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Revd. Giles King-Smith

Resistance is not futile

a sermon preached on Christmas Eve 2017

This morning, being a Sunday morning, I ... went to the cinema.

As you do - or at least, as we do in our family on Christmas Eve. I had cancelled the usual morning services, not to go to the cinema, but - keeping in mind 2 services on Christmas Eve and 2 more on Christmas morning - to avoid ending up as a frazzled heap of brain-dead vicar.

Anyway ... as we trooped off to see "Star Wars - the Last Jedi", I was reminded of my dear colleague and friend Linda Walters, our Associate Minister who died in February - and specifically, of how much she loved going to the cinema. Every time a half-decent film arrived in Ilfracombe or Barnstaple, or sometimes even in Taunton, you could mention it to Linda and she'd say - oh yes, saw it last Thursday - really, really good. Very rare that you could beat her to it.

So, as we watched, I thought of Linda. And (rather sadly) I started thinking about my Christmas sermon. Having seen some of the previous Star Wars films, and read the reviews of this one, I knew that it would be about a bunch of heroes of "The Resistance" defying the interstellar military might of "The First Order" - which is basically an evil empire with ambitions to rule the galaxy. And as I watched, I asked myself the question I'm now going to ask you:

Am I / are we part of the Resistance or part of the Empire?

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Revd. Giles King-Smith

Freedom from fear

Sermon preached at Exeter Cathedral Evensong on June 25th 2017

Based on I Samuel 24:1-17 (The outlaw David spares King Saul's life) and Luke 14:12-24 (The parable of the wedding feast)

"Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David: "You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.""

There are certain situations - or perhaps I should say, certain positions - in which we are particularly vulnerable. While eating, for example, especially when accepting hospitality from others (think Glencoe). Or while sleeping - undefended, unsuspecting, abandoned to a parallel universe.

And, of course, while ... how shall I put this? ... answering a call of nature, doing our business, relieving ourselves ... you know what I mean, even though I shudder to approach this subject - at Choral Evensong - in the Cathedral!

Actually, the most graceful euphemism for this activity, though admittedly rather confusing, is the one used in our Old Testament reading. In a literal translation of the Hebrew, we read that Saul entered the cave "to cover his feet". The use of the feet in the Hebrew Bible to represent parts of the body which cannot be mentioned deserves a whole book, or at least a whole sermon - but not now. (If you're interested, go to Ruth chapter 3, verse 4...)

Bodily functions make us vulnerable, that's the point. In this little scene, with its potent mixture of comedy and poignancy, Saul is vulnerable, and David refuses to capitalize on his vulnerability. A couple of chapters further on, we have another version of this scenario. This time, Saul and his men are sleeping as David and Abishai enter their camp; contemplate the KIng asleep, with his spear stuck in the ground beside him; debate whether or not to kill him, with David dissuading his companion; and then make off with the spear and a water-jar as proof of their incursion, before David calls to Saul and - as in the reading we've heard - uses his refusal to take advantage of Saul's vulnerability to drive home the message that he is not Saul's enemy.

The outlaw David, whom Samuel has already anointed as Saul's successor, will not murder the King who seeks his life. David's instinct as a soldier is to finish Saul off. His interest as a political animal is to claim the kingdom at a stroke. But these are trumped by his conviction that to strike at God's anointed one is to strike at God Himself. Whatever Saul's failings - which have led to the Lord withdrawing His favour from him, and will lead to his downfall - while he lives his life is, for David, sacred, inviolable.

And so we have the strange and deeply sad exchange between these two, father-in-law and son-in-law, present King and King-in-waiting, ending with Saul's outburst: "Is that your voice, my son David? ... You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil."

What does this mean - "You are more righteous than I"? At the simplest level, Saul is trying to kill David - David refuses to kill Saul. That's the righteousness equation.

