So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
We come to Easter morning. We have walked with Christ in the wilderness. We have pondered the meaning of the cross. We have followed the crowds who saw Jesus. We have sat at table as his friends, shared bread and wine, wondered at his taking the role of a servant, washing his friends’ feet.
We have stood at the cross, or perhaps not, as many then could not, to watch him die. To be abandoned is the hardest death of all. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It wasn’t just God who forsook him that day.
And now with the women we come to the grave. It was a woman’s role, they brought spices to anoint the body. In Jewish burial customs a body was first buried in a temporary tomb. Only later, when just the bones were left, was it moved for permanent burial.
The women would have sat through the night grinding spices with which to anoint the body for this first burial. Perhaps in silence, just being together grinding the spices of grief. We don’t always need the right words. We sometimes just need to be together. That is something we have learnt anew through these past difficult months.
When they come to the tomb they expect to find nothing other than death. This is the end of their hopes, all their dreams, all their love. The world can be a cruel place.
We need to remember this. Our Easter morning begins as a day of mourning. We must grasp that reality if we are to understand what God is doing through his people. Happy clappy religion that sees the world through rose tinted glasses is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
In Easter our encounter with God is in the cross and the grave, and why are we surprised? Is this not the same God who acts in the wilderness? Is this not the same God whose voice is heard not in signs of power and glory, not in the earthquake, not in the mighty wind, not in the brilliance of fire, but comes to one terrified and alone, hiding in the wilderness, hearing God in the piercing silence?
Is this not the same God who looks to the desert to make new beginnings? The God who is more at home in a tent than a temple, in a stable than a palace.
So – if we can walk in the dawn light with the women we do so carrying the spices of grief. That last final act of love – which is all God needs. For it is they who discover the unthinkable, that in this ultimate desert place God is doing what God does best, and is making a new start.
Mark, as I have said many times, is a master story teller. You will notice what is missing from this story. Like that party game where you memorise a collection of items, then one is removed and you have to spot what is missing.
So what is missing from this Easter morning? The answer of course is Jesus. Nowhere in Mark’s Easter account do the disciples actually meet the risen Christ. The story ends at verse 8, the women running away, in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
That’s it. End of. Finito.
Our bibles of course have some extra verses, but those are very clearly added later to try to make sense of Mark’s abrupt ending. There are those who think Mark obviously wrote more but that has been lost. Think of a manuscript where someone picks it up but leaves the last page behind. Maybe it’s a simple as that.
Others, and I am one of them, think that Mark ended his Gospel this way by intention. He is a master story teller, and really good stories have untidy endings. Yes, in your average fairy tale they all lived happily ever after, one of our infant nativities even ended that way, which was a bit odd seeing it was performed under a stained glass window of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, but this isn’t a fairy story.
Mark is writing for people who choose to follow Jesus, and who choose to do so in a difficult and dangerous world, who would never themselves meet the risen Lord. For those people what happens next matters, and it matters very much.
They knew, as we know, that being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy. In fact for them it was often a life threatening choice. Can the story end with women running away in fear, saying nothing to anyone?
Yes it can. But if it had we wouldn’t be here today. But it didn’t. So we are.
In Mark’s account as we have it I suggest we find ourselves involved in this Easter morning. Do we encounter this truth and go away telling no-one? If we do that what happens next? Or can we hear him telling us – you are here because that’s not how it ended. And you can’t let it end that way today.
The story of Jesus, God’s greatest gift, ends like it started. As vulnerable and as weak as a baby born in a shed. A truth as fragile as a tale told by frightened people.
Yet this message of hope and of unbreakable love has endured. Today it is placed into our hands. In these strange and difficult times it us who run into the dawn, and what message have we to tell?
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/yaR02PVaAcY
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches
We come to Palm Sunday, and one unlike any before. We cannot process with our palm crosses. We cannot read our usual dramatic Gospel. But at least we are here, last year our churches were closed on Palm Sunday.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road. Palm Sunday is a day of crowds. Crowds are fickle. Crowds can change unpredictably. Crowds can be peaceful and quiet one moment, a raging mob the next. A crowd can be a shared celebration, the joyous greeting of a successful football team. Or a crowd can be an angry force of violence and destruction, as we saw recently in Bristol.
Jesus knew crowds. He spent time with many people. He clearly knew how to, as they say, work a crowd. He could read the mood, he spoke with humour, irony and appeal. He could stun a crowd into silence, and he could provoke hostility and resentment.
Margaret Thatcher was infamously misquoted as saying, “There is no such thing a society.” Which ignored the second part of what she said, that society can only exist because it is created when individuals come together. A crowd is a crowd, many people, many unique and individual people. Each person matters.
In St Luke’s account Palm Sunday is immediately preceded by the story of Zacchaeus. You will recall that Zacchaeus was a small man so he climbed a tree to see Jesus better. We may remember that Zacchaeus was a bad man who cheated people in their taxes. And if we remember that then we remember wrong. Like the crowd we have jumped to conclusions. Collective memory isn’t always right.
Nowhere in the story of Zacchaeus does it say that he was a cheat or dishonest. When he meets Jesus he says that if he has defrauded anyone then he will restore it four times over. If he had defrauded anyone – the ‘if’ makes a difference. Jesus very often spotted the person amongst the many, the individual within the crowd, the person left out, ignored, overlooked or despised. Jesus spotted Zacchaeus, and many others.
I spoke last week on the request of the Greeks, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ I suggested that most of the time most of the people see the Jesus they want to see, the Jesus that fits their agenda, the Jesus who matches their views, the Jesus that doesn’t ask awkward questions.
The crowd was no different. They wanted a new king. They wanted someone to make life better. They wanted a hope they could get behind. They wanted what you and I want, for our lives to be better than they are right now.
Jesus knew what they saw in him, and he knew he wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. So he rode on a donkey, a parody of a Roman triumphal procession, I am not what you think I am.
To be fair to the crowd even his closest friends didn’t get him right. Judas didn’t set out to betray Jesus to death, he likely believed that Jesus was God’s Messiah, sent to kick out the Romans and bring in a new age of Jewish independence. His actions weren’t designed to send Jesus to his death, he acted in good faith, hoping to provoke the final conflict between good and evil, knowing Jesus would prevail.
Like many, he saw the Jesus he wanted to see, not the man riding a donkey, not the man washing his friends’ feet, not the man who would accept the cross as the only means of doing God’s will.
It is an unusual Palm Sunday. It will be an unusual Holy Week. It will be an unusual Easter. Maybe in this time we will glimpse an unusual Jesus – not quite the person we expect, not quite the man we think we know.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/-s6NpNz7Hpk
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
In 2018 I attended a conference in Manchester for those involved in Cathedral ministry. I came home with several things. A whistle, a genuine ACME Thunderer, the gift of an after dinner speaker who informed and entertained us with the history of Joseph Hudson who in the 1880’s developed the first police whistle.
Did you know that before the ACME whistle football referees had to call attention to a foul by waving a handkerchief? Not very effective. Joseph Hudson’s whistle have played their part in policing, sport, maritime safety, military communication and as Fiona will testify – calling over excited children back into class.
I also came home with several books, some useful contacts, a job offer in Australia, and a cross.
The first Christian sign was the sign of the fish. You will have seen it on the back of cars. A simple line outline in the shape of a fish. It was used by Christians to mark places of gathering, family homes where the church met to worship. In Greek the word for fish is ICTHUS – the letters of which stand for Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour.
Yet it is the cross which is the most universally recognised sign of the Christian faith. And if you think about it that is odd. The cross was a Roman instrument of putting someone to death in the most humiliating and agonizing way possible. It was a slow death, stripped naked and robbed of all dignity. The cross was a deliberate tool of political oppression. As I said recently, the message of the cross is that this person doesn’t count.
So why did Christians, this new movement of friends of Jesus, use the instrument of his death as a sign?
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
If someone asked you that what would you show them?
Our pictures of Jesus are of necessity no more than imaginative. Some of them very badly informed. You can probably remember images of a handsome blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus – forgetting entirely that Jesus was Jewish.
People nearly always portray Jesus as they would like him to be. On the one hand there is Jesus meek and mild who wouldn’t say boo to a goose and certainly wouldn’t present any disturbing questions. On the other is Jesus the freedom fighter, the wild revolutionary, malleable to whatever ideology you’re wanting to promote.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
To this request Jesus gives an unexpected answer. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
During our conference we met at St Anne’s church in the middle of the Manchester shopping centre to listen to the Archbishop of York. Outside the church there is a bench on which is a sculpture of a homeless man sleeping. He is wrapped in a blanket, you cannot see his face, only his feet stick out.
And they are pierced feet. This is an image of Jesus, as a homeless person sleeping on a bench.
It is in stark contrast to the glitz and glamour of the surrounding shops. Its poverty is shocking in the midst of so much wealth and money spent on ourselves. You come out of a shoe store with your shiny new shoes and there are cold naked feet pierced by nails. The buildings tower upwards, modern and clean, our Lord appears tiny and insignificant so low and on the edge.
When the statue was unveiled, it was unveiled by a homeless man named Dave.
It reminded me of a story, of a lady hurrying to a prestigious exhibition of religious art. Near the entrance she spotted a huddled figure sat on the pavement with a cup begging for coins. She kept her head down, didn’t make eye contact, and hurried past.
The exhibition was everything she’d hoped for. Beautiful treasures speaking of God’s glory and transcendence. Paintings that spoke of peace and joy. Sculptures which were breathtakingly powerful. Until she came to a sixteenth century sculpture, Christ on the Cold Stone, depicting Jesus naked, alone, awaiting crucifixion.
As she left the exhibition she came again to the homeless person outside. And saw them differently.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
Jesus’ answer is that those who wish to see him need to let go of themselves. We cannot see Jesus if the Jesus we seek is the Jesus we want. It is only when the grain falls into the earth and dies that it bears fruit. The grain that is kept safe does nothing. It just eventually rots.
The cross then is why Christians know who they are.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/CbnN5-fEdic
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
We come to Mothering Sunday, in strange and difficult times. Last year Mothering Sunday was the first Sunday of lockdown. All our preparations fell to bits, our churches were closed, there was a sense of being bewildered and bereft.
A year later and we are still bereft. We cannot visit our families. Travel is restricted. We are separated from those we love.
We are aware of those who have lost people they love, who have been unable to grieve with others. Of babies born yet to be held by grandparents. Of those who have become mothers alone, without the support of family, and unable to make bonds with other new parents.
If there is a price of lockdown it is the social isolation which has affected every part of our society. In the months ahead I hope our churches can be places where people can connect. We need to work on new connections.
And this is an unusual Mothering Sunday. Originally Mothering Sunday was a day people travelled. They went back to the church where they were baptised, or to the Cathedral, the mother church of the Diocese. They would usually make the journey walking, and it was said they went ‘a Mothering’. Such travel of course, would be illegal today.
Those who travelled would reconnect with family, often taking a Simnel Cake as a gift, a reminder that whilst Mothering Sunday falls during Lent it is still a Sunday, the day of resurrection, so it remains a feast day.
By the early 1900’s the world had changed, not least following the
First World War, and Mothering Sunday had largely
been forgotten. In 1921 Constance Penswick-Smith, the daughter of the vicar of Coddington, Northamptonshire, wrote a book
suggesting the revival of Mothering Sunday. It was a focus on family in an age when many of the poor worked in service or newly emerging industries, people who had little time off and precious few holidays, family life was changing and Mothering Sunday was a reminder that family matters.
It was Mothering Sunday, not Mother’s Day, an American invention which its creator, Anne Jarvis, later campaigned to abolish because it had been overtaken by commercialism and lost contact with its original intent.
I must confess to feeling rather lost when preparing for this service. Usually Mothering Sunday has meant churches filled with families, gifts of flowers for all ladies present, and a sermon aimed at a younger audience. But not this year.
A few years ago Fiona and I marked Mothering Sunday with the Great British Bake Off, we both made cakes during the service. We had the same ingredients but there the similarity ended. Fiona’s ingredients were weighed carefully on the scales - mine were measured in handfuls less whatever fell onto the floor.
Fiona mixed her cake in a Kenwood Chef, I used a paint stirrer mounted in a power drill. Fiona’s cake was made with love and care, mine was chucked in a bucket. Fiona’s table was neat and tidy. My side of the church looked like an explosion at Mr Kiplings.
The message was meant to suggest that love and care matter, a reminder to value the things our mothers do for us. It has to be said, that when the cakes were baked and presented to the Brownies and Cubs, both were consumed with equal delight. A reminder for parents that you don’t need to be perfect to be a good parent.
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
Both our readings speak of parenthood in difficult times, and they bear witness to the transforming power of compassion and courage. You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to work out that Pharoah’s daughter knew exactly what was going on. When a Hebrew mother comes forward to look after the child hidden by the river she must have figured out whose child this was.
So often in the Old Testament it is the women who act with wisdom and discernment.
On 23rd October 1881, some of our older members may remember it, Edward King preached a sermon in which he mentioned a sign he had seen in a local park. The notice ran, “All persons are requested to assist the society in the protection of the flowers.”
There was no threat of punishment or hint of compulsion. Just an appeal to everyone’s sense of beauty and value to exercise their personal freedom for the preservation of a common good.
Such signs today would be different. Inevitably there would be a penalty for none compliance. We live in a culture which assumes people will only be good if they forced to be so.
Mothering Sunday is reminder that God invites us to assist in the protection of the flowers, or if not the preservation of nature, to assist in the protection of people. There is an appeal for us to share in God’s work of bringing new life, caring for the fragile, nurturing the young, helping people grow and develop their full potential.
God invites us to assist, without threat of punishment or hint of compulsion. All persons are requested to assist – it’s as simple as that.
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
Pharoah’s daughter didn’t need to act to save this child. She didn’t need to turn a blind eye to the reality that the Hebrew woman was clearly the child’s mother. She didn’t need to risk herself by breaking the law.
But she saw the child and she chose to do good.
As you go about your week ahead, in the people you meet, difficult children, awkward adults, or in the handling of things, which Benedict reminds us are always God given treasures, reflect on that sign in the park.
All persons are requested to assist the society in the protection of the flowers.
You don’t have do. If you don’t there’s no come back. It’s just an invitation, to be the person who makes a difference for the better.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/4HJZNx3oSIE
7th March 2021 - Third Sunday of Lent
John 2: 13 - 17
The Bible teaches us that our God is the God of 2nd chances.
To try to be positive that could have been what Jesus was doing when He turned over the tables in the Temple. Giving those who had disgraced the temple a 2nd chance. A chance to give up what they were doing and try a different way.
In this passage it is easy to see the emotion of Jesus. This is not the only time when we see the emotions of Jesus coming to centre stage.
But this is slightly different from other times when Jesus allowed us to see his emotions, there is only one way to describe it, on this particular day….Jesus was angry.
I’m sure all of us have been there. Something stirs us up, our emotions flare up and suddenly our anger spews out. But we need to clear about an important truth here.
It’s not being angry that is a sin. It is what we do with our anger that really matters, and what we direct it at.
We know that Jesus was without sin, and yet here we see him in this story showing what seemed like uncontrolled anger at the sellers and money changers, and actually driving them out of the temple.
It seems His emotion took over, but it was for a reason.
The temple was being used for the wrong purpose, a bad purpose. This was not so much about the buying and selling that was taking place, it was about how and why it was being done.
It was the time of the Passover which meant that Jews who were faithful, and able to, headed to Jerusalem to celebrate. So Jesus went too, but when He got there things were not as they should be.
You may remember that in the Old Testament, God required the Jews to celebrate the Passover to remind them of how God had delivered them out of Egypt.
To preserve the life of their first born they would need to kill a sacrificial lamb and apply the blood of the lamb to the door post.
When the messenger would see the blood then he would pass over the house and the child would be spared.
They were also told that (if possible) they were to go to Jerusalem to make this sacrifice. So this is why Jesus and His family were there.
I want you to imagine if you will, what they saw when they got there. The Jews had greatly multiplied by this time so hundreds of thousands of Jews would have flooded the city. Like some major convention, or perhaps like the Olympics had come to town. And all of that attention and the size of the crowd meant one thing to the Priests and the Pharisees. Money. The economic impact was huge. The merchants, and the priests and temple leaders, would clearly make a lot of money.
When Jesus arrived at the temple He saw immediately that it had been turned into a giant marketplace. But worse than that was how they were selling, they were certainly charging far more than they should.
In other words they were ripping the people off. Most of the people who came to Jerusalem for Passover had traveled a very long way. Travel was already tough but imagine trying to travel with the animals for their sacrifice. Almost impossible.
Depending on what type of offering you were making that would decide the type of animal you needed. It could be a big as bull, or a small as a dove ... but in addition for Passover everyone was required to bring, or purchase, a lamb.
So it would be a real struggle to bring them any distance. Even if you decided to bring your own animals they had to be perfect, no spot or blemish. And you were not the one who got to decide. The priest was.
Many, no doubt, brought their own animals only to have them turned down by the priests. The priests were sharing the merchants profit so they turned many of them down. Then you had to purchase one at their prices.
They had a monopoly going and anytime there is a monopoly, people will take advantage of it. And they did. They charged high prices because the people had no choice but to pay it.
So here were those who sold the cattle, doves, lambs and right by them were the money changers, you see you couldn't just use any money, it had to be specific coins that were needed to be used, and most people would not have them. So merchants and money changers were taking lots of money from people who simply came to worship their Lord, and probably couldn't afford it.
And there they were when in walked Jesus.
