The Last Sermon

Last Sunday morning Alison preached a cracking sermon, didn’t she? I thought it was one of the best I’ve heard her preach. So, she’s set the bar pretty high, and I’m afraid I can’t emulate that, I don’t think this will be one of the best sermons I’ve ever preached (I’m feeling a bit too emotional for that). But with God’s help it will be ‘good enough’. And it will be the Last Sermon I preach from this pulpit – at least, as vicar of this parish.

Richard Baxter, the 17th century Puritan hero who was vicar of Kidderminster for many years during and after the Civil Wars, wrote, “I preached, as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” So, last sermon is good. Any sermon a preacher ever preaches could be their last, whether through personal accident or mishap, an asteroid hitting the earth next week, the Second Coming, whatever. So a preacher should always perhaps have in mind, If this is the last time I can speak to these people I love and have a responsibility for, the last time I can give them some word of encouragement, instruction, admonishment, exhortation, so that they go on growing deeper into the love of God and into all that God wants for them, what should I say?

Not all biblical texts lend themselves equally well to this, but today’s passage from St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians is good enough. And yes, it is one of my favourite passages from St Paul. So, thank you, Lectionary.

It really starts in mid-sentence, because Koine Greek was entirely innocent of full stops. St Paul is speaking about the Son (the One by whom God has rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us over into the Son’s Kingdom) who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. It would be great if you would read this chapter yourselves, during the next few days. But for now, just stop and think about how extraordinary this whole passage is. This letter was probably written, to the young church in Colossae, in the early 50s of the 1st century AD, maybe 53 or 54. So it was not much more than 20 years after the death of Jesus. People would still be alive, who remembered and could talk about Jesus, what he was really like, and the impression he made on those who heard him. Paul himself – we don’t actually know that he had seen or heard Jesus while he was alive, but quite possibly he had – had been utterly convinced after the crucifixion that Jesus was not, could not be, the Messiah. He tried to quash the idea that he was, by killing these Jesus people or throwing them in prison. And twenty years on, here he is calling him not only Messiah, Christ, but Son of God. He is making a claim that Jesus of Nazareth, and this divine being, are one and the same. That this Being was pre-existent with God from eternity, was a party to the creation of the universe, is in fact the cohesive principle of everything that exists, the meaning and explanation of everything, the source and goal of all things.

This is A Big Claim. It was for the people of the 1st century, whether Jews or pagan Greeks; you may think it’s even bigger for us who know so much more about the scientific origins and nature of the universe, whether that’s Big Bangs or black holes or Higgs boson particles or all those other things I know nothing more than the names of. (How many of us understand more than the littlest thing about them?) How many of us fully understand what St Paul is talking about? He is not talking science. He is talking Mystery, a mystery we could not work out unless it was revealed to us, but which claims to make sense of everything. We may not grasp it, yet it can so move us that, if we give ourselves to it, our lives will never be the same. And the Mystery is that at the heart of our life and of all things, is love. The great Unknown which we hope or guess at, has a name, and the name is Love. It’s like Dante says, after his journey through Inferno, and Purgatory, and Paradise, and he finally beholds the Reality, and it is

l’Amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle – the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Here is the truth: I am loved, and you are loved, by the One who sustains the universe in being. And we are not meaningless blips in infinity, because that One knows us and our names are written on his hands and in his heart.

I stand here today because, some 46 years ago, Christ captivated me. And has not let me go, or let me down, in the years since then. Actually, of course, he was reaching out to me and trying to get my attention all the years before that as well, in fact as the psalmist says For it was you who formed my inward parts; | you knit me together in my mother’s womb. | I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Ps.139.13f) It just took me 21 years to catch on. And I think I’m still catching on, because of all those times when life presents us with counter-evidences. When things go wrong, or bad things happen, all the times you really can’t understand what God is doing, the times when even vicars have doubts. You know some of the things that make me most angry, and most doubting. It’s when people hate, and preach hatred, and even kill other people, and claim they are doing all that in the name of God. What kind of religion does that? What kind of God permits a religion to turn into that perverted thing, and (apparently) isn’t doing anything about it? There are other things, as well, that make even a vicar doubt. But it’s precisely in those times, that it is most important for us to know that the Love that moves the sun and the other stars is holding us. Like the shepherd holding the one lamb that wandered off and got lost, like the mother holding her newborn baby.

And this is what I want to leave you with, as my Last Sermon legacy. I want you to know, with even more assurance than you do already, that this is why we are here. Here on this earth, here in this church: to celebrate this Mystery, to know this Mystery more fully, to live the way it teaches us to live and to seek by all means to make this Mystery known to those who don’t yet know it.

