Archives December 2009

Sermon: Epiphany

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

It’s not easy being a man these days… we take quite a bit of stick. I read recently that if the wise men had been women, things would have been different and much better.

  • Firstly, if the wise men had been women, they would not have arrived many months after Jesus’ birth because they would have stopped to ask for directions.
  • If the wise men had been women, they would have been there to clean up the mess so Jesus wouldn’t have had to be born in a barn.
  • And finally, had the wise men been women, they would have brought much more practical gifts including a stew so the family would have something to eat.

What do we really know about the wise men? Not much when you examine the scriptures. Where did they come from? “The east” you say. But where in the east? How far east? Pompey? Brighton? China? We know they came from the east and they came from a long way away, but we don’t really know where they came from.

How many of them were there and what kind of men were they? Again, we don’t know. In the second century, the church father Tertullian suggested that these men were kings because the Old Testament had predicted that kings would come to worship him: hence “We three Kings of Orient Are”. He also concluded that there were three kings based on the number of gifts mentioned, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible doesn’t tell us who they were or how many of them came.

In the sixth century, someone decided that their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Kaspar. And so operas have been written ascribing these names to them. But no one really knows what their names were.

We don’t even really know that they were wise. In the original manuscripts they are called the “magi” from an ancient Iranian word, “magoi” which was used to describe people who acted in very strange ways, were captivated by astrology, spells and incantation and dressed in a very bizarre manner. The Latin word is “magi” from which we get words like “magician.”

So we don’t know who they were, where they came from or even how many of them there were. Why doesn’t Matthew the Evangelist tell us any of this information?

I would suggest that all of this detail is left out of the picture in order that the full emphasis may be placed on the one thing that is central to this story: their statement, “we have come to worship.”

The gifts of the wise men are not merely the forerunner of the large credit card bills which many have run up in the battle to deliver the biggest, the best, the most sought after present this year, but are part of the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world.

A good gift says “I thought of you as I bought this. It would be appropriate for you”. The gifts of the wise men show this consideration, and in their symbolism they predict the Messiahship of the Child Jesus.

Gold

Signifies Kingship. King Herod was threatened by Christ, not merely because he was a shallow, cruel and insecure tyrant, but because he feared the true authority of the rightful King of the Jews. Herod was a puppet ruler in power on behalf of the Romans, empowered to keep the peace and collect the taxes. Jesus Christ, of the House of David, the ruling house, had temporal claims to authority as well as Spiritual.

Too often we try to divorce our spiritual and our temporal lives: the life explored in the Mass split from the life lived in the workplace. The Gold presented the child represents his authority on earth as well as in heaven; his authority over us for the whole seven days, not just the Sunday morning.

Frankincense

Symbolises Christ’s Divinity. Incense is burned to signify prayer and holiness: altars, gospel books and statues are censed to set them apart. The psalmist in Psalm 141 says:

“Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice”

The Christ-child, both fully human and fully divine is recognised as being both of this earth, in his incarnation, and not of this earth. The media and the secular world it panders to wants to bring down Our God to earth and keep him there – they are only interested in the historical Jesus, whether his mother was all the Holy Church cracks her up to be, and whether in this scientific and reductionist age we should believe in the “supernatural”. God is supernatural, for he is above and beyond all creation, and in this sad little earth which has nothing left to cling to, I rejoice in the worship of an all-transcendant God who overcomes the boundaries of our trivial science and the limitations of our little minds. We should resist the temptation to bring God down to our level, when he belongs on our altar and in our hearts in worship.

The last gift,

Myrrh

Fortells Christ’s death, for Myrrh is the sweet spices and perfumes that a body is covered with after death. The same Myrrh that Mary Magdalene brought to the tomb that Easter morning to complete the burial rites of the crucified Lord.

Expensive and rare, certainly, and reserved for a special purpose, this gift is a prophecy of Christ’s death, and shows that none of these gifts, none of the birth narratives told in the Gospels of Luke or Matthew happen by accident. Certainly, there are discrepancies in the scriptural accounts, but Scripture is more than a newspaper account – it is a revelation by God, and each feature in this story is significant – nothing is wasted. For this reason, we should not be prepared to gloss over the bible, and especially the birth story of Christ: “Oh we‘ve heard that a thousand times”, I suggest that we should never take these scriptures for granted, return to them often and pore over the details, for they are rich in God’s revelation to us.

The wise men were significant to the birth narratives because they represent the wider revelation of the Christ to the world. The word was made flesh in an obscure backwater of a town, in a stable to a young girl of insignificant birth and her artisan husband. The Saviour of the World was revealed to the Jews not in the glory of the temple, although he would be known there at his presentation, witnessed by Simeon and Anna, or the splendour of the royal palace, but in a stable before working men from the hillsides rather than the great and the good of the Jewish state.

