Peace be with us?

Sermon Holy Trinity Church Hurstpierpoint 14 August 2022: Trinity 9
Hebrews 11.29-12.2 & Luke 12.49-56

There are many aspects of my ministry that I really enjoy, but preaching is certainly one of my favourite things. Actually, it is not the preaching itself that I particularly like, but I love preparing a sermon. Because it is a way to really engage with Scripture, and trying to listen to what God is saying in this place, at this time. Often, I discover something new about God myself, something that I didn’t know before, or something that I suddenly know on a deeper level.

And especially this week, I was really looking forward to writing a sermon. Firstly, because I could return to a reasonable length sermon, after having been told to preach for at least an hour when I was in Zambia a few weeks ago. But also, because I had just returned from a retreat in North Wales, spending a week with the Jesuit community at St Beuno’s. In their spirituality, rooted in the teachings and practice of Ignatius of Loyola, the personal encounter with Jesus is central. And, as one of the brothers said on the last day, the hope is that this encounter makes us a little more open, a little kinder and a little gentler.

So with great expectation I turned to today’s readings, to see where I would find this gentle and loving image of Jesus. Well, the Lectionary clearly wasn’t on my side this week … There is a lot to say about today’s readings, but we don’t see the image of the Good Shepherd or the little baby Jesus readily appearing. Today’s readings speak about judgement, conflict and persecution. For many of us, they are challenging our Sunday-school image of who Jesus is. But it is good to be challenged, so let’s see what these passages may have to say to us in this place at this time.

I’d like to start with the letter to the Hebrews. We continue today where we left last week, with a series of examples of people and peoples who achieved things through their faith. However, what they achieved through their faith, we may not particularly aspire to in the 21st century: the destruction of cities, victories over foreign armies, and let alone the sacrifice of a child. The crucial verse to understand this is the opening verse of Chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” 

This verse explains that yes, we should indeed take courage from all that God has done in the lives of our ancestors. However, it also points out that we need to run the race that is set before us. Our challenges are different from those of which we hear in our reading. One of the greatest differences between us and the people Israel, is that we trust in the universality of God’s love in Jesus. No longer is there a distinction between God’s chosen race and those who are outside, there is no longer an us and them in the same way. Indeed, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read that there is neither Jew nor Greek, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

But wait, Jesus doesn’t particularly speak about unity in this reading from Luke’s Gospel either. On the contrary, he says that he has not come to bring peace, but rather division. And indeed, one way in which this reading has been explained is that there is now again a division between people: some Christian traditions maintain that there are people chosen by God, and others not. Other Christian traditions strongly emphasise the division is between those who have confessed a believe in Jesus, and those who have not. 

I find both explanations at odds with what I believe about God, both on a theological level, but also much deeper. Indeed, one of the reasons is mentioned in this very passage: the division of the household. My parents are not churchgoers and have never been. Because of their upbringing and personal experiences, they feel that the church has very little credibility. But yet, I don’t believe that they are fundamentally different from who I am: they are as much human beings, created in God’s image and love, trying to make sense of what they believe and who they are.

So where is the division? When we look closer to the text, Jesus says, I have not come to bring peace to the earth. The Greek word for earth here can also be translated as land. So one way of understanding this passage is that this is not a prophecy, but a reality: the division between faiths, understandings of God, and understandings of our humanity is real, and the Christian faith – a belief in Jesus – is a part of those divisions. It is indeed one of the reasons people use for turning away from religions: the divisions and conflict they have caused in human history.

And it is not just between religions, or between those of faith and those without that divisions exist. Anyone who has seen any news about the recent Lambeth Conference knows that also within Christianity, even within the Anglican Communion, divisions run deep. Maybe that is the division of which Jesus is speaking: a very human division. That means that the peace he is speaking of here, is also a human peace – a peace on earth – he is not referring to God’s everlasting peace: the peace for which we long, the peace we share in our service a little later, and the peace we see glimpses of in prayer, service and worship.

So when we see these divisions amongst ourselves, we should not attribute them to Jesus, but rather accept our inability to understand and to know fully. Ultimately, it is not Jesus who is the cause of these conflicts, but we are. Through our limited understanding shaped by our culture and tradition, or at times through our self-centredness, we find ourselves disagreeing painfully, sometimes with disastrous consequences. 

