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The Archbishop of York’s, Stephen Cottrell, Remembrance Sunday sermon

Remembrance 2020

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15. 13)

Some years ago there was a television advertisement that tried to sell a certain sort of insurance by telling us that security was the most basic human instinct. To illustrate this the advert featured the Great Wall of China, telling us – though this may not actually be true – that it is the only human structure that can be seen from space.

A wall, is of course primarily built for security, but what this really means is protection from each other. To mark out territory. To keep others out. Donald Trump got elected in 2016 on the promise to build one. It is indeed a basic human instinct. But is it the most basic? Isn’t it rather a sign of our failure to love each other, not just our need to be secure.

As we remember all those who died because of the failures that ended in war and as we consider the growing divisions and binary arguments and fake news and hate speech that separate us from each other in our world today, how can we establish peace?  And where should our allegiances lie? To those whose side of the wall we happen to share? Or to those who care for peace so much that they are prepared to tear walls down?

I also note that this Remembrance Sunday we are all separated from each other and not able to gather for worship, fellowship and support in the ways we would wish. This second lockdown is going to be hard. However, although we must abide by the law and do all that we can to stay safe and support our Health Service, we also need a vision for peace and health which is beyond warfare and divisions and can even begin to see what a different, more peaceful and collaborative world might look like beyond the horrors of Covid 19. We also pray this for our sisters and brothers in the US as their election concludes and for a peaceful transition of power.

Such a vision is given us in Christ. Working for this vision and letting our communion with God inspire and equip us, is the best way of honouring those who died to secure our peace and whose sacrifice we remember today, and the best way of building a different sort of world.

When someone is baptised into the household of the Christian Church, as the sign of the cross is made on their forehead, this prayer is said by the congregation:

Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin the world and the devil and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.

This is a modern version of the Prayer Book which says, “Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to fight under his banner…”

Those who prepare the services for the Church of England today prefer the language of disciple to soldier, but the image is essentially the same; it is taken from an ancient military ceremony where colours are presented and laid before the altar. Just as a soldier fights under the banner of their regiment, whose colours march ahead and whose presence raise morale, so a Christian lives their life under the banner of Christ.

What is this banner? It is the cross. The sign of peace. But not that peace which little more than an empty truce – the silence after the guns have stopped firing – but true reconciliation painfully embraced –something worth dying for.

On the cross Jesus confronts the hate and anger, disease and divisions of the world. And he does it with love. He receives the worst the world can give. And he goes on loving.  He lays down his life for his friends. He asks us to do the same.

The God of Jesus Christ is a barrier breaker, tombstone roller, barricade buster God. Sins forgiven. Those who are separated are brought together. Enemies even become friends.

For, if the Great Wall of China is the only human work that can be seen on earth as if it were from heaven, then the only human work that can be seen in heaven from earth are the wounds of Christ.

The wounds that we made when we tried to get rid of love.

The wounds that are themselves the sign of barriers broken down.

If we want to know the truest human instinct, then we must look to Christ. For he shows us that it is not security, but community that brings us peace; not alienation, but forgiveness; not conquest, but sacrifice.

None of us wants to have to fight for these things. And war must always be a very last resort. And politicians must learn wisdom and restraint, for it is not them who go into battle. And better than anyone, if you want to know about the horrors of war, ask a soldier. And every war begins with human greed and human failure. But as we gather today for this annual remembrance of those whose lives were lost in war, we make this remembrance by declaring our allegiance to God, the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. It is under his banner that we march, and it is he, and he alone, who can secure the peace we long for. Let us look beyond ourselves, beyond other ties of school or family or class or caste, or even nation, beyond this pandemic, to that other country “whose fortress is a faithful heart and whose paths are paths of peace.”

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What can I give him, Poor as I am? Archbishop of York’s Christmas Sermon

Ten-year old Jack was born on Christmas Day. Born in a long family tradition, of many generations, that had no God, no religion, no church, no worship on the family menu.

But for Jack, things were about to change. He was invited on his tenth birthday to go to church by Anna – an eighty-two-year old widow – who had baby-sat Jack since he was six months old. And the parents agreed.

Jack found the music in the church and the story-telling in the children’s church riveting. He was excited and was concerned he may not find the right words to tell his parents how exciting the whole experience was.

Back at home both parents simultaneously asked, “How was it? Boring and full of fake-news?”