The Shepherds were considered to be less than worthy Jews because the task of looking after the sheep would require them to work on the Sabbath: they were perpetually ritually unclean, and yet they were the first Jews to whom the Lord was revealed.

Similarly, the fact that the wise men came at all is significant, for they were Gentiles; beyond even ritual uncleanliness; they were, for all their finery and precious gifts, just like us: the great unwashed. The Christ is revealed to be the Christ of both the Jews and the Gentiles, it is because of this revelation that we gather in this church this morning.

The wise men brought gifts, significant and expensive, but the gifts were for all their symbolism merely an extension of the traditions of middle-eastern hospitality: the real significance of the Epiphany was coming to worship the Christ-child – to acknowledge the Saviour of the World in human form, to keel before a tiny child and, as representatives of us all, to recognise Jesus as Lord.

It does not matter whether we can aspire to the income, the wisdom or the gift-giving capabilities of the wise men, we are all called to the crib, we are all called to come and worship.

Amen.


Sermon: Mary, Mother of God

Text: Luke 2:16-21

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

It has been a busy time. Food to be prepared, guests to be accommodated, tensions to be calmed, space to be made, and probably this morning, hangovers to be nursed.

And now, they have gone back: back to the hillsides and their sheep, for those crazy Shepherds who descended into the town of Bethlehem with bizarre stories of lights and sound have left the exhausted and somewhat bewildered Holy Family in some semblance of peace.

Today we celebrate Our Lady, the Mother of God. In the Eastern Church she bears the holy title of Theotokos – God bearer; and she is for us, a model of faith.

As you can all tell, my devotion to Our Lady is a major part of my own spiritual quest; devotion to the Mother of God has helped me in my faith, and has, I know, helped many others. I want to take this opportunity to explain why we, as Anglicans should keep a special place for Our Lady in our hearts.

The Church of England has always shown special devotion to Our Lady: witness the number of Churches dedicated to her – we even have two of them in the deanery of Gosport (St Mary’s Alverstoke and St Mary the Virgin, Rowner).

The rose, the symbol of England is taken from the sign of the Mystical Rose – an emblem of Our Lady, you may recall the Hymn Crown him with Many Crowns (number 147 in Ancient and Modern) Christ is described as the ‘fruit of the mystic rose’ and there is always a little footnote from the editors of A&M saying that it is ‘a mediaeval title for the Blessed Virgin’.

Even our mild expletives – bloody comes from By Our Lady. Even the puritan backlash that overtook the reformation could not remove the special place of Our Lady from our public consciousness: the original statue of Our Lady of Walsingham (a copy of which sits on our Lady Chapel altar) may have been burnt at Tyburn (Marble Arch) in London, but her devotion continues. And why?

…because it is deeply rooted in Scripture and in the tradition of the Church.

The title I refered to earlier: Theotokos (God-bearer) was given to Our Lady after the council of Ephesus in 431. As with all devotion to Our Lady, as a title, it has less to do with Mary herself, than it has to do with Christ.

Before the council of Ephesus, there were some who sought to deny the humanity of Christ, to emphasise only his divinity (a heresy known as Nestorianism). To do this, removes the power of the incarnation, reduces the meaning of the cross, subverts the glory of the resurrection – for only the word made flesh could undertake these three essential acts for our salvation.

Ephesus made explicit the connection between Christ’s two natures: fully human and fully divine, born (as we heard in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians) of a woman, the word made flesh. Our Lady therefore is fully human, not a supernatural being, not part of the Godhead, or the missing part of the trinity; nor is she (as those who might have read the Da Vinci Code may have thought) some reflection of the Goddess myth in ancient religion.

She is one of us.

One of us, made special by the grace of God. Her titles (of which there are many) ‘Blessed Virgin’ ‘Theotokos’ ‘Queen of Heaven’, are titles of grace, not of right. Because she did what the Angel asked of her, because she kept the faith, right through and beyond the end, because she showed us how to be a disciple of Christ, and took on a role for which she was not prepared; for all these reasons, she wins favour with God.

And that, my dear friends, shows us the way. If we have the faith to follow God’s call, to venture out of our comfort zones to live the Gospel, then we can be similarly blessed, filled with grace as the angel said. The opportunity to be lifted up with such grace is available to all who have faith, and we can learn from her example how to become true disciples of faith.

Our Blesséd Lady points to her son, saying listen to him, presenting him to us (and I suggest you have a close look at our statue for this) and praying. Praying is indeed the heart of what makes Our Lady blesséd and what will make us similarly blessed.

