Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Only Luke... only you...

This is the text of a sermon preached at St Luke's Chelsea for their Patronal Festival. It was a great delight to share in a wonderful celebration reflecting a vibrant community of worship and witness. Joy flowed through the music and liturgy into the conversations shared over a glass of fizz at the west end. It was a particular joy to be with Brian - my former training incumbent and friend - who has taught me so much about what it is to be a priest. It was good to be alongside his colleagues Emma and John too.  

The texts were Isaiah 35:3-6, 2 Timothy 4:5-17, Luke 10:1-9. I was really struck by the phrase in the epistle - 'only Luke is with me'. Sometimes we underestimate the impact we have of being with others. Sharing in God's mission is expressed in the intimacy of those seemingly small things - breath by breath - not just the strategic plans and big events. I was also struck by the fact that Luke places the angels song of peace on our lips - that we might be ambassadors of peace. 

St Luke the Evangelist 
Icon at St Luke's Chelsea 

Only Luke is with me.

Only Luke.

Is with me.

That one phrase, towards the end of what may be Paul’s last letter, reveals something of Luke’s character. 

He’s loyal and dedicated; a beloved physician who remains with a prisoner facing death. 

His kindness and faithfulness ease the pain of loneliness: sharing the kinship of God’s love.

But there’s more to it than that. 

Only Luke is with me.

That one phrase, not penned by him, takes us to the very heart of the good news which he shared.

As an evangelist, Luke wrote with passion, tenderness and beauty about the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

As an evangelist, Luke’s own life has been so shaped by that love that he embodies: being with Paul, as God was with us.

In his life, we see the fruit of the Spirit: love, peace, kindness; the doctor sharing the ‘wholesome medicine of the gospel’, bringing healing and wholeness. 

Luke alone is with me. 

Luke alone tells us some of the most memorable stories of our faith. 

He puts songs on the lips of Mary and Zechariah. Their words shape our imaginations with a vision of God’s Kingdom: scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, sending the rich away empty; the forgiveness of sins, light to those overwhelmed by darkness and the shadow of death. 

Luke alone tells us of angels and multitude of the heavenly host declaring peace on earth; he tells of shepherds seeing God’s word of peace in a speechless infant.  Luke alone tells us how Simeon holds that child in his arms - and embraces his own mortality: Master now you are dismissing your servant in peace. He has seen the light and glory of God which heals broken hearts and lives. 

Luke alone draws us into the home of Mary and Martha: faced with the different temperaments and affections of siblings, he invites us to lay aside busyness. He invites us to pause; to breath more deeply; to be held in God’s loving gaze. Then we take up our tasks again - infused with a different purpose. 

Luke alone is with me

He draws us into proximity with Jesus and each other. He alone tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan - teaching us to cross the road to be with those in distress. Within our political, social and church life, we continue to struggle to define who our neighbour is; but this familiar story enlarges our hearts. In a diverse parish such as this, we continue to find challenge and inspiration - crossing over boundaries of class, ethnicity, marital status, sexuality, occupation or age. 

In retelling this story, he’s pointing us to a God who loved us so much that he dwelt with us; met us in our hurt and bound up our wounds. We too are to be with

The beloved physician tells stories of those who were healed by Jesus: those in mental distress; Simon’s mother in law; the shunned leper; the paralysed and lame; the centurion’s servant. Time and time again, words of forgiveness, love and blessing bring restoration and inclusion.

Luke deliberately takes that good news of healing and wholeness into the realm of relationships and responsibilities. Luke alone recalls the parable we know as the prodigal son. It’s a story perhaps better described as a story of two beloved sons; of a loving father.

It’s a love that waits for us and rushes towards us; love which refuses to define us by our past or our misguided desires met in worldly temptations. It’s a love which challenges our resentments and jealousy; love which invites us to live with generosity and kindness. 

This love is not a zero sum game. Each child learns that they are loveable; that the other is also precious in the sight of God.  This is something profoundly intimate about this; the healing of our innermost being

Alongside the calming of storms and the feeding of thousands, Luke alone tells us of Zacchaeus - eating with and following Jesus. Salvation comes near to them - transforming his work, releasing unbounded generosity and justice.

