Sermon on St Mark’s Day at Tabalia

The Ven Dr Michael Gilbertson
Archdeacon of Chester

24 April 2016

Psalm 119:9-16; Acts 15:35-41;
Ephesians 4:7-16; Mark 13:5-13

It is a great privilege to have been asked to preach here at Tabalia on St Mark’s Day. Your welcome has been wonderful. I first met members of the Melanesian Brotherhood in 2010 – Brother Nelson and Brother Jeffrey – when I moved to Chester. Then I met more brothers and members of the other religious orders on the Simply Living Mission. But it is a great joy to be able to visit the Solomon Islands for myself. Like many in England, I have been humbled by your sense of joy, your prayer, your practical Christian living and your gentle attitude to others.

Today, I want to bring you a message of encouragement. Jesus is walking with us. Jesus hem wakabout wetem iumi. We can’t see him of course. But in Eastertide of all seasons we celebrate his resurrection. The risen and ascended Jesus is with us now through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is walking with us.

In our Gospel Reading this morning, Jesus is talking to his disciples in Holy Week, a few days before he died. Looking ahead, he knows what it coming. He knows he is facing death. Despite this, he is concerned for his followers. He says that they will be betrayed, handed over, arrested, and tried. Yet of course, that is what happened to him later that same week. So the experience of Jesus’s disciples in the future will echo something of Jesus’s own experience. But Jesus is not only saying that. He’s also saying that he will be with them when it happens. When Mark wrote his gospel down, he was looking back after Easter, in the light of the resurrection. He knew that Jesus is risen and is with his people. Jesus is walking with us. And that is clear also from our New Testament reading (Ephesians 4:7-16). Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ – we are that close to Jesus. Every step of the way, Jesus is walking with us.

So what are the different ways in which Jesus is walking with us?

First, in our discipleship, in our personal relationship with God.

Every Christian is called to grow in love and in the knowledge of God. And that is what you seek to do. Aspirants, novices, brothers, released brothers. You are all called to grow in personal faith.

In Psalm 119:9-16, our psalm for this service, we read:

How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word….I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.

The psalmist is talking about God’s word being right down deep inside us.

You demonstrate that you carry God’s word in you by your devotion to prayer, by the way you know the psalms, the liturgy, the hymns by heart. And you show that you live according to God’s word as well. You brothers don’t just keep the word in your heads – you live it out each day by your example.

And of course the word of God is not just the written word. We have Jesus the living Word, living in us. Jesus is walking with us.

The vows you take – to set aside possessions, to live celibate lives, to live obediently in community – these are not easy. You are following in the footsteps of Ini Kopuria, who is celebrated in the window behind me. He didn’t always find it easy either. Jesus knows it is hard. In Hebrews 4:15 we read that Jesus was tempted in every way we are, yet he did not sin. And Jesus is walking with us. Remember that when things are going really well, when you are growing in the faith. And remember it as well when you are struggling with temptation and testing. Jesus is walking with us. Ready to help because he understands.

So Jesus is walking with us in our personal discipleship, helping us to change and to grow deep down inside.

And then second, Jesus is walking with us as we do what he has called us to do. Jesus has entrusted his mission to us. We saw the third-year novices setting off yesterday on a three-month mission to Temotu. St Teresa wrote that Jesus has no hands now on earth to care but ours, no eyes to see, no feet to walk, but ours. He touches, sees, walks through us. Through our hands, eyes and feet.

In our gospel reading in Mark 13, Jesus talks about the mission he is entrusting to his disciples. The gospel must be preached to all nations. Bishop Selwyn and Bishop Patteson and others brought the gospel to Melanesia. But now we have a shared mission, as you bring the gospel back to the UK! As together, we preach the gospel to all nations, Jesus is walking with us.

That’s true also in tough times. Jesus’s words about being handed over and persecuted remind us of the seven martyrs we commemorated yesterday here at Tabalia.

So Jesus entrusts his mission to us. And he gives us the gifts to carry it out, as we read in our passage from Ephesians: It was Jesus who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.’ Sisters, brothers, clergy, other Christians, we are all gifted by God. Being evangelists, pastors and teachers is at the heart of the Melanesian Brotherhood. And it is Jesus who gives us those gifts. Jesus is walking with us.