Here in today’s Gospel text, we see why Our Lady is a model of faith for all of us: her response to the shepherds – indeed her response to the wise men, to the Angel Gabriel, to the presentation in the temple, in fact to all that God reveals to her is to treasure these things in her heart, to ponder, to reflect, to draw upon them; perhaps over many years. It is the prayerful, contemplative response to God that Our Lady makes, which should be our mark as Christians, and which I want to set as our challenge for this coming year – to make 2010 a praying year, a year where we draw closer to the heart of God in prayer and seek to do God’s will, both as a parish and as individuals.

Prayers in this church are never offered to Mary. When we pray, we pray only to God, but we do not pray alone. We pray with the whole company of heaven, we pray with the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, martyrs and saints as well as the company gathered here today. We ask Blessed Mary to pray with us to God Almighty, and we pray using words of Holy Scripture. The Hail Mary is a deeply scriptural prayer, and praying with scripture is one of the true marks of anglocatholicism.

Those who criticise such prayer do so, therefore, either out of ignorance or of a misreading of holy scripture.

Prayer is not necessarily of the hands together, eyes closed way that we had drummed into us in Infants, although it can be. It can be a moment of quiet, a long walk on the beach, a pause in the middle of a busy day, the lighting of a candle, the repetition of a much-loved piece of scripture or words of a saint.

Prayer is time spent in the presence of God. It may be joyous, and thankful, it can be angry, bitter, questioning (think of Psalm 77), it can be out loud, or silent, it can be wordless or wordy.

But what it isn’t is by rote. If you pray without meaning, then it is meaningless. If you pray without thinking, then it is thoughtless.

Our first parish pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham this year was a prayerful;, significant part of this parish’s spiritual journey, and pointed the way to a deeper devotion, a richer prayer-life, a more passionate commitment to building the kingdom of God.

Let prayer be our resolution for 2010; let us do as Our Lady did, and ponder these things in our hearts and through prayer, let us drawn ever closer to the heart of the God who is always here.  Amen.


Reported to the Homiletic Police…

A couple of days ago I received an email from someone. It was a web-based email, and if it follows the common pattern, comes from someone born in 1979, so barely into his twenties. It said:

Dear Fr Rundell

I have been listening to one of your sermons posted on your parish website under the tag ‘Sermon: Fr Simon Rundell on Inclusivity for Ordinary 26, Year B’ and at this link:http://www.saintthomaselson.org.uk/164/.

I am most concerned that almost the entire content of this sermon is lifted from http://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermons_that_work_114563_ENG_HTM.htm, and you have not made reference to this fact, suggesting on your website that you are the author. Whilst sermons from this source can be used, it is academic practice to acknowledge the source before and immediately after using the material, and this is made very clear on the source website. On this occasion you have committed an act of plagiarism, which as I am sure you know is theft and can carry criminal implications as well as great embarrassment to the alleged plagiarist.

I would like to give you the opportunity to comment on the above before I consider making this matter known to the source owner and other web users.

My reply:

I do not ever claim ‘authorship’ of anything preached at STE, because it is in the Lord’s Service, and for the furtherance of the Gospel.

Here in the UK, Churches do not pay huge salaries, nor use their preaching to garner donations or any other kind of preference. We are simply a small parish church, quietly doing our bit in this small part of Gosport, serving this community and doing the Lord’s work. This is not a bastion of academia, a place for peer-reviewed practice. but a real-life parish far removed from ivory towers where such matters are truely important.

The audio on the website is simply a record of what is preached at STE. Notice that there is no copyright asserted anywhere, and no claim to authorship made anywhere on these pages. That is your assumption. It is extremely likely that the sermon you were listening to was indeed drawn from the source material you cite. Well done. Top marks. I am impressed with your diligence.

However, I would dispute your use of the term ‘plagarism’ as this implies the abuse of source materials for academic or financial gain, where as I see the act as one of borrowing, adapting, and taking further the key points of one excellent sermon. In a busy parish ministry this is often the best we can hope for. After all, don’t we all take the best stories and texts from the Master himself…

This is quite a different case to, for example, publishing it in a book for money. I just try and make Christ known in this place. The former is plagarism, the latter is a matter for late on a Saturday night when I have spent all day at someone’s bedside. Maybe you can spot the difference.

Whether you choose to report me to the homiletic police is a matter for yourself. You accuse me of an academic abuse which simply does not apply to the mission of the Church. If you want to ‘make the matter known to other web users’ then do so, but preaching words borrowed from someone else is a qualitatively different thing. I have nothing to hide. I admire you for challenging me, but I am too busy trying to hold this parish together to be bothered by that or vague threats of legal action: it’s the Gospel and that’s simply far too important to be bothered with this.

If it really upsets the original author, then maybe they will let me know, and I will tell them of how they helped me out. They are probably a snowed-under priest like myself and I bet they’ll understand. It’s all actually about the Gospel.

Thank you for assuring me that someone actually listens to my homily beyond the housebound in Elson.

