Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah was a prophet (740-681 BC) who lived during the fall of Israel in 722 BC. He and his contemporaries, Amos, Hosea and Micah gave warnings to the kings of Judah about the dangers of abandoning God and living a life that did not support the poorest and marginalised of the society. The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, as we call it today, was the Bible of Jesus’s time, so Jesus would have read this reading, the last of four Servant Songs.
Today, many sermons use this reading to support Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah. When the people of Israel first read or heard the word, they might not have interpreted it the same way. The people of Israel may have thought it referred to themselves. They were in exile and were thinking that they were the injured, that they were led like a lamb to the slaughter and that it was them who, like sheep, had gone astray and gone their own way. The people of Israel were trying to find meaning in their suffering, a suffering that had been instigated by God. They were lamenting and languishing in self-pity, but the beauty of this Isaiah reading is there is hope that through suffering will come redemption, joy and reward.
Today, we look at our own sufferings. We may say, why me? Like the people of Israel, we need to reflect. Is God punishing us, or is our predicament down to our own life choices? Is suffering redemptive in any way? We too, just like the Israelites, have to make sense of our exile, for many will think that the suffering is because God has abandoned us. Yet, we know because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is always hope, and while the suffering may seem senseless, somehow God will bring good from it. God has the bigger picture, and whilst ego makes us feel that we should be the centre of God’s plan, perhaps our role is for others in years to come, maybe generations to come, to benefit through what we are suffering today.
So, this reading allowed the people of Israel to reflect, as we should reflect. Through that reflection, know that there is hope. There will indeed be redemption, joy and reward, for God is a God of love as well as a God of Justice.
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 17th October 2021
Luke 12:16-31 (NIRV)
16 Then Jesus told them a story. He said, “A certain rich man’s land produced a very large crop. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have any place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones. I will store my extra grain in them. 19 I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain stored away for many years. Take life easy. Eat, drink and have a good time.” ’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You foolish man! Tonight I will take your life away from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “That is how it will be for whoever stores things away for themselves but is not rich in the sight of God.”
22 Then Jesus spoke to his disciples. He said, “I tell you, do not worry. Don’t worry about your life and what you will eat. And don’t worry about your body and what you will wear. 23 There is more to life than eating. There are more important things for the body than clothes. 24 Think about the ravens. They don’t plant or gather crops. They don’t have any barns at all. But God feeds them. You are worth much more than birds! 25 Can you add even one hour to your life by worrying? 26 You can’t do that very little thing. So why worry about the rest?
27 “Think about how the wild flowers grow. They don’t work or make clothing. But here is what I tell you. Not even Solomon in his royal robes was dressed like one of those flowers. 28 If that is how God dresses the wild grass, how much better will he dress you! After all, the grass is here only today. Tomorrow it is thrown into the fire. Your faith is so small! 29 Don’t spend time thinking about what you will eat or drink. Don’t worry about it. 30 People who are ungodly run after all those things. Your Father knows that you need them. 31 But put God’s kingdom first. Then those other things will also be given to you.
A certain rich man’s land produced a very large crop. There is nothing to suggest he was a nasty man. There is nothing to suggest that he got his wealth through sinful behaviour. There is no backstory and no reason for anyone to think he may have got his money from robbing the poor etc. There is nothing to make us think anything badly of this man unless we read things into it. What this story does tell us, is this: all that we do can have no worth unless God blesses the deed.
This passage is asking, who do you prioritise? Some versions call the rich man a foolish man because he is not putting God at the centre or thanking God for all the extra crop he is growing. Psalm 53 starts off by saying “Foolish people say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” This rich man is foolish because he thinks his success is down to him. He does not thank or worship God. He does not have an attitude of gratitude. He has not put God first, and that is why he is foolish.
There is nothing wrong with creating wealth, it is what you do with it that matters. You can go out and earn money; there is no question that God wants us to prosper. There is no doubt that God wishes us to enjoy the riches of God’s creation. But the foolishness of this story is that the man does not think of giving any of his surplus crops away to those suffering around him.
The second part of the reading is in many ways more self-explanatory. It reminds us not to worry, and that is really hard. I admit I am a bit of a worrier. I went to the theatre yesterday, which you probably think would have been a pleasant experience. I went to see Les Miserables, which in itself is the most dreadful, horrible story in the world, but the music is very good. So, what did I worry about? I worried if I would get there on time and I worried that I did not have the right COVID-19 double vaccination proof, but that all went well. I then got to my seat and I worried about where my arms were going to go, are they going to get in the way of the lady sharing the armrest next to me? Then I worried about who is going to sit in front of me. What if it is a 6ft 8 giant? Luckily, God blessed me with a 4ft 8 lady instead, who needed a booster seat! I worried I would not be able to hear, I worried I would cry because I cry quite easily. In the interval, I worried about getting ice cream. Am I going to get the right number of ice creams? As it happens, I got in the queue and the card machine was not working, so I had to join another queue! After the show, I worried about how I would get home. It was getting late and it was raining, was I going to get soaking wet?