You might be wondering about your calling. Whether as an aspirant you wonder about becoming a novice, as a novice you wonder about taking your vows to become a brother, or perhaps as a brother whether to continue or seek to be released for different service. Whatever the future holds for us, Jesus is walking with us. And he needs all of us.

So Jesus is walking with us. In our personal discipleship, being changed deep down. And in our calling to work in his mission.

And third, Jesus is walking with us in community.

All Christians are called to be one in Jesus. Listen to Paul from our passage in Ephesians 4: Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

All of us here today, from right across the world, are called to be one in Jesus. We share the same Lord, the same faith, many of the same challenges.

But also, for the Melanesian Brothers and for the other orders represented here today – the Sisters of Melanesia, the Sisters of the Church and the Society of St Francis – you have a particular calling to live and work together closely in community.

That’s wonderful when it goes well. But in every Christian community, there are occasional arguments, or times when you find that other brother or sister annoying. I’m sure other people in the church find me annoying sometimes.

But be encouraged. Because in our relationships in community. Jesus is walking with us.

In our reading from Acts, we learned something about the story of John Mark, to whom this chapel is dedicated. He was a cousin of Barnabas. He went with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, as a helper. But he suddenly returned home. Imagine if four brothers went on a mission to Ysabel and one just decided that he’d had enough and came back to Tabalia, leaving the others behind. It would be an awkward situation.

In our passage in Acts 15:35-41, Barnabas wants to take John Mark again, but Paul says no. There is an argument and they split up. But even in this kind of situation, Jesus is walking with us. So out of one mission, come two missions. Paul and Silas go to Syria, Barnabas and Mark go to Cyprus.

And in the end, Paul and Mark were reconciled. In Colossians 4:10, Paul writes that Mark sends greetings, and asks that the Colossians welcome Mark is he comes to them. And in 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul asks that Mark should go to him because he is especially useful.

Jesus brought unity and growth out of division. All four – Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Mark – are saints of the church. And of the two that argues with Paul, Barnabas has Honiara Cathedral dedicated to him, and Mark has this chapel!

If there is someone in your community you are finding difficult, remember that Jesus is walking with us. Bring that relationship to Jesus. Pray. And find something in that other person to thank God for. Ask Jesus to restore that relationship.

So be encouraged.

This is a place where you give thanks and praise and work together each day. It’s the same at Veranasso, at TNK, at La Verna and at Kohimarama.

In the Christian life there are challenges. In our own lives, deep down, as Jesus helps us grow as disciples. In the mission he has entrusted to us. And in our life in community.

But remember – in all these things: Jesus is walking with us. Jesus hem wakabout wetem iumi.

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Our Last Weekend

It’s our last weekend in the Solomons for this trip, and we packed it with final bits of filming.

PipesWe returned to TNK to film the Sisters and Novices singing and playing the pipes. TNK – Hill of Prayer – is such a peaceful place and I can understand why ACoM goes there to make important decisions and to go on retreat. The music and singing is very captivating and I was even encouraged to join in for a dance, which will not make the final cut of the film.Dancing

On Saturday afternoon back to Tabalia and filming in the chapel, dining hall and recording more hymns and choruses.

Sisters / NovicesOn Tuesday we return to the UK with over 30 hours of footage to edit into three short films. We also have an address from Archbishop George to be shown at the Charity’s AGM Festival day in September.

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Our Teachers

During this visit I have been able to catch up with the four teachers we brought over to England last June; Salome Vuthia, Margaret Gwalo, Margaret Razak, and Louisah Twomey. I have also been able to see Salome and Margaret Gwalo at the Norman Palmer School classrooms. All of the ladies are still buzzing from their time in the UK and very enthusiastic about sharing their experiences with other teachers and schools.

Salome Vuthia at St Francis SchoolOn visiting Salome’s school and classroom, Revd Cate said: “It’s just like a Feniton school classroom, full of inspiration.” And the difference is not just in the classrooms. The ladies have been empowered by their time in the UK, and are using their new status to encourage fellow staff. They still face many challenges, including classMargaret's Classroom at Norman Palmer School sizes ranging from 30 to 100, few resources and pupil behavioural issues. But you can tell they are passionate about teaching their children and giving them the best primary education they can.