May the peace of the Christ Child be with you this season

I posted this correspondence on my Facebook page as seen above, not least because I was a little flabbergasted by the tone of it, and also a little mystified why this individual should be so affronted by the idea that Clergy often borrow material from others. I wonder if he has never heard of the excellent Textweek or Sermon Central or the aptly named Desperate Preacher’s website. Given what I assume to be the author’s age, I am making an assumption that he is not in Holy Orders and has never stared at a blank piece of paper late on a Saturday night; and as I said, I have other things which take up more of my time in the proclamation of the Gospel here in Elson.

I am not embarrassed to use other people’s great ideas, and I don’t think that it is possible to say in a spoken homily “This sermon was taken from Fr X…” – these standards of academia simply don’t apply in a normal parish pulpit. So: unrepentant. Is it a bad thing to preach someone else’s good ideas? Especially when published on a website of “Sermons that work”.

The responses of the kind people of Facebook have been supportive, encouraging and quite amusing:

  • What a silly arse (him not you!). Happy Christmas. Xxx 26 December at 22:21
  • I love your reply…Well Done. I support u on this one. 26 December at 22:30
  • Excellent reply!!! 26 December at 22:48
  • Good reply…stinky situation. Hope it hasn’t bothered you unduly.26 December at 23:25
  • Well done, great response 🙂 26 December at 23:35
  • Oh no! I was going to use a bit of Theresa of Liseaux this morning………anyone got her number and I’ll give her a call and ask permision. Sun at 06:54
  • How bizarre. I thought the whole point of online sermons was to help clergy out from time to time. I have never preached one verbatim, but certainly raid Textweek every week. If I quote a book obviously I reference, but insting URL’s to preaching tools into every delivery would not help the congo in the slightest.  The Sermons that Work website does say:

Welcome to Sermons That Work. The sermons in this series are in the public domain – they are not copyrighted – and all are invited to use them or draw from them as a resource. We do ask, however, that attribution please be given to the authors when their sermons are used.”

So I guess one should begin a sermon with ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and inspired by Fr.x’s Sermon on the same texts …’  Sun at 09:52

  • <I said>I don’t think any of us preach a sermon verbatum, but always make it of our own. In this case, it provided me with a framework upon which to add my own perspectives on Inclusivity. It was a good framework, so I kept it. I often quote poems, books, theological works, the Saints and the Church Fathers, and sometimes the reference is explicit and sometimes it needs to be vague “A wise man once said…” just for the flow of the narrative. I am not embarrassed to use a sermon found through the excellent TextWeek (www.textweek.com) and Fr E is right – you simply can’t reference it in the spoken homily…. I am reassured by the responses of my friends and colleagues and I thank you all: the Gospel is indeed bigger than all this. Sun at 09:59
  • I never just read out someone else’s sermon, but Text week is great for illustrations, anecdotes, etc. Well done on your reply – Sun at 11:36
  • Your reply is incredibly dignified, it’s such a shame that people are so ready to put profit before people! Sun at 16:43
  • The real ‘value-added’ is the way you tell it, O Valiant One! Don’t let the pygmies gring you down!! Mon at 00:46

I am sure those who sent these replies will not object to their reproduction anonymously on this page.  Similarly, a selection of reponses from Twitter:

@frsimon That sounds intriguing. Is it still the Gospel in Gosport; Evangelium in Elson? Happy NY. (about 6 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to frsimon)

@frsimon OFFS Seriously??? (about 6 hours ago from web in reply to frsimon)

@frsimon intriguing, tell us more! (about 6 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to frsimon)

@frsimon If the idea’s from God, copy it and put it in your sermon. if its not from God, it should not be in anyone’s sermon. (12/28/2009 7:15:47 PM from TwitterRide)

@frsimon “There’s no copyright on the Holy Spirit” (John Bell) (12/28/2009 7:12:57 PM from TwitterRide)

Having sent my reply to the gentleman, he replied:

Thank you for your reply, which is as I would have expected.

I have forwarded the email to the copyright owner of the sermon in question and to the Portsmouth Diocesan Office for the attention of Archdeacon.

But the issue is this: the Sermons that Work website exists to provide material for clergy who need inspiration, and they aren’t copyrighted. I wonder what the underlying problem with this person is, especially as I never claim authorship or copyright on any material because everything I do is in the service of the Gospel, it is all as far as I am concerned a theological off-shoot of the Creative Commons license: it is all about the preaching of the good news, for which there is no copyright (and my thanks to Fr Mund for the John Bell quote on that).

I have never tried to ‘pass off’ the work of others as my own, and my parish know and understand this, as can be seen from their comments to my Facebook posting (those that weren’t clergy comments, were the comments of parishioners). Do they care? They just want to hear good teaching, and whether they are mine or someone else’s does not concern them unduely. The audio of the website says “Sermons preached at STE” not “written and copyrighted by Fr. Simon”, the blog never claims copyright. Quite a lot of fuss created about, frankly, nothing.

