Guns ‘n’ Grocers

Yesterday evening, I had a poke around our armoury.

Not our personal armoury, you understand. M’wife and I don’t have a stash of weapons in a secret bunker under the shed in case of zombie apocalypse or anything like that. I mean our armoury at work.

Now, I’m not going to tell you where our armoury is, or how many guns there are in it, but there are quite a lot of them. Many of them are several hundred years old. Some of them are very new; they’re the sorts of things that you see on the news today, whether in the hands of the British Armed Forces or insurgents in the villages of Afghanistan or wherever. They’re all arranged on racks as if they’re in, well, an armoury, just waiting for a bunch of riflemen to come tramping through to be issued their weapons.

The thing is, I was quite surprised by my reaction when I walked in. My immediate response was, “Huh, cool!” It was all very Boy’s Own and exactly what I expected.

It lasted less than a second.

Hot on its heels – so hot on its heels that it was overtaking my initial reaction even as that reaction was forming – was more of an, “Oh.”

I stopped. It was a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. I didn’t like it.

Here’s why: All of the weapons in our collection, be they swords, crossbows, axes, halberds, polearms, dirks, trench-clubs, pistols, rifles, machine guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers, mortars, hand grenades, whatever, are all in our collection because they have a story to tell. They’ve been places, seen things, been used.

And let’s be honest, if that Vickers machine gun sitting in the corner has been used then that probably means a lot of people died as a result. Do you know the rate of fire of a Vickers MG?

It’s about 500 rounds per minute.

That’s potentially 500 lives snuffed out in a minute. Gone. Just like that. Easy. Minimal effort. Well done, soldier, job’s a good ‘un. Have an extra tot of rum.

I’ve called this blog ‘Guns ‘n’ Grocers. Nothing to do with unsuccessful rock groups quietly lamenting into their beer that Roses would have been a much more catchy title. Everything to do with actual grocers. And saddlers. And bank managers and shoemakers and silversmiths and sweet-shop owners and butchers and bakers and, probably, candlestick makers.

Confused? Let me explain. Part of the project that I’m involved with planning at work is a (very exciting) new exhibition for the Castle Museum, tentatively entitled “1914: When the World Changed Forever.” It doesn’t open until 2014 (hazard a guess at why…) and runs until 2018 (potentially around November time, I guess. Maybe the eleventh. I don’t know). We’re taking a look at how the world changed during the second decade of the twentieth century. We’re not just talking about war, but how much changed in the field of communication, science, art, the role of women, the world of work, class, religion… the whole of life.

This is where the grocers come in.

And the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers. Yadda yadda.

Men who weren’t soldiers, chiefly.

You see, at the outbreak of war, the rallying cry went out. Recruiting stations were set up. Volunteers were sought. Lots of men answered the call. They volunteered. They signed up willingly. Great. No problem there. They were trained and trained well. Time was taken over it. Oh sure, there was an urgency about it, ‘cos, y’know, there’s a war on and all, but it was good quality training.

Jump forward to 1916 and things change. The war’s still on, only people aren’t volunteering any more. The shine’s gone off it. It wasn’t all over by Christmas, it’s still going on and maybe, just maybe, we’re not giving the Boche the damned good shoe-ing that we thought we were.

Volunteering’s not working, so it’s time for Volunteering’s big, ugly brother to join the party.

His name is Conscription. He’s not pleasant. He’s the playground bully whereas Volunteering’s the captain of the sports teams. Volunteering’s popular. The guys look up to him because of his charm and easy wit. The girls blush whenever he strides by because, well, look at those thighs.

Back to our grocer (butcher/baker/yadda yadda). He sells fruit and vegetables to Mrs. Brown from number 43. They have a chat when she pops in for her potatoes. He asks after young Jonny. Jonny’s on the Western Front, you know. Lied about his age and signed up when war broke out. Mrs. Brown does worry.

Our grocer was all in favour of the war, back when it started. Sang the National Anthem as lustily as anyone when war was announced. After all, the Hun needed to know he’d overstepped the mark, right? But our grocer’s not a fighter. He’s not a soldier.