Jesus the man who worked in a carpenters’ shop with His Father Joseph, a man who is healthy and strong and He storms in and basically destroys the place. Animals, people, money, scattered everywhere.
Not surprisingly the the leaders of the Temple began to demand some answers from Jesus.
Basically they were asking Jesus “who do you think you are?” If you are so important do something to prove yourself. They demanded that He give them some kind of sign, a miracle to show he had authority.
And how did Jesus answer them? He said, “An evil and adulterous generation looks for a sign.”
Could this happen today? Of course it could, and it does.
Have you ever said, I’ll go to church Lord, if you will just heal me. OR Lord if you will just get me out this problem I’ll live like I should OR Lord if you will just answer this one prayer, I’ll do whatever you ask.
The Jews asked for a sign. Instead of giving them a sign Jesus simply answers their question.
But they didn’t understand, but then, neither did the disciples at that point.
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in 3 days I will raise it up.” They were confused. They all thought He was talking about the building they were standing in.
Jesus was, of course, talking about Himself. His crucifixion. And these very same Jews, led by the priests, merchants and money changers, were going to be responsible for having Jesus crucified.
The Priests and Pharisees didn’t get it. They didn’t want to get it because they knew they were in danger of losing their authority….their power, and most of all, their source of lots of money. So they chose not to believe.
The disciples saw how Jesus reacted to the sins of the moneychangers in the temple. They eventually twigged and saw it in the same way that Jesus did.
But in fact the Bible tells us that it was not really until after the resurrection that they truly believed. It was only then they fully understood what Jesus had meant.
What does it take for you to believe?
When you face trials or you face a time when God is testing you how do you respond?
Do you stop and remember. Remember what God has done for you. Remember your blessings, and give Him thanks.
Or do you start to try to make a bargain with the Lord. God if you’ll do this for me then I will do this for you.
Or do you remain skeptical saying to yourself, I have to see it to believe it.
Or do you simply accept His discipline, learn from it and begin to grow again.
Perhaps God is trying to do something in your life right now to get your attention, God sometimes does that.
God tried to get Jonah’s attention and he ran.
God tried to speak to Moses and Moses got angry. His anger kept him from ever getting into the Promised Land.
So what is the best thing you can do when God tries to get your attention?
You will all probably have your own answers, but I think the Bible tells us:
Just say yes Lord, what do you need? What can I do?
And then listen!!
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/QQvAEV6uXCo
Second Sunday of Lent
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
In Jesus’ time there were crosses everywhere you went. They were a common sight. The people nailed to them were not the Messiah, nor even heroic freedom fighters or brave idealists, by and large they were petty thugs, criminals, runaway slaves and frequently innocent people murdered because those in power sometimes do things just because they can.
Every cross had a meaning, it was a noticeboard, It’s message was who is in charge, and who is nailed here doesn’t count. Anyone who challenged authority was nailed up as a public spectacle - this is what happens if you stand against us. This is what happens if you rebel.
Those nailed to the cross were non-persons, non-citizens. Roman citizens were never crucified because Roman citizens mattered. They might be punished, even executed, but they were never crucified. Only the people who don’t count were crucified.
When Jesus walked amongst the towns and villages crosses were everywhere. They said who was in charge. And who wasn’t. He of course had a message about who was really in charge - so he knew full well the risk he was running.
Art and religion have often missed the point of what Jesus said to his friends. If you want to follow me then you should know the consequences. If you accept the authority I speak of you will be in conflict with the powerful of this world.
Art has so often depicted the meaning of the cross as Christ’s suffering for the world. Whether it be a painting, or the bloody reality of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, the focus has often been on the pain and gore of the cross.
Religious people have also often focused on the suffering. Sometimes using the cross to shock and arouse guilt. Sometimes using it as a sentimental self-obsession that God loves us this much.
But that is not the point of the cross.
You’ll have heard people say, we all have our crosses to bear - some minor inconvenience that has upset our plans - a broken washing machine, an awkward colleague, some disappointing news. Or giving up chocolate or wine for Lent. Taking up the cross becomes nothing more than doing something slightly uncomfortable to prove we’re faithful.
But that also is not the cross Jesus points to. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.”
He knew the message nailed to the cross. This person doesn’t count. This person doesn’t matter. This person means so little we can do this, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Step out of line and this person might be you.
He knew that message all right - and he knew that those who followed him would tread the same path.
The point of the cross is not the suffering. The cross is where non-citizens are killed. Those who choose the kingship of Christ reject the kingdom of this world. Those who are non-citizens of this world are citizens of another. You have to choose who to obey. And if you choose God, be prepared to be rejected by this world.
We know, because we are an Easter people, that the cross is not the end. But its reality not denied by the resurrection. The risen Christ displayed to his friends the wounds of the cross. His risen body was still a crucified body. God’s greatest hope, greatest gift, greatest love, is revealed precisely in that moment of rejection.
God has chosen to belong with us, that is the crazy claim of a God born in a back street stable. The question Jesus poses to his friends is - do you choose to belong with God?
There is an irony in his question - “will you deny yourself?” The reality is that most of the time most people act and think in self-denial. It is the driving force behind the hunger that drives people to desire and acquire more and more. The illusion that happiness is a newer car, a posher house, a bigger television - which of course never works so the cycle repeats itself.
This is real self denial - the pursuit of happiness, and meaning, and love in all the wrong places. We know it is self-denial because it simply doesn’t work.
Over lockdown we have been walking every day, mostly through Whitegate woods down to the river. You see a lot of dogs being walked, and the happiest dogs are those with sticks.
One doggy was a very happy doggy, he had a massive stick. A branch fully six feet long. His tail was up, his eyes straight, his head held high. He was ever so pleased with himself. Until he came to a gate.
You know what happened next, he tried and he tried, but he simply couldn’t understand why the stick wouldn’t go through the gate. Any more that the fully loaded camel of a rich man would pass through a narrow gate in a Jerusalem city wall.
Jesus’ irony is a grim irony. He could see crosses all around him. He saw the denial of hope - will you turn your back on this, and embrace the cross? Will you stand with God with the rejected? Will you take that chance, and discover where that takes you?
The cross is essential, because it takes us to that point where the illusion is denied, and a reality unimaginable revealed.
O Lord, our Saviour and our God, whom nails could not hold to the cross, but only love; grant that we, who have received the fullness of your love, may be ready to bear before the world the marks of your Passion; for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/x9CCI6pm2UU
21st February 2021
For the next few minutes I’d like to concentrate my thoughts on Verses 12 & 13 of this mornings gospel.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan: and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on Him”.
It seems that no sooner was the glory of the hour of the Jesus’ baptism over than there came his battle against temptations.
I think there is one thing which stands out here in such a way that we shouldn’t ignore it. Paul mentioned it on Wednesday evening at our Ash Wednesday service. It was the spirit who thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for this time of testing. The very same spirit who came upon him at his baptism now drove him out for his test.
In this life it is impossible for any of us to escape temptation in some form; but one thing I think is sure--temptations are not sent to us to make us fall; they are sent to strengthen us, our minds and hearts and souls. They are not meant for our ruin, but for our good. They are meant to be tests from which we emerge better and stronger to serve God.
Suppose someone enjoys playing football or rugby or some other game; suppose they are doing really well in the second team and showing real signs of promise, what will the team coach do? The coach certainly will not send them to play for the third team in which they could probably walk through the game and never break sweat; more likely they will send them to play for the first team where they will probably be tested as never before and have the chance to prove themselves. That is what temptation is meant to do--to enable us to test ourselves and to emerge the stronger for it.
One, if you like slightly technical point, as with many things we find in the bible forty days is a phrase which should probably not be taken completely literally. It is the Hebrew phrase used to express a considerable length of time such as when Moses was said to be on the mountain with God for forty days ( Exodus 24 ).
It was Satan, who we sometimes call the devil, who tempted Jesus. I have to admit to sometimes struggling with the idea of the devil.
So perhaps it would help to look at the development of the concept of Satan, which I think is very interesting.
The word Satan in Hebrew simply means an adversary; and in the Old Testament it is used of ordinary human adversaries and opponents.
The Philistines fear that David may turn out to be their satan in
1 Samuel 29; David regards Abishai as his satan in 2 Samuel 19; Solomon declares that God has given him such peace and prosperity that he has no satan left to oppose him in 1 Kings 5.
So the word Satan began by meaning an adversary, a human one and not one specific individual or entity.
But as time goes on it does take a step on a downward and somewhat more sinister path; it begins to mean someone who pleads a case against a person. It is in this sense that it is used in the first chapter of Job. In that chapter Satan has the particular task to consider men and to search for some case that could be made against them in the presence of God. He was the accuser of men before God. The word is also used this way in Job 2 and in Zechariah 3 . The task of Satan was to find and to say everything that could be said against a man.
As I mentioned earlier the other title often used of Satan is the Devil; the word devil comes from the Greek diabolos, which literally means a slanderer. It is a small step from the thought of one who searches for everything that can be said against a person, to the thought of one who deliberately and maliciously slanders people in the presence of God.
So far in the Old Testament Satan is still human individual and not yet the malignant, supreme enemy of God. He is more the adversary of man.
But now the word takes the last step on its downward course. Through their time of captivity the Jews learned something of Persian thought.
Persian thought is based on the conception that in this universe there are two powers, a power of the light and a power of the dark, Ormuzd and Ahriman; the whole universe is a battle-ground between them and man must choose which side he is on in that cosmic conflict.
To put a more Jewish/Persian slant on it, we could could take the view that in this world there is God and Gods Adversary, Satan/The Devil.
So it was almost inevitable that Satan/The Devil, should come to be regarded as The Adversary par excellence. That is really what his name has come to mean; that is what he always was to man; but now Satan becomes the essence of everything that is against God too.
When we turn to the New Testament we find that it is the Devil or Satan who seduces Judas in Luke 22; it is the devil whom we must fight in 1 Peter 5 & James 4; it is the devil whose power is being broken by the work of Christ in Luke 10. Satan, The Devil, is now the power which is against God.
Here we have the whole essence of the Temptation story. Jesus had to decide how he was to do his work. He was conscious of a tremendous task and he was also conscious of tremendous powers.
God was saying to him, "Take my love to men; love them till you die for them." Satan was saying to Jesus, "Use your power to blast men; obliterate your enemies; win the world by strength and power and bloodshed."
God said to Jesus, "Set up a reign of love." Satan said to Jesus, "Set up a dictatorship of force." Jesus had to choose between the way of God and the way of Satan.
And that is, of course the message for us all, in life we have a choice, to be a follower of God or to be an adversary of God, and all that follows on from that decision.
In our story presented to us by Mark the choice seems straightforward, temptation is clear to see and, of course, Jesus is strong enough to reject it.
For us it often seems to be so much more difficult and complicated, and as mere human beings we also may feel less well equipped to cope with it.
But note the last few words of that passage, “and the angels waited on him” or as it is in another translation, “the angels took care of him”.
I would like to leave with you the suggestion that we also have to remember, that just like Jesus in the desert, whatever temptations and trials we have to face, we don’t have to cope with them alone either.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/xNrM7x-aZLc
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”
Dust and glory and Ekballei.
Dust - Ash Wednesday brings us face to face with mortality. It’s something we usually avoid. I don’t know when you last walked along Llandudno pier – it is one of those places we cannot go at the moment. A couple of years ago we went on Shrove Tuesday, it was a lovely day. How often in February can you sit on top of the Great Orme, sheltered from the wind, and eat your butties?
We took it for granted of course. A drive along the North Wales coast, a walk along the promenade, then up the Orme. Never did we dream that one day such simple freedoms would be denied us.
It makes you think. Lent is a time to think. We are in a wilderness time. It is uncomfortable, it is hard, but remember that it is in the wilderness that God so often acts. It is in the wilderness that new beginnings happen.
The Great Orme is a marvellous spot, it must mean a lot to many people because if you walk out to the headland you will find several discrete piles of dust – people go there to scatter the ashes of their loved ones.
Actually, if you scatter ashes on top of the Orme they’ll all blow off and end up on the pier, so save yourself the climb and go to the pier in the first place.
Either side of the pier are rows and rows of benches, all but one bearing the name of someone held in memory. (The exception is a couple who bought a bench to celebrate their golden wedding.) Most of the names are not local people – they are visitors – people for whom Llandudno, the pier, the seaside, the windswept Orme, speaks of a better place.
Many of the plaques on the benches reflect the value of a better place – that where people are, their home, their work, the daily grind, they feel isn’t enough - there remains a longing for something above and beyond.
So it is to the seaside that people go to make that important gesture.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. This dust is both reality and glory. Scientists tell us that the stuff we are made of was born in the furnace of a star. Stars are the building blocks of creation – it is in their heat and intense gravity that matter is formed. If we are dust, then we are star dust. Every atom in your body was formed somewhere beyond – the dust that swirled through space - over countless ages becoming rocks and planets and water and air – and life – created in the heart of a star.
Which is pretty amazing. I often reflect the words of Wesley in his hymn – Love divine all loves excelling – near the end
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place. He didn’t know much about astrophysics, but he knew that it is the things of this world which reflect the glory that is to come – and are of themselves a glory to be rejoiced in. That’s important – the things of this world are where glory is to be found. Family, friendship, love, loyalty, compassion, glory is here, and it points to a glory yet to come.
So as you walk along the pier - every bench, every plaque, every memory, the celebration of a golden wedding – these speak of glory. And it is glory in the here and now.
The dust and the glory and ekballei.
Ekballei. We don’t come easily to the wilderness, to Lent. It is a tough journey and many choose not to acknowledge it. It is time to remind ourselves, again, year on year, of how Jesus comes to the wilderness. St Marks tells us that the Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus out into the wilderness. He uses the word ‘ekballei’ – it’s a forceful, powerful word. It’s where we get the word ballistic from – as in a ballistic missile.
The Spirit hurls Jesus into the wilderness – because this Lenten time isn’t a time of ease and comfort, we are disinclined to come easily, if it feels like a struggle then maybe you’re doing it right.
Dust and glory and ekballei. Over the next few weeks we will follow Christ in the wilderness. We need to make wilderness moments – and they don’t happen easily either. A moment to stop, pause, think, pray.
This year we cannot have Lent groups, but the Church of England has provided a good resource of daily prayer, reading and reflection. It is available free as an app, either for Android or iOS. Please use that resource, make a moment of wilderness every day. God makes new beginnings in the wilderness.
In my daily prayer I follow the Rule of Benedict. Benedict knew all about the dusty bits of life, the reality of living with ourselves and living with others. The reality of living in our world. The reality of living with God. And he knew it isn’t easy.
Benedict’s rule is at times down to earth, compassionate, realistic. And at other times it hurls – it makes demands that are uncomfortable – but important. He tackles head on the conflicting pressures of daily living. The joy of hospitality. Moments of solitude. Times of companionship. In the Rule we meet ourselves as we are, sometimes joyful, sometimes cross and grumpy, we recognise times when we fill emptiness with busyness, and what happens when we give too much of ourselves to the demands of others.
In wisdom we come home – the heart of Benedict’s wisdom is that we don’t need to look to the above and beyond, to the unreachable – to live well – in ourselves, with others and in God is not about being somewhere else and someone else. He brings us down to earth – to the reality around us, where God waits for us.
God waits in the wilderness. He needs us to stop and be still. He needs us to listen. He waits for us to empty ourselves of too many distractions. The wilderness is an opportunity, and like this hard and difficult time, in the emptiness we discover new possibilities.
There are no ashes this Lent. But we have dust and glory and Ekballei.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/CQXAn9PPqDA
14th February 2021 - Sunday next before Lent
“As they were coming down the mountain…”
In Chester I used to be one of the chaplains at our local hospital. A few days before Christmas we found ourselves with a group of volunteers from local churches singing carols around the wards. It is a big hospital and we had to fit into a tight timetable between ward rounds and visiting. So at each ward we sang two carols, then dashed along the corridor to wherever would have us next.
I wasn’t sure we were really doing much good. Most of the time the curtains round beds remained closed, or someone was obviously watching Corrie and just turned the sound up. But we persevered. We had a list and felt we had to visit every ward on it.
In the last ward we got to, a bit later than we should and feeling we were intruding on the busy staff, there was a side room with a door just ajar. A family was gathered, clearly deeply upset. Should we sing?
We decided we ought to, and the door remained open. We sang our usual two carols and then tried to leave as quietly as possible. I was the last to leave and as I followed our small group down the corridor the door opened and young man came out.
“My father has just died,” he said. “We’ve been here for hours, it’s been a terrible day. And right at the end you sang carols. He left this earth with a smile on his face. Thank you.”
There are moment of transfiguration. There are moments when you stand on a mountain top and everything is made clear. There are moments when God’s glory touches the messiness and chaos of our mortal humanity.
Remember what I said about Mark’s Gospel – it was written for Christians who were finding life hard. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Mark begins with prophecy, a voice often rejected, and with Jesus’ baptism, his identity with those who choose to follow him. And do you remember the voice that spoke at his baptism – this is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased?
Here again, in this moment of transfiguration, the same identity – this is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.
Mark is a master storyteller. In the shape of his gospel the transfiguration is a turning point. It is from here that Jesus moves towards Jerusalem. He knew where that road would lead, it is a journey towards the cross.
Mark’s readers were mostly Jews, people whose grasp of reality and understanding of who they were had two foundations – the giving of the Law and the voice of prophecy.
The Law was the bedrock of God’s relationship with his people. In Moses God had called a people out of slavery and led to freedom. In Moses they were chosen and God entered into a covenant with them. This was a mutually binding relationship. You shall be my people, I shall be your God.