Luke alone tells of the teenage Jesus in the Temple: he amazed the teachers with his understanding and astonished his parents. As an adult, Jesus stands up in his local synagogue to read  from the prophet Isaiah: good news for the poor, release to the captive, sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed. This news of peace and hope cannot be confined to one place or one home town.  

Peace goes out into the whole world: and we, like the seventy appointed by Jesus, are sent out into every home and office; every shop and hospital.  The harvest is plentiful: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, anxious and ambitious long for peace. 

Amidst the pressures to achieve, our hurts or failures; amidst the reality of our mortality we long for something more. Amidst the voices telling us we are insignificant and glittering prizes of wealth, we long for love.

Luke alone takes the song of the angels and places it on our lips: peace to this house, to this place; peace to you. We become ambassadors of peace. 

On this festival day, as in every Eucharist, we take up that commission. We greet one another with a sign of peace. Our handshakes become the touch of God. We look on each other with the loving gaze of God. We speak God’s peace.

This is peace which calms our inner storms and forgives our bruising words. It restores dignity as we receive and give.  This peace was breathed on us by Jesus: his life, death and resurrection assuring us that there is no longer any place where God’s love is not. 

This peace is bequeathed to us by the Holy Spirit; this peace is the breath of God breathing through us. 

As we inhale and exhale, we pray. 


In peace, we are sent. No longer placing our trust in the purses and bags we carry - or being defined by status they confer. 

As we eat and drink with colleagues, strangers, friends, we take time with them in peace. We are to be present with others in fleeting moments: the person who makes our coffee or whose depression or grief we acknowledge; the human being sitting in a doorway; the employee with whom we have a difficult meeting. Such moments express the nearness of God’s Kingdom.

Only Luke was with me.

Luke, the beloved physician, teaches us how to be with God and with each other. 

Luke alone tells us of the disciples walking towards Emmaus: disciples who were shocked by Jesus’ death, who’d heard rumours of resurrection; who were unable to make sense of what they’d undergone. 

Yet, their risen Lord walks with them; opens scriptures to them; stays with them; eats with them. 

In a little while, we like them, will glimpse the love and peace of our risen Lord in the breaking of bread. 

Supper at Emmaus - Caravaggio

In a little while, we like them, will be sent out. 

We are to live lightly and intensely moment by moment; every task, every conversation, every encounter matters.

In being with another we set aside our own interests. Only we can offer that word of encouragement to that person, at that time. Only we can break the spell of loneliness; or entrust someone with responsibility. 

Tomorrow we will breath peace; breathing in and out. Tomorrow we offer strength to those feeling week; tomorrow we might receive that gift from another.

In the power of the Spirit, may we share the love God revealed in Jesus Christ; may we be ambassadors of a peaceable kingdom. 

This is the work of an evangelist: to say to those who are fearful, be strong do not fear. 

Only you. 

In that moment.

Only you are with me.


With others.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Designated Survivor

This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral, Evensong on Sunday, 1st October. In the midst of an intense week, some of my down time has been spent watching the first season of Designated Survivor on Netflix.  As I read the text [Ezekiel 37:15-end; 1 John 2:22-end], I pondered the challenge that Alex poses to Tom - does change mean we abandon our principles? How do we live in a changing world with a vision and values which reflect God's Kingdom? And perhaps because I'm doing some teaching in our Diocese on forgiveness, I can't help reflect on our use (and abuse) of power; and seeking instead God's covenant of peace within which we might become more fully who we're called to be.

What would you do if you were in charge of a nation at a time of crisis? How would you build trust in the face of catastrophe?

For most of us it’s unimaginable scenario; but there are men and women for whom this is not a hypothetical question. It’s only when those who’ve served in high office have retired that we get a glimpse into that world when, or if, they publish their memoirs or diaries.

That ‘what if’ is taken to at the heart of the U.S. drama Designated Survivor: the premise is revealed in the title. During the State of the Union, one member of the President’s staff is taken to an undisclosed, secure location.  It’s a constitutional formality; but a devastating attack on Capitol Hill means that the ‘designated survivor’ has to be sworn in at the President.

Tom Kirkman, the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, an academic and an architect,  finds himself, in his words ‘trying to put the entire U.S. government back together and stop the country from tearing itself apart’.

In terms of the plot and the script, this is no West Wing: instead it has been described as ‘reliably over the top’; as a ‘middleweight national security thriller’; and as an ‘unlikely soothsayer of our era’.   

