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Keep Awake – The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

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Sunday 1 December 2019 – Matins

Micah 4:1-7      1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Rugby Football may not be your cup of tea. If so, then the attention given to this year’s world cup competition might have been just a little too much for you to bear. This was undoubtedly the case for Canon Peter Moger, Precentor here at the Minster until recently, although if truth be told, Peter wasn’t so much irritated by the competition as completely oblivious of it!

The final, with England playing South Africa, took place on 2nd November, the day after Peter’s licensing on the Feast of All Saints as the Episcopal priest in Stornaway. Peter was very keen to give a tour around the island of Lewis to the small number of us who’d gone there to support him, largely to show us the second church in his charge. This is a 13th century church dedicated in honour of that well-known saint, Moluag. Canon Michael Smith – currently on sabbatical – and his wife, Ann, together with Dr Richard Shephard, my wife and me, stayed in an air B&B together. Michael had let it be known in no uncertain terms that we were intending to watch the rugby. So at 9.00 o’clock, the five of us sat down in front of the television. Dr Shephard managed to last barely a few minutes of pretending to be vaguely interested, before the sheer agony of boredeom forced him to leave the room and go and do something else! The four of us who remained, though, were gripped. And for those of us of a certain age, this final brought back memories of the final in 2003, when England beat Australia to become world champions.

The hero of that match was, of course, the fly-half, Johnny Wilkinson. At 79 minutes into the 80-minute game, England were ahead, and then Australia equalised, taking the score to 14-14. During the twenty minutes of extra time, both teams managed to add another three points to their scores, until 20 seconds before the end, Johnny Wilkinson scored a drop goal to give England a three point lead – and victory.

Wilkinson seemed to have golden boots on his feet, and he was well known for the ritual and posture he adopted before kicking the ball through the posts to convert a try or score a penalty. He seemed almost to crouch or squat and hold his hands in a rather curious position – almost prayer-like – in front of his chest. His eyes oscillated several times between the ball on the grass and the posts through which he needed to kick the ball, as he sought to fix in his mind the required trajectory of the ball. His concentration was enormous, and time and time again he managed to achieve his goal – literally – of getting the ball between the posts.

Keeping your eye on the ball is a phrase that’s widely used, whether or not the connection’s made with sport. It means, of course, keeping your focus, not being distracted, because if you take your eye off the ball, you’re likely to miss. We use the phrase metaphorically in all sorts of circumstances in our everyday lives.

If St Paul had been writing to the Thessalonians today, I wonder whether he might not have used this metaphor, for that’s really what he’s saying in the passage we heard as the second lesson today. Keep awake, be vigilant, keep your eye on the ball, otherwise you’ll miss the crucial moment on which all could be won or lost. For Paul that moment was the so-called second coming of Christ at the end of time.

The notion of the second coming draws on the language of what’s called apocalyptic found elsewhere in the Bible, notably in books like Daniel in the Old Testament or the Revelation to John, with which the Bible ends. Apocalyptic makes use of all sorts of weird, wonderful and disturbing images, with the intention of warning and alerting people to the serious danger they’re in without being aware of it. Apocalyptic seeks to wake us up and get us to pay attention. Although some people take the words literally, it might be more helpful to read them in a rather more symbolic way, not least because the thought world of St Paul seems so alien to us, which is why, if he’d been trying to say now what he was trying to say then, he might have used the metaphor of keeping your eye on the ball.

The business of paying attention resonates with many today and can connect us with every aspect of our experience. It’s why the so-called mindfulness movement has caught on, because it offers a practice of being attentive as a way of dealing with all the stuff which seems to blow us off course in our lives. But we know how important paying attention is in all sorts of everyday circumstances. A musician knows all too well that mistakes are likely to be made when your attention wanders. Or think of a brain surgeon in the middle of a delicate and difficult operation. A moment’s distraction could be fatal. And what about the temptation to answer a mobile phone when driving. Tragedy could occur in a split second. All this is a way of saying that everything in life is actually a spiritual matter.

A good many years ago now, when I was a vicar in Bedford, I invited Michael Mayne, then Dean of Westminster, to come and lead a quiet day as part of a two-week mission. He kindly gave me the manuscript of his addresses, which I still have, and he began the first address with these words:

I want to put before you a profoundly simple – that is to say, a simple but profound – truth. And it is this: that at root, the Christian life is about giving attention in order to become what we truly are. Prayer, spirituality, is about giving proper attention to God. Love is about giving attention to people. By which I mean attentiveness to what is before our eyes in the sacrament of the present moment.

I should define a religious person – one who is spiritually aware – as one who is prepared to give attention to the world, to its people and to its creator, in the process of learning to love them.

For St Paul, the crucial moment on which all could be won or lost seems to be the moment when Christ will come again in the future, at the end of time, but if we think about it carefully, that can’t possibly be the whole story. He’s actually saying, pay attention now, in this moment, because if you don’t, it might be precisely now that he comes and then you’ll miss him. Christ comes to us at every moment and in every situation. The so-called second coming points, perhaps, to that single moment when the whole creation will be so utterly at one in its attentiveness, that the very life and presence of God will be realised in everyone and everything in all its intense fullness.

So keep awake, be vigilant, keep your eye on the ball, for the God who comes in the future is simply the God who comes at every moment, which is only ever now – in the eternal present.

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