With the four ladies this morning I attended the launch of the Church’s own literacy programme, which will supplement the official government national curriculum. This is the Church’s response to high illiteracy levels across the country. It is an impressive project which provides weekly materials for teachers to use in, what would be in the UK, classes Reception, Year 1 and Year 2. New story books have been written by ACoM teachers and along with activities and assessments, will be used in Church Schools for 10 – 15 minutes each day. Once rolled out to ACoM Schools, the church will offer it to other Anglican schools across the Solomon Islands. Our four teachers were all involved with this project and received special praise at the launch today. Well done ladies.

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Alex in Action

Alex LegerOur Film Crew – I cannot express enough thanks to Alex Leger who is filming with us during this trip. Alex has captured so much of Melanesian life, that I am sure we are going to spend the next year editing this wonderful material. And he has volunteered his time. Thank you Alex and son Henry for doing this for the charity. It will bring Melanesia into so many UK homes, parishes and schools.

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Peace, Perfect Peace 25th – 27th April

Our programme has been filled with many welcomes, celebrations, feasts, receptions and travelling by ship and by truck. As has been said before, Melanesians exceed at hospitality.

Arriving late at the Society of Saint Frances Friary La Verna after a long day, we found the Brothers waiting quietly for us and for their supper.SSF Brothers at La Verna At once I took a deep breath and felt a sense of calm. Here was a place of stillness. The welcome was sincere and warm, with only two warriors who soon became friends. After dinner and introductions, I had the best night’s sleep after arriving in the Solomons. The guesthouse, which other UK visitors have stayed in, is very spacious, comfortable and the sound of the sea wafting through the windows, very soothing.Guest House at La Verna

The setting of the Friary, after a short scary journey up by truck, is stunning. Dense forest one side and the sea the other.View from Guest House at La Verna Although I have visited before, I have not stayed. I would love to come back and stay for longer than the two nights this time. The Brothers looked after our every need and were very kind when we interrupted their daily programme of activities. I hope the short film we have made on them will capture their big hearts and humility and the tranquillity of La Verna.

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Sermon for 7 Martyrs Memorial Tabalia – 23rd April 2016

Tabalia, Guadacanal, Solomon Islands.

Readings: Jeremiah 15: 15-21
  2 Timothy 2: 8-13
  John 11: 20-27

It is a huge privilege to be here at Tabalia for the Memorial Eucharist of the seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood. Today we remember with thanksgiving the lives of seven brothers who were killed in 2003 as a result of their Christian witness and work for reconciliation.

This day reminds us of the costly call of being a disciple. I feel inadequate to speak about such witnessing. You will know that the English word for ‘witness’ springs from the Greek word ‘marturion’ from which we get the word ‘martyr’. Being a witness and being a martyr go together. I am the product of late Christendom in the western world where the Church has been both comfortable and slightly ineffective in its witness. In the West, we have not really seen persecution or martyrdoms since the dissenting church of Germany stood up against Hitler during the 2nd World War (Bonhoeffer, Kolbe and others). Today in other parts of the world we are aware of many Christian communities suffering for their faith: churches in Pakistan being burnt to the ground with Christian worshippers inside; Christian children kidnapped and killed in Nigeria; beheadings, stoning and crucifixion of Christians in the Middle East these past two years.

However, we should not be surprised. The New Testament highlights the cost of discipleship and most of the original 12 died for their faith. Hebrews 11: 35-38 describes the horrors that many followers of Jesus suffered:

‘Some were tortured, refusing to accept release in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword…they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented- of whom the world were not worthy.’

Paradoxically, such suffering is often linked to the growth, of the Church. In Acts 6, the persecution of the Church leads to followers of the Way departing Jerusalem and the Gospel spreading to all parts of the world. In the late 1990’s, the Anglican Church in Nigeria grew by 150%… whilst being persecuted. Tertullian’s observation holds true: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ I wonder, then, what the impact of the martyrdom of these seven brothers has been on Melanesian society these past 13 years?

Certainly the Melanesian Brotherhood has a legacy of costly witness. Charles Fox recalls dropping off two brothers at a heathen village to evangelise there: ‘I took them ashore and I rowed back to the Southern Cross. I watched these two young men standing there with nothing but their haversacks, among a heathen people of whose language they knew not a word, who might easily kill or starve them after we had gone. They were a thousand miles from their own homes and knew that the Mission Ship would not come back for a year. A year later, we found them standing there once more- this time with 20 of the people prepared for baptism. After some years there were several hundred Christians there.’