The sign of this covenant relationship was the Law – that when people lived in the land God gave them they would remember all they had was a gift. They would treat the poor with respect, leave a harvest for the refugee, uphold the practice of Jubilee – a time when all debts are wiped clean. The poor will not get poorer, and the rich will not get richer.
These are a people living in obedience to God – a holy nation who did things differently. This is the Law.
Of course human beings fail, we forget our best intentions, we allow our dreams to fade, and when that happened God sent a voice to call people back, to remind them of the covenant, to heal the relationship. This was the voice of prophecy. Often a hard voice, but one that spoke the truth.
Two foundations of relationship – the Law and the Prophets. The Law given through Moses, the greatest voice of prophecy heard in Elijah.
And so in this transfiguring moment, when the path ahead is so difficult, when his friends cannot believe this is the road he must tread, Jesus encounters Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. Everything God has done leads to this moment. Everything God can do depends on what Jesus does next.
And he choose the hard road, he turns towards the cross.
“As they were coming down the mountain…”
We all have mountain top experiences. Moments when everything is clear, or something we do goes so well, and we sense a certainty that God is close. But you always have to come down the mountain.
If you read just a bit further then you find that as Jesus and his disciples came down the mountain the first thing they ran into was an argument. Conflict broke out, they went from the glory of the mountaintop to the messiness and chaos of other people.
That is how faith is. We need to be reminded constantly that faith is not about staying up the mountain where everything is clear. Faith is about clinging on that glimpse of glory when you’re down in the valley and everyone is being a pain in the neck.
Most of the time we are not up the mountain. Most of the time we are in the shadows of the valley and the way ahead is not clear. But moments of transfiguration happen, and they matter, and when they do remember what direction they point.
Gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate on you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/uEyw_-gbRRE
7th February 2021 - Second Sunday before Lent
John 1: 1 - 14.
And the word became flesh and lived among us,… full of grace and truth.
Each of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were obviously written by different men, but each were inspired and directed by the Lord. They were written with different specific audiences in mind, but together, they provide 4, complimentary, accounts of the life of Jesus.
John, the son of Zebedee, is the author of the Gospel we heard from today. That very familiar passage, loved by so many and often argued about as to which translation is the best.
John and his brother James are sometimes known as the "Sons of Thunder," most likely for their lively, zealous personalities.
Of the 12 disciples, John, along with James, and Peter formed the inner circle, chosen by Jesus to become his closest companions.
They had the exclusive privilege of witnessing and testifying about events in the life of Jesus that no others were invited to see.
Luke tells us that John was present at the resurrection of Jarius' daughter, and Mark that he was at the transfiguration of Jesus, and in Gethsemane.
John is also the only recorded disciple to be present when Jesus was crucified. He is the one Jesus spoke to from the cross about His mother. He is the one Jesus told to take care of His mother after He was gone. They were close.
John tells us a lot about the life and ministry of Jesus that the other writers do not tell us.
John tells us about the Marriage Feast at Cana of Galilee, of the coming of Nicodemus to Jesus, the woman of Samaria, of the raising of Lazarus, of the way Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.
John paid careful attention to everything going on around him, so he gives us many of the little details the other writers leave out.
When Jesus feeds the 5,000 with the fish and loaves, only John tells us they were barley loaves. When Jesus walked on water and came to the disciples in the middle of the storm, John is the one who tells us they had rowed between 3 and 4 miles when the storm came.
He is the one who tells us there were 6 stone water jars Jesus turned in to wine. Only John tells us about the crown of thorns and how the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ robe.
These are all the memories of a man who was there, who experienced these things first hand.
But in the beginning part of this chapter, John tells about things he did not directly see or know. These are things which could only have been shown to him by the Lord, showed to John so that he could record them for others.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . .
These are the words of a man inspired and directed by God to teach us and to help explain to us who Jesus is and where He came from, and how God prepared the way for His arrival.
There was a man sent from God who’s name was John, is a God-directed passage telling us about the forerunner of Jesus, not John the disciple but John the Baptist of course, explaining how through him God paved the way for His arrival.
And in verse 14, John shares more of his God-inspired, but also directly experienced memories.
And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Most of us are familiar with the verse John 3: 16, explaining why Jesus came into the world, explaining how the love of God caused Him to send His only begotten Son into the world, to pay the price for our sins, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.
That is often quoted as the most important verse in the New Testament, many have called chapter 1 verse 14 the 2nd most important verse in the New Testament.
You remember I’m sure, it begins, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
This can also translated as he pitched his tent among us. Many of the people of Jesus’s time were nomadic so a tent would be their home, not a stone or brick building, Jesus came for everyone nomad a town dweller, rich or poor, anytime, anywhere. We do not only find him here in church.
Can you imagine the love that drove God to have His only begotten Son, the Creator of all things, leave the glories and majesty of heaven to come and live as a man?
To know the pains, hunger, thirst, heat and cold, heart break and temptations that we know?
But He did, and John was able to spend around 3 years with Him, and took care of His mother after that.
If we could talk with John now we might ask him to tell us, like a good interviewer would, what stood out about the time you spent with Jesus? When you saw His glory displayed, you who notice all of the details, what stood out to you about Jesus?
Here we read what I think would probably be his answer.
We observed His glory, the glory of the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
We might also ask what was most important thing you personally took from your time with Jesus?
He could be likely to reply, I saw His grace and truth.
Years ago, a large international conference was held of religious leaders and theologians from around the world. In the midst of the conference, a quite heated debate began about what it was that set Christianity apart from other religions.
Some argued that it was God coming in the flesh that set Christianity apart from other religions.
They decided that wasn’t it, because other religions claimed that their gods came to earth to us too.
Some argued that it was love, or sacrifice, or the resurrection, or one thing or another; each idea in turn being shot down.
Finally, C. S. Lewis, the writer and theologian, who had arrived late, walked into the conference and asked what all the noise was about.
When he was told they were discussing what it was that set Christianity apart from all other religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.”
I can see why he said that, as John brings that message to us so clearly in this passage.
Yes, the thing that sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world is grace, the “unmerited, unearned, undeserved, favour of God, given freely out of His love.”
That is what Jesus brought to us all.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Let us pray,
Heavenly Father help us to meet your Son, and just as John did, to know your grace and truth on our lives. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mknb3TXSLm4
31st January 2021 - Candlemas
This child is destined for the falling and riding of many, and a sign that will be opposed.
Luke’s Gospel is full of encounters. He begins with a series of encounters. An older couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth and an angel. A teenage girl and an angel. The same girl, the same Elizabeth and an unborn baby - who leapt in the womb. Shepherds and a whole host of angels and a newborn baby. A young couple with their child and an encounter in the temple.
The encounters matter. They reveal God amongst us.
Candlemas is an Epiphany encounter. Truth is revealed.
It is also a pivotal moment. We take our last look at the Crib, we have our first glimpse of the Cross. Mary holds her son, and we foresee the time she shall hold his broken body taken down from crucifixion.
These are stories of contrast. The shepherds come and go, it is a brief encounter. One of the best books on funeral ministry was called just that. Brief Encounters.
I remember a mad old Canon telling a group of curates what the church was for. People come into churches, he said, ‘sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying’. We’re here to give them a glimpse of heaven. And then to let them go again. Brief encounters matter.
People come to our churches for all sorts of reasons. Christmas, a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Like the shepherds they come, they see, they hear, and then they are gone. What did they glimpse? What did they hear? God is in those brief encounters – just as he chose the shepherds, disreputable and untrustworthy, to be the first witnesses to Christ’s birth.
And then we have Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. William Barclay calls such people ‘The quiet in the land.’ People who aren’t interested in power or wealth or success or glory. People who just say their prayers and get on with life. Day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Anna and Simeon are in the temple daily – watching and waiting patiently, faithfully, diligently. The shepherds saw immediately. Anna and Simeon had to wait a lifetime. But wait they did – day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Different encounters – the same hope.
Some years ago, in a small room in a corner house, a group of teenage mums were playing with their babies, they were drinking tea and complaining about the price of baby milk. A grandma was serving biscuits and chucking the babies’ chins. She remembered her days as a young mum, during the war, when everything was rationed.
She asked the teenage girls why they didn’t breastfeed their babies – there was a silence. The mums looked at one another, then the bravest said – we don’t know how to.
So a group of grannies got together and they started a breastfeeding class – the next week the pavement outside was gridlocked with buggies. Teenage mums spread the word and the grannies rose to the occasion.
Our local doctor rang me. “I believe you’ve set up a breastfeeding class?” Well – not me personally. “How did you do it? We’ve been trying for years. We’ve spent thousands trying to do it.”
Ah – I said – what you need is granny power.
Luke’s telling of the story makes me think he took mums seriously. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, her meeting with Mary – two women divided by age but sharing a common expectation.
Gabriel’s visit to Mary – and I always have to ask – was Mary the first to be asked? How many other young women had Gabriel knelt before and waited? But their weddings were planned, their hopes set, their answer was no.
We don’t know if Mary was the first to be asked. Only that she was the first to say yes.
I cannot imagine that Anna did not take this child in her arms – Luke doesn’t say it – but young mums delight when someone cherishes their child. I can see Anna, whose soul had been pierced, holding Mary’s child - knowing what Mary’s heart would endure. When Mary stood at the foot of the cross I wonder if Anna’s face came before her.
Candlemas connects us with signs, God is amongst us, waiting to act – maybe in a moment, maybe over years. We don’t get to choose how, we just have to be ready to say yes when it happens.
Let the flame of your love never be quenched in our hearts, O Lord. Waking or sleeping, living or dying, let us delight in your presence. Let the flame of your love brighten our souls and illumine our path, and let the majesty of your glory be our joy, our life and our strength now and for ever. Amen Johann Arndt, 1555-1621
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/tyMYM2NvlFo
24th January 2021 - Epiphany 3
24th January 2021 - Epiphany 3
“I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades”
We live in hard and dangerous times. Yet there is hope. Our news is filled with pictures of exhausted hospital staff, schools coping with rapidly changing rules, businesses and livelihoods closed, many may never reopen.
But as the number of seriously ill people continues to be high, and the daily count of deaths continues to rise, so too does the number of people who have received a vaccine.
Now is hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
This perhaps gives us a glimpse into the reality of life many have lived before, and many are living now, which so far thankfully we have been spared. Those who have lived through war. Those living in parts of our world whose stories have disappeared from our news – but their struggles continue. Those for whom our readings today were first written.
Now is hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
Both our readings speak of wedding feasts. Weddings of course are one of the great moments of hope and joy that stand as beacons along the path of our lives. Weddings are currently suspended, many of the couples we are working with have postponed their weddings three or four times. This has been hard and expensive for them, and for those whose livelihood is catering for wedding celebrations.
The wedding at Cana is often read at weddings, but I suspect couples choosing it don’t spot the significance of the story. This is an Epiphany story. The point is revealed in the final verse – this is a sign, it reveals Christ’s glory, and his disciples believed in him.
Weddings reveal glory, they are moments when two people make a commitment to one another, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to stick together through all that life can throw at you. The moments of joy and dancing, and also the moments of grief and mourning.
Life can be hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
I am convinced that everything of this world is about anticipation. We live in a foretaste of what is to come. If it is true that humanity is made in the image of God then somewhere in that there is the revelation of glory.
That God is about love and truth, and loyalty and commitment, and courage and tenacity, and compassion and forgiveness. These hallmarks are of God, and of human relationships – at their best.
In the midst of so much that reflects a fallen world, humanity at its best shines through. Those whose care for others costs them dear. Those who give of their time for others. Those who labour to make life better for others.
In this hard and dangerous time, we see hope.
In his great hymns, Love divine, all loves excelling – Charles Wesley concludes by referring to our new creation. That time when humanity is restored in God.
“Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
The key words there are ‘changed from glory into glory’. The best things of this world are a foretaste of that reality yet to come. Yet note this, they are glory now, pointing to glory to be. They are glory now. So we live in hope. And we must not take for granted those best things, those best moments, that point towards better things to be.
In our reading from Revelation, which is always a difficult book to read, but worth sticking with, the writer tells of falling at the angel’s feet to worship him. But take seriously what comes next, take this very seriously.
The angel’s response is unexpected. “You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus.”
I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades.
When you looked in the bathroom mirror this morning who did you see looking back at you? I suspect that when you looked in the mirror you didn’t say to yourself – there is an angel. There is a messenger of God whose place is at the throne of heaven. There is a being who God sends to announce good news. There is a guardian of hope.
So hear the words of the angel – I am a fellow servant with you.
We live in hard and dangerous times. Yet there is hope. That hope is within us. For we are messengers of a world that is coming to be.
It comes closer one small step at a time. One kind act at a time. One work of compassion at a time. These fragments of glory become the glory. They are signs. These are Epiphany moments. In them Christ is revealed, that the world may believe in him.
A prayer of St Benedict
Gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate on you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mFo8EhHyQGg
The Baptism of Christ
Our Gospel reading is Mark 1:4-11
“You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”
Our gospel reading today comes from St Mark, who begins the story of Jesus not with his birth, but in his baptism. That is significant. We believe that Mark was the first gospel to be written, it is likely he wrote for Christians who were facing hostility and persecution. So he sets out to tackle a difficult question.
If Jesus is the Son of God why did he die on a cross? And if Jesus is the Son of God why are those who believe in him suffering also?
You see the dilemma. If Jesus is the Son of God how can his life end on a cross, and how can those who follow him face persecution? Surely if Jesus is who he says he is, then Christians ought to be powerful and successful and the world ought to believe and be better.
So Mark writes his gospel rooting Jesus in the ministry of John the Baptist, who like the prophets before him came to a sticky end. John, you will recall, was beheaded by Herod.
The Jesus story begins for Mark not in a stable but in a river, at his baptism. This is the defining moment when Jesus leaves home to begin his public ministry. It is a turning point. It is the same turning point for those who have chosen to follow Jesus, who like him have entered the river and emerged baptised, members of a new community.
Mark takes care to remind us that at every step, in every encounter, Jesus faced hostility and opposition. Immediately after his baptism he is driven into the wilderness to endure temptation and hardship. The way of Christ is not the way of easy success and worldly power. The world can be changed, but it has to be changed the hard way. From within.
Most of us probably never decided to be baptised. I was baptised by the Revd Harold Dawson, Vicar of St Mark, Glodwick, my grandfather, in the font of St Nicholas, Blundellsands, on 26 March 1961. It was the church where my parents were married. I was later confirmed there by Bishop Stuart Blanch, who having laid his hands on my head was instantly elevated to become Archbishop of York. I am sure that was no coincidence.
I have not the slightest memory of my baptism – as I suppose is true for many of us. In Mark’s day things were different. Baptism was a life changing decision. If you chose to be baptised you became a target for arrest, torture and execution. It was not something people undertook lightly.
Mark begins the story of Jesus with the same experience as those who choose to follow him – baptism is a life changing moment.
The odd thing of course is that Jesus didn’t need to be baptised. He was born a Jew, this identity was his from birth, baptism was how foreigners, outsiders, became members of God’s chosen people.
And of course Jesus didn’t need to be baptised by John because John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance – that those who had turned away from God were given a second chance. Through the water of baptism the disobedient were brought back, the estranged reconciled. That surely didn’t apply to Jesus.
So when Jesus came to John – John was at first appalled. You have no need of this baptism. But Jesus insisted. This is God’s way – a path of humility, sacrifice, obedience, love. These are the tools by which the world is offered a new beginning.
We take our inheritance too lightly if we take baptism too lightly. We may not have chosen to be baptised, but we must choose whether we live the life that this baptism offers us. And the path of that life runs against the grain of this world.
As Jesus came up out of the water two things happened. Firstly the Holy Spirit came to him as a dove. That doesn’t mean a bird landed on his head. If it did baptism then services would be far more interesting. This is an epiphany moment – things are made clear.
This is a moment of decision. To leave the safety of a family home and begin the public ministry that leads to the cross.
This is a moment of identification. Jesus had no need to repent, but this is a journey that leads people back towards God. Jesus takes the first step on that journey himself, as a shepherd leads the flock.
This is a moment of equipment. All of us will have experienced times in our life when we have faced a challenge when we didn’t know what to do. As we get older we become less confident about tackling the unknown. Younger people have a much greater capacity to tackle the unknown with confidence. God is always in the moments when we take on the impossible. Some of the best churchwardens I have worked with have been people who told me they had no idea what was involved, and felt they were totally inadequate for the job.
God does not call us to the easy. He calls us to the hard. But he does not leave us unequipped. The gift of the Spirit comes in many forms.
This is a moment of approval. You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Henri Nouwen said that this was the moment that identified Jesus and everything he did. The whole of his life is living the identity of being God’s beloved. Everything he did was seeking that same identity in every person he met.
You and I may not remember our own baptism, but we share these moments.
A moment of decision, made daily to take our baptism seriously, to know that we belong to an alternative community.
A moment of identification, to walk the Godward journey in the company of Christ and in the fellowship of others.
A moment of equipment, to face the uncertainties and impossibilities in the faith that God does not call us to anything that is beyond his ability to support us.
A moment of approval – that you are God’s beloved, with you he is well pleased. And to seek that in everyone.
Father eternal, cleanse and renew us each day by the power of your Spirit, that the goodness of the incarnate Lord may be seen in our lives; fill the Church, and the whole world, with the light, joy, and peace of his birth, that his second coming in glory may be hastened, and all creation perfected in his eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube version is https://youtu.be/HI-3IHYB5ts
Although we celebrate it today, officially next Wednesday is Epiphany, sometimes known as twelfth night, the time when most of us take down our decorations, if we have not done it before. So Christmas is over.