Maybe that is where Jesus is referring to when he calls the disciples, when he calls us, hypocrites: we can forecast the weather – and so many other things – but we cannot understand our own motives, nor how we are complicit in the conflicts and crises of our time.

One of the ways to counter our short-sightedness is to remember that we are not alone, to remind ourselves that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We are not the first generations to experience all this, but we stand in solidarity with those who have gone before us, those in whose lives God has been at work. That gives us comfort, not to become complacent, but to know that there is hope, to know that through faith we can find the perseverance to run the race that is set before us.

One last thought on that race, I suspect that one of the things on our minds is the current drought and the alarming signs of climate change. There is no time to be complacent, and we need to change our behaviour. But, this drought itself is no reason to despair and give up: in any historic account, we read of droughts, and the terrible effects they had. We are not the first, and I trust that with the appropriate action, we won’t be the last.

So with confidence, let us run that race that is set before us, in this place at this time. Always looking to Jesus with sure and certain hope that he will be with us, and he will never let his people go. Amen.

All is vanity?

Sermon St Wilfrid’s Church and the Presentation Church, Haywards Heath
Trinity 7: Ecclesiastes 1. 2, 12-14; 2.18-23, Luke 12. 13-21
31 July 2022

For those Churches following the three-year Lectionary, a cycle of set readings for each Sunday, this is the only time in those about 150 Sundays that a reading from the book of Ecclesiastes is chosen as the Old Testament reading for the main Sunday service. In many ways, this is not a surprise, as Ecclesiastes is one of the most controversial books in the Bible. Indeed, if you would read this morning’s text without knowing its source, you would not necessarily have guessed that it is part of the Bible, but it could have been written in our time by someone disillusioned with the world around them. 

Yet, Ecclesiastes is part of the Jewish Wisdom literature, and the Christian tradition has received it as part of the Old Testament. The writer refers to himself as the ‘Teacher’ or ‘Preacher’, and Jewish interpreters have associated him with Solomon, as he refers to himself as ‘King over Israel’ and elsewhere ‘Son of David’. 

The first words we hear in our reading this morning, are the opening words of the book: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The Hebrew word that is translated here as vanity is the word hevel, which literally means ‘puff of air’. It’s the same word that is at the root of the name ‘Abel’, Cain’s brother, whose life was cut short like a puff of air.

So when we hear this morning that all is vanity, we could also say: all is just a puff of air, or maybe paraphrased even more liberally: what is the point of it all? And indeed, if you read Ecclesiastes as a whole, this seems to be the pervading question: what is the point, and why do we strive?

It is a question that most people will ask themselves at least once in their lifetime. I suspect that often this question comes up at moments of crisis or loss: when something happens in our lives that makes us question what we took for granted. When someone we love is diagnosed with an incurable illness; when we hear of a tragic accident, or when we are betrayed by those closest to us. At these moments, we can ask ourselves as well: why did we even try?

To me, it’s a great consolation that a text like this is part of our sacred Scripture. It shows that being a Christian, being a Jew, doesn’t mean that there is no doubt, no grief, and no questioning. These difficult questions are what make us human, and a belief in God does not ask us to pretend they no longer exist or apply to us.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we see another way paraphrasing that all is vanity, as Jesus explains in the parable of the rich man, or – as we hear – the rich fool. The parable is a clear warning, not against being wealthy as such, but against defining one’s life by one’s possessions: ‘for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’

It is a warning that is as acute for us, as it was for the original hearers of Jesus’ message. The problem with greed is that there is never enough. I think it’s not entirely unfair to say that our whole Western culture is based on this concept: all around us we are told that we need more. In our time, this more, is not just more possessions, although this is a part of it. It is also more power, more influence, more ‘likes’ on the many different types of social media, and more experiences: places to visit and things to do. Jesus’ warning here is not against these things per se, but against the real danger that more means never enough, and we easily lose perspective of what is really important.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who finds myself often thinking about ‘what’s next?’, rather than enjoying the moment. When I’m at work, I find myself thinking about the next break, and when I’m on holiday, I find myself planning the next few weeks at work. When I’m cycling, I find myself thinking of my next meal, and when I’m eating I begin to plan my next day. Just as with greed, the desire for more possessions, this pattern of thinking is based on the idea that life would be better, if … And, I would be a better version of myself, if …

But here, Jesus says to us: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’. What if today would be our last day? Would we make the same decisions? Or would we suddenly realise what really matters? It is quite a good spiritual exercise to think what you would do if you had only one more day to live. I’m pretty sure that most of us wouldn’t go shopping, but would have more important matters to address. 