So, trust me, when you are a worrier, life is very hard, but Jesus tells me, do not worry, do not be anxious. I know how hard it is to have anxiety but if we have faith in God then our worries should at least be alleviated. Of course, if you do worry, that does not mean you do not have faith in God. What this reading is saying is allow God to help you, allow God to be with you in that anxiety and let him help you get through the worry.
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 3rd October 2021
Psalm 65 (NIRV)
Our God, we look forward to praising you in Zion.
We will keep our promises to you.
2 All people will come to you,
because you hear and answer prayer.
3 When our sins became too much for us,
you forgave our lawless acts.
4 Blessed are those you choose
and bring near to worship you.
You bring us into the courtyards of your holy temple.
There in your house we are filled with all kinds of good things.
5 God our Savior, you answer us with right and wonderful deeds.
People all over the world and beyond the farthest oceans
put their hope in you.
6 You formed the mountains by your power.
You showed how strong you are.
7 You calmed the oceans and their roaring waves.
You calmed the angry words and actions of the nations.
8 Everyone on earth is amazed at the wonderful things you have done.
What you do makes people from one end of the earth to the other sing for joy.
9 You take care of the land and water it.
You make it able to grow many crops.
You fill your streams with water.
You do that to provide the people with grain.
That’s what you have decided to do for the land.
10 You water its rows.
You smooth out its bumps.
You soften it with showers.
And you bless its crops.
11 You bring the year to a close with huge crops.
You provide more than enough food.
12 The grass grows thick even in the desert.
The hills are dressed with gladness.
13 The meadows are covered with flocks and herds.
The valleys are dressed with grain.
They sing and shout for joy.
Psalm 65 speaks of the abundance of God's love. Verse 7, about the calming of the oceans and the rolling of the waves, reminds us of Jesus in the boat with the storm, which He stilled after saying to the disciples, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26) This showed the people of Israel that Jesus was God; He could still the storms, just as God does in this Psalm.
This Psalm was written 1000 years before Jesus was born, traditionally by David. It reminds us in verse 3, “When our sins became too much for us, you forgave our lawless acts.” Some people find this hard to accept. It is sort of saying, no matter what you have done, no matter what evil you have done, as long as you repent and are sorry, then forgiveness can be yours. Yet, when it comes to forgiveness, some people are so entrenched in pain and wanting justice by way of revenge, that they cannot accept that God can forgive. It is vital you remember that you have to repent, you have to be sorry.
In Theological College, we had to debate whether or not Jesus would have forgiven Judas. There were strong feelings either way, but in the end, it was decided that because Jesus was God - a God of love - even Judas would have been forgiven. So verse 3 reminds us, even though it is unpalatable, if there is the desire to repent, then they will be met by a God of forgiveness.
Verses 6 - 13 are all about God’s abundance. “Everyone on earth is amazed at the wonderful things you have done.” Take a moment to think to yourself, how amazed are you about the wonderful things God has done? How has God developed you and made you the beautiful person that you are today?
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 3rd October 2021
Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and may have named their son after St Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day falls on 21st December. Gilbert Becket was a small landowner who gained his wealth as a merchant in textiles. At the age of 10, Becket attended Merton Priory in the southwest of London. He later attended a grammar school in the city where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At around 18 years old, his parents sent Becket to Paris, where his education expanded to include the Liberal Arts, such as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
After three years, Becket returned to England, where his father found him a position as clerk for a family friend, Osbert Huitdeniers. Shortly after this, Becket began working for Theobald of Bec (1090-1161), the Archbishop of Canterbury. At this time, Canterbury Cathedral was a place of learning, and Becket received training in diplomacy. Theobald entrusted his clerk to travel on several important missions to Rome. He also sent Becket to Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France, to study canon law. Following this, Theobald named Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury and nominated him for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor.
Thomas Becket was appointed as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. He became a good friend of King Henry II (1133-89), who trusted Becket to issue documents in his name. Becket had access to Henry’s royal seal, which depicted the king sitting on a throne, holding a sword and an orb. For his work as Lord Chancellor, Becket earned 5 shillings a week. The king also sent his son Henry (1155-83) to live in Becket’s household. It was customary to foster out royal children into other noble families, so it was a great honour for Becket.