It’s certainly more relevant than comfortable: as we watch the news unfold we’re acutely aware of the challenges facing our world; of the pressures at work within the church and the responsibilities of our lives.

At a personal level, Tom  has to make tough choices in the face of suspicion and power struggles. How does he lead with credibility and integrity?  Concerned that ideals are being sacrificed for political expediency, his wife says: ‘Change does not mean we abandon our principles’.
At a corporate level, Designated Survivor holds up a mirror to our social and political life  - highlighting the way in which fears about security and immigration, for example, gnaw away at our values.  Each nation has its own mythology and contradictions. We speak of freedom, sovereignty and opportunity; yet systems of detention, exploitation and use of wealth can undermine the values we seek to uphold.

The scriptwriter David Guggenheim wanted to explore how a nation moves on physically and psychologically after a seismic event: he wanted to take ‘an optimistic look’ at what we can, and should, be ‘with a hopeful president who values… all people’.

The challenge of reconstructing a national self-consciousness is something which concerned the prophet Ezekiel too. After ten years in exile - and with Jerusalem destroyed - the people had given up hope.

Some aspects of the prophetic role are reflected in the demands on Tom as President: somehow trying to articulate a vision for restoration; finding a message of that would galvanise a fractured nation. 

But for Ezekiel, the promise of restoration is not a matter of constitutional principles; it’s rooted in the promises of God.  A few verses earlier, he’s received a vision of dry bones being knit together with sinew and flesh; it spoke to him of how a lifeless and fragmented nation is brought to life - not through human words alone, but the power of God’s Spirt.

Not only will Israel be restored; but the two warring kingdoms will become one nations under the leadership of King David. The joining together of the sticks in Ezekiel’s hand becomes a sign of promise; a sign of a bigger vision.

This isn’t merely some golden age of creativity and commerce, though those things contribute to stability. Nor is it just about the ordering of civic, social and religious life at a human level.  This is about a recalling people to their first love: to God.

They will set aside all their transgressions, apostasies, idols and detestable things - and be cleansed, forgiven and renewed. God says, ‘they shall be my people, and I will be the God’.  

Fulfilling this promise is rooted in the commandments and ordinances of God - which shape our life in love: the Spirit works in us makes real the values of God’s Kingdom: compassion and mercy for widow, orphan, foreigner; the gifts of righteousness and justice are to transform conflict. Even deference to human authority - and the tendency to abuse power or exert control - is relativised under God’s covenant of peace.

This blessing isn't for one nation alone: but though this one nation, God’s promise of blessing cascades throughout the world. This is more than  mere optimism, this is hope. Hope which inspires, challenges and strengths us to seek God’s Kingdom. 

To seek such a Kingdom sometimes puts us at odds with the world. John knew this when he wrote to the early Christian community - and he like Ezekiel begins by calling us back to our first love: to God and to God’s commandments. He does this knowing that the fullness of that love has been revealed in Jesus Christ; that love has defeated the powers of darkness. 

He addresses us with tenderness as little children: perhaps knowing our vulnerability, but also trusting God to increase in our a capacity to love; perhaps he knows the things of which we are most afraid, but also trusting God to enlarge our imaginations with a vision of his ways in the world. 

John talks about abiding: us dwelling with and in God, God dwelling with and in us. We are drawn to the very heart of God’s love: it’s an intimate and tender image. It’s also a challenging one. 

To come into the light and love of God is to acknowledge our sins - the ways in which we hurt others or mar God’s image in us. And yet, we rejoice with John because this light and love brings the gift of forgiveness in and through Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the Christ, the one who brings healing, hope and life eternal - a vision expressed by John Donne as one equal light, one equal music, one equal possession.  

To deny that is to collude with the selfish, proud, acquisitive values of the world. To have confidence in Jesus Christ is to allow the light to shine into the dark places of our hearts and mind; it is for our character to be shaped by God’s love. 

We don’t walk in this light in our own strength, but through the strength of the Holy Spirit who brings comfort, challenging and inspiration. That Spirit increases in us the capacity to value others - regardless of differences of opinion, background or role. 

Change does not mean that we abandon our principles: but in the midst of changing world we are to abide in the God whose faithful love is at work in the frailty of our human nature. 

