Please click on a date to read Reflections, Sermons and Meditations from previous Sundays.
Sunday 19th July 2020 – 6th Sunday after Trinity Sunday
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
Sowing seeds and managing weeds
Matthew 13: 24 to 30; 36 to 43
Jesus, who grew up surrounded by the natural world, did grasp gardening and agriculture, he uses a lot of images from natural organic process in his parables. Last week, the sower. Today is less well known but equally powerful- good seed and the power of weeds. Our image of weeds is that they are destructive, they suck out what is good in the soil, they prevent us from having a good crop of vegetables or fine flowers. In Jesus’ story, it seems it is difficult it is to tell weeds from wheat.
What might this parable mean to us today? Jesus is the one who sows, he sows into the field, which is the world. David Bosch, South African theologian during apartheid. expounds mission as God’s mission, missio dei. mission is not the work of the church but ‘it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit though the Father that includes the church’. Mission is a ‘movement of God into the world and the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission’. Our role is: we tap into God’s love, which is poured out into the world. Within this view of mission, it is the role of the Spirit to move over the world, bringing about repentance and forgiveness, bringing people to a love of Christ, and for the church to be empowered to go out to do God’s work.
For us, that means we are called to be Jesus’ co-workers, in sowing the seeds, prompted by him. Our call is to be Jesus’ hands and feet, to reflect Jesus so that others are attracted to him, as a magnet. For each of us, how can we be the light of Christ in our workplaces, in the City, in those we meet, in our families? Research has shown this is the most effective way of growing God’s kingdom.
The weeds remind us that doing God’s work is not easy, nor should it be.
As Christians, we should not be surprised that evil is still active, even while God’s reign is already present. We are of course surrounded by evil and temptation at every corner. Jesus is encouraging us to be strong in our faith, to have strong roots, not to be distracted.
There are always those who say that Christianity has no place in the modern world, rationalism has much to answer for. Tom Wright wrote God and the Pandemic; he says: “It’s our rationalist culture, he says, that needs a reason for everything, and it’s rather “silly” to ask whether the pandemic is a punishment or warning or sign from God. Sometimes you just have to accept that there isn’t a reason. So, with a nod to the poet T.S. Eliot, we have to “wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing.”
In effect, we do not need explanations, Tom Wright argues. What we need to do is to trust God and his bigger picture and recover the biblical tradition of lament in our prayer lives. To lament, is to suffer with those who suffer and to intercede for them. Mission is to understand that God through Jesus is able to meet, to comfort and transform those who suffer.
Sunday 12th July 2020 – 5th Sunday after Trinity Sunday
Dr Jim Harris – Reader and LLM, St Olave Hart Street
Matthew 13, 1-9, 18-23
The Parable of the Sower
13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears[a] listen!’
The Parable of the Sower Explained
18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.[c] 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’
My father used to work at the National Institute for Agricultural Botany.
It’s the nations premier plant research centre and among Dad’s colleagues were scientists who knew more about potatoes than anyone else alive, more about grains, root vegetables and many other kinds of crop, both leguminous and non-leguminous.
It’s the closest anyone in our family has come to farming since the early nineteenth century when my ancestors were ditch-diggers in Bedfordshire and, to be honest, I tell the story solely to give myself some spurious agricultural credibility, because I’ve often wondered about this most agricultural of parables.
On the face of it, it’s the easiest of all the parables. Even though not many of us in the middle of London sow seed and watch it grow (I get most of my plants from B&Q), we have nonetheless some residual, ancestral sense that good soil grows good plants, that if a seed isn’t nourished it dies, and that if it’s surrounded by competing plants it dies.
But it’s also easy because Jesus goes out of his way to explain it. He retells the parable with subtitles for the hard of thinking, as it were, unpicking the metaphors, making what was figurative, literal.
Not only that, but he explains why he’s explaining it. (It’s worth adding that in Mark’s gospel he does so with some sense of exasperation at his friends’ obtuseness: “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?”) His exasperation with his friends is, I guess, the reason why he feels the need to go through the story practically syllable by syllable in order to make it absolutely clear what he’s on about.
And yet, the more I read this most familiar of Jesus’ teachings, the more puzzled I am by it, because even after Jesus’ explanation, it is still full of mystery.
So, what do we know about the story?
In its original telling, very little.
Someone sows some seed.
Some of it grows. Some of it doesn’t. Some of it meets a grisly end at the mercy of the birds; but, to be honest, the stakes in the story are not high and the seed is not a particularly engaging or developed character, so who really cares?
After Jesus has explained it, we know a little more.
We know what the seed is: it is the Word of the Kingdom. No further interpretation is offered, so we must assume that the disciples knew what the Word of the Kingdom was. If we cast our minds back to Matthew 10, 7-8, we know that when he sent them out to tell people that the Kingdom was near it was not, apparently, to gather followers but to heal and to liberate – to demonstrate God’s mercy.
We know that the various environments into which the seed is sown are the lives of the people hearing the Word of the Kingdom, their loves, cares, enthusiasms, worries, desires; their hearts.
And we know that those environments, those hearts, provide different growing conditions for the seed, for the Word of the Kingdom, to take root; and that the outcome of the sowing varies according to those conditions.
But beyond that are still mysteries.
Jesus doesn’t seem bothered about the exact identity of the sower.
It could, therefore be anyone at all.
And he also leaves open what to me has always been the most puzzling question of all in this parable: why is the sower so terrible at his job?
For a farmer, his seed is his most precious resource.
If you have no seed you cannot grow a crop, and you cannot eat. More to the point, you cannot produce more seed in order to sow and harvest the following year. In other words, a farmer who is careless with his seed isn’t going to be a farmer very long. He’s going to be out of a job and very hungry.
But this farmer appears to be the worst, most profligate, wasteful sower in history. He just tosses that seed about willy-nilly.
On the path, in the margins of the field where the weeds grow, in the stony places. Wherever. Whatever.
The sower appears not to care where his seed ends up.
He has no control, no aim, no direction to his sowing.
His eye is not on the numbers and returns. He doesn’t appear to have a quota of seed to distribute over each of the different kinds of soil
His eye isn’t on the chance to get rich.
His interest seems just to be in making sure the seed gets everywhere.
And if we are to carry the Word of the Kingdom with us like the sower, we have to be every bit as generous as that in broadcasting it.
We speak the Word of the Kingdom, no matter who is listening.
We do not focus on numbers, or on the quality of our audience.
We don’t seek out those we think will be more receptive.
We don’t survey our potential audience and home in on particular demographics.
We simply say the words of the Kingdom.
We tell the stories of God’s love and faithfulness.
We perform acts of mercy.
We speak out against injustice.
And in return we look for a commitment to live justly, to be faithful, to do mercy.
So is this a parable, as we are often told, about evangelism, about winning souls?
Not really, because the Word of the Kingdom is not simply a call to follow Christ.
If all that the word produces is a profession of faith then the most interesting patch of ground might be the stony soil where the seed springs up quickly and eagerly.
But ‘conversion’ is not the same as bearing fruit. Bearing fruit is what happens after the Word of the Kingdom takes root and grows.
After all, no-one can be converted thirty, sixty or a hundred times. But everyone can grow thirty, sixty or a hundred times in faithfulness, justice and mercy.
Here, therefore, Jesus has provided us with a perfect metaphor.
For what fruit does a seed bring forth other than itself?
What does wheat bring forth? Wheat. Barley? Barley. Oats? Oats.
The fruit that is yielded thirty-, sixty- or a hundred times can only be the same as the seed that was sown.
And the Word of the Kingdom is just like this.
The Word of the Kingdom brings forth the Word of the Kingdom.
