Sermon for Candlemas: St John: Holland Park. January 29th 2017, by Fr Chris Eyden

Sermon for Candlemas: St John: Holland Park. January 29th 2017, by Fr Chris Eyden

Twenty three years ago, I was working as a Priest in Ealing. In my first few weeks, I was invited to a meeting in the Vicarage of a neighbouring church. The meeting was held in the kitchen. Sitting around the table, I became increasingly aware of an uncomfortable atmosphere. I knew why and I, like the other clergy, felt reluctant to talk about it until we had left the house. Only a few years before, the house had been the scene of a horrific crime.
A gang of burglars broke into the vicarage at lunchtime. The vicar, his daughter’s boyfriend were tied up and beaten, both suffering fractured skulls, while the Vicar’s daughter Jill, was raped.

The Sun newspaper published pictures of Jill Seward only four days after the attack, alongside an image of her home, on its front page; thus compromising her anonymity. The attack was soon labelled by the media, as the "Ealing vicarage rape".
At the trial of the perpetrators the judge, gave those responsible, longer sentences for the burglary than for the rape. The leader of the three men, who was not involved in the rape, received 14 years' for burglary and assault. The two other violent rapists, were sentenced to three years for rape and five years for burglary.

Jill Seward challenged the sentences herself and took on the courts and The Sun newspaper, insisting that property was being valued more highly than a woman's body. As a result of her hard work, a new laws were passed and legal loopholes were closed.
Jill Seward went on to write a book about her experiences, called Rape: My Story. It was used to educate judges about the trauma suffered by rape victims.

Jill went on to meet one of the perpetrators in the crime and went public about her forgiveness. “I thought it might be quite nice to be full of hatred and revenge”. She said “But I think you’re the one who gets damaged in the end. Forgiving is a struggle but it’s actually a release. I use Jesus as my model, love is the only way. I don't think I'd be here today without my Christian faith. That's what got me through". Said Jill.

From 1990 until her death two weeks ago, aged 52, Jill Seward worked tirelessly in various roles, to support victims of rape and sexual violence. She was a light in a very dark world.
Candlemas, a festival of light, brings down the curtain on our Christmas and Epiphany celebrations and we are shown our own destiny. We are pointed down the road of another year of engaging with real human life and survival. As Jesus is brought to the Temple as a tiny child he is recognised by the wisdom and the weariness of the old, as the light shining in the darkness of the whole world. For this child will grow to show us what God is like because he is God in human form, growing up as flesh and blood just like us, in the real engagement that is human life and survival

He will not grow up to define God in laws and words and puritanical orthodoxy, he will live God out as body; he will side with the marginalised and oppressed. He will challenge smug exclusive religion, he will champion the poor and the unclean of his time. He will he will embrace those who are different. In doing so, he will become  such a threat to the powerful, both to religion and politics, that he will be executed as an enemy of the state and an enemy of his religion. His Mother will look on as he dies, a sword of sorrow piercing her heart.
I baptise in the region of 40 babies each year. In a real sense they are brought to the Temple to be dedicated and blessed and I sometimes wonder in the middle of the celebration and sentimentality, if any of us really understand what we are promising to do. In Baptism we promise to follow Christ, to be him for the world. How many parents can imagine what that might cost their child?

Like Anna and Simeon, some of us have been chipped, cracked and even broken, by the experiences of human survival, we may be tired, disillusioned, crushed even, but when a baby is Baptised, we do not know what their lives will become. What they will contribute to their world, what sorrows they will have to endure or what price may they have to pay for just being alive? Perhaps more starkly, what price might they have to pay for living like God in the world? What I wonder, did the mother of Gill Seward endure, as a result of her daughters ordeal, What did she feel about her subsequent insistence on forgiveness or her campaigning zeal. Did she have any idea on the day of her baptism, that her daughter’s Christian faith would one day require her to model the better way and forgive the man who would rape her? What sword pierced that mother’s heart?

Our world continues to struggle for survival. We need Jill Seward’s better way. The old monsters have escaped their cage, flimsily locked away, only for a few decades, and they are on the move again, raping  the values we hold dear with  Suspicion, scapegoating, excluding, stigmatising, hating, wall building, finger pointing, self-protecting, fear mongering. They whip up the very worst in humanity and they threaten us again and could drag us into the cess pit of war and concentration camps, as they did not that long ago in history. Those who promote these monsters need to be challenged. They cannot be allowed to win.
We, who were once held up in the Temples our faith, are called now to follow Christ, to live out our baptismal lives; to live like God as Christ did.  Being Christ for the world and Christ for his church too when it seems always to be shooting itself in the foot.

We need to insist on the very best of Christian Values, the very best that human beings can aspire to, as a way of life not only for ourselves but also for those who name God differently or who have never heard of God at all.  In my opinion, upholding our core truths has never been more important since the end of the Second World War.   It will be a struggle as it was for Jesus. To say loudly that there is a better way, a more inclusive way, a way that does not lead to violence, war and conflict. A way that sees every human being as made in the image of God, even when they behave in ways we mistrust, or even despise. We need radical forgiveness and it is a struggle.

But if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and equality and yet are embarrassed by protest and agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing up the ground. Rain without thunder and lightning. The ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle is both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle and it must be visible. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

In the years to come, humanity will raise up its heroes as well as its monsters. We do not know who those heroes will be or what will be the theatre of their heroism. It may that one or more of the children I have baptised will grow up to be one of those heroes, it will always be, that small acts of kindness and bravery, emanated from all of them at some point in their lives. To live out the Gospel of the God of love is costly and it cannot commend the status quo when its core values are in jeopardy. Being nice, is not a Christian virtue.  The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Maybe the fitting end to Candlemas, to remind ourselves of the triumph of light and love as the eternally fixed direction of the expanding universe. Maybe the final words as we bring down the curtain on Christmas and the Incarnation need to be, Christ is risen alleluia


The Rev’d Chris Eyden
All Saints Putney Common

Holland Park Benefice