Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth

Fr David’s Sermon 26 June 2016 at St Mary’s Flower Festival

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

What a strange phrase! Jesus “set” his face. What does it mean? In the Greek of Luke’s Gospel, the word is esterisen – which means firmly set, fixed, steadied, grounded. Jesus is firmly fixed, grounded, set on Jerusalem.

What happens in Jerusalem? Well, we all know that is where Jesus is arrested; put on trial; crucified. It is where he rises from the dead and from where the Church, which Jesus commissions, via his disciples, begins its work.
Many times in the Gospel, Jesus talks to his disciples about his death in Jerusalem – but they do not understand. Polonius imparts his wisdom (to Laertes) in Hamlet:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Jesus is set – his face is set – his direction is set – his purpose is set. Jesus is determined to follow God’s will for him, no matter what obstacles come in his path.

This is a special weekend of celebration for us here at St Mary’s. Our talented Flower Guild have staged a festival to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare in 1616; and also to celebrate the 90th birthday year of our monarch, Queen Elizabeth 2.

William Shakespeare – is the greatest writer in our culture. His 37 plays, and 153 sonnets, written between 1539 and 1613 are chiefly concerned with setting of faces. Characters who determine themselves to follow a course of action, in love or war. Richard 2, determined to be all powerful; Henry 5, determined to restore credibility and dignity to the English throne; Macbeth, determined to be king himself; Lear, determined to give up power but still retain its trappings and advantages; Romeo and Juliet, determined to pursue the fulfilment of their love, even beyond the grave. In Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, the Duke of Milan, Prospero is determined, initially to seek revenge for past wrongs, but is moved to be satisfied with his enemies’ repentance, to forgive them and to work to restore harmony.

Shakespeare lived and wrote in a time of great upheaval and uncertainty. His began writing in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth and ended in the reign of James 1. During his adult life the old religion and old values had been swept away. The “brave new world” of the Renaissance had introduced a new confidence – of learning, exploration and conquest. No longer, did you have to remain on the rung of the social ladder where God put you; by education, by planning and plotting, by wealth or by sheer force, you could be anything you wanted to be – it depended upon where you set your face. Shakespeare’s plays tell of the consequences of such a culture. Politics, too, were volatile; society longed to find that which would make it stable. Macbeth was written a year after the gunpowder treason of 1604, where a group of Warwickshire terrorists (at least two of whom were known to Shakespeare) had tried to remove a king by murder. It shows the consequences of what happens when personal gain is the motive behind political action.
When dancers train, the first thing they learn is to “spot” – that means to keep fixing one’s eyes on the same distant spot whilst spinning to ensure dizziness will not make them over balance. It is crucial to master this skill to make progress as a serious dancer. No matter how elegantly you spin – if you don’t set your face on a particular spot you will lose your balance and fall over.

After Elizabeth 1 died in 1603, Shakespeare’s acting company was renamed the King’s Men and they played at the royal court in Whitehall. The bulk of the plays were about kingship and seeking for social stability. Why? Because, Shakespeare had the privilege of writing and performing plays for the king himself. It was possible for Shakespeare to keep the eyes of James 1 on the spot, by meditating in drama on what makes a good king.
I wonder where our eyes are set after this week? We have had the most bizarre election experience of our lifetime. Whatever you think or feel about the result – there is no denying that, as a nation, we are not sure where our face is set. We may be in for challenging times ahead. We have certainly heard some ugly and dangerous language giving voice to divisive concepts which have worried and scared people. We need to reset our faces on that which provides stability and harmony. We need to gaze upon Christ.

Many times, we try to soften the Gospel message of Christ. We try to convince ourselves that Jesus doesn’t really want us to give things up – but he does. We try to persuade ourselves that we don’t really have to mix with those who are different from us; those who make us annoyed, or uncomfortable. He does! As Shakespeare shows in play after play, humanity will set its eyes on a particular spot. Jesus’ face is set on Jerusalem; set on doing God’s work: forgiving, healing, loving. Are our faces set in the same direction as Jesus? Are we set on the path of discipleship? Our goal is to build God’s kingdom now, in this community. Our goal is how we bring that kingdom to life in all we touch with our lives; in the painful moments as well as the joyful moments.

As we set our faces towards Jerusalem with Jesus, that means our faces are set for a life of sacrifice, a life of real and total love: a love which forgives; a love which heals; a love which builds relationships where we set each other free to be the people God each one of us to be.
Are we set on a path of discipleship? Are we set to build the kingdom of God’s love? Is that spot – the point we aim at – the focus that gives meaning to our lives a spot that will set us and those around us free? Prospero’s last speech from The Tempest – the last words Shakespeare ever wrote:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Shakespeare is saying: be kind to one another; be generous; be loving. For it is only when our faces are set towards the shining beauty of God’s grace, that the brightness of God’s love can be reflected upon our faces and make them beautiful. Amen.

