Self-forgetfulness is the key

Sermon preached at Evensong, St Paul’s, Clifton, Bristol, 27 December 1998.

[Two pages of the manuscript are missing; I will insert them if they should show up among Richard’s papers. – SJC]

Some of the best, and some of the worst sermons I have heard have been on the subject of love – especially the nature of God’s love. For example, some preachers may say that God’s love surpasses ours, transcends it, or is wholly different from it. But surely there has to be something in our experience by which we can recognise it. Perhaps then it is more a question of quality and quantity than of type.

St Bernard said that our love of God has four rungs.

  1. Out of fear, fear of punishment.
  2. Because of the marvellous gifts on offer, eg the beauties of nature, gifts of friends or family. All of which may be withdrawn.
  3. Because God is good in Himself. It’s good to have Him around, and the world is made a better place.
  4. The top rung is for those who love God because He enables them to love themselves. Even in our great depths of sin we are still loved, not punished. Surprised? If we have self-respect and value ourselves, then we can in fact love and respect others in that essential self-forgetfulness.

Well, either there is a rung missing from this ladder, or another one is being climbed as if it were the same one.Read More »


There’s a today every day of the week

Sermon preached at Evensong, Christ the Servant, Stockwood, Bristol on Easter Day, 18 April 1976

[This sermon is unusually long and declamatory for my father’s style. I have omitted a couple of phrases which are in parentheses in the manuscript, as if he had edited the sermon and cut them. They add nothing of substance to what is reproduced here. – SJC]

Ring the bells! Sing the hymns! All is joy and praise today! Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Look at the spring flowers, the bubbles and sun. Death has been swallowed up into life!

All this is fantastic! Great! Fabulous!

But how long will it last? Why does it seem that by the time you get to Low Sunday (next week) you are feeling low yourself, a bit flat. Bit of an anti-climax; like the moment after the big bang at the end of the firework display.

You can be deeply moved by the Easter hymns, get caught up with the rush and excitement of Easter (after all, this is no stately walking occasion – the disciples ran away from the tomb), but when you get home, you find that life is much the same humdrum affair as it was before.

Some people find that Easter is something that the churches get all excited about, and feel they ought to join in; but are really untouched by it. That’s the Martha way. No less true, not lacking in faith, looking forward with anticipation to that promise.

Then Jesus speaks.

Look. Resurrection is for today and every day. It is for you and for everybody. Look. Look. Open up your heavenly eyes and see me.


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The poor deaf!

Address delivered to Bristol Diocesan Synod, 23 November 1991

I am sure that if you were asked how many native languages exist in the British Isles you would list: English, Welsh, Gaelic, Erse, Manx and Cornish, and there it would end. Yet there is another language in daily use among over 30,000 of the population and one which has recently been recognised as official by the European Community. It is a language which is never spoken, and one which is almost too impossible to write down in an easily intelligible form. It is gaining hugely in popularity so that teaching classes are always heavily over-subscribed. British Sign Language is enjoying a boom. Arcane and exotic to the outsider; as ordinary, at times, to the user as a note for the milkman.

Who are “the Deaf”? (And there’s a mistake – almost as bad as calling them “the disabled.”) People who are deaf do not look upon themselves as being ‘disabled’, only disadvantaged. Centuries of well-meaning but misguided attitudes have left the deaf community as an oppressed minority culture – and no linguistic group can exist without a culture to which the language gives expression. One major feature of deaf culture is cold dinners: you cannot sign clearly when holding a knife and fork!

There is so much confusion about the terminology. Those with a hearing loss – hard of hearing – those who become deafened, through meningitis, rubella or road accidents, are lumped together with the profoundly, pre lingually deaf – as if they were all the same, except by degree. Ten and a half million people in the UK, skilfully ignored until they open their mouths or hands.

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Anything you ask

Sermon preached at Christ the Servant, Stockwood, Bristol, 23 May 1976

Anything which you ask in my name, the Father will grant to you.