So what does it mean, when Jesus mentions being rich towards God? Being rich towards God expresses itself both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, that we realise that what defines us is being made in God’s image, with the gifts and talents he has given us. Realising that all that we have, including our life, is a gift, and that we should live it with thankfulness and respect. Respect towards ourselves, but also towards others, as each person is equally made in God’s image. 

If we are able to order our inner life in this way, how we live will follow. We will treat others with respect and dignity. We will be more able and willing to share what we have when we acknowledge that we have not earned things on our own accord, but that we have been given all that we have and all that we are. Living a life rich towards God, is the only way we can live a truly rich and fulfilled life. It won’t be a life without hardship, pain, loss, and difficult questions, but it will be a life worth living: a life with substance, a life in which not everything is vanity.

This all was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago, when I was on a trip to Zambia. We spent two nights sleeping under the stars. As I was looking up to the Southern Cross and saw the Milky Way, I realised that this was the most beautiful way in which I had ever spent a night. It didn’t need a fancy hotel, or even a comfortable bed, but only the realisation that here I was, looking into the vastness of the night sky and knowing that I am too a tiny part of God’s wonderful creation.

And therefore, I have to disagree with the author of Ecclesiastes that all is vanity. When God spoke and created, it was not just a puff of air, but from his breath the universe came into being, and we have a part to play. Together with those who went before and those who will come after, we have been created out of love and been given a purpose. Yes, it is a tiny part to play, but not insignificant. So let learn to be thankful, and ask, not for more, but to be shown ever clearer what is means to be truly rich: rich towards God, and rich in hope, faith and love.

Love one another

Address Hurstpierpoint College Leavers’ Service
1 Corinthians 13 & John 15.14-17
25 June 2022

The exams are over, the hard work is done, you have packed up your room in St John’s and the summer lies ahead of you. Today, our Prize Giving and Leavers’ service and next week’s ball, mark the end of your time here at Hurst, and the end of your time as a school pupil. And with that, you are no longer a child, but an adult. 

Of course, I’m not saying that you were still little children by the time you arrived in the Sixth Form, – although some of you arrived here in the Pre Prep as little children – but leaving school comes with sudden freedoms, and sudden responsibilities. No more school uniform, with rules on hair styles and footwear, no more clearings or detentions for being late or work not handed in. No more assemblies or indeed Chapel services where you have to be, even though you don’t see the point of it. From this point onwards, a lot of the choices are yours now.

And that is a great feeling: you can choose. It is up to you where you go, what you do and, in some sense, who you become. That is indeed a great freedom, but also a great responsibility, and I hope one that you have been prepared for by your time here at Hurst. To me, school is not about exam results, not about Grade 8 music exams, winning the netball finals, or playing county-level cricket, although they are all great achievements, and rightly celebrated, as we did earlier. However, the most important thing about your time at school is that you are ready to use your freedom.

That is the reason why I chose this morning’s readings. In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples that they are no longer servants, but friends. At this point, it is no longer about being told what the rules are, but now, it is about knowing what the rules should be. Life is not about obeying laws for the sake of them, but wanting to follow a pattern of living, because you know it is the right thing to do.

That is precisely the point you are at now too. You won’t get a clearing any longer if you are late, but you know it’s right to be on time, because someone else is waiting for you. You have learned what it means to be a good person, and that means you know what is right and what is wrong. Although, that is of course not entirely true. Learning to make the right decisions is actually a life-long journey, and we are all still on it.  

But the most important part of this reading from John’s Gospel is the second half, where Jesus says: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ It is the message that is at the heart of the Christian faith that with all our freedoms and choices, we have already been chosen and appointed. Another way of saying this is that we all have a purpose in life, no matter where or when we were born. Each of us here have a purpose, and it is our journey to find and live that purpose.

What that looks like will be different for each of us, that is the joy and the privilege of the freedom we have. We live in a time and place where we can make those decisions for ourselves, and it is good to be reminded that this is not the case everywhere. Think only of Ukraine, where for many the end of their school time is the point when they will be conscripted, and for many young people their education has been interrupted and has been left unfinished.

Although, as I said, what we will end up doing will be different for each of us, there is one thing that we all have in common. That is that whatever we do, we don’t just do for ourselves. Our Gospel reading finishes with Jesus saying: ‘I am giving you these commandments so that you may love one another’. Whatever we end up doing in life, we do it with care, consideration and indeed love for the other. That, ultimately, is our purpose in life, in whichever way we live it, to love one another.

