Bishop Christopher’s Advent sermon at St Philip’s on 11 December

 

It is a great joy to be with you once again at St Philip’s, of which I am very fond – I need to say Bishops are not to have favourites – though we do now go back a long way.  I was Area Bishop before I becoming Diocesan, and I always look forward to standing at the Altar or behind the Lectern here, or sharing a meal in the Hall.   Not only that, but, as many of you will remember, Mother Anna’s predecessor was a certain Father Mark Steadman, and after he ceased to have the cure of souls in this Parish, he became my Chaplain, thus taking on a cure of just one soul; but, I fear, a soul that was a sore trouble to him.   So we meet as friends and uphold each other in the love of Christ as we are led by Him on our journey of faith.

And this is indeed a Parish of the Journey.  Less than a hundred yards away is the old road to Kent, down which generation after generation of Pilgrims have walked to Canterbury – having started their journey by praying in what was then the Parish Church of St Mary Overie, now Southwark Cathedral and, no doubt, fortified themselves with a flagon or two at the Tabard Inn.  St Philip’s is indeed a Church on the Pilgrims’ way. 

But more than that, this is a place that has always been on a journey.  The very name, Camberwell.   What does it mean? Possibly Comber Well, or the Well of the Britons, to be more precise the remaining Britons.   And this would then be an Anglo-Saxon name.  So this was a place where Celtic inhabitants were still living among the newly arrived and increasingly dominating Anglo-Saxons.   The very name testifies to the constant flow of the new into the old, the new becoming the old and again welcoming (or sometimes resisting) the new.  

Since those Anglo-Saxons arrived and found the Britons clustered around their well (and of course, the Britons themselves were migrants of an earlier generation), people without number have come and settled here.   This has always been a place where those who were born here live side by side with those who have just arrived.  Not always in harmony: but by God’s grace, within St Philip’s, that saving sense is alive and well that what unites us is greater than what separates us (and that our differences are a source of strength).

By the same token, however, this is not a place where life has been easy.  This very building speaks to the challenges this part of South London has faced.  It replaces a Victorian church destroyed by bombing in the Second World War; which was itself damaged in the First World War.  And today, for all that it is so close to the City of London, this is a place where many people face serious deprivation.   Out of 12,599 Parishes in the Church of England, 11,827 are richer than this one.  

But I have to ask, richer in what sense?   Undoubtedly richer in the sense that economists mean – material poverty is a very serious thing lived out in the lives and choices of this community.  Not having enough for daily needs, let alone having less than others, is indeed hard to bear.  But do we really want to say that other places are richer when they might be spiritually dead or lack the strong sense of common purpose and mutual love which is so evident in this Community of Faith.

The Gospel holds out hope and offers most to those who have least yet who know their need of God.   To whom does the Good News come?  What do we read in our Gospel?   John has sent his friends from prison to find out whether Jesus really is the one he hopes that he is – the promised one, the anointed one, the one coming into the world to make the world new.   And what is the sign that Jesus is the Messiah?   …‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have Good News brought to them.’ 

Jesus begins the Beatitudes and Woes in St Luke’s Gospel with: ‘happy are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’; but he also says a few verses later, ‘woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation’.  The last shall be first.  

This all has something to do with being on the way: on the Pilgrims’ Way. 

For we Christians are nomads, like the people of Israel.  We are wanderers in the desert, people who live in tents.  Now, please do not mistake me.  I see very clearly there is no romance in poverty.  It is hard.  It is unjust.  It is wrong.  Yet it has this about it: it does not make one complacent.  The problem with being rich is that it can make you like where you are too much.   Those who have little will stay on the Pilgrims’ Way, searching for something better, always with their eyes lifted to the heavenly city towards which we journey.  The journey may not be short.  As St James says, we must be patient and strengthen our hearts.  But this is our calling.

Now, let me in conclusion say two things about this journey, to make it more concrete and relevant to life lived here and now.

The first is this.  We are on a journey together.  We keep each other warm.  We help each other as we fall down.  We share our food.  And in this there are great riches.  Truly poor is the rich man alone with his money in his counting house.  We who are on a journey must rely on one another.  And in that reliance is true riches – both in relying, and in being relied upon.  In a Parish Church we can build up virtuous circles of connection and support.  Each time we give a kindly greeting, make an offer of help, ask for advice, lend a power tool, share a meal, look out for a home when the family are away, call on someone we fear may be ill, welcome the stranger and refugee in our midst, tell our fears and sorrows to another; in all these ways, we build up a web of connection which is irreplaceable and beyond value.  So do not grumble against one another, as St James enjoins, but rather be patient and loving.  Each act of gentleness and each expression of trust is a victory of infinite worth.

And the second is this.  As we journey on, someone else is journeying towards us.  We walk the Pilgrims’ Way, trampling it with our feet so that it is a straight highway.   But Jesus is coming towards us from the other direction.  He is coming swifter than we are going.  He is coming to meet us.  So we do not do this on our own.  We build up our community as we journey together.  We are bound together by more than our own love and trust.  We are bound together by the strong thread of God’s Holy Spirit, which Christ breathes into us.  This we can trust.  This we can rely upon.

As Advent draws towards Christmas, here beside the Holy Way of the Old Kent Road, let us indeed strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.  And let us say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.’

 

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