Two years ago – if you can remember back that long – I talked in my sermon at the midnight mass about Members of Parliament. And in particular about what was surely the most unpopular decision that has ever been made in the House of Commons. Little did I know then what would come to pass.
I explained two years ago that the most unpopular decision made in Parliament was not a recent one, but was made back in the year 1644. It was during the Civil War, and the mostly Puritan House of Commons disapproved of people enjoying themselves, especially at Christmas. So Members of Parliament decided to pass a law banning Christmas. Yes! Really!
Don’t you sometimes have a great day? A day when the sun is shining and the birds are singing? A day when you feel really good? A day when, as you’re walking down the street you feel like bursting into song and singing, “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” Because it’s a beautiful day and like Howard Keel in Oklahoma you’ve got a beautiful feeling that everything’s going your way.
Perhaps you feel like that this morning! No? Me neither! And certainly not this close to Christmas with no idea how everything is going to turn out given how the Covid pandemic is going. But most of us have a day like that now and then – just not as often as we would like at the moment.
I can’t help it, but John the Baptist just makes me want to burst into song. And it’s all to do with my daughter. Let me explain. I’ve often thought that our elder daughter, when she was a teenager, would have got on with John the Baptist like a house on fire.
Because as an early teenager, she went through a grunge phase. Now, for those of you who have no idea what grunge is let me explain. Grunge was a combination of music and lifestyle that first became popular in the early 80s. And the first thing you noticed about teenagers who were into grunge was how they dressed. Mainly black and dark coloured clothes, often second-hand and generally tatty, to go with the deliberately unkempt appearance of those who wore them.
Here we are – Advent Sunday. And I wouldn’t mind betting that even though Advent is still only a few hours old you’re already, most of you, thinking about Christmas. In vicarworld we can beat that – we’re already planning Lent and Easter. So let’s just think about Easter for a moment and the words of Saint Augustine: “We are an Easter people – and Hallelujah is our song”.
But away from Easter and back to Advent. We are an Easter people, but we are also an Advent people – a people for whom the world is only temporal and which one day will end when Jesus returns. Father Charles Riepe, an American Roman Catholic, wrote this linking Easter and Advent: Advent then is dedicated to the last things, to death, judgement, heaven and hell, but above all to Jesus’ glorious coming to complete his Easter work. The church goes so far as to set aside an entire liturgical season to the end of the world and the final coming of the Lord, so important a part of the faith does she consider these truths.
An entire season to think about the end of the world! And linked, I would suggest like Charles Riepe, to Easter rather than Christmas, ‘dedicated to Jesus’ glorious coming to complete his Easter work.’
Last Sunday was Remembrance Sunday in the UK. As always, we had a special service at St John’s as we remembered the fallen, laid wreaths at our war memorial in church, and committed ourselves to working for a peaceful and united world. Here’s what I said…
Peace. Such an emotive word. A word that conjures up all kinds of feelings within us. It is something that we all seek in life. Peace.
We look around our world and see so many places, so many people, that need peace. And yet it seems so elusive. This year we have withdrawn from Afghanistan after many years of conflict. Will there be peace? It is, I am sure, something that we all pray and hope for. And yet – we know it’s unlikely. A lack of actual war, maybe, but peace? The reality of our world is that peace is so elusive.
It’s ove a hundred years since the end of the war to end all wars and you don’t need me to tell you that it did nothing of the kind.
Want to get ahead in life? Want to get promoted at work? Want to be in charge? And lead other people?
Well, any look at the non-fiction section of a good bookshop will show you that there are no end of books ready to tell you just how easy it is to become a great leader and get people to follow you and do what you want them to – some of them very well known:
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
How to Win Friends and Influence People
The One Minute Manager
The list goes on. I did a search on Amazon for books on Leadership yesterday. And some of the taglines for the books illustrate just what a fixation our society has for power and control over others:
Fast, effective ways to become a leader people want to follow
Why the world needs more everyday leaders and why that leader is you
Step into your power, write your own rules and succeed in your career
Now, any of those books may be very good in their sphere. But what really struck me was that the first title I could find that came anything close to expressing the kind of leadership that Jesus taught was way down at number 54 on the list of books that came up in my search:
One of the biggest stories of the past week was the leaking of nearly 12 million documents revealing the hidden wealth, tax avoidance, and in some cases money laundering, of the world’s rich and powerful. Known as the Pandora Papers, the leaking of the documents shows how some of the most powerful people in the world manage to secretively hide away their wealth.
What is significant about the Pandora Papers is that they name names and provide documentary evidence. They highlight the way in which the rich and powerful will do their utmost to cover up their wealth and hide their financial activities.
But it struck me that this is not anything new. The Pandora Papers might give us names and details, but they don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about rich people in general. Because generally speaking, the rich have always wanted to hold on to their wealth and avoid sharing it with anyone else. It was as true at the time of Jesus as it is now. And one person in particular was really attached to his wealth – the rich man who accosts Jesus in our gospel reading this morning.
You can always tell when you’re in a restaurant that is trying to be a better class of establishment. Perhaps a local pub for a Sunday roast with family, or an evening out with friends. Because on the menu it will say seasonal vegetables as though that’s something special. Not just any old vegetables that happen to be in the shops. Seasonable vegetables!
When I was a child seasonal fruit and vegetables were nothing special. They were always seasonal – there wasn’t anything else. No looking down the rows of vegetables in the supermarket wondering what to buy this week– you simply had what was there. Well, let’s face it – there were no supermarkets – only the wonderful old Sainsbury’s with its one long counter and lots of assistants ready to get everything for you. They could do that, because everything that was available fitted onto the shelves behind them.
And as for bread – well, for starters it was delivered to the door by a man in a van. I can still remember the man who used to deliver ours. He came three times a week. There wasn’t a great deal of choice. He could fit some of each kind of bread into the basket that he brought to the back door – large white, small white, Hovis – that was it, and all baked at his own bakery. And you had to slice it yourself. I can still remember when he proudly announced that he would be adding Mother’s Pride sliced white to his range. My mother never bought it though – far too modern!
The 15th August is kept by many Christians as the feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Church of England it is a major feast day and even though it fell on a Sunday this year we are given the option of keeping the feast rather than doing what some churches do and transferring it to the 16th. So at St John’s we kept Mary’s feast on Sunday. Here’s what I said.
Every year thousands of young people, desperate for fame and fortune, audition for TV shows such as The Voice UK or The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. They’re all apparently convinced of their magnificent voices and star quality. This year, though, they’re out of luck. Britain’s Got Talent never happened. The Voice UK has still not produced a major new star. And Simon Cowell announced on the 28th July this year that the X Factor is no more. Where will aspiring singers find their route to stardom?
Of course, not everyone has star quality. As Simon Cowell said to one X-Factor contestant: If you were the only one in the competition, you couldn’t win it. And to another: My advice would be if you want to make a career in the music business, don’t. This comment I thought particularly mean: If you had lived two thousand years ago and sang like that, I think they would have stoned you.
And my favourite, to a contestant whose day job was as a lifeguard: If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing a lot of people would be drowning.
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.