I would like to finish by some words from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. He writes that: ‘Love is a cosmic force. Love is responsibility of an I for a You: in this consists what cannot consist in any feeling – the equality of lovers, from the smallest to the greatest.’

We will only be able to find our true purpose in life if we dare to love one another, to really care for the people we encounter, from the smallest to the greatest.

So as you go from here to continue your journey, my hope for all of you is that you will find and embrace your purpose in life. And we would love to hear from you, in two, ten, twenty years time. To tell your story, interwoven with the stories of those who were here before you and those who will come after. The story of what has made you who you are, which is the story we share and the story we live. Amen.

The journey ahead

Hurstpierpoint College Senior Chapel Address 
Saturday 26 June: Leavers’ Service, John 21 9-19

Upper Sixth, it is good to see you here together once more in Chapel to mark the end of your time here at Hurst. For some of you, this is the end of two years of Sixth Form; others of you started here in Shell, and some of you have been here since you can remember in Pre Prep. No matter how long you have been here, today, you all finish together. After a year that none of us have experienced before.

It was certainly a challenging year, and not what any of us had hoped or expected. But you rose to the challenge. You continued to learn, even if we could not be in the classroom; you continued to look out for each other, to make friendships, even though we had to be in bubbles; you continued on the sports fields, without being able to tackle or pick up a hockey ball; the choir continued to sing, and you produced a house-film, an end-of year production, even without an audience to cheer you on. 

There may have been a lot of things you haven’t been able to do, but when you think about it, there has been so much you have done, you have learned and experienced. In Mr Schofield’s language, not only have you ended up with a bucket full of data, your bucket is also full of experience far beyond tests and data. 

Today, you are leaving this place, not only with a bucket full of data, a goodie bag full of gifts, but hopefully also with a sense of who you are and who you want to become. A sense of purpose that will guide you through your life, shape the decisions you will make and will determine what difference you will make to those around you.

As you leave school, no longer will you have to do what is expected of you, but you will now have to set those expectations yourself. You are no longer aiming to achieve your challenge grades, but you now have the freedom to set your own challenges. That is exciting, but can be daunting at the same time.

Of course, even after you leave today, you are not on your own. Unfortunately, you cannot take Mrs Browne or your tutor with you, who were there when you needed them to be, but you will continue to meet others who will guide and help you. For many of you, not least your parents and your family. Their experiences and stories will help you to understand your own, and indeed you will add your own chapter to the story of which we are all a part. 

One of those stories we hear this morning in our reading. We hear of the encounter between Jesus and Peter after the Resurrection. Some of you may remember the context: Peter has denied Jesus three times before his Crucifixion, and like any of us who have ever betrayed a friend, feels guilty and ashamed. 

However, when they speak, there is no blame, but only understanding. There is no going back over the past, but only a looking towards the future. Three times Jesus asks Peter, ‘do you love me’, and three times Peter answers ‘yes, you know that I do’. Then Jesus says: ‘Follow me’. 

This is the start of a new beginning, a re-orientation, and Peter realises that he has found his true purpose. To do so, to find his purpose, there were three things that Peter did, and I am confident that if we do the same, we will find our purpose too. 

The first thing to do, and maybe the most important one, is never to give up on yourself. No matter how much you feel you have disappointed yourself or others, no matter the mistakes you feel you have made, there is always the chance of a new beginning. It may be hard, and you may not immediately see how, but never think it is too late, because it never is. 

The second one is to be honest to yourself. What is it you really want, what is it you really love? At the end of the day, success is not being about better than others, wealthier than others or more liked than others. 

Success is when you come home at the end of the day and you can say to yourself: I have made a difference, and I have enjoyed it. Whether that is because you have contributed to the latest scientific research, because you have given a performance in front of a great crowd, or because you picked up the shopping for your neighbour, it doesn’t matter. You have made a difference by being you.

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Lastly, as I already said, you cannot do all of this on your own. So continue to listen. Not to the voices that are loudest, but to those that are most genuine. Not to the voices that tell you what to do, but to the voices of those who gently ask you ‘is this really you, is this really who you want to be?’

So, three things: never give up, be honest and listen carefully. Together with the experience and skills you have, you will be able to make a difference to those around you, a difference to the world.

