Author: Janneke Blokland

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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Waiting with the Light

Sermon for Christmas Day 2020
Hurstpierpoint College Chapel

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” So speaks the Prophet Isaiah to the people almost three thousand years ago.

I had never experienced what it was really like to walk in darkness, until I walked a stretch of the Camino de Santiago in October last year. I had anticipated long, sunny days, but instead I spent a lot of time walking in darkness and in rain. I hadn’t appreciated that Spain’s coast is significantly west from where we are, yet it shares the Continental time zone. Hence, the first three hours walk every day I walked in darkness.

I would have certainly been surprised, if not terrified, if I had suddenly seen a great light. So I can imagine a little bit what the shepherds must have felt that night when they saw a great light, and probably even more so when they saw that in the light there was an angel. No matter how much the angel told them not to be afraid, that was probably exactly what they were.

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The Light shines in the Darkness

Sermon for the first Eucharist of Christmas
Hurstpierpoint College Chapel

A couple of years ago I was speaking to a colleague from Albania. He had come to the UK in the late nineties fleeing the civil conflict at the time. Remembering the continuous threats and fear of his home country, as he arrived here, he could not believe that people here got upset if they didn’t have enough milk in their tea or if the post arrived a day late. However, after a couple of years in safety and security, he noticed how he too got bothered by the trivialities of daily life.

I was reminded of this conversation when reflecting on the year past. On a personal, national and international level, our conversations have been dominated by COVID-19. For all of us, the pandemic has brought a darkness and dullness to our lives, which we could not have imagined a year ago and this has dominated our thinking and our speaking. As many of us have asked ourselves: what did we talk about before COVID? Ok, apart from Brexit and Trump …

I am sure, therefore, that I am not the only one who hears the words from the Prophet Isaiah tonight in that context: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.”

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Who are you?

Hurstpierpoint College Senior Chapel Address
Friday 11th December: Advent 3, John 1.6–8,19–28

Although we’re not quite there yet, it is fair to say that we are nearing the end of term, and nearing the Christmas holidays. There are still two-and-a half days of lessons left, and for some of you some last tests for which to revise. Yet, the Christmas trees have been decorated, Secret Santa gifts have been bought – or will have been by Monday – and the list of things to do before Christmas is slowly getting shorter.

In this time between preparation and celebration, I would like to take the opportunity today to take stock. Not so much looking at what we have done or achieved, as there will be plenty of time for that next week. But I do like to reflect on the past few months using the question we hear asked to John in our reading this afternoon: Who are you? What do you say about yourself? Those are questions we all encounter at some point, and it is good to give them some thought.

John the Baptist’s answer that we hear in our reading this afternoon is that he is the voice crying out in the wilderness. He is the one who is proclaiming what is to come after him: Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour. Those words ‘a voice crying out in the wilderness’ seem to indicate a loneliness, yet there is certainly also a sense of purpose with John. He knows who he is, and that is why he does what he does.

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Are you ready?

Sermon for Advent Sunday at Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint
Sunday 29th November 2020, Isaiah 64.1-9 and Mark 13.24-end

This Sunday, we mark the beginning of the season of Advent. Four Sundays until Christmas, and traditionally a time of preparation as we anticipate the Incarnation by prayer, the reading of Scripture and fasting. A time of waiting, during which we are invited to reflect on our readiness to celebrate the birth of Jesus. At the same time, during Advent, we are also invited to look ahead to the final coming of Christ as our judge and redeemer and our readiness for that.

Over the years, as society has grown more secular, we have lost some of the immediacy of these two aspects of Advent: the waiting and the judgement. For many of us, Christmas starts no longer on Christmas Eve, but on 1st December. We seem to have lost the ability to wait, as we live in a time where everything is available at the click of a button. We also live in a society that has become weary of the language of judgement, and the idea that we are accountable has become increasingly uncomfortable; a language we try to avoid.

This is how I probably have started most Advent sermons and reflections over the past few years. But this year is different. This year, we have been confronted with a time of waiting that we have not experienced before. This year, we have come to realise that we cannot get everything we want when we want it. At the same time, we are also become more acutely aware of the consequences of our actions. So maybe we need to be challenged too by that uncomfortable language of judgement.

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When numbers become names

Address for Armistice Day 2020

For over more than a century, people in the Commonwealth have gathered on this 11th November to remember those who have died in wars and armed conflict. Today, Armistice Day, marks the day that the First World War ended, on 11th November 1918. Over the course of that war, 880,000 members of the British forces died. This was 6% of the adult male population and 12.5% of those serving.

In the Second World War there were 384,000 British soldiers killed in combat, and 70,000 civilians in this country died largely due to bombing raids during the Blitz. In the 75 years since 1945, just over 7,000 members of the British military died in armed conflict.

Here at Hurst College, much smaller then than now, the numbers also reflect the enormous impact the two World Wars had. During the First World War 112 former pupils and teachers died in the service of their county. During the Second World War 75 men lost their lives. In addition to them, another ten members of this community have died fighting for our freedom in various other conflicts, including most recently in Afghanistan.

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Harvest abundance

Hurstpierpoint College Senior Chapel Address for Harvest
Friday 2nd October 2020: Ecclesiastes 3.1-8

It is probably fair to say that it has not been an easy week for many of us for a variety of reasons. Not least because it is the mid-point of this half-term, and the summer is now well and truly behind us. The situation is not helped by the fact that there are not the normal things to look forward to: fixtures, concerts and plays; time with friends at the weekends, and holiday plans for half-term. At the moment, every day can feel a little bit the same.

As human beings, we need a structure, a rhythm. To our days, our weeks and our years. That is what our reading speaks about as well: there is, and there should be, a time for everything. In other words, we need occasions, we need things to celebrate.

Today, as we celebrate Harvest Festival, we have a good reminder that, although we may forget at times, there is indeed a lot to celebrate, a lot to be thankful for. I have been incredibly impressed over the last week how all over the campus wheelbarrows have started to fill up with gifts you have brought. So much so, that we had many of them overflowing.

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