Monday, November 13, 2023

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, 12 the November 2023 at Southwark Cathedral

History repeats itself.

It has to. No-one listens.

I have used those words as a tag, a way in to preaching on Remembrance Sunday time after time but they have rarely seemed more poignant. Even a few seconds engaging with world news reminds us so forcibly that the peace that we might have imagined was largely secure in most of the world is far more fragile than we hoped. I prepared this sermon having not heard the day’s news, but certain that it would be terrible. We seem to be living in a smouldering world that might yet burst into flames around us…

History repeats itself. It has to. No-one listens.

So, what is the value of today if humanity refuses to learn the lessons of history and turns away from the radiance of wisdom...and what on earth are we to do with those 10 bridesmaids, gathered in their wedding finery just outside the door?

That question, unsurprisingly , took me back to my son’s wedding here in Southwark  in April. It was all very beautiful...the music, the space, the sheer volume of love for Jack and Rachel that filled the building to overflowing. And yes, of course, there were bridesmaids, looking fabulous as they followed Rachel down the aisle.

But that is not why they are important to us as a family. 

Each of those friends  is someone who had shown love and care for the bride and groom through some very tough times...who had been responsive to cries for help, quick to meet needs that were sometimes hard to put into words.

Theirs was an active role, lived out over months and years

And  as the parable reminds us, to be a bridesmaid escorting a delayed groom also needs care and attention, forethought and preparation. It’s absolutely not about being passively decorative and hoping for the best. There is work to be done if we are ever to celebrate. 

The parable invites us to be ready to take our place in the kingdom of God, that place of justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…

But how can we get ready in this broken, angry world, where the lessons of peace seem to be beyond us? We have prayed for it, looked for it, longed for it to arrive – and yet, we’re still waiting.

Perhaps we’ve imagined that the responsibility lies elsewhere. Perhaps with our friends from the Services whom we have welcomed today.

After all, one middle-aged cleric singing Evensong doesn’t have much power., no matter how often she sings “Give peace in our time, O Lord”…

Should I just keep singing, and do nothing else, in the hope that my song might drown out the cries of fear and pain that are echoing outside?

To do that is surely to make our Remembrance worthless, to dishonour the memory of the dead by losing sight of the purpose of their sacrifice.

We have to be willing to be changed ourselves, if we want to change the world

Mahatma Gandhi understood this writing

Peace is not something you wish for

It is something that you make, something you do, something you are, something you give away

Peace is something you ARE.


That’s a challenge, is it not? And yet, Christ has promised us the gift of his peace...if we can only open ourselves to receive it.

But that process of opening will repeatedly demand that we give up bits of ourselves...habits of heart and mind, small seeds of unkindness, growing plants of selfishness that let us believe that somehow, our own needs, our own agendas have more value, more justification than those of others.

And there may be other things to be set aside, - things that are good in themselves, but which we need to give away, as individuals or as communities, on our journey to the greater good of ultimate reconciliation. 

Even as we stand at the war-memorial and ponder the names and dates of those who died too soon, it matters that we remember those who were “the enemy” - but whose deaths were as painful, whose loss was felt as deeply, who were every bit as truly the victims of war as our own heroes.

I don’t say that lightly – but I’m convinced that we won’t end war until we come to really understand the equal humanity of those whom circumstance has placed as the “other”.

I am not sure how the conversation would have gone with my own father, injured by the Japanese in Burma, still less sure if I would dare to speak thus on the streets of Jerusalem or amid the broken chaos of Gaza.

But when we only see the issues, and not the people, we’re horribly, cataclysmically stuck so we need to find a way to change our lens.

Being a peace-maker, and a peace-keeper is hard and costly. 

The Mennonite theologian John Paul Lederach, who has written and worked extensively on reconciliation tells us that we will only truly arrive as reconcilers when our own constituency believes that we have betrayed them…

in other words, what he refers to as conflict transformation will provide us with a new set of lenses through which to view both the presenting problems and their underlying meaning.  This matters because, to reach peace, we need to be able to look hard at the triggers for war, in ourselves and in others,  to look behind and beyond those to explore relationships at a deeper level and then we need imaginative, distance lenses to help us see how the world COULD be.

The problem with Remembrance-tide is that inevitably it invites us to look back, - and though that can sometimes help us to learn from history, as we’ve established, it doesn’t in itself make us creators of peace. But re-membering means bringing the scattered pieces of the past into our present – where we are invited to take a serious look at ourselves, and establish whether we are part of the problem or its solution.

