Sermon at the Civic Service for the Coronation – The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell
Title: Sermon at the Civic Service for the Coronation of King Charles III
Preacher: The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell
Date: 07 May 2023 4.00pm
‘I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.’ (Revelation 21. 22 -24)
Coronations do not always go to plan.
At Edward II’s coronation in 1307, a section of wall behind the Abbey’s high altar collapsed, killing one of the knights in attendance.
In 1626 Charles I had to cancel the procession because of the pestilence.
In 1661 at Charles II’s coronation, a squabble broke out between barons over who got to keep pieces of the silk canopy that was held above the King’s head.
In 1761, they lost the Sword of State. Everything ran late and by the time the archbishop came to deliver his sermon, it was drowned out by the clatter of cutlery and the tinkling of glasses as hungry peers started eating and drinking mid service.
In 1838 at Queen Victoria was told the ceremony had finished, when in fact it hadn’t. She retired to St Edward’s Chapel, where she was shocked to find the altar covered with sandwiches and bottles of wine – there to keep the clergy and others going in what was a very long service.
Eating and drinking during the service it appears was quite a feature in days gone by.
This was also the service where the Archbishop of Canterbury jammed the coronation ring onto the wrong finger, causing the Queen acute pain and where the aptly named Lord Rolle, nearly 90 at the time, caught his foot in his robes as he was about to pay homage, tripped and fell sideways, ‘rolling’ to the bottom of the steps. It was then said that rolling in this manner should become a hereditary duty for his family.
And in 1902 for the coronation of King Edward VII, the Archbishop of Canterbury put the crown on back to front.
I’m happy to report that none of these things happened yesterday. And since individual peers paying homage was dispensed with and replaced with a much more fitting invitation for everyone both in the Abbey and watching on television at home to pay homage together if they wished, the service was a good deal shorter than in the past.
I didn’t take any sandwiches with me. If claret was being served anywhere in the Abbey, I wasn’t offered any. And fortunately, another problem which has beset other very long services, the need for a comfort break, never arose.
Moreover, the crown was put on the right way round, the ring put on the correct finger, no bits of Westminster Abbey collapsed, and as far as I could tell no one tripped over. I even managed to hold onto all my bits of paper, not dropping anything for the camera this time.
It was a glorious, humbling, and historic occasion and I’m very blessed to have been part of it.
But what did it all mean? And how does it make sense in the diverse smorgasbord of cultures that make up a largely secular, but at the same time multi-faith 21st century Britain?
Let’s start at the beginning. For me, one of the most moving bits of the service, and an innovation in this coronation service, was that the first person who spoke was a child, who said to the King, ‘Your majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings.’ And the king replied, ‘In his name and after his example I come not to be served but to serve.’
This one exchange sums up how we see, and indeed how our new king sees, kingship and leadership.
First it is about service, following the example of Jesus himself who comes as one who serves, and it is his words, the words of Jesus, that the king made his own and were the first words he spoke.
But, secondly, Jesus who is servant is also Jesus who is King, the one through whom the whole created order has its origin and in whom it finds its meaning and purpose. He is the one who has come among us in our own human flesh, who shares completely what it means to be human and who serves us. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, yet he kneels before us and washes our feet. We, of course, here in York saw something of this lived out when the King came here to York Minster a few weeks ago to distribute the Maundy money.
In our second reading from the Book of Revelation, words that we find in the very last few pages of the Bible, St John receives a vision of the new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, and he says that he can see no temple in the city, ‘for its temple is the Lord God the almighty and the Lamb’ – that is Jesus. And that the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, ‘for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.’ (Revelation 21. 22-23) He also says that the throne of God and of the lamb will be there, ‘and his servants will worship him, they will see his face.’ (Revelation 21. 27).
So, there is one other detail about the coronation service that I found compelling.