Bishop George Selwyn was clear about the costly calling of being a missionary. Preaching in 1854, he said:

‘Missionaries must be ready to put their lives in their hands and go out to preach the gospel to others with no weapon but prayer and with no refuge but God.’

The seven martyrs, courageously working for disarmament in 2003, stand in the line of prophetic witness seen in Jeremiah who is called by God to speak hard words to his people: ‘You shall serve as my mouth and it is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them… They will fight against you but they shall not prevail over you for I am with you.’ ( Jeremiah 15: 20). Jeremiah suffered for declaring God’s laws and ways- for putting a spotlight on corruption in his own nation. He was treated as a slanderer and traitor.

What are the hard words you, the Melanesian Brotherhood, are called to speak to the Government, the Church and the people of Melanesia today?

The bible and Christian witness down the centuries is clear about the cost of discipleship.

St Paul, in his letter to Timothy, is clear that ‘Jesus Christ raised from the dead’ is our Gospel. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the good news we have to share. In fact, we do not have anything else as precious to offer. All our talents, skills and resources are nothing without this belief in the resurrection. Jesus Christ raised from the dead is hope for us, hope for the world.

It is the resurrection of Jesus that gives the cost of discipleship a divine perspective. The promise that we belong to God and will live with him for ever can give us the freedom to speak up. It can give us the strength to swim against the stream. It can give us the courage to act according to God’s ways.

A British missionary from the 19th Century, who returned from a situation of great personal danger, was asked how he and his wife had been able to go in the first place. He pondered the question and then replied: ‘Well, we died before we went.’ They had faced up to the likelihood of death before they set out on their missionary journey.

To the heartbroken Martha, Jesus says:

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

….your brother will rise again!’

But how can we be such faithful witnesses as those holy disciples who have gone before us? Even knowing the truth of the resurrection, I ask myself how would I react under persecution, in a situation of personal danger for the sake of the gospel? I am afraid of physical violence. As a young person, I would often have dreams where I was in the middle of a battle, or a fight. In my dreams, I was always hiding behind a rock or in the bushes or pretending to be dead! I was never the hero standing up bravely to defend the weak. I do not feel cut out to be a martyr. At heart, I am a coward.

So what makes a faithful witness?

I take encouragement from the disciples who all fled the Garden of Gethsemane at the first sign of danger. Yet, they went on to witness courageously for Jesus later in their lives. Peter, especially. He denied he knew Jesus three times at his trial. Just a few hours before, at the last supper, Peter was full of confidence: ‘I will never desert you, Lord!’ And yet he did. The cock crowed. He went out and wept bitterly. But following the resurrection, the risen Jesus met with Peter. He forgave him, he restored him, he put him back together again. He even made Peter, a coward and a deserter, his chief apostle. And when the time came for Peter to be tested again in his witness, he did not fail. Legend has it that he was walking out of Rome on the Appian Way, away from the terrible persecution of the Church by the Emperor Nero. As he walked, he met the Lord walking in the opposite direction back towards Rome. ‘Where are you going, Lord?’ Asks Peter. ‘I am going to Rome to die for you’, replies Jesus. And Peter stops in his tracks, turns around and returns to care for the persecuted and suffering Church in Rome. There he is killed. He asks to be crucified upside down, not feeling worthy to be killed as Jesus was.

The story of cowardly Peter becoming brave gives me hope that I , too, might be able do the right thing, if the time came.

Paul says to Timothy: ‘If we are faithless, God remains faithful’. Here, too, is an insight to help us and encourage us.

It is not about how good we are;
It is not about how full of faith we are.
It seems to be about knowing how good and faithful God is, that really matters.
It is about bringing ourselves, with all our weaknesses, frailties and faults, into close relationship with the God of grace.

An unusual story for this climate to help explain: In England we can be as cold as you can be hot, here in the Solomon Islands. When Brothers John and Nelson visited Chester Diocese in 1992, they stayed at my home in Acton and I took them ice skating with the young people from where I was parish priest. It was a first time for John and Nelson! The young people loved them for trying something very strange to them and helped them learn to skate.