‘No’, replied Jack, ‘You had better sit down. I am about to tell you the most amazing story I have ever heard. How God sent his only Son to a childless teenage couple who run from their home village that had expelled them.

Their names were Mary and Joseph.

Thankfully, the shepherds took pity on them and sheltered them in a stable. That night God sent his baby son to cheer them up, carried in an all-gold heavenly ship.

On board the biggest choir beyond human understanding.

As the heavenly ship approached where Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were, the Daleks and Zygons assembled to destroy everyone who was on board.

The Time Lord, Dr Who, seeing the danger used her Sonic-Screwdriver to set the clock, time, back to the Daleks and Zygons pre-existence state.

Phew, they were gone.

The heavenly ship landed. God’s baby son was handed over to Joseph and Mary. The shepherds were thanked for being so kind. And the choir gave the biggest gig on earth but to just a few shepherds.

Dad and Mum, I need to go back next Sunday to find out more and I will come back and tell you’.

The dad said, “I vaguely remember the story. But I don’t think it happened that way.”

‘I know dad’, said Jack. If I told you how it really happened, you would not believe it’.

‘Dad’, said Jack, ‘I believe what the story-teller told us in the children’s church. That the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, in a stable unites heavenly glory and earthly poverty. Therefore, let no one ever dare to despise the poor and the needy, since the Son of God was born in a stable, and cradled in a sheep’s feeding and drinking trough.

Let us beware of despising the poor, because of their poverty. Their condition is one which the Son of God has made holy and honoured, by taking it voluntarily on himself. God is no respector of persons. He looks at the heart of everyone, and not at their incomes.

To be godless and covetous is disgraceful, but it is no disgrace to be poor. It is simply awesome. How the King of kings and Lord of Lords stoops so low, and how gloriously he uplifts the lowly to share his glory. See how the proclamation of Jesus’ birth is to a bunch of common shepherds. The coming of Jesus turns all expectations of who is important and their status upside down. Shepherds becoming the messengers of “good news of great joy for all the people”.

And today, Jesus Christ is still found in the simple, lowly guise, “wrapped in strips of cloths, lying in a sheep’s drinking and feeding trough (a manger)”.

Please let us see the simplicity and the poverty into which the Christ child came. And learn from Him, the joy, simplicity and compassion of His Holy Gospel. Lord, please make us so.’

‘Secondly,’ Jack said, ‘the story-teller said the purpose of the birth of the Christ child was to free everyone and renew their lives as well as their commitment to God and to each other. His birth, as light shining in the darkness, does not leave the everyday world unchanged. Very similar to the game-changer a new born baby brings to their new home. Parents can’t go on as they are. New birth brings real change!

And so encountering Jesus raises our levels of expectation and makes the impossible possible.

For the birth of a Saviour for all people turns them from disobedience to God to child-like obedience. Turns them from despair to hope. Turns them from fear to love. Turns them from guilt to forgiveness. Turns them from estrangement to friendship. And the result is this: Like the shepherds we too must “go in haste to Christ the Lord” who is standing at the doors of our hearts beckoning us to let him come in. We then “glorify and praise God” for the gift of new life in Jesus Christ’.

‘Thirdly’, Jack said, ‘the story-teller said that the song of the multitude of angels, who sang to the shepherds at the birth of Jesus, sang a song of hope for people who lived in dark times’.

Friends, even in uncertain times – like Brexit for us all – the hope is still there, the belief that into darkness God can still shine a light (this is so true in Isaiah 9).

And to many places of oppression, injustices and brutality – very much like the first Christmas when “in and around Bethlehem children who were two years old or under were killed by the order of king Herod” (Matthew 2:16).

And for all of us here at York Minster this morning? What is our response? Are we like Jack or his parents or the Daleks and the Zygons or King Herod?

Let us treasure with the Virgin Mary the wonder of the Birth of the Christ child and ponder it in our hearts.

Let us celebrate with the Shepherds the joy of the Birth of the Christ child and go and spread the good news of salvation to everyone.

Let us sing with the multitude of angels, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace, good will among people”.

Let us with the wise men seek the Christ Child, worship him and offer him our greatest treasure: our total-self.

As the choir now sings, the 4th stanza of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak mid-winter frost wind made moan” (1830-94), let us make it our own response.

‘What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give him;
Give my heart.’

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