Patronal Festival 2017

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Patronal Festival 2017 ‘I have seen the Lord’

This wonderful service we have every year, has a feel of ‘end of term’ to it, doesn’t it? The schools have finished for the summer, the prices of holidays have shot up accordingly, and no doubt the weather has already taken a turn for the worse, as is customary. August approaches…

Yet for me, this year, unusually – or at least not since 2007 when I last did this – I am returning, and so there is a feeling of start of term for me. This puts me a bit out of sync I suppose, because I have been away for the term now ending. Jackie and Maureen have held the fort admirably, working very hard, I know, and indeed you will know as well as I that there have been too many funerals these last three months. Too many funerals is too many funerals, at any time, but it was a burden on them I know, and I want to thank them publicly for all they have done while I have been away, and also, in his absence to Jim Pettifer who came and preached a few times too. I return also to find that St Thomas, Oakwood, St Peter’s, Grange Park and St Paul’s, Winchmore Hill are without a vicar, so our need to help locally is still there. St Luke’s and St John’s have their new Vicar I’m pleased to say, and St Peter’s have appointed the curate at St Paul’s, so the cards are being shuffled around as it were.

But now I’m back, I daresay you might want some kind of justification for what I’ve been up to. So ever mindful of the usual complaint that after the summer holidays most vicars just tell their congregations where they went on holiday and how many sandcastles they built, I’ll do exactly that! Seriously though – I’ve had a great time, doing a fair bit of work, relaxing a bit and, notwithstanding the two weddings and two funerals I popped back for, it’s been a refreshing time to look forwards and back, now that I am thoroughly middle-aged.

So, to start, the week after Easter, I went to Hull. Not the most auspicious place to start, I hear you say, but I did get to preach in the largest parish church in England. And I got to travel on Hull Trains, fifteen pounds each way. That’s the same as the usual fare to Highbury and Islington, I think. Then almost immediately, I went to Spokane in the USA. It’s about as far as you can go in the USA, Alaska notwithstanding, but I have a hymnological friend there who kindly put me up and invited me to be a visiting lecturer at his university. I spoke on Luther and Bach, and also gave a talk on the same subject at Spokane Cathedral, where I also preached at the main Sunday service. Strangely, during the notice a man in the congregation got up and spoke about how his cat had died. It was a little bizarre, especially after my deeply theological, light-hearted and generally superb sermon that I preached, and I did wonder where he would be going with his lament for his Kitty. But then, as he was telling the congregation about how he used to say to his cat that the great skill his kitty had was knowing how to be a cat, he suddenly said rather wistfully, of course, if we all knew how to be human, the world would be a better place. Which made my rather brilliant sermon redundant, somewhat. Perhaps we should do that here: a general slot midway through for anyone to tell us their news, and slide in some profound comment about their pet goldfish as an afterthought. Perhaps not today though.

And at the end, everyone shook my hand, thanked me for my sermon and told me how much they loved my accent. Some people said they knew a few people in London, named them and asked if I knew them… The bizarre thing was, someone did name someone I do in fact know. I also gave a lecture on Purcell, and another one in which I attempted to explain the theological underpinnings of English history between the Reformation and the Civil War to a bunch of American undergraduates. That was fun… especially the bits I made up.

After the huge success of my visiting professorship, I went to Mexico City, with a stopover in Phoenix, Arizona, where there is a very nice airport hotel, but the beer is terrible. This did involve flying over the Grand Canyon in a jumbo jet though, which was rather cool as you can imagine. And free. In Mexico City, one of the world’s most dangerous cities apparently, and definitely one of the world’s highest cities, I was wonderfully looked after by a school friend, whose brother in law was Italian Prime Minister a couple of years ago – for about 3 weeks, I think. Mexico City was fascinating, and I’m afraid I saw nothing that gives it its dangerous reputation, but then part of the plan was that I wouldn’t. I climbed pyramids, ate spicy food, and had a great time seeing a bit of that vast country. Mexico City is at 2200 metres above sea level – that’s 7000 feet, so I did have a bit of a headache for the first 24 hours or so.