I look forward to hearing from the author of the original sermon, a Rev. Ken Kesselus because it will give me the opportunity to thank him by email directly. I feel sure that he won’t be bothered. I am sure that the Archdeacon has better things to do as well, but if if the homily police come after me for this one, let it be a warning to every other priest out there – you’ll be next on their list!


Rest Eternal…

Of your charity, please pray for the soul of

Freda Cradduck

a faithful member of our congregation who was gathered into God this morning, aged 95.


Rest eternal, grant unto her, O Lord and let light perpetual shine upon her

May she rest in peace and rise again in Glory


Sermon: Midnight Mass – the Crib & Kenosis

Text: Luke 2:1-14

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Church has never been a warm church. Over the years we have tried almost every kind of heating, with the possible exception of a bonfire in the middle of the Nave – we have tried electric panel heating by your knees, oil radiators, and a big old boiler.

And now, we have something that actually works. Infrared heating delivered from chandeliers in the middle of the aisle: unobtrusive, economical and a return design-wise to the overhead chandeliers we saw in photos of the Church in the 1920s. Whilst no-one is ever going to come to midnight mass in a T-Shirt and Shorts, this form of heating certainly takes the edge off and economically does the job.

And in doing so, it further takes us away from the true understanding of the first Christmas. We all have these images in our heads of a cosy stable, surrounded by meek and gently lowing animals and all too easily forget the reality of a cave, the draughts, the smell – goodness me the smell! and the cold.

Hot countries: cold nights. It might not have been quite as “Northern European” as Christina Rosetti wrote about in her beautiful and haunting carol “In the bleak midwinter” but it was cold, O so cold.

Saint Francis created the first live nativity to show to the people of the time the reality of the Incarnation: for the poor themselves to identify with the Christ: a tableau which brought to life the hardship of God pouring himself out into this world: the words of the Kenotic Hymn in Paul’s letter the the Phillipians is usually taken to refer to the Passion of Christ, and his kenosis, his pouring himself out on the Cross, but let us reflect for a moment on this very night of the action of God,

Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus:

Who, “being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross”.

And for this God raised him high, and gave him the name which is above all other names; so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Phillipians 2:5-11

The most radical idea in this or any other faith in the world is the awesome, unlikely, challenging notion that God should so love us, that he would give it all up and step into this world.

Not “direct from afar”, not “send angels” or “send prophets” but come amongst us. A risky guesture, an acceptance of the vulnerability that makes up our lives.

God “did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are” – not in charge, but subject. Subject to all of the sensations, emotions, challenges of our lives.

When you’re angry with God for stuff that’s happened in your life: the loss of someone you love, illness, change, turmoil, the very nature of what appears to be a cruel world, ask yourself why you still choose to shake your fist as the skies when he experienced it all too: loss, poverty, hardship, seeking asylum, and being reveiled for who he was and what he had to say of God’s love.

He has been there before you. He knows what you experience, and he still loves you, no matter how angry you feel at him.

As we place the bambino into the crib scene at the end of this Mass,and gaze around these sparkly lights in this (well, relative) warmth, we should remind ourselves of the reality of this miracle: of God choosing himself to separate himself from himself and to be a part of us.

For we are loved. You are loved. And this Christmas, that love will warm the very cockles of your heart.

Amen.


Sermon: Christmas Day 2009

Text: John 1:1

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I found this poem a couple of years ago. In fact, I think I had it put onto the noticesheet for Christmas a few years back, because I was struck by its exhuberance, and its simplicity. Today, on this most joyous of days, it comes back to me:

“She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them with slow solemnity, convinced every word was revelation. She said, “They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and they went a long way from home without getting lost.

The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady. They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass (hee-hee), but the Three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof.

Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them. Then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was?”

Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars. “The baby was God.” And she jumped in the air, whirled around, dove into the sofa and buried her head under the cushion, which is the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation.”

Yes, the wonder, the joy of little Sharon, her inability to restrain herself is one way to properly respond to the awesome mystery that “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (Jn 3:16).”

The only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation.

But haven’t you found it true: When you love someone you strain to find ways to make that love known? Throughout the Old Testament the Jewish people testified to a God constantly straining to reveal that love in all of creation about us. Through the prophets and the psalms we had glimpses here and there of the wonder of our being, the wonder of one another, the wonder of our God; but we could not grasp the whole concept: that this God could take what it meant to be limited, to hunger and thirst, to know need for love and security, to fear and to suffer – the idea was beyond the human imagination.