Reflections after a week of violence

Fr David’s sermon 19 June 2016, St Thomas’

“… they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”

Have you ever felt that you are not living the life you really want to live? Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by life’s challenges, perhaps the way things seem beyond your control to the extent that you feel like a prisoner in your own life? If so – then you have met the Gerasene Demoniac; the man in today’s Gospel. He used to have a house and a role in the city – now he lives rough among the tombs with the dead. He used to be free – now he is shackled in chains. He used to have family and friends – now he has armed guards. He used to live a dignified life like everyone else – now he is naked and shouts and screams at the top of his voice.

It is not, however, simply a description of the man’s physical life and environment. If that is all it were about then some clothes, a homeless shelter, some medication, and a pair of bolt cutters would fix his life. End of story. You and I both know that the real challenges of life are not that easily fixed. The real challenges of life are, more often than not, emotional and spiritual rather than physical. The tombs, chains, demons, and nakedness are descriptive of this man’s interior life. They point to a life separated from God, from others, and self. They reveal a soul in need of healing, in need of a new life not just a new environment.

We do not know how this man of the city came to live in the tombs. We do not know what keeps him chained to the dead. We do not know what has left him exposed and vulnerable, having lived without clothes for a long time. We do not know what demons haunted and possessed his life. We cannot tell the story of his life. We do not have to. But we can relate to his story.

This last week, has been a terrible week for humanity. It began with 50 people shot dead and many more badly wounded in a night club in Orlando, Florida. It ended, with the cold-blooded murder, in Yorkshire, of a young MP, who had committed her life to working for the poor and those for whom justice was denied. This last week, communities and individuals, the world over, have cried out in despair, feeling more dead than alive; naked, exposed, and vulnerable than ever before. We have a refugee crisis, which it seems impossible to respond to in any appropriate way owing to the sheer numbers of innocent people who have fled Syria, Iraq and other middle eastern lands which have been painfully ripped apart by war.

And then we have this Referendum. It’s not the outcome: that’s the job of the democratic process. It is the language and images used. Things seem to have gone so badly wrong, that the bishops of the Church in Wales issued a statement on Friday:

“It is a matter of great concern to us that the debate is frequently couched in the emotive language of fear. We note with particular concern that the divisive issue of immigration, with the demonisation of immigrants, is being used in a way that is in danger of overwhelming sensible debate. This ignores the facts that immigration has been of benefit to the nation, and that immigrants still make up only a very small percentage of the population.

The debate has also tended to concentrate on the crude economic calculation of how much is paid to the European Union, without measuring the benefits of peace, economic partnership and cultural interchange that flow from British participation in Europe.

On the basis of their own reflections, the bishops, meeting in St David’s, this week, have agreed that they are happy to make it known that they will all be voting in favour of remaining in the European Union.”

Religion and politics are completely welded together. Politics is how we organise our society; religion is what we base that organisation upon. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “I honestly don’t know what Bible people are reading if they say religion and politics do not mix!”

As Christian disciples, we ought to be concerned that the rhetoric used by both sides of the EU debates, here in the UK, and by Donald Trump, in the USA, is not Christian. It can’t be. It demonises certain people; excludes certain people; judges certain people; sets one group against another. The language is destructive and selfish. It is all about what is in it for me – not what can be given to others in love and service and compassion. As Christians, we are called to build bridges that connect, not walls that divide. We must listen to those words of St Paul:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

A week which began with 50 innocent people shot dead; a week which ended with an MP killed. God help us! God, indeed, help us!

This last week, it has seemed as though we have become either prisoners in our own society, or refugees from the civilisation we thought we were part of. This week, we have seen and heard humanity scream and shout like the mad man chained and raving in the grave yard.

But it does not have to be that way. A meeting with Jesus and today will be a different day for the distressed man and for us. The demons themselves testify to the power of God. “What have you to do with me Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you do not torment me.” They beg, negotiate, and seek permission from Jesus. These once life controlling demons are powerless against the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life . God in Christ has ultimate power. Death knows this. Sin knows this. The natural world knows this. The demons know this. Sometimes, it seems, we are the only ones who do not know this.

For some time now St. Luke has been reminding us that only Jesus has ultimate power over our life. Two weeks ago, we witnessed the power of Jesus to restore that which is dead to life, as he raised the dead son of the widow of Nain to life. Death is not the ultimate reality for the Christian; the ultimate reality is that we live the life of the Resurrection – that we are active in building God’s kingdom of love.

Last week, we saw how the woman who had been labelled and judged was given peace and freedom through the power of Jesus’ love and mercy. Our true identity lies not in the opinions of others, but in the limitless love of God has shown to us by Jesus.

Just before today’s Gospel story, Luke tells us of Jesus’ power to calm the storms of life, to still the rough waters and strong winds that swamp and batter our life and the world around us. The power of Jesus’ love declares that the circumstances of the world we live in do not have the last word or the ability to overwhelm us, if we have Faith – if we live Our Faith.

