Blessed are the Left Behind

Sermon for ADVENT 2022

“Then two will be in the field: one will be taken and another left. Two women will be grinding meal together: One will be taken another left”

Whilst I was back home in England – despite stories you may have heard of chaos on the rail network – apart from on one day I had had little trouble travelling around. On that Sunday towards the end of my stay  was actually just a few miles from my destination when – late in the afternoon as the light was dimming, the train stopped. After a while we slowly made our way into the nearby station and then stopped again. After a wait of a few minutes we were informed that the train was going no further as there was a tree across the railway line.

What then? Well I made my way into the nearby village and found a bus was due to take me to Sheffield, my destination. Gradually a small crowd from the train gathered, but only a few of the couple of hundred possibly on the train. So the bus set off towards Sheffield, but in the direction of the train station . . . at each stop more and more folk got on . . . until we reached the stop outside the station . . . where there were about one hundred people waiting – all of whom bar a couple we had no choice but to leave behind . . . Being left behind is of course a source of some anxiety for us as human beings, and a careless reading of our gospel this morning might suggest that such anxiety is well placed . . .

This phrase ‘Left Behind’ is one which, as it has largely been used in Christian circles for many years is entirely back to front. There was a series of popular Christian books 20 or so years ago ‘The Left Behind series’, which played on fears of ‘being left behind’. Odd that they were so popular.

To paraphrase the idea, prevalent amongst Christians, a day will come when All the good Christian people will be taken and all the others will ‘Left Behind’. I wonder if you’ve come across this idea?

But it’s entirely wrong and is the product of the sort of false Christian consciousness which, as we’ve been exploring St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we’ve had cause to call into question. A consciousness so false that may leave many Christians puzzled to say the least when Jesus fails to recognize them. ‘ Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord! . . . and I will say to them, I never knew you. Away from me . . .’ Who then is ‘left behind’?

You see those ‘left behind’ have a very significant role in the culture into which Jesus is born – as in a deep sense he has in any culture, not least our own. Who are the Left behind?

Firstly think of our culture – the way in which the sudden acceleration in technology is leaving people behind, especially the poor and elderly . . . Who of us are not getting just a little exhausted by constantly having to update passwords, or losing them and everything that means. If ‘Everything is going digital’ is really what is happening, who is paying attention to those ‘Left Behind’?

But also, what is the character of those left behind? What is the character of those left behind say by the rapid rise in house prices? Or, again by rapidly rising food prices? What do they have in common?

To the culture of Jesus these words ‘One will be taken, another left’ would have had a very different resonance, to that of popular Christian literature. They would of course have no idea about airplanes from which without warning the pious Christin pilot would be taken, leaving behind the hapless pagan co-pilot, one of the early ‘incidents’ in the Left behind series, but more than that – they would have heard the words ‘One taken and another left’ very very differently with regard to the story of God . . .

Whilst I was in England I went to church a couple of times in a place where they weren’t using the lectionary but rather were having a preaching series on . . . Daniel . . . I could have groaned – I possibly did. I’m not sure how many times in church services and conferences and Christian gatherings I’ve heard all about Daniel and his friends, but possibly enough for ‘three score and ten, or fourscore if one is fortunate’.

For those who in the time of Jesus knew the Daniel story and there would be quite a few, it would be a go to for those in power, the Judeans, for it was their story.

But for the people of Samaria and Galilee, it was not their story. For in the so called exile of the South –  it was the powerful like Daniel and his friends who had been taken into captivity, upon their return they were for the first time – The Judeans . . . – it was the peasantry, the humble poor, the useless to modern society who had been left behind . . .

When Jesus arrives on the scene, this story of captivity and the long awaited restoration of the Judean Monarchy was The Context, not least with several other occupations having occurred since their return. But Judea and the culture of the Temple had proved oppressive to the poor . . . the left behind. After all the widow had put in all she had . . .