Another of my great Christian heroes through the years, my patron saint almost, has been St Benedict. St Benedict of Nursia (480-547), one of the great figures of Western monasticism, author of the Rule of St Benedict which was (is!) foundational for so many of the religious orders that have sustained the Church. RSB has all the qualities which I treasure in the Anglican way, the Church of England’s way: the daily round of prayer and praise to God; a spirit of moderation and pastoral gentleness; a profoundly healthy work-life balance (as we would call it now) of prayer, work, study and relaxation; the determination that all should be included, no one in the Christian community should be left behind, or lose heart and give up, or feel that they and their gifts and abilities don’t matter; the core values of stability (staying in the place where God has called you), obedience to the Word of God, and conversion of life (even though all of us are only ever beginners, Benedict encourages us to be constantly seeking to grow). The Christian community, whether that is the monastery or the parish, is meant to be ‘a school for the Lord’s service’. (Prol.45) And it is Christ-centred, through and through. St Benedict says, the love of Christ must come before all else (4.21), and [of those who follow his Rule] Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ. (72.11)

That’s what I have wanted, and want, for this community of our two churches here in Marston and Elsfield. And will continue to pray for, as I pray for you in the years to come.

So. Let the love of Christ come before all else, and prefer nothing whatever to Christ. Because it is Christ who is in you, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, the firstborn from the dead, the One in whom all things hold together. And all this is so, because the Love that moves the sun and the other stars loves you with infinite, unconquerable love.

Alison and I can leave you, sadly but confidently, because you are in good hands. And I don’t mean Rob’s, and the wardens’ (though, indeed, they are not such bad hands, either.) No, you are in good hands, because you are in God’s hands, you are in those hands which flung stars into space, but were also to cruel nails surrendered, hands from which nothing can ever pluck you, or cause you to fall.

Let us pray.

Preached at St Nicholas Marston, 17 July 2016. Tony and Alison Price’s last service before retirement.

Enthusiasm

As my last Sunday on duty in St Nicholas church Marston draws near, I’m finally getting down to trying to make some progress with going through the filing cabinets and throwing stuff away. (Nothing like waiting for the deadline!)

Among the Stuff, I find a cutting from the Church Times from April 1981. As so often happens, it’s an item on the back of what I saved, that is more interesting. It’s from Rosamund Essex’s column:

I have read an old description of an incumbent running like this: “He was vicar of this parish for forty years without showing the least sign of enthusiasm.” Isn’t that curious? It was said when “enthusiasm” was a bad word meaning frenzy and fanaticism. What the commentator really meant was that the vicar was a “steady character, splendidly in control of himself and of the things for which he was responsible.”

I wonder what the Church of England most needs its clergy to be now? Enthusiasts? Or avoiders of frenzy and fanaticism?

Answers on a postcard (or in the Comments), please.

Post Referendum

When I woke up on Friday morning to the news of the EU Referendum result, one of the thoughts in my mind was, I simply do not know how I can speak about this on Sunday morning. It’s one of those momentous moments in current affairs which I believe needs to be spoken about from the pulpit; but I felt so disappointed, upset, dejected, anxious, even fearful for the future – St Paul’s words “utterly, unbearably crushed” even came to mind – that I did not know how I could speak.

I still think it is a bad decision that the British electorate have made, and one that we will live to regret. Among the things that most upset me, is the fact that the great majority of under 40-year-olds wanted to Remain, while a similarly large majority of over 50s wanted to Leave. It is my children and grandchildren, who will have to live with the consequences of my generation’s discontent, which has overruled their hopes and wishes.

I grieve, too, over what the whole campaign leading to the referendum has done to us as a nation. It has so divided us, bitterly divided us, and I fear will have weakened even further our trust in politicians and our ability to take part in sensible, informed debate and decision-making. Both sides have been guilty of fearmongering, threats and outright lies, though I think it has been clearly shown that the Brexit campaigners were the more guilty in this respect. The media, especially the tabloid press, have behaved abominably throughout. We’re used to that, of course, but these last few months it has been more than usually reckless and damaging. And when I look at the spokespersons for the Leave campaign, and contemplate any of them stepping up into leadership of the country in coming months or years, my heart sinks even further. Some of the possible future Prime Ministers I will find difficult to pray for if they come into office, except to pray that they quickly get replaced by someone else. (This is not a prayer I recommend: it hasn’t worked well in the past.)

So. Some of this I admit may be nothing more than uncertainty anxiety. But I hope that if any of you were contrariwise elated about the result, you will bear with me. I know that a lot of people in this congregation felt as I did. We need to hold that complex of feelings and fears here in the safety of God.

