‘Right Attitudes’, ‘Right Actions’, and ‘Right Reactions’
“Remember, remember the fifth of November gunpowder, treason and plot.
We see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes, Guy, twas his intent to blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below to prove old England’s overthrow.
By God’s mercy he was catchd with a darkened lamp and burning match.
So holler boys, holler boys, let bells ring,
holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.
And what shall we do with him? Burn him.”
Believe it or not this was a nursery rhyme to be chanted before lighting the bonfire and burning the guy.
What this has to do with us here this morning as we celebrate All Saints, well bear with me, I am not the first to preach about Guy Fawkes and the war against terror. I suspect that I will not be the last.
Four hundred and fourteen years ago on Thursday London was ablaze with bonfires and flaming torches to celebrate the failure of an assassination attempt on king James 1st , the whole of the royal family, the nobility, the bishops and the house of commons. Had this been successful then there would have been a power grab by Catholic collaborators that would, most likely, have failed leading to the massacre of innocent Catholics throughout the land.
Why kill the King? To put this into context requires a quick resume of England’s religious history, something that filled me with horror in my teens, I hope to make it relatively painless this morning. We go back to 1517, yes 500 years ago, Luther had begun to contemplate the question “what must I do to be saved?” He was certain that God did not require payment, in the form of ‘indulgencies’ to allow his people a short cut into heaven. It took the next 40 years for the church in Germany to formalise it’s Reformation.
Here in 1509 Henry 8th had ascended the throne of England and begun a period of reform by commanding things such as the founding of Oxford and Cambridge colleges. England was to be no longer an intellectual backwater. It is often said that the Church of England was the result of the Pope’s refusal to grant Henry a divorce. This was not so, it was because Henry, a devout catholic, did not believe the Pope to be catholic. The Holy See was rife with political and financial corruption resulting in our first Brexit, however we were not Anglicans yet.
By 1521 Luther’s books were beginning to arrive on our shores causing panic among senior bishops who ordered books to be burnt. Echoed in Nazi Germany during WW2, but the tide had turned and could not be turned back. In 1526 Tyndale translated the Bible into English and Coverdale published the early copies, one of which was recently on display at St Paul’s Cathedral. By the mid 1550’s wooden altars had replaced those of stone, and in 1552 a book of common prayer had been approved.
During her reign catholic Queen Mary tried to reverse the changes and return the country to Catholicism. But by burning so called ‘heretics’ she gained the people’s anger and fuelled the Elizabethan decade of real reformation during the 1570’s.
We arrive at 1603, Elizabeth died, having been excommunicated by the pope and was succeeded by James 1st. In historical terms, after the Bible was translated into English, reform was moving fast. It was hoped that James would bring in a more tolerant attitude toward those labelled papists. But this did not materialise, torture and execution of Catholics continued. Step in the Catholic noblemen Robert Caitsby, and his co-conspirators including Guy Fawkes.
As we hear the gospel reading this morning what can we 21st century disciples take from Jesus’ words that help us in any way to make sense of life in Britain’s past or present. Each of the statements Jesus makes begins with the word ‘Blessed’, it was a common word in Jewish tradition found in many of the Old Testament psalms. It means ‘Oh how rewarding is such a life’, and its also used to describe someone of whom God approves.
Modern Theologians split the Beatitudes, the ‘Blesseds’, into three sections. The first six verses are about ‘Right Attitudes’, the next three ‘Right Actions’, and the final two are warnings about impending persecution and ‘Right Reactions’ to it. They all point toward the coming ‘Kingdom of God’.
Who are the poor in spirit? Well they are not the dis-spirited, but rather those who recognise their total dependence on God. In The Old Testament the word ‘poor’ meant having no resources and so describes a complete dependence on others, in this case God. How must an ordinary catholic man in the 1600’s have felt in being fined for not attending a church service he found anathema.
Mourning, for Jesus held a much wider meaning than grieving the loss of a loved one. It included grieving a personal failure, a sin, or alienating oneself from God. The blessing of Comfort is available through and because of Jesus who takes away the sin of the world on the cross.
Meek, in this context does not mean weak, or even a naturally kind person. Meekness is being in balance, knowing strength in doing God’s will, and being committed to his cause. Inheriting the earth is more a reference to inheriting the new life in God’s kingdom.
Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness? Jesus knew a life lived to please God would bring us happiness. We know happiness is not always achieved, but despite our failings and failures we can continue trying to live life loving God and our neighbour. We can be agents of God’s blessing in doing what we can to alleviate poverty, bring comfort and that will bring blessings in plenty.
We come now to ‘right actions’ Mercy is something we experience because God displayed it first, sending his Son to be our saviour, and so we are called to show God’s love and mercy to others. We see mercy in the way King James did not pursue ordinary catholic people in revenge for the foiled gunpowder plot.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”. Perhaps one of the most important verses in the Bible. Jesus tells us if we are to enjoy God’s presence in our life both here on earth and in heaven we must be pure or holy. Holiness is something at the heart of our thoughts, emotions, will and in what we do. We can never be sinless in this life but to be a disciple it must be our deepest desire.
“Blessed are the peacemakers” and we have needed them from the beginning of time. But peace is much more than the absence of hostility. In the Bible we read of wholeness, joy and completeness. A peacemaker is then someone who encourages harmony in family life, in community, in national and international relations, in nature and in the world.
In the final three verses of the Beatitudes we read warnings of sacrifice and promises of reward in following Jesus.
Jesus told the disciples to expect persecution and evil and it culminated in him being tortured and killed.
The 86 years between Luther’s first writings and the Gunpowder plot were years of fear, persecution and torture based on religious practice. We cannot help but look at what is happening in the world now and draw comparisons. I S or Daish, now driven underground, are known to have used similar forms of torture and execution and have gone further to develop new and efficient ways to incite fear and compliance by killing the innocent.
Christian people around the world remain vulnerable to the same risk of persecution, torture and death. We remember the London bombings in 2007, the Manchester bombing and the London Bridge attack, they all point to unbelieving men, out of a misguided belief in a perverted form of Islam, attempting to turn people from their faith and practice.
When we believe and follow in his footsteps, Jesus teaches us not to be afraid, but rejoice and be glad, because just like the prophets of old, our reward in heaven is great.
The Rev’d Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 01/11/2020