On this day as you prepare to leave, it is fitting that we come together in Chapel to celebrate the Eucharist. Maybe even more so today than on any other occasion, the bread of Communion we are able to receive, is our food for the journey ahead. 

One more experience we share, like so many others you have shared in the past few years. I hope that what we share today and have shared so far will continue to nourish you, and I look forward to hearing your stories when you return.

Go and bear fruit

Holy Trinity Church Hurstpierpoint
Sunday 9 May 2021, Easter 6 and Christian Aid Sunday
Acts 10.44-48 & John 15.9-17

Today is Christian Aid Sunday, the start of Christian Aid Week. Many of you will remember receiving of giving out envelopes as part of the annual fundraising campaign. Christian Aid was founded in 1945 by British and Irish churches to help refugees following the Second World War, and have supported poor communities worldwide ever since, not just by bringing practical relief, but also by campaigning for fairness and justice.

Currently, the main focus of their work is combatting our climate crisis and its consequences, as well as trying to protect the most vulnerable in the world against the devasting effects of the global pandemic. Their work is not party-political, but shows that to be a Christian is to care about those whose plight is greatest.

That brings us straight to our readings this morning. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in which we hear of the universality of God’s love; and the passage from John’s Gospel, part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, for me possibly one of the most moving parts of Scripture, so that is where I would like to start. 

The passage follows directly the reading we heard last week, in which Jesus spoke of the vine and its branches. Many scholars agree that these two readings are one unit, in which today’s passage is a commentary on what it means to be the branches of the true and living vine, what it means to abide in God’s love and how we do this. 

Jesus summons us firstly to keep his commandments: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love (…) so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” These commandments are not there for God’s sake, but for ours. 

In an increasingly secular world, more and more people are astounded that people are still willing to commit to a religion and follow the laws that come with that. Why would you voluntary submit yourself to an authority who puts restrictions on your life? The answer lies in this passage: these commandments are not limiting our freedom, but they are here to make our joy complete, to set us free; free to bear fruit.

The greatest of these commandments, we hear once more today, is to love one another, as Christ has loved us. These words too challenge a modern, secular perception of religion: that it is all about trying to appease God, that we are here in Church trying to be ‘good’ people, so that God may love us. 

No, it is exactly the other way around: God’s love comes first, and we are asked to respond in love towards one another. There is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love for us, that love has already been given; God’s love is unconditional. All that we do is a response to that unconditional love: that is what it means to abide in Him.

This idea of our response, rather than our initiative resonates throughout today’s passage from John. “You did not choose me, but I chose you” – again, it is God’s initiative, our response. When I was training for ministry, this was the text that accompanied the icon in our Chapel, and as we prepared for our ordained life, we were asked to reflect on what it meant to bear fruit that will last. “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

Before asking ourselves that question this morning, what does it mean for us to bear lasting fruit, I would like to come back to the fact that it is Christian Aid Sunday. Therefore, before looking at ourselves, I would like to think about what this question might mean for the women in Burkina Faso, for example, who risk their lives on a daily basis just to get clean water for their families and children? God chose her, as much as he chose you or me, to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.

Or how would these words be heard by the many children recently orphaned in India? How, amidst the pain, suffering and loss, do they hear God’s call? How will they be able to experience that complete joy of which we hear today?

Those are challenging questions, and I know that I am one of those people who doesn’t ask myself that question often enough. However, the only way in which we ourselves can bear fruit is by helping others to do the same. We cannot claim a life fully lived if we have forgotten those around us. We cannot claim that the global pandemic is over until everyone will be able to receive the vaccines and the treatments that are available to us. We cannot claim that we have solved the climate crisis, as long as others are still at risk of devastating droughts and floods, without access to clean water and food.

As Christians, we believe that each person is made in God’s image. That God’s unconditional love is given to each of us. “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”, as we hear in the Acts of the Apostles. “Even on the Gentiles”, those people so unlike those who were associated with a proper and good life; those people so unlike those with whom we share our lives. Even they have received that gift of the Holy Spirit, even they are appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.

The risk of saying all these things is that we feel guilty about what we have and what others don’t. That we feel guilty when we receive a vaccine, or when we enjoy a lovely meal or a holiday abroad. Or that we get angry at those who seem to criticise our choices. But that’s going back to the idea that we deserve, or need to earn, what we have. Instead, what we need to realise is that all that we have, has been given to us in the first place. It is our response that matters.

