If I were to ask you to recite your favourite part of the epic Milton: A Poem I suspect most of you would be saying, “What? Never heard of it!” Anyone know the poem?
Well, most people don’t know the poem, let alone have a favourite part! But if I tell you that it’s by William Blake, and that it has a verse that starts: And did those feet in ancient time…, then you’ll probably think, ‘Oh, that!’ because it’s the poem from which we get the two verses of the hymn Jerusalem! (Note – Jerusalem is very popular in England)
Ask most people if they know the penultimate stanza of the hymn Sacris Solemniis by St Thomas Aquinas, and their reaction is likely to be again, “What? Never heard of it!” But play them a recording of Cesar Franck’sPanis Angelicus sung by Andrea Bocelli or the Kings College Choir and they’ll probably say, “Oh, that!” Panis Angelicus is Latin for ‘bread of angels’ and links with our readings for today.
Today, after a hiatus of sixteen months, we are allowed to start singing hymns again. We can once more give voice to our praises, and sing out as we worship. And singing is such an important part of our worship. It’s something that believers in our God have always done. The Old Testament is full of hymns – not just in the book of Psalms but elsewhere as well. The New Testament too. And there are three hymns in the New Testament that the Church attaches such great importance to that they are said or sung every day, as they have been since the earliest days of the Church.
And all three are in the gospel of Saint Luke. They are Mary’’s song of praise that we know as The Magnificat which is sung daily at Evening Prayer. Then Zechariah’s song of praise following the birth of John the Baptist, sung daily at Morning Prayer and known as The Benedictus. And Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis, which he uttered as he received the baby Jesus in his arms when Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple at 40 days old.
Now, as many of you know I rather like illustrating sermons with lyrics from popular music. So how could I pass by today without coming up with a song to fit? And given our gospel reading today, Mary’s song of praise, there really is only one song to choose.
I’ll give you a clue – it’s a Beatles song. And for those of you who haven’t immediately guessed let me tell you – it’s Let It Be. One of The Beatles most famous songs, with Paul McCartney singing:
Mark doesn’t record for us how the disciples reacted when Jesus says to them: Right – that’s enough from me. Now it’s your turn to go off and do some preaching and healing!
We hear right at the beginning of our gospel reading today how, when they get back they gather around Jesus to tell him what they’ve been up to. But what went through their minds when he first told them he was sending them out two by two, with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing and a staff?
I’m not a betting man, but if I were I think I’d be on to a sure thing in betting that their immediate reaction wasn’t: That’s a great idea Jesus, when can we start?
Jesus, as we know, spent a great deal of time talking to and teaching his disciples. But there’s no substitute for actually doing the job. And no matter how much Jesus taught his disciples he knew that the best way for them to learn about the practical aspects of spreading the gospel was to send them out on their own to preach and to heal. And so off they went.
And I bet that when they first went off there was – to put it mildly – a certain degree of reluctance:
Hang on a minute, Jesus, we’re not quite sure about this – don’t we need a lot more teaching from you, first?
Not sure we know what we’re talking about really – aren’t you coming with us? We could do with a bit of support.
What if that healing thing doesn’t work? We’ve never done it before. We’ll look silly if nothing happens!
At the start of our service today I said that the theme of our service is Travelling Light. And we’re going to think a bit more about that now. But to get us started here’s a joke for the scientists among you.
A photon walked into a hotel and asked, “Can I have a room for the night?”
“Certainly, sir,” said the man behind the desk, “Do you have any luggage?”
“No,” said the photon, “I’m travelling light!”
If you’re not a scientist, and don’t understand the joke, it might help you to know that a photon is an elementary particle which is the quantum of the electromagnetic field and the force carrier for the electromagnetic force – it has no mass and travels at the speed of light. Or it might not!
Today we’re thinking about travelling light.
The problem with the weather in this country is that you can never be quite sure what’s going to happen.
If you’ve been a parent you’ll have experienced it: It’s not fair!
And I’m sure many of you can remember saying that as a child. I certainly can! And I can remember my mother’s response: Life’s not fair. Get used to it!
Interesting how children have such an innate sense of fairness. And yet how many of us lose that when we grow up. It’s been said: Sharing is fun – unless it’s your own stuff that’s being shared.