Righteousness brings forth righteousness.
Mercy brings forth mercy.
Justice brings forth justice.
If we teach justice, mercy and righteousness we will bring forth justice, mercy and righteousness.
But this is all about the seed – how it grows, how it increases. It’s all about how the Kingdom of God expands and increases its reach.
So what about the field itself, those environments into which the seed is sown?
What about the hearts of the people who hear the word and in whom it variously takes root or is wasted, strangled or scorched?
Isn’t the soil of the field the farmer’s responsibility too?
Of course it is.
And this is where the story really comes full circle, where we track back to the farmer’s seeming profligacy and understand what he’s actually up to.
Sowing is not a one-off, once in a lifetime activity.
Just because a farmer manages a hundred-fold yield one year doesn’t mean he hangs up his boot and retires.
No. He sets aside some of the seed and next year he sows again. And again. And again.
And that’s how he fulfils his responsibility to the soil. He improves it by sowing the right crops.
He fixes nitrogen, he ploughs in the stubble, feeding the soil with organic matter.
In other words, by sowing into all those marginal, out of the way, stony places, the farmer, little by little, year by year is gradually increasing the chance of a good yield the following year. He is fertilising the infertile places, preparing them for a better harvest in the future. The profligacy of the farmer, his apparent carelessness about his sowing is the means by which the harvest will increase, after the thirty, sixty and hundred-fold return that comes from the good land is recycled back into the poor soil as the next year’s seed is sown.
And we do not only sow once. We keep sowing. We come here week after week, month after month, year after year; and we speak the Word of the Kingdom wherever else we are too, into all the same places – the barren, the scorched, the weed-infested as well as the fruitful, in order that they might be transformed.
And in the process, we are all transformed too – not because we have yet borne fruit a hundred-fold, necessarily, but because we all were once the stony, weedy, scorched, barren soil. Maybe we still are. Certainly we are all still being transformed, changed, healed and liberated.
Because the Word of the Kingdom is a true word and the Word of the Kingdom is a fertile word and the Word of the Kingdom that has nurtured and nourished us will continue to nurture and nourish us until the poor earth of our hearts and lives does bear fruit, the fruit of justice, mercy, peace, faithfulness and righteousness; thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times what was sown.
Sunday 5th July 2020 – 4th Sunday after Trinity Sunday
Mrs Alison Sen – LLM
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“Stay at home, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, work from home (unless you can’t), don’t use public transport (unless you must), only shop once a week, stay at least 2 metres from everyone (except where you can’t), wear masks, wash your hands ………….!”
Lockdown regulations …endless new rules to absorb, apply … and as for all the guidance and regulations about reopening churches … well, let’s leave that for another day! Maybe, like me, you’re feeling weary of trying to understand, trying to comply? I have to frequently come back to the purpose of it all, which is to keep ourselves and others safe by the way we live.
When Jesus says these beautiful words “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” it’s in the context of his people being not so much work-burdened nor sin-burdened but law-burdened because the scribes and Pharisees have laid an intolerable load. In the following chapter Jesus indicates how the religious leaders’ rules of Sabbath observance have missed the real point of the Sabbath. Matthew 9:36 says Jesus “was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.” So the people are suffering under a load of religious responsibilities laid on them by priests and scribes. Although these legalistic demands are meant to honour God, they have become “heavy burdens”, like a yoke. A yoke often has negative connotations – yoke of slavery or oppression. But it is, of course, positive when used in partnership, like the image of oxen sharing the load to pull the plough, relieving the weight of burden and difficulty.
In the New Testament Peter lives out an example of breaking free from the burden of legalistic demands when he meets with the Roman centurion Cornelius to answer his questions about Jesus. Following a vision in which he’s challenged to liberate himself from religious regulations Peter crosses cultural boundaries in order to ensure inclusivity and hospitality and a gospel for all.
So Jesus offers this beautiful invitation:
28 ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’
It’s an invitation to put down the weariness of trying to comply and endlessly failing, and instead to take on Jesus’ own yoke and burden and to learn from him. To me, however, burdens don’t sound easy or light, particularly as we know that rather than dismissing the law Jesus calls us to take it further (eg it’s not enough to love your neighbour, love your enemy too). But there, perhaps is the key … the burden we receive from Jesus is a burden to love … to love God and to love others, just as Jesus summed up the law. This is not easy in our own strength, but to me this suggests that Jesus shares the yoke with us. And it’s a love which first comes from God, which forgives us, frees us, heals us and transforms us. “My yoke is easy” is perhaps better translated as good or kind and represents entering into a disciple-relationship with the gentle one, where we constantly learn from the one who ultimately carries the burden. We will find rest or relief, not from inactivity, but from the relief which comes from love.
Being unable to gather as church has been a challenge for many of us. In fact it was a difficult and contentious decision to close church buildings during lockdown, but really it’s a small sacrifice of the comfort we find in the familiarity of space, rituals, or the beauty of a building, for a greater good, for love of others, for protection of those most vulnerable. Rituals are not wrong – but they cannot take from the importance of our God-given burden to love. The message is simple – Come to Jesus, share his burden to love without boundaries – and there we will find rest for our souls.
Sunday 21st June 2020 – 2nd Sunday after Trinity Sunday
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
Since I was studying French and German at university, I lived in France for a year, and I chose Alsace, as it was close to the German border, German being my preferred language. In Alsace I worked in a school as an English language assistant. The school was called Collḕge Matthias Grünewald. This is a strange name for a school in France, with a very secular approach.
Matthias Grünewald is famous for a painting of the crucifixion completed in 1515, originally for the monastery of St Anthony. In this monastery the monks cared for plague sufferers, and those who had skin diseases, which is the middle ages meant you were excluded from society.
What is striking about this painting by Grünewald is the figure of Christ. Christ’s suffering and physical pain are shocking; we view a sickly and gangrenous Messiah, a sight that encapsulates His physical suffering. Here is Christ, the suffering God, who stands by those who are suffering from the plague; the Christ who suffers with those with Covid today.
Equally striking is the depiction of anguish on those who are witnessing the crucifixion, this not a Virgin Mary image of perfection, but a mother weeping, held in the hands of the Beloved disciple. Mary Magdalene is kneeling down, dishevelled in her anguish.
The gospel today is about the cost of discipleship; The cost and pain of following Jesus points to a discipleship which requires everything of us. When the gospel was written, the early Christians were violently and constantly persecuted. It was extremely costly to be a disciple, a follower, a learner for Jesus. After all, you are following one who was tortured and crucified for speaking truth.
Jesus talks repeatedly about the cost of following him, which means to take up their cross; “He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me” (v. 38). To follow Jesus means we receive joy, strength, peace, and an overwhelming sense of God with us; healing, peace, the power of God. YET we are immune from the cruelty and the evil of human beings created in the image of God who are capable of mass destruction.
Christians were also often estranged from their families That is why Jesus speaks of foes within the household. It is costly being a follower of Jesus.
When I became a Christian, my parents who were Hindus, thought I had been brainwashed. But they loved me and did not disown me; gradually they saw how Jesus had brought me a peace and inner strength that the world cannot give.
For others, they are disowned, even threatened with death, even today. Many Iranians, are disowned by their families; threatened with imprisonment and even death by the government, We know many Iranian converts. Yet, their love for Jesus, though tested, is resilient; they come seeking asylum, often a difficult process in itself.
For us, the cost of discipleship is different, for Jesus requires of us to prioritise our faith, to follow Jesus first, above everything else. We are called not to be fearful, but to be bold in sharing the gospel and our faith, for it is a treasure that is worth far more than the consumerism and materialism, the voracity and the selfishness, the quest for power and recognition which we encounter. It is not an easy path but one that is life giving: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.