It’s as though God said: “I’ve tried to tell you of my profound love for each of you in so many ways, but now time and my actions will speak its truth in ways you can grasp: And the Word was made flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. …From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace… No one has ever seen God. It is God the only son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him know (Jn 1:14-18).”

Our God has truly entered the human condition, a human condition that is not all clean and lovely, warm and welcoming as some Christmas cards would have us believe.

Our secular, consumer society has usurped much of the wondrous mystery of it all from under us. Have we not, as well, sanitized the whole scene? Have we not softened the rough straw with warm blankets; sprayed a fragrance to cover the smells of the animals; silenced the cries of Mary in childbirth; tranquilized Joseph in his fear as he cut the umbilical cord, and as he heard the first cries of this baby boy?

Then there were these strange shepherds who had come in off the field, unkempt, poor. Could not this have felt rather intrusive to Mary and Joseph in this shabby but sacred scene with their new born? Was there possibly a healthy hesitancy in Mary to hand them her baby to hold?

All of this followed by word that Herod was out to kill the baby; they must flee to another country: refugees, asylum seekers.

No longer can we say that our God could not understand what it’s like to struggle against the cold, to have to flee to another country, to be betrayed by a friend, to grieve the loss of a loved one, to fear suffering and or death, to experience a seeming absence of AbbaFather.

No, our God has truly walked our walk; God’s Word of Love has truly taken flesh. And the words of Jesus took flesh as well. He didn’t just say, “I love you,” to Zaccheus, but called him down from his tree top, offered friendship and sat at dinner with him. Jesus not only spoke of a God of mercy and forgiveness, but extended that forgiveness to a frightened, shamed woman standing alone with a pile of stones left about her, and to his friend Peter at a second charcoal fire. Jesus not only spoke of God’s Kingdom of justice, but he stood in solidarity with the poor and the outcasts. He not only spoke of a God who longs for our wholeness, but he touched a leper to clean skin, a stooped woman to straightness. He not only said, “I love you,” to the hungry crowd, but fed their hungers with truth and with bread. He didn’t just say, “I love you,” to each of us, but picked up a cross, suffered, died our deaths, and rose that we might know life eternal.

God’s gift to us may not be the right size or colour, but the present may not be returned, and we must each decide what to do with it. Yes, like Sharon, we could jump in the air, whirl round, dive into the sofa, and bury our heads under the cushion.

However, we could also say to our God: “I want to say that I love you, but time and my actions will speak its truth.” And the words were made flesh, as we try to be God’s loving presence for God’s people and God’s world today. A prayer attributed to St. Theresa of Avila says it well:

“Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which
He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which
He is to bless us now.”

So what’s it all about? Christmas everyday, as we gift one another, not necessarily with more socks, perfume or acomputer game.

No, in gratitude for the Incarnation, we now try to gift others with God’s saving love tangibly expressed. I believe that we saw this in Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who said: “…we believe God loves the world through us. Just as he sent Jesus to be his love, his presence in the world, so today he is sending us.” And her words were made flesh.

We may not be called to embody such love for the poor and dying in the streets of Calcutta, but perhaps we are called to embody God’s love in reaching out to the isolated, the anxious and the alone; by spending time with the young and disaffected on our street corners, the homeless and the addicted in our midst, the struggling young mum, the unemployed bloke.

Thus, we are called to make Christmas every day, so that a year from now we can say: The words were made flesh; and the love of Emmanuel, God-with-us, was made tangible for God’s people day after day in our little corner of the God’s world.

Oh, come, let us adore him.

Amen!


From the Observer…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/20/anglican-church-rowan-williams

A brilliant letter published last Sunday in the Observer newspaper, which speaks volumes. My interjections in red

Dear Archbishop Rowan,

Even though I’m not sending Christmas cards this year – ran out of time – you are not going to escape my seasonal circular letter. It is filled not with the record of my many achievements, holidays taken, operations survived and the GCSE results of my imaginary children, but instead has a few tidings of great joy, because you seem to need them at the moment.

Yes, trying to please the bigots who cannot be pleased only manages to piss off those of us who up until now had been your greatest supporters.

You sounded a bit down the other day when you were talking to the Daily Telegraph, complaining that our government assumes “that religion is a problem, an eccentricity practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities”. Well, the government is often right about that, so if I were you I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I’d be more worried if the government didn’tthink religion was a problem.

Good religion should be dangerous. That’s why the authorities  nail the Son of God to a tree.

The Telegraph came up with more why-oh-why material last week, publishing the results of a survey indicating that only half those questioned in this country called themselves Christian. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to that either. God will no doubt cope. Let me draw on the words of the Blessed Ian Dury and give you some reasons to be cheerful: one, two, three.

The first reason is the established Church of England. It’s true, as thatTelegraph survey suggests, that it’s not what it was, and the change has been astonishingly quick – encompassing my own still not over-prolonged lifetime. When my father, an Anglican parson, moved in the mid-1950s to become rector of a little country parish in Suffolk, there were still old ladies who would curtsy to him in the street, just because he was the rector.