We won’t be the designated survivor: but this week we will have to take difficult decisions, strengthen teams, achieve goals, cultivate trust and value others - at home, work or school.

As we face those challenges, Evensong gives us a frame of reference: a wellspring of love which restores our vision.  It gives a language of hope, justice and a desire for God’s Kingdom. May we who receive God’s blessing, be sent out in the Spirit in the light and love of Christ.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Better Together

This is the text of a short reflection given at the Interfaith Panel Discussion convened by Canon Dr Anthony Cane at Chichester Cathedral as part of International Day of Peace. Further details about the event and other panelists can be found on the Cathedral website. The title for the discussion was: How can we live better together, for the well being of all?

W1A is back!

The BBC comedy sails painfully close to the truth of PC or PR-speak corporate culture with all the anxieties about Charter renewal and public service. W1A parodied what we mean by “better” by appointing of Anna Rampton as Director of Better to place betterness development at the core.

Series three goes one step further as Anna introduces the more of less initiative:  as she says, “identifying what we do best and finding more ways of doing less of it better”. 

Putting the words ‘better together’ into Google reveals something of our contemporary longing to live well: it’s associated with our digital lives, increased connectivity and the desire for stable personal relationships; it embraces the tension between increasing GDP  and the concern for sustainable development; it touches on climate change, the environmental and our political aspirations.  There’s talk not only of soft, hard or smooth Brexit; but a better Brexit.

The referendum revealed fault-lines within our society: home owners versus renters; millennials versus pensioners; north versus south; rural versus urban; rich versus poor; graduate versus non-graduate. We can add to this questions of identity - as fluid or sharply defined and inequalities of social and cultural capital, as well as wealth.

In the midst of this, I want to suggest some wisdom from scripture before our conversation:

A line from Psalm 118 [verse 8]: ‘It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals’. Psalms draw our entire life under the rule of God - from sorrow and lament to joy and thanksgiving. They represent a struggle for justice and yearning for peace; they express our primary orientation to God. Even in the face of upheaval and distress we are called back to discover a new way of living, rooted in God’s faithful love.

Fixing our attention on God shapes us: our priorities are transformed as we seek to live wisely moment by moment; as God’s ways become our ways. In our relationships and responsibilities we make decisions: to act selfishly or with compassion; to possess and consume or to be content with less. We’re called to seek the welfare of the widow, orphan and stranger.  As Proverbs puts it [16: 8]: Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice’.

Attentiveness to God and attentiveness to the needs of others is also at the heart of the Gospel. Luke draws us into the dynamics of two siblings - Mary and Martha - who welcome Jesus into the hospitality of their home. One sister is busily consumed with tasks and a grumpy irritation that she's doing it all; the other sits in rapt attention at the feet of her Lord. 

Into this tension, Jesus speaks with affection [Luke 10:41-2]: ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…’.  Our ability to attend to the needs of others begins by loving God above all things and extends to loving our neighbour fully, even as ourselves.
It’s this way of being with others, as God was with us in Jesus, that shapes a Christian tradition and challenges selfish ambition. In Philippians this is seen as key to living better together; enabling all to flourish; to seek the good of the communities in which we share; to be concerned for the interests of others. Concentration on the self pushes others to the margins; instead writes Paul [Philippians 2:3]: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.’

How do we live better together, for the well-being of all?

Pay deep attention to God’s loving ways: in prayer, worship and learning. Those habits shape us - so that we might become more who we’re called to be. More loving, generous, compassionate and peaceable; more able to see the other as beloved by God, to seek her well-being. 

Like the Director of Better, we identify what we do best…

…but perhaps we should do more of it - for the sake of all - together.

This is the stuff of God’s Kingdom.

To participate fully in the practices and processes which build community, attending to what God is doing in and through others in the places where we live; strengthening networks of faith and good will. This is a rooted, social and authentic way of building trust and renewing hope; looking beyond self interest to a more sustainable and equitable future.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Monday, 4 September 2017

Silk Roads

This is the text of a sermon preached at Evensong on Sunday 3rd September. The texts were: 2 Kings 6:24-33, 7:3-end; Acts 18:1-16. The former was particularly challenging - with its talk of sieges/starvation. As one who doesn't dodge tricky or random texts, setting Kings alongside Acts drew me back to one of the books I read over the summer: The Silk Roads. I had the pleasure of hearing Peter Frankopan speak at an event at Westminster Central Hall - on the implications of Brexit. It's humbling to think that a vibrant and cosmopolitan city like Corinth fell into decline; we so readily assume the narrative of relentless progress but Frankopan's book reminds us that that history is more complex than that. So this is beginning to reflect on where we hear the voice of God in the midst of transition and uncertainty. 