In our first reading today we heard Saint Paul talking about richness and poverty, and in particular about the need for those to whom he is writing in Corinth to give financially. It’s about sharing and fairness.
For a time in the 1970’s the British public were subjected to a great deal of industrial unrest. Some of you will remember those times well. Our daily news programmes on TV showed images of streets which were not cleaned, rubbish which was not collected, power-cuts, trains and buses which didn’t run. I worked in a bank during the seventies and I vividly remember during the three-day week of 1974 cashing people’s cheques by candlelight, and desperately trying to get the banks emergency generator running so that we had at least one computer running with which to process the day’s transactions.
The worst industrial action of that period became known as the Winter of Discontent over the winter of 1978 to 1979. There seemed to be trouble everywhere and everybody seemed to be on strike. The then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, returning from a trip abroad, was met at the airport by dozens of journalists who asked him what he was going to do about the crisis, about the mounting chaos the country was facing.
Trying his best to play down the situation, the Prime Minister responded in words that were subsequently paraphrased by The Sun Newspaper as: “Crisis? What crisis?” This underestimation of the gravity of the situation very soon afterwards cost Mr Callaghan his job – he lost a confidence vote in 1979 and then lost the subsequent election. Apparently he thought that by saying there was no crisis he would help people to feel better.
Of course, as I’m sure everyone here knows, Crisis? What crisis? is also the title of the rock band Supertramp’s fourth album released in 1975 – but that’s actually completely irrelevant to my sermon this morning! But I thought I’d mention it.
The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all (2 Corinthians 5.14)
Like most priests, it didn’t take me long to realise that whatever you say in the sermon at a wedding, it will in most cases be forgotten as soon as the bride and groom and all the guests have left the church. They have other things on their minds, far more important to them that what the priest conducting the ceremony might have to say. Though personally I have to say I can still remember quite clearly what the preacher said at ourwedding.
One wedding that did get people talking after the event was one preached by Bishop Michael Curry. Bishop Curry is the Presiding Bishop and Primate of our sister church the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. And he preached, you may remember, at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. And his sermon was subsequently talked about around the world. In less than fifteen minutes he became, as the Daily Telegraph put it, “the royal wedding preacher who stole the show.”
And what did he do that made such an impact around the world, as well as at the ceremony? Well, he simply talked about love. Just that – love! But I wonder how many people now remember what was at the heart of his message. I do, because I wrote it down at the time.
Last Monday, perhaps the greatest ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature – at least in my opinion – celebrated a special birthday. In case you missed the news, it was Robert Zimmerman’s 80th birthday. Better known, of course, as Bob Dylan.
Today’s gospel reading is about questions. Or rather, it’s about someone seeking answers but not really knowing the right questions to ask. And it so happens that one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs is full of questions – questions that nobody before Bob Dylan had ever thought of asking, and questions to which Bob Dylan’s just doesn’t give a simple answer. Rather like the answer Jesus gives to the questions posed by Nicodemus when he visits Jesus in our gospel reading.
I’m sure many of you know the questions!
How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? Or how many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand? Or how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?
What are the answers to those questions? Well, those of you who have recognized those words will, I am sure, know that:
Many churches these days, like our own, use – instead of ordinary candles – oil-filled ones. The advantages are that they are cheaper, cleaner, they’re not carcinogenic, and they never burn down. However long they burn for, they always look just like new.
There is a downside though. You buy your oil-filled candle, put it in the candlestick, fill it with oil and light it. It looks wonderful. It burns away and never drips or gets any shorter. But that presents a problem – because you can’t see when it needs refilling from the outside. And unless you regularly top it up with more oil, although it always looks alright it is getting emptier and emptier. And in the end it will just go out. Unexpectedly.
Christians are like oil-filled candles. They look fine on the outside. But they need regularly filling up on the inside – and you can’t tell from just looking at the outside when they’re getting empty. And just as oil-filled candle needs regular refilling, a Christian needs a regular filling of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, although outwardly we may look fine, we just get emptier and emptier – and in the end we stop burning. And simply not notice that we’ve gone out!
Pentecost Sunday – the day the Spirit came. Luke has told us in chapter one of Acts how the apostles have been gathering together to pray, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, the other women and the brothers of Jesus. They weren’t just sitting around waiting for something to happen! They were praying for something to happen!