Church and nation are entering the season of remembering. Next Sunday is Remembrance Sunday when the country is drawn together to remember with thanksgiving those who have died in conflict. Today the Church begins the celebration of All Saints, remembering with thanksgiving all those women and men of faith who have inspired and encouraged others in their faith. In two days time, we celebrate All Souls, when we remember with thanksgiving relatives and friends who have been special and important to us but who have now died.
If we are to live fully in the present and move with hope into the future, then we need to remember, to be in relationship with the past, even, perhaps especially, with the difficult and hard bits of the past. The Christian faith encourages us to remember and to do so with thanksgiving.
The season of remembering with thanksgiving is a good time to be standing down not only as Bishop of Tonbridge but also from 38 years of full-time, stipendiary ministry. Today I thank God for the adventure that Jane, the children (who have joined us at various stages on the way) and I have had over those years: serving in the parishes of St. Nicholas, Sutton and St. Peter’s, Limpsfield in the next door diocese of Southwark; then on to the parish of Chingola, Chililabombwe and Solwezi in Northern Zambia; visiting tutor and lecturer at the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Institute near Geneva; Vicar in North Petherton and Moorland in Somerset; Vice Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, a theological college in Oxford and here as Bishop of Tonbridge.
If you compare ordained ministry to a fairground, then it’s like being on a mixture of rides – at times a roller-coaster, a merry-go-round, a white-knuckle ride and at other times it’s like a walk in the park – and sometimes all these in one day. But there have always been companions and fellow-pilgrims on the way to support, guide, advise, pray for and encourage us – and these I remember with thanksgiving. And I have met many saints in our institutions and congregations who have been a great inspiration. As we set off to discover the next adventure to which God is calling us, I would like to leave you with three thoughts from this occasion and from these readings.
First, our calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to live life to the full. Jesus told his followers, ‘I have come that they may life and have it abundantly.’ Two weeks ago I returned from a visit to our partner diocese of Harare. While I was there, I met with one of the most inspirational communities I have ever encountered. The community is called Tariro, which means ‘hope’, and it is a community of around 20 young orphans. Tariro was set up some 10 years ago and the community live in an ordinary house in one of the townships of Harare. I heard heart-rending stories from some of them, stories of being rejected by their families and of being thrown out onto the streets. Tariro, which has a strong Christian foundation, took them in, listened to their stories and helped them discover where their potential and gifts lie. The leaders in Tariro, through the common life they all share, show these young people that, although they have had a difficult past, that need not hold them back, there is no need to be trapped in it, they should not regard themselves as victims. In time, many of them are given hope for the future and encouragement to realise their potential. These twenty young people are aged between 12 and 23. A number are still at school. One, who is a particularly gifted rugby player, is going to New Zealand to study and develop his sporting skills. A number of the older ones are preparing to go to university in Zimbabwe, others are looking to develop their practical skills. Some are already at university, one is part-way through his training to be a doctor, and others have completed their studies and are in full-time employment. They are intending to live life to the full.
Each of us, no matter what age, is called to live life to the full, to become the person we were created to be and this is a life-time’s task. As the second reading reminds us, ‘What we will be has not yet been revealed.’ (I John 3.2) We are all works in progress. The great artist has not yet completed his work on any of us. What we do know is that the God who loved us into being will never desert us, even at the most difficult and traumatic times and that life is not to be found in our relationship with our possessions, by the things we have around us, but life is to be found in our relationship with each other and in our relationship with God.
Secondly, our calling involves taking risks by going out of our comfort zones, making mistakes and, at times, failing. The Christian faith provides us with lenses to look at the world in different ways. We heard in the Gospel reading that those particularly close to the heart of God are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who seek justice, the peacemakers and the persecuted. These people are so often of little importance on the world’s agenda....but this is not so with God’s agenda. So too, the people that others look down on, the people that society want to keep out, those who think and believe differently from us, those who act differently from others, those we find uncomfortable....we discover are the ones from whom we can learn most. We find ourselves outside our comfort zones and yet it is there that we discover fresh horizons and new possibilities.
When we do take such risks, we may also find that we make mistakes and even fail. Now, we don’t make mistakes and fail because there is something wrong with us: no, we make mistakes and fail because we are human. The wonderful thing about the Gospel is that making mistakes and failing are not disasters.....in fact, if we recognise our mistakes and failures, they can be used as launch-pads into something far greater than we can imagine. I recently came across a talk given by JK Rowling -of Harry Potter fame - to people graduating from Harvard University in the USA. Harvard is a place of high-achievers, but in a very moving way, JK Rowling spoke of how failure turned her life around. Her talk can be found on Youtube. A friend of mine is a violin maker: he told me that a good violin makes a better sound when it has been broken and repaired than before it had been broken in the first place.
Today we are remembering with thanksgiving the saints. But we need to remember that the saints are not people who have led perfect and untroubled lives: they are people whose lives have been touched by God and who have struggled to live lives of faith, often getting it wrong, making mistakes and failing. St. Peter, upon whom Jesus built the Church, was always making mistakes. He lied, he misled people and he turned his back on Jesus when he most needed support. Yet, Jesus still called him and appointed him as the 'rock' on which the Church is built. When we do make mistakes and fail, we are in good company. Failure need not be a disaster: it is part of being human. Getting things wrong and failing have within them the seeds of great potential.
Finally, the Gospel teaches us that the best is yet to come.....the best wine is served last. We may look around us and see change and decay, we may think that the world is imploding on itself, but for the Gospel, the best is yet to come. Now, you may be thinking, ‘He’s bound to say that. He’s just walking off into the sun-set, skis attached to his back, fishing rod in one hand, glass of wine in the other, he’s bound to say that.’ But then you may think, ‘Hang on a minute. It’s ok when we are fit and healthy, but as we get older we are more likely to get sick. Our bodies and minds don’t work as well as they used to. We get to know pain in ways that we have never known it before. Is it really true that the best is yet to come?’ Here I want to return to ‘tariro’ – hope.
That first reading was written 2000 years ago, but it could have been written today. That reading from the book of Revelation is a form of underground protest literature written to bring hope to a group of Christians in the area of Turkey who were being persecuted and killed for their faith. Christians today in nearby Syria and Iraq who are being persecuted and killed by Islamic State will completely understand those words. It was a message of hope, saying to those going through persecution, ‘the great ordeal,’ that they should hold fast. They should never lose hope. The best is yet to come.
Many Palestinians have restricted movement in Israel/Palestine. Asked if he could see a time when these restrictions would be lifted and Palestinians will be free to move around, one Palestinian told me that he could not see this happening in the near future but he was ‘bristling with hope.’ As many of you will know, our sisters and brothers in Harare went through a period of great persecution over a number of years and, in the middle of this, they experienced a joy and togetherness that they had not experienced before....it was hope that brought them through. When there seems to be no end or no way through suffering, it is hope that sustains us and helps us hold on. And hope will ultimately give birth to something new and unexpected. When all else fails, hope, which is based in the new life of the resurrection, will help us through.
At its heart, the Gospel witnesses to the fact that, although life does involve struggle and may involve persecution and pain, the best is yet to come.
Try to remember with thanksgiving. Remember to live life to the full. Remember the need to take risks....remembering especially that getting it wrong and failure are not disasters. And remember, too, that the best is yet to come.
Readings: Revelation 7.9-17; I John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12
Image 1: Taken by Linda Wanniaratchy.
Image 2: Tariro community, Harare.
Image 3: Medieval (c.14th century) crozier made of cast iron which I used when in the Cathedral.
Scene depicted is the Annuniciation with Mary pregnant.