Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Funeral to Remember

The above picture might, a first sight, look like a forgotten relic of a bygone age. Perhaps it is but it is a picture to which I return over and again.

It is, of course, a funeral. It is 1913 and the crowds are mourning the passing of Fr. Stanton, a perpetual curate at St. Alban's, Holborn in London. He had served there for 45 years. The streets of London were packed, thousands upon thousands of people lined the way to say goodbye to "Dad" as he was affectionately known. 800 then crowded onto a train to Brookwood for the interment.

Stanton was one of a group of priests who we now know as the "Slum Priests". They were convinced that bringing back ritual, beauty and color into worship alongside vigorous work for social improvement would revolutionize the lives of the many thousands who lived in the Dockland Slums.

The work of this movement kept going until the slum clearance after the second world war. If you have seen the TV show "Call the Midwife", this is about one of the religious houses formed at this time.

From the outside the London Docklands looked like a hopeless place to work. Apparently full of lost souls with no hope and, certainly, only passing religious feeling, they offered no hope of material or worldly advancement to the priests who served them.

When I look at this picture, I wonder how many people we can really serve. I wonder which difficult places can we get the Gospel into. I wonder how we pair our preaching and our living. How we give hope for paucity of soul and body.

This does not have to be a photo of a long forgotten past. There are plenty of people who need to know the love of Christ in word and action. Victorian London, shrouded as it was in squalor and loss, was no easier a "market" than our modern age of disenchantment. 

We, as the Church, must have, somehow, the sort of determination that led these priests to stand up for what they believed and to love as Jesus loves, wholly, selflessly and without reservation.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the Parking Lot with the Pope

I had what NPR calls a driveway moment - well actually it was a parking lot moment - but that is for pedants. I had not expected to listen to the Pope's speech but caught the beginning whilst driving and then sat and listened to the rest in my car.

Here is my reaction - he is saying what, I think, Christians should be saying. It is easy to superimpose on his speech things we know to be true or assume to be true. It is easy to push away and say that "I get it right most of the time and the problem is someone else...." But that is precisely what he is saying, we need to stop with "the other", we need to stop pushing back from the table and claiming we do not like the common food of humanity, prefering instead to eat in our own high tower rooms.

Before the speech started the commentators were saying that the Pope might have to speak politics to the politicians, that he was entering a political conversation. My reaction was that the basic conversations about who we are together have been hijacked and politicised. Religion might not have a place in politics but politics has no business hijacking the common good and using it for personal or political gain.

It will get picked apart and analysed. Those at polar opposites will hear an extolling of their own virtue, or if they do not, will write off a religious leader as lacking in understanding, or as a dreamer, or crazy person.

When we are Christians we look like Christ. He spoke more harshly than Pope Francis (who is a consumate politician by the way) but also said, "To those who have ears, let them hear." If it isn't about you and your need to embrace the other, then you were not listening.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sermon Sept 6th

The story from Mark today is in some ways straight forward – a woman comes to Jesus and asks for healing for her daughter and he provides it. We will stick with this story of the Syrophonecian woman because it has more than enough to fill a sermon all by itself and also because it seems to link so closely with the stories from Europe which are in the news at the moment. Refugees are streaming in from Syria. This woman in the story is a descendant of people who lived in what is now Syria and Lebanon – Lebanon, of course, has huge refugee camps along its Syrian border.
Then in Israel as now in Europe this woman was a foreigner. She was not a Jew and she came to Jesus for help. Jesus had not gone there to help, he had gone to rest, and still she found him.
The problem with the text is that Jesus seems to be rude to her – he calls her sick child a dog (some translators try to make this better by using the word puppy – but it does not help much in a society where dogs are never cute pets). Jesus does not just seem to be rude, in Mark’s hands he IS rude. Of course, we can write this off as editorial and Mark making a point – which it might be – but if we are to take the Gospel seriously we must look carefully at the underlying theology which the writers present, and in this case Mark presents a fully human Jesus who is not beyond learning from a foreign woman.
The contrast could not be greater between this woman and Jairus who had come to Jesus with a request for his own daughter. Jairus is named, he has a position and a rank and Jesus goes to him without question. In the middle of that story there is the story of the woman with the hemmorage who touches Jesus cloak. At first Jesus seems to hesitate but then he calls her daughter.
In this story the woman remains nameless, yet it is in this story that through her reply to him she begins to open up the full extent and intention of his ministry. Mark seems to offer other times when Jesus wants a different direction – in the garden he asks not to have to go through with things.
There is a fundamental problem here which we cannot hope to resolve – if Jesus is fully divine He already knows everything but if He is fully human he is capable of learning. These two seem mutually exclusive and it would seem that in Mark’s eyes Jesus is capable of learning, and not from those entrusted with teaching him, those in authority in his own culture and society but in the voice of a nameless outcast.
I am sure I am not alone in watching the migration crises around the globe with a mixture of despair and fear. How can these people bear so much but, also, how can wealthier countries bear the weight of so many displaced people. Of course, the second thought is not a good one, but I admit to it because I know that a lot of people share a concern that if we help we will become over whelmed and incapacitated. How can we respond to global crisis? At what point is intervention in another country justified? Is it ever? What do we do about people who literally flee for their lives? What do we do about those who flee poverty or corruption?
I am really sorry to say I do not have an answer to these questions – but I think the first step for me is to learn the stories of some of these folk. To make them real. It is easy to look at the news as some sort of distant parody of life and forget that these are real people, just like you or I. I will not go into details of the sorts of pictures which have been around this week but all you have to do is Google “mediteranean refugees” (be warned there are graphic images not suitable for children) – real people, real lives.
Jesus is taught by someone with a marginalized voice – who, in our society, do we need to be listening to. Which voices and, even, which silenced voices which will never speak? Who is saying, this is for everyone, not just for you and how do we respond to that. If we only give the scraps, what does that mean? Even more if we truly seek healing and wholeness, if we turn as Jesus does, even in our tiredness and frustration and offer hope and restoration – what might that look like?
Like I say I do not have an answer but I have two poems which have got me thinking. Both are about mushrooms, the first is by Sylvia Plath
Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

The second is by Derek Mahon. (If you are reading online you have the full text)
Mahon imagines mushrooms in a disused shed, left alone for fifty years with only a crack of light to sustain them, they are crowded around this keyhole, listening to noises, wondering, until, one day,  they are faced with a photographer

Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels
Seferis, Mythistorema
for J. G. Farrell

Even now there are places where a thought might grow –
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And in a disused shed in Co. Wexford,

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.

They have been waiting for us in a foetor
Of vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
Of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something –
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door grow strong –
“Elbow room! Elbow room!”
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

A half century, without visitors, in the dark –

Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us”, they seem to say,
“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!”

It is a tragic poem in many ways. A poem of waiting and sympathy for the mushrooms, who are, of course, those outside. Plath’s poem is often interpreted as an oppressed minority rising. Perhaps too often we seen those who are oppressed and afraid, those who are different as those who will uprise and over throw, as those who will demand a place – rather than those who simply long to be remembered and have space to live freely.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. “My son, the battle is between 'two wolves' inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. “The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute, and then asked: “Which wolf wins?” Very quietly the old Cherokee simply replied: “The one you feed.”