In the winter of 1962/3 in England there was a big freeze on Boxing Day. Temperatures remained below freezing for 3 months. In a village in south east England, when the children came out to play on Boxing Day, they could not play football because the ground was hard and covered in snow. However, the village pond had frozen over. A boy quickly put on his skates and whizzed out from the side to the middle. The ice cracked and broke. The boy disappeared and drowned. A terrible tragedy, the village was in mourning and nobody went skating for the rest of the Christmas holidays despite the temperature remaining below freezing. By February half term holidays, the cold weather continued. The children in the village decided to go skating but were very careful. Here is what they did: they tied a rope around the waist of the smallest boy and put him on the ice. The other children stood on the bank holding onto the length of rope to pull him out if the ice cracked. The boy edged tentatively out to the middle, step by step. Looking back anxiously to check everyone was holding onto the rope in case he fell through the ice. Eventually reaching the middle, the boy was confident enough to jump up and down enthusiastically, proving the ice was thick enough. It was safe for everyone to skate.

Of course it was. When the ice cracked on Boxing Day, it had just frozen and was barely an inch thick. Now 6 weeks later of continuous freezing temperatures, the ice was at least three feet thick.

It’s not how much faith you’ve got that matters. It’s what you have got your faith in that counts. Our God is the God of the universe, the Lord of all creation. A little faith in this great God is sufficient. He is faithful to us. He calls us to be faithful to him. He longs to use us in his mission to reconcile the world to himself.

The seven brothers were faithful but they were not superheroes. They were ordinary human beings, disciples of Jesus who witnessed in an extraordinary way. They did it by putting their trust in the one who is faithful- a trust they had learnt through their life and prayer together in community. They have witnessed to him who is the resurrection and the life. And we know that ‘our brothers will rise again!’

This morning we honour them, we thank God for them and we try to learn from them:

‘I want to live the Gospel
O Lord, give me grace’.

Mark Rylands

Bishop of Shrewsbury, England. 23rd April 2016 (St George’s Day)

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Remembering Ugi – Alex Leger

It is Thursday and that means going back to an island, one very special place, where I was ‘marooned’ for a whole year teaching as a VSO volunteer for the Melanesian Mission.

The Island is Ugi (four miles by two and kidney-shaped) and the school was Alangaula which translated means ‘the place of the frigate bird’ – although I saw very few of these creatures while I was there. The headmaster was an irascible retired colonel from the Devonshire Regiment called Dan Brock and because of my public school education I sort of knew how to get on with him. I later discovered that much of his bad humour was to do with the fact he was going deaf and my explanations were rarely understood!

To compensate for these misunderstandings, the school, and the island, was a little piece of paradise and with a vibrant coral reef only metres away from my front door I had little to complain about.

After about three months Dan left for a job in Honiara and Norman Palmer (later to become Archbishop of Melanesia) was his replacement. Under his guidance I learnt to absorb myself into the Solomon way of life – I did not go native, far from it – but I learnt to appreciate the finer points of this generous and forgiving society. After another three months I was well and truly bushed.

I remember one time I spotted a boat coming into Selwyn Bay and I was so annoyed that my selfish world was being invaded by an uninvited visitor I headed off into the bush. Two hours later I came back – summoned by Commins my houseboy – to discover the district commissioner sitting on my veranda with a quiet smile on his face. ‘I was told you were behaving a little strangely so thought I would pop over to see how you are getting on’ he said. He was quite right of course. By this time loneliness was my friend and I could have stayed teaching on Ugi for several more years quite happily. But of course it was never going to be with University and whatever was to follow.

I used to dream about Ugi. It was my favourite dream. I would be walking around the island smelling the ozone from the crashing waves with glimpses of the Three Sisters (small neighbouring islands) with palms swaying in the breeze. There would be the occasional thud as another coconut crashed to the ground.

This visit was my second since my year of teaching that ended in 1967. In 2002 the school was gone – overgrown by the bush – and my disappoint was acute. This time I could see more of what once was and I could sense the joy of the place and the comfort of the local people. I do not dream of Ugi any more but what it taught me stays with me forever.

Alex Leger – Thursday 21st April.

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