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!
It’s been a long year. And I know that most of you, like me, are fed up with just staring out of the windows with nowhere to go. I’m desperate to actually get out of the house and go somewhere – I don’t really care where, I just need a change of scenery.
Still stuck in this house with a mind full of doubts Tired of staring out the windows Eating too much, drinking too much, Tired of watching the grass grow Channel two, channel three, back to channel two, I’ve watched everything in my queue… So put me on a train I don’t care where it’s going …
I need to go somewhere.
I suspect most of you haven’t heard of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors – so if you want to hear the song I’ve put up a link to the video on our website. It’s a great song!
Put me on a train, I don’t care where it’s going – I need to go somewhere.
Life in general – not just during the pandemic of the last year – can feel a bit like that. Like Drew Holcomb we feel that we’re still stuck in this house with a mind full of doubts and we need to go somewhere. But we can’t get rid of the doubts and we don’t know where to go. Yet we know we can’t stay where we are even if we not sure where we want to end up.
Today is a very special birthday. Because today, May 9th, a very famous person reaches the grand old age of 359 years old.
Today is Mr Punch’s birthday! Though I doubt very much that Judy has bought him a present! Mr Punch celebrates his birthday today because the very first record we have of him is in the diary of Samuel Pepys – on May 9th 1662 Pepys records how he saw a new Italian puppet play outside St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden – the first recorded performance of Punch and Judy.
And each year to celebrate his birthday St Paul’s Covent Garden, holds a Mayfayre in his honour and has Mayfayre service.
Mr Punch, of course, has never been noted for his good behaviour. He is notoriously rude and bad-tempered to everyone who comes his way, as well as being rather violent, though as he has got older he has toned down his behaviour a bit. In his younger days, as I remember from childhood trips to the seaside, he would throw the baby out of the window, beat his wife, murder various public servants who came to see him before finally tricking the hangman into hanging himself! And then he would follow that up by declaring: That’s the way to do it!
It’s no wonder Mr Punch doesn’t have any friends. Not easy being a friend to someone who behaves like Mr Punch. He didn’t behave in a way that was likely to get him any! And he very much behaved in a way that was definitely not the way to do it!
My parents were both keen gardeners, and would spend hours, days even, out in the garden, planting, weeding, pruning. The passion for gardening never rubbed off. But one thing I remember from my childhood is my Father out in the garden doing the constant pruning or cutting back of rosebushes, fruit trees, and other plants.
As every gardener knows, many plants can appear to be dying, overgrown, weak – no longer able to bear fruit or flowers.
But with careful pruning, cutting back in the right way, bushes and trees can produce spectacular flowers and fruit. The newly pruned plant is given strength as the weaker parts of the plant receive nourishment from the stronger central stem. Pruning can seem a very drastic thing to do, and the nervous gardener may not have the confidence to cut back as much as is needed. It’s hard to cut off all the old growth but it is essential to do so if the plant is to continue to be fruitful and beautiful.
Today Jesus speaks to us about plants and pruning. Today, in our gospel reading, we hear some of his final words to his disciples. Spoken after they had shared their last supper together, this part of Jesus’ last teaching before his arrest and his crucifixion.
I sometimes feel, looking at the programme guide on our television, that for the British there is nothing more important than what we eat and drink, and where we and others live.
To test my theory I checked yesterday on the BBC website. Bear in mind that this is only the BBC – other channels are available of course – if you are into homes and gardens there are 49 different programmes or series that you can currently watch to indulge your interest.
If it’s food and drink you’re into, then you’ve an even bigger choice. 85 programmes in that category. Mary Berry isn’t in all of them, though she does seem to have cornered the market in food programmes for the great Christian Festivals. At the moment, you could be watching Mary Berry’s Easter Feast. Once Easter is over, you can start getting ready for Christmas with Mary Berry Saves Christmas. And just in case you’re not sure what to do for the rest of the year there’s Mary Berry Everyday!
Someone visiting us from another planet might well conclude that we are obsessed with what we eat and where we live.
Albert Square is, of course, in the London Borough of Walford. And for those of you are still in the dark let me tell you – it’s where Eastenders is set. (Note: Eastenders is a famous soap opera broadcast by the BBC.)
But why do I think I might want to go and live there?
Well – the residents of Albert Square are coping with the Covid19 problem just like the rest of us. We know they are because every so often it gets a mention. But living there is so much better than living anywhere else. For a start, no one has been shielding or self-isolating. And no-one seems to possess a mask. Not only do you not see any of the local residents wearing masks in the street, they don’t wear them when they go into the local convenience store to do their shopping. Neither do they wear them when they go into the Queen Victoria public house. Yes! The pub is still open and has been all through lockdown! As is the local café. No ‘takeaways only’ in Albert Square!
People in Albert Square are in and out of each other’s houses all the time. I grant that it’s usually to argue with each other, but at least they can go visiting.