Then I flew on to Toronto, where my cousin and other friends live, so that was a great opportunity to catch up with them. I went to Niagara Falls for the third time – the first time though when it wasn’t actually raining. So third time lucky. Then I came home just in time to take part in the Highgate Luther Festival, where my stuff on Bach and Luther came into play again.

Then in hiding at home to some extent, I was back on the school run and I started to do the writing that my study leave necessitated. So, dear friends, let me tell you, while we are all sweltering back in June, I was working on the first of the two books I was due to write… on Christmas Carols! Far from the bleak midwinter, we sweltered didn’t we, but I got the job done in a couple of weeks. It’ll be published in October. It’s all about the Cambridge Carol Book, and is very boring, but someone had to write it, because without that Carol Book, we would not have the Nine Lessons and Carols we love so much.

I was around, more or less for the General Election. But let’s not talk about that! Nor sadly about some of the other tragedies that befell our nation, in Manchester and London Bridge. Very sad indeed.

I did a day in Oxfordshire for the Royal School of Church Music, talking about hymns, and then I went off to Paris with a friend, having found ludicrously cheap Eurostar tickets. Not having been to Paris for ten years I found that everyone now speaks English and laughs at the value of the pound. Nevertheless a visit to the Royal tombs at St Denis was a real gift, and I attended Trinity Sunday Mass in Notre Dame Cathedral, where the welcome, epistle and part of the sermon were in English. So some things have changed the other side of the channel for sure! On returning I finally settled down to write the magnum opus of the study leave, a Lent Book for 2019. I have written almost all of it, so that is a good outcome, and I have until November to send the manuscript in. So that’s all good.

Finally, last week, after a brief trip up North, I have been in Carmarthen in West Wales at the annual Conference of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, where I gave a flute recital and, with my old friend, known to some of us here, Huw Williams, we introduced the world to the Revised English Hymnal, a new version of the English Hymnal which is not yet available, but of which we are two of the editors.

And now I’m home. And pleased to be so. We have missed each other, I know. But thank you for the opportunity to do all this, it really was a Godsend. For I have travelled, and stayed, and in both, like Mary Magdalene, I have seen the Lord.

I was last here on a Sunday – Easter Sunday. I see the microphone is still broken! And on that day we heard exactly the same reading we have heard as our gospel today: that wonderful reading about Jesus’ resurrection when he meets Mary Magdalene and she doesn’t recognize him, and then she does, and she makes that profound declaration that rings down through the ages: ‘I have seen the Lord’! People have been saying that now for centuries, as fresh generations, newly inspired Christians, exclaim with Mary, ‘I have seen the Lord’. In various ways, in different contexts and in profoundly moving experiences, Christians have exclaimed through the centuries, ‘I have seen the Lord’. And it is the hope of God, the hope of God for and in us, that desires us all to say and at least some times in our life, ‘I have seen the Lord’.

And it was this phrase that was ringing in my ears as I went on my journeys to Hull and beyond, and it is this phrase that welcomes me back today. And I have seen the Lord in some fascinating places in between, from Washington to Mexico to Toronto to Oxford to Cambridge, to Kent, and the Peak District, to Carmarthen, and now, as T.S. Eliot might put it, to return where I started and know the place for the first time. It’s not where you arrive that matters, but what you se on the way. And what one always hope to see on the way, is the Lord. We begin, and end with ‘I have seen the Lord’.

For it is that the matters, wherever, and whenever we are. Seeing the Lord in all things, seeing the Lord in all places, recognizing Christ in all our encounters, this is our calling, and it is a special calling for those of us who live and worship under the patronage of Mary Magdalene. And she is a great saint to have in mind, because she is one of the mot human of the saints. She is a bit like us and we a bit like her.

I like to quote to hymns as you know. Having been away for a while and indulged you with my reminiscences, I’m going to go the extra mile and quote one of my own. Or rather quote a slight change to the one that we sing today. I’ve been encouraged to tweak the final lines, and you can tell me what you think. So here’s the new last verse to the hymn you have in front of you.

May we therefore like this Mary
Come to see our risen Lord,
And like her become disciples,
Living, loving, come what may.
Mary Magdalene's devotion
We commemorate this day.

So like her, may we too, regularly and often, be able to say ‘I have seen the Lord’. Amen.

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 23/7/17