So. I was especially grateful for the Archbishops’ statement on the EU Referendum result, which the C of E released on Friday morning. You may not have seen it. It is wise, gracious, irenic, and I want to read it to you now.


Statement from the Archbishops on the EU Referendum result
24 June 2016

On Thursday, millions of people from across the United Kingdom voted in the Referendum, and a majority expressed a desire that Britain’s future is to be outside the European Union
The outcome of this referendum has been determined by the people of this country. It is now the responsibility of the Government, with the support of Parliament, to take full account of the outcome of the referendum, and, in the light of this, decide upon the next steps. This morning, the Prime Minister David Cameron has offered a framework for when this process might formally begin.

The vote to withdraw from the European Union means that now we must all re-imagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.

As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.

The referendum campaign has been vigorous and at times has caused hurt to those on one side or the other. We must therefore act with humility and courage – being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation. Unity, hope and generosity will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen, and to emerge confident and successful. The opportunities and challenges that face us as a nation and as global citizens are too significant for us to settle for less.

As those who hope and trust in the living God, let us pray for all our leaders, especially for Prime Minister David Cameron in his remaining months in office. We also pray for leaders across Europe, and around the world, as they face this dramatic change. Let us pray especially that we may go forward to build a good United Kingdom that, though relating to the rest of Europe in a new way, will play its part amongst the nations in the pursuit of the common good throughout the world.


This is a time for us to step up, and show that we Christians are people of hope.
What values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others? [Our] common task [is] to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers… cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and … affirming the unique contribution of each and every one… being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation[:] Unity, hope and generosity.

The Bible is a book of hope; our faith is a faith of hope. God says through Jeremiah to the exiled Israelites, who surely had so many reasons to despair (and these words may resonate with some of us who feel we have become exiles from the Britain we thought we lived in): “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (29.11) And St Paul similarly writes to the Christians in Rome, a small group of believers in a hostile society, who also must have had times of being anxious and fearful. The words are about how the Christians should live together and relate to each other, but perhaps they can also be about how we relate to others in the society at large:

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15.1-4, 13)

Unua babilado

Ĉu vi povas kredi ke ne ekzistas esperanta klubo en Oksfordo?

Mi eklernis la internacian lingvon antaŭ ok semajnoj, uzanta la interretan kurson ĉe Duolingo. Ĝi estas tre interesa kaj amuza; oni povas vere fari bonan kaj rapidan progreson. Do, mi finis la kurson… sed, kio nun?

Kiel komencanto / mezo- aŭ malaltnivela esperantisto, mi povas nun legi esperantajn revuojn, gazetojn, librojn, retpaĝojn (sufiĉe malrapide, kaj nur se ili ne estas tro malfacilaj!), sed: kiel trovi okazon por paroli aŭ babili en esperanto? Do, mi skribis al EAB (Esperanto-Asocio de Britio) kaj demandis: Kie mi povas trovi esperantiston por babilado? Mi ricevis respondon kun enkondukon al germana esperantisto kiu loĝas en Oksfordo. Li estis volonta renkontiĝi kun mi por babilado.

Kaj ĝi okazis hodiaŭ matenon, ĉe la Cous-Cous kafejo en St Clements-strato. Stranga renkontiĝo! Mia nova amiko ankaŭ havas malofte okazojn por babili en esperanto, sed li skribis blogon en la lingvo. Tamen, mi faris la plej bone ke mi povis, kaj la barilo de timo rompiĝis. Ĝis la revido, eble?

Harriet Hitchcock

Harriet Hitchcock

Harriet Hitchcock (a distant cousin of the famous Mrs Tiggywinkle, possibly?) is the Woodland special investigator, the sole proprietor of the Harriet Hitchcock Investigation Agency. For many years she has lived among the Woodland animals, helping them with their everyday problems, and occasionally investigating some more serious mystery, crime or misdemeanour. Her colleague Popgoes is a reformed weasel, originally from the East End of London, where his colourful youthful misdoings were conducted up and down the City Road.

Here in Marston it’s become a tradition that the Family Carol Service on Christmas Eve includes a seasonal Harriet Hitchcock story. These often revolve around some criminal attempt to steal the fabulous Holzbein Crib, a treasure of 15th century German woodcarving which is the proud possession of the local parish church, which the animals also love to attend, unbeknownst to the human parishioners. Many of these and other problems are resolved by a time of sitting in contemplation in front of the Crib, which wonderfully conveys the message of God’s love at Christmas, to those who look upon it.