Worldly power has gone out of the established church, and that is why so many of its adherents have fallen away. Thank goodness for that; churches never handle power well.

I think the worst part of the Church of England is its ‘established’ nature, if not its status. The Gospel calls us to take a radical position, often at odds with State and Government. I long for us to lose those trappings and be able to work in our communities unfettered by such inhibition.

Think what 1950s England was like when you and I were small boys: the stodgy conformity, the sexual hypocrisy, the complacent, monochrome white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. The Church of England, in its funny, messy, unwitting way, helped us to get out of that – giving vital help, for instance, to the tentative and much opposed moves in that same decade to decriminalise homosexuality. Compare the grim-faced, negative reaction of the Roman Catholic church in Spain in recent years to new freedoms as democratic Spain has thrown off General Franco’s legacy; give public thanks for the Church of England’s bumbling liberalism.

The C of E doesn’t deliver strident moral or doctrinal judgments to make an easy headline. Journalists and broadcasters often sneer at such indecisiveness, even though rarely would they be inclined to subject themselves to any system of moral stridency. The history of Anglicanism is confused and contradictory, and because the C of E never succeeded in achieving the monopoly over national religion that it undoubtedly sought, the church has become an icon of diversity and plurality for the nation.

Its doctrinal statement, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of 1563, is pleasantly anchored in past history, fighting ancient battles. Any Anglican would be happy to acknowledge the importance of such history, while not having to believe personally, for instance, that “the laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death for heinous and grievous offences”. Instead, this established church can be a home for those who go to it to express their doubts as well as their faith. It can be a shelter also for the kaleidoscope of culture, faith and no faith that now makes up our cheerfully diverse nation: an inoculation against the fanatics, both religious and anti-religious.

As the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish withdraw into their own search for national identities, please tell the English, whoever they are, to cherish this ecclesiastical symbol of a rainbow nation. At the moment the English church is afflicted by humourless, tidy-minded souls who want everyone in it to think just like them, and who frequently use the Bible to achieve their aim in the manner of a blunt instrument in an Agatha Christie mystery.

Such a brilliant line – and so true!

Resist them, firm in the faith! Remember what Neil Kinnock achieved against the entryism of Militant in the Labour party of the 1980s. You and archbishop John Sentamu could together witness in the same way for sanity in the C of E.

My second reason to be cheerful is the ordination of women in the Anglican priesthood. Anglicans were the first episcopally governed church grouping to ordain women, way back in the Second World War, in a dire emergency in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, when the only person available to do one priestly job was a woman, Florence Li Tim-Oi. Loud were the condemnations then, and there has been much angry noise since. But what riches the Church of England has gained since it joined sister-Anglican churches in ordaining women in 1994!

Women priests have faced some extraordinarily childish behaviour from many male counterparts: bullying, condescension and frank undervaluing of their ministry. Besides this has been the glass ceiling that prevented them from being eligible for choice as bishops. Now all that is about to change, and not least among the considerations behind the General Synod’s overwhelming vote for change has been the grace so many women have displayed in the face of masculine bad manners. But there is also an everyday grace that women have brought to the ministry: a general reluctance to join in the theological party strife so common among male clergy, who like nothing better than to line up as Anglo-Catholics or evangelicals, as if they were a set of football hooligans out on the streets after the match.

Guilty. I admit. Always my failing.

Consider, Archbishop Rowan, that one of the most positive images of the Anglican parish priest in the English media is the now evergreen Vicar of Dibley. There’s what the Great English Public think of their women clergy: a bit daft, fond of a box of chocolates or two, but, underneath it all, a source of love and common sense for a community that always has the potential to behave badly. When you think of some of the other stereotypes of priests around at the moment in these islands or beyond, just thank your lucky stars for the folksy silliness of the vicar of Dibley.

My third reason is the election of a bishop in a diocese of the American Episcopal Church in California who happens to be a lesbian. There’s maturity for you. Faithful, seriously worshipping Christian folk have made a free decision in an open election that the best candidate for the job is a woman, who has shown by her decisions in life that fidelity, love and honesty are demanded by her practice of the Christian gospel.

These Californian Anglicans are grown-up enough to believe that it is entirely irrelevant that such fidelity, love and honesty are expressed in a same-sex relationship rather than a heterosexual one. Perhaps they have come to the conclusion that it would be a strange sort of supreme being who cared that much for a particular configuration of genitalia in her servants. <- sounds like it has been lifted straight from one of my sermons

The Episcopal Church of the United States of America has been subjected to continuous abuse and carping from fellow Anglicans, attempted poaching of its churches by dissidents and demands that it curb its understanding of love and sexuality to fit in with the sexual mores of an entirely different society. So American Anglicans have decided that enough is enough: that they should just get on with being Anglicans and elect the best person for the job.