Sunday 14th June 2020 – 1st Sunday after Trinity Sunday
Dr Jim Harris – Reader and LLM, St Olave Hart Street
The Harvest Is Great, the Labourers Few
35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’
The Twelve Apostles
10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
The Mission of the Twelve
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
Mediation for Sunday 14th June 2020
I was replanting my window boxes yesterday.
The violas and pansies that had flourished in recent months had now faded, become leggy and pretty much ceased to spark joy, and they had to go.
So, one by one, I cut them off, loosened the roots and pulled them out. I worked over the remaining compost with my little garden fork and added some fresh dirt, before making planting holes for the marigolds, busy lizzies and lobelia I was about to put in.
Which is when I found the egg.
Yes. The egg.
As I parted the soil, there, nestled deep in the damp darkness was a hen’s egg, perfect and unbroken, miraculously saved from the fork and my fingers.
There is nothing more familiar and unmistakable than an egg. It can only be an egg. And yet here was that familiar and unmistakable thing out of place and out of context, unexpected and, in that moment, utterly mysterious.
In the early days of his ministry, when Jesus started to travel around Galilee he must have been a familiar sight.
Here was a local man, the son of a carpenter, the sort of man with whom his neighbours had done business for years but with a reputation for wisdom, who taught in the synagogues. There was nothing out of the ordinary in that. It wasn’t unusual to find a man with something to say in those places and Jesus was almost certainly not the only itinerant preacher making his way from town to town.
Familiar and unmistakable – and yet mysterious, because this teacher didn’t just teach.
He also performed a succession of acts of incredible power.
Here was something new and different.
Here was an egg in a window box.
But when it did come to teaching, the message Jesus preached and commissioned his friends to preach was also familiar and unmistakable.
The Kingdom of heaven is near.
The Jews had heard that one before. The coming of God’s Kingdom and the arrival of a saviour to usher it in was an old trope in Hebrew literature.
If it was a familiar and unmistakable story, though, Jesus made it new, unexpected and utterly strange.
Because this kingdom was not a destination to be travelled to.
It was not a recreation of ancient Israel, demarcated by borders, organisations and structures.
Its sign was to be seen not in the reorientation of the physical or political landscape but in the transformation of people, in their healing, in their being helped, in their being shown compassion.
And it did not exist only in the teaching and possession of one person.
The Kingdom of Heaven did not ‘belong’ to Jesus and his was not the only voice that could proclaim it.
It was to be shown, but his was not the only hand that could show it.
Instead, it was to be owned, proclaimed, shown and demonstrated by those most ordinary of people, the apostles; the tax collecting, fishing, argumentative, competitive bunch of peasants who Jesus called friends.
And, since we too are a bunch of ordinary, argumentative, social working, accounting, business-running, sales-pitching, music-playing, cleaning, teaching, lawyering peasants who call Jesus friend, it is to be proclaimed and shown by us as well.
And it’s worth thinking for a moment about what that means – for us to proclaim the kingdom, to proclaim the familiar, unmistakable yet mysterious message that the Kingdom of Heaven is near.
If we look at the story, we can see why Jesus wanted people to hear and see that the Kingdom was near. It was because he had compassion on them.
He saw need, physical and spiritual and he saw hunger, physical and spiritual, and he had compassion on the people who felt it.
It wasn’t because he wanted them to elect him, or support him, or exalt him.
It was because he loved them.
And when he sends his friends out, it’s for the same reasons.
Do they seek followers and converts? No
Do they ask for a quid pro quo, material or spiritual? No
Rather, they simply do what people most need – heal them and free them from oppression.
And this is the unexpected, mysterious thing about this familiar and unmistakable message that the kingdom of Heaven is near. It is not a kingdom for the handful who sign up. It is a kingdom for anybody who needs it.
And the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven is not something happening far away, but all around. It is not vague and on its way at a future date tbc, but intensely focused on the needs of the here and now. And it does not demand a response.
So, preaching the Kingdom is not proselytising.
Preaching the Kingdom is not an opportunity for us to meet physical need in order to save souls.
It is an opportunity to love people.
When we give to the Hygiene Bank, or Dress for Success, or Suited and Booted, therefore, we do it not to win hearts but because our hearts are won.
When we stand in solidarity with our neighbours and friends against the evils of racism and economic injustice we do it not to persuade them to love God but because we are persuaded that God loves them.
When we acknowledge the dignity and beauty of our brothers and sisters created in the image of God, we do it not to convert them but because we are converted.
When we preach the Kingdom it is not to entice people in, but to show what the kingdom is.
And when we show what the Kingdom is – a place of wholeness and healing, of equity and inclusion, of love and loving kindness – we do not ask anything in return.
We offer it as a gift, because preaching the Kingdom, living the life of the Kingdom in all its power, richness and joy, is an act of compassion for all those who need it, whether they know it or not, whether they thank us or not, whether they agree with us or not and whether they choose to follow Jesus or not.
Like the apostles, we received without payment – so, like the apostles, we give without payment.
But the other mystery, the great and wonderful mystery, is that when that gift is given, it is returned – in lives changed, in bodies and souls healed and in communities restored.
The truth is that when the Kingdom of Heaven draws near, people draw near to the Kingdom of Heaven.
And that is where we find ourselves encountering the familiar, unmistakable – and utterly mysterious – signs of God at work: transforming power derived from freely-given love.
And that, in all its simple, perfect beauty, is the egg in the window box.
Sunday 7th June 2020 – Trinity Sunday
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
Between Ascension Day and Pentecost this year, George Floyd, an African American man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd was handcuffed and while lying face down on a city street during an arrest, a white Minneapolis police officer, brutally pushed his knee on the right side of Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds; 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that time occurred after Floyd became unresponsive. Floyd called out repeatedly “I can’t breathe”.
On Trinity Sunday we recall that breath, the breath of the Spirit, the breath of Jesus, his parting gesture to this world, is a symbol of empowerment, spiritual and transformational. In John 20:22, Jesus says: ‘“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”’ The breath of God is life-giving, the spirit blows where it will.
For George Floyd, the brutal constriction on his throat rapidly, agonisingly, humiliatingly sucked every last breath out of him. He called out repeatedly, “They’re going to kill me”, “My stomach hurts”, “My neck hurts”, “Everything hurts” and “Mama”.
“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Except God has not. Like Christ himself George is vindicated in heaven, in the sight of God, yet we cannot ignore the evil, the institutional racism and the societal injustice that led to his untimely and unnecessary death. That is why millions are protesting, protesting that things must change; protesting that racism in all its forms, overt, covert, institutional, must stop.
The breath of Jesus is breathed onto his church to empower us to draw deeply into the presence and vision of God, to listen, to be connected, to worship. But our worship is for a purpose, it is to empower us to be strengthened and go out into the world. We end our worship by saying “Send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory.”
This is encapsulated in the Great Commission, Matthew 28: 16 -20. Through our worship we are being empowered to be ambassadors of Jesus, to go out and “to make disciples of all nations, baptising in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that [Jesus] has commanded [us]”. Today we are especially mindful that part of that work is to bring peace to people, and into God’s world. Mindful of the lack of peace in society, in our world, in individual lives, it is peace that we see in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who, as perfect community, and in perfect unity, provide our model to be church, as we seek to build the kingdom of God, seeing the justice of Jesus reflected in all areas of our society and in the world.
As we live our Christ empowered lives this week, may we go out in name of the Holy Trinity to bear the love, the mercy, the forgiveness and above all the peace of God in our words, our thoughts and our deeds.
