Sunday, 18 May 2014

Baptism of Edward Barblett, Annabel & Jack Speakman 18th May 2014

Our two scripture readings set for this morning's Eastertide eucharist are about building and travelling which are metaphors of both Christianity and of life in general.

‘Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house’ says St Peter to those new in faith in what was probably like this morning a sermon at a baptismal eucharist.

‘In my Father’s house are many dwelling-places – [literally staging posts]’ Jesus says in the Gospel of St John Chapter 14. ‘I go and prepare a place for you...I am the way, and the truth and the life’.

We need in life both a sense of belonging and purpose. These come for Edward and the twins from mum and dad but, most importantly, from where mum and dad place themselves and from the journey they're on.

For the record Claire and David are literally placed very accessibly in Rose Cottage on the Green. Sandy and Lisa are down at Medhurst farm which is more of a hidden treasure. I need to watch my way in and out of the main road!

Both sets of parents see themselves as part of that vast family extending in space across the world and in time down 20 centuries which is God's forever family, the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church'.

Talking of crossing the world we welcome visitors from Australia to support the Bartletts and Claire’s dad from New York. What an eventful year Claire and David have had with a move from London coupled to discovering she was pregnant then discovering there’d be twins! Claire speaks of Annabelle and Jack as a double blessing as she, with David enjoys the privilege and task of parenthood. For Lisa and Sandy there is a also deep gratitude for the gift of Edward for whom they’ve been waiting many years.

Both sets of parents are enjoying a new sense of belonging in our village which this morning extends into the church family here at St Giles. ‘Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house’ says St Peter. It is our prayer that they will find here a house of prayer that will kindle a sense of spiritual belonging which goes beyond the material order of things.

Three of the four parents are very involved in one material – oil! David as a ship broker is involved in moving oil. Sandy is company director of an oil company and Lisa finance director for a firm specialising in oil and gas. Claire’s work is in policy at the Department of Education.

Our readings speak of belonging and they speak of purpose. The Christian religion is supremely purposeful, it speaks of the universal purpose of all things and the best way of ordering them. It is as concerned with corporate finance and the best use of oil as it is with families, with encouraging the best use of our strengths in the workplace as well as the charity that begins and ends at home.

As I welcome relatives of the baptism candidates from the Roman Catholic tradition I am mindful of a key agency of that Church across the world, namely the Society of St Vincent de Paul which does a noble work among disadvantaged people. Its founder, the early 19th century French scholar and journalist Frederick Ozanam had a passion both to engage with ideas dismissive of the Church and to help lead a fuller consecration of Christians in service. In his writings on how Christian civilisation transformed the barbarians he countered Edward Gibbons’ claim that the Church has done more to enslave than to elevate the human mind. Rather like Karl Marx Ozanam saw that understanding the world was no less important than changing it to where it should be, and the foundation of the caring agency SVP, the Society of St Vincent de Paul is his legacy. This is my favourite quote from Frederick Ozanam:  ‘The question which divides men today is whether Society will be merely an immense exploitation for the benefit of the strongest or a consecration of everyone for the service of all’.

The sense of belonging and purpose we’re baptising Edward, Annabelle and Jack into this morning is allied with that vision which I know, from talking to them, that their parents own, a sense of life lent not possessed, lent ideally for work in God’s praise and service. Without that sense of service families, churches, nations and corporates fall short through exploitation. ‘From each according to his ability to each according to their need’ is another aspiration from a French source popularised by Marx which draws, as Ozanam does, on the sharing of goods that occurred in the early Church, and on and off ever since in Christian circles. I think of the gifts that arrive in the porch for Chichester Diocesan Family Support Work.

Today St Giles stands with Sandy and Lisa, David and Claire as they commit their children to the purposeful belonging which is Christianity. Their own gifts are already being employed to make a difference across the world and today will see a reconsecration of their strengths as they commit themselves to God on behalf of their children.

For these children we can have little idea of the work that lies ahead for them in 20 years time. At last week’s School Governors we were looking carefully at the New Curriculum from September this year. It has computer programming from the start of school life, something my son is doing at university!

At the start of my own scientific career Oxford University had one computer which was a whole house on the Banbury Road programmed by uniquely qualified technicians. I remember the wonder of getting it to print President Kennedy and Diana Dors out of noughts and crosses! Or getting a print out of the weather forecast! Now those unique computer programmers in a designated computer house have given way to every child a computer programmer and everyone a computer carrier (show iPhone)

Times change but values don’t inasmuch as they’re anchored in the age old truth of the God who loves us and calls us to his praise and service. At the heart of the baptism service is an affirmation of this truth which has such an impact on we who’ve woken up to it. Claire, David, Lisa and Sandy are here with their children out of gratitude to a loving God who’s privileged them to be parents. Our service affirms God’s love in Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth and the life. It affirms the best start in life for Annabelle, Jack and Edward. Even the prohibitions their parents will have to serve on them will be coloured by this sense of surrounding love. When scripture says ‘you shall not covet or steal or bear false witness’ its emphasis is on you rather than not.  