North of Judea – Samaria, and the hated Samaritans were the higgledy piggeldy hodge podge of a people who had been left behind . . . this perhaps throws more light on Jesus use of one of the Left Behind as the paragon of moral righteousness in the parable. One of those whom the Assyrians (Samaria was the Northern Kingdom) couldn’t be bothered to take – after all they weren’t the sort you needed to run a modern economy, or whose labour would produce much in the way of taxes. They were disposable . . . The Samaritan recognizes a fellow ‘nobody’ in the world’s eyes, abandoned and ‘left behind’ at the side of the road.

This is the context into which Jesus speaks the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. (Just to remind you, because this is Advent Sunday we have moved from Luke as our Gospel food, to Matthew) When Jesus says ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’, the word he uses is the description of those who are the people of the land. The people who were left behind . . . or, more precisely, those whose only hope is in God, the people of Jesus who dies commending himself entirely to God’s judgement and justice, for he cannot help himself . . .

This is Advent Sunday – the first Sunday of the Church’s year and we come to it in the season of preparing ourselves to receive Christ. That our hearts are a fit dwelling place for the presence of God, and our readings place this front and centre. As St Paul puts it, we are to live as in the day, that the secrets of our hearts when revealed do not bring upon us shame. That we are not caught up in foolish disputations, the sort which we spoke of last week, as St Paul says, ‘Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?’ Of course he is saying this to people who think they can help themselves and his words are shocking to those who seek to ‘live their own lives’, who have no intention of ‘being left behind’

For as the prophet says God will judge the nations with righteousness and the peoples with his truth. When God is our context, When God is the light of our life, both waking and sleeping His presence our might, when our inner attentiveness is towards his love, mercy grace and truth, that we are filled continually with his Life, then what people might do to us is of no consequence except as an occasion for us to love them, and be merciful towards them, perhaps because there is nothing else in truth we can do . . . seeing we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves . . .

Humanly speaking in Advent we look to the humility of Mary who as poor and humble looks with a clear eye to the Salvation of the God, to whom the eye of the mighty, the powerful, the wealthy and those who can help themselves is blind.

As Jesus says “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.

Blessed are all those who are left behind

Sermon at a Service of Thanksgiving for Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II

‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King’

One of the more remarkable aspects of the events of the last ten days has been how many people who said that they were surprised to be caught out by and moved, at the announcement of the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.

I’d like to suggest that there is nothing remotely surprising about this, and that the reason for this encompasses, yet lies far deeper than the simple surface assertion that her death connected us to the death of others we have known and loved, not least our own mothers and grandmothers.

For why we ought to ask, why this death? Why not the same deep response when we hear of any death? What is it that binds together so very many, even those who think the monarchy an anachronism, ‘out of place in the Modern World’? In this respect I’d like to draw our attention to the Queen’s Coronation, something which some of us gathered here might recall.

As I told a well educated young Christian man just the other day, to his surprise – what sets this ceremony apart, the creation of a new Sovereign, is that it is a religious ceremony.

It takes place in what is first of Christian worship, in a Church surrounded by Clergy. Politicians and other heads of State are reduced to the role of mere observers. This is first of all a Sacred Act, and the heart of the Coronation is that moment when the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints the Sovereign.

This Ceremony that goes back over a thousand years in the history of the British Isles to the Coronation of Athelstan, but in the deep memory of God’s people to the anointing of the Kings of Israel, David, and of Solomon about which we have heard this evening.

This deep root was foregrounded in Handel’s Coronation Anthem, ‘Zadok the priest’, written for the Coronation of George II, and which has been sung prior to that most sacred moment, not of crowning, but of the anointing of the Monarch at the Coronation ever since. The Crowning merely is the outward sign of the inward Grace conferred by the Sacramental anointing.

A sacred, a profoundly religious act.