Sermon for Sunday 7th June 2020 – Trinity Sunday
This Sunday’s Sermon was given by Lucy Cleeve
The Great Commission
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.
When Arani asked me to speak about this passage, he said “it’s very inspiring!” And he’s right – it is: ‘The Great Commission!’ But it’s also quite tricky and requires a bit of unpicking.
How do we make sense of Jesus’ instruction to make disciples of all nations? How do we apply it to our lives when we are so painfully reminded of the intergenerational injustices caused by colonialism, and in which the history of Christian mission has played so large a part? As Desmond Tutu pointed out, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
What do Jesus words mean during a time of lock down, and in an age when the realities of pandemic and climate change make international travel ethically dubious if not impossible?
What does it mean to ‘make a disciple’ anyway? What does it involve?
This events in this passage take place shortly after Easter – probably on the Tuesday or Wednesday. In Matthew’s account, it’s the first time that Jesus has appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. Earlier in this chapter, an angel of the Lord and then Jesus have appeared to the two Mary’s on Easter Sunday outside the empty tomb and instructed them to tell the disciples to travel from Jerusalem to Galilee, where they will see him. On their journey, which probably took a couple of days, the disciples would also have remembered Jesus’ words on the night of his arrest, recounted in Matthew Chapter 26:32, when he told them that he would rise from the dead and then meet them in Galilee. And when they do see him, they worship him – but some doubted. How are we to understand this? Does Matthew mean that some of the disciples didn’t recognise Jesus? Or that they doubted it was him? Did they think that they were hallucinating, and that Jesus wasn’t really there – that it was all in their imagination?
The original Greek text can give us some insight here. The word which is typically used for ‘doubt’ in the New Testament is diakrino, whilst the word which is used here is distazo. Scholars have pointed out that the word distazo is closer in meaning to ‘hesitation’ – it contains the meaning we express when we say, “It’s too good to be true,” or “Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” when our brains are still trying to process what we see before our eyes. I think it’s also possible that the disciples simply don’t know how to respond to the resurrected Jesus – just as we sometimes don’t know how to worship, or how to pray into a particular situation, or what to say to God. I actually feel a lot of sympathy for those disciples, and I think that sense of clumsiness in worship, and the lag in the time between needing to respond to a situation and working out theologically how to respond to a situation, is something many of us can relate to – particularly in these strange and unsettling times when we’re having to find different ways to worship, and as we grapple with how to act in and pray for our beautiful yet broken world.
I think that Jesus gets this. And so, he teaches and encourages his disciples, including those who are hesitant, and he fills in some of that theology that they are still processing. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” In this statement, he reveals his divinity and his authority over death. And “therefore” he tells them, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Jesus is giving the disciples a mini exposition of the trinity: All authority in Heaven and on Earth is invested in God the Son. Salvation, through baptism, is in the name of all three persons of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. But the words of the incarnate son, the words which Jesus spoke to the disciples before his death and resurrection – they also have authority, and the disciples are to use them as the basis of their teaching. And he promises them, as he promises us, that he will be with them always, even to the end of the age.
So, what about the instruction to go and make disciples of all nations? First of all, Jesus seems to be making it clear that the gospel is for everyone, for all nations, not just for the Jewish people. The disciples are to be generous in sharing the gospel beyond their own communities. And I think that’s something we can apply in our own lives today. It’s always important to remind ourselves that the church also exists for people outside it – it’s not just a club for “preaching to the converted”.
How then, do we deal with the problem of proselytism in a multi-cultural society, whilst also being obedient to our Great Commission? There is some advice in 1 Peter 3, verse 15 that I find myself returning to time and again, in which the author of the letter writes, “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” These words seem to suggest that the appropriate context for sharing the gospel is in response to a question. And this seems to be in step with the approach that has developed within forms of Chaplaincy ministry, which I believe are increasingly relevant today. A chaplain is typically based in a work or educational or some other public context outside the church. Their role is to be servant-hearted, striving to be pastorally proactive and spiritually reactive. I think that’s a good place for each of us to start, as we think about our own role in mission – it’s also something we can do in our local neighbourhoods, during lockdown. We can be servant hearted. We can be pastorally pro-active, responding to the physical and emotional needs we see all around us. And we can do this, whilst simultaneously challenging and resisting any form of cultural imperialism that masquerades as Christian Mission. And if we do all this prayerfully, with hope and reverence for Christ in our hearts, our neighbours may well ask us why.
The final question I posed at the start was, what does it mean to ‘make a disciple’ anyway? What does it involve? It’s often said that everyone needs a Paul, a Barnabas and a Timothy (or as I like to say, everyone needs a Phoebe, a Priscilla and a Junia). What this means, is that everyone needs a mentor, an associate and an apprentice. Each of us received the gospel from another person and we all need someone to teach and mentor us, to build us up in our faith. We also all need someone who can work alongside us and encourage us in the work of the gospel. And we also need someone to whom we can pass on the wisdom and knowledge God has given us. I believe this is a wise model for Christian growth and discipleship and I encourage us, as a church, and as individuals, to prayerfully consider what structures can we put in place to encourage each other, to be accountable, to grow and mature. Making disciples isn’t a one-off event. Being a disciple isn’t a solitary activity. It takes time, and care and commitment. But it is what we have been commissioned for.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Sunday 31st May 2020 – Pentecost
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
How do we celebrate Pentecost at this time of lockdown?
Pentecost is often viewed as an inversion of the narrative of the Tower of Babel, when all human language became confused, leading to separation and incomprehension. Babel was built upon the slogan of: ‘Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower in the heavens, so we may make a name for ourselves’
As Pentecost erupts, in a veritable colourful festival of movement, colour, fire, wind and light, those gathered in Jerusalem suddenly understand each other, even with diverse mother tongues. At Pentecost, the gospel is accessible to every language represented: the Holy Spirit breaks down all barriers of language, race and nationality, pointing people to Jesus Christ. At Pentecost, the identity of Christians is as followers of Christ, not by ethnicity, class, race, gender or language.
I have ministered largely in diverse multi-cultural churches. In these settings Pentecost is a joyful celebration, celebrating unity in Christ, as different nations are brought together. Church members arrive in national dress, participate in worship, share in the ultimate sacrament of unity, Holy Communion. Afterwards there are flags, food from round the world, conversation across cultures, the breaking down human-made barriers of prejudice and separation.
This year will feel more like Babel than Pentecost, as we cannot celebrate collectively. Churches are making the most of modern technology, which has enabled some sense of connectivity. Yet, this year, Christians will not be able to party together, celebrating the joy of belonging to Christ. This may be a time to monitor our worship to assess who is involved; could there be testimonies of someone who has fled persecution and has now found release in Christ? Such moments are always uplifting yet salutatory, as we hear of the cruel and destructive capabilities of fallen humanity, or songs in different languages? These apply just as much to churches that are more monocultural, to remember before God the persecuted church.
A much-observed conundrum facing online worship focuses around participation. Multiple groups are excluded from worship as they do not have the prerequisite technical skills, desire or internet access. I was speaking recently to an Iranian refugee, who said how much he missed church, for him a sense of ‘family’, of seeing friends across cultures, and the opportunity to grow in his Christian faith. He now feels “bored and sometimes depressed”, unable to access the Z word service as he does not have broadband or enough data. Many churches have reached out wider through technology and this is a good thing, but definite groups are left out. Even singing hymns has to be done on mute, lest Haydn sounds like Schoenberg, due to time lapses in cyberspace. A friend with autism rang me, anxious that he could not play his guitar in a worship band. There is good pastoral care, but the sense of community and routine is missing.
