Sunday 5 November 2023 Trinity 22, Thirty-first in Ordinary time, Proper 26
Only one Father?
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
Context: a parish with a largely professional middle class congregation, with a good mix of age groups and a fair proportion of worshippers from overseas, mainly from Africa; a number of parishioners actively involved in environmental, refugee and development issues
Aim: to remind us that the gospel is lived out both in our individual lives and in our faithfulness to each other and acceptance of imperfections
Today’s Gospel reading is a puzzle. If I meet the rabbi from the synagogue near my home, I don’t call him ‘Rabbi’ because he told me not to. I didn’t call those who taught me at school ‘Teacher’—I had to call them ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. I called my father ‘Dad’—he would have thought I was pulling his leg if I called him ‘Father’. But I do call some Anglican and Catholic priests ‘Father’, and in my professional life I was a teacher. So, does Jesus’ commandment make sense?
In the 1930s there was a priest in Westminster Cathedral called Father Napier-Hemy. He is called ‘Father H.’ in My Mind a Kingdom published in 1938 by George Thomas, an author, now forgotten, who was quite famous in his day. George was the son of a dustman. He left school at 12, and by 14 was paralysed with muscular dystrophy. So were his mother, his sister, Ada, and his brother, Dan. Two other brothers, Albert and Alfie, inherited their father’s good health. The family rented three rooms, on the second floor, in a rackety house in Soho. It was an ecumenical household in an interfaith neighbourhood. The Thomases were all Catholics and Labour, except for Dad, who was Protestant and Tory. A fellow tenant neighbour was a sharp-tongued Jewish widow. George’s first book was a diary written as the house was dismantled around them. The family were eventually resettled elsewhere in a ground-floor flat. There they met Father H. They and he understood what having only one father and one master really meant.
George’s diary for February 1, 1935, begins:
This afternoon Dan had a bad accident ... In the scullery the dinner wagon was in the wrong place, close to the sink, and just beside Dan who was peeling potatoes. He slipped, one leg went under the sink and the other under the waggon; Dan fell backwards but held on to the edge of the sink with one hand. Back and back he went, the weight of his head straining his curvature and threatening to choke him. His head and his posterior were almost in the same place; for a moment he had the insane thought he was going to sit on his head.
Dan could have died. Ada heard his cry, struggled in and rescued him. When Father H. called, he was told about the accident. ‘He petted Dan a good deal.’ George writes. ‘Dan said —”Do you know Father … I was sitting on my head.”’ ‘Very sensible of you Dan’, said Father H., ‘to choose a nice soft spot to sit on.’ Father H. incidentally often helped to wash and tidy up.
George told it as it was. The Thomases weren’t plaster saints. They had rows—at one time Ada and George weren’t on speaking terms. Their brother Albert married, and he and his wife supported the others, but healthy nineteen-year-old Alfie sometimes stayed in bed or wouldn’t help with the chores. Yet it wasn’t only Alfie who got it in the neck. In a December entry in his diary George writes, ‘Dad comes home and yet as often as not, even after getting wet through working all night, he sets to and lights us a fire; alternatively, he occasionally says a few “blasts” and tells Dan to light the fire.’ Nevertheless, the Thomas household, and Father H., knew what Jesus meant when he said, ‘The greatest among you must be your servant.’ Reading George’s books, you also get a sense of what St Paul had in mind when he praised the Thessalonians collectively for accepting God’s message for what it really is, a living power among those who believe it.
The call of the Christian is private. George had a strong sense of personal isolation—in the depths of his heart, he confronted what Providence had decreed for him. But St Paul was also able to see how the Thessalonians had accepted God’s message as a community. And that surely is how the Thomases lived their Christian lives, each alone certainly—for eleven years Mum spent day and night in the kitchen, and the only sunlight she saw was its reflection on a flaking whitewashed wall outside the window—but also very much together as a family. Grace is both private and something we share; it gives a shape, a character to our personal lives, and to our families, to our parishes, to our churches. It bounces between us. It is called the Holy Spirit.
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