As far as holiday reading goes, the historian Peter Frankopan’s bestseller The Silk Roads is an epic; its subtitle declares it to be a ‘new history of the world’. The endorsements do nothing to lower our expectations of the content: it’s described as ‘brilliant and fearless’; a ‘swashbuckling history’. It’s compelling, accessible and entertaining; ambitious in scope and detail. 

For Frankopan, it all began with a large map of the world: as a child he memorised names, capitals cities, rivers, deserts, oceans. As a teenager, he questioned the narrow geographical and historical focus of his lessons. As an academic, he seeks to embolden others to study people and places long ignored by scholars. 

Forces of trade, culture, religion, ideas and politics which have shaped our world. We watch Empires rise and fall as power flows from the Indus valley to the Oxus river; from Nineveh to Nagasaki; Lhasa to Pisa. It’s a humbling corrective to our Eurocentrism.

Frankopan identifies the halfway point between east and west as running from the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea to the Himalayas: counties such as Azerbaijan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Russia. Places we associate with human rights violations, unstable regimes, violence and concern about cyber security. And yet…

… This fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates is the birth place of civilisation; the biblical Garden of Eden. The rulers, traders, farmers, intellectuals and lawyers of competing kingdoms make there way into our scriptures: Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Assyrians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Cretans and so on. That context might help us when we are confronted with the impact of the Arameans and Corinthians.

The history of the people of Israel is told through the narratives we find in 1 and 2 Kings. Those books take us from the end of David’s reign and into the golden age of his son Solomon; we read of the architectural splendour of a new Temple and the rift between tribes resulting in two separate kingdoms, Israel and Judah. A stable society collapses; a people are exiled. 

The drama of this story is Frankopan-esque given the interplay of trade, law, religion and power. The moral is this: when a nation and its leaders obey the commandment to love God and neighbour, there is peace and prosperity. When God’s people rejects these commands, social fragmentation, exploitation, economic disaster and occupation follow.

Prophets like Elijah and Elisha emerge to call God’s people back to ways of holiness and justice.  Last week we heard how Elisha was able to secure a peace deal. Having placed his trust in God’s protection he thwarts the Aramean attack; exercising spiritual diplomacy perhaps. He even persuades his King to offer hospitality and mercy rather than exacting vengeance. But…

… Benhadad of Aram returns.  He lays siege to Samaria. The people are facing starvation. The famine was so severe that unclean food was fetching a premium price. The King of Israel blames Elisha; Elisha continues to speak of God’s deliverance. The truth emerges not from the wisdom of the powerful but from the desperation of those who’re most vulnerable. 

The lepers lived in limbo on the margins: as unclean they were cut off from all forms of religious and social association; yet they depended on the gifts of food left for them. If a city is starving, there is nothing left for them. They have nothing to lose; if they’re facing death anyway, why not take a risk on the Arameans. Perhaps they’ll show mercy. 

They find a deserted camp: food, drink, clothes and great riches. Elisha’s prediction is true - the word of the Lord spoke of barley and meal. The attackers flee as soon as they hear the sound of what they take to be an even greater army. The lepers recognise that they are breaking the laws about right conduct in battle; their integrity enables the whole city to benefit from this windfall. All that is, apart from the captain who’d not believed Elisha; he’s crushed in the surge of people seeking food. 

Kings gives us one nation’s self-understanding and history - of war, famine, negotiation, social life, rivalries, trade and economics; it is infused with a sense of God’s call. The purposes of God echo through these pages through the words of prophets who continually remind us of the limitations of human power. They speak to us of love, mercy, righteousness and peace. 

It was into such a world as this - a world shaped by international affairs - that God sent his Son. At the crucible of civilisation, he lived, died and rose again to draw all people into a kingdom of God’s new creation. In him, the prophets’ hope for redemption was fulfilled. 