How will we celebrate Pentecost this year? Perhaps begin with who is missing. Some churches are even collecting old iPads to help inclusion. Others, more elderly, are content watching services on television, but value the phone calls and letters they receive. Prayer walls and prayer chains reassure people that they belong.
The coming of the Holy Spirit led to a very radical sense of community, very different to the individualism of Babel and our current lockdown world. One of the realities of lockdown is that social inequalities have become even more manifest. The disproportionate number of those from BAME backgrounds dying from Covid-19, social factors including overcrowding, those having to work to keep the NHS and basic infrastructure running are some of the many factors which have come to the fore. Added to that, there is serious food poverty, domestic violence, job losses, and even more marked inequality in education. I am drawn to the South African missiologist, David Bosch, who commented:
‘If rich Christians today would only practice solidarity with poor Christians – let alone the billions of poor people who are not Christians – this in itself would be a powerful missionary testimony and a modern-day fulfilment of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth’*
I have noticed that the news has become very centred on the virus, what is happening here and now, that there is little global news. As churches, we are able to bring a global perspective to our prayers, remembering, and if necessary, campaigning on global issues which still go on. For example, in India, Arundhati Roy has described the lockdown as ‘biblical’ in the Financial Times; it has led to ‘physical compression on an unthinkable scale’ **. The streets may be empty but millions in poverty remain powerless, hungry, and cramped into tiny unhygienic spaces.
The early church did share everything and was outward-looking and missional from the beginning. A number of elements contributed to the church’s remarkable growth: deep prayer and worship, sacrificial fellowship (putting the needs of others and of the community above their own needs), sharing food and Holy Communion. Most radically, ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need’.
The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. It is more holistic than just meeting together and encompasses sharing at two levels: in prayer and worship; sharing food and other possessions. The former is complex at present, but the latter is possible. We may find we are not spending on meals out, culture, holidays. I include myself here. As the social inequalities widen, those of us who have more can be challenged to the concept of sacrificial generosity in Acts 2, through looking out for parishioners and church members, acts of service and shopping, donating to food banks, homeless charities and refugee groups. In this way we can celebrate the joy of togetherness at Pentecost. Pentecost is a reminder to look outwards, to look toward the power of God erupting into this world through the Holy Spirit, radically transforming society.
6 May 2020
Rev Arani Sen is author of ’Holy Spirit Radicals: Pentecost, Acts and Changed Society’ (MD Publishing 2018). He is Area Director of Ministry in the Two Cities of London and Rector of St Olave Hart Street.
* David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (New York: Orbis, 1991) p. 118.
**Arundhati Roy Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’ Financial Times 20 March 2020, accessed 24 April 2020
Sunday 24th May 2020 – 7th Sunday of Easter
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
Sunday after THE ASCENSION
The third panel of the east window quadriptych at St Olave Hart Street demonstrates the ascended Christ, resplendent in all his glory. Our window reflects triumph against adversary; engraved is an inscription giving God thanks for the rebuilding after the horrific destruction of the Blitz in 1941. Most significantly, the risen ascended Christ embodies the text: “He had presented Himself alive after His suffering, with many convincing proofs, appearing to them for 40 days and speaking of the things concerning the Kingdom of God.”
The text is a quote from the conversation that Jesus had with Mary Magdalene when He talked with her as “the gardener” immediately after He had been raised. Go and tell my disciples that “I ascend to My Father and your father, to my God and to your God.” It could not have been clearer. But when it happened perhaps, they were transfixed and stupefied. Certainly, the angels told them not to stand there just gazing; it is time to be prepared for action, for service, for mission.
Just before the transfiguration, Jesus referred to his Ascension in a discussion with his disciples on their being prepared to carry their cross (Matthew 16 24-27). His followers needed to see the necessity of being sure not to lose but rather to gain their souls, because Christ is returning.
No doubt those who were there at the Ascension were stupefied, stunned and shocked that the resurrected Christ was now going back to His Father in heaven, once and for all. However, it was not the end of an era because they had just been given their commission: “Go into all the world making disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and he Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”. (Matthew 28.20)
The Bible tells us that after Jesus had been hidden by a cloud the two supernatural messengers promised that one day Jesus would return in glory, as He had as in the parable of the bridegroom, returning unannounced. Both the ascension and the return of Christ are essential tenets of the Christian faith and encourage us to live in ways that would glorify Christ. Above all we are called to serve him, to be ready and receptive to the power and eruption of the Holy Spirit. A mission is about to begin, a mission that will change lives, change injustice, change the world forever. We too can be part of that and indeed that is our calling: to act, to follow, to herald in the Kingdom of God.
Sunday 17th May 2020 – 6th Sunday of Easter
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
At this time, in the church calendar, we prepare for Ascension Day, then Pentecost; it is a time to reflect upon Jesus preparing his disciples to serve without him; to be disciples empowered by the Holy Spirit to do his work. This is our ultimate purpose, to be Jesus’ agents of mission and change. John’s message focuses us on Jesus, fully human and fully divine, able to transform the world through transformed people.
Part 1: If you love me
Jesus tells his disciples: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. We can be moved by passages like this through their beauty and feel emotionally fulfilled. This is eros love that leaves us with a warm feeling of emotional connection or agape love as we commune with our close one in community.
However, Jesus, he does not use the word love as an emotion. Love has to do with actions. The verb used for love here is a present continuous, an ongoing action. If you are loving me constantly, this is what you will keep dong. Jesus’ love is ongoing, it does not stop. In the latter part of John’s gospel, Jesus leaves the disciples with two fundamental parting instructions: “Love one another as I have loved you.” The second is, “Go, and make me, Jesus, known.”
For Jesus, if we love him, we show this by loving one another, and by spreading the love of Jesus into the world. But Jesus does not send us unprepared. There is nothing worse than being given a task for which we are unprepared. We recall school exams- not being prepared. In a RE exam, one student writing about miracles, wrote: When water freezes you can walk on it. That is what Christ did long ago in wintertime.
When we are out of our depth and we are supported we feel better and reassured, able to continue with what we have been called to do.
The Holy Spirit
Jesus does not leave us alone, Jesus leaves us with the spiritual force of the Holy Spirit; our “Advocate,” a kind of legal term, that God stands up for us; that the Holy Spirit speaks through us, gives us words to say as we share our love for him with others. In other translations of the bible Paraclete is translated as Helper or Counsellor, one who advises us, guides us, leads us into wisdom. In Acts 2, there is a sense of being strong or courageous together. Courageous to face the truth because we are not alone.
We will have the very Spirit of God with us, so that we be empowered against, all the odds, to proclaim Jesus Christ, as the early church did. Through the Holy Spirit’s power, we leave ourselves open to be transformed within ourselves, to be empowered and courageous to do God’s work, his mission. The Holy Spirit will connect us to God through Christ, precisely so we are not alone, in the knowledge that God is with us and God sends us in his power.
I end with A prayer of Thomas Ken:
Glory to you, O Champion of all Loves, who for our sake endured the cross, encountered the enemy and tasted death. Glory be to you, O King of all Kings, who for our salvation wrestled with principalities and powers, subdued the forces of hell and won the greatest of all victories. To you be all praise, all glory and all love; now and for ever. Amen. Thomas Ken, 1637-1711.
Sunday 10th May 2020 – 5th Sunday of Easter
Dr Jim Harris – Reader and LLM, St Olave Hart Street
Seeing the Whale
In the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is this little, seventeenth-century Dutch painting, A View of Scheveningen Sands, painted by Hendrick van Anthonissen in 1641.