Following Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry II nominated Becket for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a strange choice because Becket had no religious education and lived a comparatively secular lifestyle. Nonetheless, a royal council of bishops and noblemen agreed to Becket’s election. On 2nd June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest, and the following day, consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (1096-1171).
It soon appeared Henry had an ulterior motive for selecting Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He wished Becket to continue to hold the position of Lord Chancellor and put the royal government first, rather than the church. This would place the church under Henry’s power, but his plan failed, and Becket renounced the chancellorship, which Henry saw as a form of betrayal. Despite his secular background, Becket transformed into an ascetic and started living a simple life devoted to humility, compassion, meditation, patience and prayer. Becket also started to oppose Henry’s decisions in court, which created significant tension between them.
The rift between Henry and Becket continued to grow throughout the two years following Becket’s archbishopric appointment. Their main arguments focused on the different rights of the secular court and the Church. Henry wished to punish churchmen accused of crimes at court, whereas Becket insisted this infringed upon the rights of the Church. Neither Henry nor Becket gave up their argument, and the issue was never resolved. Becket disagreed with many of Henry’s decisions and refused to endorse and sign documents.
On 8th October 1164, Henry summoned Becket to Northampton Castle to stand trial for allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Despite Becket’s attempts to defend himself, he was convicted of the exaggerated crimes. Angry and fearing for his life, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the continent, where he spent six years in exile under the protection of Louis VII of France (1120-80).
Running away did not fully protect Becket from the king. Henry confiscated Becket’s land and wealth in retaliation for leaving the country without his permission. He also forced members of Becket’s family into exile. The king took the opportunity to go against the ways of the Church, knowing that while in exile, Becket could not prevent anything. On 14th June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry crowned as joint monarch at Westminster Abbey. By ancient rights, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform coronations, but the king undermined Becket by asking the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London to conduct the ceremony.
Learning of the “Young King’s” coronation, Becket approached Pope Alexander III (1100-81), who had previously forbidden the Archbishop of York from conducting such ceremonies. The Pope permitted Becket to excommunicate the bishops involved. This was a punishment reserved for serious offences.
Becket initiated a fragile truce with Henry II and returned to Canterbury on 2nd December 1170. At this time, Henry was unaware that Becket had excommunicated the bishops involved with young Henry’s coronation but soon learned about the act while at his Christmas court in Normandy. He reportedly flew into a rage and called Becket a traitor and “low-born clerk”. Four of Henry’s knights witnessed this outburst and hatched a plan to arrest Thomas Becket on behalf of the king.
On 29th December 1170, the four knights: Reginald FitzUrse (1145-73), Hugh de Morville (d.1202), Richard Brito and William de Tracy (1133-89), arrived in Canterbury. They found Becket in the cathedral and informed him he had to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. Meanwhile, the knights went away and returned with their armour and weapons. Seeing this, the monks tried to bar the doors to the cathedral, but Becket allegedly exclaimed, “It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”
According to eye-witness reports, the four knights rushed into the cathedral wielding their weapons and shouting, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Standing near the stairs to the crypt, Becket announced, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” The knights attacked, severing a piece of Becket’s skull. “His crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church.” (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189)
Thomas Becket’s story does not end at his death. The exhibition at the British Museum uses objects to narrate the events in chronological order. Becket’s death occurs only one-third of the way into the narrative, suggesting the Archbishop’s legend had only just begun.
The spilling of Becket’s blood had defiled the sanctity of the cathedral. The monks needed to act quickly to clean up the mess. They placed his body in a marble tomb in the crypt and cleaned up the blood, which they kept in special containers. Due to the number of eye-witnesses, the news of Becket’s death spread quickly, so the monks closed the cathedral to the public to prevent people from entering out of morbid curiosity.
On hearing of Becket’s murder, Henry II was shocked but initially refused to punish his men. This implicated the king of the crime, and rumours soon spread that Henry had ordered his men to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s popularity grew, and Henry feared his people turning against him. The pope also suspected Henry of foul play, so to appease him, Henry performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. Afterwards, the king travelled to Canterbury to acknowledged his involvement with the crime and asked the monks to punish him accordingly. Henry underwent public humiliation by walking barefoot through the city.
Cult-like worship of Thomas Becket began throughout the country before spreading to the continent. People travelled from far and wide to visit his tomb, which the monks eventually opened to the public. Soon, rumours spread of miracles that happened to those who visited the location of Becket’s remains, which drew thousands more to the cathedral. On 21st February 1173, the Pope officially made Becket a saint and endorsed the growing cult.
