Readings 1 Kings 17.8–16, Luke 7.11–17
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Baptism of Anastasia Arthur
Michael Gove – there’s a name to name to stir the blood. He was alarmed by some surveys, one commissioned by that intellectual giant UKTV Gold, that showed that more than half of us think King Arthur and Sherlock Holmes were real people, while just under a quarter think Florence Nightingale and – yes – Winston Churchill are fictional. His solution is a new history curriculum that celebrity historian Simon Schama apparently calls ‘insulting and offensive’ and alternative celebrity historian Niall Ferguson thinks is rather good.
Schama and Ferguson probably don’t exchange Christmas cards, but they agree that what you think about the past matters. And so do we. It has a big influence on your present – the view you have of your parents, for instance, helps shape how you see yourself now – and it’s certainly true for Christian faith. Christianity is not what people who call themselves Christians happen to think on a particular day. It involves correct beliefs about the past. But what are the correct beliefs?
Imagine the UKTV Gold pollsters are here today, over coffee after the service with their clipboards, and they ask you, ‘To be a Christian, what do you have to believe?’ Well, what do you think? ‘Jesus was born of a virgin’ – crucial? ‘Jesus was raised from the dead’ – more crucial? ‘Jesus ascended into heaven’ … and so on. Let’s then say the writer of Luke’s gospel (which we’ve read today) appears too. He says,
Yes, you need to make up your mind about these things, but that’s only half of it. My book about Jesus is for now. Notice how often I use the word ‘today’: in one story, Jesus is in the synagogue in his home town and says God’s promise of good news for the poor has been fulfilled today; and when a tax collector promises to repay what he has extorted, Jesus says, ‘Salvation has come to this house today.’ The past matters, but just as important is what you believe about the present, which is the only place where you’ll meet God.
It is possible to believe all kinds of things about the past and have no faith for today, and you can be unsure about ‘what really happened’ in the past, but still be open to God’s possibilities now. Take today’s story of Jesus raising a young man to life in the middle of his funeral. Questions about the past: What really happened? Was he really dead? Did God really throw the natural processes of life into reverse? OK, but what about God now? How do you see God in our world? Do you imagine God actually making any difference in life?
This story is about grief, loss, danger; danger, because the woman is a widow, and her son was her source of security in a society that has no welfare provision. So now she is at the end of the line, lonely, hopeless, scared. And some of us here might say, ‘I knew that feeling once,’ or even, ‘I know it now’: something, or someone, has died, there is nothing left, and you are left lonely and frightened.
In the story, Jesus is in touch with something that not even death can touch. He does what she can’t do, and gives life back to her son. And the question is whether we believe that the God Jesus makes known can still breathe life back into dead places. That’s the theme of the hymn we just sang, ‘Now the green blade riseth’: this is about now, otherwise, it’s not worth bothering with overmuch.
What might it look like, God making a difference now? Some of us were among 45 thousand at the Big IF event in Hyde Park yesterday. The IF campaign is urging the G8 leaders as they prepare to meet in Northern Ireland this month to grasp the question of world hunger: there is ‘Enough food for everyone IF…’. Yesterday was a remarkable event: Myleene Klass was there, also Danny Boyle, Bill Gates, and – a nice touch – Rowan Williams introduced a performer called Beardyman. IF matters because the event in today’s Old Testament reading – a child and his mother starving – is not just a thing of the past. A child will die of hunger every fifteen seconds today (that’s roughly 120 since the service started). People of faith were a big part of the Big IF. ‘Enough food for everyone IF we act and pray’, said one poster, and behind that was faith that God can still do among us what we cannot do on our own, and bring life out of this familiar, deadly problem.
What do you believe about the past? What are you open to in the present? We have a moment to answer this now as Anastasia comes to be baptised. It’s an act that reaches back deep into the past – Jesus himself was baptised – but the thrust of the service (as you’ll hear in the prayers) is about now and tomorrow. As she grows, I’m sure Anastasia will come to know the difference between Florence Nightingale and Sherlock Holmes. Isobel and Robin will see to that. I pray that she will also know God, not just as three letters in an old book but as a presence in her life who can bring life out of things that are deadly. Her very name, Anastasia, means ‘resurrection’. It is the task of Robin and Isobel, of Tessa, Lucy and Andy, her godparents, the task of all of us here, to help her discover that the name Anastasia was not just a beautiful gift she was given in the past, at her birth, but a reality that she, and we, can know for ourselves.
Michael Gove and UKTV Gold survey http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/05/13/michael-gove-surveys-history-poll-education-foi-_n_3264981.html;
For the poll itself (which seems to be rather flawed): http://web.archive.org/web/20080509062051/http://uktv.co.uk/gold/stepbystep/aid/598605
‘Today’ in Luke’s gospel: Luke 2.11, 4.21, 5.26, 2.28, 13.32-3, 19.5,9, 22.34,61 and 23.43.
‘Now the green blade riseth’ http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/n/g/ngbrises.htm