In 2014, the painting went to be cleaned and, as she started to remove the old varnish, the conservator, Shan Kuang, noticed something unusual about the surface. It turned out that not only were there people on the beach, but also a whale. Really. An enormous whale that someone had painted over, long before it arrived in Cambridge in 1873. No-one knows why. Perhaps the idea of a beached whale was thought too morbid for such an otherwise unexceptionable seascape. Whatever the reason for hiding the whale, though, the conservator was the first person in over 200 years to look at the picture closely enough to see it.
That kind of careful looking is at the centre of my teaching at the Ashmolean Museum. It’s a straightforward process: I encourage my students to examine the objects they’re studying as closely as they can, and to ask questions of them. What is it made of? How is it put together? Has it ever been changed or damaged? Once the physical facts are established it’s easier to ask the other, more difficult questions. What is it for? Why was it made? What does it mean?
The trouble is, at Oxford, most of my students are pretty smart and sometimes they like to get straight down to saying what they think they know, without really looking at all.
And although I’m the one teaching them, I often find that I’m the same; not necessarily with the objects in the Museum but with people, with the news, with the world. I see my neighbours head off to the park, glance at the TV, skim the paper or graze idly on twitter and form my opinions on the basis of little more than a hunch. I mutter and bark at disingenuous politicians, without stopping to look properly or ask sensible questions. At a moment like this, conditioned by fear and insecurity, it’s especially easy to retreat behind prejudice and preconception.
Now, in common with pretty well everybody, I like to think that my prejudices are of an acceptable sort: I’m a liberal-minded academic who doesn’t want to hurt or offend. But I’m as knee-jerk and thoughtless in my instinctive responses as anyone. I listen to the arguments, but I shut out the bits I disagree with. I get the picture. But I don’t see the whale.
This isn’t a new problem and it isn’t limited to the way we see the world or judge our neighbours. In Isaiah 42,20, the prophet complains about the Israelites, ‘You have seen many things, but you pay no attention’. And in today’s Gospel, John 14, 1-14, it’s possible to sense a similar frustration in Jesus, when Thomas and Philip fail to see what has been right in front of them through all their time together. No matter how clearlly he tried to explain himself to them, his friends remained obtuse almost to the point of stupidity. Eventually, to try to jolt them out of their doziness, Jesus pointed to the most blindingly obvious aspect of his ministry: ‘at least believe on the evidence of the miracles’.
The evidence of his relationship to his Father wasn’t just in the miracles Jesus performed, though. It was in every part of his life, his words, his work and his behaviour. In everything he said, he spoke the truth of his Father God. In everything he did he manifested the power of his Father God. In every relationship he formed he demonstrated the character of his Father God. His will, his purpose and his being were one with his Father God.
Yet despite all this, when Jesus spoke of his Father, Philip leapt to the conclusion that in order to see him he need to look elsewhere, to be shown something else, to be told some secret that would unlock the mystery. There was no secret, though, and there was no hidden mystery. There was just the truth: that anyone who had seen Jesus had already seen the Father. The whale was always there if you looked closely enough.
This is an adaptation of a piece written for the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show in August 2015. The scripts of my contributions to Pause for Thought are published here at theteachingcurator.com.
Sunday 3rd May 2020 – 4th Sunday of Easter
Dr Jim Harris – Reader and LLM, St Olave Hart Street
John 10, 1-10
1 ‘Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.’ 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. 7 Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
The Good Sheep
What is the life of a sheep? It seems to me that the life of the sheep is to be free.
Sheep are, for the most part, animals that can be left to their own devices. They’re pretty self sufficient and they are pretty sturdy, so they don’t always need to be too what to do or where to go. They have good instincts for food, shelter and survival. Recently, there was a tv programme that gave some insight into the lives of sheep, and the lives of their shepherds – you may have seen it: The Great Mountain Sheep Gather. It followed a flock of 500 Herdwick sheep on Scafell Pike in the Lake District. Now, these sheep who wander the fells and mountains are not constrained. They are not kept in a pen and they are not told where to go and what to do. They have the freedom of the hills and all the self-determination and dignity that goes with it.
But every spring, the shepherd goes up into those beautiful, rugged high places and calls the sheep down to be shorn. He follows them, finds them, gathers them, nudges them and leads them until, as Graeme Virtue wrote in the Guardian, the shepherd and his team of dogs and helpers arrive at, “the shared relief of navigating every animal safely through the fell gate, after which the bleak wildness gradually gave way to fields and paddocks more visibly shaped by man.” There were three things that struck me about those sheep:
• First, that it would be impossible to gather them if they weren’t willing to be gathered: the terrain is too hard and the sheep too obstinate.
• Second, that it would be impossible to gather them if they didn’t know who was calling: they would simply wander off, distracted by a clump of heather or a tussock of grass.
• And third, it would be impossible to see them home if they didn’t stick to the path after they’d set off: there are too many places to fall, too many hidden spots to get lost in.
Now, freedom, beauty and dignity notwithstanding, it’s a tough life up on that hill. The last time I saw Scafell Pike before that programme was in the autumn of 2018 when I climbed it, in bitter weather – driving rain and high winds such that I could barely stand and at one point I found myself simply crouched in the lee of a rock with two other cowering walkers. We were pretty desperate. There was visibility of about 20 yards and no obvious path. My companions had a GPS locator, but no map. I had a map but no GPS locator. At that point, I’d have followed more or less anyone who told me they knew the way.
And the temptation was simply to head downhill.
But instead, we used the coordinates from the GPS locator to find our place on the map and we saw where the right path was. It was in the opposite direction to where we thought we should be headed but we found the path, trusted the map, stuck to it and we came safely down out of the weather and off the hill.
I don’t want to labour the point about the thieves and robbers who would try to steal the sheep. We are surrounded by those who would call themselves our shepherds and we know who they are. And I don’t want to labour the point that our true shepherd is Jesus; that he is our guide to the path; that he is the gate by which we enter into the safety of the sheepfold. I just want to say something about what it means to be one of Jesus’s sheep – and to do that I’ll take three very brief lessons from the sheep of Scafell Pike themselves.
1. We are called to be obstinate in hard terrain.
• Being a sheep can sometimes be a miserable business and the sheep fold, with its shelter from the storm and the warmth of all the other sheep around is a very appealing place when you’re up on the mountain.
• But, like the sheep, we need to be discerning about who we listen to – and when the voice is the wrong one, when it suggests a path we don’t recognise or promises an easy route home, we need to stick it out, obstinately, no matter how tough the terrain, or else risk falling a very long way from a very high place.
2. We are called to listen to the shepherd and to be prepared to be led.
• It’s not just recognising Jesus voice that matters – it’s our willingness to turn round from whatever we’re doing and actually listen to him, not just as background noise but as the focus of our attention so we can really hear what he’s saying in all the wind and weather of the mountain.
3. We are called to follow the shepherd and trust that he will lead us the right way.
• It’s not just hearing Jesus voice that matters. It’s not even enough to listen to him and learn from him, as if he were a good teacher, showing us how to look after ourselves in a wild place, a bit like some sort of Bear Grylls survival guru.
• What’s vital is being prepared to leave the place we started, to take the path he shows us and actually follow him.
Because although all the paths in the wild places are hard, and none of them are obvious, it is Jesus’ path that will lead us home and it is Jesus’ path that will lead us to fullness of life. And that life, like the life of the sheep on Scafell Pike, will sometimes be tough – but it is a spacious life of freedom, beauty and dignity, no matter where we find ourselves wandering.
