Paul's Letter for Trinity 9
Our Gospel reading today is Matthew 14: 22-33
Last Sunday evening I made the comment that whenever the Bible contains a story about water or a boat we ought to take notice. Water is often a sign that the journey is about to take a different direction. Genesis opens with the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. The people of Israel pass through the waters of the Red Sea, on one side they are slaves pursued by soldiers, on the other side they are free. Later they come to the River Jordan, on one side they are homeless refugees, on the other they are people with a land.
Baptism is of course a passing through water, originally done at the river, and rivers were always a boundary between here and somewhere else. Turning points in the story of Jesus are often marked by crossing water. Sometimes boats are involved, I think boat stories point us towards different perspectives.
The story of Jesus walking on water is one of the best known but perhaps least understood of boat stories. We find it in Matthew, Mark and John. Our reading today ends at verse 33, I think it ought to go a little bit further and include verse 34, “And when they had crossed over they came to land.” Mark also records that the boat came to land. John is more specific, he says that when Jesus had got into the boat “immediately they were at the land to which they were going.”
William Barclay makes the point that if we want to understand miracle stories we need to regard then not as something that happened but as something that happens.
All three accounts agree that this story immediately follows the feeding of the multitude. People thought Jesus was a great guy, free food, all your problems solved. They misunderstood who he was. Jesus needs to withdraw from that popularity moment and keep his friends from getting drawn into it. So he sends them off in the boat and goes off by himself to pray.
We are told it was a difficult crossing. The wind got up, the waves were against them. The boat was being battered by a storm. Near dawn the disciples spot Jesus coming towards them. Now you can play words with the original Greek because the same words that can mean walking on the water can also mean walking towards the water. When John tells us that Jesus reached the boat he then tells us that the boat immediately reached the land.
So you have to decide, is the miracle that Jesus can walk on water? Or is the miracle that Jesus comes to his friends when they are battered and afraid, that he wades into the surf to grab the storm tossed boat and drags them to shore?
The text can be read both ways, but I find myself reminded of Barclay’s advice, miracles are not something that happened, miracles of things which happen. Jesus being able to defy the laws of physics might be interesting, but for me there is more hope in Jesus who walks towards his friends when their lives are battered by headwinds and tossed by waves.
In these continuing difficult times, and frankly things seem to be getting worse rather than better right now, how do we read this story? What does it tell us about God?
That God can rewrite gravity and the surface tension of water is doubtless true but I’m not sure it tells us anything really important. That God chooses to come nearer to those battered by life means something. And if that is what Jesus is telling us then right now that this story is significant.
The YouTube version can be found following the link https://youtu.be/O2c6mi1XlSQ
John's Letter for Trinity 8 02.08.20
Acts 13: 1 – 13.
What we heard about in our reading from the book of Acts was of a pivotal point in the life of the Church. It was at this point that the leaders of the early church decided to take the Gospel out to all the world.
It would not have been an easy decision for those involved, they knew it would be difficult, it would probably cause them to suffer hardship and danger, but they knew it was what God wanted them to do and so they accepted the task.
After hearing that there are prophets and teachers we then hear who they are and we could be confused by the names used, as at that time most people were referred to by different names dependant on the group they were with, and we have a pretty mixed group in this passage.
Barnabas was a Jew from Cyprus, Lucius came from Cyrene in North Africa. Simeon was also a Jew from Antioch, but his other name was Niger, Manean was someone who had aristocratic connections, he was brought up with Herod the Tetrach.
And of course Saul was a Jew from Tarsus who had been trained as a Rabbi.
The group came from not only different places but also from widely varying backgrounds, some highly educated some not so.
We hear that the first port of call in spreading the word was to Cyprus, not really surprising as that was the home of Barnabas, who seemed to be taking the lead at that time, and he would want to take the good news to his own people first.
At that time Cyprus was a Roman province, it had copper mines and ship building which were of great commercial interest to the Romans.
It was sometimes called Makaria which means the happy isle because the climate was so perfect and everything was there you could imagine needing for a happy life.
Sounds like a great place to start but Barnabas and Paul who went with him did not take the easy way, they did much of their work in Paphos the capital which was infamous for the worship of Venus the goddess of love. Not a very receptive starting point.
Most people there were also intensely superstitious and this included Sergius Paulus who was Governor of Cyprus.
He like many, despite their intelligence, employed private wizards and fortune tellers who dealt in magic and spells, generally telling them what they wanted to hear, for a nice fee.
Bar-Jesus or Elymas as he was sometimes known, this is an Arabic word meaning the skilful one, was one of these, a magician, and he was concerned that if the Governor was won over by these Christians he would be out of a job.
But guided by the Holy Spirit Paul was more than a match of him, and after this we never hear Paul referred to by his Jewish name of Saul.
The shear breadth of backgrounds shown in these few key followers called to do His work shows clearly the intent that the message was not just for the chosen few, not just for one town or area, or just country, but for all people everywhere, whoever and whatever they were.
As we follow the journey as it goes on in our reading we see that Paul in fact takes over the lead, but that there is no complaint from Barnabas.
We also see that the group split up, Paul and Barnabas went on to Perga in Pamphylia but John left them and went back to Jerusalem.
The John mentioned here is John Mark who we know better as Mark the writer of the Gospel.
We know that Mark was younger than the rest, his mother’s house in Jerusalem seems to have been the centre of the church there and so he was brought up at the centre of the faith.
Paul and Barnabas took him with them probably because he was a cousin of Barnabas, we don’t know if this was part of the reason he returned to Jerusalem, that he resented his relative Barnabas being down graded from leadership by Paul.
Perhaps he just got cold feet as the next stage of the journey was a dangerous and difficult one, it may also have been that he was not so convinced that they should be preaching to the gentiles.
Initially Paul found it hard to accept Mark leaving and resented it, in fact when he and Barnabas set out on their second missionary journey Barnabas suggested taking Mark but Paul would have none of it, he did not want a quitter with them.
What I think this passage tells us is that God is prepared to use anyone in his service, it does not matter what their background, if they have had formal education or none, if they come from a good family or the poorest of the poor, the most important thing is that they are prepared to let God into their lives and in doing so to understand that they have to listen to God and let Him guide them rather than being obsessed by their own ambition or pursuit of wealth.
I believe it also tells us that we can change, Saul who was such a persecutor of the early followers of Christ changed to become one of the leaders in spreading the Gospel Jesus brought into our world.
Originally a staunch Jew, a Rabbi even and yet he was the one who led the way in bringing Christ to the Gentiles throughout so many different parts of the world.
Mark too who for whatever reason left Barnabas and Paul to return home but who gave us one of our most important records of the Life and work of Jesus.
It also shows us that there are many different ways we can serve our Lord even today, possibly in some form of formal Licensed Ministry, ordained or lay, or just by being prepared to be there for others as a Christian presence so that our Lord can do His work through us.
Yes we can all serve the Lord in our own way, and I hope we do.
The YouTube version and latest Covid 19 update can be seen here https://youtu.be/hnjr63MTsTM
Paul's Letter for Trinity 7 26 July 2020
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
These are times of confusion and weariness. People I have spoken to this week are not sure who they are allowed to meet, where they are allowed to go, where they need to cover their face. Our Prime Minister suggests we may be nearing normal by Christmas. Other voices suggest the winter may bring another wave of infections.
I have spoken with people who have been furloughed, returned to work, then placed on furlough again. They don’t know if their job will still be there in another month’s time.
I have corresponded with two seafarers sent out to ships but then confined to a hotel room under quarantine whilst the ship has sailed. They have no idea how to get home, or when that might be. One of them said he probably wouldn’t see home or family until 2021. If you drove here today you are linked to this person, he sails on oil tankers.
A friend shared a story – “Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.
But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts."
We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized. Be kind.
In his letter to the Romans Paul was writing to people who knew that keeping faith in a turbulent world is no easy thing. He acknowledges for example that we don’t even know how to pray. Don’t worry, he says, the Spirit prays for us, with sighs too deep for words, and God understands.
The worst thing of all is to be separated from those we love, and at difficult times, when prayer is hard, to feel separated from God.
These difficult times make prayer hard. If this is something you know listen to what Paul says – God understands, and there is nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ.
But, how can we know this? Yes, we can listen to what Paul says. Yes, we can think these are very fine words. Yes, we can know that nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God – because love is a gift nothing can take away.
But still, how do we know this? Really know this, not just in our minds but in our hearts and in our souls?
And I remembered the story my friend shared about Margaret Mead. The first sign of civilization is an injury healed. A hurt cared for. Time given to another. One person tending to the needs of another. We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized. Be kind.
And it doesn’t matter how small an act that is. It doesn’t matter how many people if affects, or how many know about it. The Kingdom of God has its roots in the smallest of beginnings, it is made of the tiniest of things.
In his first interview as our new Bishop – Bishop Mark referred to the task of the church during Covid – 19. It said it was mostly doing the tasks that are invisible, the things that won’t make the headlines, but things that matter and things that change lives for the better.
I hear a weariness in people as this difficult time drags on. For most it is not exhaustion, though there are some whose workload and responsibilities have worn them down. But there is a sense of weariness, and there is a sense of confusion.
Jesus points us to the small things we can do, things we perhaps overlook, or perhaps don’t think are very significant. In reality, and if we stop to think about it we know this, it is the small things that matter. It is small kindnesses that people remember. In times of weariness and confusion it is small acts of kindness that give us hope and remind us who we are.
It is in small things we discover the truth, that we are not, and cannot ever be, separated from the love of God.
you give us gifts and make them grow,
though our faith is small as a mustard seed
make it grow to your glory
and the flourishing of your Kingdom,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube version can be viewed by clicking on the following link https://youtu.be/jmZpIzzjRwI
Jane's Letter for Trinity 6
Matthew 13:24-30 / 36-43
Well, what a strange four months it has been. Life has, for all of us, suddenly and unexpectedly been very different.
On 23 February, when I took my last service at St Helen Witton, I planned to take 4 weeks off, and to start here just before Easter. Covid-19 however had other ideas, and here I am, 16 weeks later, preaching my first sermon.
At the beginning of lockdown, looking for a way through the months ahead, I printed off a quote from the American writer and theologian, Richard Rohr, and pinned it up in my study. In it, he talks about change and uncertainty, about just what we have experienced and are still experiencing. Here is what he says.
Here we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. Here is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.
So, this morning, I just want to think about change with you for a few moments, about what Richard Rohr calls that sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed, with the help of our two Bible readings.
In our first reading, Jacob has been forced into exile after trying to cheat his elder brother out of his birth-right, and finds himself on the road. Everything has changed for him. He is leaving his old world behind, and doesn’t know what lies ahead. We can only imagine how unsettled he feels as he lies down for the night. However, God comes to him in a dream, saying I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, with the promise that all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring. For Jacob, in the midst of change, this is indeed a sacred space where a bigger world is revealed. Jacob wakes, full of hope and confidence, ready to continue his journey, saying Surely the Lord is in this place.
And then there is our gospel reading from Matthew, which, like all Jesus’ parables, has many layers of meaning. One message from Jesus in it, however, is very clear. In our world, there is a spiritual battle between good and evil, between God, and his followers, whom he calls the children of the kingdom, and the enemy, the evil one.
We know from our own experience that we live in broken and suffering world, and Covid-19 has been a stark reminder of this, but, as Christians, we also hold onto God’s promises of what it will be like at the end of the age, when, as we read in verse 43, the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Many of you will also know the comforting description in Revelation 21 of the new heaven and the new earth where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
The end of the age which Jesus talks about has of course yet to come, but, as Richard Rohr suggests, even today, we can still have a foretaste of that new order of things. Covid-19 gives us a chance to create a good space where genuine newness can begin, to build a bigger ¬and a better – world.
As we come out of the first phase of the pandemic, and we are beginning to be able to meet together again, we need to start having a conversation about what that new space might look like. We cannot make the death and crying and pain go away completely, we cannot mend our broken world, but surely we can find ways to make it a little bit less broken?
And, as we move forward in faith, into that new space, we can hold onto God’s promises to us, promises which hold true for us, just as they did for Jacob, and for Jesus’ early disciples. St Paul reminds us, in what is certainly one of my favourite verses in all Scripture – Romans 8:28 - that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
I don’t know about you, but I must say that, from my perspective, as I have got older, I have become more and more aware of the way in which God, in his providence, is at work, in good times and in bad, weaving all the threads together, as part of his plan for my life. And we can be sure that God is at work too in our Covid-19 world, working to bring good out of evil. It is down to us to spot where
he is at work, and to join in.
In my Church of England primary school in the 1960s, one of our favourite hymns was ‘Will your anchor hold’, which, speaks of the changes we experience in our life, likening them to being a boat buffeted around by the waves in a storm. I’d like to finish with the comforting words of the chorus, as they assure us of the strength and depth of God’s love for us, and of his provision for us throughout our lives.
We have an anchor that keeps the soul
Steadfast and sure while the billows roll
Fastened to the rock which cannot move
Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.
The Revd Jane Millinchip
The YouTube version can be accessed via the following link https://youtu.be/LuEWtMCSyYM
John's Pastoral Letter for Trinity 5
Some fell on rocky ground.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The parable of the sower, probably one of the best known of the parables of Jesus, not least as it is unique in being the only one with an explanation, which many feel was added later by early Church leaders rather than being from Jesus himself.
It is also speculated that it came from the fact that at the time, Jesus, from his position in the boat on the lake, could see someone sowing in a nearby field. This may or may not have been true of course as most of Jesus’ parables are based on things which would have been very familiar to those listening from their own everyday lives.
The message is, of course, that not all those who hear will accept what is being said, it reminded me of my first International project for the European Commission in the early 1990’s.
It was part of a programme to help large manufacturing organisations in the former soviet union move from the production of military items to more domestic ones.
Imaginatively it was called the Military conversion programme.
I was with a team of consultants based in Kharkiv, the second city of Ukraine, working with large enterprises which had produced tanks, planes and various armaments.
I worked with their General Director and senior managers to help them understand how to plan for themselves, previously all they had to do was follow instruction handed down from Moscow via their government in Kiev.
One of the organisations we worked with felt that they were already well ahead having decided to convert from producing bullets to surgical scalpel blades, their rational was that there had never been any
production of scalpel blades anywhere in the Soviet Union.
We suggested that first of all we should probably look at why up to then all surgical scalpel blades were imported, mainly from Pakistan, before committing to the cost and effort of gearing up large scale production.
Along with colleagues we carried out extensive research and put
together and presented a detailed report the essence of which was that it would not be possible for them to meet the quality and scale required at anything near the low cost of the imported blades, and therefore we recommended that they should think again.
A few weeks later we had a further meeting having given them time to study our recommendations and when we asked their view, they said, we are going to produce scalpel blades. Some fell on rocky ground.
I think the main problem was that they were not able to move out of the mindset they had lived within most of their lives up to then in the Soviet era. It also came too light that the idea of scalpel blade production had been suggested by their Minster of Defence, and their immediate
response would have been to see that as an order.
Try as we could we made no progress with that particular organisation in getting them to understand their new situation, it did not help that the General Director frequently informed me of his view that very soon all would return to normal, as it had been under the soviet times. As far as I am aware that has still not come about.
Over the last few months we have all had to adjust to a new way of life, if that wasn’t enough, just as we were perhaps getting used to it we have been further confused as more activities are being reopened to us.
Hopefully a good thing, provided we understand that our world has changed and that we still need to be aware, sorry, alert, to the fact that Covid 19 is still far from sorted out.
Jesus, throughout his Ministry on earth, brought God’s message for all of us, whoever and wherever we are.
He also fulfilled His promise of sending the Holy Spirit to us at that first Pentecost, but as this parable tells us, how we receive it, the message and the Holy Spirit, will depend on who and where we are, not just
physically but emotionally too.
The lockdown has been difficult for most of us, made worse for some
because they have been alone, for many if they have lost someone
during this crisis, or if they, a family member or close friend has been ill when all the normal support mechanisms have not been available.
In such times as these it can be hard to be that good soil to receive the word.
That does not mean that the word is not there or that it is not the right word, but that we may not be in the best shape to receive it.
The first thing we need to remember is to hear we need to listen, not just listen in terms of hearing the sounds but it terms of hearing what the speaker or writer meant.
To do this takes time and effort, firstly to try to put to one side our fixed ideas, the, I have always done it this way, sort of thing, and be open to hearing a new way and a new approach.
I always find it truly amazing that even having read a passage like this time and time again there can still be new insights which it has to offer.
It’s tempting to think, oh yes I know what’s coming, but now we are
hearing or reading it in a very different place, particularly after more than three months of a different sort of life and not yet being back to anything resembling normal, and in fact not being likely to be so for some considerable time, if ever.
Surely now is a good time for all of us to try to really listen for the
meaning of what Jesus brings to us, and the message of this parable, that we have a choice, we can be the new good soil in which the seeds of a new, and better life can grow, especially with the right sower.
Think about it, if you are like me right now you do have the time.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube version can be seen by clicking the following link https://youtu.be/CJomQqfTXiQ
Paul's Letter for Trinity 4 Sunday 05.07.20
Our Readings are Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
In 1884 James Wells, Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, wrote a book in which he told the story of a little girl who was carrying a rather large toddler. When someone noticed her struggling they asked her if she was tired. She replied, “No, he’s not heavy, he’s my brother.”
That phrase was repeated in 1918 in a home for abandoned children in America. A child named Howard Loomis came to Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys. Young Howard had polio and wore leg braces. Getting around wasn’t easy for him, soon other boys were seen carrying him up and down the steps. One day Father Flanagan saw a boy called Rueben Granger carrying Howard. He asked him is carrying Howard was hard. “No,” Reuben replied, “he ain’t heavy Father, he’s my brother.”
Those words became immortalised as the title of a record released by the Hollies in 1969.
Our first reading tells of Isaac finding a Rebekah, it is a story of hope and comfort. The fact that Rebekah’s story is told reminds us that the Old Testament narratives take the lives of women seriously. To be fair the text usually focuses on the men, Abraham and Isaac for example, but we know their stories cannot be told with reference to women who shaped history.
Stories of brothers matter. God’s best hopes for his people are often derailed by the conflict between brothers. It begins with Cain and Abel, Jesus has this in mind when he tells the story of two brothers – a story we get wrong when we call it the prodigal son. It is not just about the son who was lost and returned home. It is also about the son who stayed and home and was lost.
In this passage meet Rebekah and though our reading today is a happy one we know that in the years ahead there is another story about brothers. When she has borne two sons, Jacob and Esau, it is Rebekah who meddles in their lives to deprive Esau of his birthright.
It is a nasty little tale oft repeated, Esau had married Judith, Rebekah and her daughter-in-law were at loggerheads, so Rebekah tricks Isaac into giving the blessing to her favourite, Jacob.
So stories of brothers are not always happy. The burden is not always light.
Jesus grew up in a carpenter’s workshop, one of the regular jobs would have been to make yokes for the oxen used to plough the land. It was a work of skilled craftsmanship. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The Greek word used for ‘easy’ can also mean ‘well fitting’. A yoke needed to fit well or the ox would be injured. Each yoke was tailor made to fit an individual animal. Jesus is telling his friends that what God asks of us is fitted to us. It is within our abilities, it is guiding us the way we need to go. As we reopen our churches great challenges lie ahead of us. The way we were has gone, the things we were used to have gone, this virus has changed our world in ways we haven’t even begun to imagine.
As we reopen our churches we face change and challenges and opportunities. And as we gather together again we know that we are not complete. Many of our sisters and brothers cannot be with us. This isolation has affected people very deeply. There are many who cannot venture out, many who are fearful and anxious, many who mourn, many who carry resentment and anger, many who have lost livelihoods.
We need to learn to travel into a new life in much the same way as Rebekah did, travelling light, travelling in hope. We have shaped a pattern of services which are simpler and we hope bring a lighter touch to how we do things. We want people to be part of this, but in their own time and in a way that is not a burden. Maybe that is something we have learned the hard way through this experience – how much of our church life laid heavy burdens on some. Well, we have had an opportunity to put them down, now we can decide which to take up again.
The Rabbis said that a burden has to become my song. That does not mean that the burden is not significant, that it has no weight, no challenge, rather, that what we take up in love does not weigh us down. We need to approach burdens in ways that turn them into song.
Our church is different. We are not yet all gathered in one place. This new life together is a journey we all share. We have to find out together how to make this work.
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you feed us at the table of life and hope:
teach us your ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The link for the YouTube version is https://youtu.be/t6F5beGg7_c
Paul's Letter for Trinity 3 Sunday 28.06.20
Our Gospel reading today is Matthew 10: 40-42
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,”
When I served as chaplain to the Bishop of Liverpool it was in the days when the internet was in its infancy. We didn’t have email, memos had to be copied on paper and distributed by hand around the various diocesan departments. When a new vicar was appointed, for example, one of my jobs was to let about thirty different people know where things were up to. When we couldn’t hand them a paper memo we sent them a fax, using a line that could transmit one message to one person at a time. I spend many hours late into the night feeding bits of paper into the fax machine.
One day our switchboard transferred a call to my desk, “We don’t know who handles this so we’re passing it on to you.” That is what bishop’s chaplains are for. All the odd jobs nobody else wants ends up with the bishop’s chaplain.
A very nice lady from the Diocese of Blackburn had a problem with a new appointment, but she didn’t understand why her call had been transferred to me. I explained, “Bishop’s chaplains are the lowest form of ecclesiastical life. Any problem nobody else wants ends up with me.” As it happens it was easy to resolve. I simply rang another bishop’s chaplain and we fixed things up. One of the advantages of doing jobs nobody else wants is they are highly unlikely to ask too many questions afterwards.
The lady from Blackburn sent me a thank you note, by fax. But she had mislaid my name, so she simply wrote on the top of the fax sheet – “To the lowest form of ecclesiastical life in the Diocese of Liverpool.” When the fax arrived it was delivered straight to my desk.
For the Jews things were a bit different. They didn’t have bishops of course, but if that had then they would treat the bishop’s chaplain as if they were the bishop themselves. For the Jews to receive someone’s messenger or representative was the same as receiving the person themselves. To pay respect to an ambassador was to pay respect to the ruler who had sent them.
On one occasion, when the bishop had delivered a lecture in London, I found myself invited to the supper afterwards held at the Royal Society. I was somewhat overawed to find myself sat between a very jovial member of the aristocracy on one side and Patrick Head, chief designer for the Williams Formula One team, on the other.
The following evening the bishop gave the same lecture in another city. There was another reception afterwards. But this time I was outside sheltering from the rain sat in a bus stop with a bag of chips.
Jesus told his friends that those who received them received him, and those who received him received his Father. How we perceive and behave towards other people is an indicator of how we perceive and act in response to God. Jesus makes it abundantly clear this is especially so when we encounter people not like ourselves.
For someone who was concerned to make people understand the enormity of how different God’s kingdom is Jesus has a knack of understanding how little things matter. The least person given just a drink of cold water will not be overlooked. We often look at our world and feel dismayed that we cannot solve all the problems. Jesus doesn’t ask us to. He asks us just to do something. A random act of kindness. A willingness to listen. The decision to ring that person you know is lonely and likely to keep you on the phone for hours. Do these things for that person, and in that moment that person becomes for you God’s ambassador.
God our saviour,
look on this wounded world
in pity and power;
hold us fast to your promise of peace
won for us by your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.
We are pleased to be able to open our churches for public services starting on Sunday 5th July. On that day we will hold two morning services, 9.30am at St Mary’s, 11.00am at St Peter’s. The Vicar will preside and preach.
We have made good preparations for this next stage and have made provision for an interim pattern of services which will enable us to meet the challenges ahead. Services will be fewer and simpler. We expect less people and some things need to be done differently. We shall not be able to sing hymns for example, nor share the Peace. But we shall meet together and we will record the sermon to share with those who cannot be with us in church.
I know not everyone will be able to join us in church. We continue to live in strange and difficult times. This is a step on a journey and we will make this new beginning with hope and thankfulness.
The YouTube version can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoxPXfRLhsw&t=10s
Paul's Letter for Trinity 2 Sunday 21.06.2020
Our Gospel reading is from Matthew, Chapter 10, verses 24-39
“Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.”
It is wise to take seriously the difficult bits of scripture. We have a tendency to steer towards words of comfort and hope, stories which are encouraging and easier, and the same tendency may lead us to give hard words a wide berth.
But the hard words matter. In a Benedictine community the Rule is that every morning you turn to the Psalms. Benedict is very clear in how the Psalms are to be read. At the dawn of every day the community face two realities, that life is tough and that God is faithful. The first Psalm is a reminder that life is not perfect, struggle is to be expected, dangers are set before us, we are not as much in control as we think we are. So the first Psalm is a cry for help, a plea to be saved from depression. Having faced that the community are ready for the second Psalm, a continual offering of praise and thanksgiving for God’s enduring faithfulness. We survived yesterday, we prepare for another day, God is with us.
The same is true for Sundays, the pattern of Psalms points us to the week ahead, the journey from one Sunday to the next, knowing that we can rise to the challenges, face the dangers, survive all that dismays, not because we are faithful but because God is.
“Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.”
Hard words indeed. Let’s look at a bit of context. Times of crisis change the world. As we have said many times, when this is over normal will be different. We know very well that in Jesus’ time there was deeply rooted hostility between Jews and Samaritans. We see this reflected in the parable of the Good Samaritan. That hostility stemmed from the time of the exile when large sections of the Jewish population were taken captive in Babylon.
People away from home have a habit of being very focused on their identity. Brits living abroad are often more staunchly British than those of us living at home. People become rather rigid about who belongs and who doesn’t.
So for the Jews taken into captivity their identity, their culture and their faith mattered hugely. They became more distinctly orthodox, they didn’t mix with the locals, they avoid foreigners, they focused on their rituals as reminders of who they were.
This can give great strength to a community that feels under threat. And of course such fears can be exploited by those with more hostile agendas.
When the exile was over and the captives returned home, taking with them their strict practices and observances, they met their neighbours who had been left behind. Such people hadn’t experienced life in a strange land, they were less fearful about their identity, their practices were more relaxed. The returnees were horrified, they saw the locals as far too liberal in their views and behaviour and conflict between the two groups ensued. So we have the Jews and the Samaritans and generations of mistrust, hatred and violence.
“Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.”
What Jesus is calling people to is a new community. One which rises above previous identities and old loyalties. He is shaping a new kingdom, and new family, and we have to let go of the past.
In the news this week was a photograph of a man carrying another man. Patrick Hutchinson said he was only responding to a human being on the floor, and with the protection of others he carried him to safety. He didn’t have to do that. The man wasn’t on his side, quite the opposite in fact, but that didn’t matter. The decision to act was based on a different idea of identity, a wider view of belonging.
When we speak of the Kingdom of God we are looking for that moment when every person is recognised as God recognises them, without reference to anything else at all.
Knowing this is one thing, doing it is another. Which is why Benedict reminds us every day, every morning, this will not be easy. But take it one day at a time, and today be that person who lives as member of that wider community through which the Kingdom of God draws closer.
whose mercy never fails;
deepen our faithfulness to you
and to your living Word,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube version can be found here https://youtu.be/JAOuhO2tSVI
Trinity 1 Sunday 14.06.20
The Gospel reading for today is Matthew 9:35 – 10:23
“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
This is sometimes known as the great commission, Jesus sends his friends to proclaim good news – the kingdom of heaven has come near. He clearly didn’t expect them to always be welcome. Nor did he expect the task to be straighforward. He told them to travel light, prepare for trouble, and expect to be put on trial. No-one ever said being a Christian was going to be easy.
This has not been an easy week for many people. Headteachers and school staff have spent hours working through legislation and preparing to reopen schools. At the last minute, literally the day before many were due to open, the news came that all their work had been in vain.
I met someone who works in retail property management, they told me that in a day they received 68 new pieces of legislation to comply with, with a further 26 arriving overnight. There is an overwhelming torrent of information, regulations and updates – many of the people we need to keep our society functioning are being pushed to the limits. Some will go under the deluge and not re-emerge.
Churches also face challenges. We were told to expect some form of reopening in July, probably the ability to conduct funerals in church. Here at St Peter’s and St Mary’s we were making good preparations for those new guidelines. Which was a good thing because last Sunday the Government unexpectedly announced their intention to allow churches to be open for private prayer from Monday 15th June. I think that caught everyone unawares and there was much confusion and discussion.
One colleague said to me, “If we are going to do this we shall need to make sure the congregation are spaced out.” I replied, “No problem with our lot, they’re always spaced out.”
You may send complaints to the bishop. That’s what he’s there for.
And then on Tuesday came some very unexpected news. Not only are churches allowed to be open for private prayer from Monday 15th June, but we can also reopen for funeral services in church as well. As I said to Mrs Dawson, “Well, well. Fancy that.” Or words to that effect.
So it has been a busy week with a lot to be done. We have made good preparations which include providing hand sanitising gel, airing and cleaning the churches, removing prayer books and hymn books, closing some pews and doing all we can to maintain social distancing.
I know some of our folk aren’t too sure about measuring in metres, so to make it simple, it’s about the length of a motorbike, or just over two fathoms if you’re of a nautical persuasion.
Of course our churches weren’t designed for this situation. We have one entrance and exit, fixed pews and narrow aisles. But with some common sense and courtesy I am sure we can do everything possible to open our churches to people who wish to be in sacred space for their prayers.
I know this won’t be for everyone. And I know many of our most loyal volunteers will feel unable to take part. This isn’t an easy step, but I know people in our communities have been coming to our churches looking for somewhere to be still in God’s presence. Our prayer tree in the porch at St Mary’s has been filled with people’s prayers. So I am pleased we can open our churches and we will do it with care.
Our PCCs have agreed to open our churches for an hour on Sunday morning and an hour on Wednesday morning. 9.30-10.30 at St Mary’s. 11.00-12.00 at St Peter’s We shall see how that goes and revise our plans if necessary.
We will do all we can to ensure that our churches are safe and welcoming. We don’t want to fill them with notices and barriers, that is not what churches are for. I hope the steps we have taken will provide both a welcome and sufficient guidance.
We will provide a weekly sheet with readings and prayers which we will ask people to take home with them.
Jesus asked his friends to go out into the world bearing good news, the kingdom of heaven has come close. He knew he was asking no small thing of them. They rose to that commission. I am thankful we can rise to this one. Prayer is valid wherever people stand before God, be it in church, in your home, in the farmyard, on up a mountain. But sacred space is a gift which we have cherished for generations. For those who wish to come into our churches to pray this is a good day, and everyone is welcome.
God of truth,
help us to keep the law of your love,
and to walk in the ways of wisdom,
that we may find true life. Amen.
The YouTube version can be viewed via the following link https://youtu.be/o_c3BG0Lnr4
Our reading today is Psalm 8
“What is man, that you should be mindful of him?”
This is a question about humanity, a shared common human identity.
I don’t know about you but as I have watched the news this week I have felt more and more depressed. We have been tragically reminded of racial division and mistrust. The Psalmist reminds us we are not different races, we are one race, the human race, created in the image of God. We have seen people careless for the safety of themselves and others. The Psalmist reminds us that in God’s sight humanity is created just a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour. We have seen crowds flocking to beaches and beauty spots and leaving them covered in litter and rubbish. The Psalmist reminds us that humanity is given the works of creation, all sheep and oxen, the wild beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea.
This is a very high vision of humanity and of our place in the universe. Yet when we watch the news it sometimes feels like we are nowhere near where God wants us to be.
Today is Trinity Sunday. I know you are hoping for a detailed theological exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity. I am afraid I must disappoint. We shall have to save that treat for when our churches are reopened. Instead let me focus on the simple fact that Christians know God as a community of persons. We perhaps know this best as the expression of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But human language is a poor tool when it comes to speaking of divine truth so it pays to allow our imaginations to be explore. Some would refer to Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Others would argue for an expression which includes the motherhood of God. When Rembrandt painted the Return of the Prodigal he shows the father embracing his son with both hands. One hand is the large rough hand of a working man, the other is the smaller gentler hand of a woman. God has more aspects than we can imagine.
Sometimes art speaks in ways that words can’t. If you look online for Rublev’s Icon you will find the most famous piece by the 15th Century Russian artist Andrei Rublev. Also known as The Hospitality of Abraham it portrays the encounter between Abraham and Sarah with the Lord at the Oak of Mamre. You will find the story in Genesis chapter 18. The Lord is encountered a three figures, Rublev paints them as distinct yet also forming a unity. The shape of their bodies reflects the shape of the chalice in the centre. There is a sense that they form so a unity so perfect that together they hold and offer the wine of life.
It’s worth mentioning that icons are not just works of art, primarily they are prayer. To paint an icon is an act of prayer. To look at an icon is an act of prayer. In western art the focal point of the painting is within the picture. The lines of convergence go into the painting, so things in the foreground are larger, things in the background are smaller, this gives an impression of distance in a two dimensional representation.
Icons work the other way round. The lines of convergence come out of the painting to focus on the person standing before the icon. The person looking is part of the picture, which is why to look at an icon is prayer in itself. When you look at Rublev’s Icon you are not looking at God, God is looking at you.
In these days when the news has been so depressing I am reminded of the old adage that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel. People sometimes excuse bad behaviour on the fact that someone else did it first and they got away with it. Which is why one or two bits of litter lead to many more. One person driving too fast seems to encourage others. One person acting above the rules results in others doing the same. If we think this is something new and caused by those in power we’re kidding ourselves. Those in power can only get away with standards we have already accepted for ourselves. We a community for better or worse. There is much to celebrate in our life together through these difficult times, but much also to lament.
It seems perverse that a generation so resolutely individualistic can still be conditioned to behave by how others behave first. And that so often leads into a downwards spiral. The Psalmist proposes a different perspective, to take our lead and our direction from an alternative starting point. That humanity, our shared common humanity, is the stuff of glory and honour. That our world is gift entrusted to our care. That everything and everyone is known in relationship with God. Therein lie the seeds of different kind of community.
Which brings me down to earth in how we make sense of this. If we are made in the image of God who is community then relationships matter. It is why we invest in friendships and commit ourselves in marriage. It is why we are missing so very much the people we cannot share life with. It is why we must mourn when we lose someone we love.
Our relationship with others and our relationship with God matters. We need to invest good time in both. Maybe you have pictures of family and friends around your home, why not add a copy Rublev’s Icon. Look daily at God, and know God is looking at you.
And I want to thank all those people who have over these past few weeks added names and hopes to our tree of prayer in the porch at St Mary’s. Having an open porch has been valued and I know people have come into the porch and left a mark of their prayers. These are valued as gifts and our prayer tree will remain in the porch for as long as the church doors have to be closed.
The Psalmist reminds us to hope for better, and aspire for better. So too do those neighbours who visit our churches and churchyards and leave us a sign that they have been here, a place, as TS Eliot says, “Where prayer has been valid.”
The YouTube version can be viewed via the following link:
Paul's Letter for Pentecost
Our reading is from Acts 2:1-21
We come to Pentecost or Whit Sunday. ‘Pentecost’ comes from the Greek reference to this being the fiftieth day since the final Sabbath of the Passover. ‘Whit’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning understanding. Both have something to tell us.
The followers of Jesus understood themselves to be a new community shaped by God. They walked in the footsteps of the Exodus community, people called and set free, those who travelled in hope and entered into God’s best promises. The Passover and the Last Supper were signs of a new relationship, a new covenant of hope.
On this day of Pentecost the friends of Jesus were doing as he commanded them to do and gathered together in fellowship. That is the context for the gift of the Holy Spirit. The name ‘Whit’ refers to the new understanding the received. That they are called together in order to be sent out into the world with Good News for all people.
Those who offer to read during services sometimes flinch when they are chosen to read at Pentecost, the list of languages can be a bit of tongue twister. But the point is that this new community is open to everyone, the good news is for outsiders, the church is given that hallmark as in the words of William Temple, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
The church is an institution, not an organisation. I think we often forget the distinction.
I said last week that people are using the word ‘bereft’ these days. It is a word that has come back into use more frequently. There is much we are missing. Many things we have lost. We are deeply aware of being separated from people we love.
I know that when I look through my diary I see things that haven’t happened. Events people have planned for and looked forward. Weddings. Baptisms. Today should have been our Confirmation service. Last week we missed Café Church, no bacon butties for the vicar. Next week we had a meal booked with friends. Everyone can tell of what they have lost.
Pentecost has a sense of what is lost. Jesus told his friends they had to let go of him so that they could receive something new, the Spirit of God, the Comforter. Remember that originally the word ‘comfort’ wasn’t about taking things easy, ‘comfort’ meant to challenge, to provoke. The gift of the Spirit sent the disciples out into the streets. The Spirit turns an inward gathered fellowship into an outward facing community.
Whitsun is about new understanding, seeing what is made new when we sense things taken away. So, for example, I noticed the bus stop in Little Budworth. Not many passengers waiting for public transport, but instead the bus stop was filled with books, there were seedlings planted in pots to be spread around the village so that sunflowers could grow, there were notices about help and support.
Within the community people created networks to cope with a changing way of life. And not just making good plans but also putting in place contingencies for what might happen if things get difficult. That is telling, people have contacted me saying all is well, we have good neighbours, but just in case…..and so far on a couple of occasions those contingency plans have been needed and they have worked.
So there is a sense of what we have lost, people still feel bereft, our churches are still closed, the pubs are shut, families are separated, life is hard. But we are also experiencing a new Whitsuntide, we have some new understandings, we are seeing things, and people, and ourselves, differently. Like the sunflowers, those are fragile shoots, whether they survive and grow and flower remains to be seen.
When we experience loss it is painful, but it can sometimes be the space into which something new can enter. That is Pentecost and Whitsun, a community on the move open to new understanding.
Holy Spirit, sent by God,
ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen us with the gift of faith,
revive us with the breath of love,
and renew through us the face of this earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube version can be viewed by clicking the following link
Paul's Letter for Easter 7
Our reading is Ezekiel 26: 24-28
I spoke last week about a new covenant, which is about healthy relationship. The rainbow is a sign of covenant, the whole of the Bible might be summarised as about relationship, between God and his people, God and us. That of course has implications for the relationships we have with others. It is really a very simple story. It is about a relationship that begins wonderfully, goes wrong, and is made new.
And that doesn’t just happen once. It happens time and time again. God never gives up on us.
Ezekiel writes, “you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” This is about mending relationship. Ezekiel lived about 600 years before Jesus at a time when Israel had been invaded, the temple destroyed, and many of the people taken into captivity in Babylon. People saw that as a sign of being abandoned by God. They felt bereft.
Ezekiel is an interesting character, he sometimes acted out the message he heard. In chapter 5 we read that he takes a sword and uses it to cut his own hair, he invented the lockdown haircut, and anyone who has tried to cut their own hair needs to read what happens next.
Sometimes, indeed often, Ezekiel’s words are uncomfortable and we might be tempted to shy away from him. But Ezekiel is a prophet in the truest sense. He says hard things because sometimes nettles need to be grasped, and it is only when we grasp difficult truths that healing and restoration are possible. Ultimately everything Ezekiel says is said in hope and love. God will never give up on his people.
One of the best known of Ezekiel’s visions comes in chapter 37 when the Spirit of God takes him to a valley full of bones, very dry bones, life was totally annihilated. God asks if these bones can live. It helps us to remember that in those times people believed that once you were dead your existence was over. God could do nothing for the dead. The dead were beyond his reach. The relationship was broken, permanently.
So what happens next is beyond human imagination or comprehension. Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of bones is something completely new. If you know the song, Dem Bones first recorded by the Jubilee singers in 1928, then you know what happened next. As the second chorus says;
“Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
Now hear the word of the Lord.”
Where life was destroyed, where people felt utterly cut off from God, where all hope was lost, God chooses to act. That is something new.
These are difficult times. This Sunday we find ourselves between Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost. There is a sense of a gap, perhaps a feeling of being bereft. It is in that strange in-between time where we find ourselves. Several times this week people have told me that they are feeling bereft. That’s not a word we often use, yet I have heard it spoken many times over the past few days.
A friend said to me, “These are strange times, all the landmarks have gone.” That captures the sense of feeling bereft. Much has been taken from us, and there is nothing that can take its place. Central to this is the sense that we are out of relationship. We cannot visit friends. Grandparents cannot hug grandchildren. Our churches remain closed. We are forced to keep others at a distance.
I think we need to be reminded that when Jesus’ friends met him his Easter body still bore the scars of crucifixion. Jesus told Thomas to see his hands and his feet, to put his hand into the wound of the spear. Resurrection, new life, new relationship doesn’t pretend the bad things didn’t happen. The body Jesus takes to his Father’s side is not perfect. The humanity that Ascends is pierced and stabbed and beaten. God’s relationship with us takes us as we are, and that includes this sense of being bereft.
Ezekiel reminds us that God does not act by waving a magic wand. He acts through mending relationships. If we sense ourselves in a place without landmarks, if we are feeling bereft, then maybe it is in how we make and renew relationship that can be our guide. That might be our relationship with others, perhaps someone we haven’t recently made contact with, perhaps someone we are spending more time with than usual – which isn’t always easy, most certainly it includes our relationship with God.
In this relationship we have to do very little, only be willing and listen.
In the depth of silence no words are needed,
no language required.
In the depth of silence we are called to listen.
Listen to the beating of your heart.
Listen to the blowing of the wind,
listen for the movement of the Spirit.
Be silent says the Lord, and know that I am God.
And listen, to the cry of those whose voices are not heard.
Listen to those whose suffering is overlooked.
Listen to those who are anxious and fearful.
Listen to weeping of those who mourn,
and do not forget to listen also for the laughter of children.
For that is authentic relationship, listen to people, living with people, living for God.
A video can be reached by clicking on the following link
Paul's Letter for Easter 6
Our reading today is Genesis 8:20 to 9:17
“God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
When I looked at the various readings for today I couldn’t help but be struck by the story of Noah coming out of lockdown. That aspect of the story had never struck me before. This strange and difficult time opens our eyes to new understandings.
This is a very confusing time. There are no right decisions, the information is still incomplete. Those who bear the burden of responsibility will almost certainly be proved wrong and we may end up going backwards. We are trying protect lives and livelihoods, and health in every aspect. This isn’t a single issue, there is no one size fits all solution. Coming out of lockdown is a bit less clear cut than it was for Noah. On the other hand maybe the Prime Minister could try chucking doves out of the window at Downing Street – it seems just as good a way to determine future as anything else.
Facing the unknown changes people, it changes us. We are not used to living with that sense of vulnerability and powerlessness. The Genesis narrative contains this brutal account of a time when everything was swept away. If you look at ancient accounts from the Middle East many of them contain references to a mighty deluge, a time when the whole world was destroyed. The world of course was smaller then, whatever collective memory of a catastrophic event that affected a region probably didn’t affect the entire planet. But something happened, and it stuck in the shared memory. People sensed they had changed, the world had become less predictable, life less assured. The rainbow was a sign of hope.
Today rainbows are everywhere, thanking, celebrating, supporting those key workers who keep our communities alive. We need to be reminded that the rainbow wasn’t just wishful thinking. It was the sign of a covenant. We need a new covenant.
That’s not a word we use very often these days, and when we do it’s usually in a restrictive sense, a legal covenant most frequently tells you what you can’t do. The biblical concept of covenant is different. It is still a binding agreement, but it primarily focussed on making relationship sustainable. When God speaks to his people he binds himself to them, he makes commitments to them. Perhaps we can best understand it as the vows people make in marriage, a mutual commitment to love and to cherish, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.
As a society, maybe this is a time for us to shape a new covenant with those for whom the rainbow is raised. I think we maybe need to rediscover that word ‘covenant’, because it is primarily about right relationship. That is something we have not taken seriously enough in recent times.
You will no doubt have heard this week that we have a new Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, currently Bishop of Berwick in the Diocese of Newcastle. We look forward to welcoming Bishop Mark and his wife Lindsay to Chester, though in reality they are returning to a place they already know very well, Bishop Mark was ordained within this Diocese and served a curacy at St Mary’s, Upton. He comes at an extraordinary time and faces great challenges. Pray that God will grant him wisdom, resilience and holiness in his new ministry.
In other news – our PCCs are working hard to be ready for when churches can reopen. It is almost certain that when this happens it will be phased and many of our usual members will still remain in isolation. Singing probably won’t be allowed for health reasons. We may be short on sidespeople, church officers, musicians and worship leaders. For a variety of reasons we are preparing an interim pattern of worship which will be simpler, more flexible and allow us to reopen with fewer people. It is a work in progress and we will announce details nearer the time when we can open our churches. In the meantime please be assured we working behind the scenes to make good preparations.
A video version can be watched on YouTube following the link
Paul's Letter for Easter 5
Our Gospel Reading is John 14:1-14
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’”
I said last week that the journey sometimes shapes the destination. Jesus it seems is more concerned with the journey. Easter is full of journeys. Mary going to the tomb, the men running to the place where the body had been laid, friends meeting a stranger on the road, the fishermen going back to the lake. Some are physical journeys, other are journeys of life changing discovery. Easter leads us towards those who met behind locked doors suddenly finding themselves out in the streets. Easter itself is a journey, it is not over, we are an Easter people moving towards the coming of the Spirit.
You might think that a group trying to change the world would make the most of their key people. Yet the gospels repeatedly tell us that the disciples got it wrong. Peter denied his friend. Thomas refused to believe. God chooses to act through very imperfect people. This also is a journey. God is more interested in travelling with us than telling us where to go.
I make a point of reading part of the Rule of Benedict every morning. Split into sections it may be read three times over the course of a year. This morning’s extract struck home.
“If we wish to dwell in God’s tent, we will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds. But let us ask with the prophet: “Who will dwell in your tent, O God; who will find rest upon your holy mountain?”(Psalm 15:1)”
Benedict reminds us that justice, honest and compassion are the hallmarks of those who walk with God. But he also reminds us that we cannot walk with God unless God first walks with us. We cannot do good without God’s grace.
If we sense the needs of the poor that is because God has opened our eyes. If we are aware of those who are oppressed it is because God has perhaps allowed us to suffer in some smaller way. If we campaign for cleaner air and oceans it is because God has first enabled us to share in the work of creation. As Christian Aid week approaches maybe this year we will have a greater understanding of those whose lives are not in their control.
In Benedict’s time holy people often thought that their journey with God was a personal matter. The most frequent expression of religious life was personal and individual. The Desert monastics lived as solitaries, eating little, praying much. This was a very privatised religion.
Benedict introduces us to a different journey. For him those who dwell in God’s tent are those who travel with God within the complexities and messiness of community living. Within a Benedictine community everyone bore a responsibility for everyone else. Practical things mattered. The Rule makes a point of caring for things, this might seem strange in a spiritual writing, but it has to do with living alongside others. If you broke a tool then putting it back broken simply meant that the next person who needed it suffered. Everything we do has a consequence for someone else. So for Benedict to walk with God means walking well with others. And we cannot walk well with others unless we first walk with God.
Hence Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth and the life. He is the way towards God, if we know him then we know the Father.
On a walk recently we passed our church porch, I noticed someone writing in the book of prayer requests. Over the weekend three pages filled with requests for prayer. Our church is closed but people need contact with prayer. Candles appeared in our Easter Garden. We moved the Prayer Tree into the porch and never a day goes by without another leaf being added. This wasn’t our idea, it is not a church initiative. It happened because someone first came to ask for prayer. The first step doesn’t have to be our own.
If it is true that we can only know the way when God first allows us to glimpse something of the truth, maybe how life is for others, then we may learn much from what we are going through at the moment. The first step is God’s, it is for us to choose whether to follow.
Paul's Letter for Easter 4
The fourth Sunday of Easter
Our Gospel reading today is John 10:1-10
There is no better known image of Jesus than that of the Good Shepherd. It is worth taking a moment to consider what shepherds were about when these words were spoken. The Judean plateau is for the most part rough and stony, more suited to pastoral farming than agriculture. The shepherd was a familiar sight and his life was hard.
There were no enclosed fields, sheep would wander far and wide searching for grass in a hot dry climate. Not only were there ever present dangers due to the tough landscape but the shepherd had also to be constantly on the watch for wild animals and robbers. The shepherd’s staff was as much a weapon as a tool.
Jesus also had in mind the ancient image of God as the Shepherd of his people which included the often hostile reception given to those who spoke out for justice and righteousness. When he speaks of those who seek to destroy the flock he understood all too well the purveyors of false truths and fake news. Those whose words went with the easy way. The voice of prophecy by contrast nearly always went against the grain. It still does.
A Palestinian shepherd knew his sheep. They were not bred for meat but for wool. The shepherd lived with his sheep for years, he knew them by name, they knew him, they recognized his voice. This is about relationship and trust, earned the hard way.
The second image Jesus uses is less obvious, “I am the gate.” In the open countryside shepherds built sheep folds, enclosures that did not have a door. At night the shepherd would call the sheep into the enclosure through a narrow opening and then he would lie across the opening to protect them. Any wild animal or bandit would have to go through the shepherd to get to the sheep. He literally make himself the gate to the enclosure.
This carries two messages. Firstly that Jesus is the way, it is through him that we find life. This echoes words spoken to Thomas when Jesus speaks of rooms in his Father’s house. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The second message is that Jesus deliberately and willingly puts himself in harm’s way for the benefit of others.
There are many today who connect with that image of putting oneself in harm’s way. We are getting used to queuing outside shops with someone at the door guiding and guarding our safety. It doesn’t always go well. Outside a local pet store (I needed woodshavings for the bees) a lady was screaming at the chap standing there. Her language was abusive and aggressive, her fury due to the fact that they didn’t have the right seed in for her budgie.
I’d just had a similar encounter with someone over a loose memorial stone so I felt for the guy. He looked ashen, when I commiserated with him he couldn’t speak and had to walk away. A colleague stepped into his place. Standing in the doorway isn’t as easy as it looks. These are hard times, we are seeing the best in some people but frustration and fear sometimes bring out the worst. I don’t know what stresses and fears the angry person was experiencing but for it to explode over a packet of birdseed suggested something was eating at her. She will not be the only one.
The image of the Good Shepherd reminds us that there are bad shepherds as well. There are those who hurt and destroy. Being a shepherd was tough. Shepherding was a hard job and usually shepherds were despised. If something went missing it was always the shepherds who got the blame. In a court of law a shepherd couldn’t be trusted to give evidence. Strange then that when God wanted witnesses at the crib he made the mistake of calling shepherds. Maybe God doesn’t see people as we see people. Maybe that’s part of what ‘new normal’ is about.
We move towards a time when life will change again. Difficult decisions to make, there will be disappointments, frustrations, anger. The image of the shepherd is much more than just a cosy pastoral comfort, it is a decision, and a tough one.
We all stand in doorways. We can make opportunities happen, choose to enable others, look to the welfare and safety of someone else, discern between truth and mischief, support those who stand in harm’s way. But we cannot do this without becoming involved. The shepherd literally makes himself the gateway. When Jesus opens the way to life, and life in all its fullness, he does not open a door and stand aside. He is the way. It seems his main concern was to encourage his friends to join in the journey than assure them of the destination.
That is a willingness set before us. To live as those who believe in a better way even though we do not have all the answers and cannot tell where we will end up. Sometimes the journey shapes the destination.
Church of England Prayer line
There are a wealth of online prayer resources both on the Church of England website and using various apps we have mentioned before (eg Daily Prayer by Aimer Media). These are all free to use with an internet connection. Daily Prayer is available as an offline version for £2.99 a year.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has now added a free telephone prayer resource – 0800 804 8044. Daily Hope offers prayers, reflections, music and full services for anyone who would prefer not to use a computer or tablet.
Paul's Letter for the Third Sunday of Easter
Our Gospel reading is Luke 24: 13-35
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…?”
Hindsight is wonderful thing, as many of those with DIY haircuts will testify. As I stand in the supermarket queue I wonder if some of those wearing masks are more concerned to protect their identity than their health. You wouldn’t want to be recognised with a haircut like that.
The third Sunday of Advent and Lent are reminders that God is gracious, so too is the third Sunday of Easter. How often are we like those friends walking home sadly, perhaps having given up all hope, and only afterwards realising God was, is, alongside us, always.
God is gracious, this is something we learn very slowly. Most of the time even good people trying their best fail to trust in grace. Grace is something we can’t control, it isn’t something we can plan for or create strategies about. Grace is about waiting, and trusting, and watching. Grace is always first received.
In my last post I was also a member of our local NHS Hospital Trust Chaplaincy team. When I began I had to attend an induction day, there were about 200 people attending. I learnt three things about the NHS that day. The first was that everyone attended together. Porters, cleaners, nurses, consultants, administrators, surgeons, anaesthetists, security, everyone was together. That is significant, as an organisation the NHS has a different culture than most of us are used to.
The second was how dependent we are on trained medical staff from outside of the UK. Most of the nurses present were Spanish. Most of the doctors from overseas. I should have known this but it had never struck home how much it is the case.
The third lesson came through one of those exercises they make you do on days like this. We were given a slip of paper with an identity on it and we had to find the other person in the room with the same identity. There were 100 pairs to find each other. We were given 15 minutes to complete this task which I thought was rather optimistic given the number of people present.
But then something happened. Instead of people trying to find their matching partner everyone instinctively set about finding everyone else’s partner. Porters and cleaners were telling surgeons and consultants where to go, nurses were getting administrators organised. It took 7 minutes and 12 seconds for everyone to find their other half. Quite astonishing. The NHS does things differently, and it works.
There is a culture within the NHS which trusts others first, it is why as a body of people the NHS delivers way beyond its means. It is fundamentally a culture of grace.
This way of doing and being is something that has shown itself to be resilient, enduring and patient, but it is not unbreakable and we take it for granted at our peril.
These are times of discovering grace. On a walk we bumped into a local family from our school and, at a suitable distance, asked how the children’s lessons were going. The lad had built a kitchen bench with his dad from scraps of wood from the shed. I suspect that’s an opportunity he will remember for life. On another walk we met a lady who lives round the corner, she told us that in the last two weeks she’d got to know more neighbours than in the previous ten years. We come home to find things on our doorstep, pillowcases to be turned into scrubs bags (thank you), hand sanitiser (thank you), cakes (thank you), flowers (thank you), photographs to add to our church family (thank you) and a bottle of wine (thank you). And a golf ball – not sure about that.
The first thing about discovering grace is having the grace to accept that which is given. This isn’t the usual way we do things. Maybe it needs to be part of the new normal, maybe we need to make it part of the new normal.
We walk a road we have not walked before and it is difficult. Like those friends long ago we mourn what is lost, we are saddened by suffering and death, we have no idea what lies ahead. But if we think we are heading home to life as it was then we need to think again.
There is an old Gaelic blessing which many people love, it goes;
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
‘Until we meet again’ runs very deep in these times. This is Easter, the hands that were pierced are the same hands that break bread. When God holds us in the palm of His hand those hands are still wounded hands. God is gracious and grace is costly.
The Gospel reading for this week is John 20:19-31
“…the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”
Fear is a powerful emotion. Fear is of course essential for survival. Things that frighten us are usually things that can hurt us so we are hard-wired not to fall out of trees, go play with tigers or poke bishops with a pointy stick.
In my conversations with people I hear voices bearing anxiety. Medical staff whose vocation is to heal and make better, who know they are losing too many battles. There is a fear for their own safety and those they love. There is fear for those they care for and serve. There is an unspoken fear that failure to heal is something they cannot bear to endure. The greatest fear is not for their safety but of being overwhelmed by the demands placed upon them.
I have listened to people who have someone who works on another frontline, schools, care homes, supermarkets, transport, public services. We can do something, a simple thank you goes a long way. When I ring a local funeral director, people doing an essential though usually ignored job, I do not end the call when arrangements are complete, “How are you? How are things going during these very strange times?” It is appreciated. This is a time when small kindnesses matter.
There are good reasons to face fear. Those who have spent years, generations, building a business, working the land, raising livestock, now facing a situation that cannot be controlled. Whether it be pouring gallons of milk into drains or not knowing if a business can survive, these are frightening times.
The unknown is frightening, one reason we sometimes ignore things we would rather not know about. As ever, T S Eliot’s words come back to mind, “Humanity cannot bear too much reality.” We know the terrible numbers do not tell the whole story. The number of people infected and the number of people dying are not the real totals. Neither are the known instances of domestic violence and people whose mental health is suffering. These are times when it is healthy to acknowledge that which is fearful. That is the first step to conquering fear.
But there is unhealthy fear as well – the kind of fear that generate fakes news, delivers over-simplistic criticism, spreads rumour and gossip, or seeks to exploit. You don’t go far without coming across it. Whether it be on the internet via social media or the person in the supermarket queue talking with authority about something they know nothing about. Name it as the voice of fear that destroys and degrades, and keep it at arm’s length.
St John wrote his gospel much later than the others. By the time he wrote Christians, who like Jesus were often loyal Jews, were finding it difficult to continue to worship within the synagogues. A new fear was abroad, one that would divide Christian and Jew, us and them, leading to centuries of mistrust, violence and misrepresentation. John wrote at a time of crisis and his gospel reflects both the fear and the consequent tragedy. The doors were locked for fear of the Jews.
If there is one sure certainty we learn from history it is that times of crisis always generate fear and good solutions never come out of ‘them’ being to blame. When the world is being broken the new shape it will take is formed by how we handle our fear. As Justin Welby said on Easter Sunday, we need a ‘new normal’.
So what gives us ground for hope? It is those people who do not surrender to fear. Those who know we will lose but do not surrender, those who understand the cost of enduring, those who accept the worth of loving and supporting and looking for small best hopes. Those who represent the best of us and who deserve better.
When this is over we need a new normal. As I have said before we cannot pick up where we left off. To make that possible we shall need a way to tackle fear. There will be reckoning. Mistakes have been made, both in long term strategy and in managing the crisis. People have had to make decisions in a rapidly changing situation and it is all too easy to criticise with the benefit of hindsight. We now know that this is unprecedented but not unpredicted. In 2015 Barack Obama spoke of a global respiratory pandemic of a coronavirus nature within the next five to ten years. His suggestion was that we invest in the equipment, people and infrastructure to be ready for it. When we see the daily graphs we know that neighbours with much lower losses have tested more and have five times as many intensive care beds. When this is over we could spend a lot of time and energy pinning the blame. That is a response driven by fear.
This is something we need to make a decision about today – that we shall not allow it to happen -because it will only take us back to the old normal. If we want a model how to shape a new normal then I suggest we learn from the example of South Africa, that after apartheid the work of the Trust and Reconciliation Commission enabled many fears to be dismantled. The warning there of course is that the ‘old normal’ can be very resilient and like a virus it can re-emerge if we allow it to.
There is no future in scoring points from the past. We are being broken, when we rebuild it has to look different. When Jesus met his friends gathered in fear behind locked doors he gave them a gift and an instruction. The gift was a new beginning, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The instruction was also a warning, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
That is a choice we need to make now. There is much we could decide not to retain.
Paul's Letter for EasterPublished: Thursday 09 April 2020 09:33 AM
Paul's Letter for Easter
This is a painful Easter. Our churches are empty.
We have not trodden this way before. This is new and difficult. We have not held our Palm Crosses and carried them home. We have not gathered round the table to break bread and share wine. On Good Friday we could not gather to hear again the message of the cross. On Saturday there was no buzz of expectation as the church was decorated and made ready. There are no flowers, no anthem to practice. On Easter Sunday the church is empty, the organ is silent, the pews deserted, the door remains locked.
This is unknown in living memory. We experience bereavement and bewilderment.
You might expect me to offer words of hope at Easter and indeed I can. Fiona and I have been walking around the area as much as allowed for our daily exercise. There are some wonderful stories to tell. I have spoken to more people in the last two weeks than I have met over the past year. Standing at the compulsory two metres (2 yards for those who prefer the Book of Common Prayer – or a fathom for those of us who are sailors) I have enjoyed conversations with people who I would never normally meet.
People have been chatting over the garden fence. On one walk we found a lost lamb so knocked at the house in the next field and met another new neighbour. There are networks of people shopping, collecting prescriptions, looking out for one another. It has taken a time like this to disclose the kindness in people.
Two common themes in conversations has been to think of those who live in heavily built up areas, especially families with children who have nowhere safe to play or walk. Time and time again people have spoken of how lucky we are to live where we live. And then to ask what we will learn from this, will life just go back to normal or will we have learned to value things differently? Will there be things we no longer take for granted? Will we re-evaluate the people most important to our society? Will the kindness continue?
This is a painful Easter. Yes- there are signs of hope and goodness and courage and dedication. But this Easter Sunday we cannot join in worship. This is a loss.
I found myself reading afresh the Easter narrative from St John. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb under cover of darkness. There was no Easter hope for her. This was a woman consumed by grief and overwhelmed by desolation. Her terror and despair were only deepened by finding the tomb deserted. Her assumption was that the body of her friend had been stolen.
This is the first Easter when I have conducted funerals where people cannot care for someone they love. That side of Mary’s story is one I am learning to understand a little more. It is a painful reality.
Then come the men, who cannot of course understand what is happening. They do what we usually do when we encounter the unthinkable. They go back to what feels safe. Back to their homes, and, as the story develops, back to their former jobs and lives. Peter goes back to fishing, and the rest go with him.
But Mary stays, weeping in the dawn by the empty tomb. Mary stays with the empty reality.
God, it seems, is about staying with reality. In crib and cross God grasps, painfully grasps, reality. In staying with the reality Mary is the one who meets the risen Lord, made known by the calling of her name.
In those conversations with many people, mostly people who I do not know through church, there has been a question – how will this change us? Behind that question there is a hope, hope that we will change for the better. Whether that happens is, I suppose, up to us. It is a question of whether we are able to stay with this reality, or whether our instinct to get back to normal prevails.
This is a painful Easter, when we encounter in an empty church the emptiness of the tomb, and maybe the emptiness of much that we previously assumed.
The reality is painful, and it is sad, but maybe this Easter we shall encounter God differently. So this Easter can I suggest that we stay with the reality of this emptiness. Because it is those who weep in the dawn who discover what Easter is about.
Goodness is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death;
victory is ours through Him who loved us.
The Revd Canon Paul Dawson
This is Holy Week
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Whatever else you may do this week make time to read Psalm 22. Read it slowly and aloud. Ponder these words written so long ago, yet words which speak so clearly to us today.
Jesus grew up learning the Psalms by heart. Their poetry contains everything we know. Rejoicing and thanksgiving, love and friendship, celebration and feasting. And the other side of life as well. In the Psalms you will find agony, anger, bewilderment, frustration, grief and bitter tears. The writers of the Psalms knew God well enough to know that sometimes we rail at him in fury. And he listens.
There are many this week who will taste desolation. Those who lose loved ones, who may die alone with no family at their side. Those who cannot attend the funeral of a friend, and I know what that feels like this week. Those who come home from work exhausted, fearful for themselves or their family. Those who see years of work building a livelihood swept away. Those who feel imprisoned in their home without human touch for – well who knows how long?
Our churches are closed, yet the church is not. This holy week we mark key events that are the foundation of who we are. Jesus met with his friends to share a Passover meal. We cannot meet, we sense the bereavement of that loss. But it reminds us not to take this communion for granted.
Behind that supper was the story of the Passover, a time of sickness and death when the people marked their houses so that they might be passed over. Walking round the lanes I notice houses also marked, with rainbows for our NHS. Beyond the supper lay arrest, betrayal, denial, and death. Lives were shattered. Our world was changed.
Christianity is an uncomfortable faith. God is not convenient or safe or happy ever after. We know God through the vulnerability of a baby born out of place. We meet God in brokenness – take this, remember me. We know God when we allow him to kneel at our feet with water and a bowl. And we must allow him. We understand God only when we weep in the dawn and he speaks our name.
These events shape what it is to be the church. I am trying each day to ring people for a conversation. It brings to light the water and bowl life of the church. People sharing food, collecting prescriptions, passing on a bottle of bleach or hand sanitiser. I collected 7 bags for the Foodbank and dropped them off at the distribution centre. Delivering parcels for the Foodbank I heard through an open door as I walked down the path the voice of a little lad, very excited, “I’ve got an Easter egg. An Easter egg! I’ve never had an Easter egg!”
It is getting hard to ring people. Phone lines are becoming more and more engaged. People are ringing each other. Speaking to someone they know who is on their own. The instinct to reach out and support is strong. The desire to look out for someone else is powerful. It is how we will endure this time.
There are many who this holy week will know desolation. But they will never be forsaken.
The Revd Canon Paul Dawson
Paul's Letter for Passiontide
We are living through an event that is shaking the foundations of our lives. Only a few short weeks ago life as we know it today was unimaginable. I spoke to someone who lives near the sea, they described looking out of their window and seeing the promenade deserted. Usually it is filled with people, many walking dogs, and at the weekend children playing. Today even the sea itself seemed subdued. There was pervading sense of something being terribly not right.
We have listened to the advice from our Government and our churches have acted upon it. Sadly this means that our churches are now closed. This feels wrong, surely in these times people should be able to sit in space where prayer has been valid for generations. There is a sense of bereavement and bewilderment. This devastation has swept upon us without warning or reason. Many are anxious, people are frightened for their loved ones, jobs and livelihoods are in jeopardy. Years of work counts for nothing in the face of an invisible enemy.
You don’t need me to tell you that the past weeks have brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. When this is over what matters is how we have lived through it, and what we have learned not to take for granted.
As part of our response to the measures taken to limit the spread of infection we have suspended our parish magazine. This decision has not be taken lightly as many people value this community publication. But we cannot ask people to visit homes to deliver the magazine and since the churches are closed we cannot collect our own copy. We are also aware that things are changing so quickly that by the time the magazine is printed things have moved on a long way. So we are trying to offer weekly letter and reflection via our website. Please look in regularly so we can share news and stories.
Please be aware that we do not have telephone numbers for most of our church members so if you feel the need for a chat please get in touch.
I hope many of us have tried the online daily prayers provided on the Church of England website (www.churchofengland.org) Click on Prayer and Worship, then on Join us in Daily Prayer. It is all free and everything is there. Please pray for all those who work with our NHS at this time. They are being tested to the limit and rising to that challenge courageously.
I have said to members of our PCC that when this is over the world will be a very different place. We will need to mourn for those we have lost. We shall not simply pick up where we left off. There will have been too much suffering for that to be possible.
This week we remember Christ’s suffering for this is Passiontide. The Collects for this season do not try to make sense of suffering, or see a reason or cause within it. We simply hold to the truth that God is always with us, if we know this we can endure, and if we can endure then we can prevail. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, though this is a truth we cannot always see or understand. Faith is often walking in the darkness remembering the light we have seen.
Hub in the Pub – 2020 – The Mouse and Elephant in the Cathedral
It was a dark, wet and windy Monday night that greeted the Rev’d Canon Jane Brooke, Vice Dean and Canon Missioner, when she fought her way through floods and the howling wind to speak to the parishioners of St Mary’s and St Peter’s at The Plough, Whitegate.
The Rev’d Cannon Jane Brooke was one of the first women ordained as priests in the Church of England in 1994, and has spent the majority of her ministry as a self-supporting minister, demonstrating black-belt level juggling of a career in education (teaching and as an educational consultant), bringing up a family of three and her ministry across Cheshire.
When asked she said God‘nudged’ her into teaching and later ministry, just as it was probably God that nudged the ‘man’ leading the 24 hour silent retreat before her ordination to ‘break the rules’ and allow the women ordinees to talk. We were left with the feeling that Jane was good at talking, that is talking people into doing positive things; the Knife Angel at Chester Cathedral must have taken some talking to convince the powers that be that it was a powerful message. And this was affirmed when Jane admitted that being able to get things done in her current job excited her. Of course, there is a narrow path to tread, as although the Cathedral is foremost a place of prayer and worship, the teams running the Cathedral, the bookshop and refectory are interlinked and must all work together.
A couple of years ago Jane wrote a book “Awesome Anselm”, about a mouse carved into the alter rail at the Cathedral, and his exciting adventures. As the evening ended with Jane talking about the unusual elephant carved in one end of the choir pews who has hooves instead of feet, I wondered if Jane has another book in her.
Our thanks go out to Jane for giving up her evening to speak to us. Her chosen charity was Claire House, and £272 was raised. Many thanks are extended to David Hughes at The Plough who yet again donated a tasty supper to support the event.
On Sunday 22nd December 2019 James & Ellie were admitted as Choristers of St Mary’s Choir. The service was followed by coffee and a special cake served in the Mews.
Christingle 2019Published: Tuesday 10 December 2019 09:46 AM
A selection of photographs taken at the Christingle service on the 8th December 2019.
Christmas RafflePublished: Friday 29 November 2019 03:32 PM
Tickets are now available for our Christmas Raffle
First Prize - A Christmas Hamper
Second Prize - A Christmas Cake & Bottle of Whisky
3rd Prizw - Six Flutes and a Bottle of Prosecco
Tickets are priced at £1 each. The draw will be made after the morning service on the 15th December.
The sheets are available at the back of church.
Also guess the name of the doll. Two guesses for £1.
The winner will also be announced on the 15th December.