Bible Study · Church of England · Churches Together in Britain · Felixstowe · poem · Sermon

The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx

Sermon for Sunday 30 September 2018 – Trinity 18
(Mark 9.38-50)
St John the Baptist, Felixstowe

Text: Whoever is not against us is for us. (Mark 9v40)

God give you peace my sisters and brothers.

In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded,
Counting our Reverend Mother we were six,
How full of hope we were and prayer-surrounded
“The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx”.
We built our orphanage. We built our school.
Now only I am left to keep the rule.

from ‘Felixstowe or The Last of Her Order’ John Betjeman

In his attempt to keep the doggerel like rhyme of his poem about our town and our church (one of the last Poet Laureates to see rhyme as important) Betjeman points to a challenge the church has faced down the years.

His search for rhyme leads him to name the unnamed nun of a forgotten order as a member of “The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx”.

I’m certain that Betjeman, no stranger to the foibles of the Church of England, would have known that ‘hanging pyxes’ do not exist and intentionally invented the term, perhaps to point a little mockingly, at the devotion typical of the Anglo-Catholicism that founded this church which was in full bloom when he wrote his poem ‘Felixstowe’.

And he is correct to so do.

Party spirit, be it over pyxes or vestments (or the lack thereof), wafers and wine or bread and grape juice, the ‘correct’ version of the Scriptures or ‘Statement of Belief’, only belittle the church and weakens the Gospel. Arguing over things that are, ultimately, irrelevant seems to be the favourite pastime of all kinds of churches across the land. The Established Church has no monopoly on pettiness and pedantry!

The roots of this determination to always be in the right and put ourselves as first amongst the faithful, is an ancient sin that even Jesus struggled to knock out of the heads of his ambitious disciples.

least last lostAs we continue to journey through Mark’s gospel we see Jesus teaching his disciples about the importance of place – ensure you always take the last place – and of person – always put the ‘little ones’ in the middle and at the centre of everything.

The disciples don’t seem to get it though.

In Mark Chapter 9 he puts a child in their midst and says ‘Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me’. Turn the page and in Chapter 10 we find the disciples turning mothers and their children away and he has to rebuke them, ‘Let the little children come to me…for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs’.

Last Sunday we heard him tell them there is to be no hierarchy amongst them, ‘Whoever wants to be the first must be last of all and servant of all’ only to find today they are trying to stop someone else from doing good deeds because ‘he was not following us’. Or in other words, ‘If I can’t be head of “my gang” then at least I’m going to let people know that “my gang” is the head gang!’

Didn’t they learn anything?

When we give in to self and put our way of serving above another’s devotion.
When we presume that the Church has a monopoly on goodness.
When we put ourselves and our status first then we are the ones who place stumbling blocks before the little ones of God.

Knowing our Lord’s passion for the least, the last, and the lost is it any wonder that he talks about millstones and mutilations?

If it is that important for us that ‘our gang’ is the top gang.
If it is that important for me that I am, as Mohammed Ali at the height of his powers proclaimed, ‘the Greatest’.
It may not be to bad a remedy if we metaphorically removed a few hands and eyes. For the work they do, when it becomes about our own status and importance, only puts stumbling blocks in the way of God’s little ones.

Too many times I have seen good work undone, or not done at all, because Christians forget about the importance of place and person. It is too easy to be tempted to put ourselves at the head of the line and too easy to leave the least, the last, and the lost, beyond the pale of the Kingdom of God.

And Jesus weeps.CTF logo

So, the hungry go unfed, the homeless are left out in the cold, and children cry themselves to sleep at night. All because it is ‘essential’ that those we work alongside have the same aims and objectives as us, follow the same faith as us, belong to the same denomination as us, and even the same corner of the same denomination as us.

And Jesus weeps.

Thank heavens in this town where “The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx” were conceived we have a healthy Churches Together group. However it remains a sadness to me as Moderator that even here not all churches feel they can work together, with some Christians seeing other Christians as not Christian enough.

And Jesus weeps.

Yet I must, as must we all, look inward and ask myself how often I presume that my place in the queue is in front of others. How easily I forget about the little ones that Jesus puts in the middle.

FX Parish logoAll too easily I presume that it doesn’t matter how the queue works out as there is plenty to go around and everyone will get something – when increasingly in many areas of life, health care, transport, access to services, this is simply not the case.

All too easily I presume that the little ones of God are not visible because they don’t want to be a burden, they wouldn’t understand things, they won’t fit in here, and forget that my, that our, task is to make our church a place where the little ones are in the middle of everything.

And Jesus weeps.

How do we learn to live the importance of taking the last place?
What must we do to remember to always put the little ones first?

How do we become a church that is truly ‘Open to God, Open to All?

At the end of his poem Betjeman pictures a refuge, a place where we can put things in their right place and order, this very building.

Imagine the day the poet visited here and walked up and down the aisles, for visit he surely did. How he (as many still do) wandered in from the Prom for silent and a time of quiet in front of a white light.

And all the world goes home to tea and toast.
I hurry past a cake shop’s tempting scones
Bound for the red brick twilight of St. John’s.

“Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising”
Here where the white light burns with steady glow
Safe from the vain world’s silly sympathising,
Safe with the love I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.

from ‘Felixstowe or The Last of Her Order’ John Betjeman

Safe from the vain world’s silly sympathising,White Light Candle
Safe with the love I was born to know,

Please Lord, help us
Help us to put you first and ourselves last
Help us, as you did, to put the little ones first
Help us to no longer seek our own status
Help us to no longer forget those whom the world forgets
Help us to be so close to you that we see your presence in the least, the last, and the lost.
Please Lord, help us.

© Andrew Dotchin 2018

Edit: make a definitive statement in an internet age and you will need to eat humble pie.

Hanging pyxes so indeed exist (the one below is at Quarr Abbey and they were indeed a quirk of a particular kind of church practice.

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