Being able to give, being able to share is the privilege we have, we all have. But it looks different for each of us. The women in Burkina Faso, the children in India, the people of Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint, we have all got something to give, something to share. Our job is to find out what it is we have to give, as individuals, but also acknowledging our common humanity.

Giving is not about just putting some money in an envelope, although it can certainly be part of it. Giving may also be giving of our time and skill; giving something up so that someone else may have it. Sharing our experience and wisdom with the next generations: there are countless examples of how we can give. 

What they all have in common is that in that giving, we give something of ourselves: it makes a difference, not just to the recipient, but also to us. To go back to the image of the vine and its branches: in giving, in sharing, we allow ourselves to be pruned. Not by cutting into the living branches, but by finding out those that need to be cut for us to bear real, lasting fruit. That’s something we often only really find out when we try, when we take that step that comes at a cost. Only then can we be truly free and truly bear fruit and truly be the people God chose and made us to be.

Sheep or Shepherd?

Hurstpierpoint College Evensong
Friday 30 April
The Good Shepherd, John 10.11-16

The language and format of today’s service is a little different than many of the other Friday services we have had this year. It is taken from the Book of Common Prayer, which was finalised in its current form in 1662 and used in churches, chapels and cathedrals throughout England since. Its language can feel a bit archaic and you may find it hard to connect to these words.

But, when you think about it, there is something incredibly powerful about joining in words that have been used daily for over 350 years. Imagine just some of these occasions: the words we say and sing here today were said and sung during the years of the Great Plague in the 17th century; on the eve of the Great Fire in London; they were said and sung in 1918 at the end of the First World War, in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, and so on.

Not only were they used to mark significant moments in history, this service of Evensong has also been an opportunity to make a difference, to challenge the status quo. For example, at one such service money was raised in the 1950s for the Defence in the South African Treason Trials, in which 156 people, including Nelson Mandela, were accused of treason. This service at St Paul’s Cathedral was attended by a crowd of about 4,000 people that evening.

For us, here at Hurst, Chapel is one of the two moments of the week that we come together as a whole Senior School – albeit not physically in one place at the moment, of which we are acutely aware. It is a moment to remind ourselves of each other at the end of a busy week. We are one of the few schools who are still able to do this: to come together as a whole community to pause and to reflect, particularly in a beautiful building as this.

One of the themes that has come through in a lot of conversations over the last few weeks is what do we still have in common? In other words, what does it mean to be diverse, inclusive, but also a community? We so often focus on our uniqueness and our differences, but we can forget how much we have in common. So, for a moment, I would like you to think what you have in common with the people sitting next to you.

The obvious thing, given our seating arrangements, is that you are in the same house. You go to the same school, and you are probably looking forward to the bank holiday weekend, waiting for this service to be over …

But there are other, far less superficial, things you have in common. You sometimes worry about whether you fit in; there are times when you feel that people don’t really like you as you are; you have said or done things that you regret; you sometimes feel really happy and you don’t know why; and you make mistakes. Those are all things that make us human beings; they make us who we are, and as you grow up you discover the difficulties and the happiness that come with that.

Growing up is not necessarily about making fewer mistakes, but about trying not to make the same mistake again and again. Having spent quite a lot of time on the tennis courts in the last few weeks, forgive me for using this as an example. When you keep hitting the ball in the net and you don’t change your stroke, nothing is going to happen and you will never win a game. However, when you do try to get it over by changing your technique, you may find that initially you start hitting it out by miles. But then, with enough practice, you manage to find the perfect serve and beat your opponent.

That still doesn’t mean you will win all your matches though. As you get better, you move up in the leagues, and your opponents get better too. No matter which sport, at which level, there is not a game without human error.

That applies to life too. As you go through life and get better, hopefully, in making good decisions, life starts throwing more difficult situations at you. When you were in the Pre-Prep, no one asked you to sit an exam; no TikTok, no Instagram, no (still illegal) parties. No one asked you to plan your time or to start thinking about decisions about your future. Relationships get more complicated as you grow up too; friendships start to change, and you start having to manage differences of opinions in new ways.

In addition, this year, we have all been thrown by the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic, which has made all these things even more complicated. Now we are starting a new phase, in which we can start doing the things we enjoy again, but we need to relearn them. We got out of the habit of living and learning together, and in some ways that is where we have missed out on some time.