Other important characters in the Harriet mythos include her best friend Betty Bunny, and the numerous Bunny children who traditionally all have to be named. Annie, Benny, Connie, Donnie, Ellie, Fifi, Ginny, Honey, Izzie, Johnny, Kenny, Lenny, Minnie, Nancy, Ollie, Penny, Queenie, Ronny, Sonny, Tony, Una, Vinny, Winnie, Xena, Yogi, and last (and least) Ziggy. When this first happened, some of the hearers who hadn’t spotted the built-in mnemonic asked, “How did you remember all those names?” Some years later, they’re a bit more fussy and will say things like, “You left out Xena this time!” or, “You called Fifi Fanny!”

This Christmas is the last one before Harriet, like her Author, retires. She is moving down to the West Country to live with her cousin Wilfred Prickles. Hence the title of this year’s episode: Harriet Hitchcock’s Last Case.

OLD MARSTON WELCOMES SELFISH DRIVERS

Oxfordshire County Council and Thames Valley Police have indicated that, for the duration of the A40 roundabout works (well, actually, forever) you are welcome to use Old Marston village as a rat run at all times.

It may shorten your commute by a few minutes, and will relieve pressure on Oxford’s extensive roadworks system.

Please feel free to ignore all road signs, e.g.

  • Access only
  • 20 mph speed limit (Except when traffic is stationary, it’s perfectly acceptable to drive through the village at 40 mph)
  • Give way to oncoming traffic

Relax! None of these regulations will ever be enforced.

Many people also like to use Old Marston village as a free Park and Ride, and either cycle or take the bus in to work. But get here early! as parking places may be thoughtlessly taken by people who actually live or have business in the village.

Also, there is no need to make allowances for

  • Cyclists
  • Pedestrians
  • Children walking to school (Ew! walking! They must be attending one of those local State schools. Losers.)

All of these are well-trained in leaping out of the way of King Car. And if they don’t leap fast enough… well, there are plenty more where they came from.

This is a public service notice brought to you by Oxfordshire County Council Roads and Transport.

KEEPING YOU SITTING IN YOUR CAR FOR MONTHS ON END.

New Laptop

Today I treated myself to a new laptop: Asus ZenBook UX305. According to some of the online reviews I read, it has better specs than the Latest MacBook Air, and is about £200 cheaper.

It comes, however, with the usual amount of stuff and nonsense included, that you didn’t want or ask for, and that it takes you unnecessary hours to find out how to get rid of.

Hey, ho. Isn’t computing fun?

Dignity in death

Pope John Paul II was nearing the end of his life. Afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, his hands trembled and his speech was almost incomprehensible when he appeared each Sunday on his balcony at St Peter’s to bless the masses below. This Pope had changed the world, confronting the Soviet empire and helping to bring it down. He was a figure of historic importance and with each Sunday blessing he was disintegrating before our eyes. At an editorial meeting, one of my colleagues suggested we should comment on his infirmity. Someone took the line that the Pope was weakening the Church by parading his incapacity, that he should do as past popes had done: withdraw into invisibility, in mute acceptance of God’s will. All of a sudden Mahler sprang to mind. ‘Absolutely not,’ I erupted. ‘What the Pope is doing is bringing decline and death out of the closet, showing that it happens to us all, that it is not shameful. He is setting an example. He’s telling us not to lock away our popes and grandparents in care homes but cherish them in our midst, able or disabled, until the end. He is manifesting dignity in death, and the value of life.’

Quoted from Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? page 206

Five Years On

Five years on from the last school reunion I attended, I was there again yesterday for the 55th anniversary reunion of our starting at secondary school in 1960.

I thought I’d relink the two posts I wrote about the experience back then.

Glad and gay

Absolution

Yesterday’s experience was even more weird and wonderful that that of five years ago. I don’t yet trust myself to write about it publicly. Perhaps as the days pass I may find the mental and emotional equilibrium to do so…

A Song for Jenny

Like lots of people, we’ve watched A Song for Jenny this week. A few days later than most people, because we don’t have a TV licence, so we have to watch it on BBC iPlayer.

My strongest memory of that day in 2005 is of getting a phone call from my son Tom.

I was working in my study in the middle of the morning, the phone rang, I picked it up, he said

“This is Tom – I’m OK.”

“What do you mean: You’re OK?”

Two of our children were living and working in London back then. I can’t imagine what I would have felt if the conversation had gone like,

“Have you heard from -?”

“What do you mean: Have I heard from -?”

“Turn on the TV.”

… Though this powerful drama helps me to imagine what I would have felt.

My heart goes out to the Nicholson family, and all the other families who were left bereaved by the horror of that day. Would I, as a priest, have been able to forgive and love those who had murdered my child and 51 others?

I don’t think I would. I think I would have said, “Well God, you’d better help me to forgive and love these people – if you want to and can. But until you do – I’m going to hate the hell out of the people who have done this evil thing.”