Gosh, it's been an age since I blogged! But I wanted to do so today, mainly because some people at church this morning asked if I could share again some of the quotes that were in my sermon, and some who weren't there asked for the text. So if you're not from St. Bart's you're obviously more than welcome to read on, but this is simply the text from my sermon, preached at both 9am and 11am today. It's worth saying that though it ends fairly abruptly when written, it was followed up with space and time for prayer.
What an extraordinary few days it has been. What extraordinary times we are living in. We're barely out of our covid lockdown. There's was in Europe for the first time in decades. Yet another Prime Minister has just taken charge of the country. We're on the cusp of an enormous cost of living crisis. And then on Thursday, in the end quite suddenly, in spite of her advanced age, Queen Elizabeth II sadly died.
That moment will become one of 'those' moments - those 'where were you when' moments. Some of you will remember when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or Martin Luther King. Some of you will remember when Diana Princess of Wales died, or when the 9/11 attacks took place (which in fact was 21 years ago to this very day).
I was on holiday on Thursday, and I put on the BBC news because I could tell from social media that something was different, and not right. And so I remember the exact moment when Huw Edwards made the announcement - in fact I knew a moment before that, because I could literally see it in his face. I came home from my holiday early in order to support us here at church as we opened up to our community as a focal point for expressing grief and sorrow.
Like me, you'll remember forever where you were when you heard the news, and you'll remember too how you felt, how you reacted. Some people of course, are not big fans of the Royal Family - for her unstinting service and tireless work. For most of us, she's the only monarch we've ever known.
There are many weighty and worthy things that we can say about the Queen, and rightly so. But personally my very favourite story about her isn't especially weighty or worthy, it's just very funny! During the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, Richard Griffin, a former Royal Personal Protection Officer, told this story:
One day at Balmoral, he and the Queen were out for a walk, and they met two American hikers coming the other way. The Americans didn't recognise the Queen, but started up a conversation about their holiday, and the different places they'd visited. One of them asked the Queen where she lived. She replied that she lived in London, but that she had a holiday home nearby which she visited often. The tourists said well if she'd spent so much time in that area, surely she must have met the Queen. Apparently the Queen didn't miss a beat. She turned to her Protection Officer and replied "well I haven't, but he has." The tourists asked him what the Queen was life. He replied "well she can be very cantankerous, but she's got a lovely sense of humour." They all took selfies together, and the Queen walked away chuckling to herself about the reaction they would get when they showed off those selfied back home and realised who she was.
And for us who are Christians, we have lost not just our Queen, but a sister in Christ. I've heard her described as "the nation's greatest evangelist" because of the warm and easy way in which she spoke of her own personal faith - and of course she had the advantage that most evangelists can only dream of, in that she was able to speak into most people's living rooms for one day every year!
Here, for example, are just a few of the faith highlights from the Queen's Christmas speeches:
2000: To many of us are beliefs are of fundamental importance. 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 so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ's words and example.
2002: I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God.. I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.
2013: For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God's love, as we strive daily to become better people. The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach.
2017: Jesus Christ lived obscurely most of his life and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ's example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love.
And most recently, in 2021: It is [the] simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing: simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus, a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith.
I don't know, of course, what elements the Queen's funeral will involve - although I'm quite sure that she will have been clear about her wishes, and made plans to reflect her own preferences, as well as her deep faith. But I wonder whether you remember Prince Philip's funeral, just seventeen months ago? I'm sure that you do, because of course it took place at the height of the lockdown, and there was that moving and iconic image of the Queen sitting along, following the government's rules of the time, and therefore facing that moment of grief without the physical comfort of her family.
At that funeral, at the Prince's request, something happened which is unusual at a funeral - it is something we generally associate with Remembrance Sunday. But it was an explicit request of the Prince, for a very good reason. He asked that the Last Post and the Reveille be played. In the military, the Last Post is played at the end of a working day (and so sometimes is associated also with the finality of death), but the Reveille is played to awaken soldiers for the start of a new day. Prince Philip deliberately chose those two pieces to signify the end of one day, and the start of another - his entering into his new, eternal life.