That means that now is the time in which we all need to commit to living together once more. To take our individual and collective responsibility in forming happy, healthy and good relationships. In the imagery of our reading today, the story of the Good Shepherd, now is the time to stop thinking of ourselves as lost sheep, but rather to start thinking of ourselves as shepherds. It is time to look out for each other, to give something of ourselves for those around us.

I’d like to finish with a question for you to take away, to think and maybe to talk about. What makes you you, and what makes you a Hurst pupil? What are our values and how are we going to live them out? And, as soon as we know the answer, how will we help each other to be the best possible version of ourselves?


Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves over the next few weeks as we come out of lockdown ­– hopefully for the last time – and resume, but also begin anew, our life together.

Early on the first day of the week

Sermon Easter Day 2021: John 20.1-18

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb … ” So begins the Easter story in John’s Gospel: a story of new beginnings, of universal hope and the victory of light over darkness. Something most of us are desperate to hear after the year we had. And so, we may feel, this Easter also marks a new beginning for us, as we begin to be carefully hopeful that the next few months may see a return to a more normal and freer life.

But of course, the Easter story doesn’t really start at the empty tomb. It starts much earlier: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The story had started even before time began. It is the story of God and of us, of God with us. It is something that is easily forgotten if our focus is too much on what is yet to come: our story is not one of yet to come, but one that already is, rooted in all that has gone before. 

The Easter story too is not one about other people, a fairy tale, a story with a message, to which we can listen, but it is our story; we are caught up in it. The miracle of Jesus’ Resurrection, his victory of life over death, became only fully real on Easter morning, when Mary proclaimed that she had seen the risen Lord. The Easter story gains it full importance through people living in the power of Christ’s risen life.

We all are part of the Easter in the story. By who we are and how we live, like Mary, our lives show that we have seen the Lord. That life doesn’t start when restrictions are lifted, but that life has already begun. 

Some may object that we are not like Mary,  or the disciples, nor would everyone want to be. Yet, I believe that if we live our lives fully, we may be more like them, than we first thought, as Mary’s encounter on the first Easter morning is not a bad template for a life fully lived. 

The first step, bringing us back to the beginning of the story we heard this morning, is to show up: early in the morning, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. So often, making a start is the hardest part. Whether that’s when you’re going for a run, starting a new term at school, or starting a new phase of life. But when we do, we often realise too that it wasn’t as difficult as we thought.

When we’ve made that first step, the next is that we need to question what we see, more often than not admitting our lack of understanding, and our need to learn. When Mary notices the empty tomb, she is confused and anxious: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

And with that lack of knowledge, we need to accept our vulnerability and our grief, the pain of what we don’t have. With Mary we may find ourselves weeping and finding it hard to see through our tears. It is something many of us have felt more acutely over the past year too, it is so hard when we don’t know and don’t understand what is happening, nor what it will mean for our future.

Despite her grief and tears, Mary still hears the voice of a stranger calling her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” I hope that many of us will recognise ourselves here too. Either reaching out to someone in pain, or remembering that moment when someone reached out to us. Someone familiar, or indeed a stranger, but someone calling our name when we needed it most. 

When we hear and dare to respond to that call, at that moment everything changes. What we thought we had lost, has now been fulfilled. The Easter story is not about returning to life as it was, life as we made it for ourselves. No, it is about realising that what we were promised is already here. Not necessarily the way we expected it to be, not without pain or loss, but never alone and never completely lost.

Mary returns to the disciples and announces: “I have seen the Lord!”. So we too, we cannot and must not keep those moments of profound insight to ourselves. Because this is not just my story, or your story, but our story: we are all caught up in this together. Maybe that is one of the things that we have learned more acutely in the past year: that we depend on one another and our actions are not just our own.

So my hope and my prayer this Easter is that, with Mary, we also can say that we have seen the Lord. Not that we will see Him on the 21st June, or on whichever date we have set our hopes, but that He is here. Risen for us and present with us: from beginning to end. Alpha and Omega, the first and the last. Amen. 

Could you not stay awake with me?

Make me a channel of your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
in giving of ourselves that we receive,
and in dying that we’re born to eternal life.

Many will know this hymn by Sebastian Temple based on the Prayer of St Francis. St Francis was not the only one who recognised that it is in giving of ourselves that we receive. Many others before and since him, including numerous scientific studies, have confirmed that helping others is good for us. Most of us will know this from experience too: it makes you feel good when you are able to help someone else. Many of us will also recognise the opposite feeling: the frustration and helplessness when we find ourselves in a situation where there is nothing that we can do.