Now surely there must by now be an enormous queue of people forming, every person in that line with an objection, an example, an instance, saying,

“Now, look here, I asked for this.”

“I prayed to God for…”

“I petitioned God most humbly, concerning…”

“I fasted for three days before going on my knees.”

And every person in that queue would agree that they had most faithfully and reverently finished their prayers (indeed, doesn’t every prayer finish), “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

We are asking things in his name; and they don’t happen.

And perhaps with one voice they would say, protest: “why does Jesus in the Bible say one thing, and God in our lives seem to say another?”

No. Don’t dismiss my imaginary queue of protesters. They are honest but puzzled enquirers into their faith. Are not their questions genuine? Haven’t they been on many a Christian’s lips at some time? And to say by way of an answer, “well, you’ve got to have faith” will not do. It’s frustratingly not enough.

If you will, first, accept me as a member of my own imaginary queue, and not as the smug quizmaster of the TV contest who’s peeped at the answers already, I’ll offer to you some of the ways which I have found helpful in trying to come to terms with this asking and answering of prayers.

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A thief in the daytime

Sermon preached at School of Ministry, Almondsbury Conference Centre, 9 November 1985

When talking of virgins, I have a recollection that they numbered four and twenty and came down from Inverness. In the passage before us [Matthew 24:45-25:13 – SJC] they numbered ten, of whom five were wise and the others foolish; perhaps half the number suffered the fate of their Scottish counterparts?

Young maidens (from the Greek parthenoi) is perhaps a less emotive way to consider their role in the narrative. This parable is so full of strange and quirky details that it is better to treat it gently and, like young ladies themselves, not to squeeze too tightly.

One of the first questions I want to ask is: what were they all doing out at night? Seems a strange time to have a wedding. Not too much is known about marriage customs in Palestine at that time, so it is difficult to be certain; even so, ten bridesmaids does seem somewhat excessive. If it was midnight then it would be even odder for any shops to be open for oil. Those making long journeys seldom travelled at night, unless with some nefarious purpose… you can see the dangers of lifting a story out of its context.

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The Last Enemy

Lecture delivered to Class VI(2) at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Bristol, 21 September 1989


My subject today is usually to be avoided in polite company, spoken of only in euphemisms as something not quite nice. Everybody does it, of course, yet it carries with it guilt, embarrassment, misinformation, sentiment and above all fear. It is endlessly fascinating. It commands attention and occupies the mind. It is not sex, but death which has become the great unmentionable in our society. It is perhaps a truism to say that it is the only certain fact of life; everything else is chancy. It is perhaps mawkish to say that from the moment we are born we are infected with a terminal disease called life!

How preoccupied we are with death. It dominates our newsreels, features in TV shows and cartoons, and murder is the most popular subject of fiction. We can’t get enough of its terror, yet we hate its profligacy.

It is important to face up to death squarely, for in so doing I believe much of its power to terrify or rob life of purpose or meaning will be diminished.

Death is inseparable from life. A seed dies, buried in the earth and, after a time, new life is born. Death itself is dynamic, never simply static or isolated from momentum. Its pause, its evident lack of rhythm, is deceptive; for forces of life are gathered and gathering. At death a body is indeed still and decaying, yet a personality is a great force of incredible diversity and many dimensions. It is this truth that the great world religions address in their teaching, and if we look at religions properly and take to heart their understanding of this mystery, then much of the sickly sentiment and the uneasy reassurances which people offer to the bereaved can be avoided.

The attempts to avoid the inevitability of death have led in literature from the comic, as in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, where the protagonists swear to “kill this traitor, Death”, to the sombre as in John Shirley’s:

There is no armour against fate

Death lays his icy hand on kings

Sceptre and crown

Must tumble down.

I think that John Donne’s expression defuses much of the tension and gives an opportunity really to see the last enemy in a proper perspective:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so

and the celebrated final lines:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

It is this belief, expressed through religious understanding, which I believe does make a real and fundamental difference, and I hope to show that it is more than mere wishful thinking.