Or is it? In the Eastern Orthodox Church what we call Epiphany is when they celebrate Christmas. Epiphany is the revealing of Jesus to the world and as a season continues to Candlemas, the 2nd of February. So there is a case for keeping decorations up until then, if you really want to.
In our readings on Christmas day and since we have heard how many people went to see the new baby, notably first the shepherds, and later the oriental visitors. Late stragglers they may have been, but they were, they are pretty special characters in our story.
“Wise men from the east”, Matthew called them (Matthew 2:1). They had seen a star rising, which proclaimed the one born to be king of the Jews, and came to pay him homage.
So what of the shepherds and wise men.
Think how different the shepherds and the wise men were from each other. The shepherds probably wore rough clothing, for working outside in all weathers. The wise men, however many of there were, no doubt rich and important, and so could afford good cloth, even for travelling.
The shepherds would not have been well-educated, though if they were Jewish, they might well have learned to read. The wise men were proficient in analysing the movement of the stars and calculating the patterns of astronomy. They would have read books on wisdom and prophecy.
The shepherds came from fields nearby – ‘in that region’… The wise men came from the east – possibly from Persia or Arabia. They would not have been Jewish but most likely Zoroastrian.
They were utterly different in background, in culture, in religion, in appearance. But they all came to the crib.
And their paths to the crib were very different too.
The wise men had spent about 2 years getting to the crib.
They must have been looking in the sky and maybe elsewhere in nature for signs. They made calculations, and reflected, and thought.
But they did not get to the crib straight away. They may have made some detours, even some wrong turnings. (No satellite navigation .)
Matthew says that when they got to Jerusalem they had to ask Herod the way to the king of the Jews, and he had to get the chief priests and the scribes to do more research, which finally pointed the way to Bethlehem. It was a thoughtful, pondering, slow and difficult path.
Now think about the shepherds. They were not even looking for a sign. They were just getting on with life – “watching over their flocks by night” – when suddenly there was a blinding light, a loud voice, giving an absolutely clear pronouncement: “to you is born in the city of David a saviour who is the Messiah; the sign is this: a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”.
There was no deliberation amongst the shepherds: they just decided: “Let's go, now, to Bethlehem to see whatever it is that has taken place”.
They did not say: “well, I wonder what that was all about? I’m not sure whether we have heard right. Perhaps we should check in the angelic directory about the credentials of these messengers”.
They just went to see!
And they didn’t take 2 years about it. They ‘went with haste’ and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. It was a bright, obvious, fast and simple path.
Do you find your faith journey takes you on one or other of these paths? It might be that someone comes to God by a slow and rather winding path.
They might find hints and whispers of God in nature, and keep their eyes and ears open to the insights of others.
They may ponder and wonder, maybe having no clear idea of exactly what they are looking for, but still keep on the path, hoping that they will one day see the star come to rest, above the One they have sought with so much faithfulness and trust.
Probably for many of us our faith journeys are this way as we come week by week and year by year seeking the Lord of all in our readings, the sacraments and in our prayers.
Or you might sense that you are more like one of the shepherds: caught up in a spiritual experience, spontaneously responding with faith and acceptance. A sort of ‘St Paul on the road to Damascus’ thing. We see this emphasised in some kinds of worship and spirituality: especially in the more charismatic churches – ‘heart-stuff’ comes before ‘head-stuff’, and things seem clear, revealed, certain and demanding an immediate response.
We are each on our own journey and it is probably wrong of me to make such a clear distinction. It encourages division. We might then tempted to say, ‘feeling matters more than thinking’ or ‘thinking matters more than feeling’.
The fact is, of course, that there is something of the shepherd and something of the wise men in each of us. And this is as it should be:
God calls us through the willing response of our hearts and also by our thoughtful pondering about what the world is like, our own lives, and the mysteries of existence.
Think of Jesus’ mother, Mary, watching by the crib. Mary had let her heart be captured by the Holy Spirit: she said to the angel: “Let it be unto me according to God’s will – that is, she saw a sudden revelation, and she responded with a heart-felt ‘yes’.
But then in the stable, welcoming all these strange visitors who were seeking her child, the babe in the manger: Luke says: ‘Mary treasured all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
Mary, is a good model for us as disciples of Christ, responded in a flash, and yet pondered for years.
One major thing which Epiphany shows us, that it was not just the Jews who would come to the stable, to their homeland, but all nations, bringing the wealth of their experience, and their insights and their traditions.
God calls us to be open and to welcome everyone who comes: whether they are tentative seekers or those who ‘know’; whether they are pondering in their search or feeling overwhelmed with the love of God.
Our journeys will all be different and individual, some harder than others.
However well we think we know our scripture and our faith, God still has much more he wants us to know, and so we need to continue on our way with all the enthusiasm we had when we first started out.
We will all find a space at the manger; we can all offer the gift of ourselves, head, heart and all; and we can all know that we are called and loved by the one who shines light into our darkness, and whose glory rises upon us, not just today but in the dawning of every new day.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/EtbOWkJgBTo
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’
This has been a hard year. This will be a strange and difficult Christmas. In our church we have an empty chair.
The empty chair was an image used by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he was interviewed with the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, about their experiences of grief. Both men had lost a child. The Archbishop’s daughter was seven months old when she died in a car crash. The Chief Rabbi’s daughter died of cancer aged 30.
Justin Welby said that for many people this Christmas would have an empty chair. Maybe someone they have lost this year, or a previous year. Or maybe someone they just can’t be with this Christmas. Families are separated, we cannot meet as usual.
So we have an empty chair in our church, I think we all have someone who sits in that chair for us.
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’
The first message of the angels is – do not be afraid. That command echoes through the bible. In every encounter with God, from the very beginning, God is constantly telling his people, do not be afraid.
In our Christmas story it is a reminder that angels are not the angels of our school nativities. Angels are not small girls with wings and tinsel. Angels are messengers and warriors. In stained glass windows they are mostly depicted wearing armour and carrying swords. Perhaps not so politically correct these days, but the point is made. When the shepherds encountered angels they were afraid.
Now shepherds weren’t softies. Shepherds in those days where rough and they were tough. If you want a modern comparison think of a gang of hells angels. People didn’t trust shepherds. They lived outside the fringe of society, in a court of law a shepherd’s evidence was worthless.
So it is strange that when God wanted some witnesses to his Son’s arrival it was shepherds who were chosen. People whose witness wasn’t acceptable.
God is about change. Christmas is about making a difference.
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’
The poet Thomas Traherne, sometimes referred to as the happiest of men, used to say that “You are as prone to love as the sun is to shine.” (Repeat).
Sometimes the truth of that becomes visible. There is a story about Nelson Mandela when he was President of South Africa. He went to a restaurant for a meal, accompanied as usual by his bodyguards and security staff. As he waited for his meal he noticed a man sitting alone, also waiting for his food to arrive. Nelson Mandela called the man over and invited him to sit with them.
The man joined them, but his head was down. He ate in silence, his hand constantly trembling. When he had eaten he left.
The President’s security staff assumed the man must have been ill, but Mandela said no. “I know that man. When I was a prisoner he was a guard. He used to beat and torture me. I think he was afraid I would now do the same to him. But that is not how we handle things.”
Mandela knew that the only way to overcome evil is to love, the only way to banish violence is to forgive, the only way to heal division is to show compassion.
He said, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’
The first step is always to not be afraid. It is fear that turns people to hatred. It is fear that generates violence. It is fear that disables us from seeing the reality – that we are as prone to love as the sun is to shine.
Such love is costly, as our empty chair reminds us, but this is what is at the heart of Christmas. That God so loves the world that he gives us his Son.
The Christmas story ends with Mary and Joseph taking their child and fleeing for their lives. They became refugees seeking asylum in Egypt, this story does not end with – and they all lived happily ever after. We forget the dark side of Christmas, that the birth of this child was not good news of great joy for all the people. Herod for one saw in this child a challenge to his rule of tyranny and oppression. At the other end of Christmas, Candlemas, we hear the words of Simeon – this child is destined for the falling and rising of many, and to be a sign that will be opposed.
This child makes a difference. Those who are not afraid of what he brings are those who receive the good news of great joy.
This Christmas is a strange and difficult one for many. In most homes there will be an empty chair. We know this Christmas to have a bitter sweetness. But in that moment we perhaps come closer to hearing the message of the angels – do not be afraid. For God acts in love, slowly, patiently, quietly, humbly, in weakness and vulnerability, to give us hope, and when we sense the distance of others, to know God is with us.
Blessed art thou,
O Christmas Christ,
that thy cradle was so low
poorest and simplest of earthly folk,
could yet kneel beside it,
and look level-eyed into the face of God. Amen.
The YouTube link for Christmas Day is https://youtu.be/pZ45aPMWs70
The YouTube link for Christmas Eve is https://youtu.be/TcSfBIglqGI
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1: 26 - 38.
“Greetings, favoured one! the Lord is with you”
In the name of The Father, Son and of Holy Spirit, Amen
However often I hear it I always think there is something profoundly moving about God’s visitation into Mary’s life and her call to bear the Christ-child into the world. In verse 28 of our Gospel, the angel Gabriel says to Mary, “Greetings, favoured one! the Lord is with you”
It is beautiful, isn’t it, that Mary should be favoured by God: what a wonderful young woman she must have been to be favoured in such a way by God, what an incredible calling on her life to bear the Saviour of the World, to be chosen for that ministry, to be blessed by God in that way.
And yet, as so often it is with us, so it was with Mary, that her life was full of contrasts, and often a mess.
The angel Gabriel had said, “Greetings, favoured one!”
Perhaps Mary reflected on that encounter when she stood at the foot of the cross and reflected on the pain she felt then, and had at many other times in her life. She might have thought “If I am favoured by God, he has a strange way of showing it”.
Yes, Mary had known moments of deep joy in her life – of course she had - but she had also been taken into moments of deep, deep pain beyond understanding.
Her life, like ours, perhaps particularly over this last year, was a study of contrasts: joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, clarity and confusion. And Mary, like us, had to learn to navigate the waters of life in such a way as to find meaning and purpose as a child of God.
But why do I say Mary’s life was often a mess?
The start of Mary’s marriage was a mess: we all know the story. Mary had become pregnant during the period of betrothal and, under the law of the Torah, she faced divorce at the very least and possibly even being stoned for her perceived behaviour. Mary had become a disgrace to the family and an embarrassment to Joseph, he even considered a quick and quiet annulment of the betrothal. Her marriage was a mess.
Her finances had problems: again, we know the story. In Luke 2, we are told about the census that Caesar Augustus had ordered and how Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to be registered but when they arrived, there was no room for them to stay anywhere.
Well, call me cynical, but I’m pretty sure a room could have been found if they had enough cash to pay for it and a little more besides; I’m sure the palm of an enterprising innkeeper could have been greased with a few extra denarii. But Joseph was a carpenter – not much money in that I suppose, so their financial mess resulted in Mary giving birth in the worst possible conditions, she had to lay her new born baby in the animals’ feeding trough.
Her marriage was a mess. Her finances were a mess.
But also, her community was in a mess. Mary was a good Jewish women, growing up under the tyranny of an oppressive military dictatorship. The Romans were very much in control - but even their own leaders, like King Herod, were tyrants who ruled over society with a rod of iron. Not so many years previously, there had been a civil uprising, a revolt against the Romans violently put down, and even then, in Mary’s day, the world was a dangerous place into which to bring a child.
I wonder if there are times when you feel a bit like Mary? Perhaps this year has been one of those times. So many people have had their lives disrupted in so many painful ways.
We look at our lives and for many all we see is chaos and mess:
Covid 19 has disrupted and changed just about everything. Perhaps we have suffered ourselves, or had relatives and friends who have. Perhaps even lost family or friends. Perhaps there is financial stress or the employment or business situation is causing anxiety.
Perhaps we feel trapped and unable to escape from our day-to-day pressures of keeping healthy and trying to feel useful. We are not able to see our families and friends as we would like, there will be at least one empty chair at many Christmas tables this year.
So it seems not unreasonable to look at our lives and all we see is mess.
But, of course, something else was happening in this story about Mary…
Yes, her life was a mess: but there was an emerging miracle in that mess: Every birth is a miracle, but it was Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World who was emerging from her.
I suppose it is likely that Mary could only see the mess, but God was working through all that and providing a miracle.
Although for Mary, the miracle was probably being obscured by the mess - that did not mean that the miracle was any less real…
I wonder if there is a miracle in your mess, in my mess? Maybe it is obscured right now. But if we are able to look at the circumstances of our lives differently, perhaps we may get a glimpse, just a glimpse, of a miracle emerging.
I believe in miracles, though I rarely see, and in fact don’t expect to see instantaneous ones. Instead, I believe that miracles emerge: they don’t come fully-grown – they need to be nurtured and safeguarded in the womb of our being, and possibly for longer than nine months.
Isn’t that what Mary had to do?
For 9 months Mary had to carry that miracle in secret. And even when people saw the signs of the miracle growing within her and heaped scorn and abuse on her and misunderstood the miracle within, she still believed in and loved the miracle and guarded it with all of her own being.
And even after she gave birth to the miracle, she had to care for Him, nurture Him and guard Him; first by carefully wrapping Him and feeding Him, then by escaping with Him to Egypt later returning when it was safe.
I believe in miracles and I believe that there is the possibility of a miracle in every mess. But it needs to be sought out carefully: we need patience to look for it, we need to give it time to emerge - and we need to nurture it and safeguard it and allow it to grow in our lives.
Like Mary, we need to be able to look deeply into our circumstances and trust that God is perhaps growing a miracle around us. We can have faith in God even when we find it hard to have faith in ourselves or the world around us.
If we can do that, we will, just perhaps, be able to make some sense of the mess and learn to see it for what it can be; the birthplace of a miracle.
And then our faith and trust in God will increase and we will be able to join with Mary and say:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/tmDe-xv4OSE
Third Sunday of Advent
Somewhere, there's a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air wait for us
Words from Leonard Bernstein’s musical ‘West Side Story’ which some of you may know. It tells the Romeo and Juliet story, in the context of gang rivalries in 1950s New York. Tony and Maria sing this duet as he lies dying in her arms, a victim of the violence. It is a duet of hope, hope in a love which transcends the messy world in which they live, hope in something better.
We live in a messy world too – in a broken and suffering world. It has always been that way. Listen to some of the words from our Old Testament reading. Isaiah, back in the 8th century BC, speaks of the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, the prisoners, of all who mourn, of ruined cities and devastation. He could just as well be describing our world in the 21st century, couldn’t he?
Our lives have been dominated for nearly a year now by COVID-19, and that has brought much suffering to a great many people. Many are broken hearted as they mourn loved ones, and many find themselves virtual prisoners, captive in their own homes, or in their care homes, unable to live life as they would wish to, and unable to be with those they care about.
And then there is the ongoing suffering of so many across our world. Refugees in makeshift camps, fleeing conflict and violence. Ruined cities and devastation too. Only just last week British troops were sent to war-torn Mali as part of a UN peacekeeping force, as the security situation there deteriorates, with all the inevitable consequences for its people.
Need I say more?
So, just as Tony and Maria look for hope in a love which transcends the messy world in which they live, hope in something better, in the context of 1950s New York, so we, in our own context, do the same, don’t we? We need hope – we look for hope in our messy world.
And the hope we look for is not that superficial, and actually often vain, hope which we express when we say things like “I hope it won’t rain today” or “I hope my train arrives on time”. We are looking for a deeper hope, a hope in our hearts, a hope that the messiness of our world is not what it is all about, that life is about more than this.
Now, when Isaiah speaks of good news, his good news is specifically about hope. It is about the hope, that we as Christian believers hold, that life is indeed about more than this.
God is good, and never changes his attitude nor forsakes us, whatever difficulties may arise. Remember St Paul’s wonderful words from Romans 8:38-39:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We know that the broken world we see around us is far from God’s vision of justice, peace, solidarity and compassion, and so we turn in hope to his love and his promise something different and better. This is the world of which Isaiah speaks. Of binding up the broken-hearted, of liberty and release, of comfort and gladness, of rebuilding and repairing that which has been destroyed.
Biblical and Christian hope however does not mean living in the clouds, simply dreaming of a better life, as Tony and Maria in West Side Story are doing. It is not merely a projection of what we would like to be or do. It points us to a new and better world, the new heaven and the new earth which St John speaks of in Revelation 21, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. It also however leads us to discover seeds of that new world already present today, and it challenges us to live differently, not according to the values of a society based on self-interest and individualism, but in a society which turns Isaiah’s prophecy into a reality in the here and now.
Ironically, COVID-19 has given us a unexpected and once and for all chance to do that. We have all had to stop and think and reassess our priorities. We have realised how important to us our contact with other people is. We have realised that rushing from one place to another, is not necessarily best for ourselves or for other people or for the environment. Even as a church, we have been forced to question what it is we do, and why we do it.
The good news, the gospel hope, is not a way of taking our minds off the tasks of life here and now, but using them instead to make a difference in the world today. A call to set out on the road. Men of Galilee, says the angel in Acts 1, just after Jesus’ ascension, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? And Jesus himself in Mark 16 says Go into the entire world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation… You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth. We are called to work towards a different future here and now, in the midst of the difficulties of the world, to sow seeds of renewal which will bear fruit when the time comes.