You may also have watched the very moving first speech to the nation from King Charles, on Friday evening. I was particularly struck when he said of his mother "as you begin your last great journey." IT reminded me of a very beautiful quote from the Last Battle, the last book in C. S. Lewis's Narnia series. I have this quote on the wall in my study, as a reminder, quite simply, of what all this is for, what it's about, where it's heading, why it matters. At the end of the book, Aslan, the great Lion who represents Jesus, is talking to Lucy, one of the four children. She hasn't yet realised it, but their earthly adventures are over, and only eternity lies ahead. This is how he explains it to her:
"The term is over: the holidays have begin. The dream is ended: this is the morning. And as he spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after,. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."
This, indeed, was the hope in which the Queen lived and died. As we reflect on her death many of us will also reflect on the deaths of those closer to us, those in our own lives whom we have loved, but see no longer. For many, we will rejoice too that they are now living within that Great Story.
I saw someone had written the other day that the National Anthem is one of the most often-prayed prayers, but it is also surely one of the most comprehensively clearly answered prayers. For seventy years, people have sung "God save the Queen" - and he has surely saved her. We now turn to singing "God save the Kind" and we make that our prayer.
Our two Bible readings today both give us words of hope and comfort as we remember the Queen, and our own loves ones, and also as we navigate our journey through the struggles and complexities of the world at this current time.
Firstly, we heard Paul writing to the church in Corinth, and our reading began with six words which I imagine we could all do with holding onto tightly at the moment: "Therefore we do not lose heart."
What has gone before the 'therefore'? Well, Paul has been reminding the Corinthians of the treasure which is theirs in Christ, albeit held within fragile jars of clay. He has reminded them that they are "hard pressed but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed." He has reminded them that "the one who raised Christ Jesus from the dead," God himself, "will also raise us with Jesus."
And so it is that in the light of these truths, Paul can say therefore - "therefore we do not lose heart." And then Paul makes this extraordinary statement, weighty with truth and promise, but not necessarily easy to absorb. He says that "our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an earthly glory that far outweighs them all."
This isn't easy to comprehend, and nor should it be. Because the truth is that life is often very hard. And that's rarely been more true for our nation and our world than it is at the moment. We struggle, we griev, we face pain and trials and suffering and sorrow. We want to ask Paul what on earth he's going on about, and how dare he call our troubles "light and momentary." And if Paul (or indeed Jesus) had led an easy life then maybe that would be a fair criticism. But Paul was beaten, mocked, shipwrecked and imprisoned for his faith. Jesus died in agony on a cross. They knew troubles. The Queen knew troubles too. In her own life she knew family breakdown, grief and tragedy.
And yet even so, in spite of all this, Paul is so confident that the life we are promised with God beyond this life will be so beautiful, so wonderful, so beyond our imagination or understanding, that he can refer to the agonies of this life as "light and momentary troubles" in comparison. He isn't saying that the things we face on earth are trivial or unimportant. Rather he's saying that eternity will be more glorious than we could ever dream of.
Fix your eyes, then, he tells us, not on what's around you in this world, but fix your eyes on the future, on what's eternal, on what's promised.
And then briefly, and secondly, we heard John with one of the seven well known 'I Am' statements of Jesus. Here Jesus refers to himself as "the bread of life" and he makes an extraordinary promise - that anyone who loves and follows him will never be hungry or thirsty. We know that he can't be referring to physical hunger or thirst, because we know that sadly there are many followers of Jesus around the world, and even quite close to home, who do suffer real bodily hunger and thirst, and so therefore he must be talking in a spiritual sense.
This is the promise made to all who believe - and the beauty of this promise, this invitation, is that it's made equally to everyone. Whether you're an ordinary person going about your everyday life in Roby, or whether you're the Queen of England, Jesus says the same words to you: "my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."
The Queen believed and accepted that eternal life. It is offered freely and fully to each one of us, today and every day.