If most of us had been planning the choreography of such a service, we would probably have placed the thrones facing the people that the King is called to serve, if for no other reason than that it made one of the climaxes of the service visible to as many people as possible. However, you will have noticed that the thrones were facing east, towards the altar of God and therefore towards God’s throne.
This simple but profound arrangement of the furniture says something very important about earthly kingship and indeed all earthly leadership. It finds its source, origin, and authority elsewhere. If it is to be effective, it must follow the example of the servant King, the one who is the servant leader. And for our new King, even at the moment he was crowned and the moment he was enthroned, he does this facing the altar of God and therefore powerfully reminded that even though he is the one to whom we bend the knee as our Head of State, he too, like all of us, must bend the knee to God. Hence it is as our first reading from the Book of Proverbs declared,
‘By me kings reign,
and rulers decree what is just;
by me rulers rule,
and nobles, all who govern rightly.’ (Proverbs 8. 16)
The service yesterday recognised this. That it is God’s justice and God’s righteousness that our rulers are called to uphold, and that we are called to strive for in this world.
As I took my place in the Abbey yesterday and played a small part in the service, I was praying for our King, but also for our nation as a new era begins. Being a subject is not a concept that sits easily with us today. But with such an emphasis on service I believe we can faithfully reimagine ourselves as loyal citizens; loyal citizens, with responsibilities to each other within that web of responsibilities that is held together by the Crown, and whose powers and responsibilities are worked out through Parliament and government, so that all those who lead, who bear responsibility and carry influence, may have a servant heart and work together for the common good of the diverse communities we serve. Such a rich diversity of people, ideas and experience makes our nation stronger. Honouring that diversity is a vital part of the freedoms King Charles promised yesterday to uphold, and surely that must also include the right to disagree and the right to peaceful protest.
So, nothing went wrong. Except maybe we fail to reflect on what this could mean for us as we live together in our sometimes fragmented nation and faithfully exercise our agency and responsibility to follow in the way of Christ’s servant leadership and make a difference in the world. For Christ is our light and our life, and it is to his throne of grace that we must turn. Amen.
Easter Sunday Festal Eucharist – The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell
Title: Easter Sunday sermon Festal Eucharist
Preacher: The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell
Date: 9 April 2023 11.30am
“(Jesus) asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’” John 20. 15
For those of you who made it through this Holy Week, here at York Minster, you will have heard a series of beautiful and challenging sermons from the Dean, on the last words of Jesus from the cross. But on this morning, we, with great surprise and rejoicing, encounter the risen Lord and consider his first words. And the first words of Jesus on the first Easter morning, are not as we would expect.
And if you’re sitting there wondering what those first words are, if it had been me on the first Easter day – if you’ll forgive such a thought! – then I think there would have been a shout of triumph. It has I mean, after all, it’s been quite a weekend, isn’t it? You know, you would forgive Jesus for a little bit of uncharacteristic triumphalism on such an occasion as the resurrection. He might have said, I’ve risen from the dead. I’ve forgiven the sins of the world. I go for the things of glory. If you read that you wouldn’t be surprised.
But sometimes a still small voice is louder. And the actual words that Jesus spoke on that first Easter morning, to Mary Magdalene, well, they are still reverberating around the world.
I find it beautiful and astonishing that what he actually says is, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’
And still, not recognising him, Mary opens up her heart to him.
And because the Easter faith we proclaim and celebrate today is all about love, or not really very much about anything at all, then we can also identify a golden thread running through the whole story of the gospel, and reaching its climax in Jesus‘s death and resurrection.
This golden thread is love. It is compassion. And it is inviting us to find a way to justice. And love is always looking for love to be returned. Always searching. And by asking these questions, Jesus is forming first with Mary Magdalene and then with others, with us here today, a new community in his name with a new purpose for the world.
So, on the night, before he dies, giving us the new commandment to love one another, he washes his disciples’ feet. And on the cross, he turns the other cheek, and walks the extra mile, forgives those who nail him there, and reaches out to the not exactly very penitent thief, who, in the last chance saloon of life, reaches out to him. And even on the first Easter day, when you might have imagined Jesus rising with a shout of triumph, he turns to Mary with compassionate concern, and reaches out to the sorrow in her heart.