Sunday 26th April 2020 – 3rd Sunday of Easter
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
Reflection, The Road to Emmaus
This is a powerful, emotional and heart-rending story. The story of two disciples on the Emmaus Road, unexpectedly surprised by joy (Luke 24: 13-35). The story begins with two despondent men, trudging on a journey to Emmaus – what they loved, what they hoped for, what they set their dreams upon, suddenly has gone. Jesus has gone, all the comradeship and the encouragement have been taken away by the brutal forces of Roman occupation and Palestinian persecution – humiliation, betrayal, trial, flogging, crucifixion.
Yet at the end of this story, they have become two men touched by warmth and burning with joy, realising that the stranger they have been sharing their wounded history with, the guest at their table, has been Jesus himself. They recognised him in the breaking of the bread. They were surprised by joy: “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us whilst he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ ”
The expression, Surprised by Joy, was written by the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis. It is the title of his autobiography, where he talks about his early days as an atheist as he went out of his way to avoid God. But God was seeking him out him, patiently, quietly, humbly; not forcefully: “You must picture me , alone in [my study], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
Gradually he came to admit that God was there, real and present; he knelt and prayed, he began to attend church and to read the gospels. The scriptures started to make sense to him. Lewis had acknowledged God; now God was inviting him to acknowledge his son. In a much-quoted passage in Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis related his final step into real joy: “I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”
The journey to Whipsnade Zoo was C.S. Lewis’ Emmaus Road. Emmaus Road experiences are the surprising encounters, quiet and unexpected, of Jesus Christ into our lives.
These disciples were deeply unhappy; they have just been bereaved in the most terrible circumstances, but they embraced a stranger, opened themselves up to new ways of thinking, generously offered up their food and their home.
Joy comes through sadness; joy comes to those who walk the way of Jesus. Joy lifts us in most profound moments of pain, of suffering. Joy comes through Jesus and through others, the quiet words of comfort, the unexpected phone calls, the bible verse that speaks into our hearts. Let us continue our journey, open to Jesus, and be ready to be surprised by joy.
Sunday 19th April 2020 – 2nd Sunday of Easter
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
John 20: 19 -31
In 1987, Terry Waite, serving as a hostage negotiator, on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, travelled to Lebanon to negotiate the release of hostages. While in Beirut, he himself was taken hostage, and spent almost five years in captivity, four of which were in solitary confinement. During his time in prison, he was blindfolded, beaten, and subjected to mock executions. For much of the time, he remained chained to a wall in a room without daylight.
Terry Waite may have spent much time in doubt – doubt that he could ever be free, doubt that he would ever see his children again, doubt that he would remain alive. Yet, through faith, prayer and the prayers of others, his doubt turned to joy, as he was finally released in 1991. In the power of the crucified and risen Christ, he pronounced a very profound on forgiveness:
“You can forgive, of course, and I do forgive – of course I do. That doesn’t mean to say you agree with what was done. That’s a different matter altogether.”
In the gospel today, we focus on Thomas, known as doubting Thomas. We should not belittle or demean Thomas, after all, he had witnessed the most brutal and cruel execution of his Lord. The disciples are fearful, doubting the future. They are locked in an upper room, afraid to go out, afraid of being taken captive themselves.
Thomas has heard from Mary Magdalene, “I have seen my Lord” but probably writes this off as a dream-like fantasy. But now, Jesus returns to his disciples, when they need him the most, when they are at their most vulnerable, and he offers them his peace. The last time they had seen this body and this face, they witnessed torture, deformity, and bloodshed. But now this resurrected body is wholeness itself; after his greeting, Jesus shows them his scars; they see the miracle of the resurrection.
Thomas still cannot believe this is Jesus: “Unless I see and touch the scars in his hands and plunge my own hand in that hole on his side, I will not believe it.” We cannot dismiss Thomas, in our rational thought processes. We, like Thomas, demand proof, the proof through three of our senses: seeing, touching, hearing. For us, the miracle is sensing, sensing the breath of the risen Christ through the gentle outpouring of the Spirit, bringing us reassurance, peace, and God’s presence.
The resurrected Christ, ever mindful of those he has chosen and loved, reveals himself completely to Thomas a week later. The disciples are all together again, Thomas among them, when Jesus appears again, this time to call them to his mission. He has come towards Thomas, turning to him immediately. “Bring your finger here and see my hands; bring your hand and plunge it in my side.”
Thomas, without needing to touch, cries out the one declaration of belief that matters: “My Lord and my God.” “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Jesus comes to us in our doubts and in our darkness, in our sufferings and our pains, and through the power of prayer, we encounter the resurrected Jesus who breathes the gentle gift of his Spirit on those who love him. That breath gives us life, gives us hope, gives us strength, to face every moment of this life on earth.
Sunday 12th April 2020 – Easter Sunday
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
John 20: 1-20
Over the period of Lent, wrought so harshly by the terrible affliction of Covid-19, I have often thought about Samuel Pepys, who lived through the Bubonic plague of 1665. As the Rector of St Olave Hart Street, it is not only fitting, but fascinating, that I muse on Pepys, as I work through the diaries.
Rather like Pepys, I am able to access the gallery directly from the rectory – Pepys had some kind of bridge to the upper gallery from the naval offices on Seething Lane. This provides a peaceful and beautiful vantage point for prayer and worship, with and on behalf of all of you, as I am able to look towards the beautiful stained-glass east window depicting Christ crucified and Christ risen.
In Pepys’ time, The Bubonic Plague of 1665 killed an estimated 31,159 people, 15% of the total population, 527 of whom are buried in our churchyard at St Olave. Pepys notes with sadness that some of his close friends and colleagues have themselves been taken, and increasingly notes the fatal spread of the plague:
‘Thus this month ends with great sadness upon the publick through the greatness of the plague everywhere through the kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase’. (31 August 1665).
We are living through an unprecedented occurrence, a state of fear and lockdown; fear of others; fear for our loved ones; fear for those who serve in the NHS and in public service, of whom too many have been taken.
Jesus’ own disciples, lived in fear and terror, following his brutal crucifixion before their very eyes. They stare death in its face, fearing they too may be arrested and executed, for following Jesus. On the day of resurrection, Mary Magdalene arrives early, to tend the tomb of Jesus. Her inner world, her thoughts can only have been shrouded in darkness, expressed most poignantly in the words: “They have taken my Lord away!”
On that first day of resurrection, it is still physically dark. She is still in the deep clutch of grief, horror and disbelief of what has happened. The images of brutality would have given anyone who witnessed them nightmares and mental turmoil for years to come. For her it is dark, dark, dark, in her inner being.
Holy Saturday, yesterday, reminds us of the need to wait patiently for the dawn. And then comes that time when we discover that God is not absent, even in the darkness. Something has changed. The light begins to flicker.
At the time of the plague, people lived in isolation, mourning and privation, but we sense a note of hope and relief on New Year’s Eve 1665, as Pepys writes:
‘But many of such as I know very well, dead; yet, to our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to be open again’.
Pepys’ tone is hopeful and propitiates that life will resume, albeit slowly. We too wait in the hope of resurrection, in the confidence that light is stronger than darkness, that our prayers before God sustain us and keep us in a place of light amidst our daily struggles.
For Mary, suddenly from the flicker of uncertainty, the light dawns; she can finally perceive it is Jesus. He is alive and he addresses her by name. She has seen the light; her Lord and Master is alive. Her deepest hopes have more than come to fruition.
This Easter may we live in the hopeful truth of Jesus’ resurrection that light is stronger than darkness, as John begins and ends his gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Sunday 5th April 2020 – Palm Sunday
Dr Jim Harris – Reader and LLM, St Olave Hart Street
One of my worst characteristics as a boy was that my intense desire to start things was never matched by my capacity to concentrate long enough to finish them. My childhood was littered with half-made models, the detritus of hobbies hastily begun and then dropped as soon as the next shiny, interesting thing came into view.
