To infinity and beyond!
Anyone recognise the catchphrase?
It is, of course, the oft repeated cry of Buzz Lightyear, the space ranger action figure from the Toy Story film franchise.
The thing about Buzz Lightyear is that he does not realise that he is a toy. He believes that he is the real Buzz Lightyear, a real space ranger. Throughout the film Toy Story he embarks upon various missions and challenges, uttering his rallying cry, ‘To infinity and beyond’, convinced that all of his equipment is fully functional. He doesn’t realise that his communicator is just a sticker, or that his jet pack is completely non-functional. The truth only dawns when he sees a TV advertisement for a Buzz Lightyear Action Figure. Realising he is just a toy and not the Real Buzz Lightyear after all he falls into depression and has a nervous breakdown. His cry of ‘To infinity and beyond,’ seems a bit pointless once the truth dawns upon him. Continue reading
Here’s what I said in church this week. If you missed it and would like one of the bookmarks I mention at the end (and you live near St John’s and are reading this around or not long after 6th February) then you’ll find some at the back of church. Continue reading
Still haven’t managed to set up this blog so that the priest I live with can post directly, so here is what she preached yesterday. Continue reading
Here’s what I preached last Sunday, the feast of Christ the King.
Have some Madeira, m’dear,
I’ve got a small cask of it here.
And once it’s been opened, you know it won’t keep.
Do finish it up. It will help you to sleep.
Have some madeira, m’dear.
It’s really an excellent year.
Many of you will recognise those words from Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. They’re from their famous song about Madeira, of course. I begin with their song about Madeira because I once drank a glass of it, offered to me a number of years ago by a former curate of this parish that some of you will remember. It was the first glass of Madeira I’d ever had – it’s a drink that is nowhere near as popular today as it used to be. And, I have to say, it was extremely nice, and I’ve had a few more glasses since. But the reason why I mention this glass of Madeira is that, as Flanders and Swan put it, it was from “really an excellent year”. It was bottled in 1845 – a hundred and sixty five years ago. I’ve never drunk anything anywhere near as old before or since.
The people I was with who shared the bottle started to talk about the events of the year 1845 and we quickly realised how lacking our knowledge of that period was. All we could come up with was that it was somewhere between the battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the outbreak of War in Crimea in 1854. I wonder if anyone here knows of anything that happened in 1845? Well, it was the year of the Irish Potato Famine. The first University Boat Race was held over the Putney to Mortlake Course. Cricket was first played at the Kennington Oval. John Henry Newman, in the news again this year of course, converted to Roman Catholicism. The rubber band was invented – one of this country’s great contributions to the world. And Queen Victoria was on the throne.
Queen Victoria had come to the throne in 1837, so she had been on the throne just 8 years when the Madeira was bottled, and what strikes me especially was how different our attitude to royalty is now. Victoria was to become the ruler of the largest empire the world has ever known, and most of her subjects never saw her, or even saw her picture. Had they found themselves in her presence they would have been extremely careful not to put a foot wrong, and, on the whole, Queen Victoria usually got her own way. And as for the kind of publicity members of the royal family get today – well, Queen Victoria would most definitely not have been amused! And she certainly wouldn’t have approved of a future king marrying anyone other than royalty – not even a member of the aristocracy and most definitely not a commoner. Unthinkable!
In recent years, of course, our attitude to royal families has changed considerably. The British royal family, in particular, has been under scrutiny in most countries in the world as people follow their fortunes in tabloid newspapers and glossy magazines. What emerges is that there still exist very high ideals for members of a royal family, and at the same time there is a very critical attitude towards their human weaknesses.
Today we are celebrating the feast of Christ the King – a king very different from the kind of monarch that we usually think about.. Jesus was a man who was both respected and despised. At times, it was almost impossible to see any trace of majesty in him; but even so, he was a king. He is Lord of the Universe. And we, the New Testament tells us, are his brothers and sisters. It is important to realise that as brothers or sisters of the king, we are also members of the royal family. And we are members of his royal family because through our baptism we have become full members of the Lord’s family and therefore we are truly royal people – a royal priesthood the Bible says. And – like members of our own royal family – we have high ideals to live to and official duties to carry out. We are called to love and to serve each other, to work for justice and peace in our world, to relieve the needs of the poor and the suffering, and first and foremost to worship and pray.
However, we are all human. Just look at the royal families which still exist in our age. They fail, their weaknesses often emerge, at times they cannot live up to the ideals expected by those around them. Like them we are also broken and needy people. Those around us are the same. Being part of the kingdom of God means respecting also the brokenness of others. It means being with them in their weakness, even recognising their sovereignty in the midst of much confusion and pain. Think of the good thief hanging beside Jesus on the cross. There wasn’t much in the figure of Jesus, hanging on the cross, that spoke of royalty and kingship. Yet somehow, perhaps intuitively, the good thief recognised it. He honoured Jesus. He asked to be a member of his kingdom. And in return he was promised membership of the royal family of the Lord.