But at another level, it's about freedom. Saul is not free - he is gripped by, driven by, jealousy, fear and rage. David is so free that he doesn't need to take Saul's life. He is free to spare Saul, to offer Saul mercy; and we recognise it as the same mercy that Jesus Christ in his risen life offers us in our hopeless vulnerability. David is free to offer Saul God's generous, merciful love - and Saul is free to accept it or reject it. But as we read on, we realise that, for all his sincere contrition, Saul cannot accept the freedom David offers. He is still bound by fear and rage, he is still unable to deal with his own vulnerability in any other way than by the use of force. He doesn't know how to choose freedom.

And so, David is more righteous than Saul.

And so, we come to Jesus, who shows us what a life lived freely looks like. The banquet in his story is freely offered to all. It's a symbol of heaven. It's a picture of what Jesus himself offers people, over and over again. It stands for God's free gift of His generous, merciful love. Freely given to those who are given the freedom to reject it. They have entirely reasonable excuses - pressing tasks which demand their prior attention, and which belong to a quite different order of reality from the mad, intemperate generosity of the host. Who can argue with excuses like these? Especially with the last one, the showstopper - delivered, we can imagine, with a sanctimonious smirk: "Just got married - can't possibly tear myself away - actually, we're off to Barbados tomorrow - sorry, do hope it all goes well. See you soon!"

Actually, no you won't. The invitation is freely given, and the freedom to refuse it is real, but there are consequences to that refusal. When God calls us, we are free to say no, but there are consequences. In truth, my experience - and maybe yours too - is that our God is far more patient than the host in Jesus' story. He keeps on graciously inviting us, and we get more than one chance (far more!) to respond - but the stakes are just as high as in the story. Do we want the new life, the joy, the freedom God offers us; or are we still wedded to our old, comfortable (deadly comfortable) habits? Are we, like Saul, still fearful of what might happen if we stopped trying to control our lives, stopped trying to defend ourselves, and instead believed - actually believed - that this freedom is real. And more: that this freedom is the only way to life.

To be clear: this is not the freedom to do exactly and simply what we want - as David will discover when, as King, he sleeps with Bathsheba and engineers her husband's death so that he can have her, and then is brought to book by the prophet Nathan in one of the Bible's great stories of telling truth to power (II Samuel chapters 11 & 12). David will learn from this the same truth hammered home, centuries later, by Paul (formerly known as Saul) to the wild Christians of Corinth: the freedom Christ brings is an inner freedom, not an outward licence to do whatever you want. It is a freedom from fear and hatred, and a freedom to love. If love rules your heart, you will be free; and out of love, then yes, you may do what you will.

If love rules your heart ... It's a big "if"!

 

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Revd. Giles King-Smith

Innocence and Experience

A sermon preached at Christmas 2016
 
William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" show us the great visionary poet of England exploring the tension, which we all know and feel, perhaps especially at Christmas-time, between on the one hand that primal state of innocence, wonder and delight which we read back into our childhood, and on the other the world-weariness which comes to us as we grow up and journey on through hardships, disappointments and sorrows. I say "especially at Christmas-time" because it seems to me that there is a deep sense of longing, of yearning, which underlies our bright rituals of Christmas, our carols, our light-bearing trees, our gatherings to celebrate and feast. It is the yearning of people who have seen and known too much, for an innocence we fear we may have lost. We long to have hope, to believe in one another as much as in God, and we long for the simple values of goodness and beauty and truth to become real. And we long for the cynical part of us, hardened by bitter experience - and able in our information-overloaded world to marshal battalions of dispiriting facts - not to have the last word.
 
We long for things to be put right
as they once were
at least in our imagining
many Christmases ago.
 
Here is Blake in his poem "The Lamb", with a voice of innocence:
 
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, & bid thee feed
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, wooly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
    Little Lamb, who made thee?
    Dost thou know who made thee?
 
    Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
    Little Lamb, I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, & he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, & thou a lamb, 
we are called by his name.
    Little Lamb, God bless thee!
    Little Lamb, God bless thee!
 
