The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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July 2017

The Vicar writes

Jeremy Fletcher

I’m a member of the Company of Merchant Taylors of the City of York. We are as ancient as the London Taylors, though we have a fraction of their funds! For the last eight years I’ve also been the Chaplain, and in June each year I’ve preached to the Company and assembled guests in York’s Guild Church, All Saints Pavement. I did so on June 21 this year.

I’m reproducing some of that sermon here because I reflected on my experiences of moving into a city which has faced such recent devastating challenges. The new master of the Taylors in York is Philippa Lester, the first woman to be Master. Philippa is Jewish, and the service on our Charter Day is Evensong. We wanted to affirm out two great and linked faiths, and did so by making clear how much of Evensong derives from the Hebrew Scriptures, and by including some Jewish prayers, one of which is recorded on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels.

The need to affirm what we have in common, and to respect our differences also, has become much more than theoretical because of the attacks in London and Manchester, and because of the joint efforts of so many following the Grenfell fire. Here then is some of what I said in my sermon.

"You will not need reminding of the challenges my new home city is facing. I can see Grenfell Tower from my bedroom. Finsbury Park is a couple of miles east. Westminster and London Bridges are as familiar to you as to me. What has happened there strikes at what it is to be human, to be a neighbour, to share the same space and air and values and loves.

One of the reasons to look forward to life in a world city was the interaction of communities of different faiths. That interaction has taken tangible and real form in recent weeks: a ‘get together’ last weekend in a Jewish Centre addressed by a Muslim MP. Last night members of my congregation were with their friends at Muslim Welfare House in Finsbury Park, showing solidarity and bringing gifts of food and water for Iftar as the fast of Ramadan was broken at sunset.

It is a privilege to preach my last sermon as Chaplain on an occasion which brings together two great faiths. The theme of today is the valuing of that which we share, and the treasuring of that which we can appreciate in each other. It has been good for me to work that out in a situation where different communities of faith and culture live so closely together.

Philippa chose the Book of Ruth, from the Hebrew Scriptures, for today. Reading it is a particular feature of Jewish worship during Shauvot, the Feast of Weeks, between Passover and Pentecost. Ruth is not Jewish. She met her husband, a Jew, when his family crossed the Jordan into Moab, thirty or so miles from Bethlehem, to escape famine. Even though she was his wife for ten years, as his widow she had no rights as a Jew, and her mother in law felt her best chance was to remain in Moab.

Ruth will have none of it. She is determined that two people for whom the Jordan is a literal boundary will be bound together, because there is something deeper between them than blood and race and geography and faith. ‘Where you go, I will go’, she says to Naomi. The story continues as she is welcomed, involved and literally ‘redeemed’ in Israel; so much so that, when she marries again, she is to be the grandmother of the great King David. At the heart of the story of the people of God is an outsider, a boundary crosser, an unlikely one.

Naomi had prayed that the Lord would look ‘kindly’ on Ruth. It is the word used in the blessing of Aaron with which I will end this service: the Lord look ‘kindly’ upon you. This is more than gentle benevolence. It is hard edged, powerful, practical action to make things right. This is redemption and rescue and healing and reconciliation and forgiveness and a new start. Such ‘kindness’ is what my challenged city, our challenged nation, needs right now.

Our ancient faiths, Jew and Christian, and this ancient Company, are well placed to act ‘kindly’: to say to a country facing challenge and attack and doubt and despair that we not only want to live and work and be together, but that we can do those things, we must do those things. That we will, as with Ruth and Naomi, go where others go and lodge where others lodge.

Our history and our traditions and our faiths require nothing less of us than to love, to serve, to care, to heal, to welcome, to redeem. May we do so in such a way that cries of pain turn into songs of praises ever given to God, now and unto ages of ages. Amen."

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