Except suddenly he is. Conscription’s got him. His choice has been taken away and he’s been given a rifle. A Lee Enfield .303. A damned good rifle, but it’s not what he’s used to and it’s not what he knows.

He’s been trained in its use, but that training’s gone about as far as ‘this is the business end, point it at the enemy.’ And now he’s in a trench. And the Germans are just over there. They’ve got shells. Lots of them. So many of them that they’re generous enough to lob a near-continuous stream of them at our grocer and his pals.

Our grocer’s still not a fighter. He’s still not a soldier. Sure, he’s got a rifle, a damned good rifle, but it’s not what he’s used to and it’s not what he knows.  How he doesn’t break under the stress I have no idea. Many do. Mrs. Brown’s boy, Jonny, did (she does worry about him, you know). One too many shells shocked him just a step too far and he huddled himself in a corner and wrapped himself up into a foetal little ball, hoping that some unremembered memory of his mother’s womb might keep him safe.

It didn’t. They shot him as a coward. No matter that he was only seventeen and had lied about his age when war broke out. Clearly, clearly, he was a coward. And you have to shoot cowards don’t you, to stop the cowardice from spreading.

Sorry this is all a little morbid. It’s just that, confronted by our armoury, I found myself wondering how on earth you take a man and turn him into a killer of other men. I can get my head around it (which isn’t quite the same as saying I can understand it) if you’re talking about extensive training with willing volunteers. But taking a grocer, putting him in a uniform and shoving a rifle in his hands and telling him he’s a soldier now…

Maybe I should stop using a grocer as an example (he’s fictional, by the way, our grocer. Just like Mrs. Brown and her son Jonny. Fictional but oh-so real for it). Maybe I should use an HLF ‘Changing Spaces’ Activity Programme, Volunteer and Community Coordinator (my word I have a job title and a half…) as an example instead. Maybe I should do that.

But I don’t think I will. It’s a little too uncomfortable.

 

Peace: The presence of the God of love

This Sunday just gone, I preached for the first time in a long time. It felt like it too; I felt out of practise, rusty. I pondered more than I usually do when preparing to preach, I mulled my words over and over and swilled them round my brain in several different directions. Maybe that’s no bad thing.

The thing is, I was conscious of a couple of things:

Firstly, it was the first time I’d preached at Holy Redeemer (our home church for the last couple of years) and I therefore didn’t really know what to expect from the congregation, or what their expectations of me would be. Our vicar had very graciously agreed to my preaching despite not really knowing a great deal of my theology or, indeed, of my style (incidentally, I don’t have a style. Or style full stop. But hey ho).

Secondly, it was a baptism service. That adds a whole different dimension to things. Holy Redeemer is a popular place for baptisms; every third Sunday of the month is baptism Sunday and it’s unusual for there to be no baptism booked in. Often there are two or three in the same service. There should have been three this last Sunday but one of the families had to pull out late in the day due to serious illness on the part of the mother.

But Holy Redeemer’s popularity for baptisms means that very often, the families coming for baptism have little or nothing to do with the church in the wider sense, or Holy Redeemer in particular. I have no great issue with this; it’s part of the Church of England’s role as the Established Church to welcome those who come seeking baptism for themselves or their children. I think this is A Good Thing. We’re here if you want us.

But it skews a different angle onto preaching, particularly when preaching for the first time. When you preach somewhere regularly, you get to know the congregation, which buttons you can push, how much you can challenge, who’ll always offer you thanks afterwards and who’ll always find reason to tell you why you’re an Apostate (look it up). You know their foibles and they know yours. There’s familiarity and thats comfortable.

But with baptismal parties turning up (wearing suits and dresses, because that’s what you wear to church, don’t you? and not really knowing what to do, or when to do it, or how awkward they’re going to feel but fearing the worst), you’re conscious of the desire to do yourself (and your church… and your Lord) justice. To speak words that will inspire, challenge, move… or at least not send folk away laughing disparagingly at you, or cringing because you love Cheeeeesus so much, or… whatever.