My room was full of collections, of bottles, egg cups, stamps and fossils, none of which stuck with me long enough to grow into something substantial.
It is strange to find myself now, as we all do, engaged in a project of indeterminate length, in which we have no choice but to participate and in which the outcome of not approaching it wholeheartedly is too grim to contemplate.
This is a moment for commitment and for solidarity – not just with those in our immediate surroundings – the families with whom we are isolated – but also those we cannot see: our neighbours and friends, who all suddenly seem so distant; our wider families; this family. Perversely, it’s our solidarity in avoiding each other that maintains the possibility of our all coming together again.
The narrative of Holy Week, beginning today on Palm Sunday with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the crowds as their saviour, the Son of David, the Promised One coming in the name of the Lord, and ending in the dark absence of next Saturday, with Jesus sealed in his tomb after his execution on Friday is a story of apparently wholehearted commitment and its loss under pressure
Today, we see Jesus friends obedient to his strange request to fetch the donkey, certain that he knows what he’s doing. We see crowds of people attaching themselves vocally and publicly to his cause. We see a shared project, a collective act of worship, a community in action.
Yet the rest of the week sees conflict, as Jesus challenges the authorities, challenges the economic and political bases of the temple culture, challenges people about their personal behaviour and challenges his friends about their preparedness to follow him truthfully and faithfully, no matter what.
By Thursday night, Jesus closest friend Peter is denying him and by Friday afternoon, only a handful, including his Mother Mary and his friend John remain as he suffers and dies.
It’s easy to commit in the celebration of solidarity that comes with a hopeful project. Believe me, all my childhood hobbies were the one I was going to really stick with. It is much harder to remain faithful when circumstances change and the going gets tough, when the model doesn’t seem to fit together or when the project becomes too complicated and demanding.
The challenge of Palm Sunday is to stay the course. It is not simply to welcome Jesus, not simply to rejoice in his coming, but to attach ourselves to his person and cause such that we will not leave him as the week goes on. It is to maintain our commitment in the face of discomfort and privation, in the face of pain and fear.
We who are living in a time of pain and fear, of something that has gone far beyond inconvenience and discomfort, are asked to commit to a strange and alien way of life for a short time, with the hopeful promise that we will see one another again, healthy and whole, in a safe, secure future.
With Jesus, the commitment is longer: not just this week, or even twelve weeks or twelve months, but a lifetime.
But the promise is greater too, of a life fulfilled and rich, even in the direst of circumstances; of a community of support and love even when separated and dispersed; of a world in which the care of the weak and the vulnerable is a priority, the priority, all the time not just in a crisis.
When we celebrate Jesus on Palm Sunday then, it is not as the people of Jerusalem did, because he is this week’s thing.
We celebrate him because he comes to call us into a new and challenging life. Our job in that new life is to hold fast to our Lord and to each other and to bring one another and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the whole of creation, to the promise and possibility not of this Sunday with its vain hope and shallow commitment, but of the next.
Sunday 29th March 2020 – Passion Sunday
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
John 11: 1-45
Today is the 5th Sunday of Lent, also known as Passion Sunday. It is named Passion Sunday, because as reach closer to Holy Week, we begin to focus more intuitively on the “passion” – the arrest, trial and suffering. The passion ends with crucifixion, Christ’s ultimate suffering and sacrifice for us all. The Passion is enwrapped by longer story and can only be interpreted by Resurrection. The word Passion originates from the Latin word for suffering; the passion is movingly expressed through all four gospels, but also very much in art and music, such as Bach’s St John’s Passion. Although we are disconnected from each other at this time, we can still share in our common worship. To this end, the service sheet enables you to experience the music we would have worshipped with this Sunday via the wonders of the internet.
This year Passion is particularly poignant, as the whole world is faced with the questions of mortality. Each day we hear on the news of thousands of deaths. Even on breakfast news, I heard someone say “In hospital I was faced daily by my mortality” testifying of their experiences of Coronavirus. In our comfortable, materialistic and individualistic society, when even through medical and technological advances, death can be prolonged, suddenly mortality comes a word on the tongues of most people.
For Christians mortality is part of our vocabulary and is measured as microscopic in relation to immortality. On Ash Wednesday by being marked by an ash cross we are reminded “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”. We are reminded that this life is a gift from God, short, to be used for his glory and purposes. It begins with repentance and return to the suffering Christ on the cross. As Peter reminds us in his epistle: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed”. (1 Peter 2:4).
The gospel reading today is very much about facing our mortality in relation to eternity. Mary and Martha, mourning the unexpected death of their brother, Lazarus, received powerful and meaningful consolation from Jesus. He empathises, he understands Mary and Martha’s pain at the suddenness of their brother’s death, yet he offers indescribable comfort and life-giving hope: “I am the resurrection and the life”. He said to them “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”.
As we prepare for Holy week, we meditate on the brutal death of Jesus on the cross for each one of us, a death wrought out of human jealousies and power struggles. We are called to use this time aright, to pray, to mediate, to focus on the suffering of Christ for each one of us, as we live in the knowledge of the hope that Jesus offers Mary and Martha, the hope of transformation, that our lives will witness to the transformation of this world through Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended.
Sunday 22nd March 2020 – Mothering Sunday
Rev’d Arani Sen – Rector, St Olave Hart Street
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’
Today is Mothering Sunday, for children and adults, it is a joyful day, a day of celebration and thanksgiving, of buying or making gifts, of acts of love, of lunch invites and making breakfast in bed. It is a day when we celebrate the one who has brought us into the world, and the one who nurtures us, cherishes us. Of course, we live in a fallen and messed up world, and not everyone has had a positive image of motherhood. For others, and I include myself here, our mothers have gone before us, and in our grief and sadness, we remember them with thanksgiving before God.
This year Mothering Sunday is unlike any other in history. Many mothers will be alone, their loved ones unable to visit them in the current devastating Covid-19 pandemic. Most of us are immobile, at home, some of us lonely and isolated, so we feel helpless in what we are unable to do. Although we cannot share physical touch and contact with our loved ones far away, in this age of technology, it is simpler to keep in touch. We can pray without ceasing, and we can connect in Christian love. At this time of national and global emergency we are reminded to show love and compassion to our neighbours.
Isaiah 40 to 65 contain great words of comfort to a nation that was in exile, well out of their normal comfort zones – abandoned, brutalised, and captive- God’s people became prisoners in foreign lands, where they felt isolated and desperate.
Yet now, God speaks to his people words of comfort and hope, the image of a loving mother to her children. “You are mine” means also “I have redeemed you” (43:1). I am with you, I will not forsake you, I will care for your deepest needs. These are words of great reassurance, apt for us at this name of uncertainty, anxiety and distress: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you” and most significantly, that like a loving parent, God knows all our needs and longings, everything within our inner being: “I have called you by name, you are mine”.
As we offer precious gifts to the one we love, a sign of something to be treasured, we remember that God says: “You are precious in my eyes, you are honoured, and I have loved you” What does it mean to be precious? “Precious” means that there is a price, a ransom to be paid. God’s love for Israel prompts God to redeem them, and this is good news, but this love is sacrificial. This points us to the suffering and agony Jesus went though on the cross, to set us free and to redeem us.
Isaiah’s understanding of salvation points us to the God of glory, the creator and saviour of all, Jesus Christ. God speaks here with love, longing and hope for a better future after the struggles and pains of exile. We are reminded that the uncertainties of this world are temporal, and that God has plans and purposes for his people, that he is our hope and our strength, our confidence is in him alone. Spend time meditating today on this beautiful and life-giving scripture, drawing out what Gods may be saying to you today and into this week.