger than fear.
Third: that God is not tied to the structures of authority, though he will use them when they fit his purpose. God is found where Jesus told us to seek God, in what is small, or despised, or neglected. Jesus reveals him, not in the king’s palace, but in an anonymous cottage in a one-horse town trading on faded glory. He accepts the rich gifts offered by the wise men, the gold, incense, and myrrh. But he makes himself known to his friends in the simplicity of a shared meal. As he does today in the bread and wine of our Eucharist.
Sermons from 2019 can be accessed here https://drive.google.com/file/d/16zW5rCtjqJ16QEATrh7CUdNKfuEpmPw7/view?usp=sharing
Sermons from 2018 can be accessed here https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nQZ7Oih7rXtmxUZP1q3topBN24ViuLHI/view?usp=sharing