So all of this was going round my brain as I was pondering what to say and how to tailor my sermon to the congregation. How to say something meaningful to the regular congregation whilst also engaging (and possibly provoking to thought) the visitors there for the baptisms.

In the end, I decided, ‘Bugger it. I’ll just do what I always do and see what happens.’ And that’s what I did.

…So all of that was by way of brief preamble before I got round to telling you what I said. It ended up being far less brief than I intended.

Sorry.

Look, you can stop reading any time you like.

Still here?

Okay. Chapter Two. It feels like Chapter Two doesn’t it?

The Gospel reading for the day was from Mark (chapter 4, verses 35-41, if you really want to know). It wasn’t the lectionary reading for the day, ‘cos at Holy Redeemer we’re currently working our way through Mark’s Gospel, rather than following the lectionary. Proper rebels, we are.

It’s the story of the calming of the storm. Go read it.

Read it? Good.

The theme for the service was ‘Faithful Lives,’ which struck me as ironic, given the disciples’ response to the storm that blows up while they’re in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” they ask Jesus. Who, incidentally, is asleep while this storm is raging.

Not a very faithful question. It seems Jesus thinks so too. Having calmed the storm with a few simple words, He asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Still no faith. Still because they’ve heard the sorts of things that Jesus is preaching, so they’ve got an idea of what His message is. And more than this, they’ve seen the things He’s doing. The cleansing of lepers, the restoring of withered hands, the casting out of evil spirits. All that jazz.

But it would seem that the things that Jesus said and did weren’t, in and of themselves, what led to faith (and let’s be clear, their seeming lack of faith or otherwise, those disciples in the boat were faithful followers. They stuck with Jesus right through to Golgotha and beyond; to His resurrection, His ascension, His outpouring of His Spirit. They were those upon whom He built His Church). Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Jesus wasn’t the only preacher or miracle worker doing the circuit in first century Palestine (go watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Watch it as a documentary). There were plenty of faith healers/fruit-loop preachers/wannabe messiahs on the scene. People had choice in who to follow.

So if it wasn’t the things that Christ said and did, in and of themselves, that led to faith, then what was it?

I would suggest that a greater part of that answer lies in the “Peace” that Christ spoke to the storm.

“Peace,” He said. “Be still.” And the storm was stilled.

(Incidentally, about “Be still;” the Hebrew of it runs something like, “Be muzzled.” Like He’s talking to a dog that’s misbehaving. Or a ranting preacher.)

When we hear the word ‘peace’ in English today, we tend to think of the absence of war, the absence of struggle, of stress, of distress, of tension. “When struggle has ceased, then I’ll have peace. I’ll be able to relax.” But the Hebrew word that Christ uses is Shalom (you all knew that, right?), and Shalom speaks of wholeness, of having everything that you need to be completely and truly who you are. For Jesus, this shalom, this having everything you need to be whole, this Peace, means not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love. And not the greeting-card love that has filled the shops (and of course my mailbag) this last week, not the swift passion of the silver screen, not the warm fuzz of the first flush of new attraction, but Love. With a capital letter. For Christ, this shalom, this presence of love, is the presence of the very God of Love. The God-Who-is-Love.

Until those first disciples – and until we today – grasped this Peace, this Shalom, freely and gracefully offered, until they knew – and until we today know – the presence of the God of Love, then all Christ’s words, all His deeds, remained – and remain – simply empty words and hollow actions.

“Peace,” Christ says. “Shalom.” And the storm is stilled.

We came together on Sunday for baptism, with all its symbolism, all its ritual, its offer of belonging and of salvation, its public declarations of faith, its repentance and absolution. And through it all, and in it all, and over it all, ran the very presence of our God, the God of Love.

My prayer for Maisy and Alexis as they were baptised, and my prayer for all of us, every day, was/is that they – and we – might know Shalom.

The presence of the God of Love.

Peace.

Amen.