The Love of God respects diversity. It brings together and binds up diverse experience in a cohesive whole. It constantly invites into community those who are outside the cultural norms: women and men, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, us and them. And that is challenging.
When the demons had left and the man was sitting at the foot of Jesus “clothed in his right mind” the people were afraid. Yes, real relationships are uncomfortable. Especially those that strive to be icons of the relationship between Christ and those who sit at his feet—the Church.
Relationships often feel safer when we’re around people who are similar to us. People who like us, and whom we like. Yet, the walk with Jesus is constantly asking us to open up that circle and to accept, and even love, people who aren’t like us. Not by chaining them to us, but by allowing and loving the expanses between us. Even the Greeks? Even the slaves? Even the ones who live in the tombs? Even them? Even those we disagree with? Yes. Even them.
Relationships are tricky, and these are the kinds of relationships we as Christians are called to be involved with. Neither a radical isolation nor an undifferentiated togetherness, both of which lead to madness and the breaking of community. We are called to relationships where a marvellous living side by side takes place. We’re called to love the expanses between all of us, and to seeing ourselves and all of God’s children as whole, and complete and gathered together.

There is nothing we encounter in life or death, nothing we have done or left undone, no circumstance of the world around us or the one within us that is not subject to the power of Jesus: the power to restore life, to forgive, to love, to heal, and to carry us through times we cannot bear on our own. In Christ chains are broken, nakedness is clothed, tombs are vacated, and demons are powerless.

S. Seraphim of Sarov:

“Find peace within yourself and a thousand will find peace around you.” Amen.

The Queen's 90th Birthday

“Soon afterwards, Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.”

It was a dark, damp February afternoon in London, three students from the Central School of Drama were about to cross the road next to the Royal Albert Hall in London, where they had been having voice coaching lessons. Their names were John, Richard and Judy. As they made to cross, they were stopped by a white-gloved policeman. They realised that the whole of Kensington Road was empty of the normal five o’clock traffic; along the whole road were stationed white-gloved policemen. An odd thing for a cold, dark, February afternoon – then swiftly and silently a shiny, black limousine drove past quite quickly – inside a young woman wearing black gloves and dark clothes waved through the window. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, Queen Elizabeth II was being driven to Buckingham palace as the new Queen Regnant of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Realms – the year 1952, having landed at an RAF base nearby from Africa where she had heard of the news of her father’s death a few days before.

(My friend the late John Hencher, who became a priest after being an actor, and was chaplain of the boys’ school here in Monmouth, told me of that event. Richard and Judy?…well their surnames are Briers and Dench.)

So began the reign of Elizabeth our Queen, a reign of 64 years and 126 days, and for whose long life of 90 years we give thanks and celebrate today. But amidst the red, white and blue bunting and union flags, amidst the nostalgia for Coronation Chicken and Eton Mess, what are we celebrating?

Before she became queen, when still Princess Elizabeth, she said:

“I declare before you all, that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.”

And that is it. Queen Elizabeth II, has devoted every day of her long life and reign to service. She is the Head of State, Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Fount of Justice, Head of the Armed Forces, the Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England – she is patron of over 600 organisations and charities. But more than that…it is the seriousness and sincerity the Queen brings to each visit she makes each person she talks to, which we value and celebrate and for which we give thanks. When she came to open a new building at the school in which I used to teach – we all lined up along the corridors of the school, and as she approached my form, we had a young lad who had his leg in plaster. She stopped in front of him and bent down and asked him the kind of questions about his leg and offered him some helpful words of encouragement like a good grandmother would do. I still remember the smile on his face.

Queen Elizabeth’s zest for public engagements never seems to flag. Last year, our 90 year old Queen carried out 306 engagements in the UK and 35 overseas. By comparison, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry between them carried out only 198 public engagements.

When visiting Accrington, Lancashire. After the visit, a reporter mingled in the crowd and asked a bunch of teenage lads, their faces painted in red white and blue stripes, what they thought of the Queen’s Visit: “ rate champion…we’re dead chuffed…she’s like dead rich and rate posh…and she’s come to see us”,

which, translated from the Lancastrian, means they were over joyed that the Queen, who is so rich and privileged had spent time meeting ordinary young people in their own place.

What is her motivation? Well we only have to listen in to her Christmas broadcasts to gain an insight. In her broadcast of 2000, she said:

“For me, the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God, provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

Queen Elizabeth is a sovereign who serves, inspired by a God who serves. God is love and out of that love God became a single cell in Mary’s womb. And then, a wriggling baby on the straw. And then, a defenceless refugee on the run. And then, a builder’s labourer. And then, a penniless preacher; a homeless healer; a stooping, foot-washing servant. Yet he descends even further to be a victim, absorbing cruelty and injustice for the sake of love. Never has anyone so mighty become one so meek as the God of love, the creator of you and me. He is our ultimate sovereign; because he is our ultimate servant. Inspired by her Christian faith Queen Elizabeth is our sovereign and our servant:

Often the Queen’s service soothes and heals – such as when she spoke in Gaelic on her visit to the Irish Republic, or when she spoke comforting words, granny-like, to the boy with a broken leg on that school visit I told you about.

In her Christmas broadcast, last year, she said:

“Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a saviour, with power to forgive.

Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we can feel the power of God’s love.”

Let us give thanks to God for Queen Elizabeth II’s 90 years of long life – and of 64 years devoted service to all people in the name of Christ. Let us pledge to follow her example and recommit ourselves, with the help of God, to do the same. Amen.