That’s a choice. We can join the sleeping bridesmaids and leave the work of peacemaking to others but it seems to me that to do that is to condemn ourselves and countless others to a remembrance that is soaked in the blood of today’s wars, 

Or we can consider what actions we can take, what tools we might need to find, what oil should fill our lamps to help us set out on a journey of peace-making. That probably won’t involve you or me heading off to a war zone to stand as a human shield, though I do know a couple of people who have done just that. However, it’s more likely to mean that we have to confront our negative feelings about that former colleague, that awkward relative, those siblings in Christ whose  interpretation of Scripture differs radically from our own., and invite the Holy Spirit to help us look beyond the issues til we can recognise and love the face of Christ in each. 

Monday, November 06, 2023

Sermon preached at Cathedral Evensong on All Saints Sunday, 5th November 2023 Isaiah 65 & Hebrews 11 & 12

Say what you like about the author of Hebrewsl...he’s nothing if not logical!

On this All Saints Sunday we’ve been given snapshots of the stories of some of the heroes of the faith, and reminded that they represent unfinished business, since their company and their story is incomplete without US…

The evidence is amassed in Chapter 11 and then, after perhaps the briefest pause for reflection, chapter 12 begins with a triumphantly assertive THEREFORE, answering any question that might have been lurking at the back of our minds

“So they did! So what?!”


“THEREFORE since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….”

Our ancestors in faith, men and women whose spiritual DNA should run in our blood, firing us up to follow in their footsteps. On a good day, it’s easy to answer the “so what?” question as we stretch out willing hands to receive the join in the children’s hymn with conviction…


 I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green:
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

Oh yes. We’re called to be saints. Let’s get on with it, right here and right now. Where do I sign?


Except – did you notice how many of them had a pretty miserable time of it. - tortured, mocked, flogged, stoned, sawn in two

This is not really the stuff of stained glass windows, nor, if I’m honest, the kind of adventure I really long to sign up for.

Physical courage isn’t my forte…

I’m inclined to agree with S Theresa of Avila, who famously said

“If that is the way you treat your friends, Lord, it’s not surprising you have so few of them”


And yet – and yet – we ARE surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses...and the courage that filled the hearts of the martyrs of old burns bright in God’s Church even today.

Behind me in front of the high altar the Tears of Gold exhibition illustrates this powerfully.

I’m sure many of you will remember the horrific news in 2014 that school-girls had been kidnapped by the terrorist group Boku Harem

The world was, rightly, outraged and we prayed for those young women in many of our churches for weeks on end. Now some of those stories have faces. .In the Sanctuary there are self-portraits of some of those Nigerian Christian women, created as they began to process their traumatic experiences, and to look for healing and hope. In each self portrait, the woman weeps, - but she weeps tears of gold, a reminder that the God who holds all our tears in their bottle, treasures each woman and their story of faith and courage.


For now the tears are all too real. The pain of the world is acute today, and our pictures give but the tiniest glimpse of it, but our first reading gives us a promise that God is not oblivious to that suffering, but hears the cries of God’s persecuted children.

 “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard...or the cry of distress” we are told.

The picture of hope in Isaiah’s prophecy takes us into the same realm  of realised perfection that we will meet later, in Revelation 21, where what is broken is restored, what has been lost recovered, where the future is secure

They shall build houses and inhabit them”...and where even the natural instincts of fallen creation are transformed.

“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox….They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain”


A parallel transformation is expressed in our exhibition through the art of Hannah Rose Thomas which stands side by side those self-portraits. Those rather naive, childish images, the ways in which the women see themselves, are turned into something very different as Hannah Rose writes them afresh as parallel icons. Their stories of suffering become windows for the soul, enabling us to look through the likeness, the brushstrokes, colours and shapes, to glimpse the deeper mystery and meaning of God’s love.

 As we pause, look, and listen with our hearts, we are changed and perhaps those unspeakable experiences, and that untold courage seems less remote, less unattainable, after all.

Many have called icons windows for the soul. The word “icon” comes from the Greek for image or likeness. And, as I’ve shared, God’s image and likeness can be found everywhere. Icons—and other forms of art—are invitations to look beyond the brushstrokes, colours, and shapes to the deeper mystery and meaning. If we take the time, we may all glimpse God;s face gazing back at us, as we gaze at these beloved daughters.


My favourite All Saints story is the apocryphal one of a Sunday-school child who was being quizzed by the vicar about what he had learned in their session that All Saints morning. Looking wildly around he spotted a halo’d being in the nearest window and announced “A saint is someone that the light shines through

I’ve always loved that...because, you see, though there are so many tales of great heroism to be told within the Church of today as much as that of the past, in the end its not our stories that matter. Each of those women at the altar would see themselves, I’m sure, as very ordinary, just as each and every Christian persecuted for their faith in every age would, just as that great cloud of witnesses would...…just as you and I do.


And yet, by God’s grace shining through us, each of us CAN be a sign of hope, of courage, of loving-kindness...building up the Church to be all that she is called to be


I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.                                                                                                  They were all of them saints of God and I mean                                                                   God helping, to be one too.