Christ the King is in heaven at the right hand of the Father. But you and I, the members of this royal family are here among his people. Today’s feast challenges us to live out our royal responsibilities and duties as completely as we can. It is ultimately about doing the will of our Father in heaven. For it is only in doing so that we can inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for us.
Here’s what I said – more or less – last Sunday. It was a particularly busy week last week, so as well as using the usual commentaries, I also used the excellent resource from Redemptorist, Living Word.
When I was young it simply wasn’t the done thing to tell your parents exactly what you wanted for Christmas or birthday presents. These days everyone makes sure beforehand that you know exactly what presents they want, which to my mind rather takes the fun out of giving. When I was young you simply had to wait to find out what you were getting – which of course just increased the temptation to go looking beforehand while your parents weren’t around to see what they had bought. My father took to hiding all the Christmas presents in the loft, which was inaccessible without a step-ladder, so there was no way a small child could investigate – rather sneaky on his part, I thought.
Of course, an important lesson that parents try to teach their children is to say “thank you” when they receive gifts. We like to be thanked and we may feel disappointed or hurt when our gifts are unacknowledged. When a gift is received with gratitude a significant exchange is completed and the relationship between the giver and the one who has received is strengthened. And in the days when presents were actually a surprise, sometimes a thank you had to be said for something that you actually really didn’t want, but that a well-meaning relative had bought you.
When thanks are not expressed, there is a sense of incompleteness. Did the gift mean anything? More importantly, does the giver mean anything to the person who received the gift? The story in today’s Gospel echoes our experience of giving and being thanked – or sometimes giving and not being thanked.
Jesus is travelling in border country along a frontier between Galilee – Jewish territory – and Samaria, a place of strangers, people of alien beliefs and customs. As he approaches a village, ten lepers come as close as they can, crying out to him to have mercy on them. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. They do so and on their way to the priests their healing becomes apparent. They are made whole and can belong to their families and their village again. So the healed lepers hurry to the priests.
But one of them knows that something else must happen first: before he can truly enjoy what he has received he must thank the giver. So he returns, praising God, and prostrates himself in gratitude before Jesus. And Jesus asks: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” Although God doesn’t give just to those who are likely to respond gratefully, God’s gifts do come in order to create and deepen relationship. So gratitude, which is a sign of someone responding to God and not just enjoying what God gives, does matter to Jesus; there is a sense of disappointment or sadness as he asks about the other nine. Didn’t they get the point?
But this story isn’t just about the importance of gratitude. Its punchline is that the leper who returned to give thanks wasn’t a Jew (as the others presumably were) but a Samaritan. As elsewhere in the Gospels – think of the Canaanite woman, the Roman centurion, the good Samaritan – it is the despised foreigner, the religious outsider, who becomes a model to challenge the disciples. It is only the Samaritan who completes the exchange of salvation celebrated with thanksgiving. It is he who embodies true humanity before God, humanity healed and grateful. This is worth pondering: are we open to what God might teach us through those beyond our own community, those we might easily regard with fear and suspicion?
George Herbert was an Anglican priest and poet who lived in the first part of the 17th century. Among other things he wrote the hymn “King of glory, king of peace” with its line “Seven whole days, not one in seven, I will praise thee,” reflecting his desire that everyone should be in church every day of the week to say the daily offices, and not just attend church on Sundays. He would have been shocked to learn that these days many people don’t attend every Sunday. He died in 1633 at the age of 40 and his feast day is the same day as my birthday, which will give you a clue as to when it is.
George Herbert once prayed: “Thou who hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.”
Words echoed in the chorus we sang before the gospel reading. We must pray for a grateful heart because ingratitude is never far away and grumbling often comes much more naturally than thankfulness. But how do we cultivate a grateful heart like that of the Samaritan leper? Perhaps the clue lies in the very fact that he is a Samaritan. A Samaritan (especially a Samaritan leper) can expect no favours from a Jew. He has absolutely nothing to offer Jesus. He cannot put Jesus in his debt; he has no hold on Jesus, not even shared race. So what the Samaritan receives from Jesus is sheer grace – and he knows it. He is a model for us because he knows his need; he knows he can do nothing; and he knows that he has received grace. So he is grateful.
Misuno Genzo, a severely disabled Japanese Christian, writes poems – communicated through the movements of his eyelids – which make the same point: he knows that he himself can do nothing for his family, or for his people or for God. But what he can do is give thanks for God’s love for all those people. “I just give thanks,” he writes.
To understand grace, and so become truly grateful, it does help to be in a situation of utter dependence. This makes it harder to have any illusions about what we have to offer God. We are not lepers and outcasts from society – and most of us are not conscious of being in severe need of difficulty – and so we may struggle fully to recognise our total dependence on God; but we can recognise that this is what we need to learn.
I can do nothing. “Thou who hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.”