The Church is that body which surrounds the Monarch – even to the grave. (The Bishop of Carlisle my home Diocese, is Clerk of the Closet to the Royal Household. Amongst his many duties which include oversight of all clergy for the royal chapels, he accompanied Her late Majesty’s coffin to its lying in state, will be in attendance at her funeral and will then accompany her to her final resting place in the Royal Vault at St George’s Chapel for the service of committal.)

Monarchy and Religion. Two ‘things’ which the received wisdom tells us are ‘anachronisms’ in this ‘Modern’ age, yet I suggest that this is a misunderstanding, not untypical of these days for they are in fact timeless. And that in itself is against the spirit of the age.

As one writer put it, during the seventy years of Her reign, “The Queen lasted. Nothing else did”.

This timelessness would direct our attention, were we are able to sustain it long enough, to that which Simply Is. For ‘Religion’ is that which binds together – it is about the very fabric of reality, the stuff of existence – that which Is.

Christianity is after all the very Structure of Reality – and from that structure, that fabric, ‘Monarchy’ speaks of the intersection of the Divine, and the Human – binding them together. The death of a Sovereign affects us all in ways we have perhaps lost the ability to speak, albeit ‘as through a glass darkly’. For The Sovereign is The Representative Human in so many ways.

My young Christian friend seemed rather troubled by the whole idea anyway – as if in some sense Monarchy was the conferring of absolute power, yet in that binding, the Divine right of Kings was not, the divine right to do as they pleased. That is to think purely humanly.

My young friend was confused by this very point. For to be truly human is to be Under God, not to carry our individual authority as in any sense separate. As Jesus, The God Man – reveals. ‘I only do what I see my Father Doing’

For the Primacy of the Worship of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ at the Coronation, and indeed in all that has followed the Queen’s Death including her funeral tomorrow,  locates us all and binds us all, including the Monarch Under God.

As The Queen implicitly defined and gave coherence to this Nation, so the dominant theme of that is of Servant of The Living God. An explicit Sovereignty which spoke of The Implicit Servant . . . the God who washes our feet.

I wish briefly to consider three words which in various ways were spoken powerfully to us in the Life and reign of Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. All three themselves sound anachronistic to our ears, but again I suggest that is because they direct our gaze to timeless truths which were central to the Reign of Queen Elizabeth.

The first word is ‘Duty’. In a culture which emphasises above all autonomy, and individual liberty and choice, the word Duty is heard as oppressive – and yet its roots suggest simply ‘an accordance with the real nature of things’. To Live dutifully is to enjoy the Freedom to do what is Right, in accordance with The Way Things Are. Here again, That Which simply Is.

We might say, to illustrate this, that it is the ‘Duty’ of rain to fall, and of the Sun to shine, and of humans to live and die, Duty, however we might hear the world in these days is simply ‘doing what in truth you are’, the True Liberty.

And how much more clearly do we see this in Monarchy, in a lineage that is by birth. Duty is not Choice, it is the Path that lies in front of you, a Way Given.

Although as we know the Queen was not born to ‘the man who would be king’, the abdication crisis precipitated by her uncle, King Edward VIII, meant that in that moment her Father became King and she as the eldest of two daughters discovered herself to be born to carry the weight of Monarchy. Unlike the rather cruel lie held out before say the people of America, regarding their President – not everyone can be King or Queen, should they so choose.

There is no University course for prospective candidates for the Crown. However well you are acquainted with matters of state and proper protocols is utterly irrelevant. However ‘good or not’ you might be at ‘it’ is utterly irrelevant, you just Are . . . and so you must Do, as Rain must fall, the Sun Shine, and human beings live and die. (The Ancient couplet, Act AND Being, inseparable in any True Life – the most profound ‘Coming to your Self’)

The Queen understood this as she said “In a way, I didn’t have an apprenticeship. My father died much to young. It was all a very sudden kind of taking on and making the best job you can. It’s a question of maturing into something that one has got used to doing and accepting here you are and that is your fate, because I think continuity is very important. It’s a job for life”

