Lent 3 2018
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
‘In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan’…
On Tuesday, when the Lenten snow began to arrive, Classic FM played that Christmas Carol, and I have to say, I was delighted! If only the message of the Christ child could be heard all year round, I often say, and although it has to be snow days that make this happen, I did not think it was foolish at all. One of the curates in this Episcopal Area, whose training I assist with – he tells me he listens to Christmas Carols all year round. That is unusual I grant you, but again, I would not call it foolish. How can it be foolish to sing – at any time of year:
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
And the first verse is certainly apposite:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Now perhaps I am being foolish! Yet, St Paul associates foolishness with the power of God:
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. (1 Cor 1:18)
And the singing of ‘In the bleak midwinter’, indeed the bleak March midwinter itself, reminds us that this is going to be an odd year.
We have had St Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday – the first time since 1945, and this means that Easter Day will be April 1 – April Fools’ Day. On that day, phrases of Paul’s like “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world” and “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom” will be profound indeed as we celebrate not only the Cross, but the Resurrection too. As I have said in my stewardship letter and this month’s magazine, this year we trace an unusual arc from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, as those liturgical bookends are mirrored by a celebration of love at one end and an enjoyment of foolishness at the other. Or even, chocolate at both ends! Ash Wednesday will again be Valentine’s Day in 2024 and in 2029, but because 2024 is a leap year, we will not see the exact mapping again until 2029. Which isn’t so long away – a mere 11 years. I might even still be here as your Vicar, although it is a sad inevitability that some of us here will not be here then. But it might help us reflect, as we examine both our pockets and our souls, we might reflect on what we expect this church and community to look like in eleven years’ time. Most of us will want it to look much the same - and perhaps it will. It is extremely likely that it will look a bit different too though. It looked a bit different to now, eleven years ago, and there is no reason to suppose it won’t have changed a bit by 2029. We will have a fully working organ, for a start!
But the continuity between now and 2007, and the continuity between now and 2029 has not been achieved nor will be achieved by just letting nature take its course. Our ark of a church has to navigate that arc of time, and that requires a guiding hand on the tiller. Here at St Mary Magdalene’s we tend not to take sharp turns but glide gracefully onward, with little touches to the tiller that keep us looking ahead on our pilgrimage together. With Christ as our guiding star, the Lord as our guide, and prayerful, generous stewardship, we stand as a beacon of stability, truth and light on this our hilltop. The winds blow and the snow falls and melts, and much rain falls on our roof and down our gutters, but, ‘walking the way of the cross, we find it none other than the way of life and peace’, as today’s collect puts it.
But I am not patting us on the back, but rather identifying how it has always been here. We are hugely blessed by our location and stable community. Every year a few go to glory and a few join us. Patterns of attendance change, but our members and givers remain. We pay our bills and have just enough left to do a few exciting things, and with effort and enthusiasm we can achieve special things like the chancel restoration, as well as produce music and drama of the highest calibre, thanks in part to the devoted, talented people we have.
Our music directors are very special indeed, and while we shall continue to enjoy the Jonathan’s contributions, we are all very sorry indeed to have to surrender our twice-monthly dose of Keith’s superb musicality as he moves to a church nearer to home who will enjoy him every week. We will still see and hear him from time to time I am sure, but next Sunday – Mothering Sunday - will mark the end of a little era during which we have been so blessed musically. That said, we shall welcome our old, young friend Rory Thorndike to take the organ bench instead – so as in so many things, stability is maintained. Wobbly as the actual organ bench may be. And of course, to return to the stewardship theme – it is that very organ bench, and the instrument to which it is loosely connected, that we need to repair and rejuvenate.
Remember that some very special things happen under this roof, and I sometimes wonder how much everyone realises it. ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, Handel’s Messiah, Macbeth, and visiting productions of Puccini’s Suor Angelica, The Magic Flute and in a few weeks’ time, Candide make us fortunate and distinctive. Candide, which is based on the book of the same name by the French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire is a fine and rarely-heard work. It is funny, thought-provoking, a bit rude and, the youthful cast assure me, great fun. It is not performed in this country very often at all – and is being so because of the hundredth anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. So it would be very foolish indeed not to come and see it.
Which brings me back to St Paul and the foolishness of our Easter faith. For while singing ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ in March, is a bit amusing, a bit quaint perhaps, and seems anachronistic in some ways, it is tolerated by those who find it foolish to do so. But this is the dangerous direction that our society is going in.
For the way in which religious education is now taught - if it is taught at all having been ditched by the government as a mainstream subject – if it is taught it is done in the context of a view that says:
‘Religion is important: a significant minority of the population value it, teach it and live by it. It is a life choice that should be honoured, and no-one should be criticised, abused, attacked or denigrated for their religious affiliations and choices. Faith is a Good Thing so long as no-one offends anyone else’s religion, has respect for their cultural or religious practices and doesn’t advocate the superiority, correctness or desire to undermine anyone else’s beliefs. On no account should any religion advocate, prepare for or support violent or discriminatory behaviour.’
Something like that – I made that up, it is not from a government website or anything like that. It could be though, couldn’t it? For religion is fast becoming a topic of study that presents it as something that other people do. We are now the weird ones because we are the ones who go to church. Except that the government are very keen that no-one should call us weird, or stupid, or foolish. It’s not actually true of course, since over 80% of the world’s population professes a faith and Christians make up half the world’s population. But in secular Britain, we are to be tolerated, nurtured, encouraged even, because we represent a dimension of British culture that should not be lost. And there is at last a recognition that people getting on with one another and tolerating their beliefs about things is beneficial to the smooth ordering of society. This is perhaps why, ironically, there are churches on the east side of this Borough that ought to be knocked down because they are falling down, or are damp and damaged, and while the Diocese would happily demolish and start again with a building fit for purpose and community use, the local authority have decided that because they are made of stone, they need to be listed and so cannot be demolished.
People who are not of faith feel they have a right to patronise, interfere with, even control faith communities. So religion is now seen as a slightly foolish, but vital dimension of our society, so long as it is sufficiently neutered and a wary eye kept upon it.
In return for being neutered, we get protection. if we get excited, enthusiastic, or, perish the thought, dangerous, then first the press, and perhaps even the authorities will step in to put us back in our box. And if that box looks pretty, hang the cost, because that is the responsibility of those who make the lifestyle choice to worship God under its roof.
This neutering of faith cannot go on for much longer, and one wonders whether it will go on to 2029 – it is unsustainable, especially if we quietly and inadvertently buy into it by relegating our faith and beliefs to a lifestyle choice among many. Nowadays everything is lifestyle choice to be affirmed, protected, considered equal and paid for by its adherents. Anything is OK so long as it’s OK.
The way we live, the way we have lived, and the way we will live, is changing. Even the past is changing – it is being rewritten – and as we approach the hundredth anniversary of armistice day in November, the Great War will become something different to us, and our future rememberings will change. The past lives in us, but we cannot live in the past.
So as we examine our purses and our souls, reflecting on what we want the future of this parish, and the future of our world to be like, we are wise – not foolish - to put our faith first – and to act, not as people who have made a lifestyle choice to follow Jesus Christ and generally be nice to everyone, but rather as disciples of the Crucified one whose way of love is not only painful sometimes, but, actually, right. And, sailing together through a bleak midwinter Lent, we may not actually be dreaming of a white Easter, but perhaps of a foolish one, at which time we will celebrate what others see as the foolishness of the cross, the folly of faith, but which for us is the power of God, revealed in a weakness that is stronger than human strength or power. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 04/03/18