And in doing this we follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist. John, we are told in our gospel reading, was himself not the light, but he came to testify to the light. We too are called to testify to the light – that is to the love of God in Jesus, who is the light of the world. We are called to offer the hope that the messiness of our world is not what it is all about, that life is about more than this, in the here and now, as well as in the world to come.
This is not always easy. We tend, especially at difficult times in our lives, to focus on the darkness instead of on the light. It is easy to get sucked into a negative way of thinking, and to forget that life is about more than what we are going through at the time.
There is so little colour in our gardens at the moment, and there are days when it hardly seems to get light at all … but we know that the spring, with all its promise of new life, is not far away. I am certainly looking forward to getting out there with my camera, starting probably with the snowdrops. They always seem to be the first. In the same way, Isaiah reminds us at the end of our reading that, as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. There is hope.
The final verse of the song from West Side Story goes like this:
Hold my hand and we're halfway there
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
Somehow, someday, somewhere
We can’t physically hold each other’s hands at the moment, in these strange times, but we can support each other and care for each other and encourage each other. Jesus himself turns to our reading from Isaiah when he stands up in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4, and identifies himself with the words of the prophet, saying Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Let us encourage each other with the hope we share, in the good news in our Old Testament reading, and in the light of the world which is Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
Let us pray
Heavenly Father, our hope is in you.
We thank you for the past, trust you for today, and believe in your promises for the future.
Help us to encourage each other with the hope which is in our hearts.
Enable us to share that hope with those around us.
Use us to transform our world
And to spread your hope to every corner of the earth.
The video link is https://youtu.be/Rn2shfFKvZQ
Pastoral Letter for Advent 2
“Comfort, O comfort my people,”
The words of Isaiah are some of the most well known in the Old Testament. For those who worship they are part of our Advent inheritance, for others they resound in the music of Handel’s Messiah.
Comfort, O comfort my people.
These words were written sometime during the exile in Babylon when the hope and identity of Israel was held captive in a foreign land. They precede Christ by some 550 years. These are words of prophecy, and it is the voice of prophecy which we mark today, the second Sunday of Advent.
Comfort, O comfort my people.
The word ‘Comfort’ in Hebrew has a stronger meaning than its common usage in English. When Isaiah speaks of comfort he is saying that God is about to act, the world will change, therefore have hope for the future.
We perhaps can glimpse something more of what that means if we look to the news that vaccines are being tested to see if they are safe to be used to defeat Covid 19. This is something that will change the world for the better. When we have a vaccine we shall be able to meet with family and friends again. We shall be able to hug people we love. We shall be able to sing. Life will be restored.
Isaiah announces that God is about to act, listen, be watchful, be ready.
For many people the news this week will not have brought much comfort. Long established companies are failing and people are losing their jobs. There is concern about pensions, our town centres, about what the future holds. I sent an email to our PCC members looking at how 2021 might look, I do not think it will be a normal year. Much that we usually take for granted will still be on hold.
In that sense we have another glimpse into the voice of prophecy – Comfort, O comfort my people.
Isaiah is not promising comfort as in taking life easy, no, there is much to be done. We need to prepare. In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, in the desert a highway for our God.
These days major roadbuilding projects mean bulldozers and concrete, accompanied by protests and the inevitable traffic jams. But consider in Isaiah’s day what it meant to travel. For most people on foot, often through hilly terrain where robbers had plenty of places to hide, journeys were long with serious hardships to endure.
I remember reading an account of travelling in England before roads were built, for much of the year crossing the Pennines was impossible. We take for granted the ease with which we move around. The promise of a highway was a world changing event.
Comfort, O comfort my people – Isaiah is a long way from saying life will be easy. That is not the voice of prophecy. His message is addressed to people in a hard place, in hard times, facing bleak uncertainty. The hope he speaks of is no small thing.
The world is about to be different. And it won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but it can be better.
In Advent we watch and wait and listen and prepare. For God acts and our lives can always be different. Not necessarily easy, not necessarily quick, but potentially better. The question is will we be ready.
Advent brings us to a new beginning in listening to God’s good news. This year will be Year B in our lectionary, we shall be following Mark, whose Gospel begins with the message of John the Baptist.
It is not comfortable to speak of repentance. Repentance is not a word which people use a lot these days. It is nevertheless an important word. To repent is to think again. To repent is to look at things differently. To repent is to act differently. So in a way we’ve been doing a lot of repenting recently.
We’ve had to live differently. We’ve had to think differently. We’ve had to ask why it is that the people we rely on most are the people who are paid the least. We’ve had to reconsider how our society values each person’s contribution to our common good. We know we will come out of this differently. We won’t, we can’t, just go back to how things were.
Repentance suddenly got real.
John’s message was that if you want to see God’s best hope, if you want to understand Jesus, if you want to be part of what comes next, then you need to think again, see things differently, do things differently.
So our Advent task is make ourselves ready for hope that is coming. Not just in the retelling of the Christmas story, but in the expectation that the point of this is not in the past but in the future. Christmas is not remembering what has happened, but in being prepared for what is yet to happen.
This strange Advent perhaps we can understand the voice of prophecy just that little bit better. We wait, we watch, we listen, that when Christ comes we may be ready.
As the Communion prayer for today says:
Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that, when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him
with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/DKw9WqtVRQE
29th November 2020- Advent
Our reading is from Mark 13: 24-37
Advent marks the beginning of the church’s new year. As Edward King was fond of commenting, we complete another cycle of God’s great story of reaching out to humanity. It is time to begin again, but under strange circumstances, maybe this time we shall notice something we had not spotted before.
Our newspapers are full of words about Christmas, can it be saved, will it happen, can families meet? In most people’s minds is it Christmas that focusses attention. In the midst of such a difficult time it is natural to look for something better, a time when we can be with people we are missing, a time for celebration after months of worry and loneliness.
But let’s not overlook Advent. It has been said that if you cut Christmas out of the bible you would lose just three chapters, and it wouldn’t change anything we know about God’s best hopes for humanity. The facts of the Incarnation are still there. But leave out Advent and you lose most of the Old Testament and much of the New. We need to take Advent seriously.
Of course Advent is challenging. Our reading today speaks of a world coming to an end. Not much of a new beginning at first glance. But if we pause to think then we know differently. The first signs of a new harvest are when the plough overturns the earth, and for the ploughman of old it was brutal back-breaking work. Yet, as I said in my annual report, when the poetry of ploughing spoke of the “painful plough” it was not the aching muscles or blistered hands that were referred to. The “painful plough” is a reference to something done with painstaking care. New beginnings matter, and they demand our focus and attention and care.
So do not neglect Advent. It matters too much.
I often begin a funeral service with the Advent collect. It summarises a lot that matters.
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
We are reminded again that this ending is a new beginning. But not just yet. There is a waiting. Contrary to what some people think Christians do not believe that when we die we go straight to heaven. The Advent collect makes that clear. We wait. We wait until that last day when Christ shall come again in glory, and then, and then only, shall we rise to the life immortal. Of course in God’s kingdom time as we currently experience it is different, but the point remains.
Society all around us is geared to having what we want when we want it. And we want it now. So Christmas decorations go up in November and by Boxing Day it’s all over. The reality is different, and slower, and more lasting.
At the heart of our being with God there is waiting. God will act, God will come amongst us, the message of the angels will be heard. But not just yet. Now it is time to wait and watch and listen. Now it is time to prepare for that which is long expected.
Every new beginning is made possible by that which has gone before. We need not fear the known passing away. This has been a hard year, we have lost so much, yet in the endings we have discovered new beginnings. If we do not learn to watch and wait we will miss opportunities. The Advent collect speaks of this mortal life, it acknowledges things which must pass away, looking to a different reality beyond. Now is the time not to rush back to the old ‘normal’. Use this time wisely, keep awake, be alert.
I want to add a few words about what will happen after 2nd December. The new tier system will be tough but I am pleased to see it gives us an idea through to the end of March. In all the tiers places of worship will remain open. Our services recommence on Sunday 6th December. Our websites have details of Advent and Christmas services. Numbers may be limited of course so for popular services it might be wise to come early. This may be the first Christmas we truly understand what it felt like to be told, “There’s no room at the inn.”
Blessed are you, Sovereign Lord, God of our ancestors:
to you be praise and glory for ever!
You called the patriarchs to live by the light of faith
and to journey in the hope of your promised fulfilment.
May we be obedient to your call
and be ready and watchful to receive your Christ,
a lamp to our feet and a light to our path;
for you are our light and our salvation.
Blessed be God for ever.
The first candle is lit
God of Abraham and Sarah,
and all the patriarchs of old,
you are our Father too.
Your love is revealed to us in Jesus Christ,
Son of God and Son of David.
Help us in preparing to celebrate his birth
to make our hearts ready for your Holy Spirit
to make his home among us.
We ask this through Jesus Christ,
the Light who is coming into the world.
Lord Jesus, Light of the world,
born in David's city of Bethlehem,
born like him to be a king:
Be born in our hearts at Christmas,
be king of our lives today.
The YouTube version is https://youtu.be/DqJLCTz6Sr8
22nd November 2020 - Christ the King
Our reading is Matthew 25: 31-46
Today is the last Sunday of the church’s year. Next Sunday is Advent, a new beginning. And today is known also as Christ the King, this is the Kingdom Season.
We have the wonderful parable of the sheep and goats. Earlier this year, when our churches were closed on Easter Sunday, Fiona and I went for a walk and found a field full of sheep with lambs. The sun was shining and the lambs were doing what lambs do best, which is to wander off and get into mischief. Sometimes a lamb went too far and lost sight of its mother, then the field would be filled with lambs bleating and mothers calling. It was the best Easter Evensong I’ve ever heard.
Sometimes it takes a time of loss for us to discover new gifts, things that are there but we just haven’t noticed before.
A colleague produced some photographs of sheep and goats. You’d think it would be easy to tell them apart, modern breeds are usually quite distinctive, though there are some sheep that look very much like goats, and some goats that look very much like sheep. In Jesus’ day it took an experienced eye to sort them quickly.
The parable of course is not about sheep and goats, it is about people. More specifically how people treat other people. God it seems is not terribly interested in how clever you are, or what kind of car your drive, or how much you earn, or what you house cost you. God is more interested in how you treat other people.
This is the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Kingdom Season. The Kingdom of God is neither a time nor a place. It is an activity. The Kingdom of God happens when people live in accordance with God’s will. When human lives reflect obedience to divine love the Kingdom comes close. And this happens in the smallest of things.
Those whom the King welcomes are those who give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, a welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, those who visit the sick and the person in prison. No-one will erect a statue to you for doing these things, you probably won’t get an OBE or even a Blue Peter badge. But these are the tasks which bring the Kingdom close.
There is not a huge amount of good news around at the moment. People are weary, and people are confused. We approach Advent without being able to light the Advent candle. We don’t know if we can be with family and friends at Christmas. We are learning not to make plans.
Perhaps there is a reminder that God is rarely if ever in our plans. God is always in the unexpected and the unpredictable. God is in the person we least expect. God is in the unexpected kindness of strangers.
Perhaps the Kingdom comes close but we have not seen it. Because it wasn’t as we planned it, or as we expected it. Maybe this year we learn anew, to find the Kingdom amongst us, in so much that we took for granted and did not value enough.
On the theme of sheep and goats, in January Bishop Mark is coming to visit us for our Plough Sunday service on 17th January. I am sure we will still be under some form of restrictions and it would be a great sadness to turn people away from church. So I am immensely grateful that Jonathan Palmer of MotorSport Vision and the team at Oulton Park have offered us hospitality at the Fogarty Moss Centre. Of course we shall need to confirm everything nearer the time to see what rules might be in place by then, but all being well we shall be able to gather in a greater number to welcome Bishop Mark to our Benefice.
We usually have animals in our Plough Sunday service but that’s not going to be possible this time round. So I think it’s time for something slightly less serious. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Belper Moo, if not look it up on the internet, but I think they’ve got the right idea. For Plough Sunday we’ll invite those daft enough to wear animal hats, either bought or homemade – and as you can see, I’ve made a start.
God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.
The Youtube link is https://youtu.be/znz5O-ZTLjU
Pastoral Letter – Sunday 15th November. Second Sunday before Advent
Our Reading is Matthew 25:14-30
Our churches are closed again so I shall be filming the YouTube version of this letter from the village green in Little Budworth. I shall come to the reasons for that a bit later.
The parable of the talents is well known and much loved. As will all good stories it has several layers of meaning. We are reminded how important it is to put to good use our skills and time and finances. A talent is not a coin, a talent is a weight, so its value depends on what currency is used, copper, silver or gold.
But there is another currency here as well, the servants are rewarded or punished not on the basis of profit or loss, but on trust. The key issue is whether they have earned trust.
The servant who buried the talent was criticised because his actions aimed to hand things back exactly the same as before. One of Jesus’ constant battles with the religious authorities was their mindset that God’s law mustn’t change. Religion became an absolute commitment to maintaining the status quo. There was no sense of adventure in that faith, no willingness to take risks, no sense that God travels with his people.
The servants who put their talents to good use earned trust, and they were rewarded. The one who hid his talent safely was not trusted, and his talent was taken away.
Over the past few months churches have worked hard to provide a safe environment to enable people to worship together. This has been greatly valued by many people. We have had to invent new things, undertake new responsibilities, try things we haven’t done before.
I believe the evidence shows that churches have gone above and beyond what was expected of them. I am very disappointed that we have been forced to close during the current lockdown. When this matter was raised in Parliament MPs of all parties repeatedly echoed what our Archbishops had asked for, either produce the evidence why churches need to be closed, or reconsider the closure. I watched that debate with some interest. It was clear someone who needed to listen wasn’t doing so. I understand not everyone sees worship as important to themselves personally, but those in public office have a moral and professional responsibility to listen to the voices of those who understand these things better than them. Like our various servants, this is primarily a matter of trust.
I believe the churches and synagogues and mosques and temples, have shown themselves to be trustworthy. They deserved to be trusted, and to receive some support. Instead they have been treated as the untrustworthy servant and what they had has been taken away.
Now this might sound like a complaint, indeed it is, and I believe with good cause. When the new lockdown came into effect on 5th November churches were asked to re-arrange their Remembrance Sunday services at very short notice. We did so willingly and people have expressed huge appreciation for what we provided. We were able to hold services out of doors, perfectly safely, which many people valued.
So if we were able to hold outdoor services on 8th November how come it is deemed unsafe for us to do so on 15th November? Nothing has changed. Our policies and procedures have been shown to work, why allow it one week and not the next? How can we be asked to provide services outdoors one week and then be told that it is not safe to do so the next week?
The key issue here is trust. People who use their talents wisely and creatively need to see something positive and creative come out of that commitment. That is the model countries in the East have used and it has been shown to be effective. If people are not trusted they will not respond with trust. And as our parable shows, the one who loses trust loses everything.
We all understand we need to live under unusual restrictions, but those restrictions have to be reasonable and proportional. Random and unjustified withdrawal of people’s right to worship with no evidence to say why it is necessary is the stuff of the untrustworthy servant. We deserve better. I believe we have earned the right to expect better.
So I am on the village green, because the latest rules tell me that this side of the wall I am allowed, that side of the wall I am not. And this side of the wall we have evidence of what happens when people use their talents wisely and creatively. We have a wonderful play area which was installed earlier this year. This happened because people have used their skills, time, energy, enthusiasm in the service of others. Not just once, but week after week, month after month, year after year. Trust is earned, and it is earned the hard way. Those who prove themselves trustworthy need to be valued. If we neglect to do that we shall all be poorer for it.
If we are to build a healthy and happy society we need to value those who contribute to it. We need to see some evidence that those who have earned the right to be trusted have trust placed in them.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/KCm66MzCWR4
1st November 2020 - All Saints
1 John 3:1-3
Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one for evermore.
… the words from the Bidding Prayer at the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, words which are very familiar to many of us, words which, although I have heard them, or more recently read them myself, at least once every Christmas for over 40 years, still bring a lump to my throat, still have the same emotional effect on me.
Today is the first Sunday in November. Tonight, it is our service for All Souls, when we will gather together to remember before God, and to give thanks for, our loved ones who have died, the people whom we see no longer, but who are still very dear to our hearts. I hope that you will be able to be here again for that very special service at 6.30.
This morning, however, we widen the perspective a bit. We remember before God, not only our own loved ones, but, in the words of the Bidding Prayer, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh. In other words, we remember all those who shared our faith in Jesus, and who have gone before us. We don’t just remember those whom the church has recognised as being special or holy, those who are called saints, such as St Mary or St Peter, but all those who have, like us, been followers of Jesus, and in whose steps we follow.
As Christians, ours is a global faith. You can go pretty much anywhere in the world, and find a welcome in a Christian congregation on a Sunday morning. One of my favourite verses in one of my favourite hymns sums it up
As o'er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.
Ours is also a faith rooted in thousands of years of history, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds in a very well-known verse from chapter 12
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Just think of the generations who have worshipped God faithfully in this church over the centuries, of the vicars whose photographs hang in the vestry. All these people, and millions and millions more, form part of that cloud of witnesses, of that multitude which no man can number.
And what do we have in common with them? Different times, different experiences, different lives, but, as again it says in the Bidding Prayer, we all share the same hope, the hope in the Word made flesh, our faith in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
Both Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in our gospel reading from Matthew, and St John in our epistle reading, speak of us as all – those who have gone before us, and those of us here in church today - as being children of God. Jesus says: Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God, and John says: we should be called children of God and also we are God’s children.
Both of them also speak of the blessings and joys of being one of God’s children. Jesus speaks of comfort and mercy, of fulfilment and inheriting the earth, and of seeing God. And John picks up on the idea of seeing God, reminding us that when [God] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is, and we will understand how much he loves us, in John’s words, see what love the Father has given us.