Frankopan charts the flow of goods and ideas along the trade routes from the Pacific, Central Asia, India, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. As he says, ‘among the most powerful ideas were those that concerned the divine’ [The Faith Roads]. Christianity had begun to spread eastwards as well as westwards. Paul enters into this complex world of competing philosophies and local cults. He spoke to the Athenians about what they worshipped as unknown; proclaiming Christ Jesus.

Now he settles in Corinth. It is a Roman colony and commercial centre, with command over shipping routes Once more we get a glimpse of the movement of people through arteries of trade and in the face of persecution. He shares home and work with Aquila and Priscilla; Timothy joins him fresh from his own travels. Having a place within the city marketplace offers new opportunities for witness and debate within and beyond the synagogue. 

Paul proclaims the message of the ‘life-changing and world-changing Messiah’ [Loveday Alexander on Acts] to the Jews first; when he fails to persuade the whole community, he moves on to the home of Titius Justus. His actions and words draw a line, if you like; hearers are responsible for accepting or rejecting the message he’s shared. 

God is active in this cosmopolitan and vibrant city: not only in Paul’s words but also through the power of the Spirit blowing where it wills. The assurance Paul receives in this new place echoes his own words to the Athenians: we search after God though he is not far from us. 

Even though the weight of imperial strength is encroaching, Paul’s example continues to inspire us. He reveals the importance of dialogue and building relationships; of participating in the life of our towns and cities as part of our witness. In the words of the psalmist, ensuring that our ‘talking’ might tell of God’s ‘wonderful works’ (Ps 105:2).

The Silk Roads is the sort of history which re-shapes our present perspectives. Frankopan writes that ‘the age of the west is at a crossroads, if not an end’… ‘networks and connections are quietly being knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather they are being restored’ [Conclusion].  

Where do we find ourselves in the midst of this?

Uncertainty around Brexit and the Korean peninsula loom large; an age of transition is marked by concern around population growth, climate change, trade agreements, resource scarcity, cyber security.  The worlds of Elisha and Paul are not as remote as we think: our scriptures resource us to attend to the ways in which God’s word has echoed in the face of transition. 

We will find ourselves on our own marketplaces day by day, debating, building relationships and witnessing to Christ in the power of the Spirit. We might pray and support those called to the work of commerce, diplomacy and international affairs; and for those for whom it’s part of their discipleship. 

We are also called to pray for the work of our ecumenical partnerships and inter-faith work; that new silk roads might be shaped by a deeper religious understanding and vision of God’s Kingdom.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Follow me!

This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral Eucharist - 3rd September. Having confessed to my shame of Tolkein being amongst my  'great unread', I rather enjoyed entering into that world (albeit briefly and hopefully not for the final time) when I was visiting friends last week. I couldn't help by engage with some of the resonances between the themes of the readings  [Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-27] and the Middle Earth epic.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. 

For those familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, you’ll recall the description of Bilbo Baggins world: Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

For some reason, for a child who loved books, I wasn’t captivated by this world and the adventures about to unfold. As an adult, I remain embarrassed by this confession of the ‘great unread’; a shame which is intensified as the movie franchise also passed me by. 

Until, that is, last week.

The Battle of the Five Armies is the third and final instalment in Peter Jackson’s three-part film adaption based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Replete with dragons, orcs, elves and mystical rings, this version of Middle Earth has been described as a ‘colossal technical achievement’; as well as a ‘magnificent,Wagnerian-style finale, full of sound and fury, and with an unexpected emotional kick’.

The visual extravaganza improvises on Tolkein’s text and draws us into a world closer to our own than we might imagine: warring factions and refugees seeking safety; courageous leaders and sacrificial love. 

In Thorin, the leader of the Dwarves, we see someone who is paralysed by despair and paranoia;  by anger at broken promises and an obsession with false idols. Shut away in Lonely Mountain, he places his trust in riches of ‘dragons gold’. 

And yet, as crisis looms he addresses his company saying: I have no right to ask this of any of you… but will you follow me … one last time?

Thorin faces past mistakes and steps up to lead his people, galvanising them in service of their kingdom. We see glimpses of tenacity, humility, loyalty, determination, trust and hope; none of those come without cost.

Follow me!

Today, the Scriptures, which shaped Tolkein too, invite us to face the demands of walking in God’s ways. We hear in Jeremiah something of Thorin’s despair; we hear on the lips of Peter misunderstanding; Jesus’ rebuke re-focuses our life; in Paul’s we confront the practical implications of genuine love. 