The abdication crisis which precipitated the rise of Elizabeth to the throne was not simply shock at some abstract sense of setting aside duty as something one ought to do, as the abdication of the nature of reality itself. It was at the deepest level ‘a taking leave of the senses’ As I said, it is a facet of ‘The Modern World’ that even then that point was largely missed . . . Duty is simply Doing that which you truly are . . . A Way Given . . . and then , to come to our second Word,

 Way to be Discerned. Someone last week expressed to me their frustration with a commenter who had said ‘the Queen did nothing’. At one level of course that is entirely the case – regarding duty, The Queen did  . . . well Queen. At another it is of course a nonsense in that she embodied her Duty with manifest seriousness. Even when no doubt already aware that her days were coming to an end, she met with first her outgoing Prime Minister, and then her final British Prime Minister, both for 40 minute conversations. She did Queen to the End. Whether it were opening hospitals, or welcoming foreign dignitaries at Buckingham Palace, or her daily three hours over state papers she did what was Given to her to do. And that is the deeper meaning of discretion.

Discretion is very closely related to Discernment – One does one Duty ‘Discretely’ Discerning the nature of things. As Wind and Rain, as Air and Water do not shout themselves, being of the fabric which binds, Her actions were those befitting, well a human being.

Amongst the many many tributes we have heard – the one that to me particularly stood out was that from President Macron of France who spoke of her being ‘kind hearted’. To be known as kind hearted requires a large degree of Discretion, of having been moulded by a greater reality . . . holding one’s own vessel . . . For again Her Sovereignty was a Sovereignty under.

Her Reality was formed by daily prayer and praise, as her regular references to the Way of Jesus in Christmas and other addresses made clear, but without shouting. A Confession of Christ in Being that like Jesus’ service is without words in the first place arising from the web of existence which does not shout, it is simply there. (It does not speak, for it does not need to, being itself Spoken)

And finally to return to our beginning, the third word, Dominion . . . Gen 1

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 
27 So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them. 

The Role of The Sovereign – lived out by her gracious Majesty is to exercise Dominion, and here finally is the full significance of that Religious aspect, for unlike any other Ruler – The  Religious Context of Birth, Marriage, Coronation and Last Rites, not simply as our Modern World would have it an accidental ‘choice’ – the Monarch Exercises here dominion ‘Under God’, and ‘in the name of God’ . . . that is ‘in tune with God’.  It discerns the Deep Reality of the Sovereignty of God, as perfectly expressed in the Divine Human Image of God, Christ Jesus, The Way, the Truth and the Life.

In this regard Her Duty, well Discerned was to express the Dominion under God of each and every human being.

As someone with whom I spoke, trying to understand why she, having no reason known to her to, had been so moved by the Queen’s death, “Her Sovereignty taught me about my own”

The Image of God – The Human is also Sovereign – not as autonomous, as lost and harassed, but in place, Under God to be the vessel of Life to All Creation, the source of living waters. Dutifully and Discretely – expressing therefore that which is above and Beyond us all.

The God- Man Jesus perfectly expresses this life – as we are all made to, Under God. As The Queen was anointed at her Coronation, so we too at Baptism are made Kings and Queens, Priest’s and Prophets, to Serve God with Joy for ever.

And so let us now commend Her late Majesty to the mercy and protection of God – our Maker and our Redeemer

Almighty God our creator and redeemer,
by thy power Christ hath conquered death
and returned to thee in glory.
Confident of his victory
and claiming his promises,
we entrust thy servant Elizabeth into thy keeping
in the name of Jesus our Lord,
who, through death is now lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.  Amen.

Life is Sacrifice – Easter

In the last couple of days I came across a well meaning article about ‘Sacrificial Giving’. As so often such pieces – in this case written in response to a news item regarding a church – skims the surface and fails to ask any deeper questions or examine presuppositions regarding the very nature of things, or in this case questions like ‘why do we have paid ministers at all?’