In these strange COVID-19 times, many of us are far from loved ones. Many of us haven’t seen our families and friends for many months, and we are all finding it very tough. One of the blessings in this situation has been in the internet, with Facetime and Zoom and other programs, which allow us not only to send written messages to each other, or to hear the other person’s voice, but actually to see the face of the people we love. It’s hard not be able to touch them, and hug them, but we can look into their faces, and know that the loving relationship is still there, it is real. This can be such a comfort.
It is the same with God. We will only fully understand the extent of his love for us when we meet him face to face, when we see him as he is. And, of course, we believe that those who rejoice with us but upon another shore are already in the presence of God. But what might that be like? It’s impossible for us to imagine. And we can just allow to our poets and our writers to help us build up a picture of that other shore, in other words, of heaven.
Let me leave you with one vision of heaven in the words of the 12th century monk, St Bernard of Cluny, translated so beautifully by John Mason Neale in the 19th century - Jerusalem the Golden, which Emma is going to sing for you in full in a moment.
They stand, those halls of Zion,
all jubilant with song,
and bright with many an angel,
and all the martyr throng:
the Prince is ever in them,
the daylight is serene;
the pastures of the blessèd
are decked in glorious sheen.
There is the throne of David;
and there, from care released,
the shout of them that triumph,
the song of them that feast;
and they who with their Leader
have conquered in the fight,
for ever and for ever
are clad in robes of white.
25th October 2020 - Bible Sunday
“You have become very dear to us.”
Our readings today are about relationship. It is the last Sunday of Trinity, next week we begin to move towards Advent, on this boundary Sunday we pause to mark the gift of Holy Scripture. For this Sunday is often known as Bible Sunday, and the weeks between here and Advent are known as the Kingdom season.
The Bible may be likened to someone looking at the landscape. Your eyes may see the hills, the grass, hedges, and fields. Our landscape is very beautiful.
Your eyes may see deeper. You may perceive the millennia of history which has shaped the land. The movement of the earth’s surface, places where rocks are broken and forced to the surface, strata from different ages resting side by side. You may notice the gentle but persistent erosion by water so that a mere stream shapes an entire valley. You may hold the soil in your hand and know that this was once the bed of a deep ocean.
Or your eyes may look again, and see the labour of humanity which has shaped the land. The pattern of fields, the hands that have laid hedges, the years of graft and sweat, the hopes and tears of those who work this God given land.
The Bible is like such a landscape. A quick glance isn’t enough. There is depth here. There are stories. There is history. The modern man in his motor car thinks he knows all, but a quick glance at the land as you zoom by tells you nothing. You need to stop, and look, and look again. You need to hold this earth to know its story.
Our readings are about relationship. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is one of the earliest, he opens it simply by stating his name, he doesn’t describe himself as an apostle. The only way he reveals what is means to be an apostle is in relationship with others.
He uses three images. Firstly he says, to speak for God demands courage. He writes of the opposition and maltreatment he and others had endured. The person who speaks for God is often met with opposition. Their words will not be popular. The gospel can cause offence when it is proclaimed.
I suspect the Archbishops know how that feels this week, I know David Sheppard faced that hostility many times, you and I know from our own experiences that sometimes saying the right thing means speaking a truth that is unpopular.
Relationships aren’t always easy.
The second mark of the apostle is integrity. This builds on those times when what is said may not please those to whom it is addressed. But we are here to please God, not others.
Anyone skilled in sales will know that people can be persuaded by smooth words and enticing offers. The Christian message has neither. We deal in truth and hope and love. Often the right words are uncomfortable words. This is the legacy of the prophets. People can only change from within when they sense the deep integrity of the message.
As John said last week, this is not about what we do and say, this is about who we are.
The third aspect of apostleship is relationship with people. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “You have become very dear to us.” The mark of a parish church is that it cares for the people and gives, not only the services and acts of the church, but as Paul says, not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.
There is a price to be paid for relationship.
Paul says – we were gentle among you. There is some discussion how that is best translated. Some versions say – we were are infants among you, pointing to vulnerability of the apostle. But the word ‘gentle’ reminds me of how it is used by the Psalmist, that ‘gentle’ can be read as ‘loving correction’.
Sometimes to turn someone’s life from despair to hope, from destruction to redemption, needs some tough love. The parent who corrects a child may incur tears and temper, but if consistent, and done with integrity and consistency, a child may learn wisdom and grace.
So, relationship is at the heart of what God seeks and what God gives.
And when the Pharisee asks – which is the greatest commandment, Jesus replies with what God seeks and what God gives. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The strength bit isn’t what is sounds like. There’s no advantage to being built like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwayne Johnson, it’s not about pumping iron. Strength means substance – you shall love the Lord your God with all that you are and with all that you have. In exactly the same way bride and groom pledge themselves to one another;
With my body I honour you,
all that I am I give to you,
and all that I have I share with you,
within the love of God.
This is a re-creating relationship. It changes the landscape, sometimes by earth shattering upheaval, more often by quiet persistent gentleness. This landscape is shaped by human graft, by hard work inspired by hope and often tempered with tears, we build this new kingdom one tiny grain at a time.
Which is why the second greatest commandment is to reveal this different way of life in our relationship with others. You shall love your neighbour as yourself. It is not rocket science, it is infinitely more powerful and world shaping.
This new landscape has depth, and stories, and history. It is not taken in at a glance. You need to hold this earth in your hands, and know its cost.
Holy God, we give you thanks and praise for all who have had the courage to speak out boldly for the gospel,
for the saints and martyrs of the past,
for holy men and women who now stand for justice and freedom.
May our lives join theirs in serving you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/UMs-pRoRTwU
18th October 2020 - St Luke
Luke 10:1-9, W & LBam 18/10/20.
Over the years I’ve seen some strange attempts to motivate staff - but this really does take the biscuit! What is Jesus thinking of? Had he not been to any Management Training Sessions? Was there no Management Consultant to advise him? What a strange way to get his followers enthusiastic and excited.
Jesus has a huge task that he wants his followers to work on. So he says… “The harvest plentiful. But the labourers are few.” That’s a pretty dispiriting start, isn’t it? Not too motivational?
But then, he compounds the problem: “Go on your way! See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Now, I remember once on a scout hike seeing a dead sheep that had been attacked by a dog and it wasn’t a pretty sight…And Jesus, as he prepares to send out his followers, uses that as a metaphor for what is likely to happen to them.
But despite all this bad news, they are still prepared to go, well at least they can take some protection with them…“Ah, no,” says Jesus. “That’s the other thing I need to tell you…”
“Carry no purse no bag no sandals…”
Put yourself in their shoes, it doesn’t sound very inviting, does it? The task is massive. They are likely to get ravaged by the wolves. And they can’t take anything with them to aid them on their way.
Welcome to Christian mission
A great theologian called Emil Brunner once said: “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” Just as it is impossible to differentiate between fire and burning, so it should be impossible to differentiate between Church and Mission.
Mission is not something the Church does. Mission is what the Church is, or should be.
What we can learn from this passage about the nature of Mission. There are 3 things I want to draw out of what heard today:
1. The call to mission
Now this is an interesting passage because some versions say that there were 70 chosen by Jesus to go out, as the one we heard does. Others say that there were 72. The Greek, as it often is, is a little ambiguous. But without going into all the grammatical arguments, my belief is that Jesus sent out 70, not 72 and that it is actually quite an important detail, for two reasons:
Firstly, it reminds us of the story of Moses in the wilderness in Numbers 11. Moses was feeling overworked and overtired, the Israelites were looking for him to do everything: lead the worship, make the decisions, all the pastoral care and so on, in verse 14, Moses complains to God. He says…“They keep whining…I can’t be responsible for all these people by myself. It’s too much for me!” So in verse 16 God said to Moses, “Assemble 70 elders who are recognised as leaders of the people…Then they can help you to bear the responsibility.”
Secondly, the number 70 is important because at the time it was thought to be the number of nations in the world. So perhaps, symbolically, what Jesus is saying here is that all the nations of the world are to be involved in Christian mission.
We may feel nervous about going out to tell others about the love of God, we may feel that we don’t have the right gifts or abilities – which, of course, is exactly how Moses felt.
In Exodus 4: 10 -12, he said to God, “Lord, don’t send me. I have never been a good speaker. I am a poor speaker, slow and hesitant.”
And what does God reply? “Who gives man his mouth? It is I, the Lord. Now go, I will help you to speak, and I will tell you what to say.”
And that is the promise of God to us too, that if we are willing to go out and tell people about his love then God will give us the words and enable us to speak for him.
I once heard a description of church - not from someone here, I hasten to add! - but someone who was feeling pretty exhausted in their own church because it was the same people always doing the work whilst others sat back and let them get on with it.
She said, “You know my church is like going to a football match. There are 22 people running around, exhausted and desperately in need of a rest being cheered on by a big crowd of people who desperately need some exercise!
2. The responsibility of mission
Mission is a huge responsibility for us to carry.
That’s why, in verse 4, Jesus says to the 70: “greet no one on the road”. Not because he was encouraging them to be rude but because, in Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, a greeting can take a very long time.
There is a really important verse in this passage, verse 7: “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.” Now this may seem very straight-forward to us but, actually it was a major ask for those Jesus called.
The followers whom Jesus was commissioning were Jews and, of course, they would only have eaten ritually clean food. But they were being sent to an area where many Gentiles lived so if they accepted hospitality from the Gentiles, they would have to eat ritually unclean food.
So what I think Jesus is saying here is that, if they were to be successful in mission, they had to leave their religiosity behind them: immerse themselves in the local culture and be prepared to set aside some of the ways they had been taught so that there would be no barriers to others receiving Christ.
3. The activity of mission
What does mission actually involve? This is an interesting passage because Jesus exhorts his followers to say, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you”.
When we look at the world around us, when we see the pain and suffering of so many and the injustice that seems to flourish both here and abroad, we might reasonably ask…“Has the Kingdom of God really come near?”
But Jesus points to other signs that prove the Kingdom of God is near, two from this passage I’d like to draw your attention to.
The sharing of hospitality, remember verse 7: Graciously receiving is as important as graciously giving.
During my time working in Tajikistan, I was invited to an orphanage and we had lunch there after the meetings. The meal was Plov, the local speciality, some vegetables, rice and mutton all stewed together in oil. This is eaten with the fingers and the test of a good Plov is if the oil runs down to the elbow
I admit it was difficult to show my enjoyment of it, but if I had not that would have been such an insult because their hospitality was so important to , and for them this was something special.
Also compassion and care is a sign of the nearness of the Kingdom, verse 9: Jesus says, “Cure the sick who are there”. Caring for the sick and the dying, the sad and the lonely, the hurt and the anxious… these are all signs of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, coming to others through them and us, all part of our mission.
So, this fascinating passage has much to tell us about mission:
I mentioned earlier Brunner’s idea that, “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning”. Our aim and our prayer must surely be that here at St Mary’s & St. Peter’s we are known as a missionary people; not just because of what we do but because of who we are… Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mfvmQUS6jx8
Sunday 11th October 2020 - Trinity 18
It is the morning after the night before, the morning after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He has spent the night in Bethany, probably with his friends Martha and Mary. And we catch up with him again as he comes back into Jerusalem and heads for the temple, where he starts to teach his disciples. Along comes a group of chief priests and elders. They are not happy, and, as we read in Matthew 21 verse 23, they challenge him with these words: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
As often happens, Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer, but instead tells a series of three parables, stories with a meaning.
The first is the story of two sons, one who does what his father asks and one who doesn’t. The second is the story of the absentee landlord of a vineyard, and the failure of his tenants to pay their rent. The situation is made worse by the murder of the landlord’s son when he turns up to collect the rent. And the tenants are replaced. And the third story is the story of the wedding feast which we heard in our gospel reading this morning, and which I will come back to in a minute.
It is important to take these three parables together, and to read them as Jesus’ response to the hostility of the Jewish authorities. Each of the parables speaks of one group of people losing their privileged position, and being replaced by those whom they have looked down on. These parables raise the fundamental question of who are the true people of God, and suggest that a radical change is about to take place.
So let’s look in a bit more detail at the third of these stories, at our reading from Matthew 22 this morning.
In Jesus’ time, it was customary to send out an advance invitation to a wedding feast, or similar celebration, giving people the chance to accept, but then to send out a second messenger on the day itself to say that the meal was ready.
The king in our story then sends out his slaves to call all those he had invited to the banquet for his son’s wedding, but they don’t come. Some simply find other places to go – to their farm or their business. But then the story becomes quite bizarre, with the murder of the messengers by some of the other guests, a full-scale military campaign, and the destruction of the city, all whilst the dinner gets cold. The burning of a city is a very extreme reaction to a refused dinner invitation, but the symbolism is clear enough.
Jesus’ message here is a harsh one. The refusal of the Jewish leaders to respond to God’s call, he says, will lead first to the rejection and death of his messenger, in the person of Jesus, of course, and ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus spells this out at the end of Matthew 23, where we read Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings … and you were not willing. See your house is left to you – desolate!
The king, having destroyed those who murdered his messengers, along with their city, now sends his slaves out again into the streets with instructions to bring in all whom they found, both good and bad to join in with the wedding banquet.
This is a more encouraging message, hinting at the radical change which I mentioned earlier. It reminds us that in Jesus God’s love and forgiveness are available to all who hear his call, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, whatever their background.
But the narrative then takes a new and unexpected turn. Even amongst the newly invited guests, there is no automatic guarantee of acceptance. Even someone from the streets is expected to dress appropriately for a wedding. To do otherwise is to insult the host, who assumes that the guest is arrogant, or that he doesn’t want to take part fully in the celebrations. This leads to the guest being thrown out onto the streets again.
The wedding clothes in this story represent the righteousness – the being put right with God - which is needed to enter God’s kingdom, and which comes to us through Jesus. It is Jesus, in his death and resurrection, who has provided us with a way back to God, with these clothes. However, in the end, it is down to us to make the choice, to choose whether or not to put on the wedding clothes, to follow Jesus back to God or not.
So, in adding this little twist at the end of the story, Jesus reminds his listeners that, although the kingdom of heaven is open to everyone, there is no place there for anyone who does not take their privileged position seriously. At the end of the second story of the vineyard, Jesus says that the kingdom of God will be given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom. In other words, being part of God’s kingdom demands a response from his people. At the end of this story, Jesus goes even further, warning that those who do not take their place in the kingdom seriously, who do not respond appropriately, will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This is a tough message. It was a tough message for the Jewish authorities to hear, and it is a tough message for us to hear. There is an open invitation to God’s kingdom. All are welcome. But there are expectations. Being part of God’s kingdom demands a response from us. It demands evidence of repentance, of changed lives and changed hearts.
As I close, I just want to look briefly at our epistle reading which provides us with an example of that radical change which I mentioned just now, of the fact that God invites everyone, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, into his kingdom. St Paul here writes to the first Christian church established on the European continent, in Philippi, in what is now Greece. He even mentions some of these Greek believers by name, as he reminds them of what changed lives and changed hearts, of what being part of God’s kingdom, should mean for them with these encouraging words:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. And the God of peace will be with you.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/eI70xnxNFI8
4th October 2020 - Harvest
Our reading are 2 Corinthians 9:6-end and Luke 12:16-30
There is no text for this week’s address but for those who were not there last year the story of harvest mare needs explaining.
In some areas it was a tradition that when a farmer gathered his harvest he kept the stalks of the last sheaf gathered and made a corn mare from them. Later that evening the farm workers would find a neighbouring farm where the harvest had not yet been gathered. They would throw the harvest mare over the hedge into the farm calling out, “Mare, Mare.” The inference being that if the harvest was left it would be consumed by wild horses.
The farmer receiving the mare would be embarrassed into gathering his harvest as quickly as possible and then passing the mare onto another farmer. Eventually the last farmer to gather his crops was left holding the mare which he was then obliged to display on his barn for the next year.
We used a soft toy and during a hymn passed the mare around the congregation. It was of course fixed so that John Hales was left holding the mare when the hymn ended.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/hiszkJtmZLo
27th September 2020 - Trinity 16
Some things never change do they, most people like a good moan about things. The reading from Exodus is one of several stories about Israelites complaining to Moses:
• With the Red Sea at their front and pursuing Egyptian soldiers at their rear, they complained to Moses that he had brought them out of slavery in Egypt to die in the wilderness—and said that they would have been better off as slaves (14: 11-12).
• Then, at Marah, complained because the water was bitter (15:24).
• Then they complained that they should have stayed in Egypt where they had plenty to eat, because they were hungry in the wilderness (16:2-3).
In each of these instances, God responded by giving them what they needed. However, they never seemed to learn that God was with them and would provide for their needs. They never learned to trust God and His servants, Moses and Aaron. They never learned the lesson of faith and always fell back on the human trait if having a good moan.
So what were they moaning about? Lets look at the verses one at a time.
“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord had commanded” The wilderness of Sin was located between Elim and Sinai. We do not know its exact location. The word Sin in this context might be related to the Hebrew word for Sinai, rather than our word “sin.” We should not confuse the wilderness of Sin with the wilderness of Zin, we hear about in Numbers and other Old Testament books.
Journeying by stages gave the Israelites an opportunity for rest and refreshment, but of course they would need a source of water at each resting place, because people and livestock require significant amounts of water every day—far too much to carry.
“They camped at Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink” . Rephidim is their last camping place before Mount Sinai, so the mountain must be close
At Marah, the water was bitter (15:23). At Rephidim, there is no water. This is an extremely serious problem. People and livestock require cannot survive for long without water. This, then, is a matter of life and death.
“The people quarreled (rib) with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink'” . The word translated as quarrelled was rib, which could also be used as “plead” or “strive” or contend” or “chide” or “debate.” and is often used in a legal sense to describe a legal complaint. In this case, the people issue their complaint against Moses, demanding that he give them water to drink.
“Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?'” . Moses, however, makes it clear that their quarrel is not with him, but with God. Moses is simply God’s servant, and has been doing God’s bidding.
“But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses, and said, ‘Why did you brought us out of Egypt, to kill us, and our children, and livestock with thirst?'. It is easy for us, who have seldom been truly thirsty and have never faced the likelihood of death from lack of water, to be critical of these people. In addition to the fact that we have never walked in their shoes, we have been reminded in recent chapters how God saved them again and again from apparently hopeless situations. Surely they should understand that God will rescue them again now—but they don’t.
But if our throats were parched and our children were crying for a drink of water, we might forget God’s past providence too.
But we need to balance those concerns with the fact that God has saved the Israelites—not once, not twice, but over and over again. They have cause for fear—but also have cause for faith.
When times are really difficult faith is tested.
“So Moses cried to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me'”. As he routinely does when faced with a crisis, Moses turns to God for help.
We need to keep in mind that this is before the giving of the Jewish law, but this passage would have been recorded after the giving of the law. The law prescribes stoning for various capital offences, such as idolatry and blasphemy. If Moses were guilty of intentionally leading these people to their deaths, stoning would seem a highly appropriate punishment. However, that is not the case. Moses is simply following God’s orders.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you, take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go'”. In a dangerous situation, our natural inclination is to fight or to flee. God tells Moses to do neither. He is to move to the front of the people to reaffirm his status as their leader. He is to take the elders with him, both to confirm his leadership and to act as witnesses of the miracle that is about to occur. He is to take the staff which God has enabled Moses and Aaron to use in miraculous ways.
“I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb” Horeb is where Moses encountered the burning bush to begin his journey as God’s agent .
The Hebrew word horeb means “a desolate region” or “ruin.” Sinai and Horeb are different names for the same mountain. “Where a distinction appears, the mountain itself is Sinai and the neighbouring wilderness area bears the wider designation Horeb”.
This is probably confusing, because these people will not arrive at Sinai until chapter 19. However, if Horeb is the region and Sinai is the mountain, it could be that they have reached the region of Horeb but not the mountain itself.
God says that he will be standing on the rock that Moses is to strike. Perhaps the idea is that God will stand on the rock to lead Moses to it—but move before Moses strikes the rock. It would not seem right for Moses to strike a rock on which God is standing. However, the details here are unclear.
“Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel”.
As noted above, in the Numbers account, Moses was supposed to speak to the rock but struck it instead, and was punished for his disobedience. In this account, God orders him to strike the rock, and Moses obeys. The elders serve as witnesses to the miracle.
“He called the place Massah (massa—testing) and Meribah (meriba—quarreling), because the children of Israel quarrelled (rib), and because tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?'.
That final question, is the Lord among us or not? is one I think many people are asking in our situation right now. It is, of course, down to each one of us to find the answer for ourselves but I believe He is, always was and always will be, however much we may moan. But however dark the world around us may seem we always need to remember the lesson the Israelites forgot, to have faith and be patient.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/zOCINTGcDn0
20th September 2020 - Trinity 15
“Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
Both our readings today are about grumbling. The Israelites grumbled in the wilderness. Life in the desert was hard, they looked back to their days of slavery when at least they had bread to eat.
The workers in the vineyard grumbled, the wages seemed unfair. Why should those who came last receive the same as those who had toiled all day in the merciless heat?
People are quick to complain. Someone this week complained that the church door was locked – maybe they hadn’t noticed that for the past six months we’ve been in a global pandemic so leaving churches open for anyone to wander in and out of isn’t a terribly good idea.
Someone else complained that their father’s grave had been vandalised. I hadn’t spotted any vandalism, could they tell me which grave it was. They told me. And when did you last visit the grave? In 1947 at his funeral.
Well that’s not vandalism, that’s 60 years of neglect.
So they asked me what the church was going to do about it. I told them we’d send them a bill to make it safe as it’s their responsibility. I never heard from them again.
St Benedict is very tough on people who complain. He will tolerate all kinds of failures and signs of human weakness, but he will not abide complaining. Within the community there must be no signs of murmuring he says. Grumbling is a corrosive force that destroys and weakens both the individual and the community. Murmuring starts small, a thoughtless comment, a moment of frustration, a cruel word. But it spreads quickly and in the human soul grumbling takes root and nurtures a bitter harvest.
Grumbling is the first sign of a me centred soul, and a sign of a fear focussed life. Most grumbling has its roots in what I think I’m going to lose.
There is a bit in the story of the people in the wilderness that we don’t hear this morning, our reading finishes a couple of verses too early. If we’d read on just a bit further we’d have heard the bit about the people who didn’t trust that enough was enough.
They were told to gather enough for the day – that was God’s test. Can you live with enough being enough? Or are you living a me centred, fear focussed life?
There was enough for everyone, so no-one needed to collect more than enough – but as we discover – not everyone believed that. Those who collected more than enough found it went bad overnight. Those who gathered much had nothing left over, those who gathered little has no shortage.
When Jesus speak of the Kingdom of God he deliberately told stories that would startle and disturb. Parable of the Kingdom shake presuppositions and turn expectations on their head. When God gives he gives freely and graciously, he gives enough, he asks us to accept that enough and to accept his generosity to others.
That is a way of living which is not of this world, because it is a sign of a different reality.
There is of course a complaint here. That the people who had been told this when they were refugees in the wilderness didn’t listen and didn’t change how they lived.
When they were given a land they were told to reap their harvests leaving the edge of the fields uncut. The edges were for the poor, the widows, orphans and refugees.
They were told not to accumulate wealth that divided the rich and the poor – every year of Jubilee all debts were to be cancelled, the divisions in society levelled.
We know they did not listen, either to the original sign of God’s gracious generosity, or to the many prophets who over generations repeated the message.
Until God sent his Son to tell them again – with parables which repeated the original message. That God’s way is different, forming different shaped lives, different shaped people, different shaped community, a different shaped world.
There is a complaint here. The same complaint as when Jonah grumbled that God had spared Ninevah. The same complaint as when the elder son was outraged at his father throwing a party for his prodigal brother. The same complaint as when the self-righteous Pharisee compared himself to the repentant publican. The same complaint as when Jesus went home with Zacchaeus.
But this is not just a complaint. This is a diagnosis, and a diagnosis of an ill God has acted to restore.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/QJSGJsPASKs
The Vicar's Annual Report
The Benefice of St Mary, Whitegate, and St Peter, Little Budworth
Vicar’s Report 2020
Written in March before our Annual Meeting was postponed until October.
As I write this report the world is bracing itself for the impact of the impact of Coronavirus (Covid-19) and it seems clear that this will become widespread within the foreseeable future. Whilst for many the symptoms may be mild the disease has already claimed lives and people are naturally anxious. For all our modern progress in healthcare and medicine we remain vulnerable to this new virus and that of itself will shake the foundations of our society. We are not used to feeling vulnerable.
Churches are taking advice about what steps to take. Mostly that has to do with basic common sense such as washing hands and where someone has any form of infectious illness receiving Communion in ‘one kind’, ie the wafer. In some Christian traditions this is normal practice anyway.
We will continue to take advice and act accordingly. I have already had enquiries from couples who are uncertain if their weddings will be able to proceed. What might happen to gatherings such as our Village Fair at Whitegate, or Villagers’ Day at Oulton Park at Little Budworth? We simply do not know at this stage.
What I do know is that the Church has stood within society for countless generations and at its best has been a place of comfort, courage, compassion and care. We may be tested, I believe we shall meet that test in faith, hope and love. The Churches Together network is meeting to consider what response local Christians can make that might support those who face this alone or who feel anxious. We will play a full part in supporting whatever is possible.
Of course a Vicar’s report is usually about looking back over the past year, marking much that has been done well and thanking those who serve our parishes and our communities. I am immensely grateful to our Churchwardens, Parish Officers and members of our PCCs for their wisdom and commitment. I am also deeply thankful for those members of our churches, those many members who behind the scenes, usually unseen and unsung, carry out the thousand and one tasks of the Kingdom. In music, flowers, churchyards, polishing and cleaning, visiting and tasks of administration, we have a good story to tell. As said in my sermon on the day when the Church of England celebrates the life of Edward King, these tasks are the ladder of the saints. Small things done in love and service which bring us daily nearer to God.
I am always mindful that the outside of our churches, including our churchyards, speak a message to all who pass by. A tidy churchyard speaks of a place that is loved and valued. A clean church tells of people who care about this sacred space. Such things proclaim the Gospel – and usually to more people than will ever listen to a sermon. When you wield a duster, or arrange flowers, you are proclaiming the Kingdom.
It is a privilege to be part of a team within our Benefice, we are blessed to receive the ministries of John Stopford, Pauline Hayward and Teresa Finney. We look forward to welcoming Jane Millinchip who will be Licenced on 30th March at Foxhill. I would also like to pay tribute to the many years of devotion given by Joyce Scholefield who has now moved to Surrey to be nearer her family.
I will not repeat major items discussed at our PCCs because they are recorded elsewhere. I would just comment that from my perspective there is a sense of good things coming together which give me cause for hope and optimism. That is not to say that we do not face some significant challenges. In both our parishes we enjoy healthy financial resources but are seeing a continuing decline in giving and a continuing rise in costs. We are overly reliant on the generosity of a small number of people which means we are vulnerable to a sudden decrease in income if just a few people leave.
It is my duty to identify a need for us to grasp this nettle firmly and decisively in the not too distant future. We cannot continue in this manner for ever.
I believe one of our key strengths is that we are a Benefice of two very different parishes. I must confess that this gives me great personal joy and I am delighted to make the most of that richness. The other side of the coin is that at times our differences can make the tasks of administration and planning more challenging, I have spent quite a lot of time and energy simply ‘managing’ the gaps. We have looked at this and I believe we are working towards a way of planning and sharing information that preserves and enhances our diversity whilst at the same time reduces the gaps.
We have held a joint annual planning meeting between our Standing Committees and will hold joint Standing Committee meetings twice a year. That has enabled us to plan the annual diary better and to shape our pattern of PCC meetings so we are sharing what we need to share and doing individually that which is unique to each parish. I understand this might not sound very exciting but it will make a difference and I am thankful for the collegiate support of all those involved.
Over past weeks I have been watching the television series Downton Abbey because I missed it first time round. It struck me that the wider storyline of a family and estate struggling to come to terms with a changing world has a lot of parallels with how the Church of England finds itself today. We have cherished buildings and a history that is deeply embedded in the local community and landscape. We live according to patterns of life that do not readily engage with a rapidly changing world. We have sufficient resources to keep going, but for how long?
I am only part way through so please don’t tell me how it ends. The characters of Downton Abbey are being tested. Some dig in their heels. Some adapt. Some make wise choices, other don’t. We watch with the benefit of hindsight of course, but we do not enjoy that same hindsight as we ourselves face testing. And that is the story of God’s people. Those who choose to live by the will of God have always been tested, and always will be. For God so loves the world that He sent His Son, and now He send His Son’s friends. To seek for the lost, to visit the sick, to comfort the bereaved, to be alongside the prisoner, to be gracious to the fallen, to proclaim a time of the Lord’s favour, to feed the hungry, to raise up the oppressed.
As well as watching Dowton I am also reading in my spare time. One of my favourite writers is John Lewis-Stempel, a Herefordshire farmer who has equal mastery of the plough and the pen. In one of his books he writes of ‘The Painful Plough’, one of the earliest of plough songs.
Come, all you jolly ploughmen, of courage stout and bold,
That labour all the winter through stormy winds and cold,
To clothe your fields with plenty, your barnyards to renew,
To crown them with contentment, that holds the painful plough.
The adjective ‘painful’ is used in its original sense as meaning taking pains, careful, industrious. Such is the task before us at this time.
An update – It seems like another age when I wrote those words for our APCMs to be held in April and May. As I look back over the year there are so many things we have lost, we sense bereavement, frustration and weariness. In some cases people have not enough work to do, others are stretched beyond breaking point. We have reopened our churches and adapted to a situation none of us could have imagined. I suspect the next couple of months may well see further restrictions in how we live.
I would like to express our sorrow for those who have lost loved ones over these past months, many have been unable to have the funeral service they would have hoped for. I am profoundly thankful for the graciousness and generosity shown as we have done our best to make arrangements. When this is over we will hold a community service to remember those who have died and if families wish we will also offer memorial services for individuals.
We have been as proactive as possible during ‘lockdown’. For example, knowing that things would not return to normal, our PCCs reviewed our pattern of services and shaped an interim pattern which enabled us to open as soon as it was possible. We were among the first churches to reopen when it was legally possible.
Not everything has gone to plan. We had explored a ‘drive in’ service held in the field behind the Vicarage using Zoom to share music and words. Whilst that was greeted enthusiastically we were advised it might contravene the legislation in place at the time. By the time it was clearly legal our churches were open again anyway. The constantly changing rules have been a source of considerable stress and led to hours of work which has often being wasted. In one week the regulations changed seven times.
I mentioned above our financial resources. We have been able to sustain our activities by drawing upon our reserves which of course is what they are there for. We are grateful to those who have switched their regular giving to bank transfer as the costs of running the churches has not gone down during this period. There is however a limit to how long our reserves will last and our PCCs will face some significant challenges next year. All of our fundraising activities are of course at a standstill.
We were unable to begin our Messy Church which was planned for June but we will continue to look for new ways to deliver Children’s ministry. Naturally it is very hard to make plans when we don’t know what the future holds but we haven’t stopped trying.
One new trick we have learned is to make more use of the internet and whilst in general people have not favoured live streamed services we have published a weekly pastoral letter and used YouTube to record it from our churches. The feedback is very encouraging, in fact more people listen to the sermon online than actually come to church. The lack of WiFi or mobile signal in our churches is a dilemma and one of the costs we may need to embrace is to adapt our churches for a different world at the end of all this.
We said at the beginning that things will not return to normal when this is over, we have begun to understand just how true that is and I suspect we have much to learn yet. I did get to finish Downton Abbey and it reminded me of how sometimes history takes a turn which shakes the foundations of everything. Such times are uncomfortable and disturbing, they are times when the known passes away, they are also times when the unknown may present opportunities never imagined.
13th September 2020 - Trinity 14
“How often should I forgive?”
On 28th December 1978 United Airlines flight 173 took off from JFK International airport New York heading for Portland, Oregan. The majority of the 181 passengers were people returning home after Christmas. The sky was clear and flying conditions were close to perfect. At the controls was Captain Malburn McBroom, 52 years old, a veteran of the Second World War who had been with United Airlines for 27 years.
Shortly after 5.00pm the plane was given clearance to begin its descent into Portland. Captain McBroom pulled the lever to lower the undercarriage. At which point there was a thud and a vibration ran through the aircraft. One of the lights indicating that the undercarriage has locked down failed to illuminate.
The two pilots checked everything, it looked like the undercarriage had lowered but they couldn’t see it to make sure. Why was that light still out?
The Flight Engineer, Forrest Mendenhall, went to check the wing tips. On a DC8 there are two bolts which pop up when the undercarriage is down. Both bolts were visible.
But the Captain was worried about that light that was out. He asked air traffic control to give them a holding circle whilst he tried to figure it out.
As the plane circled over Portland McBroom struggled to understand the problem. What he didn’t realise was that time was passing quicker than he realised. We have all experienced this. Sometimes time drags, at other time it flies. Time is subjective. When you’re focussed on something very intently you lose track of time.
When it took off the DC8 was carrying 46,700 pounds of fuel, but the engines consume that fuel at a rate of 201 pounds a minute. As he struggled to understand the problem with the undercarriage Captain McBroom didn’t register repeated warnings from the Flight Engineer that fuel was getting low.
Shortly after 6.00pm the engines flamed out with Flight 173 still circling over Portland 8 miles away from the airport. There was nowhere to land. The aircraft crashed into the city. Miraculously Captain McBroom kept control of the plane searching for the least worst place to land. They came down in a wooded suburb, obliterating two houses.
Amazingly there were no fatalities on the ground but eight passengers and two crew members deid, one of whom was Flight Engineer Forrest Mendenhall.
The investigation soon realised that Mendenhall had spotted the dangerously low fuel level and had warned the pilots, repeatedly. The problem was that the pilots were struggling with a problem and had lost track of time. They simply didn’t realise they had been circling for over an hour.
But there was another problem as well. In 1978 the hierarchy on a flight deck was top down. The Captain had total control and authority. A Flight Engineer might advise but he couldn’t tell the Captain what to do. There was an institutional structure that prevented junior member of the crew from overruling a senior member.
Captain McBroom had not lost focus, the problem was that he was too focussed, he was working on a problem with such determination that he lost awareness of other factors – the shortage of fuel being a critical issue. As it turned out the undercarriage was down and locked into place.
When the report into the crash was published in June 1979 it was a landmark in aviation. From now on all crew on an aircraft would be trained to intervene when they perceived a problem. Junior members of a crew could challenge a senior officer, senior officers were trained to delegate problem solving so they didn’t lose track of the wider perspective, and of time.
There were fundamental changes across the whole industry as result of United Airline flight 173 – one of the most significant was to change the culture of aviation so that mistakes were recognised so that problems could be solved.