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Choose the booze

Sermon preached at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, 21 January 1990

It’s only ten o’clock and there’s a panic. The host and hostess are whispering furtively in the corner.

“They’re still coming and we’re running out of booze. What are we going to do? The off-licence is shut.”

It is just this situation that St John records as being the first occasion upon which Jesus worked a miracle, and a miracle is the way that God’s glory is revealed. You may think it is an odd choice for a miracle. Why didn’t Jesus begin by healing a leper or forgiving sins or feeding the hungry? Yet it is a good choice.

At a wedding, everyone’s in their ‘Sunday Best’ and in a good mood. Something right and proper is taking place, it’s a happy and joyous occasion. So it’s the very best situation for the Kingdom of God to be revealed.

Well, let’s look at this particular wedding. Jesus, his mother and the disciples had all been invited, and probably having a rare old time. Then comes the calamitous news: the wine’s all gone. Mary brings the news to Jesus. He takes care of things. The servants drag out the big jars of water, the ones they keep for washing feet! The six jars are turned into 120 gallons of wine – not just a tiny sip, you notice. And it’s good stuff, too, as the host discovers – “you’ve kept the best wine to the end!”

Now, you might think that Jesus is being irresponsible, encouraging drinking. Drinking, yes. Drunkenness, no. Jesus produced what was necessary for the occasion. That is the nature of all his miracles. The right action at the right time.

The more important part of the story is that the Kingdom of God is equated with the merriment of a wedding. Where God is, there is life, and light and laughter. Where God is, the most astonishing things happen. Things and people are changed. He is, in the most literal sense, the life and soul of the party.

“How odd of God to choose the booze.”

How right, for as the Psalmist says, “wine that makes glad the heart of man.” It’s real wine too, not Ribena. There is nothing false which is offered, no pale substitutes. It is the very reality of God which Jesus’ ministry was continually revealing. The power to change, the power to enliven, the power to bring people together and to help them to be truly and eternally loving is his way of saying:

“Where two or three are happy together in my Name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Ready for death

Funeral sermon for Alf Bennett – date and location unknown

[The manuscript for this sermon came on two sheets held together with a paper clip. The typeface on each sheet is different, so it’s likely they were two different sermons, especially as there is a notable change in tone and style beginning at “It should be obvious…” (and also a reference to a “feast day” – All Saints’ Day, perhaps?). However the two halves share a common theme and fit well in most respects.

Apologies again for the stop-and-start nature of this blog. I was prompted to post this sermon because it is just over a year since my father died, and I was looking for something appropriate to mark the anniversary. I’m afraid I have no idea who Mr Bennett was. – SJC]

When a person dies, you experience a power, a strong and inevitable power. A power, which because it is beyond your control seems malevolent and unkind. The most obvious power is that the normal run of things gets squeezed out of shape. The worlds seems suddenly robbed of much of its colour, the old familiar sounds seem muted, and normal daily life is so much more difficult to perform.

The worst thing is the sense of loss, that life will never seem the same again – indeed it is much the poorer through the loss of the loved one. This emptiness appears never to be filed, and it is surrounded by sorrow, grief and tears, and something of a mighty anger pervades the questions – “why did it have to happen?” Of course, you know it’s bound to happen at some time to all of us, but that doesn’t help when you are going through it. So you feel vulnerable and dependent upon others for support.

The Christian faith doesn’t pretend that death is anything less than the most horrible wrench in our lives. It doesn’t buoy us up with easy hopes or slick promises. It says nothing:

neither angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come can separate us from the love of God which we have in Christ Jesus.

That is certainly true, but how hard it is to hold onto that when you feel so alone or unable to cope. That big empty hole is still there. The fact that you have all gathered here today marks the beginning of that hole being filled. What will you fill it with?  Your memories and experiences of Alf most of all – and how rich and varied they are. Like a necklace they compose a thousand happenings, large and small, and they have a different and special pattern for each of you. His care for others, his sense of humour, his joy in the garden, the love and support he gave to his family – all these things make up the treasure which Alf is now leaving to us.

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