The following was written over a week ago but I forgot to send it for inclusion in the Parish Magazine. What I suggested was that all giving, that is all Living involves sacrifice. Sacrifice is unavoidable, the question is ‘What is the Goal of your life?’ Your End? This determines the nature of the Sacrifice and whether or not it is Good. We all Give all the time. All Giving is Sacrificial . . . but to what End? (Which brings us back to ‘paid ministry’ and the World of what Joseph Pieper calls ‘total work’ which we inhabit and shapes our perceptions regarding work and reward and indeed ‘The Good’.) But enough of that – here is the article I wrote.

‘Death and Resurrection’

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

We continue our journey through the Easter Season. On Good Friday we heard how Jesus, the Living One, by his death on the Cross tramples down Death, and thus sets us free from the fear that death generates, free to Live his Life in obedience to his commands, which are Spirit and Life.

At Easter we heard more of how Jesus’ Death and Resurrection was not simply a three day period in a 30 year human life, but how it encompassed his entire life and ministry.

Coming from the Eternal Father into the realm of death and dying, corruption and decay in which all things are subject to moth and rust, and in which thieves break in and steal. Jesus is born into Good Friday and Death, as ikons of his birth at Bethlehem reveal; the swaddling clothes and stone feeding trough mimicking the shrouds of burial and the stone tomb.

Thus Holy Saturday in which St Peter tells us ‘He preached to the spirits who were in prison’, refers as much to his speaking words of life to us in a world bound by fear, as it does to any speculative going to ‘the underworld’. As Jesus says, ‘My words are Spirit and Life’ – spoken to us who are in the realm of Death and Sin.

Finally Easter reveals the One who is Alive for evermore, and so we live in the season in which we learn what it is to follow him in a living that looks like death to the world bound in fear of death. Letting go our fixed grasp of life, to Live.

Reflecting upon the nature of a life well lived, Jesus is surely its pattern, for all life requires sacrifice, ALL life. Sacrifice is the means by which we spend every moment of our existence, and indeed the way in which we enter the world.

A very simple illustration. Any choice we make for a certain course of action necessarily sacrifices a literally infinite number of other choices, most hidden from our eyes. Thus it is we live, by dying to other possibilities, and thus the shape of every life comes into being. I can’t help but think of the story of Michelangelo, who said that he saw his great sculpture of David within the stone, waiting to be revealed. Our lives come into being as we chip away at that which will not constitute us – in the End.

The Question that this leaves us with is this; ‘to what End’ do we live? Towards what goal? What is our Guiding Star? For we who dare to call ourselves Christian, our LIght and Life is that Known in the revelation of the Eternal Life that is in Christ Jesus.

Such a life is marked by self-forgetfulness. It is not marked by making plans for ‘the life we have always wanted for ourselves’. For a Life we live for ourselves in the End is one which moth and rust consume, and into which thieves break in and steal. A life that is rather, in the pattern of Christ, life given away for the Glory of God – is one which is revealed finally to be Life without end, rather like a river, a metaphor which Jesus himself uses and which bookends the Holy Scriptures in Genesis and Revelation.

St Paul expressed this well, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Living by faith is Living with the eye of our heart directed towards God in Jesus Christ. It is a Contemplative Lived and Living response towards God in which God then goes to work to sculpt a Life after his image and Likeness, as Living Stones. We entrust ourselves into his hands, as Jesus did upon the cross. This brings to mind a favourite prayer of the Iona Community, returning us to the fashioning of our lives through sacrifice . . .

O Christ, the Master Carpenter,
who at the last through wood and nails purchased our whole salvation;
wield well your tools in the workshop of your world,
so that we who come rough-hewn to your work bench may be fashioned to a truer beauty by your hand.

May we say Yes to His Life and Good purposes for us, as He shapes us in these days of Resurrection

Grace and Peace