Members of the Thomas Becket cult believed the saint’s blood held miracle properties. Becket’s blood-stained clothes were sought by those who believed touching them could cure them of many ailments. The monks also sold Becket’s diluted blood, known as St Thomas Water, to pilgrims in special flasks decorated to reflect the saint’s life. Many unwell people consumed the “water”, who claimed it healed them from their life-threatening illnesses. These flasks have been found as far as the Netherlands, France and Norway, indicating the distance people travelled to visit the saint.
A monk called Benedict, who witnessed Becket’s murder, undertook the task of recording all the miracles that occurred to pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. By 1173, he had recorded over 270 stories, and still, people continued to arrive at the cathedral in the hopes of receiving similar treatment. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which helped accommodate the influx of visitors. This relocation marked the 50th anniversary of Becket’s death and was celebrated with a ceremony attended by King Henry III (1207-72), the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228), and large numbers of foreign dignitaries.
In 1174, the cathedral suffered a devastating fire, which destroyed most of the east side of the building. Over the next fifty years, stonemasons worked laboriously to repair the damage. During this time, they also built a new shrine for Becket’s body. The new chapel was decorated with stone columns and a marble floor. The stained-glass “miracle windows” completed the shrine.
“In the place where Thomas suffered … and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the possessed of a devil are freed … I should not have dreamt of writing such words … had not my eyes been witness to the certainty of this.” (John of Salisbury, Becket’s clerk and biographer, 1171)
The six-metre tall windows, twelve in all, only reveal a handful of the miracles following Becket’s death. The window exhibited at the British Museum is the fifth in the series and records people cured of leprosy, dropsy, fevers, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities. Six panels of the window tell the story of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of theft. He was punished by blinding and castration, but during the night, Becket visited him during a vision. When Eilward awoke, he discovered his eyes and testicles had regrown.
St Thomas’ popularity continued to grow during the next couple of centuries. The pilgrimage to his shrine became as famous as those to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arrived from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Italy to visit Becket’s shrine and experience his miracles. The cathedral began selling souvenir badges and other paraphernalia made from lead, resulting in one of the earliest gift shops in the world. The majority of the badges featured images of Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury or with a sword in his scalp to indicate his murder.
One of these souvenirs is referenced in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature. The book tells the story of an imagined group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To pass the time on their journey to the shrine, each character competes to tell the best tale, for which the winner would receive a free meal on their return to the Tabard Inn in London. Chaucer’s characters are an eclectic mix of medieval pilgrims, such as a yeoman, a merchant, a shipman, a knight, a miller and a friar.
Pilgrimages to St Thomas’ shrine continued until the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547). English kings and their families respected the saint, often visiting the cathedral and commissioning spectacular commemorative items. Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), did the same, but the king’s attitude towards Thomas Becket changed when he tried to file for a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) refused to comply with Henry’s wishes, so he took it upon himself to reject Catholicism and create a new branch of Christianity, the Church of England. In the years following his self-appointment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Henry dissolved Catholic convents and monasteries, destroying buildings and their contents in the process.
On 5th September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury, where he and his men set about dismantling the shrine of Thomas Becket. They stole the jewels and gold embedded into the tomb, then removed the saint’s bones. Following this act, Henry stripped Becket of his sainthood. Henry VIII’s allies supported his actions and condemned pilgrimages and denounced Becket as a traitor. They removed his name from books, and anything containing references to Becket was destroyed.
Those who opposed the crown continued to revere Thomas Becket. They also respected the former chancellor Thomas More (1478-1535), who shared a similar fate when he opposed the king. No longer able to collect mementos of Thomas Becket, people began treasuring objects connected with Thomas More. Similar acts occurred after the execution of the chancellor Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) during the reign of Mary I (1516-58).
Devoted Catholics managed to keep Becket’s memory alive by worshipping him in secret during the reigns of Protestant kings and queens. Many items connected to the Archbishop survived due to the number of pilgrims and devotees on the continent. One of the rarest reliquaries to survive is a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull. The bone rests on a bed of red velvet and is secured in place by a golden thread. It is protected by a silver and glass case upon which is written “Ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis”, meaning “from St Thomas of Canterbury’s skull”. It is likely someone smuggled the reliquary out of the country during the Tudor period.
Opinions remain divided as to whether Thomas Becket is a saint and martyr or a traitor and villain.
This article was written in July 2021 and has been re-posted with permission from the author. To see the original article, click here: https://hazelstainer.wordpress.com/2021/07/23/the-making-of-a-saint/
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon