Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
I wonder how many Christians feel their heart sink when they hear those words? These are hard words. We know we don’t live up to them.
Faith is not easy. It never has been. Isaiah identifies the hallmarks of God’s servant:
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
Christians have long identified the suffering servant of Isaiah with Jesus of Nazareth. This was hard to understand. How could God’s own Son be rejected? How could God fail? How could the Messiah suffer and die? Which, as I have said before, is why Mark wrote his Gospel. To explain that God’s way is often the hard way. Those who choose to follow it choose a life that is not comfortable.
Jesus makes this clear. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Last Sunday was rather bizarre. After our morning services I was at Chester Cathedral for the installation of our new bishops, Julie and Sam. It was the Church of England being the Church of England.
There were processions of Lord Lieutenants, Mayors and other civic dignitaries. The Canons had our own procession and proceeded to our named stalls. Everybody bowed to everyone else. Bishop Mark read out the charge which quoted both the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the regulations of Canon Law. The organ played, the choir sang. The Cathedral remained open for visitors who could watch through the rood screen – you see in their eyes that this was all completely bonkers and baffling.
From the Cathedral I went up the M56 to a Bikers’ Church service held in a Methodist Church east of Warrington. Two blokes with guitars provided the music. A lady in red Ducati leathers led the service. People wandered in and out with cups of tea. The speaker was a mental health chaplain from Chorley. He introduced himself as the Chorley Chaplain.
He spoke on the letter of James, chapter 1, verse 2 – Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials. He held this verse alongside the story of Job – Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Reciting those words in Hebrew to a bunch of bikers wasn’t what I had expected. But you could tell he hit home. Many of those present had endured trials, loss, grief, anxiety, sickness, mourning. His message was that being a Christian isn’t about avoiding the trials, it is how we respond to them that matters.
At the Cathedral I fell into conversation with our Archdeacon and Diocesan Secretary – it is good to have two new bishops, but the year ahead will be the most testing we have known.
Being a church is going to be harder than ever before. We are short of money. We are very short of people. Not just people who attend, but people who make things happen. So many of those who do the thousand and one tasks of the kingdom have stepped back during the pandemic – many of them, so far, are not coming back.
As a church face a time of trial, the speaker at Biker Church reminds us, how we respond is what matters.
St Benedict was no stranger to holding a community together during difficult times. One of the extracts of the Rule for this week is this:
Now that we have asked God who will dwell in the holy tent, we have heard the instruction for dwelling in it, but only if we fulfil the obligations of those who live there. We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to God’s instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Holy One to supply by the help of grace.
In that short passage Benedict sets out a lifetime of wisdom. Firstly, if we choose to dwell in the holy tent we accept there are obligations involved. If we are citizens of the Kingdom of God then citizenship comes with responsibilities.
Secondly, this will be a battle of holy obedience. The choices set before us won’t be easy, if our instinct is for safety and comfort, avoiding the difficult things, then we will not be obedient.
Thirdly, what is not possible by nature, let us ask God to supply by the help of grace. Benedict knew none of us would find this easy. We cannot do it by ourselves. We can only do it if we consciously seek God’s grace and rely upon it.
Jesus asks us to take the hardest path, to deny ourselves, to take up the cross, to follow him – but he does not expect us to do it alone.
Last Sunday was bizarre. At the Installation of Bishops there was the Church of England at it most splendid. Formal processions of the great and the good. Wonderful music from the organ and choir. Everything done with perfect rehearsal and in accordance with ecclesiastical tradition.
At biker church it got started when everyone wandered in having found a cup of tea. There was no order of service. The vestments were mostly leather jackets with a cross on the back. Someone’s dog got loose.
But in both those who wandered in were found a seat. Both worshipped God as our only source of hope and strength in difficult times. Both were places where prayer was valid and strangers were joined in common purpose.
Both were moments when people put Jesus first – and accepted the consequences of following his way.
When Benedict reminds us that we cannot win the battle of holy obedience without God’s grace he reminds us also that it is in community where we find such grace. Whether that is the formality of a great cathedral, or the organised chaos of a Biker Church, God’s grace is with us. And we do not take up this cross alone.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/sDFo66UhoFU
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
I wonder if you know what one of these is. If you have children or grandchildren of a certain age, you may recognise it. It’s a toy which you can change from, in this case, a car to a robot and back. It can be two different things. Yes. It is a transformer.
The dictionary defines a transformation as a change in the appearance or character of something or someone, and then adds especially so that that thing or person is improved.
Well, the theme of transformation – in our lives and in the world around us – and especially the idea of positive change, which brings with it an improvement or a benefit - is very much at the heart of our two readings today. The first is an extract of one of the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, from the book of Isaiah. And the second is two stories from the ministry of Jesus from the gospel of Mark. The one then predicting the coming of Jesus. The other telling us what actually happened when he finally came. But both make the same fundamental point – that transformation at all levels in our lives and in our world is the work of God. God the creator at work in and with his creation.
So let’s spend a few minutes this morning thinking about the theme of transformation with the help of these readings.
At a basic level, transformation is physical.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the physical change in someone when their bodies are transformed, when a blind person is able to see, a deaf person able to hear, or a person who was unable to walk suddenly finds they can. And Mark too, in our gospel reading, tells the story of a deaf man with a speech impediment, whose ears are opened and whose tongue is released. This man’s life is transformed.
In 2014, when Kelly Thomas was 19, she lost control of her truck on her way home. The truck rolled over, and her head hit the roof. The impact severely compressed her spine, causing complete paralysis of her lower body. Her surgeon told her she had maybe a 1% chance of ever walking again. However, a pioneering spinal implant was installed just below the site of her injury, and the electrodes were then connected to a spinal cord stimulator surgically implanted in her abdominal wall. Only 3 ½ months later, she was able to walk with no assistance other than a walker, and she is now flourishing in her new freedom. Kelly’s life has been transformed. She can walk again.
The prophet Isaiah also speaks of physical changes which take place in the natural world. He speaks of water which breaks forth in the wilderness, of streams in the desert, of burning sand which becomes a pool, and of springs on the thirsty ground.
We see that in our world too. Amazing natural phenomena. Here is just one example.
The Atacama desert in northern Chile is one of the driest places in the world, but, every five to seven years, there is intense rainfall, which causes buried seeds to germinate and flower. More than 200 species of plants have in fact been found to grow in the area. The normally barren landscape is transformed into a carpet of white and yellow and purple flowers.
Now these physical transformations can take place through surgery or medication or other advances in medicine. They can take place through the natural healing processes of the human body or the natural restorative processes in nature. And sometimes there is really no way of accounting for them other than seeing them as miraculous, as in the stories from Mark’s gospel. One way or another, it is God the creator who brings about the transformation of course.
I wonder what examples you can think of such a transformation in your own lives, or in the lives of people you know?
So, the transformation might be physical – in our bodies or the natural world. But it might also a transformation in our minds, in our mental state, in our attitudes or opinions or thought processes. In that sense, we need to read the words of Isaiah not only literally but also metaphorically.
There are many times in our lives when we are blind, or deaf, or speechless, or unable to act, not because of any physical problem, but because of the sort of people we are. If we then begin to understand ourselves and other people better, we see things more clearly, and we listen more attentively to other people. We are able to express our thoughts and feelings more coherently, and we are able to make wise judgements about what to do or not to do. This is about self-awareness and self-acceptance, and an emotional intelligence, which helps us to empathise with those around us.
In this transformation too, it is God who brings it about. The Holy Spirit, working in our lives through the experiences we have, the people we meet, the music we listen to, the books we read – including the Bible of course, transforms us and the people we are. Let me give you one small example from my life.
As a child I was very shy and didn’t like to socialise very much with other children. Over time I learnt how to cope in social situations, but I always found it very hard. I thought this was a fault in me. Something which I needed to fight against and get rid of. And then in my 50s, as part of my ministry training, I learnt about the difference between introverts and extroverts. That introverts get their strength from being alone whereas extroverts get their strength from being with other people. Introverts then need recovery time whereas extroverts don’t. It was a light-bulb moment. There was nothing wrong with me, nothing odd about me. I was just an introvert. It transformed both my view of myself and the world around me. And this transformation came through the Holy Spirit at work in my ministry training course.
Has God transformed you, or someone you know, in the way you think about things? Something to reflect on.
But there is still another – and arguably the most important - sort of transformation which can take place in our lives – and that is a spiritual transformation, a transformation in our relationship with God. Isaiah refers to it briefly in verse 4 when he tells his listeners that God will come and save them. And the interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 is as much about her own spiritual needs, about a spiritual transformation, as it is about the healing of her daughter. Let me explain.
The slightly odd discussion between the woman and Jesus about throwing the children’s food to the dogs is actually about whether she can be put right with God or not, whether the salvation which Isaiah refers to, through belief in Jesus, is on offer to her. She is a gentile, a non-Jew, symbolised by the dogs in this discussion, and the children to which Jesus refers are the Jews. The good news of the coming of the Messiah comes first to the Jews, but is then shared with the gentiles. The children are fed first, in this metaphor, but then the dogs also get to eat the food too. As St Paul writes in Romans 1:16 : I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
And it is the woman’s understanding of this important truth, when she says even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs, which shows her faith in Jesus as her saviour, and then results in her daughter being healed.
In my sermon in early August, I quoted from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal who wrote about our relationship with God, and our spiritual needs. He said this, you may remember:
What does our craving, and our helplessness, tell us? It tells us that we once had true happiness, but that now all we are left with is an empty print and trace? We try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us, looking for help in these things, but nothing can help, because this endless emptiness can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.
In Luke 4, when Jesus stands up in his home synagogue, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, this time from Isaiah 61 saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[f]
Yes, Jesus is talking here about social justice and about physical healing and freedom, he is talking about our mental and psychological state, but he is talking also about much more than that. The good news is the promise of a restored relationship with God. The acknowledgement of the God-shaped hole which each of us has. The recognition of our longing to fill that endless emptiness refers in our lives to which Pascal with God himself. This is about a spiritual transformation, which makes a positive difference in our lives. It is not about a one-off moment, about a moment of conversion to faith in Jesus if you like. It is about a day-to-day ongoing transformation of our lives.
But what does that transformation feel like? How do we recognise it for what it is?
Well, to go back to Pascal, it is when we no longer try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us. It is about changed priorities and perspectives. It is about a new sense of peace and well-being which helps us to flourish and grow.
A couple of examples.
Many of you will know the story of John Newton – who wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ – but for those who don’t .. John Newton went to sea at a young age and worked up to being a captain of slave ships. After becoming a Christian, he was ordained into the Church of England and became a prominent campaigner against the slave trade. Newton lived to see the British Empire’s abolition of the African slave trade in 1807, just months before his death. John Newton’s priorities changed completely and his life was transformed by his Christian faith.
And nearer to home … something which I imagine we can all relate to …
During the pandemic, we have been deprived of many of those things from the world around us which Pascal talks about, and with which we fill our lives. We haven’t been able to go to the cinema or a restaurant. We haven’t been able to travel far from our homes. We have been restricted in which shops we can go to. We haven’t been able to socialise or entertain in our own home.
In some ways, all this has left us bereft. We have all really missed seeing family and friends. Many of us have also missed the excitement of travelling around in this country and abroad, but we have rediscovered, or even discovered for the first time, an inner strength, and a certain sense of peace in a simpler way of life. The pandemic has brought much suffering and heartache, of course it has, but it has also transformed our world and our lives in lots of different ways. I wonder if you have also found that it has in some way or other changed your relationship with God?
God then is a God of transformation at so many different levels. He transforms our physical bodies, he transforms the natural world we live in, he transforms our minds and the sort of people we are, and, above all, he transforms our relationship with him, filling forever that endless emptiness, that God-shaped hole.
And of course we need to remember that there is more to come.
These transformations are but a foretaste of the transformation which will take place in the new heaven and the new earth which we read about in the book of Revelation. As I close, listen again to the words of St John as he describes his vision in Revelation 21. I am going to read it in a different version from the one you are probably used to. I find that sometimes a different version of a familiar passage can give us a fresh perspective. So I am reading from The Message.
I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. 2 I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. 3-5 I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighbourhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.”
Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
“For it is from within, from the human heart…..”
Do you know the story of the car that didn’t like vanilla ice-cream?
The story goes that in the early 1970’s General Motors received a letter from a customer who claimed his car didn’t like vanilla ice-cream. They thought it was crazy so they ignored it. But the customer wrote again.
“I know this sounds crazy but it’s true. My new Pontiac doesn’t like vanilla ice cream. It is a family tradition to have ice-cream each evening, so I drive down to the store to buy it. If I buy vanilla the car won’t start. If I buy anything else it is fine.”
The board of General Motors still thought it was crazy but they sent an engineer to investigate. The engineer accompanied the owner to the store, he bought vanilla ice-cream. The car wouldn’t start.
The next night the engineer went again. The owner bought chocolate ice-cream, the car started perfectly. The next night it was mint, the car started fine. The next night vanilla, the car refused to start.
The engineer explored things further. He accompanied the owner into the store. When he bought chocolate ice-cream, or mint, raspberry ripple, the storekeeper went into the back of the store to fetch the flavour for that evening. But when it was vanilla, the most common flavour chosen, the ice-cream was kept in a freezer right by the counter.
You will have course seen what the issue was?
The vanilla ice-cream was kept by the counter, all the other flavours were in a freezer in the back store room. It took longer to get the flavoured ice-creams than the vanilla. The car’s fuel pipe was slightly too close to the exhaust, so with a hot exhaust the fuel in the pipe formed a vapour lock and the car wouldn’t start. With a slightly longer wait the exhaust was cooler, no vapour lock, so the car started perfectly.
That story is told in many settings to do with management, customer service, and looking after personnel – because it is about attitude. The engineer didn’t dismiss the car owner’s problem. It sounded crazy but it wasn’t. He looked and he listened, and he solved the problem. Approach people with the right attitude and better outcomes ensue.
This is pretty much the same thing as Jesus is saying when he speaks of what comes from within. Our capacity for good or bad, our treatment of others, our view of ourselves, comes from within. We have to take responsibility for it.
When I was at college we were invited to the Ministry of Defence as part of a course we were following. We were ushered into a room where to our surprise we found ourselves face to face with Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for Defence. It was quite late in the day and his aide told us he had an important engagement so we wouldn’t get long.
He proved to be a most gracious and charming host and listened far more than he spoke. The meeting went on and the aide was making increasingly frantic gestures that the Secretary of State had somewhere far more important to be.
Eventually he played the ultimate card – he leant over and said in a whisper loud enough for everyone to hear – “Sir, you wife is on the phone.” To which Michael Heseltine replied – “Thank you. Please let her know I’m in a very important meeting and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
And then he gave us full attention for a further half an hour. We left with a very clear impression that here was a man of integrity and honour, a public servant who could be trusted to put the national interest before personal ambition. It came from within. Some would say he’s the best Prime Ministers this country never had.
We might be tempted to be critical of the Pharisees and Scribes for nit picking rules, but then rules which say you should wash your hands after shopping, or wash cooking utensils carefully, are not entirely silly.
Nor is the concept that sometimes rules need to be enforced for people’s own good. The rules about not working on the Sabbath protected a day when people could not be at work. Many of those working from home during lockdown have found the boundaries between work and personal time have been difficult to manage. Many have struggled with mental health as a result of never switching off.
The French have laws that forbid sending emails out of work hours. These laws have the same intention as enforcing the Sabbath. Setting clear boundaries that make people take time off is a sensible thing to do. I have scolded more than one bishop for setting a bad example by failing to take a regular day off. I am pleased our new bishop has a hobby, he rides motorbikes, and tomorrow, with the Bishop of Hereford we’re riding from Chester Cathedral to Hereford Cathedral. You may want to avoid the A49.
Rules aren’t the problem. The problem is how we use them, and that primarily depends on what comes from within. One of the sad things during lockdown was how many people took the rules and turned themselves into tinpot dictators. Do you remember people walking being pursued by drones, or the lady who had a coffee being charged by police for holding a picnic? And churches weren’t immune from such silliness, funeral directors have told me how badly they have seen people treated trying to mourn under such difficult circumstances.
We’ve all encountered people who have taken a sensible precaution and then used it to boost their own power and ego. That also comes from within.
One of the Psalm set for this day is Psalm 45, which begins, “My heart is astir with gracious words.”
The mark of a faithful person is their heart, whether it be gracious, kind, generous, resilient, or judgemental, harsh, or mean.
If someone tells you their car doesn’t like vanilla ice-cream you may jump to the conclusion they are crazy, a person not worth listening to, a problem to be avoided. Or your heart may be astir with gracious words, and a problem can be fixed.
In the week ahead, be ready to listen, be aware of what comes from within.
Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
“Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”
When I was a scout our Group Scout Leader, George, smoked a pipe. If you asked him a question he would fish out his pipe, find his pipe knife, scrape the old ash out of the bowl, blow through it a few times, suck on it experimentally, then find his tobacco pouch, pinch off some baccy, finger it into the bowl, tap it down, suck on it, dig it out again, then press it back, then find his matches, light his pipe, puff on it a few times, and then answer your question.
You never got a quick answer, but you always got a good answer.
We live in an age of instant gratification. We want and we want it now. We don’t save up any more, we buy things on credit. We don’t make an appointment to see the bank manager, it’s all handled at a 24/7 call centre. We don’t browse in bookshops, we click on Amazon and download to a Kindle.
Not everything however can be instant.
We are here today because we choose to answer the invitation to become companions with Jesus through bread and wine. Jesus spoke of himself as the bread of life, his life nourishes our life, but only if we have a hunger for him, and a patience for him. If we are filled with other priorities and satisfied with material wellbeing, then there is no space in us to receive him.
I want to remind you that our gospel has a wider context. John chapter 6 begins with the feeding of the five thousand - a narrative so important that it is the only miracle story found in all four gospels. John tells us what happens next -
The people were delighted with free food. Their hunger had been satisfied, they have been given what they wanted. This was pretty wonderful. You might, of course, suspect such a preacher to be buying people’s affections. If we put a sign outside church saying free beer and cakes perhaps the congregation might grow.
(And if not in numbers then at least in waist size!)
But Jesus wasn’t buying their affections. When he moved on they sought him out - when they found him they were shocked because he had hard words for them - he recognized what they were after. “Truly I say to you - you seek me not because you saw signs, but because you had your fill.”
And he went on to make clear the point of the feeding was not that it filled their bellies, but that it is a sign of something far more life changing. What he offers is a different set of rules, and alternative set of values, a new way of living.
But it has to be chosen, it has to be accepted. And most people choose not to accept.
The life of faith, though joyful, is at the same time sacrificial and hard. The fullness of life offered is found through obedience and service. The rewards are not instant, nor are they easy. Like George with his pipe - you don’t get a quick answer, and often not an easy answer.
Predictably, then as now, these words are hard. Even the disciples protested - “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Many didn’t, and they knew it. It is one thing to follow a leader who everyone wants to be with. It something quite different to follow a man who makes people turn away.
The task of the church is not to be popular, nor to count success as growth through numbers. The first task of the church is offer worship, through which relationship and companionship are formed. And not formed quickly. It takes time, patience, and hunger.
The task of the church is to be transformational. You don’t need me to repeat the diagnosis that despite our standard of living, our technology, our health care, despite all the good things we enjoy, there remains a deep longing for happiness.
I read of a sign outside a pub - ‘Had a rough week. Tired. Exhausted. Bored. Come to our Happy Hour and experience the attitude alteration hour. Come and leave with a new perspective on life.
The pub trade is pretty desperate, but no-one really thinks a Happy Hour will make anything better. The crowd had had their happy hour - free food - yet still they were searching. They might be full, but they sensed their emptiness.
There is no happy hour - but there is a choice that alters attitudes and creates a new perspective. It was not an easy choice then and it not and easy choice now.
The prophet Isaiah said, “He who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and labour for that which does not satisfy”
Most of the time most of the people seek satisfaction in the wrong place. Isaiah speaks of that which is without price, but which is worth everything. It was famously said of Margaret Thatcher that she knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. I think that describes a great many people these days.
The choice Jesus offers goes against the grain. It is not easy, we ought to be surprised that when the gospel is proclaimed those who proclaim it do not have the biggest fan club.
Christians today know we are in the minority - and some people think this is a bad thing. I am reminded of George messing about with his pipe - always refusing a quick answer, and always coming up with a good answer.
The crowd left. Jesus said to his friends, “Do you also wish to go away?” How we answer that question is rather important.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/j8KilToT6I4
The Blessed Virgin Mary
This day 24 years ago is a day which I will never forget.
I was driving our Renault Espace car on the A6 motorway in France, just south of the city of Troyes. Andrew was in the back with his knee in a leg brace, having smashed his kneecap on holiday in Switzerland, and spent a week in hospital. So things were already not going well. Then suddenly all the warning lights on the car started to flash at once. I had no choice but to pull off at the next exit. The fan belt had snapped, and we weren’t going anywhere. To make matters worse, absolutely nothing was open, and all the hotels were full. Thanks however to the kindness of a wonderful French mechanic, we did eventually find somewhere for the night, and get back on the road just 24 hours later.
It was 15th August, which, in the Roman Catholic tradition, even in secular France, is widely celebrated as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a public holiday. In our Anglican tradition, we don’t recognise the Assumption of Mary as such, and we have no public holiday, of course, but 15th August, remains a special day, when we remember Mary the Mother of our Lord, and that is why our readings today focus in particular on Mary, and on her place in the Christian story.
So what is your view of Mary? Of the Blessed Virgin Mary? To whom of course the church here/at Whitegate is dedicated. And how would you assess her place and her importance in the Christian story?
At a fundamental level, there is the simple view of Mary as a young homemaker from Nazareth, who is called by God to be the mother of Jesus, the Messiah; who is the only person who is present both at his birth and at his death; who sees him arrive as her baby son, and watches him die a painful and humiliating death on the cross. This image portrays her as an example of faithful obedience to God’s will, and as someone whose life shows us that God’s plans often involve extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. The key verse which expresses this is perhaps Luke 1 verse 38 when Mary says to the angel who visits her:
I am the Lord’s Servant. May it be to me as you have said.
This simple view of Mary is based on what we learn about her from our reading of the Bible, and it probably fits quite well with your own view of her. It is a view widely shared by all Christian traditions.
I could have preached a sermon this morning something along these lines. It would have been uncontroversial and safe, but it would also have been very similar to many other sermons which you have heard about the Virgin Mary, and, more importantly perhaps, it would have ignored the enormous elephant in the room, that is that fact that the figure of Mary in Christianity is not quite as straightforward as this simple view would have us think.
So I am not going to play safe, and I am going to acknowledge the elephant in the room, in other words the complicated issues raised by the figure of Mary within the Christian church.
However, I am also going to tread carefully this morning, because Mary has (through no fault of her own, I have to say) often been a controversial figure, who has divided Christians, and down the centuries led to much persecution and suffering, and I don’t want to make matters worse.
Well, as I am sure that you are aware, there are other views of Mary, not derived from what we read in the Bible, which form an important part of some Christian traditions, in particular the Roman Catholic tradition. The observance of 15th August as the Feast of the Assumption is just one example.
In those traditions, there are in fact perhaps 4 main doctrines which I will mention briefly. There is the doctrine that Mary remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus – that is of her perpetual virginity. It is also believed that she was so favoured by God’s grace that from birth she was free from original sin. That is know as the Immaculate Conception. There is then the view that she is a partner with Jesus in the work of salvation, including interceding in heaven on behalf of the faithful. It is this doctrine of course which is at the heart of that most popular of prayers to Mary – the Ave Maria, or the Hail Mary – with the words
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
And finally there is the doctrine that after death Mary’s body was assumed into heaven - the Assumption – which I have already mentioned.
So what are we to make of these doctrines? They clearly have no biblical origins. So where do they come from?
Well, for what it’s worth, my take on the situation is that they are all an attempt to make Mary a more important and influential figure within Christianity than she would normally be. And why try to do that? Well for two main reasons, I would suggest.
Firstly, the Christian story is dominated by powerful male figures, and, although there some significant women both in the gospels and the early church, there are no women of the stature of St Peter or St Paul for example. These additional doctrines about Mary turn her into a more prominent female figure, which God’s faithful people, and particularly other women, can relate to and connect with.
Secondly, we need to remember that down the ages there have been pagan religions with significant female figures, goddesses, whom people have worshipped. When converts flooded into the early Christian church, they brought with them the cultural influences of these other religions, including devotion to these female figures, and then gradually over time the church assimilated, and ‘Christianised’, if you like, these figures. One such figure was the Egyptian goddess, Isis, who was in some ways assimilated into Christianity in the person of the Virgin Mary. There are statues of Isis holding the Egyptian God Horus which have actually been physically altered and reused as icons of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. The desire then to ‘Christianise’ female pagan deities may therefore in part account for the doctrines which give more importance to the figure of Mary.
So there we have it. That is the elephant in the room. There is a view of the Virgin Mary, which adds to and elaborates on the image of the Virgin Mary as we know her from the biblical account. I have to say that personally find quite difficult accept this view, but I also realise that this view is a significant part of the faith of millions of our Christian brothers and sisters. How should I react? What should I do or say? Especially when I know how divisive and damaging this has been over the centuries.
Well, let me suggest a way through this. A way which I have found helpful. It is a two-pronged approach.
Firstly, I go back to Acts 2:21 Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. My brothers and sisters from other church traditions who do not always believe exactly what I believe, or who believe things which I find hard to accept, are followers of Jesus just like me. They like me call on the name of Lord. We all share one church, one faith, one Lord as we sing in that well-known hymn. For me, although I cannot entirely agree with what my Christian brothers and sisters believe about the Virgin Mary, it is not a deal-breaker.
And secondly, I always look at other church traditions, and see whether there are things which I can learn from them. Different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking, which might help me in my walk with God. This is true in terms of the different approaches to the Virgin Mary I might come across in different church traditions.
Let me give you two examples.
I myself first came across another view of Mary on a family holiday in Portugal when I was 12. I was brought up in the Methodist church, and so I had at that time very little idea of the importance of Mary beyond the stories in the Bible. During that holiday, however, I found myself really drawn to the story of Our Lady of Fatima, who appeared to three Portuguese shepherd children in 1917, leading to the growth of the Portuguese town of Fatima as a place of pilgrimage. I was fascinated. And here is the wooden statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which I bought at the time, aged 12, and have treasured ever since.
What was it then that fascinated me about Our Lady of Fatima? I was sceptical, and I remain sceptical, about what those children actually saw, and whether or not they really saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, but I was introduced, through this story, for the first time, to the idea of visions and miracles as part of my faith, to the possibility of a supernatural element within Christianity.
And I think that is what continues to be the appeal of this aspect of the Christian faith for many people: a sense of the transcendent, a sense that our relationship with God is more than our rational brains can grasp and understand, a sense that it defies analysis and logic. For me, this is not incompatible with a belief in the authority of the Bible. The Bible itself after all is full of visions and miracles and supernatural events, not least, of course, the resurrection itself.
My next close encounter with a different view of the Virgin Mary, came when I was at university, where I got to know an Irish Roman Catholic priest, called rather inevitably Father Pat, who worked at Westminster Cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral in central London, just down the road from Westminster Abbey. On one of my visits to the cathedral, I remember coming across a small group of mostly elderly ladies praying in a side chapel one evening. They were reciting the rosary, traditionally the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria, and of course a number of Hail Marys. These ladies then were asking Mary to intercede on their behalf. They believed that she had a special relationship with God, as the Mother of Jesus, and that she would therefore be able to help them to communicate more directly with God himself.
Again, I was fascinated. I was unsure, and I remain unsure, about this view of Mary, about her role as an intermediary between God and his people. In 1 Timothy 2 verse 5 St Paul writes For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, and this is a view I share. I was however fascinated at two levels. I was fascinated on the one hand by the prayerful quiet dedication of that small group of ladies, and on the other hand by the way in which they used their rosary beads to help them focus on what the prayers they were saying.
When I applied to be considered for ordination, I had to attend what is called a BAP a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, and as part of the assessment process you have to give a talk. I decided to give my talk on using the rosary beads in private prayer. This was a risky choice, because, as I have just explained, the rosary beads are so closely associated with certain beliefs about the Virgin Mary, but the talk went down well. It is in fact possible to use rosary beads as a means of focusing on any sequence of prayers, and I am happy to point you in the right direction if you are interested in exploring this idea further.
Where does all that leave us?
As I said earlier, I do not believe that the difference between what I believe about the Virgin Mary, and what someone else from a different tradition might believe, is a deal-breaker. We are both share the same faith and the same Lord. I would also argue that there is always something which we can learn from Christians from other traditions which will help us to grow in our faith and our relationship with God. And most of all I believe that we should welcome and listen to Christians from other traditions, not with suspicion and distrust, but graciously and with love. And so, in this spirit of openness and graciousness towards all our Christian brothers and sisters, even though we don’t always agree with them, I have asked Andrew to play the Ave Maria, as set to the music of Franz Schubert, during our time of reflection. But first a prayer.
Let us pray
On the day before you died
you prayed that your disciples might be one just as you are one with the Father.
Forgive our unfaithfulness.
Give us the honesty to acknowledge and reject our mistrust of each other and our intolerance.
Make us one in heart and mind, that, bound together in love,
we may bear witness to your grace in the world
According to your will and to the glory of your name.
Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Before our younger son Ben went to university, he spent 6 months teaching in a boarding school in India, and it was a very formative period of his life. I remember him telling me, when he came home, that his time in India had taught him that there is a big difference between the things which we as humans need and the things which we want. He had developed a clearer idea of what his priorities in life should be, and how to make the right choices.
So what is it that humans really need?
Some of you may be familiar with Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, which is a five-tier model of human needs in the form of a pyramid. You can see a simplified version of the model on your service sheet. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic needs – food, water, rest, warmth and safety. As humans, this is what we need to survive. Without these, we will die.
In many cultures, including both our own, and the middle-eastern culture of Jesus’ day, it is bread which in part fulfils our basic need for food. Bread is a staple food, something which most people eat pretty much every day. As those of you who have travelled to France will know, there is a boulangerie on every street corner, and someone in a French family will go out every morning to buy fresh bread – aller au pain. In some parts of Morocco, there are still communal bread ovens, where they bake the loaves of bread for the people living in the surrounding streets. And I remember when we were walking in the mountains in Switzerland that we didn’t take a complicated packed lunch with us – just plenty of bread and cheese. That was all we needed.
Bread then has always been, and still is, an important part of the diet of many people all over world, and so it is not surprising that the image of bread is one which Jesus chooses when he is teaching his disciples.
He refers them back first to the story in Exodus 16 of the Israelites in the wilderness, on their way to the promised land, and facing starvation. God miraculously provides food for them in the form of manna. It is a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground, we are told, like coriander seed and it tastes like wafers made with honey. The fact about manna however is that, as Jesus reminds them, although it is a miraculous food sent by God to save his people from starvation, it not only goes mouldy like any other food, but it is just that – food – nothing more. It makes no difference to the people’s relationship with God, and to their part in his plan for the salvation of the world.
The point which Jesus is trying to make of course, is that life is about more than our physical need for food, or a baguette from a French boulangerie.
Have another look for a moment at the pyramid on your service sheet. Maslow recognises that, as humans, we also have psychological and personal needs which go far beyond the basic need to survive. We need to love and to be loved, and we need a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. Maslow is of course a psychologist, speaking in a secular context, and so it is perhaps not surprising that he makes no mention of any spiritual needs which we might have. I would like to suggest however that our spiritual needs, and in particular our need for God, are really fundamental to our lives, and deserve a place well towards the base of the pyramid.
In 1670, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal published his Pensées, as a defence of Christianity. In that book, he says this:
“What does our craving, and our helplessness, tell us? It tells us that we once had true happiness, but that now all we are left with is an empty print and trace? We try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us, looking for help in these things, but nothing can help, because this endless emptiness can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.”
There are certain questions which I have been asked regularly over the years. The questions go a bit like this.
Am I a good Christian? Am I even a Christian at all?
Am I good enough for God? What does God think about me?
I have made such a mess of my life – God won’t be interested in me, will he?
What is interesting is that I am very often asked these questions by people who are on the face of it not part of the church, and who appear to have no particular connections with Christianity. It has always seemed to me that these people are asking me these questions because they have a sense of something missing in their lives. In an inarticulate and muddled way they are expressing their need for God. They expressing this endless emptiness. I believe, as Pascal did, that all humans have then in them what you could call a ‘God-shaped hole’. We are created by God, to be in a relationship with him. There is therefore a part of ourselves which needs God, which craves God, just as a starving person craves food, and which will only be satisfied by a relationship with him.
This then is what Jesus means in our gospel reading when he says
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
It sounds simple enough doesn’t it …
Absorbing and accepting what this means, that is believing in Jesus, and following him, is actually not easy, nor is it easy to understand our relationship with God, and his plan for our lives. We still always have a lot of questions about what it means for us to be a Christian. Those same questions are still there:
Am I a good Christian? Am I even a Christian at all?
Am I good enough for God? What does God think about me?
I have made such a mess of my life – God won’t be interested in me, will he?
So that brings us to our epistle passage this morning. In this passage, St Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus to help them to answer these questions – to understand about their relationship with God, and his plan for their lives, to understand what it means to come to [Jesus].
On first reading, St Paul might seem to be giving us a long list of rules and regulations, of things which we have to do in order to be good Christians. He might seem to suggest that we need to tell the truth, to avoid anger and bitterness and arguing, to be kind and tender hearted and so on … in order to be good enough for God.
Now, if we go with that interpretation, there is a danger of us using this passage to convince ourselves that our relationship with God depends on what we do or don’t do, that we are saved – that is put right with God – because of the sort of people we are. In theological terms, this is called salvation through works.
Over the last few sermons, however, I have spoken a lot about our relationship with God, and about the fact that we are not saved through anything which we ourselves do, but instead through his unconditional love for us. As I have said many times, God is just like the father in the story of the prodigal son, watching and waiting and longing for his son to come home. This is salvation through grace.
What then is the correct interpretation of this passage? What is St Paul actually saying to the Christian believers in the early church in Ephesus about being a Christian?
Well, as is often the case in the Bible, the context is really important. At the beginning of the chapter St Paul says this I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. And then in verse 30, he reminds the Ephesians that they are marked with a seal for the day of redemption. They have been put right with God, through their faith in Jesus. That comes first. That is the first step. Salvation comes first – the new way of life comes second. It is not the other way round. It is not a case of being better behaved, if you like, in order to earn their salvation.
I’ll not spend too long on the details in the passage from Ephesians, You have it there in front of you on your service sheet, and it is fairly self-explanatory. Perhaps take it home and read it through quietly later. Pick out all the negative behaviours which St Paul lists, and ask yourself whether there is one of these which you are more prone to. Anger perhaps? Or bitterness? And then focus on the positive behaviours, and think how you can be more kind and tender-hearted and forgiving.
There is however one piece of advice which jumps out of the page for me, a piece of advice which is a much-used, although I wonder how many people know that it comes from the Bible: Do not let the sun go down on your anger. What good advice! It is all about reconciliation and healing. It is about building bridges not bearing grudges. It is about working hard to make our relationships work. An important message, don’t you think? And a message which is at the heart of our Christian faith.
So let’s draw the threads together a bit as I close.
We are created by God to be in a relationship with him. We each have a ‘God-shaped hole’ deep in our being, and without God to fill that hole we have a sense of endless emptiness. At the same time, God our creator loves each and every one of us, with an unconditional love, and he welcomes us back time and time again, no matter what we do. It is through believing in Jesus, and following him, that we are put right with God, and our craving for God in our lives is satisfied. It then follows that, once we have this restored relationship with God. once we have been marked with [his]seal, the next step is for us to reflect this change in our lives and in the way we behave towards each other.
Listen again to the words of Jesus:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
This is the good news which sustains us as Christian believers, and which influences the way we live our lives. This is the good news which we are called to share with others. This is the good news in these words from a much-loved hymn
Guide me O Thou Great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land
I am weak but Thou art mighty
Hold me with thy powerful hand
Bread of heaven - Bread of heaven
Feed me now and evermore - Feed me now and evermore
James the Apostle
“We have this treasure in clay jars…”
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God.”
The more I read about holy people the more I become aware that they are people who are deeply flawed, and profoundly fragile. For example, during Lent I read Gandhi’s autobiography which reveals him to be a person with a great many faults. His treatment of his family was harsh. At times you wonder how such a self-opinionated bighead could become the man so revered by many.
Those who were close to Mother Teresa found her very difficult to get on with. Holiness is often attractive at a distance, but pretty hard to live with close up. As those who met Jesus found out.
Today we are meant to be celebrating St James the Apostle. Yet our gospel story is hardly flattering. In St Mark it is James and John who seek glory. Matthew, writing some time later – by which time James and John were revered – makes a slight alteration to the story. Here it is not the brothers who ask, but their mother. However you tell it – neither version is flattering.
Jesus himself gave James and John the nickname – Sons of Thunder, perhaps remembering the time they wanted to call down lighting to destroy unfriendly villagers.
As Paul reminds us, the treasure is in clay jars, to make it clear that the extraordinary belongs to God. Or as Edward King would say, in the saints we see not extraordinary people, but ordinary people through whom God does extraordinary things.
Elsewhere Paul makes another comment about clay, the potter can refashion the clay. When a pot goes wonky the potter can reshape the clay and make a new start.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Simon Parke. He was a vicar who felt he’d lost his way so resigned from the church and went to work in a local supermarket. He wrote a book called Shelf Life telling of the characters he met whilst stacking shelves, people through whom he rediscovered what life and faith is all about.
We invited him to lead a parish weekend, one of the themes he kept coming back to was of our need to be dismantled. To have our self-importance, self-reliance, self-seeking, undone.
Do you remember the BBC2 comedy Rev? Following the various mishaps of the Revd Adam Smallbone as he begins a new ministry in an inner city parish. The dialogue and the storylines might offend some, but what I rejoice in are the times when Adam says his prayers. Sometimes kneeling in his gloomy and empty church, sometimes whilst washing the dishes. But he tries to keep in touch with God.
In one episode Adam was tempted by the apparent success of a former friend. A man he trained with was now a regular contributor to Thought for the Day, and often appeared on television. Everyone thought him witty, clever, and tipped for promotion. By contrast, ministering to a small inner city congregation seemed rather unglamorous.
The Archdeacon didn’t help. He encouraged Adam to want to get on, but there was painful fact – there are 10,000 vicars in the Church of England and only 350 top jobs. Promotion, he said, was a likely as becoming a General in the Chinese Army.
I think the script writers got that bit only half right – what they are doing is what Simon called a bit of dismantling. But the truth is that there are 350 bishops and archdeacons – and 10,000 top jobs.
In the end Adam’s successful friend was revealed to be an empty, lonely, desperate man. All his fame and success was an attempt to fill a void – it was he who envied Adam, in whose day to day life of little tasks the real glory was present.
I used to take groups of children on tours of our church. One day I received a letter from a child saying how much they had enjoyed their visit. I was rather chuffed, but then I read on. Their favourite bit wasn’t ringing the bell, dressing up in the robes, gazing at the glorious stained glass, or the vicar’s witty explanation of the various parts of the church.
No, their favourite bit was the font. Because when you pulled the plug out and the water swirled down the drain it made an incredibly rude and funny noise.
Letters like that mean the world. The delight and laughter of children are of immense value. This is treasure - in clay jars. Remember the clay jars – but take very seriously the treasure within.
We honour James the Apostle – and what do we know of him? We know he was a fisherman. We know he was probably closely related to Jesus. We know that he and his brother were sometimes impetuous. We know that at significant moments the two of them were often present as part of a very small group. We know that they, like the other disciples, had designs on promotion when the new kingdom dawned.
None of those are reasons to honour him. Why we honour James is because at the end of the day he allowed Jesus to take apart all his ambitions and hopes and misconceptions. He went through the betrayal and the desertion and the despair. He went through the loss of faith. He went through all that might, and undoubtedly did, turn others away – and at the end he came back.
We honour James because he is no saint – just a man – but a man who in the end remained loyal, in end trusted, in the end understood.
During Covid much of our lives has been dismantled, much of our church has been dismantled. St James reminds us that when God dismantles it is so he can reshape, as the potter refashions the clay. What emerges is different, unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable.
The wonky clay may be reshaped – it will only ever be clay – ordinary and fragile – yet clay may hold treasure, and the ordinary may be used to contain the extraordinary.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/BMUukzbEUFc
Seventh Sunday after Trinity
“Graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion,”
The Collect for this week:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same.
Increase in us true religion. What does that look like?
Appearances can be deceptive. A letter published in the Times on 27th May 2014.
Sir, Enoch Powell once attended a country fete and was amused to see an ‘Enoch Powell lookalike’ competition. On the spur of the moment (and having a much greater sense of humour than he was usually credited with) he entered, incognito. He came third.
Things aren’t always what they seem to be. Increase in us true religion – so how do we recognise it? How do we do it?
Let us come at it from a different direction. Someone who used to train people for ministry asked a question; What is the biggest problem facing the church today?
How would you answer that question? What is the biggest problem facing the church today?
What answers might we suggest?
The answer has never changed, it is the same answer today as it was when Jesus had compassion on the crowds. It is the same answer as when Jeremiah spoke of God shepherding his people. The greatest problem religious people face is the overwhelming abundance of God.
God is always, has always, and will always, offer more than we can dare imagine. The greatest problem for the church today is coping with God’s generosity.
Increase in us true religion – is about living with the overwhelming abundance of God.
St Benedict took seriously a community that lived with overwhelming abundance. That didn’t mean that individual members of the community had more than they needed – far from it, what it did mean is that every person received the things they needed.
St Benedict’s rule is powerfully against private ownership within the community. Things, Benedict says, distract us from God’s overwhelming abundance. If we live with the delusion of self-sufficiency we are blinded to the generosity of God. But Benedict knows people need things, and he is equally powerfully in insisting that every person is given what they need.
There is no sense here of everyone being treated the same, we are all different, we have different needs. Pianists need pianos. Writers need computers. Artists need paint. Farmers need tractors. Those who manage need time for meeting with others. People with bad backs need the right kind of beds. Those working with others need time to be alone.
In a Benedictine community nobody counted what they needed, they looked to what others needed, and if it was more than they had themselves then they thanked God their own needs were less of a burden.
There’s the first sign of true religion – living with God’s overwhelming abundance.
True religion might also be described a rhythm of life. Being in the presence of God for others. Being in the presence of others for God. Benedict taught people to pray not because the words themselves mattered, but because the discipline of prayer and the words used, shaped a relationship with God alongside others.
Being with God for others, being with others for God. It is why worship matters. It is the rhythm which balances us. There’s another mark of true religion. A life with a rhythm, between God and others.
True religion takes what we need seriously. Take a look at our Gospel reading this morning, from Mark chapter 6, look at verse 31. Jesus said to his friends, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” He knew their needs.
The context of that is that they had be sent out two by two to walk the roads, visit towns and villagers, to tell of God’s love and spend time with those who would listen. They came back exhausted, but as Mark tells us the crowds wouldn’t leave them alone. The demands were unrelenting.
You probably know the story of the two foresters who went into the trees with their saws. The first worked tirelessly. He rarely took a break, from dawn to dusk he cut timber. The second was different. Every half hour he stopped for ten minutes, without fail he cut for 30 minutes, then stopped for 10.
At the end of the day the first forester noticed that his friend’s woodpile was much bigger than his. “How can that be”, he asked, “you kept stopping every half hour?”
His friend replied – “Yes, I kept stopping to sharpen my saw.”
True religion accepts we have needs, and accepts these are met in God’s overwhelming abundance. Looking after others means also looking after ourselves.
Increase in us true religion. How do we recognise it in every task of every day? I suggest those two marks are a guide – to live in the abundance of God, and to live with a rhythm of life. That way we can keep in touch with what really matters.
There is a story of three stonemasons. Each was shaping a block of stone. A traveller asked the first – What are you doing? He replied – I am shaping this stone.
He asked the second. I am preparing a foundation.
He asked the third. I am building a cathedral.
We are builders of a new kingdom, we do it one small task at a time.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/x9WNrYmMN9A
Sixth Sunday of Trinity
I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.
Last week Jane spoke of prophecy, prophets can be anyone. An organist dressed up as Yasser Arafat, a lady with a mobile phone, a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic. Anyone and everyone may speak with God’s voice. But I hope Jane won’t mind me saying that there was one kind of prophet she didn’t mention, and that is the false prophet. Amos says, I am no prophet, or a prophet’s son. I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.
I am no prophet - Amos was distancing himself from the most common form of prophet of his day. The yes men. The hired lackeys who tell the king what he wants to hear. The professionals who know which side of their bread is buttered. False prophets.
Those who say what the powerful want to hear were there then and they’re still here today. Only when they fall from grace do you hear what they really think.
Some context might help. In Amos’ day, about 750 years before Jesus was born, Israel had attained a height of territorial expansion and national prosperity never seen before. The country had a strong army and enjoyed economic affluence. People believed this was a sign of God’s favour, gained not least through their extravagant support of the official shrines. Shrines run by the professional prophets who made sure the king heard what he wanted to hear.
Into that complacency stepped Amos, speaking harsh words to a smooth season. He denounced the injustice and corruption of the elite, he spoke of God’s anger that the rich were getting richer and the poor getting poorer. He raged against hypocrisy and false dealing. He reserved a special hatred for the false religion that was self-serving and seduced by power.
His vision of the plumb line is effective. You use a plumb line to show what is straight and true, whether you’re hanging wallpaper or building a wall, the plumb line is a tool that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. This is straight and true – revealing that Israel’s life was bent and crooked.
So Amos rages against the high places, the official religion that favoured the rich, the false prophets who spoke smooth words to the powerful. Amos wasn’t one of them. He was an ordinary bloke, doing an ordinary job, and God chose him to speak for truth.
The true voice of prophecy usually goes against the grain. So it was with John the Baptist. If anything reveals his authority and credentials as a prophet it is the opposition he aroused. And the price he paid.
So it is also with the prophet from Nazareth – no stranger to hostility and rejection.
I remember when I had been a Vicar for just a few months. The parish had been vacant for a very long time. Most people had worked with generosity and grace and the church had thrived. But there was one person who was a bully. They used the time to build their own little empire and everyone learned that resistance was futile.
One day it became clear that there needed to be a showdown and the post service coffee turned into the gunfight at the OK corral. It ended with a set of keys being thrown to the floor, keys the person wasn’t meant to have had in the first place, and a slammed door – which didn’t quite work because it had an automatic closer on it.
A few weeks later I was at a gathering of new vicars. Those in their first parishes. A wise old Roman Catholic priest asked us a question – in your first six months, he asked, who has had a row with someone? I rather shamefacedly raised my hand. I was the only one. “Good,” he said, “if you haven’t upset someone in your first six months you’re probably not doing your job.”
He didn’t mean it was a good thing to generally upset people for the sake of it, what he meant was that if you are being prophetic then you will find yourself challenging people. You will find yourself asking difficult questions. You will find yourself saying hard things to situations which need to change. You will find a voice which some will reject.
As Jesus said, blessed are you when men (and women) revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The voice of prophecy, which is a voice every Christian must sometimes speak with, is a voice that goes against the grain.
Prophecy has two directions. The first is to hold the plumb line – to check how things are, to know if things are straight and true, to read the signs of the times, to understand what is going on. The second is see where the present takes us. So Amos predicted that a corrupt, self-satisfied and unjust society would implode. And he was right.
It is a message repeated over and over again generation after generation. In the Bible the voice of the prophets is always unpopular, always rejected, always ignored. And it is always, always right.
The irony is that the lesson is never learned. Listen to the hard words. Hear the message that is uncomfortable. Stick with the voice you don’t want to listen to. Because the voice of prophecy is essential to our well-being and happiness.
That might seem strange to say because the voice of prophecy is uncompromising and uncomfortable. But who would you rather go to – the doctor that tells you all is well and there’s nothing to worry about, or the doctor who tells you the truth and what can be done?
Smooth words that do not disturb might be nice, but the truth is better for us.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/kqhm2RN2Gmc
Fifth Sunday of Trinity
What is a prophet? What does a prophet look like? How do you imagine a prophet?
A bit like this? Male. Long flowing robes and headdress? Perhaps with a stick for walking long distances in the desert?
Or like this? Female. Smartly dressed? With a mobile phone in her hand?
Yes. What is a prophet? What does a prophet look like? How do you imagine a prophet?
Wikipedia tells us that a prophet is an individual who is regarded as being in contact with a divine being and is said to speak on behalf of that being, serving as an intermediary with humanity by delivering messages or teachings from the supernatural source to other people.
And what does the Bible say?
Well, every time there is Morning Prayer we say the words of the Benedictus, which actually come from Luke 1. They are the words of Zechariah at the time of the circumcision of his son, John, as he looks forward to what God has in store for him. He says this:
And you child will be called the prophet of the most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
So John the Baptist, as his baby son went on to become, was called by God to prepare the way of the Lord and to give knowledge of salvation to his people.
Can we perhaps use that as a Biblical definition of a prophet – someone who is called by God to prepare the way of the Lord and to give knowledge of salvation to his people?
Have you noticed that, nowhere in these definitions, either in Wikipedia or the Bible, does it say that a prophet needs to be of a certain gender or age, or to have certain qualifications, or to wear certain clothing or carry other items in order to be a prophet?
So who can be a prophet?
Well …. in my recent sermons, I have spoken about a lot about God’s grace, about his unconditional love for us. There was Acts 2:21 which reminded us that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, and there was the message of John 3:17 that God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. As I said at the time, both of these passages are really challenging, because they are not simply intended to make us feel comfortable and self-satisfied about our relationship with God. These passages are also intended to remind us of our calling to live lives which bring glory to God and reflect his gracious love for us, by in turn showing our unconditional love to everyone.
With that in mind … let me suggest to you this morning that, in our own ways, all of us, each and every one of us, is a prophet of the most High. Yes, we are all called prepare the way of the Lord and to give knowledge of salvation to his people.
What a scary thought, don’t you think? What is your immediate reaction? Really? Even me? I wouldn’t know what to do or say. No-one would listen to me. I’m not good at that sort of thing. All sorts of self-doubts come into our minds. This is quite natural, because we are well aware that being prophet brings with it many responsibilities and challenges, and that those responsibilities and challenges are enormous and very daunting.
And I have to say that our two Bible readings this morning don’t at first glance seem to do anything to make us any less daunted by the enormity of the task ahead, but let’s all the same have a look at them now, and see if we can perhaps derive comfort or strength or encouragement from them for us on the way ahead as prophets of the most High.
In our Old Testament reading, we hear the words of God as he calls the prophet Ezekiel, and sends him out to speak to the people of Israel.
First of all, in verse 1, God tells Ezekiel to stand up on [his] feet, and then, in verse 2, we are told that a spirit entered into [him] and set [him] on his feet. It sounds to me as if Ezekiel found it quite hard to stand up on his own – and that he needed God’s help, through the spirit, to find the strength to do it. This is not just about standing up rather than sitting down of course. This is surely an image which reminds us of how difficult it can be for all of us at times to motivate ourselves to do something, especially something as challenging or scary as speaking out about what we believe, and how we often cannot do it in our strength alone.
In verses 3 and 4, God then speaks to Ezekiel of the challenge ahead, of the sort of people God is sending him amongst. The people have rebelled against [God], and transgressed, we are told. They are impudent and stubborn. They have clearly not only turned away from God, but also become very set in their ways, unwilling to listen to God’s message. God doesn’t paint an attractive picture of these people, and we can imagine Ezekiel’s heart sinking as he realises the enormity of his task. Ezekiel lived in the 6th century BC, but the world in which we live today is not that very different from the one he knew. The people of our day are also mostly very set in their ways, and unwilling to listen to the message of God’s love for them.
So perhaps we also need to listen to God’s words of advice to Ezekiel in verse 5 when he tells him that whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. God is calling on Ezekiel to make his mark, to make sure that he makes an impression, to make sure that the people get a chance to hear his message, even if they choose not to listen to what he has to say.
As Christians here in Mid-Cheshire in 2021, we too are called to make our mark, to make sure that people get a chance to hear the message, even if they seem to reject it. We, like Ezekiel, are simply sowing the seed. We may well never know whether it takes root and flourishes or not, but we can make sure that they know that there has been a prophet among them.
The message of this passage is surely just the sort of encouragement which we were looking for? It will not be easy – we knew that of course - but we don’t have to do it in our own strength, because we have the Holy Spirit alongside us every step of the way, and then all we have to do is sow the seed, and leave the rest to God.
And what about our New Testament reading?
Well, in our gospel reading from Mark 6, we hear firstly about the ministry of Jesus himself and then about his instructions to his disciples as he sends them out to teach among the villages.
In verses 1-5, we follow Jesus as he returns to Nazareth, and preaches in his home synagogue. Again, Jesus’ experience reminds us that it will not be easy. His friends and neighbours, who have known him since he was a boy, growing up as the son of Joseph the carpenter, are astounded, we are told, to hear him preaching to them, and they take offence. Not only do they not recognise him for who he is, the Son of God, the Messiah, but neither are they prepared to listen to what he has to say, because they see him as an arrogant upstart, who has gone up in the world, and become too big for his boots.
This reaction seems to take even Jesus by surprise, because we are told that he is amazed at their unbelief, although St Mark, as the narrator, seems less shocked, as he reflects on how difficult it often is to get true recognition from those closest to you, saying that prophets are not without honour, except in their home town.
This is certainly something which we need to hear and to understand, as we think about our calling to be prophets of the most High. Our best opportunities to talk about our faith, and the good news of gospel, are going to be with the people whom we come into contact with the most – our families and our neighbours and our work colleagues – and yet we could, like Jesus himself, be amazed at their reaction, because they could, like the people of Nazareth, be astounded and take offence, wondering who we think we are. This is something which we need to be prepared for.
Then, in verses 7-11, Jesus sends out his disciples into the surrounding villages with his message of repentance and reconciliation with God. It is interesting to note that he sends them out in pairs. In some ways, it would have been more efficient to send them out alone, so that they could cover a wider area, but Jesus knows that they may well face rejection and opposition. By travelling together, they will be able to strengthen and encourage each other. We too, as we set out to talk to people about the gospel, may face rejection and opposition - we have already thought about that – but we can look to our Christian brothers and sisters for support and encouragement. We can work as a team, sharing experiences, both good and bad, and offering advice and reassurance when it is needed. As we serve God, there is no need for us to try to go it alone.
So what does being a prophet in 21st century mid-Cheshire look like? It’s certainly not about wandering from village to village wearing sandals and carrying a staff. For most of us, neither is it about standing up in church and preaching to large groups of people. We are simply called to give people the message about God’s love for them, and to prepare the way for him to come and work in their lives.
There are so many ways of communicating with people these days. If you want to write to someone, there are emails and text messages and Facebook posts and tweets on Twitter, as well as letters and cards, and if you want to speak to someone there is Facetime and Zoom and such like, although you can’t beat a chat with your neighbour over the back fence, or amongst the fruit and vegetables in Sainsburys.
And then there is all the non-verbal communication. Actions speak louder than words they say, don’t they? The kind gift of a freshly-cooked meal to someone who has been recently bereaved, a few hours baby-sitting to allow an exhausted single parent to get break, a lift in the car to a hospital appointment. And there are many more possibilities of course.
So yes, it will not always be easy to be a prophet – it never has been – and there will discouraging moments, and criticism, and setbacks, but, as our reading from Ezekiel reminds us, God gives us strength for the task, both through the Holy Spirit, and our fellow Christians, and he merely calls us to make sure that they know that there has been a prophet among them. He will do the rest.
Listen to the words of Isaiah 6, paraphrased into a well-known modern hymn by Dan Schutte.
I, The Lord Of Sea And Sky,
I Have Heard My People Cry.
All Who Dwell In Dark And Sin,
My Hand Will Save.
I Who Made The Stars Of Night,
I Will Make Their Darkness Bright.
Who Will Bear My Light To Them?
Whom Shall I Send?
Here I Am Lord, Is It I, Lord?
I Have Heard You Calling In The Night.
I Will Go Lord, If You Lead Me.
I Will Hold Your People In My Heart.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/lw3msAtyjb0
Fourth Sunday of Trinity
When he saw him he fell at his feet.
Jeremy Clarkson was recently interviewed by Farmers’ Weekly. Clarkson bought a farm in 2008 which was managed by a local farmer. When the farmer retired Clarkson asked himself a typical Top Gear question – “How hard can it be?” So he decided to run the farm himself.
The consequences are revealed in a series running on Amazon and needless to say Clarkson makes a mess of things. He buys himself a tractor – a Lamborghini with 270 horse power. It is far too big, it won’t fit into his barns and demolishes all the gate posts. No surprises there then.
But there is another side to Clarkson’s farming. If you look at his fields he leave 20 to 30 feet of wild flowers around the edges, he creates a wetland area to encourage wildlife, he keeps bees, he ploughs paths through his crops to enable insects to spread across the fields. If you watch his tractor pulling a cultivator it is followed by flocks of birds. The soil is clearly rich with worms and bugs.
When I was a lad I can remember tractors were always followed by flocks of birds. Not any more. The earth has paid a price.
As a result of his experiences Farmer’s Weekly interviewed Clarkson. How hard can it be? Well as it turns out, very hard. Clarkson admits farming is virtually impossible. One of things he cannot understand is how his farm can grow produce in their own soil, pick it with their own hands, sell it in their own farm shop, and still find that supermarkets can do it cheaper. How can that be right?
Behind the TV bluster and stunts there’s a serious question. What price are we paying? What price for food if the earth is worked to destruction? What price for cheap milk, carrots, wheat, when farmers cannot make ends meet? What price for a way of living which takes and takes but never asks if this is sustainable?
Which brings me to our gospel for today. It’s a typical supermarket bargain. Two for the price of one. Two healings in one story. And there’s a price.
Or rather there are several prices. I’ll tell you three of them.
Consider the leader of the synagogue whose daughter is ill. We are told she is twelve. In Jewish tradition a girl becomes a woman when she is twelve years and one day old. This girl is on the brink of womanhood. She has her whole life ahead of her. But she is ill, desperately ill.
The leader of the synagogue was an important person. He bore serious responsibilities, he was a significant person within the community, people looked up to him, he would be respected and honoured.
Yet he goes to Jesus for help. A man regarded as a troublemaker and a rebel. A man who stirred up trouble and upset respectable people. A man who kept bad company and caused offence. There is a price to pay if you got to someone like that for help.
And more than that, this leader of the community throws himself at Jesus’ feet. He was throwing everything away for the sake of his daughter. Love has a price.
And then there is the woman in the crowd. We are not told her name. She is never heard of again. Yet in this brief moment her story is exposed to history. Her illness would have made her an outcast. An issue of blood made her unclean. She would have been excluded from society, forbidden to be with others. Her illness did not just cause physical suffering, it also condemned her to a life of loneliness and rejection. We would recognise today the emotional, psychological and spiritual trauma she endured.
She paid a price, not even daring to ask Jesus for help. No Jewish man would converse with an unknown woman, certainly not one marked by an issue of blood. She cannot come to him, she cannot speak to him, she cannot throw herself at Jesus’ feet. All she can do is to reach out in desperation and touch his clothes.
Which is all God needs. Her faith was costly. And it is all God needs.
But there’s another price as well. This isn’t a something for nothing event. God doesn’t do things for cheap. Jesus pays a price. The moment she touches him he knows the cost has been paid, her faith costs him. It is a price he is willing to pay.
Whatever happens next in our community will involve a price, more than one, the cost of what comes next won’t come cheap. This is something we know. We know that things that matter don’t come cheap. We know that building relationships costs. We know that sustaining commitment costs. We know that nurturing a community, a society, that treats people decently has a price.
Jeremy Clarkson is right, and I never thought I’d be saying that from a pulpit. It isn’t easy growing things. The something for nothing society can’t last. It empties people and it puts nothing back. We can’t keep having more and more for less and less.
This story is about people looking for things to be different. And they can be. But there is a price. There is always a price. Usually it is paid by someone else, the unseen farmer, the unseen seafarer, the unseen factory worker, the unseen person who loses their job.
Change for the better can only happen when we recognise the price, and are willing to pay our fair share of it.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/5DEkJIZDOtU
Third Sunday of Trinity
‘Let us go across to the other side’
On Monday I took part in an online conference discussing the Church of England report, Living in Love and Faith. Such reports are usually pretty turgid reading, this one is over 400 pages. But Living in Love and Faith is different. It is not really a report, it is an invitation, an invitation for all of us to learn about someone different.
A few years back the bishops issued the Pilling Report on human sexuality. When it was presented to General Synod they didn’t just reject it, they refused to receive it in the first place. It was thrown out lock, stock and barrel. The bishops were told – you have to do better. We have to do better.
Living in love and faith is a process by which we are invited the listen, to hear the stories of people who experience of life, of love, of themselves and others, is different from our own.
You can read the book if you want to, but far more accessible, and interesting, are the series of videos in which people tell their own stories. Humanity is seems, is not always neat and tidy. You can find the details on the CofE website.
God, we are told, created humanity as community, male and female, in the image of God. Just as God created the light and the dark, the day and the night, but also the dawn and the dusk – the twilight times which blend and merge. Things aren’t always so clear cut.
‘Let us go across to the other side’
Mark doesn’t waste words. This is not just about Jesus stilling a storm, though Mark uses this to emphasis who Jesus is and that he has authority, even the wind and sea obey him. ‘The other side’ means more than just crossing the lake. Physically Jesus crossed the lake, from the shore where he was at home amongst friends, to the other side where the people were different. But crossing to the other side had deeper significance. On the other side he would not be welcome or greeted by large crowds. If you read on you’d find that when Jesus reaches the far shore he is met by a madman possessed by demons. Far from stilling a storm Jesus is steering straight into one – going towards people who are different.
Mark tells this story the best. You get it in other gospels as well, but Mark tells it best. Jesus is exhausted, he is drained, he’s been surrounded by people all day and he just needs five minutes peace and quiet. So he gets into a boat and falls asleep.
I don’t know about you but when I’m tired I don’t take too kindly to people waking me up. Especially not when they’re rude. Mark tells us how the disciples woke him – “Do you not care we are perishing?” That’s pretty rude.
Matthew & Luke change it into a more polite plea for help – Master, save us. In Mark – don’t you care?
So I can imagine a grumpy Jesus at this point, he was certainly cross with his friends. He rebukes them and the wind.
Notice that word – rebuke. It is used deliberately. Jesus rebukes the wind. Just as he rebukes his friends for their lack of faith. Just as he will rebuke the demon when he comes to the other side. Just as he rebukes those who cheat the poor, he rebukes those lay heavy burdens upon the weak, he rebukes people who count themselves righteous and look down on others. When Jesus rebukes we need to listen.
He rebuked the wind – this isn’t just about power to control nature. The sudden storm was viewed in the same way as the man with the unclean spirits. In the gospel stories the words used are the same – it is the power of evil that Jesus rebukes. And it respects his authority.
One of my roles in our sailing club is to drive the rescue boat. One blustery evening a group of youngsters were out in single handers, whizzing about in a powerful wind. At times the gusts overwhelmed them and their boats capsized.
As we worked with each of them one by one, following their boat around the course, sailing all points of the wind, the instructor always said the same thing – when the wind comes, steer into it – when the wind comes, steer into it.
The temptation is steer away from the storm, a good sailor steers into it. The turbulence that can overturn a boat has a similarity to the storms that disrupt our lives. Our instinct is to steer clear, in reality we do better when we steer towards such storms, when we cross towards difficult situations, difficult people.
Mark tells the story of Jesus as it happened. His teaching of God’s kingdom – and his conflict with the powers of this world. And always, Jesus steers into the storm.
Jesus has power and authority, but he does not use them to avoid the hard things, the difficult moments, the difficult people. He seeks out the lost, the different, the rejected, the sick, the mixed-up, the mad, and the bad.
When we encounter life’s storms the same advice holds true – steer into it. Face it with courage, believe God’s power to prevail – even when disaster seems certain.
Living in love and faith is about listening to people who are different from us. It involves us going across to the other side. The place where we are not at home and things are different. It means listening to people whose stories aren’t the same as ours. It means steering into the storm, meeting head on those times when people not like us are rejected, ignored, discounted, and sometimes attacked.
This goes against our instinct, but we need to remember the words of that instructor teaching young people to steer. When the wind comes, steer into it.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/FJbwFoH9uNE
Second Sunday of Trinity
The Kingdom of God is like…
We know that as soon as we hear this phrase Jesus is sharing a
parable. We know as soon as we hear this phrase that Jesus is trying
to take the mysterious, mystifying nature of the Kingdom of God
and try to explain it words that His audience will understand.
The Kingdom of God is like a sower scattering seeds…I think we all
understand this image, but what I find is more difficult is that is all
he does, the sower scatters the seeds.
We don!t get reports that he checked the acidity of the soil before
he sowed his seeds.
We don!t get reports that he watered the seeds daily.
We don!t get reports that he went out into fields each day to check
All that Mark reports Jesus as saying is that the Kingdom of God is
like a sower scattering seeds. He scatters them in the field, and
then goes on with his life. He gets up in the morning and goes to
bed each night. Then later, when the harvest is ripe, he goes out
into the field and brings in the crop.
And after reading this parable, it left me with a number of questions…
What did the sower do to prepare the fields? What did the sower do
to guarantee that the seeds that he sowed would grow? Surely he
did something. Surely, he worked daily with this crop. Surely, the
work of the sower helped somehow to make the seeds grow.
Mark does, however, give us one more important detail in this parable:
"The seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth
produces of itself.”
What it seems to me is that:
Mark is telling us that the sower can’t make the seeds grow faster.
Mark is telling us that the sower can’t guarantee that all the seeds
that he sows will actually grow at all.
Mark is telling is that all the sower knows is that he has the hope
that the seeds that he scatters will grow into a huge harvest and
that the sower trusts the process.
And, I would suggest, the same is for us as people of faith.
We can’t know if the acts of kindness that we do for our fellow humankind
will be understood by them. We can’t know if a gesture or
a kind word can help change someone!s life. We can’t know if an
invitation to church may allow someone to experience God!s lifetransforming
love for the first time.
There are no guarantees. There are no magic formulas.
The Kingdom of God is mysterious. The Kingdom of God is mystifying.
The Kingdom of God holds us in tension as people of faith because
we are called to live out the Kingdom of God here on earth while
waiting for it to come at some point in the future.
And we don!t know all the answers to the questions that we have
about the Kingdom of God.
We just know and trust in the promises that Jesus gave us as his
followers that some day the Kingdom of God will come.
We hold to the promises that Jesus gave us that God will use the
seeds that we scatter to help bring about the Kingdom of God here
We hold on to the promises that Jesus gave us that God is in control.
The good news and the bad news about this life of faith that we
lead is that we can’t know how many of the seeds we scatter will
come to fruition.
The good news and the bad news about this life of faith that we
lead is that we can’t make the Kingdom of God come faster here on
earth through our actions.
Just like sower, all we can do is to hold on to the hope that the
seeds that we scatter will grow and bear fruit.
All we can do is to hold onto the hope that eventually these tiny
seeds that we scatter will become great shrubs to provide shelter
and security for others.
All we can do is to trust that the Kingdom of God will come here on
earth and that all will experience God!s life-changing love.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that what this parable offers is frustrating.
We might think what!s the point? If what I do doesn!t matter or bring
on the Kingdom of God faster here on earth?
What this parable does tell us is that we will never know if or how
our actions may help to bring about the Kingdom of God.
So in a sense we could say that this parable frees us as people of
This parable stops us from putting so much pressure on ourselves
to do so much, be so much, and allows us to simply enjoy and
share the blessings that fill our lives.
This parable reminds us that it is not up to us to bring about the
Kingdom of God.
This parable reminds us that God is in control.
But this parable also reminds us that we have been extended an invitation
to participate in and experience God!s grace in our lives.
This parable reminds us that the Kingdom of God does not depend
on you or me or our actions, but we might be able to help a bit.
Because we are invited to participate in the process, to help by
scattering seeds here on earth.
Yes this parable probably reminds us that we are called to a life of
faith that will be full of questions, that will have disappointing moments,
that will have moments of us wondering what the point is.
But this parable also reminds us that we are invited to a life of faith
where we can catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God coming to
fruition, that we are invited to participate in the mysterious and mystifying
Kingdom of God, that we are invited to be a part of the life
transforming experience that is God!s grace.
We can’t control the process through our actions. But we can participate
in the process and know that God will use our seemingly
small words and actions and turn them into huge life-changing, lifetransforming
We can’t guarantee that all the seeds that we scatter will grow.
The Kingdom of God is full of mystery and it is mystifying even for
us as people of faith.
But it is through our faith and trust that we see God at work in the
world…and in our churches.”
We are called to participate in our own small way, and we do experience
the gift of God!s grace in our lives by doing so.
May we always trust that God is in the process with us as we scatter
our seeds here on earth, and have the patience to wait for the
moment when God brings in the harvest. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/4V8AQiqKmGs
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
One wet playtime a teacher gave her class paper and crayons and told them to draw whatever they wanted. Some fiddled with their crayons, others gazed out of the window looking for inspiration. One small girl was head down scribbling away.
After a while the teacher wandered over – “What are you drawing Mary?”
Mary looked up. “I’m drawing God” she said.
“But no-one know what God looks like,” the teacher replied.
“Well they will when I’ve finished this.”
It’s an amusing story, but there’s a catch. There is firstly the problem that lots of people think they know what God is like, that their picture of God is all everyone else needs, and that if anyone draws a different picture of God then they are wrong.
And there’s another problem as well. That God is beyond human understanding, God is unknowable and transcendent. How can mortal humanity even begin to imagine the eternal divinity?
You see that in Isaiah’s vision in the Temple. God is enthroned, high and lofty, surrounded by heavenly creatures. Isaiah’s glimpse of God only serves to recall his own wretchedness.
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Jane mentioned last week that Jews avoid speaking the name of God. We know that both Jews and Muslims avoid any representation of God. That is partly an acknowledgement that God is transcendent and utterly beyond human comprehension.
So my first point this morning is to remind us of God’s transcendence. And that matters because if God is unknowable then the first thing we need is humility. My glimpse of God cannot be the whole picture. Your glimpse of God will be different. We can all take our paper and crayons and scribble away, and none of the pictures will be the same. When we speak of God we need Isaiah’s humility.
But God also has other ideas. God chooses to be known as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Father, Son and Spirit. Just when you think you begin to understand you discover that God has other ideas. In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - Mr Beaver says of Aslan, “He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
In love God becomes human, born to a teenage girl, walked this earth, ate, drank, made friends, and enemies, suffered death and was buried.
Martyn Percy writes that Jesus is the ‘Verb’ of God. We learnt at school that a verb is a ‘doing word’. The Verb of God means that what Jesus does God is.
David Jenkins, when asked to explain what he really believed, spoke eleven words, “God is, as he is in Jesus, so there is hope.”
Your average sermon is about a thousand words. The books written about God run into hundreds of millions of words. But really all you need is just these eleven. “God is, as he is in Jesus, so there is hope.”
What does this mean for people? What does it mean for you and me? What does it mean for the people we meet day by day?
It is about relationship. We know God as relationship, Father, Son, Spirit – a community of persons. Look right back to the story of creation, it is truth conveyed in poetry. When God creates humanity we read --
“Let us make humanity in our image” Not ‘let me make humanity in my image’ but ‘us’ and ‘our’. Humanity is made as a social creature, male and female, interdependent and created to be in relationship. As Thomas Traherne said, “You are as prone to love as the sun is to shine.” We are made in love, to love and to be loved. God is made known through others.
There is a story of a rabbi asked to comment on the book of Genesis. He thought for a moment then said that when God had created the heavens and the earth, light and dark, water and land, living creatures and plants, at the end of each day God looked as said that it was good. But on the sixth day, when God created man and woman there is no pronouncement that humanity is good.
In the Hebrew the word translated as ‘good’ is ‘tov’. Tov really means complete or finished. The heavens and the earth are complete. The water and the land are complete, the animals and plants are complete. But humanity is not – we are a work in progress. God has not finished with us yet, the story of our relationship with God is still being written.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
This relationship begins in God’s love. It is restored in God’s love. It is sustained in God’s love. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Father, Son, Spirit.
This relationship can grow – if we will but accept that we are loved by God.
I come back to Narnia, this time Prince Caspian. Lucy encounters her old friend Aslan, and finds him to be somehow bigger than she remembered.
“Aslan, you’re bigger.
That is because you are old, little one.
Not because you are?
I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
The more you walk with God the more you find yet to discover. God is, as he is in Jesus, so there is hope.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/OOxJn8xbEhA
John 15:26-27 / John 16:4-15
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Acts 2:21
For me, this is one of the most important verses in all Scripture, and one which I quote perhaps more often than any other verse. For me it is both enormously encouraging and enormously challenging. Let me tell you why.
For most of us, in our 21st century computer-dominated age, when we say that we have saved something, we mean that we have put it in a file somewhere on our computer so that we can find it again when we need it. In this context, saved is merely the opposite of deleted.
But the word saved has of course long had a much wider and more powerful meaning referring as it does to having kept someone or something safe, or having rescued them. And it is pretty much always followed by the word from. A brief search on Google under ‘saved from’ brings up references to animals being saved from extinction, to an episode of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ when Edward is saved from being scrapped, and to a 1912 silent movie about a woman who was saved from the Titanic, to name just a few.
So, in our Bible reading, what do the prophet Joel, and Peter when he quotes him, mean when they use this word, when they say that everyone will be saved, and what do they imagine that people need to be saved from?
The Bible teaches that the core problem which we as humans have is sin. God created us to be like him, but, when we live contrary to his standards, we sin. Ever since the Garden of Eden, humans have been disobeying God, and that disobedience – our sin - separates us from God. This separation is symbolised by Adam and Eve being thrown out from the Garden of Eden, and therefore from their close relationship with God. St Paul in Romans 3 reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
A little bit further on his letter to the Romans, in Romans 6, St Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. in other words, that there is a clear penalty for sin, and that penalty is death. Death here means not just the termination of life and consciousness at the end of our earthly lives, but also total alienation from God for all eternity.
When the prophet Joel, and Peter quoting him, say that everyone will be saved, they mean that everyone will be saved from the consequences of their disobedience against God, that is from total alienation from God for all eternity.
And then how is it that are people saved from this, from the consequences of their sin and their disobedience towards God?
Well, the answer is summed up in one of the most famous verses in the Bible – John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus was born a man so he could suffer the kind of death that all sinners really deserve. His death was accepted by God as full payment for all our disobedience and sin. In theological terms, this is referred to as the atonement. The word atonement can be broken down as at-one-ment. In other words, through Jesus’ death on the cross, we are now at one with God, and we have been saved from the separation and alienation which should by rights be a consequence of our sin.
Furthermore, in the words of Joel, as quoted by Peter, all we need to do to be saved, in other words to receive this gift from God of reconciliation with him, is call on the name of the Lord.
Our God’s love is unconditional. All we need to do is to accept Jesus for who he is – the son of God – and commit our hearts and lives to him. Our God is also the God of Second Chances. However we have messed up in our lives, it is not too late to be put right with him, to be reconciled to him. We are never too far from God. He never gives up on us. Just as the father in the story of the prodigal son was watching and waiting and longing for his son to come home, so God is just watching and waiting and longing for us to take that one simple step of faith and commitment.
Furthermore, to help us on that journey back home to him, God promises that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth Jesus refers to in our gospel reading, the advocate, the comforter, will guide [us] into all the truth. So, on this day of Pentecost, we remember again the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church and into our lives. In a few moments, Emma will sing Litany to the Holy Spirit by Peter Hurford, which emphasises particularly the comfort which the Holy Spirit can give to us when temptations or doubts or sorrow seem
more than we can bear, when we are sick in heart and sick in head.
This is the gospel – the good news which is at the heart of the Christian faith.
This is why this verse so enormously encouraging, but, as I said at the start, however, this verse is also enormously challenging, and the challenge is in the first word – in the apparently innocent word everyone.
Everyone? Who is everyone?
Well, everyone is everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. That is everyone one who believes in Jesus as the Son of God and commits their hearts and lives to him. That is all someone has to do to be saved – to call on the name of the Lord. That is all that matters -a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.
So, in order for someone to be saved, it doesn’t matter about the colour of their skin, their age, their nationality, their gender, their sexual orientation, their qualifications, the church which they attend, what they believe about the place of women in ministry or the theology of the eucharist, or the myriad of other issues which from time to time seem to become so important. The truth is that none of those issues really matters at all in the whole scheme of things, but sadly the Christian church has found it, and still finds it, very hard to understand that.
Down the centuries, and still today, there are many issues have served to divide and weaken the Christian church. We have come a long way in this country in terms of religious tolerance. We no longer burn people at the stake because we don’t agree with their version of the Christian faith, as we did in Tudor times. There are those who do however still refer to other members of the Christian church as unsound or in error, and refuse to associate with them. Issues around human sexuality and women in ministry and the theology of the eucharist are still battle grounds where Christians come into conflict. There are still many who find it hard to accept the truth of this verse from Acts 2, who find it hard to accept that those from other traditions within the church, with different ideas and ways of doing things, are just as likely to be part of God’s kingdom, as those from their own tradition. As humans, we are prone to a self-satisfied tribalism which makes us feel comfortable and safe. People from other church traditions, with different ideas and ways of doing things, can threaten and bring into question our comfortable safe way of life and we don’t like it.
And this lack of understanding of the truth of this verse from Acts 2 has serious consequences of course. Firstly it causes enormous pain and suffering within the body of the church, when certain groups of people are rejected or ostracised or even persecuted. But secondly, and arguably more seriously, it weakens the power of the gospel message which we are trying to preach. Those outside the church see the petty squabbling and the listen to the at times vitriolic comments made by Christians about each other, and they quite rightly conclude that Christians are hypocrites – who preach about love and forgiveness, but whose lives are far from being loving or forgiving.
Acts 2:21 is then an enormously encouraging verse, reminding us as it does of God’s grace, of his unconditional love for us. It is however also an enormously challenging verse, reminding us as it does of our calling to live lives which bring glory to God and reflect his gracious love for us, by in turn showing our unconditional love to everyone.
Tertullian lived in the 2nd century AD in Carthage in North Africa. He was a Christian convert, raised in a pagan family, who went on to be become a priest and an influential theologian. In 197 AD he wrote a letter to the Roman authorities to plead for justice for the church and to stand up for the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of cruel opposition. In this letter he describes the attitude of the unbelievers towards their Christian neighbours saying
But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how these Christians love one another. See how they are ready even to die for one another.
We like Tertullian live in world where we are surrounded by people who do not share our Christian faith. Are they looking at us and saying the same? Are they looking at us and saying see how these Christians love one another? I fear that that is not always the case.
Let me leave you with the words of Jesus himself from John 13:34, when he says:
Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for another.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/y8Y_EZUDHe8
Seventh Sunday of Easter
John 17: 6 - 19.
As with many passages in the bible this passage from John’s Gospel may seem rather strange to us, but it would not have been at all strange to those who heard it at the time.
Jesus was giving a explanation of the work that he did while with us here on earth. He says to God: "I have made your name known.”
To us that might seem that he had simply told people of God but there are two significant ideas here, both of which would have been quite clear to those who heard this for the first time, but might not be immediately clear to us.
There is an idea which is an essential and characteristic idea common in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament ‘name’ is often used in a very special way. It does not mean simply the name by which a person is called; it means the whole character of the person in so far as it can be known. The Psalmist says: "Those who know your name put their trust in you" ( Psalms 9:10 ).
Clearly that does not mean that those who know what God is called will trust Him; it means that those who know what God is like, those who know his character and nature will be glad to put their trust in Him.
The psalmist says: "Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God" ( Psalms 20:7 ). This means that he can trust God because he knows what he is like. The Psalmist also says: "I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters" ( Psalms 22:22 ). This was a psalm which the Jews believed to be a prophecy of the Messiah and of the work that he would do; and it means that the Messiah's work would be to declare to all people what God is like.
It is the vision that was given to Isaiah that in the new age, "My people shall know my name" ( Isaiah 52:6 ). That is to say that in the golden days all will know fully and truly what God is like.
So when Jesus says: "I have made your name known," he is saying: "I have enabled men to see what the real nature of God is like."
It is in fact another way of saying, as Jesus says to Peter recorded in John 14: 9, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father". It is Jesus' supreme claim that in Him men see the mind, the character, the heart of God.
But there is another idea here. In those times when the Jews spoke of the name of God they meant the sacred four-letter symbol, the tetragrammaton as it is called, IHWH. That name was held to be so sacred that it was never spoken, except by the High Priest when he went into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.
Now this does get a bit complicated, rather like line of duty if you watched it where the letter H was also significant.
These four letters IHWH stand for the name Yahweh which we sometimes translate as Jehova, or sometimes Elohim, I have seen it suggested that in fact there are 72 different names which have been used for God.
In the Hebrew alphabet there were no vowels. Later the vowel sounds were shown by little signs put above and below the consonants. But the four letters IHWH were so sacred and should not be spoken so the vowels of ‘Adonai, meaning Lord, were put below them, so that when a reader came to IHWH they would read, not Yahweh, but 'Adonai.
That is to say, in the time of Jesus the name of God was so sacred that ordinary people were not even supposed to know it, far less to speak it. God was the remote, invisible king, whose name was not for ordinary people to speak.
So Jesus is saying: "I have told you God's name; that name which is so sacred can be spoken now because of what I have done. I have brought the remote, invisible God so close that even the simplest of people can speak to him and take his name upon their lips."
It is Jesus' great claim that he showed to men the true nature and the true character of God; and that he brought Him so close that even the humblest Christian can speak his name.
A massive thing from that small phrase,
"I have made your name known.”
This passage also tells us much more about Jesus and why God sent him to us here on earth as a disciple of God.
What does that mean, a disciple of God?
It means that through Jesus the Spirit of God can move our hearts to respond to him.
The glory of God has come to us through Jesus.
The patient whom he has cured brings honour to the doctor; the scholar whom he has taught brings honour to the teacher; the athlete whom he has trained brings honour to his trainer. Those who Jesus has brought to know God honour Him.
But it goes further the disciple is the man who is commissioned to a task. As God sent out Jesus, just as Jesus sends out His disciples.
And here we have yet another difficult passage. Jesus begins by saying that he does not pray for the world; and yet he came because God so loved the world.
As we have seen in other parts of John's gospel the world can be seen as "human society organising itself without God."
What Jesus does for the world is to send his disciples into it, to make the world aware of God in order to lead it back to God. He prays for his disciples in order that they may win the world for God.
Further, this passage tells us that Jesus offered his disciples two things.
He offered them his joy. All he was saying to them was designed to bring them joy.
But he also offered them warning. He told them that they were different from the world, and that they could not expect anything else but hatred from it.
Their values and standards were different from the world's.
This is not the only time where Jesus tell them that following him will not be easy.
Still further, in this passage Jesus makes the greatest claim he ever made. He prays to God and says: "All mine are yours, and all yours are mine."
The first part of that sentence is natural and easy to understand, for all things belong to God.
But the second part of this sentence is the astonishing claim--"All yours are mine." Luther said: "This no creature can say with reference to God."
Never did Jesus so vividly lay down His oneness with God.
Although it might seem difficult and convoluted to us, for those who were listening at the time they can have come away with no other understating than that Jesus was very clearly confirming for them that He was the messiah they had been expecting, and the message it has for us is that Jesus truly is the Son of God, fully that integral part of the Triune nature of God, Father, Son and Holy spirit.
We know His name, and we can put put our trust in Him.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/3ZoCUHWOcS8
Sixth Sunday of Easter
You did not choose me but I chose you
Do you remember the Wombles? Strange furry creatures who lived underground and went about looking for things left behind.
Great Uncle Bulgaria, old and wise. Madam Cholet, kind-hearted but short-tempered. Tobermory (the handyman), Orinoco (prone to be lazy and greedy), Wellington (clever and shy), Tomsk (sporty womble), and Bungo (bossy and excitable).
The Wombles were created in a series of children’s book by Elizabeth Beresford in the late 1960’s and achieved wider fame when the BBC descended on Wimbledon Common during the 70’s.
The Wombles spent their time gathering things human beings discarded. Before recycling or upcycling was even thought of the Wombles were doing it first. Their motto was, “Make good use of bad rubbish”.
You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit.
The first thing, God chooses us. God chooses us. We do not choose God. People sometimes think that being a Christian is a lifestyle choice. They describe themselves as a churchgoer, in the same way that they might say they are a golfer, or a horse rider.
You might think you chose to come to church this morning, and indeed in today’s world taking part in worship is just one of many possible options on a Sunday morning, so – yes – you have to choose to be here. But God’s work does not depend on our initiative, God first chooses us, and we decide how we respond.
Being chosen matters. Not being chosen hurts. You can probably remember school PE lessons when teams were picked. I suspect PE teachers back then were blissfully unaware of the damage they did to those whose gifts lay elsewhere. Think of the scene in Barry Hines’ novel A kestrel for a knave, adapted into Ken Loach’s film Kes. Billy Casper is a working class lad abused both at home and at school. His PE teacher, Mr Sugden, was based on all too common reality. There are too many people who go through life not being chosen.
When I was in training a wise old priest came to visit and stayed for evensong and the evening meal.
There was a conversation about hospital visiting. One of the tutors was saying that you should never make people feel you have put yourself out for them. Don’t say you’ve had to make a special journey to the hospital. Tell them you were passing, and just popped in.
The wise old priest nearly spilt his gin with outrage. ‘Rubbish’ he snorted. Tell ‘em you’ve made a special trip. Tell ‘em you’ve gone out of your way. Tell ‘em you’ve cancelled something just to visit them. People need to know they are valued. They are worth your time. They are worth a special journey. Let them know they matter. Let them know they are chosen, to be worthy of your time and attention.
The first thing, God chooses you. St Paul calls it having treasure in clay pots. The Wombles called it Making good use of bad rubbish. This journey begins with God choosing you.
The second thing is that you are called for joy. When we were in Chester I often mentioned the Christians at either end of Eastgate Street.
At the cross outside St Peter’s, on a Saturday, there was usually a small group preaching the word. They were committed but stern. Their message was in their voices and their faces, harsh and gloomy. People hurried past keeping their heads down.
At the other end, outside WH Smiths there was black guy who worked in a local building society. In his lunchtime he’d stand and sing. His favourite song was ‘Happy Days’ and I’m not talking about the Fonz.
It was the Whoopi Goldberg song from Sister Act – Oh happy day, when Jesus washed me, washed my sins away, Oh happy day. His face beamed. His eyes shone, and he rarely sang alone for long. Students and other young people joined in, they’d sing, then they’d laugh, then they went on their way. His joy was infectious.
You are chosen for joy.
Do you know where the word Womble comes from? It is partly based on an old French word, ‘omble’, meaning the offal of a deer. It was the omble pie for the poor, after the best meat had gone to the rich.
Omble is about food, basic down to earth food, a meal that is shared by people who stand together facing life’s adversities. Omble pie is the humble meat, served in pastry to fill people up, it is a meal to be shared, eaten together. When people eat together community is formed.
Martin Percy says that to ‘womble’ is to forage, to hunt around for the unseen, the hidden, neglected, discarded. Jesus both advocated and practiced wombling. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame. When he visited a town, he chose to spend time with the rejected and overlooked.
In what comes next our churches need to womble. There are many who have become isolated, lonely, and lost confidence. I keep hearing people saying they want to come back, to reconnect, but they are finding it difficult.
We need to womble. To go looking for them, as the good shepherd might. Maybe it is as simple as doing something like making a meal together, choosing to run a lunch club. Sharing a meal, making a space people can come into, creating community. I’m not sure we’d hunt down deer, but soup and a roll might do, so long as there’s cake to follow.
It has been done here before, people tell me the WI used to do it in the Mews. Maybe it’s time to do it again. To womble – looking for the unseen, the hidden, the neglected.
God chooses us. He chooses us for joy. His joy is that we bear fruit, and make a difference.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/m4pxMRw2fj8
Rogationtide 2nd May 2021
Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
We are marking Rogationtide, traditionally the days immediately before the Feast of the Ascension, when the church focussed on the work of the land.
I was watching a tractor in the field next to the vicarage. One of the joys of living where we do is that the kitchen window looks out over the field. When we arrived it was full of turnips, then it was full of sheep, then all the turnips disappeared. Then the sheep went and the muck spreader arrived, followed by the plough, then the harrow.
A new crop, a harvest, then the plough again. The land is always busy. The farmer’s work is never done. This year something new. A subsoiler plough, breaking up the hard pan where last year’s tractor compacted the soil. The plough followed, and a few days later the harrow.
It struck me these are images rich with significance for how life feels at the moment. People speak of a harrowing experience. It usually means something difficult and unpleasant. Something that shakes us, possibly something that breaks us.
As I watched those two tractors criss-crossing the field I had a sense of this is how things feel right now. Like the ploughed earth our lives have been overturned. This year it feels like the overturning has been deep, and things we thought we solid and fixed have been cut through and broken up.
Then comes the harrowing. In the old creeds people spoke of the crucified Christ descending to the dead. Holy Saturday, the day between the Good Friday and Easter Sunday, marks the time when Christ was dead. In the old traditions it was called the Harrowing of Hell, when God breaks the power of death.
The harrow breaks up. And we find a curious new significance, that this word which we avoid, because harrowing experiences are painful, is also the word for the preparation of ground for the planting of new seeds. It is only when the ground has been harrowed that new life begins.
I suspect many people have a sense of lives being deeply overturned and life being broken. I know there are many people who are finding it difficult to reconnect with what went before. People who used to be sociable and enjoy the company of others are struggling to find any enthusiasm to take up what they have lost. People who used to do things actively have a sense of diminished confidence. People who were proactive and determined say they have just lost their spark.
The first thing – the first thing is to accept this for what it is. In the land that is overturned and harrowed, in this season of Rogationtide, we get a sense of how things are. A facing of facts, an understanding of how we feel and what we experience, and also that curious new significance – that it is the overturned and harrowed land which is ready for new planting.
Jesus said, Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
We might prefer it not to be pruned. But God has other plans. The hallmark of life, and the judgement of life, are the fruits we bear. It is as the parable of the talents, to those who have been given gifts much will be expected. The servant who hid his talent in the ground had it taken from him.
It doesn’t mean that we all have to do things that will make the headlines. God isn’t looking for heroes. As Edward Kings said, what we need are a few quiet saints. A course I used a few years ago began with the story of Peter, who after 25 years in the same place retired to a town he didn’t know. He was lost. No friends, no connections, no church, no job. What was he to do with his time? In a sense Peter’s life had been ploughed up and harrowed. Like a field, his life was made empty. It is in the emptiness God makes new beginnings. That is a phrase I keep coming back to – God acts in the empty spaces.
Peter prayed. He took a risk and asked God, what do you want me to do? Which is a dangerous prayer because you never know what the answer might be.
And in his prayer a verse from Jeremiah came to mind – Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.
So what does that mean?
Well Peter liked to go for a morning walk through a local park. On his next walk he stopped and looked around. It was a nice park, it had once been neat and tidy, with flowerbeds and a bandstand. Sadly these days it was a bit of a mess. There was litter everywhere.
So Peter went to Screwfix and bought a litter picker and a roll of bin bags, and he started picking up litter. And nobody noticed, at first. But after a few days people began to notice, and a couple of them stopped and chatted to him, and then a few more, and people asked him why he was doing it. And Peter told them it was God’s answer to his prayer.
Sometimes it takes our lives to be deeply overturned for us to hear God’s voice. Sometimes it is in the painful moments of harrowing that new beginnings emerge. Sometimes it is when we do not know what to do that we are closest to bearing fruit.
We may thing we come to church to be comforted. If so remember what Jesus said, Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You may be here this morning because God is pruning you, making you ready to do something more, be something more.
If life is like that, if you feel overturned, harrowed, pruned, remember what Jesus said. It is those who bear fruit who God turns to. Your challenge may be a sign God sees in you a branch that bears good fruit.
25th April 2021 - Fourth Sunday of Easter
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil
The image we ponder today is that of the shepherd. One of the consolations of lockdown has been the joy of walking the pathways of Cheshire. We are blessed with a beautiful land, as the Psalmist says, “My share has fallen in a fair land.” Over the past months I have worn out two pairs of walking shoes, and one pair of wellies.
We do not take this beauty for granted. On every walk my heart has dwelt on those living in high rise blocks, or families with children with no garden, surrounded by bricks and concrete.
I remember taking a group of children from a Liverpool outer estate into North Wales. As the minibus climbed the hills chaos erupted in the back seats. Some exotic creature had been spotted and there was great excitement. The children clamoured to know what it was.
It was a sheep.
For us the image of the shepherd might seem well known. For many in our society it is utterly alien. The first thing to note is that when we speak of Christ the Good Shepherd many in our society won’t have a clue what we are on about.
But then do we? There is a huge difference between your 21st Century Cheshire farmer and your 1st Century Palestinian shepherd. Jesus was speaking from what he knew, and what he saw day by day. He was using language people understood.
The shepherds of Jesus’ day lived a precarious existence. It was a job at the bottom of the social ladder, difficult, dangerous and disliked. When Jesus says, ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking of Amos, chapter 3, verse 12. Of course you are.
“Thus says the Lord, ‘As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel be rescued…’”
A Palestinian shepherd had to account for sheep that were taken, attacks by wild animal or robbers were frequent. If the shepherd could not save the sheep he was at least charged with bringing evidence of the attack.
William Barclay quotes one who had spent time with shepherds; “I have listened with intense interest to their graphic descriptions of downright and desperate fights with these savage beasts. And when the thief and the robber come (and come they do), the faithful shepherd has often to put his life in his hand to defend the flock. I have known more than one case where he had literally to lay it down in the contest. A poor faithful fellow last spring, between Tiberias and Tabor, instead of fleeing, actually fought three Bedawin robbers until he was hacked to pieces with their khanjars, and died among the sheep he was defending.”
Which is not to say that our modern shepherds have an easy life by any means. The Lakeland shepherd, James Rebanks, in his book ‘The Shepherd’s life’ offers some advice to would-be shepherds.
First thing – it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep.
Second thing – you won’t always win.
Third thing – so stop whining and get on with it.
There’s some good advice for churches in those words.
Jesus draws a distinction between the good shepherd and the hired hand. The clue is in the word ‘good’. As you well know, in Greek there are two words for good. There is agathos which describes the moral quality of a thing. And there is kalos which means something good because it is lovely.
When Jesus speaks of the good shepherd he used kalos. We sometimes refer to someone as good because we see in them something wonderful. A good teacher may be skilful, effective, able to control a class and deliver good results. But then there are those people whose passion for their pupils goes beyond skill and efficiency and results. A good teacher inspires and encourages, is gracious, generous and kind. There is a difference between effective and good.
When Jesus speaks of ‘good’ he means people who inspire and encourage, those whose passion for what they do makes it an act of love rather than just a job.
Covid has been, as Charles Dickens put it, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We have, quite literally, walked through the valley of the shadow of death. We have seen great suffering and much grief. We know a difficult road lies ahead. Yet we have also seen, as Kate Adie put it, ‘the kindness of strangers’. Medical staff and those working in care homes have trodden the path of the good shepherd, too many have lost their life in doing so.
Neighbours have shown kindness in countless acts done for others. Teachers have gone door to door delivering lessons to children. People have volunteered in their thousands. We have seen goodness, kalos, in our communities. So yes, we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death – and we have seen goodness and seen it in abundance.
We face tough times ahead, our world has changed, we have changed, our jobs, our communities, our churches, have changed. In a few moments we shall hold our annual meeting a key part of which is to grasp some difficult nettles and elect people to represent our church as we move into that difficult future.
On our shared behalf may I offer our thanks to those who have served our church over the past year, in some cases for several years, but particularly over a year that has been unprecedented and extraordinarily challenging.
The past year has been the most challenging we have faced in many of our lifetimes. But let us acknowledge, here and now, that the year ahead will present us with even greater challenges.
I hope we are building a community that is good, people who do what they do not just out of a sense of duty but because with a genuine love for what it means to be a parish church. We need people who are kalos. Such lives make a difference.
I want to finish with a comment made to me by a local funeral director a few days ago. He said, we see funerals in many settings, churches, crematoria, civic celebrants, clergy, people of all faiths or none. In this past year your church has stood out as a place where people are treated with courtesy, kindness and respect. It is still difficult. We are still under Covid restrictions. But in your church it just seems better, it is kinder.
In what comes next let us tread as the good shepherd, that what we do we do kindly, with grace and in love.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/XRfUCy79t28
18th April 2021 - The Third Sunday of Easter
Luke 24: 36b – 48 (Act 3: 12-19)
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
If our phone rings before 10am it is usually someone wanting to
1. save us money on domestic appliance insurance,
2. prevent us from being charged for something expensive we never knew we'd bought from Amazon,
3. or to tell us we have a problem with our internet which they'd like to resolve for us.
I'm afraid they all usually get pretty short shrift from me.
The other week we did have a problem with our internet, and an engineer from Openreach came and sorted it out for us – but just after he left we had a phone call “about our internet”. How were we to know whether it was a genuine follow up or another would-be scammer? That was an easy one, but unfortunately many of us hear the words without comprehending their meaning.
We've also heard a lot about fake news recently – and for some of us even April Fool jokes were difficult to recognise. It now seems that we live in a society where truth is often more unbelievable than fiction – and fraudsters play on that.
The events described in our reading from Luke 24 were not easy to believe either – but these were genuine. They took place on the evening of Jesus' resurrection. Late that afternoon the risen Jesus met Cleopas and another disciple as they walked on the Emmaus Road. After Jesus had left them they went to tell the other disciples that they had seen Jesus.
Despite that – when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, v37 tells us “they were startled and terrified, as though they were seeing a ghost”. ….. and it wasn't as if Jesus himself hadn't prepared them what was going to happen either. It is there in v46: “thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day”.
But if you look at v44 you will see there is more to it than that - Jesus tells them “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written in the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled”. Here Jesus is summarizing the message of the OT – i.e. what is happening now is what God always planned, as he had revealed in his Word.
Yes the Easter events are the fulfilment of scripture – but God's plan doesn't stop there – because he tells us in v47 that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name, to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”
Jesus had taught all this to his disciples but – as we might say today – the message hadn't sunk in. Their minds were not yet open to understand what they had been taught.
Move on for a moment to Acts 3 (our first reading). It is now after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had been poured out on the disciples – Peter is a new man - and almost unrecognisable from when he denied Jesus in the High Priest's court a few weeks previously.
Here he is now standing in Solomon's portico (part of the Temple where Jesus had taught the disciples) addressing the people and he is really socking it to them:
• you rejected Jesus and handed him over to Pilate
• you rejected Pilate's finding of his innocence
• you demanded the release of a convicted murderer in his stead
• you killed Jesus, the author of life, whom God raised from the dead
Collective responsibility has always been a contentious issue.
• The church gets blamed for what it does as much as it gets blamed for what it fails to do.
• A good proportion of the population think of the church only as the buildings - a view we would probably refute,
• but another sector of society blame the nearest Christian they can find for anything the church does which they don't like – whether we happen to agree with it or not.
Here Peter was using the word you in a collective sense, LAOS was the collective noun for the Jewish people = it was you Jews who were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus – not his listeners individually.
However – and this is a very important point – we cannot stop there - as some throughout history have done. Peter (v 17) puts this in context “I know you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers – but this is how God fulfilled what the prophets had foretold, that the Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore and turn to God that your sins may be wiped out.”
The 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine was visited by a priest who urged him to make his peace with God while he still had time. Heine replied flippantly “God will forgive me – that's his job”
That is a very dangerous assumption - we cannot expect God to ignore our sins, but we have the assurance that he pardons those sins which we confess and renounce.
The renounce bit is important and sometimes is more difficult than the confession itself. It's not much good confessing what we did wrong last week, unless we resolve not to repeat the misdemeanour next week.
Of course we don't always get it right straight away and God may still forgive us again – but that doesn't give us a licence to go on sinning provided we confess afterwards. We have to keep working at renouncing and hopefully move on.
Here Peter was not suggesting the sin of the Jewish people and their leaders was excusable, nor was he implying that forgiveness was unnecessary – but he was showing why forgiveness was possible – through Jesus the slate can be wiped clean.
So here we see Peter and the disciples taking up that command from Luke 24. They have started to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins, but so far they are only at stage 1 - “beginning from Jerusalem” and of course the job is nowhere near finished yet 2,000 years later.
The on-going mission of the church is the responsibility of God's people in every generation. As Paul Dawson reminded us last week we benefit from those who brought the gospel to this country 1500 years ago and from those who established Christianity and built and endowed our churches in the centuries since. .
God promised Abraham that the good news would be shared with All Nations – so we are but one generation in God's purposes. Our role is not just to preserve and conserve that which we have inherited – and that seems difficult enough at times – but to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with those who do not know him.
I don't know about you but I've found that a particularly difficult thing to do in the last year or so, so it is my prayer for us all that God will open each of our minds to understand the Scriptures better - that we may be open to his leading as we face the opportunities, and challenges, that come to us as individuals and as a church.
The YouTube version is here https://youtu.be/Y7hvo8JVsOY
Second Sunday of Easter
‘he breathed on them…’
Locked doors. Breath. A finger.
Let us begin by noticing the context of this morning’s reading from St John. The disciples met behind locked doors.
We are an Easter community. We celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are the church whose task it is to proclaim good news to all people.
Yet this was not immediately so. In the days of the first Easter the friends of Jesus met behind locked doors, because they were afraid. Easter is a drama, it is a journey, over these weeks we witness transformation. That frightened, beaten, despairing people were changed. If those friends of Jesus had only met behind locked doors we would not be here today.
God acts. God acts in people. God begins with ordinary people, people like you and me, not terribly clever, not always brave, not filled with confidence, and when the world falls to bits he acts in those people to make a new beginning.
We need to hear that today more than ever before. And we need to remember that like the seed that falls into the earth and dies, new beginnings are at first small and hidden.
We need at this time a sense of grace and generosity. I was reading this week a book by one of my favourite authors, John Lewis-Stempel – The Running Hare, the secret life of farmland.
It is the time he took a field in Herefordshire and sowed it by hand with wheat. He wanted to take a field from which all wild flowers had been eradicated, and all wildlife fled, and nurture life back into it. He quotes the old adage for hand-sowing, “One for the rook, and one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.’ We get our term ‘broadcasting’ from the old way of sowing. It is a reminder that not everything will work as we think it will, or hope and expect it will.
God must surely know us in the same way, the failures are more frequent than the successes, but it is the seed that falls to the ground and dies that bears a harvest. God’s way is of grace and generosity, allowing the harvest to grow where it can.
What comes next may make us anxious, like the friends who met behind locked doors. But Easter is a time for transformation. We need to allow God to act in us. Small beginnings matter. Locked doors.
Next - Breath.
Jesus breathed on his disciples. This is how God transforms. Our bibles begin with emptiness, the earth was without form and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep, the breath of God moved over the face of the waters.
The word ‘breath’ is interchangeable with ‘Spirit’ or ‘Wind’. It conveys life giving energy. Every living thing is that which has been given the breath of life.
A new born child’s first breath is a moment of change, lungs formed in the womb that have never been filled with air suddenly start to work. Oxygen is absorbed, the miracle of new life begins. It is no wonder breath is understood as a gift.
In Luke the gift of the Spirit is given in the simplicity of this moment, Jesus breaths on his friends and so shares God’s life changing Spirit.
This gift is given to be used. That is made clear. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
We often overlook the second part of that. There is nothing soft or woolly about our commission as followers of Jesus. We have a job to do and it matters. In the ordination of priests one of the charges laid upon those entering holy orders is the responsibility to teach and admonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord’s family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations.
Being a Christian isn’t about being nice to people. Sometimes what people need isn’t what they want. In our life together God calls us to be tough because love costs.
That is something else we need to bear in mind as we face what comes next for our churches. This will not be an easy time. Moments of change never are. A new born child’s first breath is usually a cry. Breath transforms.
You might expect that a new movement trying to introduce new ideas would make the most of its heroes. Naval stories of Nelson always focus on his grasp of strategy and boldness in tactics. You don’t hear many stories pointing out that he wasn’t actually a very good sailor.
So Christianity is a very odd new movement. Our gospels mostly tell us how the disciples got it wrong. Peter jumped overboard and sank. James and John wanted seats of importance. Thomas doubted.
Well, if anything, such failures give us hope, because – if I dare say it – the church is full of failures. Maybe it’s only when we know we’re pretty hopeless that we’re willing to listen to a different way of looking at things.
The fact that the gospels record the failures of the disciples is really quite astonishing when you think about it. You’d expect those bits to be quietly edited out – but they haven’t, and for that I am truly thankful.
More to the point - the resurrection does not deny the reality of Christ’s suffering. If Walt Disney has scripted Easter the risen Christ would be revealed as young, fit and healthy. But Luke tells us a different story, that the risen Christ still bore the marks of crucifixion. He invites Thomas to put his finger into the marks of the nails, to put his hand into the wound of the spear.
The risen Christ, indeed when we come to it, the ascended Christ, still bears in his body the wounds of crucifixion. So too does his body the Church.
This also is a mark of how we will be in the times ahead. Covid will leave scars. Scars in individuals, scars in communities, scars in our society, and scars within our churches.
Locked doors. Breath. A finger.
God acts in people. God acts in us. In the resurrection we see how God acts, and in whom.
Christ, our risen Lord, no tomb can keep you,
no door is closed to you, no heart is barred to you,
no mind is shut off from you.
Come lead us out of darkness into light,
out of doubt into faith, out of death into life eternal:
Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/kCrBdbLeqds
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
We come to Easter morning. We have walked with Christ in the wilderness. We have pondered the meaning of the cross. We have followed the crowds who saw Jesus. We have sat at table as his friends, shared bread and wine, wondered at his taking the role of a servant, washing his friends’ feet.
We have stood at the cross, or perhaps not, as many then could not, to watch him die. To be abandoned is the hardest death of all. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It wasn’t just God who forsook him that day.
And now with the women we come to the grave. It was a woman’s role, they brought spices to anoint the body. In Jewish burial customs a body was first buried in a temporary tomb. Only later, when just the bones were left, was it moved for permanent burial.
The women would have sat through the night grinding spices with which to anoint the body for this first burial. Perhaps in silence, just being together grinding the spices of grief. We don’t always need the right words. We sometimes just need to be together. That is something we have learnt anew through these past difficult months.
When they come to the tomb they expect to find nothing other than death. This is the end of their hopes, all their dreams, all their love. The world can be a cruel place.
We need to remember this. Our Easter morning begins as a day of mourning. We must grasp that reality if we are to understand what God is doing through his people. Happy clappy religion that sees the world through rose tinted glasses is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
In Easter our encounter with God is in the cross and the grave, and why are we surprised? Is this not the same God who acts in the wilderness? Is this not the same God whose voice is heard not in signs of power and glory, not in the earthquake, not in the mighty wind, not in the brilliance of fire, but comes to one terrified and alone, hiding in the wilderness, hearing God in the piercing silence?
Is this not the same God who looks to the desert to make new beginnings? The God who is more at home in a tent than a temple, in a stable than a palace.
So – if we can walk in the dawn light with the women we do so carrying the spices of grief. That last final act of love – which is all God needs. For it is they who discover the unthinkable, that in this ultimate desert place God is doing what God does best, and is making a new start.
Mark, as I have said many times, is a master story teller. You will notice what is missing from this story. Like that party game where you memorise a collection of items, then one is removed and you have to spot what is missing.
So what is missing from this Easter morning? The answer of course is Jesus. Nowhere in Mark’s Easter account do the disciples actually meet the risen Christ. The story ends at verse 8, the women running away, in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
That’s it. End of. Finito.
Our bibles of course have some extra verses, but those are very clearly added later to try to make sense of Mark’s abrupt ending. There are those who think Mark obviously wrote more but that has been lost. Think of a manuscript where someone picks it up but leaves the last page behind. Maybe it’s a simple as that.
Others, and I am one of them, think that Mark ended his Gospel this way by intention. He is a master story teller, and really good stories have untidy endings. Yes, in your average fairy tale they all lived happily ever after, one of our infant nativities even ended that way, which was a bit odd seeing it was performed under a stained glass window of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, but this isn’t a fairy story.
Mark is writing for people who choose to follow Jesus, and who choose to do so in a difficult and dangerous world, who would never themselves meet the risen Lord. For those people what happens next matters, and it matters very much.
They knew, as we know, that being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy. In fact for them it was often a life threatening choice. Can the story end with women running away in fear, saying nothing to anyone?
Yes it can. But if it had we wouldn’t be here today. But it didn’t. So we are.
In Mark’s account as we have it I suggest we find ourselves involved in this Easter morning. Do we encounter this truth and go away telling no-one? If we do that what happens next? Or can we hear him telling us – you are here because that’s not how it ended. And you can’t let it end that way today.
The story of Jesus, God’s greatest gift, ends like it started. As vulnerable and as weak as a baby born in a shed. A truth as fragile as a tale told by frightened people.
Yet this message of hope and of unbreakable love has endured. Today it is placed into our hands. In these strange and difficult times it us who run into the dawn, and what message have we to tell?
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/yaR02PVaAcY
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches
We come to Palm Sunday, and one unlike any before. We cannot process with our palm crosses. We cannot read our usual dramatic Gospel. But at least we are here, last year our churches were closed on Palm Sunday.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road. Palm Sunday is a day of crowds. Crowds are fickle. Crowds can change unpredictably. Crowds can be peaceful and quiet one moment, a raging mob the next. A crowd can be a shared celebration, the joyous greeting of a successful football team. Or a crowd can be an angry force of violence and destruction, as we saw recently in Bristol.
Jesus knew crowds. He spent time with many people. He clearly knew how to, as they say, work a crowd. He could read the mood, he spoke with humour, irony and appeal. He could stun a crowd into silence, and he could provoke hostility and resentment.
Margaret Thatcher was infamously misquoted as saying, “There is no such thing a society.” Which ignored the second part of what she said, that society can only exist because it is created when individuals come together. A crowd is a crowd, many people, many unique and individual people. Each person matters.
In St Luke’s account Palm Sunday is immediately preceded by the story of Zacchaeus. You will recall that Zacchaeus was a small man so he climbed a tree to see Jesus better. We may remember that Zacchaeus was a bad man who cheated people in their taxes. And if we remember that then we remember wrong. Like the crowd we have jumped to conclusions. Collective memory isn’t always right.
Nowhere in the story of Zacchaeus does it say that he was a cheat or dishonest. When he meets Jesus he says that if he has defrauded anyone then he will restore it four times over. If he had defrauded anyone – the ‘if’ makes a difference. Jesus very often spotted the person amongst the many, the individual within the crowd, the person left out, ignored, overlooked or despised. Jesus spotted Zacchaeus, and many others.
I spoke last week on the request of the Greeks, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ I suggested that most of the time most of the people see the Jesus they want to see, the Jesus that fits their agenda, the Jesus who matches their views, the Jesus that doesn’t ask awkward questions.
The crowd was no different. They wanted a new king. They wanted someone to make life better. They wanted a hope they could get behind. They wanted what you and I want, for our lives to be better than they are right now.
Jesus knew what they saw in him, and he knew he wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. So he rode on a donkey, a parody of a Roman triumphal procession, I am not what you think I am.
To be fair to the crowd even his closest friends didn’t get him right. Judas didn’t set out to betray Jesus to death, he likely believed that Jesus was God’s Messiah, sent to kick out the Romans and bring in a new age of Jewish independence. His actions weren’t designed to send Jesus to his death, he acted in good faith, hoping to provoke the final conflict between good and evil, knowing Jesus would prevail.
Like many, he saw the Jesus he wanted to see, not the man riding a donkey, not the man washing his friends’ feet, not the man who would accept the cross as the only means of doing God’s will.
It is an unusual Palm Sunday. It will be an unusual Holy Week. It will be an unusual Easter. Maybe in this time we will glimpse an unusual Jesus – not quite the person we expect, not quite the man we think we know.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/-s6NpNz7Hpk
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
In 2018 I attended a conference in Manchester for those involved in Cathedral ministry. I came home with several things. A whistle, a genuine ACME Thunderer, the gift of an after dinner speaker who informed and entertained us with the history of Joseph Hudson who in the 1880’s developed the first police whistle.
Did you know that before the ACME whistle football referees had to call attention to a foul by waving a handkerchief? Not very effective. Joseph Hudson’s whistle have played their part in policing, sport, maritime safety, military communication and as Fiona will testify – calling over excited children back into class.
I also came home with several books, some useful contacts, a job offer in Australia, and a cross.
The first Christian sign was the sign of the fish. You will have seen it on the back of cars. A simple line outline in the shape of a fish. It was used by Christians to mark places of gathering, family homes where the church met to worship. In Greek the word for fish is ICTHUS – the letters of which stand for Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour.
Yet it is the cross which is the most universally recognised sign of the Christian faith. And if you think about it that is odd. The cross was a Roman instrument of putting someone to death in the most humiliating and agonizing way possible. It was a slow death, stripped naked and robbed of all dignity. The cross was a deliberate tool of political oppression. As I said recently, the message of the cross is that this person doesn’t count.
So why did Christians, this new movement of friends of Jesus, use the instrument of his death as a sign?
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
If someone asked you that what would you show them?
Our pictures of Jesus are of necessity no more than imaginative. Some of them very badly informed. You can probably remember images of a handsome blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus – forgetting entirely that Jesus was Jewish.
People nearly always portray Jesus as they would like him to be. On the one hand there is Jesus meek and mild who wouldn’t say boo to a goose and certainly wouldn’t present any disturbing questions. On the other is Jesus the freedom fighter, the wild revolutionary, malleable to whatever ideology you’re wanting to promote.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
To this request Jesus gives an unexpected answer. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
During our conference we met at St Anne’s church in the middle of the Manchester shopping centre to listen to the Archbishop of York. Outside the church there is a bench on which is a sculpture of a homeless man sleeping. He is wrapped in a blanket, you cannot see his face, only his feet stick out.
And they are pierced feet. This is an image of Jesus, as a homeless person sleeping on a bench.
It is in stark contrast to the glitz and glamour of the surrounding shops. Its poverty is shocking in the midst of so much wealth and money spent on ourselves. You come out of a shoe store with your shiny new shoes and there are cold naked feet pierced by nails. The buildings tower upwards, modern and clean, our Lord appears tiny and insignificant so low and on the edge.
When the statue was unveiled, it was unveiled by a homeless man named Dave.
It reminded me of a story, of a lady hurrying to a prestigious exhibition of religious art. Near the entrance she spotted a huddled figure sat on the pavement with a cup begging for coins. She kept her head down, didn’t make eye contact, and hurried past.
The exhibition was everything she’d hoped for. Beautiful treasures speaking of God’s glory and transcendence. Paintings that spoke of peace and joy. Sculptures which were breathtakingly powerful. Until she came to a sixteenth century sculpture, Christ on the Cold Stone, depicting Jesus naked, alone, awaiting crucifixion.
As she left the exhibition she came again to the homeless person outside. And saw them differently.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
Jesus’ answer is that those who wish to see him need to let go of themselves. We cannot see Jesus if the Jesus we seek is the Jesus we want. It is only when the grain falls into the earth and dies that it bears fruit. The grain that is kept safe does nothing. It just eventually rots.
The cross then is why Christians know who they are.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/CbnN5-fEdic
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
We come to Mothering Sunday, in strange and difficult times. Last year Mothering Sunday was the first Sunday of lockdown. All our preparations fell to bits, our churches were closed, there was a sense of being bewildered and bereft.
A year later and we are still bereft. We cannot visit our families. Travel is restricted. We are separated from those we love.
We are aware of those who have lost people they love, who have been unable to grieve with others. Of babies born yet to be held by grandparents. Of those who have become mothers alone, without the support of family, and unable to make bonds with other new parents.
If there is a price of lockdown it is the social isolation which has affected every part of our society. In the months ahead I hope our churches can be places where people can connect. We need to work on new connections.
And this is an unusual Mothering Sunday. Originally Mothering Sunday was a day people travelled. They went back to the church where they were baptised, or to the Cathedral, the mother church of the Diocese. They would usually make the journey walking, and it was said they went ‘a Mothering’. Such travel of course, would be illegal today.
Those who travelled would reconnect with family, often taking a Simnel Cake as a gift, a reminder that whilst Mothering Sunday falls during Lent it is still a Sunday, the day of resurrection, so it remains a feast day.
By the early 1900’s the world had changed, not least following the
First World War, and Mothering Sunday had largely
been forgotten. In 1921 Constance Penswick-Smith, the daughter of the vicar of Coddington, Northamptonshire, wrote a book
suggesting the revival of Mothering Sunday. It was a focus on family in an age when many of the poor worked in service or newly emerging industries, people who had little time off and precious few holidays, family life was changing and Mothering Sunday was a reminder that family matters.
It was Mothering Sunday, not Mother’s Day, an American invention which its creator, Anne Jarvis, later campaigned to abolish because it had been overtaken by commercialism and lost contact with its original intent.
I must confess to feeling rather lost when preparing for this service. Usually Mothering Sunday has meant churches filled with families, gifts of flowers for all ladies present, and a sermon aimed at a younger audience. But not this year.
A few years ago Fiona and I marked Mothering Sunday with the Great British Bake Off, we both made cakes during the service. We had the same ingredients but there the similarity ended. Fiona’s ingredients were weighed carefully on the scales - mine were measured in handfuls less whatever fell onto the floor.
Fiona mixed her cake in a Kenwood Chef, I used a paint stirrer mounted in a power drill. Fiona’s cake was made with love and care, mine was chucked in a bucket. Fiona’s table was neat and tidy. My side of the church looked like an explosion at Mr Kiplings.
The message was meant to suggest that love and care matter, a reminder to value the things our mothers do for us. It has to be said, that when the cakes were baked and presented to the Brownies and Cubs, both were consumed with equal delight. A reminder for parents that you don’t need to be perfect to be a good parent.
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
Both our readings speak of parenthood in difficult times, and they bear witness to the transforming power of compassion and courage. You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to work out that Pharoah’s daughter knew exactly what was going on. When a Hebrew mother comes forward to look after the child hidden by the river she must have figured out whose child this was.
So often in the Old Testament it is the women who act with wisdom and discernment.
On 23rd October 1881, some of our older members may remember it, Edward King preached a sermon in which he mentioned a sign he had seen in a local park. The notice ran, “All persons are requested to assist the society in the protection of the flowers.”
There was no threat of punishment or hint of compulsion. Just an appeal to everyone’s sense of beauty and value to exercise their personal freedom for the preservation of a common good.
Such signs today would be different. Inevitably there would be a penalty for none compliance. We live in a culture which assumes people will only be good if they forced to be so.
Mothering Sunday is reminder that God invites us to assist in the protection of the flowers, or if not the preservation of nature, to assist in the protection of people. There is an appeal for us to share in God’s work of bringing new life, caring for the fragile, nurturing the young, helping people grow and develop their full potential.
God invites us to assist, without threat of punishment or hint of compulsion. All persons are requested to assist – it’s as simple as that.
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
Pharoah’s daughter didn’t need to act to save this child. She didn’t need to turn a blind eye to the reality that the Hebrew woman was clearly the child’s mother. She didn’t need to risk herself by breaking the law.
But she saw the child and she chose to do good.
As you go about your week ahead, in the people you meet, difficult children, awkward adults, or in the handling of things, which Benedict reminds us are always God given treasures, reflect on that sign in the park.
All persons are requested to assist the society in the protection of the flowers.
You don’t have do. If you don’t there’s no come back. It’s just an invitation, to be the person who makes a difference for the better.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/4HJZNx3oSIE
7th March 2021 - Third Sunday of Lent
John 2: 13 - 17
The Bible teaches us that our God is the God of 2nd chances.
To try to be positive that could have been what Jesus was doing when He turned over the tables in the Temple. Giving those who had disgraced the temple a 2nd chance. A chance to give up what they were doing and try a different way.
In this passage it is easy to see the emotion of Jesus. This is not the only time when we see the emotions of Jesus coming to centre stage.
But this is slightly different from other times when Jesus allowed us to see his emotions, there is only one way to describe it, on this particular day….Jesus was angry.
I’m sure all of us have been there. Something stirs us up, our emotions flare up and suddenly our anger spews out. But we need to clear about an important truth here.
It’s not being angry that is a sin. It is what we do with our anger that really matters, and what we direct it at.
We know that Jesus was without sin, and yet here we see him in this story showing what seemed like uncontrolled anger at the sellers and money changers, and actually driving them out of the temple.
It seems His emotion took over, but it was for a reason.
The temple was being used for the wrong purpose, a bad purpose. This was not so much about the buying and selling that was taking place, it was about how and why it was being done.
It was the time of the Passover which meant that Jews who were faithful, and able to, headed to Jerusalem to celebrate. So Jesus went too, but when He got there things were not as they should be.
You may remember that in the Old Testament, God required the Jews to celebrate the Passover to remind them of how God had delivered them out of Egypt.
To preserve the life of their first born they would need to kill a sacrificial lamb and apply the blood of the lamb to the door post.
When the messenger would see the blood then he would pass over the house and the child would be spared.
They were also told that (if possible) they were to go to Jerusalem to make this sacrifice. So this is why Jesus and His family were there.
I want you to imagine if you will, what they saw when they got there. The Jews had greatly multiplied by this time so hundreds of thousands of Jews would have flooded the city. Like some major convention, or perhaps like the Olympics had come to town. And all of that attention and the size of the crowd meant one thing to the Priests and the Pharisees. Money. The economic impact was huge. The merchants, and the priests and temple leaders, would clearly make a lot of money.
When Jesus arrived at the temple He saw immediately that it had been turned into a giant marketplace. But worse than that was how they were selling, they were certainly charging far more than they should.
In other words they were ripping the people off. Most of the people who came to Jerusalem for Passover had traveled a very long way. Travel was already tough but imagine trying to travel with the animals for their sacrifice. Almost impossible.
Depending on what type of offering you were making that would decide the type of animal you needed. It could be a big as bull, or a small as a dove ... but in addition for Passover everyone was required to bring, or purchase, a lamb.
So it would be a real struggle to bring them any distance. Even if you decided to bring your own animals they had to be perfect, no spot or blemish. And you were not the one who got to decide. The priest was.
Many, no doubt, brought their own animals only to have them turned down by the priests. The priests were sharing the merchants profit so they turned many of them down. Then you had to purchase one at their prices.
They had a monopoly going and anytime there is a monopoly, people will take advantage of it. And they did. They charged high prices because the people had no choice but to pay it.
So here were those who sold the cattle, doves, lambs and right by them were the money changers, you see you couldn't just use any money, it had to be specific coins that were needed to be used, and most people would not have them. So merchants and money changers were taking lots of money from people who simply came to worship their Lord, and probably couldn't afford it.
And there they were when in walked Jesus.
Jesus the man who worked in a carpenters’ shop with His Father Joseph, a man who is healthy and strong and He storms in and basically destroys the place. Animals, people, money, scattered everywhere.
Not surprisingly the the leaders of the Temple began to demand some answers from Jesus.
Basically they were asking Jesus “who do you think you are?” If you are so important do something to prove yourself. They demanded that He give them some kind of sign, a miracle to show he had authority.
And how did Jesus answer them? He said, “An evil and adulterous generation looks for a sign.”
Could this happen today? Of course it could, and it does.
Have you ever said, I’ll go to church Lord, if you will just heal me. OR Lord if you will just get me out this problem I’ll live like I should OR Lord if you will just answer this one prayer, I’ll do whatever you ask.
The Jews asked for a sign. Instead of giving them a sign Jesus simply answers their question.
But they didn’t understand, but then, neither did the disciples at that point.
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in 3 days I will raise it up.” They were confused. They all thought He was talking about the building they were standing in.
Jesus was, of course, talking about Himself. His crucifixion. And these very same Jews, led by the priests, merchants and money changers, were going to be responsible for having Jesus crucified.
The Priests and Pharisees didn’t get it. They didn’t want to get it because they knew they were in danger of losing their authority….their power, and most of all, their source of lots of money. So they chose not to believe.
The disciples saw how Jesus reacted to the sins of the moneychangers in the temple. They eventually twigged and saw it in the same way that Jesus did.
But in fact the Bible tells us that it was not really until after the resurrection that they truly believed. It was only then they fully understood what Jesus had meant.
What does it take for you to believe?
When you face trials or you face a time when God is testing you how do you respond?
Do you stop and remember. Remember what God has done for you. Remember your blessings, and give Him thanks.
Or do you start to try to make a bargain with the Lord. God if you’ll do this for me then I will do this for you.
Or do you remain skeptical saying to yourself, I have to see it to believe it.
Or do you simply accept His discipline, learn from it and begin to grow again.
Perhaps God is trying to do something in your life right now to get your attention, God sometimes does that.
God tried to get Jonah’s attention and he ran.
God tried to speak to Moses and Moses got angry. His anger kept him from ever getting into the Promised Land.
So what is the best thing you can do when God tries to get your attention?
You will all probably have your own answers, but I think the Bible tells us:
Just say yes Lord, what do you need? What can I do?
And then listen!!
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/QQvAEV6uXCo
Second Sunday of Lent
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
In Jesus’ time there were crosses everywhere you went. They were a common sight. The people nailed to them were not the Messiah, nor even heroic freedom fighters or brave idealists, by and large they were petty thugs, criminals, runaway slaves and frequently innocent people murdered because those in power sometimes do things just because they can.
Every cross had a meaning, it was a noticeboard, It’s message was who is in charge, and who is nailed here doesn’t count. Anyone who challenged authority was nailed up as a public spectacle - this is what happens if you stand against us. This is what happens if you rebel.
Those nailed to the cross were non-persons, non-citizens. Roman citizens were never crucified because Roman citizens mattered. They might be punished, even executed, but they were never crucified. Only the people who don’t count were crucified.
When Jesus walked amongst the towns and villages crosses were everywhere. They said who was in charge. And who wasn’t. He of course had a message about who was really in charge - so he knew full well the risk he was running.
Art and religion have often missed the point of what Jesus said to his friends. If you want to follow me then you should know the consequences. If you accept the authority I speak of you will be in conflict with the powerful of this world.
Art has so often depicted the meaning of the cross as Christ’s suffering for the world. Whether it be a painting, or the bloody reality of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, the focus has often been on the pain and gore of the cross.
Religious people have also often focused on the suffering. Sometimes using the cross to shock and arouse guilt. Sometimes using it as a sentimental self-obsession that God loves us this much.
But that is not the point of the cross.
You’ll have heard people say, we all have our crosses to bear - some minor inconvenience that has upset our plans - a broken washing machine, an awkward colleague, some disappointing news. Or giving up chocolate or wine for Lent. Taking up the cross becomes nothing more than doing something slightly uncomfortable to prove we’re faithful.
But that also is not the cross Jesus points to. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.”
He knew the message nailed to the cross. This person doesn’t count. This person doesn’t matter. This person means so little we can do this, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Step out of line and this person might be you.
He knew that message all right - and he knew that those who followed him would tread the same path.
The point of the cross is not the suffering. The cross is where non-citizens are killed. Those who choose the kingship of Christ reject the kingdom of this world. Those who are non-citizens of this world are citizens of another. You have to choose who to obey. And if you choose God, be prepared to be rejected by this world.
We know, because we are an Easter people, that the cross is not the end. But its reality not denied by the resurrection. The risen Christ displayed to his friends the wounds of the cross. His risen body was still a crucified body. God’s greatest hope, greatest gift, greatest love, is revealed precisely in that moment of rejection.
God has chosen to belong with us, that is the crazy claim of a God born in a back street stable. The question Jesus poses to his friends is - do you choose to belong with God?
There is an irony in his question - “will you deny yourself?” The reality is that most of the time most people act and think in self-denial. It is the driving force behind the hunger that drives people to desire and acquire more and more. The illusion that happiness is a newer car, a posher house, a bigger television - which of course never works so the cycle repeats itself.
This is real self denial - the pursuit of happiness, and meaning, and love in all the wrong places. We know it is self-denial because it simply doesn’t work.
Over lockdown we have been walking every day, mostly through Whitegate woods down to the river. You see a lot of dogs being walked, and the happiest dogs are those with sticks.
One doggy was a very happy doggy, he had a massive stick. A branch fully six feet long. His tail was up, his eyes straight, his head held high. He was ever so pleased with himself. Until he came to a gate.
You know what happened next, he tried and he tried, but he simply couldn’t understand why the stick wouldn’t go through the gate. Any more that the fully loaded camel of a rich man would pass through a narrow gate in a Jerusalem city wall.
Jesus’ irony is a grim irony. He could see crosses all around him. He saw the denial of hope - will you turn your back on this, and embrace the cross? Will you stand with God with the rejected? Will you take that chance, and discover where that takes you?
The cross is essential, because it takes us to that point where the illusion is denied, and a reality unimaginable revealed.
O Lord, our Saviour and our God, whom nails could not hold to the cross, but only love; grant that we, who have received the fullness of your love, may be ready to bear before the world the marks of your Passion; for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/x9CCI6pm2UU
21st February 2021
For the next few minutes I’d like to concentrate my thoughts on Verses 12 & 13 of this mornings gospel.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan: and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on Him”.
It seems that no sooner was the glory of the hour of the Jesus’ baptism over than there came his battle against temptations.
I think there is one thing which stands out here in such a way that we shouldn’t ignore it. Paul mentioned it on Wednesday evening at our Ash Wednesday service. It was the spirit who thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for this time of testing. The very same spirit who came upon him at his baptism now drove him out for his test.
In this life it is impossible for any of us to escape temptation in some form; but one thing I think is sure--temptations are not sent to us to make us fall; they are sent to strengthen us, our minds and hearts and souls. They are not meant for our ruin, but for our good. They are meant to be tests from which we emerge better and stronger to serve God.
Suppose someone enjoys playing football or rugby or some other game; suppose they are doing really well in the second team and showing real signs of promise, what will the team coach do? The coach certainly will not send them to play for the third team in which they could probably walk through the game and never break sweat; more likely they will send them to play for the first team where they will probably be tested as never before and have the chance to prove themselves. That is what temptation is meant to do--to enable us to test ourselves and to emerge the stronger for it.
One, if you like slightly technical point, as with many things we find in the bible forty days is a phrase which should probably not be taken completely literally. It is the Hebrew phrase used to express a considerable length of time such as when Moses was said to be on the mountain with God for forty days ( Exodus 24 ).
It was Satan, who we sometimes call the devil, who tempted Jesus. I have to admit to sometimes struggling with the idea of the devil.
So perhaps it would help to look at the development of the concept of Satan, which I think is very interesting.
The word Satan in Hebrew simply means an adversary; and in the Old Testament it is used of ordinary human adversaries and opponents.
The Philistines fear that David may turn out to be their satan in
1 Samuel 29; David regards Abishai as his satan in 2 Samuel 19; Solomon declares that God has given him such peace and prosperity that he has no satan left to oppose him in 1 Kings 5.
So the word Satan began by meaning an adversary, a human one and not one specific individual or entity.
But as time goes on it does take a step on a downward and somewhat more sinister path; it begins to mean someone who pleads a case against a person. It is in this sense that it is used in the first chapter of Job. In that chapter Satan has the particular task to consider men and to search for some case that could be made against them in the presence of God. He was the accuser of men before God. The word is also used this way in Job 2 and in Zechariah 3 . The task of Satan was to find and to say everything that could be said against a man.
As I mentioned earlier the other title often used of Satan is the Devil; the word devil comes from the Greek diabolos, which literally means a slanderer. It is a small step from the thought of one who searches for everything that can be said against a person, to the thought of one who deliberately and maliciously slanders people in the presence of God.
So far in the Old Testament Satan is still human individual and not yet the malignant, supreme enemy of God. He is more the adversary of man.
But now the word takes the last step on its downward course. Through their time of captivity the Jews learned something of Persian thought.
Persian thought is based on the conception that in this universe there are two powers, a power of the light and a power of the dark, Ormuzd and Ahriman; the whole universe is a battle-ground between them and man must choose which side he is on in that cosmic conflict.
To put a more Jewish/Persian slant on it, we could could take the view that in this world there is God and Gods Adversary, Satan/The Devil.
So it was almost inevitable that Satan/The Devil, should come to be regarded as The Adversary par excellence. That is really what his name has come to mean; that is what he always was to man; but now Satan becomes the essence of everything that is against God too.
When we turn to the New Testament we find that it is the Devil or Satan who seduces Judas in Luke 22; it is the devil whom we must fight in 1 Peter 5 & James 4; it is the devil whose power is being broken by the work of Christ in Luke 10. Satan, The Devil, is now the power which is against God.
Here we have the whole essence of the Temptation story. Jesus had to decide how he was to do his work. He was conscious of a tremendous task and he was also conscious of tremendous powers.
God was saying to him, "Take my love to men; love them till you die for them." Satan was saying to Jesus, "Use your power to blast men; obliterate your enemies; win the world by strength and power and bloodshed."
God said to Jesus, "Set up a reign of love." Satan said to Jesus, "Set up a dictatorship of force." Jesus had to choose between the way of God and the way of Satan.
And that is, of course the message for us all, in life we have a choice, to be a follower of God or to be an adversary of God, and all that follows on from that decision.
In our story presented to us by Mark the choice seems straightforward, temptation is clear to see and, of course, Jesus is strong enough to reject it.
For us it often seems to be so much more difficult and complicated, and as mere human beings we also may feel less well equipped to cope with it.
But note the last few words of that passage, “and the angels waited on him” or as it is in another translation, “the angels took care of him”.
I would like to leave with you the suggestion that we also have to remember, that just like Jesus in the desert, whatever temptations and trials we have to face, we don’t have to cope with them alone either.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/xNrM7x-aZLc
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”
Dust and glory and Ekballei.
Dust - Ash Wednesday brings us face to face with mortality. It’s something we usually avoid. I don’t know when you last walked along Llandudno pier – it is one of those places we cannot go at the moment. A couple of years ago we went on Shrove Tuesday, it was a lovely day. How often in February can you sit on top of the Great Orme, sheltered from the wind, and eat your butties?
We took it for granted of course. A drive along the North Wales coast, a walk along the promenade, then up the Orme. Never did we dream that one day such simple freedoms would be denied us.
It makes you think. Lent is a time to think. We are in a wilderness time. It is uncomfortable, it is hard, but remember that it is in the wilderness that God so often acts. It is in the wilderness that new beginnings happen.
The Great Orme is a marvellous spot, it must mean a lot to many people because if you walk out to the headland you will find several discrete piles of dust – people go there to scatter the ashes of their loved ones.
Actually, if you scatter ashes on top of the Orme they’ll all blow off and end up on the pier, so save yourself the climb and go to the pier in the first place.
Either side of the pier are rows and rows of benches, all but one bearing the name of someone held in memory. (The exception is a couple who bought a bench to celebrate their golden wedding.) Most of the names are not local people – they are visitors – people for whom Llandudno, the pier, the seaside, the windswept Orme, speaks of a better place.
Many of the plaques on the benches reflect the value of a better place – that where people are, their home, their work, the daily grind, they feel isn’t enough - there remains a longing for something above and beyond.
So it is to the seaside that people go to make that important gesture.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. This dust is both reality and glory. Scientists tell us that the stuff we are made of was born in the furnace of a star. Stars are the building blocks of creation – it is in their heat and intense gravity that matter is formed. If we are dust, then we are star dust. Every atom in your body was formed somewhere beyond – the dust that swirled through space - over countless ages becoming rocks and planets and water and air – and life – created in the heart of a star.
Which is pretty amazing. I often reflect the words of Wesley in his hymn – Love divine all loves excelling – near the end
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place. He didn’t know much about astrophysics, but he knew that it is the things of this world which reflect the glory that is to come – and are of themselves a glory to be rejoiced in. That’s important – the things of this world are where glory is to be found. Family, friendship, love, loyalty, compassion, glory is here, and it points to a glory yet to come.
So as you walk along the pier - every bench, every plaque, every memory, the celebration of a golden wedding – these speak of glory. And it is glory in the here and now.
The dust and the glory and ekballei.
Ekballei. We don’t come easily to the wilderness, to Lent. It is a tough journey and many choose not to acknowledge it. It is time to remind ourselves, again, year on year, of how Jesus comes to the wilderness. St Marks tells us that the Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus out into the wilderness. He uses the word ‘ekballei’ – it’s a forceful, powerful word. It’s where we get the word ballistic from – as in a ballistic missile.
The Spirit hurls Jesus into the wilderness – because this Lenten time isn’t a time of ease and comfort, we are disinclined to come easily, if it feels like a struggle then maybe you’re doing it right.
Dust and glory and ekballei. Over the next few weeks we will follow Christ in the wilderness. We need to make wilderness moments – and they don’t happen easily either. A moment to stop, pause, think, pray.
This year we cannot have Lent groups, but the Church of England has provided a good resource of daily prayer, reading and reflection. It is available free as an app, either for Android or iOS. Please use that resource, make a moment of wilderness every day. God makes new beginnings in the wilderness.
In my daily prayer I follow the Rule of Benedict. Benedict knew all about the dusty bits of life, the reality of living with ourselves and living with others. The reality of living in our world. The reality of living with God. And he knew it isn’t easy.
Benedict’s rule is at times down to earth, compassionate, realistic. And at other times it hurls – it makes demands that are uncomfortable – but important. He tackles head on the conflicting pressures of daily living. The joy of hospitality. Moments of solitude. Times of companionship. In the Rule we meet ourselves as we are, sometimes joyful, sometimes cross and grumpy, we recognise times when we fill emptiness with busyness, and what happens when we give too much of ourselves to the demands of others.
In wisdom we come home – the heart of Benedict’s wisdom is that we don’t need to look to the above and beyond, to the unreachable – to live well – in ourselves, with others and in God is not about being somewhere else and someone else. He brings us down to earth – to the reality around us, where God waits for us.
God waits in the wilderness. He needs us to stop and be still. He needs us to listen. He waits for us to empty ourselves of too many distractions. The wilderness is an opportunity, and like this hard and difficult time, in the emptiness we discover new possibilities.
There are no ashes this Lent. But we have dust and glory and Ekballei.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/CQXAn9PPqDA
14th February 2021 - Sunday next before Lent
“As they were coming down the mountain…”
In Chester I used to be one of the chaplains at our local hospital. A few days before Christmas we found ourselves with a group of volunteers from local churches singing carols around the wards. It is a big hospital and we had to fit into a tight timetable between ward rounds and visiting. So at each ward we sang two carols, then dashed along the corridor to wherever would have us next.
I wasn’t sure we were really doing much good. Most of the time the curtains round beds remained closed, or someone was obviously watching Corrie and just turned the sound up. But we persevered. We had a list and felt we had to visit every ward on it.
In the last ward we got to, a bit later than we should and feeling we were intruding on the busy staff, there was a side room with a door just ajar. A family was gathered, clearly deeply upset. Should we sing?
We decided we ought to, and the door remained open. We sang our usual two carols and then tried to leave as quietly as possible. I was the last to leave and as I followed our small group down the corridor the door opened and young man came out.
“My father has just died,” he said. “We’ve been here for hours, it’s been a terrible day. And right at the end you sang carols. He left this earth with a smile on his face. Thank you.”
There are moment of transfiguration. There are moments when you stand on a mountain top and everything is made clear. There are moments when God’s glory touches the messiness and chaos of our mortal humanity.
Remember what I said about Mark’s Gospel – it was written for Christians who were finding life hard. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Mark begins with prophecy, a voice often rejected, and with Jesus’ baptism, his identity with those who choose to follow him. And do you remember the voice that spoke at his baptism – this is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased?
Here again, in this moment of transfiguration, the same identity – this is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.
Mark is a master storyteller. In the shape of his gospel the transfiguration is a turning point. It is from here that Jesus moves towards Jerusalem. He knew where that road would lead, it is a journey towards the cross.
Mark’s readers were mostly Jews, people whose grasp of reality and understanding of who they were had two foundations – the giving of the Law and the voice of prophecy.
The Law was the bedrock of God’s relationship with his people. In Moses God had called a people out of slavery and led to freedom. In Moses they were chosen and God entered into a covenant with them. This was a mutually binding relationship. You shall be my people, I shall be your God.
The sign of this covenant relationship was the Law – that when people lived in the land God gave them they would remember all they had was a gift. They would treat the poor with respect, leave a harvest for the refugee, uphold the practice of Jubilee – a time when all debts are wiped clean. The poor will not get poorer, and the rich will not get richer.
These are a people living in obedience to God – a holy nation who did things differently. This is the Law.
Of course human beings fail, we forget our best intentions, we allow our dreams to fade, and when that happened God sent a voice to call people back, to remind them of the covenant, to heal the relationship. This was the voice of prophecy. Often a hard voice, but one that spoke the truth.
Two foundations of relationship – the Law and the Prophets. The Law given through Moses, the greatest voice of prophecy heard in Elijah.
And so in this transfiguring moment, when the path ahead is so difficult, when his friends cannot believe this is the road he must tread, Jesus encounters Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. Everything God has done leads to this moment. Everything God can do depends on what Jesus does next.
And he choose the hard road, he turns towards the cross.
“As they were coming down the mountain…”
We all have mountain top experiences. Moments when everything is clear, or something we do goes so well, and we sense a certainty that God is close. But you always have to come down the mountain.
If you read just a bit further then you find that as Jesus and his disciples came down the mountain the first thing they ran into was an argument. Conflict broke out, they went from the glory of the mountaintop to the messiness and chaos of other people.
That is how faith is. We need to be reminded constantly that faith is not about staying up the mountain where everything is clear. Faith is about clinging on that glimpse of glory when you’re down in the valley and everyone is being a pain in the neck.
Most of the time we are not up the mountain. Most of the time we are in the shadows of the valley and the way ahead is not clear. But moments of transfiguration happen, and they matter, and when they do remember what direction they point.
Gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate on you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/uEyw_-gbRRE
7th February 2021 - Second Sunday before Lent
John 1: 1 - 14.
And the word became flesh and lived among us,… full of grace and truth.
Each of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were obviously written by different men, but each were inspired and directed by the Lord. They were written with different specific audiences in mind, but together, they provide 4, complimentary, accounts of the life of Jesus.
John, the son of Zebedee, is the author of the Gospel we heard from today. That very familiar passage, loved by so many and often argued about as to which translation is the best.
John and his brother James are sometimes known as the "Sons of Thunder," most likely for their lively, zealous personalities.
Of the 12 disciples, John, along with James, and Peter formed the inner circle, chosen by Jesus to become his closest companions.
They had the exclusive privilege of witnessing and testifying about events in the life of Jesus that no others were invited to see.
Luke tells us that John was present at the resurrection of Jarius' daughter, and Mark that he was at the transfiguration of Jesus, and in Gethsemane.
John is also the only recorded disciple to be present when Jesus was crucified. He is the one Jesus spoke to from the cross about His mother. He is the one Jesus told to take care of His mother after He was gone. They were close.
John tells us a lot about the life and ministry of Jesus that the other writers do not tell us.
John tells us about the Marriage Feast at Cana of Galilee, of the coming of Nicodemus to Jesus, the woman of Samaria, of the raising of Lazarus, of the way Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.
John paid careful attention to everything going on around him, so he gives us many of the little details the other writers leave out.
When Jesus feeds the 5,000 with the fish and loaves, only John tells us they were barley loaves. When Jesus walked on water and came to the disciples in the middle of the storm, John is the one who tells us they had rowed between 3 and 4 miles when the storm came.
He is the one who tells us there were 6 stone water jars Jesus turned in to wine. Only John tells us about the crown of thorns and how the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ robe.
These are all the memories of a man who was there, who experienced these things first hand.
But in the beginning part of this chapter, John tells about things he did not directly see or know. These are things which could only have been shown to him by the Lord, showed to John so that he could record them for others.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . .
These are the words of a man inspired and directed by God to teach us and to help explain to us who Jesus is and where He came from, and how God prepared the way for His arrival.
There was a man sent from God who’s name was John, is a God-directed passage telling us about the forerunner of Jesus, not John the disciple but John the Baptist of course, explaining how through him God paved the way for His arrival.
And in verse 14, John shares more of his God-inspired, but also directly experienced memories.
And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Most of us are familiar with the verse John 3: 16, explaining why Jesus came into the world, explaining how the love of God caused Him to send His only begotten Son into the world, to pay the price for our sins, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.
That is often quoted as the most important verse in the New Testament, many have called chapter 1 verse 14 the 2nd most important verse in the New Testament.
You remember I’m sure, it begins, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
This can also translated as he pitched his tent among us. Many of the people of Jesus’s time were nomadic so a tent would be their home, not a stone or brick building, Jesus came for everyone nomad a town dweller, rich or poor, anytime, anywhere. We do not only find him here in church.
Can you imagine the love that drove God to have His only begotten Son, the Creator of all things, leave the glories and majesty of heaven to come and live as a man?
To know the pains, hunger, thirst, heat and cold, heart break and temptations that we know?
But He did, and John was able to spend around 3 years with Him, and took care of His mother after that.
If we could talk with John now we might ask him to tell us, like a good interviewer would, what stood out about the time you spent with Jesus? When you saw His glory displayed, you who notice all of the details, what stood out to you about Jesus?
Here we read what I think would probably be his answer.
We observed His glory, the glory of the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
We might also ask what was most important thing you personally took from your time with Jesus?
He could be likely to reply, I saw His grace and truth.
Years ago, a large international conference was held of religious leaders and theologians from around the world. In the midst of the conference, a quite heated debate began about what it was that set Christianity apart from other religions.
Some argued that it was God coming in the flesh that set Christianity apart from other religions.
They decided that wasn’t it, because other religions claimed that their gods came to earth to us too.
Some argued that it was love, or sacrifice, or the resurrection, or one thing or another; each idea in turn being shot down.
Finally, C. S. Lewis, the writer and theologian, who had arrived late, walked into the conference and asked what all the noise was about.
When he was told they were discussing what it was that set Christianity apart from all other religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.”
I can see why he said that, as John brings that message to us so clearly in this passage.
Yes, the thing that sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world is grace, the “unmerited, unearned, undeserved, favour of God, given freely out of His love.”
That is what Jesus brought to us all.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Let us pray,
Heavenly Father help us to meet your Son, and just as John did, to know your grace and truth on our lives. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mknb3TXSLm4
31st January 2021 - Candlemas
This child is destined for the falling and riding of many, and a sign that will be opposed.
Luke’s Gospel is full of encounters. He begins with a series of encounters. An older couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth and an angel. A teenage girl and an angel. The same girl, the same Elizabeth and an unborn baby - who leapt in the womb. Shepherds and a whole host of angels and a newborn baby. A young couple with their child and an encounter in the temple.
The encounters matter. They reveal God amongst us.
Candlemas is an Epiphany encounter. Truth is revealed.
It is also a pivotal moment. We take our last look at the Crib, we have our first glimpse of the Cross. Mary holds her son, and we foresee the time she shall hold his broken body taken down from crucifixion.
These are stories of contrast. The shepherds come and go, it is a brief encounter. One of the best books on funeral ministry was called just that. Brief Encounters.
I remember a mad old Canon telling a group of curates what the church was for. People come into churches, he said, ‘sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying’. We’re here to give them a glimpse of heaven. And then to let them go again. Brief encounters matter.
People come to our churches for all sorts of reasons. Christmas, a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Like the shepherds they come, they see, they hear, and then they are gone. What did they glimpse? What did they hear? God is in those brief encounters – just as he chose the shepherds, disreputable and untrustworthy, to be the first witnesses to Christ’s birth.
And then we have Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. William Barclay calls such people ‘The quiet in the land.’ People who aren’t interested in power or wealth or success or glory. People who just say their prayers and get on with life. Day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Anna and Simeon are in the temple daily – watching and waiting patiently, faithfully, diligently. The shepherds saw immediately. Anna and Simeon had to wait a lifetime. But wait they did – day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Different encounters – the same hope.
Some years ago, in a small room in a corner house, a group of teenage mums were playing with their babies, they were drinking tea and complaining about the price of baby milk. A grandma was serving biscuits and chucking the babies’ chins. She remembered her days as a young mum, during the war, when everything was rationed.
She asked the teenage girls why they didn’t breastfeed their babies – there was a silence. The mums looked at one another, then the bravest said – we don’t know how to.
So a group of grannies got together and they started a breastfeeding class – the next week the pavement outside was gridlocked with buggies. Teenage mums spread the word and the grannies rose to the occasion.
Our local doctor rang me. “I believe you’ve set up a breastfeeding class?” Well – not me personally. “How did you do it? We’ve been trying for years. We’ve spent thousands trying to do it.”
Ah – I said – what you need is granny power.
Luke’s telling of the story makes me think he took mums seriously. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, her meeting with Mary – two women divided by age but sharing a common expectation.
Gabriel’s visit to Mary – and I always have to ask – was Mary the first to be asked? How many other young women had Gabriel knelt before and waited? But their weddings were planned, their hopes set, their answer was no.
We don’t know if Mary was the first to be asked. Only that she was the first to say yes.
I cannot imagine that Anna did not take this child in her arms – Luke doesn’t say it – but young mums delight when someone cherishes their child. I can see Anna, whose soul had been pierced, holding Mary’s child - knowing what Mary’s heart would endure. When Mary stood at the foot of the cross I wonder if Anna’s face came before her.
Candlemas connects us with signs, God is amongst us, waiting to act – maybe in a moment, maybe over years. We don’t get to choose how, we just have to be ready to say yes when it happens.
Let the flame of your love never be quenched in our hearts, O Lord. Waking or sleeping, living or dying, let us delight in your presence. Let the flame of your love brighten our souls and illumine our path, and let the majesty of your glory be our joy, our life and our strength now and for ever. Amen Johann Arndt, 1555-1621
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/tyMYM2NvlFo
24th January 2021 - Epiphany 3
24th January 2021 - Epiphany 3
“I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades”
We live in hard and dangerous times. Yet there is hope. Our news is filled with pictures of exhausted hospital staff, schools coping with rapidly changing rules, businesses and livelihoods closed, many may never reopen.
But as the number of seriously ill people continues to be high, and the daily count of deaths continues to rise, so too does the number of people who have received a vaccine.
Now is hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
This perhaps gives us a glimpse into the reality of life many have lived before, and many are living now, which so far thankfully we have been spared. Those who have lived through war. Those living in parts of our world whose stories have disappeared from our news – but their struggles continue. Those for whom our readings today were first written.
Now is hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
Both our readings speak of wedding feasts. Weddings of course are one of the great moments of hope and joy that stand as beacons along the path of our lives. Weddings are currently suspended, many of the couples we are working with have postponed their weddings three or four times. This has been hard and expensive for them, and for those whose livelihood is catering for wedding celebrations.
The wedding at Cana is often read at weddings, but I suspect couples choosing it don’t spot the significance of the story. This is an Epiphany story. The point is revealed in the final verse – this is a sign, it reveals Christ’s glory, and his disciples believed in him.
Weddings reveal glory, they are moments when two people make a commitment to one another, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to stick together through all that life can throw at you. The moments of joy and dancing, and also the moments of grief and mourning.
Life can be hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
I am convinced that everything of this world is about anticipation. We live in a foretaste of what is to come. If it is true that humanity is made in the image of God then somewhere in that there is the revelation of glory.
That God is about love and truth, and loyalty and commitment, and courage and tenacity, and compassion and forgiveness. These hallmarks are of God, and of human relationships – at their best.
In the midst of so much that reflects a fallen world, humanity at its best shines through. Those whose care for others costs them dear. Those who give of their time for others. Those who labour to make life better for others.
In this hard and dangerous time, we see hope.
In his great hymns, Love divine, all loves excelling – Charles Wesley concludes by referring to our new creation. That time when humanity is restored in God.
“Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
The key words there are ‘changed from glory into glory’. The best things of this world are a foretaste of that reality yet to come. Yet note this, they are glory now, pointing to glory to be. They are glory now. So we live in hope. And we must not take for granted those best things, those best moments, that point towards better things to be.
In our reading from Revelation, which is always a difficult book to read, but worth sticking with, the writer tells of falling at the angel’s feet to worship him. But take seriously what comes next, take this very seriously.
The angel’s response is unexpected. “You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus.”
I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades.
When you looked in the bathroom mirror this morning who did you see looking back at you? I suspect that when you looked in the mirror you didn’t say to yourself – there is an angel. There is a messenger of God whose place is at the throne of heaven. There is a being who God sends to announce good news. There is a guardian of hope.
So hear the words of the angel – I am a fellow servant with you.
We live in hard and dangerous times. Yet there is hope. That hope is within us. For we are messengers of a world that is coming to be.
It comes closer one small step at a time. One kind act at a time. One work of compassion at a time. These fragments of glory become the glory. They are signs. These are Epiphany moments. In them Christ is revealed, that the world may believe in him.
A prayer of St Benedict
Gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate on you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mFo8EhHyQGg
The Baptism of Christ
Our Gospel reading is Mark 1:4-11
“You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”
Our gospel reading today comes from St Mark, who begins the story of Jesus not with his birth, but in his baptism. That is significant. We believe that Mark was the first gospel to be written, it is likely he wrote for Christians who were facing hostility and persecution. So he sets out to tackle a difficult question.
If Jesus is the Son of God why did he die on a cross? And if Jesus is the Son of God why are those who believe in him suffering also?
You see the dilemma. If Jesus is the Son of God how can his life end on a cross, and how can those who follow him face persecution? Surely if Jesus is who he says he is, then Christians ought to be powerful and successful and the world ought to believe and be better.
So Mark writes his gospel rooting Jesus in the ministry of John the Baptist, who like the prophets before him came to a sticky end. John, you will recall, was beheaded by Herod.
The Jesus story begins for Mark not in a stable but in a river, at his baptism. This is the defining moment when Jesus leaves home to begin his public ministry. It is a turning point. It is the same turning point for those who have chosen to follow Jesus, who like him have entered the river and emerged baptised, members of a new community.
Mark takes care to remind us that at every step, in every encounter, Jesus faced hostility and opposition. Immediately after his baptism he is driven into the wilderness to endure temptation and hardship. The way of Christ is not the way of easy success and worldly power. The world can be changed, but it has to be changed the hard way. From within.
Most of us probably never decided to be baptised. I was baptised by the Revd Harold Dawson, Vicar of St Mark, Glodwick, my grandfather, in the font of St Nicholas, Blundellsands, on 26 March 1961. It was the church where my parents were married. I was later confirmed there by Bishop Stuart Blanch, who having laid his hands on my head was instantly elevated to become Archbishop of York. I am sure that was no coincidence.
I have not the slightest memory of my baptism – as I suppose is true for many of us. In Mark’s day things were different. Baptism was a life changing decision. If you chose to be baptised you became a target for arrest, torture and execution. It was not something people undertook lightly.
Mark begins the story of Jesus with the same experience as those who choose to follow him – baptism is a life changing moment.
The odd thing of course is that Jesus didn’t need to be baptised. He was born a Jew, this identity was his from birth, baptism was how foreigners, outsiders, became members of God’s chosen people.
And of course Jesus didn’t need to be baptised by John because John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance – that those who had turned away from God were given a second chance. Through the water of baptism the disobedient were brought back, the estranged reconciled. That surely didn’t apply to Jesus.
So when Jesus came to John – John was at first appalled. You have no need of this baptism. But Jesus insisted. This is God’s way – a path of humility, sacrifice, obedience, love. These are the tools by which the world is offered a new beginning.
We take our inheritance too lightly if we take baptism too lightly. We may not have chosen to be baptised, but we must choose whether we live the life that this baptism offers us. And the path of that life runs against the grain of this world.
As Jesus came up out of the water two things happened. Firstly the Holy Spirit came to him as a dove. That doesn’t mean a bird landed on his head. If it did baptism then services would be far more interesting. This is an epiphany moment – things are made clear.
This is a moment of decision. To leave the safety of a family home and begin the public ministry that leads to the cross.
This is a moment of identification. Jesus had no need to repent, but this is a journey that leads people back towards God. Jesus takes the first step on that journey himself, as a shepherd leads the flock.
This is a moment of equipment. All of us will have experienced times in our life when we have faced a challenge when we didn’t know what to do. As we get older we become less confident about tackling the unknown. Younger people have a much greater capacity to tackle the unknown with confidence. God is always in the moments when we take on the impossible. Some of the best churchwardens I have worked with have been people who told me they had no idea what was involved, and felt they were totally inadequate for the job.
God does not call us to the easy. He calls us to the hard. But he does not leave us unequipped. The gift of the Spirit comes in many forms.
This is a moment of approval. You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Henri Nouwen said that this was the moment that identified Jesus and everything he did. The whole of his life is living the identity of being God’s beloved. Everything he did was seeking that same identity in every person he met.
You and I may not remember our own baptism, but we share these moments.
A moment of decision, made daily to take our baptism seriously, to know that we belong to an alternative community.
A moment of identification, to walk the Godward journey in the company of Christ and in the fellowship of others.
A moment of equipment, to face the uncertainties and impossibilities in the faith that God does not call us to anything that is beyond his ability to support us.
A moment of approval – that you are God’s beloved, with you he is well pleased. And to seek that in everyone.
Father eternal, cleanse and renew us each day by the power of your Spirit, that the goodness of the incarnate Lord may be seen in our lives; fill the Church, and the whole world, with the light, joy, and peace of his birth, that his second coming in glory may be hastened, and all creation perfected in his eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube version is https://youtu.be/HI-3IHYB5ts
Although we celebrate it today, officially next Wednesday is Epiphany, sometimes known as twelfth night, the time when most of us take down our decorations, if we have not done it before. So Christmas is over.
Or is it? In the Eastern Orthodox Church what we call Epiphany is when they celebrate Christmas. Epiphany is the revealing of Jesus to the world and as a season continues to Candlemas, the 2nd of February. So there is a case for keeping decorations up until then, if you really want to.
In our readings on Christmas day and since we have heard how many people went to see the new baby, notably first the shepherds, and later the oriental visitors. Late stragglers they may have been, but they were, they are pretty special characters in our story.
“Wise men from the east”, Matthew called them (Matthew 2:1). They had seen a star rising, which proclaimed the one born to be king of the Jews, and came to pay him homage.
So what of the shepherds and wise men.
Think how different the shepherds and the wise men were from each other. The shepherds probably wore rough clothing, for working outside in all weathers. The wise men, however many of there were, no doubt rich and important, and so could afford good cloth, even for travelling.
The shepherds would not have been well-educated, though if they were Jewish, they might well have learned to read. The wise men were proficient in analysing the movement of the stars and calculating the patterns of astronomy. They would have read books on wisdom and prophecy.
The shepherds came from fields nearby – ‘in that region’… The wise men came from the east – possibly from Persia or Arabia. They would not have been Jewish but most likely Zoroastrian.
They were utterly different in background, in culture, in religion, in appearance. But they all came to the crib.
And their paths to the crib were very different too.
The wise men had spent about 2 years getting to the crib.
They must have been looking in the sky and maybe elsewhere in nature for signs. They made calculations, and reflected, and thought.
But they did not get to the crib straight away. They may have made some detours, even some wrong turnings. (No satellite navigation .)
Matthew says that when they got to Jerusalem they had to ask Herod the way to the king of the Jews, and he had to get the chief priests and the scribes to do more research, which finally pointed the way to Bethlehem. It was a thoughtful, pondering, slow and difficult path.
Now think about the shepherds. They were not even looking for a sign. They were just getting on with life – “watching over their flocks by night” – when suddenly there was a blinding light, a loud voice, giving an absolutely clear pronouncement: “to you is born in the city of David a saviour who is the Messiah; the sign is this: a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”.
There was no deliberation amongst the shepherds: they just decided: “Let's go, now, to Bethlehem to see whatever it is that has taken place”.
They did not say: “well, I wonder what that was all about? I’m not sure whether we have heard right. Perhaps we should check in the angelic directory about the credentials of these messengers”.
They just went to see!
And they didn’t take 2 years about it. They ‘went with haste’ and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. It was a bright, obvious, fast and simple path.
Do you find your faith journey takes you on one or other of these paths? It might be that someone comes to God by a slow and rather winding path.
They might find hints and whispers of God in nature, and keep their eyes and ears open to the insights of others.
They may ponder and wonder, maybe having no clear idea of exactly what they are looking for, but still keep on the path, hoping that they will one day see the star come to rest, above the One they have sought with so much faithfulness and trust.
Probably for many of us our faith journeys are this way as we come week by week and year by year seeking the Lord of all in our readings, the sacraments and in our prayers.
Or you might sense that you are more like one of the shepherds: caught up in a spiritual experience, spontaneously responding with faith and acceptance. A sort of ‘St Paul on the road to Damascus’ thing. We see this emphasised in some kinds of worship and spirituality: especially in the more charismatic churches – ‘heart-stuff’ comes before ‘head-stuff’, and things seem clear, revealed, certain and demanding an immediate response.
We are each on our own journey and it is probably wrong of me to make such a clear distinction. It encourages division. We might then tempted to say, ‘feeling matters more than thinking’ or ‘thinking matters more than feeling’.
The fact is, of course, that there is something of the shepherd and something of the wise men in each of us. And this is as it should be:
God calls us through the willing response of our hearts and also by our thoughtful pondering about what the world is like, our own lives, and the mysteries of existence.
Think of Jesus’ mother, Mary, watching by the crib. Mary had let her heart be captured by the Holy Spirit: she said to the angel: “Let it be unto me according to God’s will – that is, she saw a sudden revelation, and she responded with a heart-felt ‘yes’.
But then in the stable, welcoming all these strange visitors who were seeking her child, the babe in the manger: Luke says: ‘Mary treasured all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
Mary, is a good model for us as disciples of Christ, responded in a flash, and yet pondered for years.
One major thing which Epiphany shows us, that it was not just the Jews who would come to the stable, to their homeland, but all nations, bringing the wealth of their experience, and their insights and their traditions.
God calls us to be open and to welcome everyone who comes: whether they are tentative seekers or those who ‘know’; whether they are pondering in their search or feeling overwhelmed with the love of God.
Our journeys will all be different and individual, some harder than others.
However well we think we know our scripture and our faith, God still has much more he wants us to know, and so we need to continue on our way with all the enthusiasm we had when we first started out.
We will all find a space at the manger; we can all offer the gift of ourselves, head, heart and all; and we can all know that we are called and loved by the one who shines light into our darkness, and whose glory rises upon us, not just today but in the dawning of every new day.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/EtbOWkJgBTo
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’
This has been a hard year. This will be a strange and difficult Christmas. In our church we have an empty chair.
The empty chair was an image used by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he was interviewed with the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, about their experiences of grief. Both men had lost a child. The Archbishop’s daughter was seven months old when she died in a car crash. The Chief Rabbi’s daughter died of cancer aged 30.
Justin Welby said that for many people this Christmas would have an empty chair. Maybe someone they have lost this year, or a previous year. Or maybe someone they just can’t be with this Christmas. Families are separated, we cannot meet as usual.
So we have an empty chair in our church, I think we all have someone who sits in that chair for us.
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’
The first message of the angels is – do not be afraid. That command echoes through the bible. In every encounter with God, from the very beginning, God is constantly telling his people, do not be afraid.
In our Christmas story it is a reminder that angels are not the angels of our school nativities. Angels are not small girls with wings and tinsel. Angels are messengers and warriors. In stained glass windows they are mostly depicted wearing armour and carrying swords. Perhaps not so politically correct these days, but the point is made. When the shepherds encountered angels they were afraid.
Now shepherds weren’t softies. Shepherds in those days where rough and they were tough. If you want a modern comparison think of a gang of hells angels. People didn’t trust shepherds. They lived outside the fringe of society, in a court of law a shepherd’s evidence was worthless.
So it is strange that when God wanted some witnesses to his Son’s arrival it was shepherds who were chosen. People whose witness wasn’t acceptable.
God is about change. Christmas is about making a difference.
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’
The poet Thomas Traherne, sometimes referred to as the happiest of men, used to say that “You are as prone to love as the sun is to shine.” (Repeat).
Sometimes the truth of that becomes visible. There is a story about Nelson Mandela when he was President of South Africa. He went to a restaurant for a meal, accompanied as usual by his bodyguards and security staff. As he waited for his meal he noticed a man sitting alone, also waiting for his food to arrive. Nelson Mandela called the man over and invited him to sit with them.
The man joined them, but his head was down. He ate in silence, his hand constantly trembling. When he had eaten he left.
The President’s security staff assumed the man must have been ill, but Mandela said no. “I know that man. When I was a prisoner he was a guard. He used to beat and torture me. I think he was afraid I would now do the same to him. But that is not how we handle things.”
Mandela knew that the only way to overcome evil is to love, the only way to banish violence is to forgive, the only way to heal division is to show compassion.
He said, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’
The first step is always to not be afraid. It is fear that turns people to hatred. It is fear that generates violence. It is fear that disables us from seeing the reality – that we are as prone to love as the sun is to shine.
Such love is costly, as our empty chair reminds us, but this is what is at the heart of Christmas. That God so loves the world that he gives us his Son.
The Christmas story ends with Mary and Joseph taking their child and fleeing for their lives. They became refugees seeking asylum in Egypt, this story does not end with – and they all lived happily ever after. We forget the dark side of Christmas, that the birth of this child was not good news of great joy for all the people. Herod for one saw in this child a challenge to his rule of tyranny and oppression. At the other end of Christmas, Candlemas, we hear the words of Simeon – this child is destined for the falling and rising of many, and to be a sign that will be opposed.
This child makes a difference. Those who are not afraid of what he brings are those who receive the good news of great joy.
This Christmas is a strange and difficult one for many. In most homes there will be an empty chair. We know this Christmas to have a bitter sweetness. But in that moment we perhaps come closer to hearing the message of the angels – do not be afraid. For God acts in love, slowly, patiently, quietly, humbly, in weakness and vulnerability, to give us hope, and when we sense the distance of others, to know God is with us.
Blessed art thou,
O Christmas Christ,
that thy cradle was so low
poorest and simplest of earthly folk,
could yet kneel beside it,
and look level-eyed into the face of God. Amen.
The YouTube link for Christmas Day is https://youtu.be/pZ45aPMWs70
The YouTube link for Christmas Eve is https://youtu.be/TcSfBIglqGI
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1: 26 - 38.
“Greetings, favoured one! the Lord is with you”
In the name of The Father, Son and of Holy Spirit, Amen
However often I hear it I always think there is something profoundly moving about God’s visitation into Mary’s life and her call to bear the Christ-child into the world. In verse 28 of our Gospel, the angel Gabriel says to Mary, “Greetings, favoured one! the Lord is with you”
It is beautiful, isn’t it, that Mary should be favoured by God: what a wonderful young woman she must have been to be favoured in such a way by God, what an incredible calling on her life to bear the Saviour of the World, to be chosen for that ministry, to be blessed by God in that way.
And yet, as so often it is with us, so it was with Mary, that her life was full of contrasts, and often a mess.
The angel Gabriel had said, “Greetings, favoured one!”
Perhaps Mary reflected on that encounter when she stood at the foot of the cross and reflected on the pain she felt then, and had at many other times in her life. She might have thought “If I am favoured by God, he has a strange way of showing it”.
Yes, Mary had known moments of deep joy in her life – of course she had - but she had also been taken into moments of deep, deep pain beyond understanding.
Her life, like ours, perhaps particularly over this last year, was a study of contrasts: joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, clarity and confusion. And Mary, like us, had to learn to navigate the waters of life in such a way as to find meaning and purpose as a child of God.
But why do I say Mary’s life was often a mess?
The start of Mary’s marriage was a mess: we all know the story. Mary had become pregnant during the period of betrothal and, under the law of the Torah, she faced divorce at the very least and possibly even being stoned for her perceived behaviour. Mary had become a disgrace to the family and an embarrassment to Joseph, he even considered a quick and quiet annulment of the betrothal. Her marriage was a mess.
Her finances had problems: again, we know the story. In Luke 2, we are told about the census that Caesar Augustus had ordered and how Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to be registered but when they arrived, there was no room for them to stay anywhere.
Well, call me cynical, but I’m pretty sure a room could have been found if they had enough cash to pay for it and a little more besides; I’m sure the palm of an enterprising innkeeper could have been greased with a few extra denarii. But Joseph was a carpenter – not much money in that I suppose, so their financial mess resulted in Mary giving birth in the worst possible conditions, she had to lay her new born baby in the animals’ feeding trough.
Her marriage was a mess. Her finances were a mess.
But also, her community was in a mess. Mary was a good Jewish women, growing up under the tyranny of an oppressive military dictatorship. The Romans were very much in control - but even their own leaders, like King Herod, were tyrants who ruled over society with a rod of iron. Not so many years previously, there had been a civil uprising, a revolt against the Romans violently put down, and even then, in Mary’s day, the world was a dangerous place into which to bring a child.
I wonder if there are times when you feel a bit like Mary? Perhaps this year has been one of those times. So many people have had their lives disrupted in so many painful ways.
We look at our lives and for many all we see is chaos and mess:
Covid 19 has disrupted and changed just about everything. Perhaps we have suffered ourselves, or had relatives and friends who have. Perhaps even lost family or friends. Perhaps there is financial stress or the employment or business situation is causing anxiety.
Perhaps we feel trapped and unable to escape from our day-to-day pressures of keeping healthy and trying to feel useful. We are not able to see our families and friends as we would like, there will be at least one empty chair at many Christmas tables this year.
So it seems not unreasonable to look at our lives and all we see is mess.
But, of course, something else was happening in this story about Mary…
Yes, her life was a mess: but there was an emerging miracle in that mess: Every birth is a miracle, but it was Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World who was emerging from her.
I suppose it is likely that Mary could only see the mess, but God was working through all that and providing a miracle.
Although for Mary, the miracle was probably being obscured by the mess - that did not mean that the miracle was any less real…
I wonder if there is a miracle in your mess, in my mess? Maybe it is obscured right now. But if we are able to look at the circumstances of our lives differently, perhaps we may get a glimpse, just a glimpse, of a miracle emerging.
I believe in miracles, though I rarely see, and in fact don’t expect to see instantaneous ones. Instead, I believe that miracles emerge: they don’t come fully-grown – they need to be nurtured and safeguarded in the womb of our being, and possibly for longer than nine months.
Isn’t that what Mary had to do?
For 9 months Mary had to carry that miracle in secret. And even when people saw the signs of the miracle growing within her and heaped scorn and abuse on her and misunderstood the miracle within, she still believed in and loved the miracle and guarded it with all of her own being.
And even after she gave birth to the miracle, she had to care for Him, nurture Him and guard Him; first by carefully wrapping Him and feeding Him, then by escaping with Him to Egypt later returning when it was safe.
I believe in miracles and I believe that there is the possibility of a miracle in every mess. But it needs to be sought out carefully: we need patience to look for it, we need to give it time to emerge - and we need to nurture it and safeguard it and allow it to grow in our lives.
Like Mary, we need to be able to look deeply into our circumstances and trust that God is perhaps growing a miracle around us. We can have faith in God even when we find it hard to have faith in ourselves or the world around us.
If we can do that, we will, just perhaps, be able to make some sense of the mess and learn to see it for what it can be; the birthplace of a miracle.
And then our faith and trust in God will increase and we will be able to join with Mary and say:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/tmDe-xv4OSE
Third Sunday of Advent
Somewhere, there's a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air wait for us
Words from Leonard Bernstein’s musical ‘West Side Story’ which some of you may know. It tells the Romeo and Juliet story, in the context of gang rivalries in 1950s New York. Tony and Maria sing this duet as he lies dying in her arms, a victim of the violence. It is a duet of hope, hope in a love which transcends the messy world in which they live, hope in something better.
We live in a messy world too – in a broken and suffering world. It has always been that way. Listen to some of the words from our Old Testament reading. Isaiah, back in the 8th century BC, speaks of the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, the prisoners, of all who mourn, of ruined cities and devastation. He could just as well be describing our world in the 21st century, couldn’t he?
Our lives have been dominated for nearly a year now by COVID-19, and that has brought much suffering to a great many people. Many are broken hearted as they mourn loved ones, and many find themselves virtual prisoners, captive in their own homes, or in their care homes, unable to live life as they would wish to, and unable to be with those they care about.
And then there is the ongoing suffering of so many across our world. Refugees in makeshift camps, fleeing conflict and violence. Ruined cities and devastation too. Only just last week British troops were sent to war-torn Mali as part of a UN peacekeeping force, as the security situation there deteriorates, with all the inevitable consequences for its people.
Need I say more?
So, just as Tony and Maria look for hope in a love which transcends the messy world in which they live, hope in something better, in the context of 1950s New York, so we, in our own context, do the same, don’t we? We need hope – we look for hope in our messy world.
And the hope we look for is not that superficial, and actually often vain, hope which we express when we say things like “I hope it won’t rain today” or “I hope my train arrives on time”. We are looking for a deeper hope, a hope in our hearts, a hope that the messiness of our world is not what it is all about, that life is about more than this.
Now, when Isaiah speaks of good news, his good news is specifically about hope. It is about the hope, that we as Christian believers hold, that life is indeed about more than this.
God is good, and never changes his attitude nor forsakes us, whatever difficulties may arise. Remember St Paul’s wonderful words from Romans 8:38-39:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We know that the broken world we see around us is far from God’s vision of justice, peace, solidarity and compassion, and so we turn in hope to his love and his promise something different and better. This is the world of which Isaiah speaks. Of binding up the broken-hearted, of liberty and release, of comfort and gladness, of rebuilding and repairing that which has been destroyed.
Biblical and Christian hope however does not mean living in the clouds, simply dreaming of a better life, as Tony and Maria in West Side Story are doing. It is not merely a projection of what we would like to be or do. It points us to a new and better world, the new heaven and the new earth which St John speaks of in Revelation 21, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. It also however leads us to discover seeds of that new world already present today, and it challenges us to live differently, not according to the values of a society based on self-interest and individualism, but in a society which turns Isaiah’s prophecy into a reality in the here and now.
Ironically, COVID-19 has given us a unexpected and once and for all chance to do that. We have all had to stop and think and reassess our priorities. We have realised how important to us our contact with other people is. We have realised that rushing from one place to another, is not necessarily best for ourselves or for other people or for the environment. Even as a church, we have been forced to question what it is we do, and why we do it.
The good news, the gospel hope, is not a way of taking our minds off the tasks of life here and now, but using them instead to make a difference in the world today. A call to set out on the road. Men of Galilee, says the angel in Acts 1, just after Jesus’ ascension, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? And Jesus himself in Mark 16 says Go into the entire world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation… You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth. We are called to work towards a different future here and now, in the midst of the difficulties of the world, to sow seeds of renewal which will bear fruit when the time comes.
And in doing this we follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist. John, we are told in our gospel reading, was himself not the light, but he came to testify to the light. We too are called to testify to the light – that is to the love of God in Jesus, who is the light of the world. We are called to offer the hope that the messiness of our world is not what it is all about, that life is about more than this, in the here and now, as well as in the world to come.
This is not always easy. We tend, especially at difficult times in our lives, to focus on the darkness instead of on the light. It is easy to get sucked into a negative way of thinking, and to forget that life is about more than what we are going through at the time.
There is so little colour in our gardens at the moment, and there are days when it hardly seems to get light at all … but we know that the spring, with all its promise of new life, is not far away. I am certainly looking forward to getting out there with my camera, starting probably with the snowdrops. They always seem to be the first. In the same way, Isaiah reminds us at the end of our reading that, as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. There is hope.
The final verse of the song from West Side Story goes like this:
Hold my hand and we're halfway there
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
Somehow, someday, somewhere
We can’t physically hold each other’s hands at the moment, in these strange times, but we can support each other and care for each other and encourage each other. Jesus himself turns to our reading from Isaiah when he stands up in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4, and identifies himself with the words of the prophet, saying Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Let us encourage each other with the hope we share, in the good news in our Old Testament reading, and in the light of the world which is Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
Let us pray
Heavenly Father, our hope is in you.
We thank you for the past, trust you for today, and believe in your promises for the future.
Help us to encourage each other with the hope which is in our hearts.
Enable us to share that hope with those around us.
Use us to transform our world
And to spread your hope to every corner of the earth.
The video link is https://youtu.be/Rn2shfFKvZQ
Pastoral Letter for Advent 2
“Comfort, O comfort my people,”
The words of Isaiah are some of the most well known in the Old Testament. For those who worship they are part of our Advent inheritance, for others they resound in the music of Handel’s Messiah.
Comfort, O comfort my people.
These words were written sometime during the exile in Babylon when the hope and identity of Israel was held captive in a foreign land. They precede Christ by some 550 years. These are words of prophecy, and it is the voice of prophecy which we mark today, the second Sunday of Advent.
Comfort, O comfort my people.
The word ‘Comfort’ in Hebrew has a stronger meaning than its common usage in English. When Isaiah speaks of comfort he is saying that God is about to act, the world will change, therefore have hope for the future.
We perhaps can glimpse something more of what that means if we look to the news that vaccines are being tested to see if they are safe to be used to defeat Covid 19. This is something that will change the world for the better. When we have a vaccine we shall be able to meet with family and friends again. We shall be able to hug people we love. We shall be able to sing. Life will be restored.
Isaiah announces that God is about to act, listen, be watchful, be ready.
For many people the news this week will not have brought much comfort. Long established companies are failing and people are losing their jobs. There is concern about pensions, our town centres, about what the future holds. I sent an email to our PCC members looking at how 2021 might look, I do not think it will be a normal year. Much that we usually take for granted will still be on hold.
In that sense we have another glimpse into the voice of prophecy – Comfort, O comfort my people.
Isaiah is not promising comfort as in taking life easy, no, there is much to be done. We need to prepare. In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, in the desert a highway for our God.
These days major roadbuilding projects mean bulldozers and concrete, accompanied by protests and the inevitable traffic jams. But consider in Isaiah’s day what it meant to travel. For most people on foot, often through hilly terrain where robbers had plenty of places to hide, journeys were long with serious hardships to endure.
I remember reading an account of travelling in England before roads were built, for much of the year crossing the Pennines was impossible. We take for granted the ease with which we move around. The promise of a highway was a world changing event.
Comfort, O comfort my people – Isaiah is a long way from saying life will be easy. That is not the voice of prophecy. His message is addressed to people in a hard place, in hard times, facing bleak uncertainty. The hope he speaks of is no small thing.
The world is about to be different. And it won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but it can be better.
In Advent we watch and wait and listen and prepare. For God acts and our lives can always be different. Not necessarily easy, not necessarily quick, but potentially better. The question is will we be ready.
Advent brings us to a new beginning in listening to God’s good news. This year will be Year B in our lectionary, we shall be following Mark, whose Gospel begins with the message of John the Baptist.
It is not comfortable to speak of repentance. Repentance is not a word which people use a lot these days. It is nevertheless an important word. To repent is to think again. To repent is to look at things differently. To repent is to act differently. So in a way we’ve been doing a lot of repenting recently.
We’ve had to live differently. We’ve had to think differently. We’ve had to ask why it is that the people we rely on most are the people who are paid the least. We’ve had to reconsider how our society values each person’s contribution to our common good. We know we will come out of this differently. We won’t, we can’t, just go back to how things were.
Repentance suddenly got real.
John’s message was that if you want to see God’s best hope, if you want to understand Jesus, if you want to be part of what comes next, then you need to think again, see things differently, do things differently.
So our Advent task is make ourselves ready for hope that is coming. Not just in the retelling of the Christmas story, but in the expectation that the point of this is not in the past but in the future. Christmas is not remembering what has happened, but in being prepared for what is yet to happen.
This strange Advent perhaps we can understand the voice of prophecy just that little bit better. We wait, we watch, we listen, that when Christ comes we may be ready.
As the Communion prayer for today says:
Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that, when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him
with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/DKw9WqtVRQE
29th November 2020- Advent
Our reading is from Mark 13: 24-37
Advent marks the beginning of the church’s new year. As Edward King was fond of commenting, we complete another cycle of God’s great story of reaching out to humanity. It is time to begin again, but under strange circumstances, maybe this time we shall notice something we had not spotted before.
Our newspapers are full of words about Christmas, can it be saved, will it happen, can families meet? In most people’s minds is it Christmas that focusses attention. In the midst of such a difficult time it is natural to look for something better, a time when we can be with people we are missing, a time for celebration after months of worry and loneliness.
But let’s not overlook Advent. It has been said that if you cut Christmas out of the bible you would lose just three chapters, and it wouldn’t change anything we know about God’s best hopes for humanity. The facts of the Incarnation are still there. But leave out Advent and you lose most of the Old Testament and much of the New. We need to take Advent seriously.
Of course Advent is challenging. Our reading today speaks of a world coming to an end. Not much of a new beginning at first glance. But if we pause to think then we know differently. The first signs of a new harvest are when the plough overturns the earth, and for the ploughman of old it was brutal back-breaking work. Yet, as I said in my annual report, when the poetry of ploughing spoke of the “painful plough” it was not the aching muscles or blistered hands that were referred to. The “painful plough” is a reference to something done with painstaking care. New beginnings matter, and they demand our focus and attention and care.
So do not neglect Advent. It matters too much.
I often begin a funeral service with the Advent collect. It summarises a lot that matters.
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
We are reminded again that this ending is a new beginning. But not just yet. There is a waiting. Contrary to what some people think Christians do not believe that when we die we go straight to heaven. The Advent collect makes that clear. We wait. We wait until that last day when Christ shall come again in glory, and then, and then only, shall we rise to the life immortal. Of course in God’s kingdom time as we currently experience it is different, but the point remains.
Society all around us is geared to having what we want when we want it. And we want it now. So Christmas decorations go up in November and by Boxing Day it’s all over. The reality is different, and slower, and more lasting.
At the heart of our being with God there is waiting. God will act, God will come amongst us, the message of the angels will be heard. But not just yet. Now it is time to wait and watch and listen. Now it is time to prepare for that which is long expected.
Every new beginning is made possible by that which has gone before. We need not fear the known passing away. This has been a hard year, we have lost so much, yet in the endings we have discovered new beginnings. If we do not learn to watch and wait we will miss opportunities. The Advent collect speaks of this mortal life, it acknowledges things which must pass away, looking to a different reality beyond. Now is the time not to rush back to the old ‘normal’. Use this time wisely, keep awake, be alert.
I want to add a few words about what will happen after 2nd December. The new tier system will be tough but I am pleased to see it gives us an idea through to the end of March. In all the tiers places of worship will remain open. Our services recommence on Sunday 6th December. Our websites have details of Advent and Christmas services. Numbers may be limited of course so for popular services it might be wise to come early. This may be the first Christmas we truly understand what it felt like to be told, “There’s no room at the inn.”
Blessed are you, Sovereign Lord, God of our ancestors:
to you be praise and glory for ever!
You called the patriarchs to live by the light of faith
and to journey in the hope of your promised fulfilment.
May we be obedient to your call
and be ready and watchful to receive your Christ,
a lamp to our feet and a light to our path;
for you are our light and our salvation.
Blessed be God for ever.
The first candle is lit
God of Abraham and Sarah,
and all the patriarchs of old,
you are our Father too.
Your love is revealed to us in Jesus Christ,
Son of God and Son of David.
Help us in preparing to celebrate his birth
to make our hearts ready for your Holy Spirit
to make his home among us.
We ask this through Jesus Christ,
the Light who is coming into the world.
Lord Jesus, Light of the world,
born in David's city of Bethlehem,
born like him to be a king:
Be born in our hearts at Christmas,
be king of our lives today.
The YouTube version is https://youtu.be/DqJLCTz6Sr8
22nd November 2020 - Christ the King
Our reading is Matthew 25: 31-46
Today is the last Sunday of the church’s year. Next Sunday is Advent, a new beginning. And today is known also as Christ the King, this is the Kingdom Season.
We have the wonderful parable of the sheep and goats. Earlier this year, when our churches were closed on Easter Sunday, Fiona and I went for a walk and found a field full of sheep with lambs. The sun was shining and the lambs were doing what lambs do best, which is to wander off and get into mischief. Sometimes a lamb went too far and lost sight of its mother, then the field would be filled with lambs bleating and mothers calling. It was the best Easter Evensong I’ve ever heard.
Sometimes it takes a time of loss for us to discover new gifts, things that are there but we just haven’t noticed before.
A colleague produced some photographs of sheep and goats. You’d think it would be easy to tell them apart, modern breeds are usually quite distinctive, though there are some sheep that look very much like goats, and some goats that look very much like sheep. In Jesus’ day it took an experienced eye to sort them quickly.
The parable of course is not about sheep and goats, it is about people. More specifically how people treat other people. God it seems is not terribly interested in how clever you are, or what kind of car your drive, or how much you earn, or what you house cost you. God is more interested in how you treat other people.
This is the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Kingdom Season. The Kingdom of God is neither a time nor a place. It is an activity. The Kingdom of God happens when people live in accordance with God’s will. When human lives reflect obedience to divine love the Kingdom comes close. And this happens in the smallest of things.
Those whom the King welcomes are those who give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, a welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, those who visit the sick and the person in prison. No-one will erect a statue to you for doing these things, you probably won’t get an OBE or even a Blue Peter badge. But these are the tasks which bring the Kingdom close.
There is not a huge amount of good news around at the moment. People are weary, and people are confused. We approach Advent without being able to light the Advent candle. We don’t know if we can be with family and friends at Christmas. We are learning not to make plans.
Perhaps there is a reminder that God is rarely if ever in our plans. God is always in the unexpected and the unpredictable. God is in the person we least expect. God is in the unexpected kindness of strangers.
Perhaps the Kingdom comes close but we have not seen it. Because it wasn’t as we planned it, or as we expected it. Maybe this year we learn anew, to find the Kingdom amongst us, in so much that we took for granted and did not value enough.
On the theme of sheep and goats, in January Bishop Mark is coming to visit us for our Plough Sunday service on 17th January. I am sure we will still be under some form of restrictions and it would be a great sadness to turn people away from church. So I am immensely grateful that Jonathan Palmer of MotorSport Vision and the team at Oulton Park have offered us hospitality at the Fogarty Moss Centre. Of course we shall need to confirm everything nearer the time to see what rules might be in place by then, but all being well we shall be able to gather in a greater number to welcome Bishop Mark to our Benefice.
We usually have animals in our Plough Sunday service but that’s not going to be possible this time round. So I think it’s time for something slightly less serious. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Belper Moo, if not look it up on the internet, but I think they’ve got the right idea. For Plough Sunday we’ll invite those daft enough to wear animal hats, either bought or homemade – and as you can see, I’ve made a start.
God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.
The Youtube link is https://youtu.be/znz5O-ZTLjU
Pastoral Letter – Sunday 15th November. Second Sunday before Advent
Our Reading is Matthew 25:14-30
Our churches are closed again so I shall be filming the YouTube version of this letter from the village green in Little Budworth. I shall come to the reasons for that a bit later.
The parable of the talents is well known and much loved. As will all good stories it has several layers of meaning. We are reminded how important it is to put to good use our skills and time and finances. A talent is not a coin, a talent is a weight, so its value depends on what currency is used, copper, silver or gold.
But there is another currency here as well, the servants are rewarded or punished not on the basis of profit or loss, but on trust. The key issue is whether they have earned trust.
The servant who buried the talent was criticised because his actions aimed to hand things back exactly the same as before. One of Jesus’ constant battles with the religious authorities was their mindset that God’s law mustn’t change. Religion became an absolute commitment to maintaining the status quo. There was no sense of adventure in that faith, no willingness to take risks, no sense that God travels with his people.
The servants who put their talents to good use earned trust, and they were rewarded. The one who hid his talent safely was not trusted, and his talent was taken away.
Over the past few months churches have worked hard to provide a safe environment to enable people to worship together. This has been greatly valued by many people. We have had to invent new things, undertake new responsibilities, try things we haven’t done before.
I believe the evidence shows that churches have gone above and beyond what was expected of them. I am very disappointed that we have been forced to close during the current lockdown. When this matter was raised in Parliament MPs of all parties repeatedly echoed what our Archbishops had asked for, either produce the evidence why churches need to be closed, or reconsider the closure. I watched that debate with some interest. It was clear someone who needed to listen wasn’t doing so. I understand not everyone sees worship as important to themselves personally, but those in public office have a moral and professional responsibility to listen to the voices of those who understand these things better than them. Like our various servants, this is primarily a matter of trust.
I believe the churches and synagogues and mosques and temples, have shown themselves to be trustworthy. They deserved to be trusted, and to receive some support. Instead they have been treated as the untrustworthy servant and what they had has been taken away.
Now this might sound like a complaint, indeed it is, and I believe with good cause. When the new lockdown came into effect on 5th November churches were asked to re-arrange their Remembrance Sunday services at very short notice. We did so willingly and people have expressed huge appreciation for what we provided. We were able to hold services out of doors, perfectly safely, which many people valued.
So if we were able to hold outdoor services on 8th November how come it is deemed unsafe for us to do so on 15th November? Nothing has changed. Our policies and procedures have been shown to work, why allow it one week and not the next? How can we be asked to provide services outdoors one week and then be told that it is not safe to do so the next week?
The key issue here is trust. People who use their talents wisely and creatively need to see something positive and creative come out of that commitment. That is the model countries in the East have used and it has been shown to be effective. If people are not trusted they will not respond with trust. And as our parable shows, the one who loses trust loses everything.
We all understand we need to live under unusual restrictions, but those restrictions have to be reasonable and proportional. Random and unjustified withdrawal of people’s right to worship with no evidence to say why it is necessary is the stuff of the untrustworthy servant. We deserve better. I believe we have earned the right to expect better.
So I am on the village green, because the latest rules tell me that this side of the wall I am allowed, that side of the wall I am not. And this side of the wall we have evidence of what happens when people use their talents wisely and creatively. We have a wonderful play area which was installed earlier this year. This happened because people have used their skills, time, energy, enthusiasm in the service of others. Not just once, but week after week, month after month, year after year. Trust is earned, and it is earned the hard way. Those who prove themselves trustworthy need to be valued. If we neglect to do that we shall all be poorer for it.
If we are to build a healthy and happy society we need to value those who contribute to it. We need to see some evidence that those who have earned the right to be trusted have trust placed in them.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/KCm66MzCWR4
1st November 2020 - All Saints
1 John 3:1-3
Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one for evermore.
… the words from the Bidding Prayer at the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, words which are very familiar to many of us, words which, although I have heard them, or more recently read them myself, at least once every Christmas for over 40 years, still bring a lump to my throat, still have the same emotional effect on me.
Today is the first Sunday in November. Tonight, it is our service for All Souls, when we will gather together to remember before God, and to give thanks for, our loved ones who have died, the people whom we see no longer, but who are still very dear to our hearts. I hope that you will be able to be here again for that very special service at 6.30.
This morning, however, we widen the perspective a bit. We remember before God, not only our own loved ones, but, in the words of the Bidding Prayer, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh. In other words, we remember all those who shared our faith in Jesus, and who have gone before us. We don’t just remember those whom the church has recognised as being special or holy, those who are called saints, such as St Mary or St Peter, but all those who have, like us, been followers of Jesus, and in whose steps we follow.
As Christians, ours is a global faith. You can go pretty much anywhere in the world, and find a welcome in a Christian congregation on a Sunday morning. One of my favourite verses in one of my favourite hymns sums it up
As o'er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.
Ours is also a faith rooted in thousands of years of history, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds in a very well-known verse from chapter 12
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Just think of the generations who have worshipped God faithfully in this church over the centuries, of the vicars whose photographs hang in the vestry. All these people, and millions and millions more, form part of that cloud of witnesses, of that multitude which no man can number.
And what do we have in common with them? Different times, different experiences, different lives, but, as again it says in the Bidding Prayer, we all share the same hope, the hope in the Word made flesh, our faith in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
Both Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in our gospel reading from Matthew, and St John in our epistle reading, speak of us as all – those who have gone before us, and those of us here in church today - as being children of God. Jesus says: Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God, and John says: we should be called children of God and also we are God’s children.
Both of them also speak of the blessings and joys of being one of God’s children. Jesus speaks of comfort and mercy, of fulfilment and inheriting the earth, and of seeing God. And John picks up on the idea of seeing God, reminding us that when [God] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is, and we will understand how much he loves us, in John’s words, see what love the Father has given us.
In these strange COVID-19 times, many of us are far from loved ones. Many of us haven’t seen our families and friends for many months, and we are all finding it very tough. One of the blessings in this situation has been in the internet, with Facetime and Zoom and other programs, which allow us not only to send written messages to each other, or to hear the other person’s voice, but actually to see the face of the people we love. It’s hard not be able to touch them, and hug them, but we can look into their faces, and know that the loving relationship is still there, it is real. This can be such a comfort.
It is the same with God. We will only fully understand the extent of his love for us when we meet him face to face, when we see him as he is. And, of course, we believe that those who rejoice with us but upon another shore are already in the presence of God. But what might that be like? It’s impossible for us to imagine. And we can just allow to our poets and our writers to help us build up a picture of that other shore, in other words, of heaven.
Let me leave you with one vision of heaven in the words of the 12th century monk, St Bernard of Cluny, translated so beautifully by John Mason Neale in the 19th century - Jerusalem the Golden, which Emma is going to sing for you in full in a moment.
They stand, those halls of Zion,
all jubilant with song,
and bright with many an angel,
and all the martyr throng:
the Prince is ever in them,
the daylight is serene;
the pastures of the blessèd
are decked in glorious sheen.
There is the throne of David;
and there, from care released,
the shout of them that triumph,
the song of them that feast;
and they who with their Leader
have conquered in the fight,
for ever and for ever
are clad in robes of white.
25th October 2020 - Bible Sunday
“You have become very dear to us.”
Our readings today are about relationship. It is the last Sunday of Trinity, next week we begin to move towards Advent, on this boundary Sunday we pause to mark the gift of Holy Scripture. For this Sunday is often known as Bible Sunday, and the weeks between here and Advent are known as the Kingdom season.
The Bible may be likened to someone looking at the landscape. Your eyes may see the hills, the grass, hedges, and fields. Our landscape is very beautiful.
Your eyes may see deeper. You may perceive the millennia of history which has shaped the land. The movement of the earth’s surface, places where rocks are broken and forced to the surface, strata from different ages resting side by side. You may notice the gentle but persistent erosion by water so that a mere stream shapes an entire valley. You may hold the soil in your hand and know that this was once the bed of a deep ocean.
Or your eyes may look again, and see the labour of humanity which has shaped the land. The pattern of fields, the hands that have laid hedges, the years of graft and sweat, the hopes and tears of those who work this God given land.
The Bible is like such a landscape. A quick glance isn’t enough. There is depth here. There are stories. There is history. The modern man in his motor car thinks he knows all, but a quick glance at the land as you zoom by tells you nothing. You need to stop, and look, and look again. You need to hold this earth to know its story.
Our readings are about relationship. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is one of the earliest, he opens it simply by stating his name, he doesn’t describe himself as an apostle. The only way he reveals what is means to be an apostle is in relationship with others.
He uses three images. Firstly he says, to speak for God demands courage. He writes of the opposition and maltreatment he and others had endured. The person who speaks for God is often met with opposition. Their words will not be popular. The gospel can cause offence when it is proclaimed.
I suspect the Archbishops know how that feels this week, I know David Sheppard faced that hostility many times, you and I know from our own experiences that sometimes saying the right thing means speaking a truth that is unpopular.
Relationships aren’t always easy.
The second mark of the apostle is integrity. This builds on those times when what is said may not please those to whom it is addressed. But we are here to please God, not others.
Anyone skilled in sales will know that people can be persuaded by smooth words and enticing offers. The Christian message has neither. We deal in truth and hope and love. Often the right words are uncomfortable words. This is the legacy of the prophets. People can only change from within when they sense the deep integrity of the message.
As John said last week, this is not about what we do and say, this is about who we are.
The third aspect of apostleship is relationship with people. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “You have become very dear to us.” The mark of a parish church is that it cares for the people and gives, not only the services and acts of the church, but as Paul says, not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.
There is a price to be paid for relationship.
Paul says – we were gentle among you. There is some discussion how that is best translated. Some versions say – we were are infants among you, pointing to vulnerability of the apostle. But the word ‘gentle’ reminds me of how it is used by the Psalmist, that ‘gentle’ can be read as ‘loving correction’.
Sometimes to turn someone’s life from despair to hope, from destruction to redemption, needs some tough love. The parent who corrects a child may incur tears and temper, but if consistent, and done with integrity and consistency, a child may learn wisdom and grace.
So, relationship is at the heart of what God seeks and what God gives.
And when the Pharisee asks – which is the greatest commandment, Jesus replies with what God seeks and what God gives. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The strength bit isn’t what is sounds like. There’s no advantage to being built like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwayne Johnson, it’s not about pumping iron. Strength means substance – you shall love the Lord your God with all that you are and with all that you have. In exactly the same way bride and groom pledge themselves to one another;
With my body I honour you,
all that I am I give to you,
and all that I have I share with you,
within the love of God.
This is a re-creating relationship. It changes the landscape, sometimes by earth shattering upheaval, more often by quiet persistent gentleness. This landscape is shaped by human graft, by hard work inspired by hope and often tempered with tears, we build this new kingdom one tiny grain at a time.
Which is why the second greatest commandment is to reveal this different way of life in our relationship with others. You shall love your neighbour as yourself. It is not rocket science, it is infinitely more powerful and world shaping.
This new landscape has depth, and stories, and history. It is not taken in at a glance. You need to hold this earth in your hands, and know its cost.
Holy God, we give you thanks and praise for all who have had the courage to speak out boldly for the gospel,
for the saints and martyrs of the past,
for holy men and women who now stand for justice and freedom.
May our lives join theirs in serving you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/UMs-pRoRTwU
18th October 2020 - St Luke
Luke 10:1-9, W & LBam 18/10/20.
Over the years I’ve seen some strange attempts to motivate staff - but this really does take the biscuit! What is Jesus thinking of? Had he not been to any Management Training Sessions? Was there no Management Consultant to advise him? What a strange way to get his followers enthusiastic and excited.
Jesus has a huge task that he wants his followers to work on. So he says… “The harvest plentiful. But the labourers are few.” That’s a pretty dispiriting start, isn’t it? Not too motivational?
But then, he compounds the problem: “Go on your way! See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Now, I remember once on a scout hike seeing a dead sheep that had been attacked by a dog and it wasn’t a pretty sight…And Jesus, as he prepares to send out his followers, uses that as a metaphor for what is likely to happen to them.
But despite all this bad news, they are still prepared to go, well at least they can take some protection with them…“Ah, no,” says Jesus. “That’s the other thing I need to tell you…”
“Carry no purse no bag no sandals…”
Put yourself in their shoes, it doesn’t sound very inviting, does it? The task is massive. They are likely to get ravaged by the wolves. And they can’t take anything with them to aid them on their way.
Welcome to Christian mission
A great theologian called Emil Brunner once said: “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” Just as it is impossible to differentiate between fire and burning, so it should be impossible to differentiate between Church and Mission.
Mission is not something the Church does. Mission is what the Church is, or should be.
What we can learn from this passage about the nature of Mission. There are 3 things I want to draw out of what heard today:
1. The call to mission
Now this is an interesting passage because some versions say that there were 70 chosen by Jesus to go out, as the one we heard does. Others say that there were 72. The Greek, as it often is, is a little ambiguous. But without going into all the grammatical arguments, my belief is that Jesus sent out 70, not 72 and that it is actually quite an important detail, for two reasons:
Firstly, it reminds us of the story of Moses in the wilderness in Numbers 11. Moses was feeling overworked and overtired, the Israelites were looking for him to do everything: lead the worship, make the decisions, all the pastoral care and so on, in verse 14, Moses complains to God. He says…“They keep whining…I can’t be responsible for all these people by myself. It’s too much for me!” So in verse 16 God said to Moses, “Assemble 70 elders who are recognised as leaders of the people…Then they can help you to bear the responsibility.”
Secondly, the number 70 is important because at the time it was thought to be the number of nations in the world. So perhaps, symbolically, what Jesus is saying here is that all the nations of the world are to be involved in Christian mission.
We may feel nervous about going out to tell others about the love of God, we may feel that we don’t have the right gifts or abilities – which, of course, is exactly how Moses felt.
In Exodus 4: 10 -12, he said to God, “Lord, don’t send me. I have never been a good speaker. I am a poor speaker, slow and hesitant.”
And what does God reply? “Who gives man his mouth? It is I, the Lord. Now go, I will help you to speak, and I will tell you what to say.”
And that is the promise of God to us too, that if we are willing to go out and tell people about his love then God will give us the words and enable us to speak for him.
I once heard a description of church - not from someone here, I hasten to add! - but someone who was feeling pretty exhausted in their own church because it was the same people always doing the work whilst others sat back and let them get on with it.
She said, “You know my church is like going to a football match. There are 22 people running around, exhausted and desperately in need of a rest being cheered on by a big crowd of people who desperately need some exercise!
2. The responsibility of mission
Mission is a huge responsibility for us to carry.
That’s why, in verse 4, Jesus says to the 70: “greet no one on the road”. Not because he was encouraging them to be rude but because, in Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, a greeting can take a very long time.
There is a really important verse in this passage, verse 7: “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.” Now this may seem very straight-forward to us but, actually it was a major ask for those Jesus called.
The followers whom Jesus was commissioning were Jews and, of course, they would only have eaten ritually clean food. But they were being sent to an area where many Gentiles lived so if they accepted hospitality from the Gentiles, they would have to eat ritually unclean food.
So what I think Jesus is saying here is that, if they were to be successful in mission, they had to leave their religiosity behind them: immerse themselves in the local culture and be prepared to set aside some of the ways they had been taught so that there would be no barriers to others receiving Christ.
3. The activity of mission
What does mission actually involve? This is an interesting passage because Jesus exhorts his followers to say, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you”.
When we look at the world around us, when we see the pain and suffering of so many and the injustice that seems to flourish both here and abroad, we might reasonably ask…“Has the Kingdom of God really come near?”
But Jesus points to other signs that prove the Kingdom of God is near, two from this passage I’d like to draw your attention to.
The sharing of hospitality, remember verse 7: Graciously receiving is as important as graciously giving.
During my time working in Tajikistan, I was invited to an orphanage and we had lunch there after the meetings. The meal was Plov, the local speciality, some vegetables, rice and mutton all stewed together in oil. This is eaten with the fingers and the test of a good Plov is if the oil runs down to the elbow
I admit it was difficult to show my enjoyment of it, but if I had not that would have been such an insult because their hospitality was so important to , and for them this was something special.
Also compassion and care is a sign of the nearness of the Kingdom, verse 9: Jesus says, “Cure the sick who are there”. Caring for the sick and the dying, the sad and the lonely, the hurt and the anxious… these are all signs of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, coming to others through them and us, all part of our mission.
So, this fascinating passage has much to tell us about mission:
I mentioned earlier Brunner’s idea that, “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning”. Our aim and our prayer must surely be that here at St Mary’s & St. Peter’s we are known as a missionary people; not just because of what we do but because of who we are… Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mfvmQUS6jx8
Sunday 11th October 2020 - Trinity 18
It is the morning after the night before, the morning after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He has spent the night in Bethany, probably with his friends Martha and Mary. And we catch up with him again as he comes back into Jerusalem and heads for the temple, where he starts to teach his disciples. Along comes a group of chief priests and elders. They are not happy, and, as we read in Matthew 21 verse 23, they challenge him with these words: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
As often happens, Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer, but instead tells a series of three parables, stories with a meaning.
The first is the story of two sons, one who does what his father asks and one who doesn’t. The second is the story of the absentee landlord of a vineyard, and the failure of his tenants to pay their rent. The situation is made worse by the murder of the landlord’s son when he turns up to collect the rent. And the tenants are replaced. And the third story is the story of the wedding feast which we heard in our gospel reading this morning, and which I will come back to in a minute.
It is important to take these three parables together, and to read them as Jesus’ response to the hostility of the Jewish authorities. Each of the parables speaks of one group of people losing their privileged position, and being replaced by those whom they have looked down on. These parables raise the fundamental question of who are the true people of God, and suggest that a radical change is about to take place.
So let’s look in a bit more detail at the third of these stories, at our reading from Matthew 22 this morning.
In Jesus’ time, it was customary to send out an advance invitation to a wedding feast, or similar celebration, giving people the chance to accept, but then to send out a second messenger on the day itself to say that the meal was ready.
The king in our story then sends out his slaves to call all those he had invited to the banquet for his son’s wedding, but they don’t come. Some simply find other places to go – to their farm or their business. But then the story becomes quite bizarre, with the murder of the messengers by some of the other guests, a full-scale military campaign, and the destruction of the city, all whilst the dinner gets cold. The burning of a city is a very extreme reaction to a refused dinner invitation, but the symbolism is clear enough.
Jesus’ message here is a harsh one. The refusal of the Jewish leaders to respond to God’s call, he says, will lead first to the rejection and death of his messenger, in the person of Jesus, of course, and ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus spells this out at the end of Matthew 23, where we read Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings … and you were not willing. See your house is left to you – desolate!
The king, having destroyed those who murdered his messengers, along with their city, now sends his slaves out again into the streets with instructions to bring in all whom they found, both good and bad to join in with the wedding banquet.
This is a more encouraging message, hinting at the radical change which I mentioned earlier. It reminds us that in Jesus God’s love and forgiveness are available to all who hear his call, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, whatever their background.
But the narrative then takes a new and unexpected turn. Even amongst the newly invited guests, there is no automatic guarantee of acceptance. Even someone from the streets is expected to dress appropriately for a wedding. To do otherwise is to insult the host, who assumes that the guest is arrogant, or that he doesn’t want to take part fully in the celebrations. This leads to the guest being thrown out onto the streets again.
The wedding clothes in this story represent the righteousness – the being put right with God - which is needed to enter God’s kingdom, and which comes to us through Jesus. It is Jesus, in his death and resurrection, who has provided us with a way back to God, with these clothes. However, in the end, it is down to us to make the choice, to choose whether or not to put on the wedding clothes, to follow Jesus back to God or not.
So, in adding this little twist at the end of the story, Jesus reminds his listeners that, although the kingdom of heaven is open to everyone, there is no place there for anyone who does not take their privileged position seriously. At the end of the second story of the vineyard, Jesus says that the kingdom of God will be given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom. In other words, being part of God’s kingdom demands a response from his people. At the end of this story, Jesus goes even further, warning that those who do not take their place in the kingdom seriously, who do not respond appropriately, will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This is a tough message. It was a tough message for the Jewish authorities to hear, and it is a tough message for us to hear. There is an open invitation to God’s kingdom. All are welcome. But there are expectations. Being part of God’s kingdom demands a response from us. It demands evidence of repentance, of changed lives and changed hearts.
As I close, I just want to look briefly at our epistle reading which provides us with an example of that radical change which I mentioned just now, of the fact that God invites everyone, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, into his kingdom. St Paul here writes to the first Christian church established on the European continent, in Philippi, in what is now Greece. He even mentions some of these Greek believers by name, as he reminds them of what changed lives and changed hearts, of what being part of God’s kingdom, should mean for them with these encouraging words:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. And the God of peace will be with you.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/eI70xnxNFI8
4th October 2020 - Harvest
Our reading are 2 Corinthians 9:6-end and Luke 12:16-30
There is no text for this week’s address but for those who were not there last year the story of harvest mare needs explaining.
In some areas it was a tradition that when a farmer gathered his harvest he kept the stalks of the last sheaf gathered and made a corn mare from them. Later that evening the farm workers would find a neighbouring farm where the harvest had not yet been gathered. They would throw the harvest mare over the hedge into the farm calling out, “Mare, Mare.” The inference being that if the harvest was left it would be consumed by wild horses.
The farmer receiving the mare would be embarrassed into gathering his harvest as quickly as possible and then passing the mare onto another farmer. Eventually the last farmer to gather his crops was left holding the mare which he was then obliged to display on his barn for the next year.
We used a soft toy and during a hymn passed the mare around the congregation. It was of course fixed so that John Hales was left holding the mare when the hymn ended.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/hiszkJtmZLo
27th September 2020 - Trinity 16
Some things never change do they, most people like a good moan about things. The reading from Exodus is one of several stories about Israelites complaining to Moses:
• With the Red Sea at their front and pursuing Egyptian soldiers at their rear, they complained to Moses that he had brought them out of slavery in Egypt to die in the wilderness—and said that they would have been better off as slaves (14: 11-12).
• Then, at Marah, complained because the water was bitter (15:24).
• Then they complained that they should have stayed in Egypt where they had plenty to eat, because they were hungry in the wilderness (16:2-3).
In each of these instances, God responded by giving them what they needed. However, they never seemed to learn that God was with them and would provide for their needs. They never learned to trust God and His servants, Moses and Aaron. They never learned the lesson of faith and always fell back on the human trait if having a good moan.
So what were they moaning about? Lets look at the verses one at a time.
“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord had commanded” The wilderness of Sin was located between Elim and Sinai. We do not know its exact location. The word Sin in this context might be related to the Hebrew word for Sinai, rather than our word “sin.” We should not confuse the wilderness of Sin with the wilderness of Zin, we hear about in Numbers and other Old Testament books.
Journeying by stages gave the Israelites an opportunity for rest and refreshment, but of course they would need a source of water at each resting place, because people and livestock require significant amounts of water every day—far too much to carry.
“They camped at Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink” . Rephidim is their last camping place before Mount Sinai, so the mountain must be close
At Marah, the water was bitter (15:23). At Rephidim, there is no water. This is an extremely serious problem. People and livestock require cannot survive for long without water. This, then, is a matter of life and death.
“The people quarreled (rib) with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink'” . The word translated as quarrelled was rib, which could also be used as “plead” or “strive” or contend” or “chide” or “debate.” and is often used in a legal sense to describe a legal complaint. In this case, the people issue their complaint against Moses, demanding that he give them water to drink.
“Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?'” . Moses, however, makes it clear that their quarrel is not with him, but with God. Moses is simply God’s servant, and has been doing God’s bidding.
“But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses, and said, ‘Why did you brought us out of Egypt, to kill us, and our children, and livestock with thirst?'. It is easy for us, who have seldom been truly thirsty and have never faced the likelihood of death from lack of water, to be critical of these people. In addition to the fact that we have never walked in their shoes, we have been reminded in recent chapters how God saved them again and again from apparently hopeless situations. Surely they should understand that God will rescue them again now—but they don’t.
But if our throats were parched and our children were crying for a drink of water, we might forget God’s past providence too.
But we need to balance those concerns with the fact that God has saved the Israelites—not once, not twice, but over and over again. They have cause for fear—but also have cause for faith.
When times are really difficult faith is tested.
“So Moses cried to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me'”. As he routinely does when faced with a crisis, Moses turns to God for help.
We need to keep in mind that this is before the giving of the Jewish law, but this passage would have been recorded after the giving of the law. The law prescribes stoning for various capital offences, such as idolatry and blasphemy. If Moses were guilty of intentionally leading these people to their deaths, stoning would seem a highly appropriate punishment. However, that is not the case. Moses is simply following God’s orders.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you, take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go'”. In a dangerous situation, our natural inclination is to fight or to flee. God tells Moses to do neither. He is to move to the front of the people to reaffirm his status as their leader. He is to take the elders with him, both to confirm his leadership and to act as witnesses of the miracle that is about to occur. He is to take the staff which God has enabled Moses and Aaron to use in miraculous ways.
“I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb” Horeb is where Moses encountered the burning bush to begin his journey as God’s agent .
The Hebrew word horeb means “a desolate region” or “ruin.” Sinai and Horeb are different names for the same mountain. “Where a distinction appears, the mountain itself is Sinai and the neighbouring wilderness area bears the wider designation Horeb”.
This is probably confusing, because these people will not arrive at Sinai until chapter 19. However, if Horeb is the region and Sinai is the mountain, it could be that they have reached the region of Horeb but not the mountain itself.
God says that he will be standing on the rock that Moses is to strike. Perhaps the idea is that God will stand on the rock to lead Moses to it—but move before Moses strikes the rock. It would not seem right for Moses to strike a rock on which God is standing. However, the details here are unclear.
“Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel”.
As noted above, in the Numbers account, Moses was supposed to speak to the rock but struck it instead, and was punished for his disobedience. In this account, God orders him to strike the rock, and Moses obeys. The elders serve as witnesses to the miracle.
“He called the place Massah (massa—testing) and Meribah (meriba—quarreling), because the children of Israel quarrelled (rib), and because tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?'.
That final question, is the Lord among us or not? is one I think many people are asking in our situation right now. It is, of course, down to each one of us to find the answer for ourselves but I believe He is, always was and always will be, however much we may moan. But however dark the world around us may seem we always need to remember the lesson the Israelites forgot, to have faith and be patient.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/zOCINTGcDn0
20th September 2020 - Trinity 15
“Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
Both our readings today are about grumbling. The Israelites grumbled in the wilderness. Life in the desert was hard, they looked back to their days of slavery when at least they had bread to eat.
The workers in the vineyard grumbled, the wages seemed unfair. Why should those who came last receive the same as those who had toiled all day in the merciless heat?
People are quick to complain. Someone this week complained that the church door was locked – maybe they hadn’t noticed that for the past six months we’ve been in a global pandemic so leaving churches open for anyone to wander in and out of isn’t a terribly good idea.
Someone else complained that their father’s grave had been vandalised. I hadn’t spotted any vandalism, could they tell me which grave it was. They told me. And when did you last visit the grave? In 1947 at his funeral.
Well that’s not vandalism, that’s 60 years of neglect.
So they asked me what the church was going to do about it. I told them we’d send them a bill to make it safe as it’s their responsibility. I never heard from them again.
St Benedict is very tough on people who complain. He will tolerate all kinds of failures and signs of human weakness, but he will not abide complaining. Within the community there must be no signs of murmuring he says. Grumbling is a corrosive force that destroys and weakens both the individual and the community. Murmuring starts small, a thoughtless comment, a moment of frustration, a cruel word. But it spreads quickly and in the human soul grumbling takes root and nurtures a bitter harvest.
Grumbling is the first sign of a me centred soul, and a sign of a fear focussed life. Most grumbling has its roots in what I think I’m going to lose.
There is a bit in the story of the people in the wilderness that we don’t hear this morning, our reading finishes a couple of verses too early. If we’d read on just a bit further we’d have heard the bit about the people who didn’t trust that enough was enough.
They were told to gather enough for the day – that was God’s test. Can you live with enough being enough? Or are you living a me centred, fear focussed life?
There was enough for everyone, so no-one needed to collect more than enough – but as we discover – not everyone believed that. Those who collected more than enough found it went bad overnight. Those who gathered much had nothing left over, those who gathered little has no shortage.
When Jesus speak of the Kingdom of God he deliberately told stories that would startle and disturb. Parable of the Kingdom shake presuppositions and turn expectations on their head. When God gives he gives freely and graciously, he gives enough, he asks us to accept that enough and to accept his generosity to others.
That is a way of living which is not of this world, because it is a sign of a different reality.
There is of course a complaint here. That the people who had been told this when they were refugees in the wilderness didn’t listen and didn’t change how they lived.
When they were given a land they were told to reap their harvests leaving the edge of the fields uncut. The edges were for the poor, the widows, orphans and refugees.
They were told not to accumulate wealth that divided the rich and the poor – every year of Jubilee all debts were to be cancelled, the divisions in society levelled.
We know they did not listen, either to the original sign of God’s gracious generosity, or to the many prophets who over generations repeated the message.
Until God sent his Son to tell them again – with parables which repeated the original message. That God’s way is different, forming different shaped lives, different shaped people, different shaped community, a different shaped world.
There is a complaint here. The same complaint as when Jonah grumbled that God had spared Ninevah. The same complaint as when the elder son was outraged at his father throwing a party for his prodigal brother. The same complaint as when the self-righteous Pharisee compared himself to the repentant publican. The same complaint as when Jesus went home with Zacchaeus.
But this is not just a complaint. This is a diagnosis, and a diagnosis of an ill God has acted to restore.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/QJSGJsPASKs