And since this is how God is revealed to us in Christ, the one whose character and very nature is service, compassion, love, then it must also be the case that this is how God comes among us today, on Easter Day,- even to those who don’t yet recognise him.
He says to us, here in York Minster on this Easter morning, and across the world, and especially in situations where people are hurting or grieving, he says to us in a still small voice of calm, why are you weeping?
And if you’re a third child, in a family, whose universal credit has been limited to two, you might say to Jesus why does my birth have to be such a problem for my parents and my siblings? This is why I’m weeping.
And if you’re an Eritrean asylum seeker who came to this country in a little boat across the channel, and are awaiting possible resettlement in Rwanda, you might say to Jesus, why am I being punished for fleeing persecution, where can I find justice and compassion in this world. This is why I’m weeping.
And if you’re a hard-working, single parent, who can’t make ends meet, you might say to Jesus, I’m having to choose between food and fuel, and if my kids need a new pair of shoes there is simply nothing left to pay for them. This is why I’m weeping.
And if you’re a young Ukrainian graduate who volunteered to defend your country, and is now on the front line in Kherson and sheltering from enemy fire, and unable to get to church today, and can only sing alleluia in your heart, you might say to Jesus, my heart is broken with the madness of this war. I haven’t seen my family for months. I live with death each day. This is why I’m weeping.
Or I’m a fisherman living on the Polynesian island of Tuvalu and the sea levels are rising, and my whole world is sinking, why, doesn’t this world care, those whose actions across the globe melt ice caps, hack down forests, and are steadily killing, well, everything. This is why I’m weeping.
Or I was trafficked into a place where I have no identity, agency or freedom. Or I am a survivor of sexual abuse and my whole life is scarred, and no one takes responsibility. This is why I’m weeping.
Or what about you?
What sorrows and fears have you brought to church this morning? What griefs and hurts are locked inside? What do you want to say to Jesus about your tears? And what do you long to hear from him?
And Jesus, again to Mary unrecognised, asks another question – perhaps, the most important question any human being can face – ‘Who are you looking for?’ Which means I suppose, ‘Who will you follow? How will you set your compass? What are the values you propose living by? What do you believe? And whom do you trust?’
And because there are no easy, off-the-shelf answers to the huge problems facing our world, and all the different hurts and sorrows we carry; and because we don’t know the way to go, what God offers us, amidst these trials and challenges, is a companion. A guide. Someone to be with us. Someone who knows what it’s like to be us. Someone alongside us and to show us the way. Someone to show us what being human is supposed to look like.
This won’t solve all our problems. But it will change the way we tackle them. It will cast them in a different light. And, frankly, as I look around the world today, without the compassion, service, love and justice that we see and experience in Jesus, we will never find peace in our world, nor any way through the intractable and confronting challenges we face.
‘I’m looking for Jesus,’ said Mary. Actually, she’s speaking to the Jesus she is looking for but she doesn’t yet recognise, because, he is alive with a new and transformed life, which is the hope, and the promise that, despite all of life’s difficulties and challenges, there is a better future and an eternal hope.
And Jesus, then speaks her name. ‘Mary,’ he says. And her eyes are opened and she recognises him.
Dear friends, in this moment we find the greatest hope of all, and the most important message of Easter: we only know and recognise God, when we know God knows and recognises us. Jesus reaches out to the sorrow in Mary’s heart and he speaks her name. And in the knowledge that we are known by God, of inestimable value and deeply loved, we can rise up and build a better world, a world ordered by the love, compassion and justice that we see in Jesus, so that we respond to the world in the same way that Jesus responds to us.
Because as we know it is easy to be cynical and to despair. it is so easy to think that things can never change. That death and evil and injustice have the last word. And that all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got in the years left to you. And then protect that keenly.