Jeremiah is facing disappointment and disaster. He had received God’s word with delight. He hadn’t needed to seek out human merrymaking because he rejoiced in the one who called him by name. Now he faces rejection and persecution; he's wounded and feels deceived by God. He shuns his ‘first love’.

Jeremiah Lamenting: Rembrant 

At this low point of introspection and bitterness, God draws near to him. There he is recalled. 

My word is precious, declare it! I am with you, they people will turn to you! Follow me!

The demands of this calling lie at the heart of the Gospel.

Last week, we were left with a cliff hanger: Peter declared that Jesus is the Messiah and the disciples were instructed not to tell anyone. And now we see why.

Jesus wanted to teach them what being Messiah meant: he wasn’t, as many expected, a triumphant figure, claiming his Kingdom with power and might. Instead glory and victory followed suffering.  In him, God’s love reached out to the depths of agony and isolation, suffering and even death; the victory of that  love would be revealed in resurrection. 

This isn’t the ending Peter expected. He rebukes the one who had rebuked the waves and calmed the storm. Jesus own words of rebuke are harsh; but perhaps that’s the point. He’s jolting Peter - and us - out of our collusion with a human perspective. 

Peter’s vision is shaped by the world’s understanding of power. Jesus is revealing the nature of God’s love, made perfect in the form of a servant. He is also giving a pattern for us to follow.  God’s love can be seen in our humanity; in our weakness not strength; in the face of threats not just opportunities. 

Follow me: obedience to that call involves taking up the cross. It means laying aside all that the world counts as ‘successful’; no longer striving to possess, consume, control or judge.

Our attempts to ‘save our life’ amount to being selfish: preserving our interests and indulgences; placing ourselves at the centre of the world. We could so easily rattle off a list of the petty, seemingly insignificant, moments when we know we’ve nudged what we want to the centre. The fruit of our selfishness might be impatience, greed, jealousy anger, quarrels or indifference.

Instead, losing our lives for the sake of Jesus begins by placing him at the heart of everything - of our lives, our work, our ministry, our friendships, of this cathedral. His love becomes our centre of gravity, pulling us closer. 

In a broken and complex world, loving faithfully, deeply and patiently is very hard indeed. But if we are precious in God’s sight, so is our neighbour - the one we find difficult, who isn’t like us, who is hostile to us. 

At the heart of the Battle of the Five Armies, we grapple with loving our enemy. When the Elf Thranduil turns away from the Dwarves, Tauriel rebukes him saying:  You think your life is worth more than theirs, when there is no love in it? There is no  love in you! At that moment, she takes her personal love of Kili and translates it to love for a people. 

Love that is selflessness makes us more human; and in that fullness we see the love of God with us.  To learn this love we have to follow Jesus; and in following we find life. And in following, God’s kingdom is glimpsed here.

Like Peter and Jeremiah before him, we find ourselves to be transformed. Paul explores what that looks like.  Having described the way in which we are united in Christ, and co-dependent on one another, he says ‘let love be genuine’.  

That is the acid test of our life and ministry in this cathedral - is love being made real amongst us?

Holding fast to the goodness of God’s love s an expression of corporate love which overflows in sincere hospitality to the stranger mutual affection. 

St Paul Writing his Epistles: Valentin de Boulogne 

This love is generous and good; leading to flourishing of the other; this love does not collude with abuse or hurt. Paul recognised the evangelistic impact of our character - of goodness, patience, kindness, self-control and joy.

The language that Paul uses is powerful and dynamic: be eager, earnest, diligent and zealous. There is no drudgery in this vision of life together - rather it is vibrant and animated by the Spirit. Paul’s language also calls us to perseverance - being aware of Christ moment by moment.

In this Eucharist, we like Jeremiah taste the sweetness of God’s word; like Peter we find challenge and forgiveness as we follow Christ; and in the power of the Spirit, the fire of God’s love is re-kindled in us. 

Like Bilbo Baggins, we’re called out of the comfort of our home. In fondness, Gandalf says he’s quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!  Sometimes we too might feel quite little; yet we like Bilbo have potential of learn, love and grow; let’s not underestimate the impact as we are sent as as the body of Christ; walking as a movement of love in the wide world.  

© Julie Gittoes 2017