Because you are loved and precious to me…whatever: that phone doesn’t go under your pillow when you’re 12! Because you are loved you belong with people who worship: Sunday Club is fun because church is fun. Because you are loved by God he has given you ethical boundaries so that your relationships will be flourishing and not destroying. Etc, etc

Today is a new day in so many senses – new every morning is the love our waking and uprising prove – a new day opening up new possibilities in new lives and renewed possibilities in we more seasoned operators. Come, Holy Spirit, bless these children and all of us who stand by them!  

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Easter 3 4th May 2014

Over my Easter break I enjoyed reading Shirley du Boulay's 'The Silent Melody', a personal memoir of spiritual formation stretching back to the 1960s. It served for me as aide memoire so I found something of a reflection of my own soul's journey in its mirror.

The last half century has seen the decline of Christianity in our land, a greater sense of the other faiths it stands alongside and many new movements expressing interest in spirituality.

Through her production of religious programmes for the BBC Shirley du Boulay chronicled much of this, notably in her encounter with the Beatles when they met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Her book recalls her struggle to be a Roman Catholic and her commitment to inter faith engagement which has had major impact on her spiritual development.

I valued her story despite its conclusion - she is no longer a church member! I was blessed by much of the insight she provides in a well written book which has insight from her previous biographies of among others Dame Cicely Saunders and Desmond Tutu.

Shirley du Boulay starts her book dismissing what she calls 'Anglican vague broadmindedness' but she ends with something very much broader! She struggles with the variety of faiths, their evident spiritual fruitfulness and how that challenges obedience to any one of them.

What I found most interesting were her quotations from Gregory of Nazianzen, Thomas Traherne and others on the ultimate unknowability of God and how spiritual seekers can be united in such, I use invented commas, 'faith'.

The Christian tradition does acknowledge unknowability in God but it holds this in tension with his knowability in Jesus Christ through his Church. Her book blessed and humbled me, but saddened me in the erosion of Christian commitment it documents, and what I would call her very 'subjective' approach to God.

This is my lead in to the beautiful Gospel reading about the risen Lord's appearance to Cleopas and his companion on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. If ever there was a passage that affirmed the 'objectivity' of the presence of God in Christ it's this one from the pen of St Luke, Chapter 24 verses 13 to 35.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. This was to change - their subjective reflections on Easter weekend were to be enriched, augmented and challenged by discovering the objective presence of the Lord right there before them.

Luke's vivid narrative reflects the pattern of Christian worship both early and late so that the Lord Jesus is encountered objectively in two ways - the explaining of scripture and the breaking of bread.

What we are about this morning, what Shirley du Boulay sadly absents herself from nowadays, is engaging through preaching and sacrament with something or someone outside of ourselves who first appeared in this fashion to Cleopas and his companion on Easter Sunday.

Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures Luke records. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 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 while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”...and, Luke concludes '(They told the eleven) how the Lord Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Any relationship we have has a subjective and objective side apart of course from the rather ambiguous relationship we have with ourselves.

Through friendship and marriage others become our intimates, standing away from us yet near to us, so our subjective thoughts of them are balanced by their objective presence and communication to us. In the Christian religion talk of that balance of subjective and objective can still be used, even though God is no object we can see, handle or contain. As Shirley du Boulay affirms in her book God is beyond our being as 'the ground of our being'.

When God sent his Son Jesus Christ he was showing us his love objectively, that is outside of ourselves. Christ died, rose and passed into the sacraments so we encounter God from Easter on through the physical order primarily in the words of Scripture we hear and read and in the breaking of the eucharistic bread as well as in personal prayer and Christian fellowship.

Our relationship with God in Jesus Christ is a personal relationship with both a subjective and an objective side. God is 'in' me but God also stands 'away from' me, over against me, guiding me, loving me, chiding me.

What disturbs me about so much so-called New Age spirituality, in which Shirley has been immersed, is its reduction of the transcendent God to being like 'the genie in my lamp'. There is a loss of vision and a reduction or even domestication of God.

Some of my most telling encounters with God have been more like those of Cleopas, encounters coming from outside of myself from scripture, eucharist or in one case the leaves on a tree, that have woken me up to get going once more to serve God's way, which is a way beyond me taking me out of myself.

When we come to Church to worship we're reminded by the faith of those around us what we believe is part of something bigger. In hearing the sermon we see the words of the Bible striking us, exciting a fuller vision of God. In participating in the offering, blessing and consuming of bread and wine we meet God at a visceral level.

The road to Emmaus is my road, your road, week by week, as it was Cleopas' road that first Easter. It's a road where our subjective sense of God is built up healthily, as in any relationship, by encounter with God the awesome Friend who walks beside us.

This relationship, as our service reminds us, isn't just one-to-one. It is knowing the love of Christ, as Paul explains to the Ephesians, having the power to comprehend, with all the saints (with the whole church) ... the breadth and length and height and depth of his love that surpasses knowledge and fills us with all the fullness of God.

May Our Lord bless us as week by week he speaks to us through his word and comes to be our Food in the eucharist!

May our subjective perception of God expand and deepen through encounter with his objective presence we find here, where two or three are gathered together in his name, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all glory and honour henceforth and for evermore. Amen.