Trafalgar Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Trafalgar Sunday

Matthew 22: 15-22

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15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.

16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.

17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?

18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?

19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.

20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?

21 They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.

22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

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As some of you will be aware, I was in Malta last week, doing some work on behalf of the Anglican Communion.  And last Sunday, while some of you were here at St Bride's for our Choral Eucharist, I was attending a service at the Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Valletta.  And I made three very unexpected discoveries there, one of which linked me directly with my own past; one of which make a direct link with our ministry here at St Bride's; and the third which links in very neatly with the special naval theme of our service here today.

The first of these was the following: just after the service had finished, a voice called me by name.  I turned round and found myself looking at a woman who had been in my curacy parish in rural Oxfordshire in the late 1980s.  I hadn't seen her, or had any contact with her, for about twenty seven years - and she now lives near Manchester.   But the amateur choir she sings with was doing a little series of concerts and performances in Malta, ending with that Sunday service.  And as you can imagine, she was as astonished to be encountering me at that service in Valletta, as I was her.  It really was most peculiar.

The second was something that happened when I went up to receive communion.  As I knelt at the rail, I happened to notice that there was an inscription carved into the marble base of the altar.  And it read as follows:


Not only are we the Journalists' Church here at St Bride's, but one of the numerous Christmas Carol services that we hold here every December for the newspaper, printing and media industries is for The Spectator, with which we enjoy a very happy and long-standing relationship.  How very odd it was to make that connection, too.

Incidentally, on a darker note, I was of course there in Malta last Monday when the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered by a car bomb - an event that, as you can imagine, rocked that small island to the core.  She is now commemorated with a plaque on our journalists' altar.

And the third was another association - or rather, series of associations - with the Second World War.  After the service I had a stroll round the cathedral, and looked at some of the memorial plaques on its interior walls.  One of them was a special memorial to the Merchant Navy Association.  It read as follows

On all the oceans white caps flow

You do not see crosses row on row

But those who sleep beneath the sea

Rest in peace for your country's free

In gratitude and to the memory of merchant seafarers of all the allied countries who sacrificed their lives during World War II.  May they rest in God's good keeping.

And there were also two memorials associated with the Royal Navy.  One of them was in memory of Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean between the years 1939-1943. The plaque states:

To his leadership and fighting spirit the British Forces owed their victory at sea in the Mediterranean in the Second World War.

And close beside it is a memorial to Vice Admiral Sir AEF Bedford (1881-1949), of whom it states, 'Died aboard HMS Sheffield lying in the Grand Harbour.  Buried at sea off Malta.'  So inevitably I found my thoughts turning to this morning's service, when we welcome the Royal Naval Association, and commemorate with them their fallen.

The three things I have just described might appear to be a strange string of unrelated coincidences.  But what struck me very forcefully was the strange but powerful web of connectedness which links us to people, and events, and places, in ways that are utterly unexpected.  We do not exist in a vacuum.  Events that may seem very distant; people with whom we assume we have no connection at all - are all part of that web.  (Which is why if we ever catch ourselves thinking, 'That person's suffering is nothing to do with me - that is somebody else's problem' - we should probably think again.)

For many members of my own generation, and my daughters' generation, here in the UK, matters of war and conflict may seem very remote.  The work of the Royal Navy may sometimes seem to belong to a world that has relatively little to do with us - but, of course, in reality nothing could be further from the truth.  As an island nation, like Malta, we would all do well to pause, just occasionally, as we are doing here today, to remember the debt of gratitude that we owe to those who have served in its ranks, and those who continue to serve in the present day

I must confess that I knew relatively little about the role of Malta in the Second World until I went there last week, and learned of the terrible bombardment it suffered, visited the air raid shelters carved into the rock down by the ancient catacombs, and discovered that in 1942 the islanders were close to starvation until fourteen merchant vessels were launched to bring them aid: having suffered heavy bombardment and terrible casualties, four of them eventually limped into harbour to a delirious welcome by the Maltese.

It was on the 15th April 1942 that King George VI gave the island of Malta a very special honour.  His statement read:

To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.

It is a tragic reality of human life, that there are times when conflict is necessary to protect the vulnerable and to confront evil - and the complexity of human life, human politics, and human motivation means that such evaluations are seldom simple.  But two of this morning's Bible readings address a different aspect of such realities: what it means to live under persecution, and to live under the domination of an alien force.  Historically, the people of Malta probably know more about that than most: they have been invaded by everyone: the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Italians, and of course the British, to name but a few.  And what our readings tell us is that in such circumstances - whatever form they take in the life of each one of us - the thing to do is to strive to live in such a way that you do not surrender what matters most.

The persecuted Christians of Thessalonica are praised by St Paul (who incidentally, famously arrived in Malta himself as the result of a shipwreck!), for their faith, and for the steadfastness of their hope in Christ, despite the intimidation and persecution they are experiencing.  And in our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus challenged by the chief priests and the Pharisees, as to whether the people should pay taxes to their Roman oppressors.  Jesus famously replied: 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's.'  In other words, however tough and challenging the externals of life may be, never lose sight of the things that truly matter - never lose your soul.

And I would add to that another underlying theme that runs throughout the gospel, which is our profound connectedness, one with another - even to those with whom we feel we have little in common.  It was the Anglican priest and poet John Donne who expressed this most eloquently.  I shall leave you with his words, written in the year 1624:

... No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a maner of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.[1]


[1] Devotions upon Emergent Occasions:  Meditation XVII.

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