The reason we are here today, on Easter day says something else. Things can be different. Things can be better. That expectations can be turned around. And this is very good news indeed.
It is worth celebrating. So, open those Easter eggs when you get home. Crack open the champagne. Put some red stripe in the fridge. Bake a very large cake. Stop off for a kebab from the caravan on the ring road. Order lots of curry. Invite everyone in. Turn the music up loud. Wear your most outrageous hat. Pucker up. Make a noise. Celebrate. Something better is beginning. A new hope is stirring. Tap your feet to a new rhythm of joy and hope. Because Jesus is risen from the dead. He is reaching out to the sorrows in our hearts. He is inviting us to follow him. He is calling us by name.
Christmas Day Sermon: He is coming to comfort us – Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell
Preacher: Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell
Date: Christmas Day Eucharist Service 11.00am
Readings: Isaiah 52.9
“Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people.” – Isaiah 52.9
For the last 30 years or so my mother has sung in the scratch Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall. It is a tremendous occasion. The choir of many hundreds fills three quarters of the hall and the much smaller audience occupy the remaining seats. For a great many of those years I have been part of that audience. When such a huge choir rises to sing the first chorus it is a spine tingling, glorious thing, though not always as polished as we are used to with the choir of York Minster.
However, before that, the tenor sings the first aria and as many of you may know, the libretto for Handel’s Messiah is a tapestry of scripture, different texts woven together to tell the whole story of our salvation.
The opening words are from Isaiah chapter 40 –
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” (Isaiah 40.1)
I always find this hauntingly beautiful.
Of all the verses from scripture that could have been chosen it is this single word ‘comfort’ that sets the scene and captures the meaning of all that will follow.
All that God has done for us in Jesus Christ; all the pains and insults he has borne for us; all the sorrows he has carried; all that has been achieved by his death and resurrection; and all the promise that is held in his birth and coming among us is summed up in this one word: comfort.
Isn’t this the vital message of Christmas?
And isn’t this what we need to hear this Christmas more than ever?
In English, the word ‘comfort’ carries the popular meaning of ‘assistance’ and ‘consolation’, but also the literal meaning, ‘to be strengthened’.
So, yes, God is coming among us as one of us: this is the great Christmas proclamation; God’s word made flesh in Jesus Christ. And he will wipe away every tear: he will comfort us. But he will also strengthen us to live our lives well and to face life’s inevitable trials, sorrows and horrors.
We may also note that sometimes in scripture the Holy Spirit is called ‘comforter’.
However, these words in Isaiah 40 are not addressed directly to the people from God, but to the prophet who is then charged by God to speak words of comfort. It is, if you like, his commission. And if you read on a little further, the prophet asks God, “What shall I say?” (Isaiah 40.6) And God replies;
“All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades… but the word of our God will stand for ever.” (Isaiah 40.7a & 8)
And then goes on –
“See, the Lord God comes with might… (and) he will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isaiah 40.10a & 11)
The message of the Christian faith is two edged. It is both kinds of comfort.
It is the resolute message of God’s enduring support for us, right in the midst of the fragility and transience of human life, its difficulties, its challenges and its horrors, a reminder of God’s commitment to the world. It is tough love and tough comfort.
And then it is a message of such sweetness, such sublime tenderness, such understanding of our humanity because in Christ God has climbed inside our humanity and God is like a Shepherd who feeds his flock and gathers the lambs in his arms.
It is this message we receive at Christmas.
It is this message we are called to share.
This Christmas feels harder than ever. Our world feels fragile. There is war in Europe. A cost of living crisis is hitting the poorest disproportionately. Our health service seems to be cracking at the seams. Public sector workers feel forced to strike. The impact of climate emergency ever more visible and pressing. In parts of East Africa, they haven’t had any proper rain for nearly three years. In Northern Kenya, an area I know well, 80% of their livestock has died.
I am not here to offer political analysis. But I do want to offer hope. The hope that was born in a manger and offers hope to the world. It is about the comfort we offer each other in the name of Christ, putting the needs of others before ourselves; and it is the strength and resolve to bear witness to the values and standards of the kingdom of God.
Indeed, my other favourite line in Messiah is during the great Alleluia chorus when from Revelation 11.15 the choir sing: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God.”
This is the great hope of the Gospel, the vision that sustains us. The angels singing of peace on earth. The shepherds marvelling at what they’ve seen. The child Jesus, who is God among us, God’s word made flesh.
And through it all – through all the many hardships and toils, the joys and challenges that we face and the world faces, when we are at our best and when we feel we can sink no lower – God continually and untiringly, and tenderly sings his song of hope and love to us. God is committed to us. This is the message of Christmas. He is coming to comfort us. Amen
Sermon following the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell
Title: Sermon following the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Date: 11/09/22 11am
Led by Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
– from Lamentation 3
As we mourn the death of Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, it is into such a period of quiet waiting that our nation now enters. Today her coffin will begin its journey towards the funeral in Westminster Abbey a week tomorrow.
And yesterday in the House of Lords, giving tribute to Her Majesty, I found myself saying, isn’t it strange that we are all telling our stories of when we met the Queen or even what we saw of her and in her – because most of us of course, never actually met her – it’s not as if she was a member of our family.
Only she was. That’s why we’re grieving. That’s why we’re remembering.
Because it comes to us that we are the household of a nation and that we do belong to each other. And part of our grieving is to tell our stories and share our thoughts when someone we have dearly loved dies.
And hers was such a long life. And such a rich life, and such a long life of service that there is much to tell and much to remember.
And nor was this life for her in her early years expected. She was, of course, born into the wider Royal family, but it was not until the abdication of her uncle that she found herself thrust into position as next in line.
And that service she gave to this nation and the Commonwealth- the way she understood her role as a vocation to serve – continued right to the end, it now hardly seems possible that it was only last Tuesday, only five days ago, that she was receiving a new Prime Minister and we saw those lovely photos of her in Balmoral.
And where did this come from? This way of being a monarch that was more about service than rule?
At her Coronation, as I’ve already heard said several times, in perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the service, she steadfastly walked past the throne upon which she would sit and knelt at the altar, giving her allegiance to God before anyone else gave their allegiance to her.
Echoing those comforting words of scripture from the Book of Lamentation, which is itself a book written out of the heart of the profoundest grief and tragedy, the Queen said this in one of her Christmas broadcasts –
“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.”
And let’s not forget that today is September the 11th, a day etched into the corporate memory of the world as we remember another day of horror and sadness when so many died.
And this is what we do. As we remember, as we grieve and mourn in our families, across our world, and in the household of our nation we tell our stories. And how do we make sense of the end of life and of death? How do we live our lives well in the time that is remaining to us? Well, we can do no better than follow the example of Her Late Majesty the Queen, who each day put her trust in God. There’s nothing sensational or mystical about this. The Christian life is a life of simple discipline where each day we choose to live a certain way. Each day we choose to love our neighbour as ourselves. Each day we choose to love God.
I can’t pretend I knew the Queen well, but I did, unlike most people, have the great pleasure and honour of meeting her on numerous occasions and indeed on one occasion staying with her. And what I saw in her was simple Christian discipleship. She said her prayers, she went to church. She knew that she needed that anchor in her life in order to live her life well.
We too must put our trust in God. We too must bend the knee to Him. Because the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning.
The story that we receive in scripture is the story of God’s love for us, that God is on our side and that God cares for our world.
And from the midst of sorrow and tragedy, the writer of the book of Lamentation declares, amazingly, “Great is your faithfulness.” This seems utterly the wrong way round when so much has gone wrong, except that this person is seeing God and God’s faithfulness in the midst of the suffering.
And this, of course, is the broken, beating heart of the Christian story. God in Jesus Christ shares our life completely and absolutely, even our dying. And God raised Jesus Christ to glory.
It is this faith and this God that we turn to. And as we know, it was this God and this faith that sustained Her Late Majesty the Queen.
Funeral services often begin with these words of Jesus from St John’s gospel: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
This is what we call Christian hope. The hope in which we live and die. And I suppose what I want to say to you, and to our nation in this time of mourning, which is also a time that binds us together, is that this Christian hope is for everyone.
In today’s Gospel, we have heard Jesus telling stories of a lost sheep and a lost coin. It is not self evident to us that this is the way we should live our lives. Jesus begins by saying ‘which one of you wouldn’t, if you lost one sheep, leave the 99 and go in search of the one that’s lost?’ And the answer is none of us. Most of us in our lives would play the percentages game where one or two would be lost. But not for our God. Not for the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. Everyone counts, everyone matters, everyone is included.
These stories, more than almost any other in the New Testament point us to the heart of God and God’s compassion for everyone., that when we speak about kingdoms we are speaking about the Kingdom of Heaven which is not for a select few, not only reserved for those who have been king or queen, but for every single one of us. And whatever our position each is received equally. No, more than that, the little and the least, the lost and the last are brought into the centre and given the place of greatest honour.
Her Majesty the Queen died on September the 8th, the date the Church remembers the blessed Virgin Mary, whose song was actually kings being taken down from their thrones and the lowly lifted high. Her Majesty the Queen knew this. She took her role as monarch very seriously indeed, but actually didn’t take herself too seriously. There was always a good humour and a lightness of touch alongside astonishing and dedicated service.
On Friday evening in that very moving address to the nation, King Charles said of his beloved mother: hers was a life well-lived.
Surely, it must be God’s will that this is said of each of us. That we live our lives well. That our lives have meaning, and that meaning is measured by the love and care that we have for each other and for God.
God’s kingdom has no boundaries, because its borders run through human hearts. We might even say it is a kingdom without a king, for Jesus the servant, the crucified one reigns.
Such a life, following and emulating the servant king carries great responsibility, especially if you have received much. It is to such a life of servant leadership that we look and celebrate in this time of mourning and we remember that it is what our world so desperately needs. A world where we put others first. Where we learn kindness, compassion, justice and mercy.
I think the reason Her late Majesty the Queen took her role seriously, but not herself so seriously, was that she was well aware of the accident of these things, only happening because of the abdication of her uncle. But most of all, because of her faith in Jesus Christ. Because she knew, from the beginning to the end where her allegiance and accountability lie.
So, although it was not often seen in public, I can from my dealings with the Queen, confirm that she had a very good sense of humour. In fact, it is a sense of humour, particularly about oneself, that often saves many of us from being seduced and destroyed by the roles we take on.
Yesterday in the House of Lords I heard a particularly good example of this, and if you we will allow me and please if we may, let us try to finish this sermon with a smile.
Her Late Majesty the Queen loved horses, horse racing in particular, and dogs. This is well known. She was, however, no great lover of team sports, even though she saw a good many. After all, it was she who handed the Jules Rimet Trophy to Bobby Moore in 1966. After what I imagined must have been a particularly tedious cup final the Chairman of the FA, or some such sporty person, turned to her and asked whether she thought anyone had played well. She paused. Timing is everything with comedy. Yes, she replied, the Band of the Scots Guards.
Sisters and brothers, people of Yorkshire and of our nation, may Her Late Majesty the Queen rest in peace and rise in glory.
And may we rise up with the same faith in Jesus Christ and bring God’s peace and justice, God’s kindness and compassion to the world; may it comfort all who mourn and especially her family and our new King Charles, that in the midst of sorrow there may be joy, the joy of faith; the joy of a life well lived.
For great is God’s faithfulness. It is new every morning.
The Archbishop of York’s, Stephen Cottrell, Remembrance Sunday sermon
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.”
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.’