A pilot who makes a mistake is trained to acknowledge that mistake and publish it – so that others can learn and avoid doing the same. That culture was proved to work on 15 January 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York and at 3,000 feet hit a flock of geese. The crew found themselves in a 70 tonne Airbus A320 over a major city with no engines. At 3.29pm the pilot made the decision to land in the Hudson river.
The investigation later listened to the voice recordings in the cockpit as the crew worked together to figure what to do. Jobs were shared. Decisions were checked. In the last few seconds before impact the pilots were talking calmly. The Captain asked his First Officer – “Got any ideas?”
“Actually no,” was the reply. An industry that had acknowledged past mistakes had created a culture of trust and respect which makes aviation the safest way to travel.
Peter asked a hard but important question, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven time?” And Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Forgiveness is not just about how we handle the past, it is primarily about how we learn to handle the future. Where there is no forgiveness mistakes will keep happening. People will be defensive. Blame will be attributed. This is a destructive spiral. To break that spiral is critical to making life better. Forgiveness is a spiritual task, and it has immense practical outcomes.
The airlines industry is one of the safest in the world because it has recognised that people need to be forgiven if we are all to live more safely. Mistakes will happen, if we blame and condemn then we become locked into repetition. God chooses to offer us life, and life in all its fullness. The ability to forgive, the willingness to forgive, are essential to unlocking that better reality.
Peter, of course, of all people, would come to know the power of being forgiven.
O Lord Jesus Christ, look upon us with those eyes of your, the eyes with which you looked upon Peter in the hall of judgement, and again by the lakeside, that with Peter we may repent, and by your great love be forgiven and restored; for your mercy’s sake. Amen.
The Revd Canon Paul Dawson
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/u3WheAHhTUs
Sunday 6th September 2020 - Trinity 13
I expect that most of you know the story of Jonah and the whale, but here is a quick summary to remind you.
In Chapter 1 Jonah is called by God to go and preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. Jonah thinks that isn’t the best plan for his life, so he hops on a boat going 2000 miles in the opposite direction. God reminds Jonah of what he asked him to do by nearly sinking the boat he is on with a great storm. The sailors throw Jonah overboard to save their own lives, and Chapter 1 closes with a great big fish swallowing Jonah.
In Chapter 2 Jonah talks with God in prayer from inside the fish, and at the close of the chapter the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land. In Chapter 3 Jonah makes his way to Nineveh, where he walks up and down the streets preaching a simple message – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Nineveh hears this warning, and the entire city repents from the king down to the livestock.
And that brings us to today’s reading, Chapter 4 of the book of Jonah. To the bit which doesn’t usually turn up in the children’s Bible story books.
Jonah is angry. Angry with God. It seems like an odd response. God has just rescued an entire city from destruction, from their sinfulness. What would’ve been the proper response? Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!! perhaps? But rather than praising God, Jonah is angry.
Jonah is angry because he hates the people of Nineveh, but he knew all along that God would save them. Jonah knows all too well how many times God’s people have turned their backs on God, and how many times God has given them another second chance. Jonah’s God is the God of second chances. He knew God would give the people of Nineveh a second chance too.
Jonah is so angry in fact that he says that he’d rather be dead than live in a world where his enemies are followers of Yahweh, followers of God, and where his God is merciful to his enemies. Here we see Jonah’s true colours really come out. This hatred, this bigotry against the Ninevites has been seeping out throughout the story, but here it is plain and clear. In verse 5 we see Jonah still holding out hope that God will judge Nineveh for their sins, or that maybe they’ll backslide on their repentance. He leaves the city and sets up camp where he can hopefully watch God destroy his enemies.
And so the Lord decides to teach Jonah a lesson, using a bush.
This is the desert – modern day Iran – so there aren’t a whole lot of trees or places to find shade. And it is hot. Out of nowhere a huge bush springs up, so big that it provides shade to Jonah, and he sees it as a blessing from God. He couldn’t be more wrong, because the next day God then provides a worm, which chews the bush so that it withers and dies.
God sends the bush, not as a blessing, but as a way to get Jonah’s attention. The bush is a way for God to remind Jonah of his sovereignty – that God is in charge and in control. We’ve seen this earlier in this story haven’t we? God sent the great storm and nearly killed Jonah and the sailors in an attempt to get Jonah’s attention. Does Jonah learn his lesson this time? No. Rather than admitting that he is wrong, that God, and not he is in control, rather than changing his ways and repenting, he says again that he would rather die than give up on his anger.
And so the story of Jonah ends, ending in a form of tragedy. On the surface it appears that we have no resolution to this story. However, it seems likely that Jonah himself is the author of the book, and so this suggests that Jonah did, at some point after this story, give up on his anger. If Jonah had remained unrepentant, he would have written this story quite differently, leaving out the bad stuff, the stuff pointing to his own stubborn proud self.
But, as it stands, Jonah’s story stands both as a warning to us, and as a testament to God’s goodness.
We all can be consumed by anger and hatred. We can all be selfish and proud. As St Paul reminds us in Romans 3, we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all need God’s grace, his unconditional love, and his forgiveness. It is very easy to fall into the trap which Jonah fell into, that is to think that there is something about us which makes us closer to God, or more eligible for his love and forgiveness than other people. In Jonah’s day, God’s people didn’t want to share their God with the gentile nations. St Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2 tells of a similar attitude amongst the Jews in the early church who are trying to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. And, lest we are tempted to become self-righteous about this, this is still something which we need to guard against today.
Let me finish by taking you back to the story of Jonathan Aitken, a story which many of you will probably remember. Again, on the face of it, an unlikely person for God to save, just as Nineveh was. But a reminder that our God too is the God of second chances.
Jonathan Aitken is a former Conservative cabinet minister who became a Christian while serving a prison sentence for perjury in 1999 after lying on oath in a libel case against the Guardian.
He says that he encountered scepticism about his conversion to Christianity. “In a different era,” he says “I’d have been one of the cynics myself. If I’d had a parliamentary colleague who’d got into trouble, gone to jail and come out saying, ‘I’ve found God’, I’d have said, ‘Oh, how very convenient for him’.”
Jonathan Aitken was in fact was ordained priest in 2019 and now works as a chaplain at Pentonville Prison. He commented “18 years ago, I think if they’d had any sense, the Church of England would have rejected me. Remember what a hot potato I was – going through this downward spiral of defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail – so I don’t think they’d have been queuing up to have me as a curate.”
So, here today, are we willing to accept that God can and does save the most unlikely people? He saved the people of Nineveh, he saved St Paul, who reminds us in 1 Timothy that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. He saved Jonathan Aitken. And are we willing, as Jonah sadly was not, to say Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!!? when this happens, however threatening or confusing or unsettling this might be for us?
Let me leave you with the words of Jesus himself in the parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15
I tell you that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The Youtube link is https://youtu.be/Wis_PCvhyQw
Trinity 12 - 30th August 2020
Trinity 12 - 30th August 2020
“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
In 1849, after the siege of Rome, the Italian general Guiseppe Garibaldi, said to his men, “Soldiers, all our efforts against superior forces have been unavailing. I have nothing to offer you but hunger and thirst, hardship and death; but I call on all who love their country to join with me” – and they came in their hundreds.
Such words were echoed by Winston Churchill after Dunkirk, offering only “blood, toil, sweat and tears.”
Or Shackleton, when he proposed his march to the South Pole, facing blizzards, hunger, intense cold, many dangers – he asked for volunteers, expecting to have difficulty finding people willing to go. He was inundated with letters, from all walks of life, rich and poor, old and young, all wanting to be part of that great adventure.
“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
This is not a warning. It is not a command. It is an invitation.
A book I read recently spoke of the “cross-marked character of the Christian life.” Each and every Christian is marked with the cross at the moment of their baptism. I often remind parents to think carefully what this means.
The cross was an instrument of death, a slow, agonizing and humiliating death. The Romans were no idiots, they knew how to keep conquered people in their place. If Jesus we born in a different age would parents watch smilingly as their child was marked with an electric chair or an AK47?
Each one of us leads a cross-marked life. Easy to say, but what does it mean?
There is a clue in our relationships with one another. For example, marriage vows are for richer and poorer, for better and worse, in sickness and in health. Each of here will know of people who have lived the fullness of those vows. People whose loyalty, friendship and love has been maintained through the most awful of circumstances.
There is lot of talk of marriages that don’t work, and behind the statistics there are real people for whom this is the last thing they wanted. But the stories of marriages that endure are largely untold, much patient courage goes unseen and unsung. Cross marked living is all around us, we just tend not to notice.
That cross-marked living is seen also within a parent’s love for their child, and in many a child’s love for their parents. I’m thinking of those young people who as they grow up have become the main carer for a seriously ill relative. Cross-marked living is within friendships, and sometimes also seen in our places of work.
A man who faced a cynical and manipulative boss did not know what to do. Nobody would challenge the bully, some benefited by siding with him. To make a stand would be to risk becoming a target, probably lose his job, and the consequential suffering imposed on his family.
One day his wife confronted him. “Look,” she said, “We may have to face some hard times. I can live with that. What I cannot live with is a man who spends the rest of his life broken because he did not take a stand.”
Sometimes by playing safe we lose everything. It depends what really matters.
We don’t have to stop and think too long to realise that cross-marked living is within our field of experience. In Star Trek Dr McCoy was fond of saying, “It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.” Cross-marked living is life, and life as we know it. Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is closer than you think.
If cross-marked living is known in our relationships with one another. It is known also in our relationship with God.
When Moses answered God’s call in the burning bush it was no small task that was set before him. To leave a place where he had made a good home, married, done well for himself, and go back to a place where he had fled from.
Moses knew two things about that call. Firstly that it would be difficult and dangerous. Secondly that he had no idea what to do and felt entirely out of his depth. This is also cross-marked living.
It may help us to remember that in the original text the word used for the bush that flamed with the glory of God means – ‘a tatty weed’. God speaks through a tatty weed. He chooses the things and the people that are inadequate, and through them performs wonders.
Cross-marked living is a sign of our living with God. The signs of its presence are not the usual signs of this world – success, wealth, targets achieved, numerical growth. By all those measures Jesus was a failure, and so were many others, Jeremiah, Moses, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King. People who do God’s will don’t measure success by all the usual signs.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do your will.; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Revd Canon Paul Dawson
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/lj8gWAw2nBE
John's Letter for Trinity 11 23 August
Matthew 16: 13 - 20.
There is a question in todays gospel which it is asked by jesus, it is addressed to the disciples but I suggest he is in fact asking all of us too.
Who do you say that I am?
First of all let me tell you some of the answers I’ve heard or read.
My personal Lord and Saviour. The Son of God. God incarnate. He’s my life, the song I sing, my everything. My Buddy, My brother, My friend. My Rock, My comforter, My coach. My Teacher. My Example. The copilot next to me.
The list could go on and on.
At some time or another we’ve probably all been told who Jesus is. Maybe you heard it from priests, teachers, parents, friends, in prayer groups or bible study of some sort, or even on the tele.
Maybe you saw it on Facebook, read it on the internet, or heard it in a song.
Some of the answers you have heard may have been helpful.
Some probably were not.
Some may have been just plain silly and some may even have been hurtful and destructive.
Regardless, Jesus’ question remains.
By now I think most of you know me well enough to know that I don’t intend to answer that question for you.
I can’t. Each of us must answer it for ourselves. It is not, however, a theology question or Bible exam. If anything it is an examination of ourselves.
I don’t think Jesus is asking us to just repeat back the answers we’ve heard or read.
Maybe that’s why he pushes the disciples to move from what they were hearing around them – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets – to what they were feeling within themselves.
“But who do YOU say that I am?”
This is not an easy question, and I wonder if we sometimes too readily accept and settle for “Sunday Jesus” answers.
You know, the easy, feel good, sentimental ones.
The problem is life isn’t always easy, doesn’t always feel good.
It’s one thing to say who Jesus is here in church, on a Sunday morning, in relative safety and comfort.
It’s a very different thing to say who he is outside of that. Because the question is never merely academic or abstract. It always has a context.
Here’s what I mean.
• Who do we say Jesus is when we see the racial tensions and conflicts in our country and in the world?
• Who do we say Jesus is when Corona virus ravages our world, our community our friends and family?
• Who do we say Jesus is when a loved one dies, the doctor gives news we did not want to hear, or our life seems to be falling apart?
• Who do we say Jesus is when we are faced with decisions that have no easy answers, when the night is dark and the storms of life overwhelm us, when faithfulness may mean risking it all and taking a stand against a louder and seemingly more powerful majority?
• Using the context of these few examples, what does it mean to say Jesus is my personal Lord and Saviour, my example, or my brother and friend? What does it mean to say Jesus is my life, the song I sing, my comforter?
What I think I am trying to say is who we say Jesus is has everything to do with who and how we are and will be.
It guides our decisions, it determines the actions we take and the words we speak.
Jesus’ question isn’t so much about getting the right answer as it is about witnessing and testifying to God’s life, love, and presence in our lives and the world.
It is less about our intellect and more about our heart. It is grounded in love more than understanding.
It moves us from simply knowing about Jesus to really knowing Him.
There is no once and for all, finally and forever, answer. We are always living into the question.
Who Jesus was to me when I was a child is different from who he was when I was in my 30s or who he is for me today.
It’s not that Jesus has changed. I have.
We are constantly engaging with his question and in so doing we not only discover Jesus anew we discover ourselves anew too.
Sometimes we discover a disconnect between the “Sunday Jesus” about whom we sing, sometimes, and talk for an hour, and the life we live the other 167 hours of our week. Our words and actions don’t always align.
I don’t say that as a judgment about anyone but in acknowledgement of just how difficult it can be to recognise and live the truth that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
More than once I have fallen into the gap between my “Sunday Jesus” kind of answers and the realities of my life and world.
Sometimes my answers were too simple, too small, too easy. They were no match for the complexities of life and the pain of the world.
At other times my life and actions have not reflected what I said about who Jesus is. Sometimes I kept quiet when I should have spoken up, or I was passive when I should have done something.
Whenever I have fallen into that gap it has usually been because I was trying to play it safe. That almost never works.
There is nothing safe about the question Jesus poses. How could there be?
There is nothing safe about Jesus or the life to which we calls us.
Jesus’ life and presence among us calls us to question everything about our lives, our world, the status quo, and business as usual.
That’s why we ought not answer his question too quickly, too glibly, or with too much certainty.
It’s not really a question to be figured out as much as it is a question to be lived.
Think about it, and how you answer for yourself.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
Paul's Letter for Trinity 10 Sunday 16th August
Our Gospel reading today is from Matthew 15: 21-28
The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite women is difficult and disturbing. Some have seen Jesus’ initial refusal to help the woman as heartless, even racist. He says he has come for the people of Israel, his own people, not hers. In our day perhaps her response would be to say that Canaanite lives matter. And in a sense that is exactly what she does do.
Some writers have tried to soften the insult. Jesus calls her people dogs, which is always a terrible insult in any culture. So they say he was teasing her, using the word for puppies, no offence meant. I’m not sure that really makes things any better though.
As ever context is important, Jesus had withdrawn to Tyre and Sidon, a foreign district, to get away from the crowds. Matthew has already told us about the feeding of the five thousand after which people thought Jesus was amazing, free food, Jesus for President. The setting for the story of the walking on the water begins with Jesus needing to withdraw, to find a bit of space away from the crowd and their demands.
So he goes to foreign territory, and even here he is recognised and pestered. The point is that the woman recognises Jesus. She knows who he is, she believes he can make a difference. But surely God’s best promises are for the people of Israel, not foreigners? Us rather than them. There’s a dilemma we recognise all too well. Our own country is ramping up the defences to keep migrants of our shores. Jesus faces a question which is relevant to every generation in every society.
We know in his day many people weren’t counted as people. The feeding of the five thousand for example, as it is always called, wasn’t just five thousand. Matthew tells us it was five thousand men, besides women and children. The latter weren’t counted.
And in Matthew’s Gospel just after this meeting with the Canaanite woman comes another feeding, four thousand this time, fed with just seven loaves and few small fish. Yet seven baskets of leftover were collected.
The woman isn’t asking for the meal, she’s only after some crumbs. She recognises that when it comes to hope and love and the power to heal there’s more than enough to go round. And when that happens there is always plenty to spare. It’s a question of how we respond to the other’s need. Whether our instinct is to protect the little we think we have, or to see the plenty there is to share.
We overlook that Matthew refers to the woman as a Canaanite. That was an old term, the land of Canaan was no longer on the map, the Canaanites had been the old enemy. Matthew is deliberately identifying the woman as the last person on earth a Jew would try to help. Some have suggested even Jesus himself was converted, a Jewish man learning to listen to a Canaanite woman and in her find faith.
Well who knows? Sometimes I think we can try to make these things too neat and tidy, things are simpler that way. But life is rarely simple. I hope Matthew was making the point I suggested last week, that miracles are not things that happened, they are things which happen. Matthew tells the story of Jesus for the people of his own day, trying to figure out if God’s best hopes are for themselves, or for a whole lot of other people, most of whom are not like us.
We know that the cost of this pandemic will leave deep scars. Those who have lost people they love. Those who have seen businesses go under. Those who have been made redundant. The physical, emotional, spiritual and economic costs will be huge. There will be times when it will seem easier to not listen to the voice of the outsider, or the stranger, or the person not like us. The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is difficult and disturbing. I suspect the world we shape after this might be better and kinder if we are ready to engage with the difficult and disturbing.
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.