Painting by James Tissot

The night of Maundy Thursday, when Christians throughout the world keep the Watch, is a strong reminder of how hard it is not to be able to ‘do’ anything. After the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples go to the Mount of Olives. Jesus has already foretold his destiny, and there is nothing more that can be done. The only thing Jesus asks of his disciples is to stay awake with him as he prays a little distance away from them, his followers and closest friends.

However, as he returns, he finds the disciples sleeping and rebukes them. Twice more he goes away, and finds them sleeping upon his return. They just cannot stay awake and wait as the evening unfolds. It is hard to stay alert, when there is nothing you can do.

I have certainly felt this over the past year. I have found it much harder to worship and pray without being able to physically go to Church. On a practical level, surely, it should be easier, without the need to travel, to dress up warmly, etcetera. However, so often we find that it is easier to do something, than just to be. For me, this has also been reflected in other areas of life. Working from home should be easier, yet I found it much harder when I had to teach classes from my living room, or Zoom with friends rather than go to the pub.

Over the past year, certainly I have found myself struggling in a way not unlike the disciples: keeping my faith alive, keeping watch with Jesus, has been much harder than following Him in service. But watching and waiting is precisely what we are asked to do these days as we retell and relive the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is hard and we have to acknowledge our helplessness and weakness; our ultimate dependence on God. Yet, we also know what lies beyond these days. In the words of St Francis once more, it is in self-forgetting that we will find and in dying that we are raised to eternal life.

Candles of Hope

Hurstpierpoint College Senior Chapel Address
Friday 29th January 2021: Candlemas, Luke 2.22-40

On 2 February, in the Church year, we celebrate the Feast of Candlemas. Traditionally, this has been the end of the Christmas season, the day that even the most persevering amongst us put away their Christmas lights – or maybe not this year. It is also the service in which we bless and give out lots of candles, as I am sure many of you who were here last year will remember. As we all know, this year is different, and we cannot be together in one place. However, I hope that most of you received a tea light from us this last week. Some of you may have already lit it, but if you haven’t, today may be a good opportunity to do so.

Why people will be lighting up their windows with torches, candles and  lamps this weekend - Bristol Live

Lighting a candle is a universal sign of comfort, and of hope. Many of us will have been into churches and lit a candle to think of someone dear to us, or to remember someone who had died. As a nation, we have also been lighting candles to remember all those caught up in the global pandemic: again, a sign of comfort and hope.

Today, I would like to extend the image of the candle as a sign of hope a little further – maybe a little too far for some of you. In our reading just now, we heard how Simeon proclaims Jesus to be one who will give light to those who sit in darkness: the image of Christ being the light of the world. That is also the image represented by our Paschal candle, which we light every year for the first time on Easter Day.

As Christians, we believe that each of us carries with us that light too, that each one of us is uniquely created and loved by God. That each of us is unique, and each of us is to be valued and celebrated as a human being, is of course not only a Christian belief: it is not even distinctively religious. I would go as far as that the belief that everyone is to be respected and celebrated it is a necessary condition for humanity to live well, and to live well together.

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Dare to hope

Address Hurstpierpoint College Senior School Chapel
8 January 2021: Feast of the Epiphany

Here we are at the start of a new year. Together as the Hurst Community, yet dispersed throughout the country. None of us had hoped to start 2021 with remote learning; none of us had hoped that the exams would be cancelled also this year; and none of us had hoped to see the fragility of our freedom and democracy pointed out so clearly in the US. You might be wondering, as I have done in the last few days, is there still something we dare to hope for this year?

The Feast of the Epiphany, the three kings or wise men, which is celebrated in the Western church on 6th January and which we celebrate today, gives a resounding ‘yes’ as the answer to the question if there are still things which we can hope for. As much as Advent, Christmas or New Year, the story of the wise men is one of hope and of new beginnings. Particularly, new beginnings in a dark and challenging time.

Let us for a moment imagine ourselves to be one of the three travellers. We actually don’t know if there were three or more, we only know that they had three gifts. But that’s an aside. What does matter though, is that they are not on their own. They have each other’s company and support. Imaging ourselves to be one of the wise men is not thinking of ourselves in the fancy dress we imagine from our nativity plays, but about getting a little bit of an appreciation of who they were, and maybe who and where we are.

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