It would be nice if the election of bishops in the Church of England were that democratic and so effectively took into consideration the wishes of all the diocesan faithful. That’s a job to be tackled in Lambeth Palace once the mince pies have gone down and the archiepiscopal sherry decanter put back in the sideboard.

In Portsmouth we pray earnestly for the announcement of a new Diocesan Bishop. We pray for leadership, pastorship and vision and pray that they won’t foist on us one of those who will bully, berate and separate: allow us to minister with our own honesty and integrity, and leave our liturgy alone.

Meanwhile, I hope that you may rejoice at Christmas in this multiform church over which you so graciously and thoughtfully preside – give a welcome to the continuing unobtrusive and untrumpeted trickle of converts, not least from your sister church of Rome, join in the worship at one of your cathedrals, so packed to the gills, so well cared for and cherished as never before in their history, and enjoy the heritage of beautiful music that is one of the treasures of Anglicanism.

The steady trickle FROM an increasingly hardcore Rome TO our lovely little liberal and inclusive Church is noticable. The reverse so boldly trumpeted is/will be almost nothing. Rome misjudged this one really badly.

The Christmas story may be expressed in biblical forms that are not very good history and which some of your congregations may find difficult to take literally, but Christmas music can sweep past the puzzles of words to celebrate a new human life, weak, vulnerable and humble, which is glorified precisely for that. You will know the saying of Thomas Aquinas, which a wise old Dominican friar once quoted to me over a great deal of Irish whiskey, that God is not the answer, he is the question. As long as your church, and all other churches, go on asking the question, they will never die.

Diarmaid

Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church at Oxford University. His latest book is A History of Christianity: the First Three Thousand years (Allen Lane). His BBC4 television series on the same subject ended last week.


Christmas Card 2009

Supporting Christian Aid’s PresentAid means almost no paper and postage will be wasted this year. You you are a close friend or parishoner, you will know what we’ve been up to; if you are more distant then why havn’t we spoken this year? In which case, these images and silly self-deprecating jokes will have to suffice. It’s been a good year for both the parish and the family: not without its challenges, but God has truly blessed us this year.

Here it is:

https://www.vimeo.com/8279670

Enjoy! If you have come to this page via Twitter or Facebook and havn’t have a mouch around the parishLife before, then please feel free to stay awhile. You might find something you like.

Love, prayers and Blessings

Fr. Simon, Lou Liam, Emma and Zoë Rundell


My Desert Island Discs

For the book I found I had to declare my 10 Desert Island Discs, really quickly. This is a really quick off the top of my head list, so no long introspection. Here goes:

State of Independence – Donna Summer

Atmosphere – Joy Division

Age of Consent – New Order

Life’s What You Make It – Talk Talk

Heroes – David Bowie

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgcc5V9Hu3g

Melange – Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

Sweet Thing – Van Morrison

Lemon Song – Led Zeppelin

 

Down in the Tube Station at Midnight – The Jam

Reel around the Fountain – the Smiths

…and because I’m not on the radio and I couldn’t not…

11. Got to give it up – Marvin Gaye

I think it’s better to just do this without agonising: after all, which Bowie, U2 or not?. Even an hour after making this list, I am wondering why Magazine’s Rhythm of your Cruelty didn’t make it. Oh, so hard. Oh, so revealing. I bet you can do the same: don’t think about it, or think about what’s cool – after all, why on earth would Donna Summer’s State of Independence make it, over even the original Jon and Vangelis version – no Clash, no Gil Scott-Heron, what on earth is going on here?

Feel free to tell me where I went wrong. I won’t mind, because I am actually quite happy with this list. It sums me up, I believe.

Why? I think there might be a single reason for each one. At least one reason…

  1. Sheer exhuberance. A major happy time in my life.
  2. The video. The mood. The long black coat I wore as I got off with some young lady.
  3. Nursing. Clubs in central London, probably the Mud Club. Dancing.
  4. Travelling around the country with Dave aged 18 or so in our beat-up Datsun.
  5. Bowie. Single best Bowie track ever. Berlin. Killing that Datsun. Bowie live at Wembley.
  6. So intricate. So beautiful. So resolved.
  7. The most beautiful song ever written, so full of compressed emotion.
  8. The rudest line in music I can ever think of… Squeeze me baby…
  9. That bass line. Best lyrics ever: They smelt of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and far too many Right-Wing Meetings
  10. Fifteen Minutes with you… My life summed up at the time: all teenage angst, half-understood novels and unrequited emotion. Morrisey spoke my language at that time.
  11. My favourite Cha-cha, another tight, coiled song of repressed emotion and the dance of dances…