Blake knew, of course, that there is quite another way of seeing the world, and he expressed this dark, at times hopeless, realism in the "Songs of Experience". Read his poem "London" for a vision of urban misery which finds echoes in the cities of our world today. I've chosen, though, "The Garden of Love", which shines a brutally revealing light on the way organised religion can kill the human spirit:
 
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
 
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
 
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
 
What Blake was after, what he believed in, was something much closer to the radical vision of Christmas and Easter: God - a human child, dependent, defenceless, in no way exempt from the harsh realities of life; and God - a man executed as a criminal, suffering injustice, humiliation and pain. Innocence is apparently crushed by experience - and yet, as countless little stories remind us, day after day, if we can but notice them, there is a goodness which cannot be killed off, which keeps on rising up, like flowers in the desert. If we can believe it, the story of Jesus tells us that innocence wins. Goodness, truth, beauty and love can never be eradicated.
 
Two people in particular moved me this year, made me think again, convinced me that there is a way of innocence which is the only true response to the evil in our world.
 
First, Jo Cox MP was murdered (never mind by whom or why), and her husband Brendon, when asked how we should honour her memory, replied: "Fight against hatred".
 
And second, Father Jacques Mourad, a Syrian Catholic priest abducted by ISIS in 2015, his life unexpectedly spared, spoke about the need to ensure that we "never make decisions out of fear" - and further, spoke of his conviction that we need a "revolution against violence".
 
"Fight against hatred", "a revolution against violence" - and of course, the fight against hatred cannot be waged with hate, and there can be no violence in the revolution against violence. This is a call to arms of a very different kind: it is a call to insist on love and peace as the motivating forces in our struggle for what is right. It is a call to a sustained innocence - if you like, a willed innocence - which is born out of hard and painful experience. It is exactly the call which the adult Jesus (perhaps remembering - who knows? - the innocence of his birth and childhood) made on his first followers and makes on us now - Unless you become like little children, there's no way in to heaven.
 
This is the challenge: for us to understand the baby of Bethlehem, like the man of Calvary, as pointing the way for us to reclaim our lost innocence, and to lay hold of a simple, single purpose - love one another. Don't think twice, don't count the cost - just love one another.
 
May you inner child be re-born this Christmas, so that, as children, you may know the joy that comes from God, and share it.
 
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Revd. Giles King-Smith

All God's Children

I want to say something about the killings at the gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12th - since overtaken in our attention by yet more horrors, but fresh in all our minds as I was writing this for the church magazine in the middle of June.

And I want to use the word "gay", which will stir a variety of reactions in Christians, because I think it's important for the Church, and for all people of faith, to hear that word, to acknowledge the reality of a gay community - some of whom are Christians - and to acknowledge also the reality of a history of prejudice, fear and hatred towards gay people, in which the Church has often played a less than honourable part.

Let me be honest: for a moment, I found it fractionally harder to feel for those killed and injured in Orlando than I would have done if the attack had been on a primary school or a concert hall. And then I realised - this is no different, these people no more deserve such a fate than I do.

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Revd. Giles King-Smith

Divine Love at Easter

"He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind's eye and I thought, "What can this be?" And answer came, "It is all that is made". I marvelled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind, "It lasts and ever shall because God loves it". And all things have being through the love of God."

Some words of Julian of Norwich. We don't know her real name, but we know that she was an anchoress (a hermit living in a cell attached to a church) at St. Julian's in Norwich - hence the name she is known by. She was born in 1342, and on May 8th 1373, during a severe and life-threatening illness, she received a series of 16 "shewings". For 20 years she meditated on what she had been shown, and eventually recorded these visions and her understanding of them as "The Revelations of Divine Love" - the first book known to have been written by a woman in English.

As Julian pondered the meaning of her visions, she was told: "What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning."

The true meaning of "this thing", this hazelnut-sized thing, the true meaning of everything, is love.

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